Symposium on Persecution: Don’t Call It Persecution When It’s Not

by J. Keith Bateman

Can we put parameters around what we call religious persecution? Five leaders speak out.

Increasingly today, Christians have had to come face-to-face with the reality of religious persecution, a problem which, unless one is a post-millennial optimist, promises to increase as we march toward the time of our Lord’s return.

So what exactly is religious persecution?
This is important, not only for the obvious reason that we need to know more about it, but also because, as westerners, we tend toward hyperbole. An example is the term “hero”. At one time, this referred to a person of courage and bravery, usually at risk to his or her own life. Today, the term is just as likely to be applied to a kid who hits a home-run or finishes his dessert.

And so it can be with persecution.

As people generally unaccustomed to suffering as a result of our faith, there is sometimes the temptation to overreact to even the slightest misfortunes, labeling them persecution, when in fact that may not be the case at all.

Thus we should look again at what we call persecution. From my experiences both as a Christian in general, and as a missionary in particular, I would suggest that, minimally, it must possess the following three elements. Anything less, however inconvenient or annoying, would simply be harassment.

First, it must be personally costly. In most Muslim countries, an individual’s decision to convert to Christianity can have a number of consequences, virtually all of them negative: loss of job, freedom to travel, one’s inheritance, spouse and/or children—even a loss of life. On the other hand, again in many Muslim lands, there is technically freedom for churches to exist, but it is illegal to build within a certain radius of a mosque. So as soon as it is known that a church plans to build in a certain location, a mosque might be hastily constructed across the street, thus marking the end of the church building. Is this latter persecution? After all, it’s certainly unjust. And it is directly related to the faith of the participants. But it is not necessarily personally costly. Even believers from such churches tend to term these difficulties “harassment”, reserving the term “persecuted church” for people, not buildings.

Second, it must be unjust and undeserved. Occasionally, a group of exuberant teens from the West will visit a “closed” country, and contrary to wise counsel from both veteran missionaries and national church leaders, boldly proclaim the gospel. Several weeks later, the group is politely asked to leave the country. Participants may congratulate themselves for having “suffered persecution for the sake of the gospel.” While their enthusiasm is commendable, and their plight a result of the gospel message, was it entirely undeserved? In fact, their activities may have hurt both long-term Christian workers in the region and national believers, who often end up paying a much stiffer price than simply having a visa revoked.

Third, it must be a direct result of one’s faith in Christ. When I was a missionary in Sudan, I was once taken into custody by the army after sharing my faith with some soldiers. I later discovered, however, that the primary reason for questioning me was that there had been a coup attempt that day in the capital, making any contact/conversations with soldiers suspect. True, they blustered a bit and ordered me to “keep it in the church,” but it was certainly not specifically directed at my faith. It was simply a case of doing the right thing at the wrong time.

Other Matters
These same criteria might also be extended to our use of the term “martyr”. The wife of our field leader in Sudan was shot and killed while traveling along a rural road. While undeserved and personally costly, it doesn’t appear to have been a direct result of her faith, but rather, a case of mistaken identity. The vehicle in which she was a passenger happened to be similar to one owned by a tribal/political leader whom enemies were trying to eliminate. While tragic, it was again simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There is also the degree of difficulty concerning persecution. While certainly not equating loss of one’s friendships or job as the equivalent of torture or death for one’s faith (and for which there is a special martyr’s reward [see Rev. 6:9-11, etc.]), I believe that a lesson from scripture may be instructive. It concerns a time when David and his men had returned from battle. The question arose as to the distribution of the spoils. The feeling among some was that those who merely kept the baggage out of harm’s way didn’t deserve as many of those spoils as those who had put their lives on the line. David disagreed, saying each deserved an equal share.

I would suggest that the one who undeservedly loses his or her job, or is denied academic tenure, or deserved promotion, or faces other discrimination because of his or her testimony is not simply being harassed. He or she is being persecuted. The one who is the center of office jokes, snide remarks, and ostracism as a direct result of his or her faith is being persecuted. This person has chosen to acknowledge Christ openly and has suffered the consequences.

For Christians, the world is becoming increasingly hazardous, whether in the Middle East or in Middle America. It is therefore important that we understand what is, and is not, persecution and recognize and encourage those who are paying a high price for their faith. It is also our duty not to dilute the term by applying it to situations that may not qualify.

J. Keith Bateman is director of MECO-USA.

. . . .

We Need to Add to the Definition

Patrick Sookhdeo

Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). The persecution of Christians is inextricably linked to Christ, their Master. It is a mark of our faithfulness, our loyalty, and our identification with him. Persecution is not, then, wholly negative. In being persecuted, we become like him, for we have the privilege of sharing with him in his sufferings (Phil. 3:10). 

