by Mans Ramstad
If persecution causes the church to flourish, how are we to address persecution around the world?
Background and Rationale
In the 1990s the issue of religious persecution rose to prominence among Christians around the world. American Christians began petitioning lawmakers. Today the International Religious Freedom Act calls for the US government to research religious persecution around the world, report findings (Christianity Today 2000, 26),1 and sanction governments found guilty of persecuting religious believers (Marshall 2000).²,³
Despite this growing determination to oppose persecution, it is often said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian 1994),4 implying that persecution of Christians is good for the church. According to Stephen Neill (1964, 42) the believers’ willingness to suffer and even die under the Roman Empire contributed to the church’s growth.
But is persecution actually good for the church and Christians? Are we then to welcome persecution upon ourselves and other Christians? If persecution causes the church to flourish, how are we to address persecution around the world? We know that trials can strengthen believers, but does outright persecution? What does the New Testament teach about these things?
Why Are Christians Persecuted?
The most common answer in the New Testament5 is that it was a continuation of Jesus’ and the prophets’ persecution. Those who opposed Christ likewise oppose Christians.6 The world is at enmity with God,7 so persecution is to be expected. This has been true throughout church history. The world hates righteousness and will fight against it (1 John 3:12). We know that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 10:22). Persecution happens because of ideological opposition to God and his gospel (Col. 4:3).8
Persecution of Christian faith today, however, appears to be more because of its interference with politics and nationalism than its ideological basis.9 The second most common reason given in the New Testament for persecution of Christians is that political authorities feel threatened by Christians’ actions.10 A major reason the Roman Empire persecuted Christians was because they were perceived as a threat to the Roman order. Christians refused to sacrifice to the emperor (de Ste Croix 1974). In China today the fundamental source of persecution is that Christians refuse to submit to state control of religion. It is no longer because Christian faith is in conflict with the atheistic tenets of communism but rather because the government views Christianity as competition with the country’s political and nationalistic agenda.
A further New Testament reason for persecution is that Christians’ actions—not their ideas per se—upset society and people don’t like them.11 Paul is sensitive to this. In Acts 28:17 in his defense before the Jewish leaders, he says, “I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers.” Apparently doing things contrary to custom had been among accusations against him. This is the basis for much persecution of Christians around the world. For example, in December 2000, 450 religious buildings were destroyed in Wenzhou, China. Officials contend they were doing it to maintain social stability and to “protect the public” (OMF International 2001).
God desires to win glory for himself in all things. The persecution of his people is one means by which he does this. John Piper (1993) writes that suffering lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian and do missions. In persecution, we are weak and Christ is strong. This is the heart of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:27). Piper contends that God’s plan is to overcome the world by people whose faith will sustain them through persecution. As Paul wrote, “…I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ…” (Phil. 3:8). This single-minded devotion to gain Christ is what God will use to overcome the world. In Mark 13:9 Jesus says, “But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, as a testimony to them” [emphasis added]. So persecution is for Jesus’ sake to win him glory, and as a testimony of the gospel to the persecutors (1 Pet. 4:12-16).
Persecution can also come as a result of Satan testing believers.12 As with all these reasons for persecution, of course, this, too, is under God’s control but accomplished through Satan’s actions.
When False Believers Are Persecuted for Their Apparent Faith
In the New Testament we learn about false believers meeting with persecution and then falling away.13 As a result of persecution, they are proven to be false. Romans 5:3-5 tells us that tribulations lead to proven character. In other words, suffering does not produce character but shows it.
God has built a strong church in China through much persecution. But experience shows that persecution can lead so-called believers to abandon the faith. Does this prove the church is made up mostly of unsaved people (1 John 2:19), and only the winnowing fork of persecution is strong enough to sift away the chaff?
This is a perplexing question. In light of China’s recent Falun Gong cult scare, the Public Security Bureau in one area recently shut down many of the twenty church meeting points. Out of fear, more than half the members have stopped attending, and it appears, have left the Lord. Many missiologists believe that the Japanese are still hardened to the gospel because so many believers denied their faith while under pressure of persecution under the Tokugawa shogunate in the early seventeenth century and again before and during World War II. In China I have a friend who was persecuted for his faith. Eventually his wife divorced him and his children denied him. He is now a nervous wreck, sustained only by God’s grace and twelve different medications.
From Decius (A.D. 250) until the first Edict of Toleration in 311, persecution of Christians was legal and rampant. It has been written of that era, “Horror spread everywhere through the congregations; and the number of lapsi [those who renounced their faith when threatened]… was enormous. There was no lack, however, of such as remained firm, and suffered martyrdom rather than yielding” (Vogel 1882, 620).14 Even the early church reports the destructive effects of persecution.
