What is Persecution? Will ALL Christians Be Persecuted? How Common is Persecution in the West? #113
Happy Monday, friends. I tried to come up with a better intro situation than that, but my creative brain failed me miserably. My apologies for such a vanilla greeting. You honestly deserve better than that, and I’ve let you down. It is important to note, however – that I haven’t persecuted you by letting you down. Persecution is a different thing entirely, and a discussion about persecution is what today’s podcast is about. As far as segues and intros go, I give that one a 3.5 out of 10.
Today’s Bible readings include Leviticus 24, Ecclesiastes 7, Psalms 31, and 2nd Timothy 3. At some point soon, we are going to do a Big Bible Question from Leviticus – probably all about animal sacrifice, and why that is a thing anyway – but today is not that day. Instead, we are focused on a promise that Paul makes in 2nd Timothy 3 that is quite interesting, and not the kind of promise that you write down on your fridge or bathroom mirror to encourage yourself every morning.
12 In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.2nd Timothy 3:12
How many who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted? 100? 1/4? 1/3rd? 74%? NO – ALL< ALL, ALL. So – what does that mean? Let’s go read the passage and come back and discuss persecution.
First, let’s identify what persecution actually is: The biblical word used here is kind of interesting, and it means in its root forms to make somebody flee, or run away. Persecution used in a biblical context (biblical persecution) does not necessarily have to be physical only. You can most certainly persecute somebody with words or be persecuted with words, as Jesus notes in Matthew 5:11-13 (quoted below.) So persecution can have a physical impact or a verbal impact, and can probably include things like shunning, denying privilege or promotion, etc. Basically biblical persecution is making somebody suffer – in pretty much any significant way – because of their Christian beliefs. I hear Christians throw the word ‘persecution’ around pretty regularly. Some argue that they are victims of persecution, when it is likely that they are actually suffering for their own bull-headedness, or bad-temper, or misbehavior. Others say that what Christians experience in American and other wealthy nations is nothing at all like persecution. I think the truth of the matter is somewhere between those to polar opposite positions.
Here are FIVE things that AREN’T biblical persecution:
- When you post or say something that is overtly political in nature (defending your favorite politician, saying how they are God’s man, or God’s choice, or more Godly than the other person, etc.) and you catch flack for such statements – this is not biblical persecution. It may be obnoxious, it may hurt you feelings, it may be uncalled for, but you aren’t being persecuted in a biblical sense when you are making some sort of political stance. (Note: standing up for biblical truth is a different story entirely, but standing up for a political party or person is likely going to draw debate and disagreement, maybe even name-calling. This is unpleasant, perhaps unfair, but not biblical persecution)
2. When you express your Christian faith and beliefs in an overly harsh, or angry, or defensive, or attacking way, and people clap-back on your attitude, then you are not being persecuted for your godliness, you are being rebuffed because of your attitude. Consider 1 Peter 2:19-20, “20 For what credit is there if when you do wrong and are beaten, you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God.” It is worth noting that attitude and tone matter immensely in the Bible. Sharing truth with a haughty and arrogant tone is not at all Godly, and when people call you out for it, it is likely the haughtiness they are reacting to, not your belief. In sum: If you are being a jerk – even a TRUTHFUL jerk, and you suffer for it – you aren’t being persecuted…you’re reaping what you sow. Speak the truth in LOVE.
3. If somebody disagrees with you on a doctrinal position (baptism by immersion or by sprinkling, spiritual gifts continue, or have ceased, freewill vs. sovereignty, etc.) as long as it is just a disagreement – this does not constitute persecution. Now, if you are a group of Reformed people who believe in infant baptism and not believer’s baptism, and take one who believes in that form of baptism and tie his hands and feet behind his back to a pole, and then drown him in a river for his beliefs, then, yes, absolutely that is persecution, and it is also cold-blooded murder. And it is what Zwingli and the Swiss Reformed did to the Anabaptist Felix Manz during the Protestant Reformation.
4. When the Starbucks barista or greeter at Walmart says ‘Happy Holidays’ to you, instead of ‘Merry Christmas,’ this does not constitute persecution.
5. Finally, and I think this might be controversial, but I think in MOST instances, the government not allowing church gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic is NOT persecution. Now – there are some areas where I think it is borderline. There is definitely a Constitutional question that needs to be raised and discussed – can the government even tell churches what to do in this case? But them trying does not seem to be persecution, when the same order applies to all gatherings of people, and not just some. I do question that some liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries count as ‘essential businesses,’ which they do in California. I would argue that the church is far more essential to mental and spiritual health than alcohol and marijuana. I disagree with the orders in those ways, I just don’t believe they measure up to persecution.