Bateman is right in the three necessary elements of persecution that he defines. However, there is a sense in which I believe Bateman’s definitions do not go far enough. He does not, for instance, recognize that a community can suffer persecution, as individuals can. The issue of church buildings in Muslim-majority contexts is a clear example of the persecution of a group—the worshipping congregation. The sharia regulations about church buildings originally banned the erection of any new church buildings, and restricted the usage and even the repair of existing ones. We see the same antagonistic attitude perpetuated today in the kind of “harassment” that Bateman describes, also in the loudspeakers of minarets turned toward nearby churches so that the Muslim call to prayer will drown out the Christian worship. 

Harassment of an entire congregation like this is persecution, just as much as if one individual member of the congregation were singled out for oppression or discrimination.

Last year, I produced a devotional book on Christian martyrdom with 366 daily readings. In selecting the stories, I had to give careful thought to the definition of Christian martyrdom.

As Bateman rightly says, anyone who dies because of his or her faith in Christ is counted a martyr. A soldier who dies in the course of his duty, or people who die through accidents or other tragedies are not normally martyrs.

However, I believe that there is another category of martyr. These are believers who have died in the service of the Lord in a dangerous situation, who would probably not have died had they not served him so faithfully. An example is John Smith, who died in prison in my homeland of Guyana. He was in prison for teaching slaves the Bible, and is hailed in Guyana as the country’s first martyr. Many other missionaries have similarly died, not in a situation where denying Christ would have saved their lives, but in situations were refusing his call to service would have saved their lives. I believe that these too will receive a martyr’s crown, from the hand of our first martyr, Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for us. 

Patrick Sookhdeo, PhD, is a pastor, evangelist, Bible teacher, academic, and author and serves the persecuted Church worldwide as Barnabas Fund international director.  He lectures on Islamic, multicultural, and race issues as director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity.

. . . .

Yes and No: Let’s Define Our Terms while Avoiding Unnecessary Distinctions

Carl Moeller 

Bateman provides a great service by encouraging us to more carefully define what we mean by the word “persecution”, while refusing to fall for the ever-present temptation to exaggerate. Christian persecution is a critical problem around the globe and does not require our hype. Yet we must take care not to be too restrictive. On to his main points:

The persecution must be personally costly. While personal suffering is indeed often a component of Christian persecution, this doesn’t always need to be the case (nor does the author reveal how he arrived at this point). Bateman needs to take more seriously the community aspect of persecution. He describes a hypothetical case in which a congregation is denied permission to construct a building in a Muslim area—suggesting this is more akin to harassment. However, perhaps we need to imagine the inconvenience or loss of access to public worship for affected Christians. It might well be that they would be forced to break the law or travel far out of their way to exercise their faith. That is serious business. It is persecution.

The persecution must be unjust and undeserved. I agree; foolish exuberance, deliberate flouting of the law and ignorant actions that bring reprisals do not constitute biblical persecution. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2). However, I make a distinction when it comes to evangelism, which is a biblical mandate. If the government forbids us from sharing our faith, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Even so, we must do so with grace. Let people reject us for our gospel, but never for our obnoxiousness.

The persecution must be a direct result of one’s Christian faith. I agree with Bateman’s point, but not his example. Once in the Soviet era some soldiers in Kazakhstan stopped me because we were lending Bibles to students. “You can believe whatever you want,” they warned, “but you can’t share the Bible.” Christians who experience opposition for doing what they believe the Bible commands—whether sharing God’s word, doing evangelism, etc.—are being persecuted directly for their faith.

I suggest that we as a global Christian community move forward by carefully defining our terms. Because there are different kinds of persecution, let me suggest that we use a sliding scale. Level A would describe extraordinary forms of persecution, such as martyrdom; Level B would correspond to legal strictures; Level C would denote social harassment; and so on. Open Doors uses a similar tool.

J. Keith Bateman is right; we need to be more careful in how we describe persecution. But let’s not exclude the many subtle attacks Christ’s people experience on a daily basis.

Dr. Carl A. Moeller is former president/CEO of Open Doors USA. Carl is the co-author of The Privilege of Persecution (Moody Publishers, 2011).

. . . .

Persecution Is Not Good or Bad, It Just Is

Nik Ripken

Bateman does the Kingdom of God a great service with this article. There is a difference between persecution and discrimination, and seldom do those who report on persecution educate their readers enough to make this distinction. Bateman is correct in asking for a reevaluation of the hyperbole surrounding reports of persecution. For instance, many organizations continue to report in excess of 150,000 martyrs per year. My wife and I continue to visit those countries which are the most well-known for their persecution of followers of Christ. For the past fourteen plus years, we have been unable to verify a fraction of the numbers published. It is as if Satan has raised up a “straw man” for the Church to focus on in order to blind the Church to the true realities of widespread and effective persecution. 