War and religious persecution have nearly decimated the Christian Palestinians. Fifty years ago, an estimated 15-25 percent of the Palestinian Arab community was Christian. Today, in the West Bank, Christians are only about 1.5 percent of the total population (Fletcher 2000). Persecution can be devastating to a fledgling church and many people proving not to be true believers will leave the faith when persecution sets in.
When Unbelievers Are Persecuted or Participate in Persecution
In the New Testament we learn about unbelievers who are persecuted or who participate in the persecution of Christians and as a result go on to further oppose the church.15 After seeing Stephen stoned (Acts 8:1), Paul even more vehemently ravaged the church. Are we then to conclude that persecution is by definition an evil that should be fought with every means possible, both prayer and politics? Not necessarily, for the Bible and history presents another response to persecution. For as we know, this is also the reason for which Paul becomes saved, as Christ speaks to him and asks why he is persecuting him (Acts 9:4). The New Testament contains other examples of people who are saved as a result of participating in persecution of Christians as well.16
I have a friend who first became interested in the gospel through an evangelistic radio broadcast. He wrote a letter to the station expressing a desire to be saved, but the letter was intercepted by the police, who then interrogated him. The gospel, which was initially a curiosity, suddenly became compelling to him, as he saw it being opposed by authorities. He said, “Anything causing such alarm must be something of great value.” He is now a seminary graduate ministering in south China.
When True Believers Meet with Persecution
Persecution for the true believer can at its worst lead to horrible suffering, but can never steal one’s eternal hope (Luke 21:18-19, John 10:28). Biblical examples of persecution usually result in believers being strengthened17 and their faith confirmed or proven.18
A dear brother of mine has suffered much for his faith. He says the key for the one being persecuted is to get right back up and quickly regain spiritual strength. Those he knew who tarried in their spiritual recovery after persecution usually were never able to recover their faith again.
Through persecution, believers can learn the important spiritual lesson of trusting in God and not in themselves.19 In Mark 13:9-11 Jesus says we will be dragged before rulers as a testimony to them, but says not to be anxious because the Holy Spirit will tell us what to say. We learn through suffering that God is faithful and that our faith is real. From Paul’s experience in Acts 16, it appears that obedience to the Holy Spirit led to persecution and suffering. Such persecution drove Paul to rely on God in prayer. Consequently the Holy Spirit (the Comforter) came to his rescue and powerfully ministered to him. This is another way persecution results in spiritual growth.20
God brings persecution our way to discipline and strengthen us (Acts 4:1-31; Phil. 1:29-30) and to teach us obedience.21 This is one way our sonship is proven (Heb. 12:5-11).
In persecution, one can see and experience depths of God’s word that a life of ease would never yield (Ps. 119:71). Martin Luther named three rules for understanding the Bible: praying, meditating and suffering (1959, 1359-1360). When my wife and I were arrested in 1994, Mark 13:9-11 became vivid, especially the value of the phrase, “Don’t worry about what to say for the Holy Spirit will tell you what to say.”
Persecution can cause one to come face to face with death, and accept it.22 We are told not to fear people, for all they can destroy is our bodies (Matt. 10:28), but rather to fear God who can destroy both body and soul.
Through persecution, believers can gain the courage to speak more boldly.23 God uses persecution to give us access to rulers to whom we can then witness.24 Other believers can be encouraged (Acts 12:17), and the word caused to grow (Acts 12:1-25; Acts 16:16-26).
Persecution can also cause believers to feel love and compassion for their enemies (Matt. 5:44; 1 Cor. 4:12). This can be a powerful witness to persecutors. In Mark 10:35-45 Jesus reminds his disciples that while political rulers use power to execute their duties, we in the body of Christ use servanthood. This contrasting style is significant. I have found the teaching of 1 Timothy 1:5 to be like a frontal on my forehead as I deal with government authorities. I strive to maintain the goal of love in all I do, from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. This helps me respond to repression, surveillance and threats in a God-honoring way.
Challenges Persecution Brings Even to True Believers
We remember Stephen, Daniel and Paul bravely and honestly enduring persecution25 but the New Testa-ment also has examples of believers avoiding suffering by fleeing (Acts 8:1-4; Acts 17:1-9). In his sovereignty, God used their fleeing to accomplish his purpose of extending the church to new locations, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that even in the Bible true believers shrank back from persecution and even fled, but still accomplished God’s purpose. In fact, Jesus instructed them to flee persecution (Matt. 10:23).
