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:
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).
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).
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:
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:
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.