Bottom line – I think Christians should be prudent, wise and judicious about the use of the word ‘persecution.’ Not every bit of unpleasantness we endure is because of persecution.
Here are 5 facts about biblical persecution:
- Jesus says that you are BLESSED when people persecute you. Matthew 5:11-13, “11 “You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. 12 Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.“
- Persecuted people, in particular, have great shelter and refuge in God. He is near the broken-hearted, so says Psalms 9:9-10 “The Lord is a refuge for the persecuted a refuge in times of trouble. 10 Those who know your name trust in you because you have not abandoned those who seek you, Lord.”
- If people are hostile to Jesus and His teachings, they will be hostile to us. If they are open to Jesus, they should be open to us. “Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” A pastor near us in Santa Cruz, Dan Kimball, wrote a very interesting book I read over a decade ago, “They Like Jesus, but not the Church.” The premise of the book is that unchurched people really appreciated Jesus, but found a lot of hypocrisy and bad attitudes in the church. The fact is that Christians should track one to one with Jesus in terms of persecution.
- Persecution, as bad as it is, has no power to separate us from Christ. “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword” Romans 8:35
- How are Christians called to respond to persecution? Surprisingly enough – with blessings and goodwill! Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.“
Let’s tag in Dr. Thomas Schreiner – a pastor and seminary professor to help us better understand what exactly persecution is, and how Christians should deal with it:
Quite often I hear people say that Christians aren’t being persecuted in the United States. What they mean is that we aren’t suffering physically for our faith, in contrast to so many Christians in other parts of the world. I recognize, of course, that there is a significant difference between what is happening to Christians here and to Christians elsewhere who are sacrificing their lives or being tortured for their faith.https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/you-will-be-persecuted-with-words
Still, it isn’t right to say that Christians in the United States are free from persecution. We should be more precise: We are free from physical persecution.
Consider what 1 Peter says about the suffering of believers:
In this [salvation in Christ] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7)
Later he writes:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you. (1 Peter 4:1–4)
And he goes on to talk about suffering in 1 Peter 3:13–17 and 4:12–16, and we see from these texts that sometimes the suffering was quite intens
Peter doesn’t use the word persecution to describe what the readers are experiencing, but they are clearly suffering for their faith, and that is another way of saying they are being persecuted. They are being slandered for being Christians, and they are also maligned for not indulging in the same lifestyle as unbelievers. Peter says they shouldn’t be surprised at the fiery trials they face.
But here is the crucial point to see in all these passages: Peter says nothing about physical suffering when he describes the difficulties his readers were experiencing. They were criticized by people in the world; they may have experienced some persecution from governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13–17), and they were certainly out of step with society. But nothing is said about believers being put to death, or flogged, or stoned — in fact, Peter makes no mention of any kind of physical mistreatment.
We see something similar in the words of Jesus when he said to his disciples, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” (Luke 6:22).
Notice how Christians were maligned, criticized, and rejected for not following the societal ethos of their day. In the same way today, many are astonished that we have such a restrictive sexual ethic. Many contemporaries think we are detrimental to society, and many in the Roman world thought the same thing about Christians. They oppose us because we don’t approve the sin that is celebrated in many quarters (as in Romans 1:32).
So what did the persecution look like? The maltreatment Peter talks about consists of verbal abuse and presumably included unjust discrimination in everyday life. Even though they weren’t experiencing physical abuse, they were genuinely suffering….
When persecuted we are tempted to threaten and to seek revenge, but we are called to endure suffering as Christ did and to entrust final judgment to God (1 Peter 2:23). We are to love those who hate us and show them kindness and grace, the same kindness and grace our Savior lavished upon us.
As Christians in the United States, we also experience suffering since we are maligned for our faith. The persecution may be relatively light; we recognize that our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world face something much more severe than what we are experiencing. But all believers in Christ are persecuted in one way or another (2 Timothy 3:12). Verbal abuse and various forms of discrimination are still suffering according to 1 Peter.
None of us knows what the future holds for believers in the United States, but Peter exhorts us in his first letter to be ready for fiery trials, to follow the pattern of our Lord and Savior, and to live by a faith that knows with certainty that eternal glory comes after this moment of suffering.
After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)