As persecution heats up, how are Christians to respond?
What happens when Christians face hardcore opposition and persecution? If heavy resistance to the faith is under way, how should believers respond? Is there a one size fits all sort of response, or are there a number of options available to them?
The other day I wrote about these matters, asking whether it is a case of fight or flight. In that piece I said that we actually find three main responses in the New Testament. Sometimes you simply submit to the opposition, sometimes you hightail it out of there, and sometimes you actually stay and fight it. See the article here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/11/07/fight-or-flight/
In that article I mainly looked at the gospels, with a few verses from the book of Acts. Here I want to take this further, and especially focus on the many passages in Acts which speak about this. But I will also look further afield: the Old Testament also speaks about these things.
Consider one proverb which is repeated twice (Proverbs 22:3 and 27:12): “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” This is a general principle about avoiding danger, which at times can certainly be applied to cases of persecution. We need not always be a doormat to be run over by anyone for any reason.
And we have examples there of people fleeing real danger and enmity. One obvious case would be that of David while Saul was still the king and had taken a very dim view of him, even trying to kill him. David did not just hang around and take what Saul wished to dish out to him: he fled, and more than once! Consider 1 Sam 19:10-12, 18-19:
And Saul sought to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he eluded Saul, so that he struck the spear into the wall. And David fled and escaped that night. Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, told him, “If you do not escape with your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.” So Michal let David down through the window, and he fled away and escaped…. Now David fled and escaped, and he came to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. And he and Samuel went and lived at Naioth. And it was told Saul, “Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.”
So there is a place for flight. And as I said in my earlier piece, Jesus often would do this. But let me look further into the book of Acts on this. There are many instances of Paul or others fleeing when things got too hot and heavy. I already mentioned in the other piece the famous case of him being let down an outside wall in a basket to get away from angry opposition.
Sometimes we see how persecution did result in believers being scattered – but with the result that others got to hear the gospel being proclaimed. Consider: these texts
Acts 8:1,4 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
Acts 11:19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.
Acts 17:10 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. [after persecution in Thessalonica]
Acts 17:13-14 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there.
And sometimes flight came about by a miraculous deliverance, such as:
Acts 12:7, 11 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands…. When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
At other times persecution or trouble was avoided when God warned his people about it:
Acts 16:6-7 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.
That may have been the case in this passage, although we are not told of the specific reason for this. But when I discuss Acts 21:10-14 below, there we find a clear case of the Spirit making such a warning.
Moreover, sometimes a negative reception of the gospel message which may have led to worse opposition was enough for the early believers to move on – at least to another part of town – as was the case with Paul in Corinth:
Acts 18:6-7 And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue.
Face the persecution
We also have cases of the other two main options found in Acts. As to staying and facing the music, we have examples such as Stephen and the account of his martyrdom in Acts 7:8-8:60. Whether he actually had any chance to flee, and whether he would have availed himself of it is not fully clear from the text.
As we saw, Paul often fled when danger was pressing. But at times he felt it was God’s will for him to stay, even ignoring the warnings being given. Consider these two episodes:
Acts 21:10-14 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”
Acts 22:17-19 When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation.
That leads to the third main option: sometimes one must stay and fight, and Paul very famously did take this stance. Three more texts on resistance are these:
Acts 22:25-29 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Acts 26:24-25 And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.
Acts 28:17-18 After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case.
So we find all three options available to believers in the Bible. As the days grow darker in the West and we find more and more anti-Christian bigotry and opposition, including even state-sponsored persecution, Christians will need to think and pray carefully about how they respond.
Some will be led to flee the danger. Some will just stay and take what is thrown at them. And others will stand and fight as God may lead. May we all have the wisdom and the necessary divine guidance as to how we are to proceed in the coming days.