Not all believers are called or are able to endure persecution. Biblical examples of people who were frustrated and struggled under persecution include Job (Job 19:22), David (Ps. 143:3), and Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:50-52). In Acts 22:25 Paul appeals to his Roman citizenship to be spared a scourging. When I was arrested, I refused to be fingerprinted, demanding the right to first contact my embassy to inquire about my rights.
In 1 Thessalonians 3:1-3 Paul points out that some will “be disturbed” by the afflictions they see Paul receiving for his faith. He orders Timothy sent to them “to strengthen and encourage them.” At times young believers should be shielded from persecution. Believers are called to be in the world, but we still need to protect the spiritually immature lest persecution devastate them. By analogy, at a certain age we protect our children from society.
Although the New Testament records no cases of lying or families being destroyed by persecution, persecution can cause Christians to lie, deny Christ, or betray family members or other believers. I know of such cases. In one case, several people we know gave false names to the police.26
We should respond to persecution according to the Bible’s teaching, but we must also prepare ourselves for the fact that when persecution comes, tragic results may happen. An Old Testament example of deception under threat of persecution is when Abram went down to Egypt to escape famine.27 To protect himself, he forced his wife Sarai to tell Pharaoh that she was his sister. The result was that the Lord punished Pharaoh, and Pharaoh expelled Abram for lying. Rather than blessing the nations (Gen. 12:3), Abram brought punishment upon them.
How to Receive and Process Persecution
The Bible teaches that persecution is inevitable for the believer.28 It should be welcomed by the one receiving it. Faithfulness under persecution can be a powerful testimony beyond any other.
It is essential, however, that it be properly received and processed. Proper reception means that one must be humble and Christ-like when being persecuted. If it causes him or her to lie, deny Christ, or lose frightened children or a spouse, it will not be good for that person or the church.29 Proper processing means that believers must use the occasion of persecution to examine themselves, to seek deeper sanctification, and to learn to trust in God, not in themselves. Persecuted believers should use the occasion to consider how God wants to use it to witness to unbelievers. If persecution is not properly received or properly processed, it may result in harm.
Relationship to the State
There is biblical precedent for defending ourselves when persecuted, and depending upon how we view Paul’s identifying himself as a Roman citizen, perhaps even appealing to our own government for our protection (Acts 22:25).
When others are persecuted, we should pray for how they receive and process the persecution, and for their persecutors to stop. Voice of the Martyrs speaks for persecuted believers and assists others in praying for them. Statements such as the Statement of Conscience of the National Association of Evangelicals concerning Worldwide Religious Persecution (January 23, 1996) can serve as a call to the world that Christians in the US are concerned and will do what they can to assist the persecuted believers.30 However, I see no biblical precedent for using political means to fight persecution on others’ behalf, especially when it involves more than one country. Such an approach blurs the distinction and/or relationship between the church and any given government.
As long as the church is faithful to the gospel, believers will be persecuted. This may devastate believers and the church. We should pray and labor to see it end. We must boldly address the problem of persecution of believers worldwide in methods appropriate to the situation that will have the best chance of redressing the problem. It must be in a manner that glorifies God and upholds the integrity of the gospel.
Ultimate Result of Persecution from God’s Perspective
Hebrews 12:5-11 says that those who endure under God’s discipline receive the “peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Inasmuch as those whom God justifies, he also sanctifies, and sanctification is the goal of all true believers. Persecution is just one of many means God uses to sanctify believers. 1 Peter 4:14 says that those who are reviled for the name of Christ are blessed because the Spirit of God rests upon them. To those who endure persecution awaits a reward in Heaven, the Crown of Life,31 “the eternal weight of glory.”32,33
Christian persecution is a sobering reality. When dealing with a brother or sister who has been persecuted, we shouldn’t cheer them like prize fighters, rather we should quietly embrace them as we would a Vietnam veteran who came home alive, but left behind many slain friends. Likewise, we should not cajole young believers into doing something for which they might suffer. Only they and God know whether they are ready to suffer for their faith. There is no human glory in suffering. The glory comes from God to the believer in the midst of it. It is the believer’s obedience that creates the witness, not the physical act of suffering.
Hopefully this historical, biblical and personal analysis will help us be faithful in our own obedience to Christ and to better serve the faithful saints around the world suffering for the cause of Christ.
1. The first such annual report recommended ending religious abuses in China, Russia and Sudan through tighter economic sanctions.
2. Marshall reports that in the last five years, persecution of Christians has taken place in approximately forty countries, and legal repression and discrimination in approximately thirty countries.
3. According to David Barrett’s annual report, every year there are around 160,000 Christian martyred around the world. See the January issue each year of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.
4. Tertullian wrote, “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
5. In this paper, persecution refers to suffering as Christians, because of one’s faith, not sufferings of a general nature.
