It is not uncommon to hear Christians say something like “Maybe persecution would be good for the church in our culture.” Certainly, the church of Jesus Christ in the West has too-often strayed from Biblical truth in recent decades and centuries, in spite of enjoying great peace and freedom. Now, we see the judgment of God in our culture in various ways as a result. Some people are bracing for intense persecution of the church as a presumed certainty. Would it be good for the church today? God alone knows, and he will accomplish all his holy purpose.
A better question for us to ask is “What kind of attitude should we have towards persecution and the future of the church in the West?” Some Christians almost seem to have a “bring it on!” attitude because of the purification that has come in past ages through such suffering. The motive is not all wrong; people want to see Jesus glorified, and they are willing to die for it. There is also a desire for purity and holiness. However, those desires must be shaped by the pure and holy word of God. So, what kind of attitude should we have toward persecution and the future of the church in the West? Here are five truths that will help shape our attitude:
1. We should expect persecution through the ages. Jesus said “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Paul affirmed the same when he wrote to Timothy “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). History teaches that persecution will vary in intensity. With the expectation of persecution, we should also know that God uses even the wrath of man to praise him (Psalm 76:10), that affliction will bring greater spiritual maturity in some (Psa 119:67, 71), and that the Lord will cause all things to work together for the good of his people (Romans 8:28).
2. We should abhor the ungodliness and injustice that drives persecution. Proverbs 6:16-17 teaches that ‘There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him,” including “hands that shed innocent blood.” We are called to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We should not desire injustice on earth in any way. If our desire is truly for the glory of God, then we cannot desire the multiplication of sin on earth. We cannot say “Let others sin that good may come.” This truth should also lead us to pray for saints presently suffering and to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Hebrews 13:3).
3. We should pray against persecution. As noted, we are taught in the Lord’s Prayer to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Biblical examples of prayers for peace abound; here is a small sample:
- The souls of the martyrs, in the symbolic imagery of Revelation 6:10, cry out “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They want the persecution to end.
- The Psalmist repeatedly prays that he would be delivered from his persecutors (e.g. Psalm 6:4, 17:13, 43:1).
- Paul asks the saints to pray that he “may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
- He also urges “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We are to pray for peace, because discipleship in all areas of life (i.e. in every way), and the conversion of all peoples is made the more possible when the church and state are working in harmony. The ordinary means of grace are able to operate where there is peace. Parents are only able to teach their children if they are still with them. Let us glory in and desire the normal operation of God’s grace.
4. We should learn from history not to romanticize persecution, especially intense persecution. Sitting in a Roman jail, Paul confessed that his imprisonment had really served the advance of the gospel, because the whole imperial guard had heard the gospel and the believers had grown in boldness by watching Paul suffer (Philippians 1:12-14). He also recognized that if he would die and be with Christ, it would be better for him (1:23). But, he knew that it would be better for the church if he were not executed. He wanted to be released and continue to minister to them freely (1:19, 24-26). Paul saw God work through persecution, but he did not desire it because he knew that God’s ordinary design is for the church to grow when its preachers are not in prison or dead. The church loves Tertullian’s famous statement “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Too often, however, Tertullian is quoted flippantly, with the assumption that wherever blood is shed, the church will magically be stronger. Yes, God caused the church in Acts to spread through persecution (Acts 8:1), the church took the gospel to northern Europe through the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the Lord has used intense persecution for growth, but not always, and I daresay, not normally. Consider the following:
- The church once flourished in lands such as Persia, North Africa, and China. It was then was largely stamped out through persecution, as documented by historians Samuel Moffett (A History of Christianity in Asia) and Philip Jenkins (The Lost History of Christianity). Summarizing Moffett on the persecution in Persia, David Calhoun says: “[He] talks about this fourth century persecution as the most massive persecution of Christians in history, unequaled for its duration, veracity, and the number of martyrs. One estimate is that 190,000 Persian Christians died in the fourth century in the Great Persecution. That may be far more than all the people who died in all the two-and-a-half centuries of persecution in the Roman Empire. And yet, as we look at the history of those suffering Christians in Persia, there appears to have been far more faithfulness. Far fewer numbers of people apostatized in Persia under persecution than those who apostatized under persecution in the West.” The Muslims nearly wiped out the North African church in the seventh century. China crushed the church there with the fall of the T’ang dynasty in the tenth century. No doubt, heresy, theological weakness, and political dependence were also factors in these lands, but not the only factors. Within the West, French Protestantism has been weak, especially since the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and subsequent persecution. The Lord is at work in these lands today, but usually through the reintroduction of the gospel from other lands. Recognize that the blood of the martyrs left essentially no church in some places for many centuries. Though the Lord is working today, the church is small, as a percentage of the total population in these lands.
- Intense persecution purifies the church, but often only for a generation. Doctrinal depth is lacking in lands that have lost their teachers. One man from China pled with me and my seminary classmates to go to China because the doctrinal standards are so low, so much misunderstanding of Scripture abounds, and people are vulnerable to cults and other false teachings.
- The church has grown in depth of doctrine most in times of peace. Paul was often protected by his Roman citizenship in order to serve the church. Augustine was free to think deeply and write profoundly because he was not on the run. John Wycliffe had his body exhumed and burned by the pope only after his death. He was not burned alive and was able to translate Scripture and train laborers because the House of Lancaster protected him. Martin Luther led the reformation as a wanted man under the safety Frederick the Wise afforded him. John Calvin fled persecution in France; the safe haven of Geneva became the incubator of his brilliant contributions and the training ground of Europe’s spiritual leadership. Though times were stormy, the Westminster Confession was composed because the greatest scholars were able to deliberate peaceably for months and years on end.
- Missionary activity flows strongest from free lands. For example, the United States, which has been a relatively peaceful home for Christians for several hundred years, sends out more than three times as many missionaries as the next closest country, according to Christianity Today’s recent article. True, the United States spews out a lot of bad theology, but don’t forget to give thanks for all the faithful efforts in missions, publishing, and in other ways. Where there is peace, there is a platform for reaching the world.
5. We should labor to minimize persecution through godly influence in civil government. The Scripture is clear that those who are leaders in every sphere are to bow to Jesus (Psalm 2:10-12, 1 Timothy 6:15-16). Christians are called to serve in such positions. We have had great freedom thus far because people have served Jesus as Christians this way – even if imperfectly. Difficult questions abound regarding how to serve and engage. Serving Jesus in the public realm has never been easy. It is not easy now. It never will be easy. But, we are not called to wait for a golden age in which to act. We ought to pray and labor for to see servant-leaders raised up to wield the power of the sword who will be a terror to those who do evil and a praise to those who do good (Romans 13:1-7). Our hope is not in men, but let’s not make pious-sounding excuses for abdicating our work in this realm. One question every Christian should ask is this: “How am I striving this week to see Christ honored in civil government so that those who do evil are terrified and those who do good are praised?”
God alone knows whether intensifying persecution would do the church in the West good. We simply know that we are to expect persecution but not to desire it or romanticize it. Be aware that if God brings suffering at the hands of wicked men, visible good could come in God’s providence. Or, it could remove the lampstand from our physical descendants, as he has done in other lands in the past.
From our perspective, we should never see intensifying persecution as the need of the hour. The need of the hour is intense prayer for mercy. Let’s pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And, let’s rise from our knees to labor for what we are promised will do the church good every day: greater faithfulness to Jesus Christ.