It is an interesting exercise to call the organizations that report such numbers, simply asking them in which countries these large numbers of martyrdoms are occurring as well as how many martyrs per country. The last time I attempted such an exercise only one researcher could answer my inquiry. This is a huge issue that requires another conversation. 

In reality, persecution is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. If you have someone in your church or on your team who is fearful of persecution, then you have a spiritual problem that needs to be biblically addressed. If you have someone in your church or on your team who likes persecution, then take them to a counselor because they have a mental issue. You neither run away from persecution nor run toward persecution. Persecution just is; it is a normal response to the activity of Christ in the world.

Bateman is right that persecution is unjust and undeserved. Yet there’s more to the biblical story in regard to transforming Satan’s attacks when he comes at believers from the blind side. For instance, Paul and Silas were beaten, humiliated, and thrown into prison for non-religious reasons (Acts 16). Yet they used this attack from the evil one to plant a church in the Philippian jailer’s household. Their incarceration was an indirect attack by Satan, but they transformed this arrest for “unlawful customs” into a witness and church-planting event. What is true is that they were in Philippi for the cause of Christ, but Satan used a financial issue to attack them. This battle between “principalities and powers” has to be nuanced to fully understand the activities of God, and Satan’s opposition to that activity.

One of the principal concerns of our team in Somalia from 1992 to 1997 was that we would be killed because we were westerners rather than due to our positive witness for Jesus Christ. Yet we might want to, again, nuance what constitutes a martyr. When someone is killed for his or her witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or for his or her intent to be such a witness, we need to look for the extraordinary activity of God in one or two locations.

Look for fruit in the location where the martyrdom took place, or look for fruit within the family, church, or sending agency that sent their loved one out as a sheep among wolves. Sometimes, when little fruit is seen at the location of the martyrdom, much fruit emerges as many others are raised up by his or her sending body to take the place of the martyr. 

This raises the real question for us: Are we to focus on the persecutor and the persecution, or are we focusing on Almighty God and the witness of the believer? Too much reporting is sensationalized and our focus turns to the power of the persecutor and its persecution. This is terribly unfortunate.

Nik Ripken (pseudonym), DMin, is a mission veteran of twenty-eight years, having served in Malawi, South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Germany. He and his wife currently serve as mission strategists in sensitive countries. Nik is the author of numerous articles on missions and has done extensive interviews and research in regard to bold witness and church planting among followers of Christ who live in environments framed by persecution.

. . . .

Criteria Can Limit God’s Purpose in Persecution

Alex Toorman

Rarely ever is someone persecuted purely because of the gospel. Out to hurt God, Satan and his minions are probably the only ones who persecute God’s people with the “purest” of motives. He does not really care how pure the motives are of his human agents, lest they may understand the gospel. Most human persecutors are driven by perceptions they have about Christians: their association with Western nations, moral corruption they associate with Christianity, assumed disloyalty and dishonor to a culture, pre-supposed enmity, etc. Rarely ever is one persecuted purely because of the gospel of a crucified and risen vicarious Christ. Often, persecutors don’t differentiate between cultural and real Christians.

That, of course, makes the definition of persecution difficult on this side of eternity. Bateman’s criteria are a helpful step, however, since there is indeed the danger to include suffering which should not qualify as persecution. I’ve known several cases where Christians from the West acted foolishly or even sinfully, provoking “persecution”. When reported in the West, only one side of the story was shared, thus leading to a belief that a great injustice was done to Christ. So, some criteria will be helpful to know what we call and report as persecution.

At the same time we cannot become too legalistic about a definition of what constitutes true persecution. I don’t think God uses a checklist for that. Every list of criteria will likely have limitations, different cultural contexts, etc. All suffering has a God-ordained place in the life of the believer (and beyond) and can be redeemed by him for his glory. God does not waste any suffering of his beloved children. The task for the believer is to follow the Good Shepherd, keep one’s life from willful sin, and keep growing and walking in his presence daily.

Then, whatever suffering he allows will not be wasted for eternity, be it labeled persecution or something else. The Holy Spirit will use suffering for the gospel to inspire followers and build the Church. The murder of Jim Elliot and his companions in 1956 was done before the gospel was shared or even a hint of it was understood by the Auca Indians. Although it may not have fit some definitions of persecution, God greatly used this martyrdom to enhance his glory.

Other suffering in secret may be only known to God, and is just as precious to him. It is not our task to elevate certain causes of suffering solely on a list of criteria, but a list of criteria can be a helpful tool to keep us in line with his purposes.

Dr. Alex Toorman has been with OMF International since 1994 and networks, mobilizes, and prepares people and resources for the growth of the kingdom in Southeast Asia.  


EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 54-62. Copyright  © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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