6. Matt. 5:11-12; Matt. 10:22; John 15:20; 1 Cor. 4:8-18; 1 Pet. 3:14; 2 Tim. 3:10-12; Acts 5:17-42; Acts 4:1-4; Acts 6:8-7:60; Acts 8:1-4; 2 Tim. 1:8; Rev. 20:4.
7. 1 Thess. 3:3; 1 John 3:13.
8. See Dick Armey (1999). Strangely, it appears persecution in the US is increasingly a result of ideological opposition to Christianity.
9. This may not be the case with Muslim and Hindu countries.
10. Acts 17:1-9; Acts 12:1-25; Acts 16:35-39; Acts 21:26-22:30; Acts 26:9-11.
11. Acts 13:50-52; Acts 16:16-26; Acts 17:1-9; Acts 21:26-22:30.
12. Rev. 2:10; 13:2, 4, 11; 16:13; 1 Thess. 3:3-5.
13. Mark 4:16-17; 2 Tim. 1:15; 2 Tim. 4:16-17.
14. See also John Piper (1995, 343).
15. Acts 22:20; Acts 26:9-11.
16. Acts 4:1-4; 1 Thess. 1:6.
17. Acts 4:1-31; 1 Cor. 4:12; Phil. 3:7-12; 1 Pet. 2:20; Matt. 10:22.
18. Rom. 5:3-5; 1 Pet. 4:14; Acts 5:17-42; Acts 17:1-9.
19. 2 Cor. 1:8-10; Phil. 3:7-10; 2 Cor. 4:7; John 16:33; 1 Pet. 2:23; Acts 4:1-31; 1 Pet. 4:19.
20. See also James 1:2-4.
21. Heb. 5:8; 1 Pet. 2:21-23.
22. Rev. 20:4; Rev. 2:10; Rev. 12:11; Acts 6:8-7:60; Acts 12:1-25; Acts
21:13; Acts 25:11.
23. Phil. 1:12-14; Acts 5:17-42; Acts 21:26-22:30; 1 Thess. 2:1-2; Prov. 28:1; 1 Pet. 3:14-17.
24. Mark 13:9-11; Acts 24:24-26; 26:27-29.
25. Acts 16:16-26; Acts 24-26; Luke 21:18-19.
26. In that incident, several believers and unbelievers gave false names. One of them, a close personal friend, went back that very night on her own and gave her true name to the police. It meant her processing was extended, but in the end she was cleared, and her faith greatly strengthened because of it.
27. Gen. 12:10-20.
28. 2 Tim. 3:12.
29. In contrast is the decision of the imprisoned Paul and Silas to remain and allow the jailer to account for them, even though they could have run free.
30. But what comes of such statements? I suggest they get sent to leaders and ambassadors around the world, with an attached request for a hearing of concerned pastors. Unfortunately, the Call to Action of this statement calls for the US government to solve the problem and says nothing about what the church itself or common American Christians and pastors are to do.
31. Rev. 2:10; James 1:12; Matt. 5:11-12.
32. 1 Cor. 4:8-18; Rom. 8:18.
33. Unfortunately the pursuit of this crown has caused some believers in history to seek martyrdom, especially Roman Catholics. A classic example is Ignatius who orchestrated his own martyrdom.
34. Of course, each country’s situation needs to be analyzed separately. These generalizations are derived from the Bible and personal experience in one country where persecution exists.
2000. “Commission Urges Economic Sanctions.” In Christianity Today, 12 June, 26.
Armey, Dick. 1999. “Religion: American Bigotry,” World, 16 October, 32-33.
de Ste Croix, G.E.M. 1974. “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?” Studies in Ancient Society. Edited by M.I. Finley. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan, 210-249.
Fletcher, Elaine Ruth. 2000. “Between the Temple Mount and a Hard Place,” Christianity Today, 4 December, 66-68.
Global Chinese Ministries, February 2001. Littleton, Colo.: OMF International.
Luther, Martin. 1959. In What Luther Says: An Anthology. Compiled by Ewald M. Plass. Vol. 3. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House.
Marshall, Paul. 2000. “Present Day Persecution of Christians.” In Evangelical Review of Theology 24, no.1: 19-30.
Neill, Stephen. 1964. History of Christian Missions. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.
Piper, John. 1995. Future Grace. Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Press.
——. 1993. Let the Nations be Glad. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Tertullian. 1994. “Apology 50.” In The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Vogel, Albrecht. 1882. “Decius,” in Shaff-Herzog Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: The Christian Literature Co., 620.
Mans Ramstad (a pseudonym) is a long-time tentmaker in the health field in a limited access country. He and his family have been overseas most of the time since 1985.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 468-475. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.