There is one issue the Church had better start dealing with: persecution. It is, of course, a key theme in the book of Acts. Beginning with Peter and John in chapter 4 with the admonition to refrain from speaking about Jesus and crystallizing around the martyrdom of Stephen in chapter 7 the issue never goes away. Nor has it in the centuries since then.
Christian persecution is a rather strange animal. On the surface it is abhorrent. It is the intentional affliction of suffering and/or degradation upon followers of Christ for being His disciples. Yet at the same time it is the thing that seeds, grows, and brings fruitfulness to the Church. Unfortunately, persecution seems distant and irrelevant to many modern day Christians. Some even think it’s deserved as they believe the only place Christians should express their faith and views is behind the walls of their churches.
But here is a rather inconvenient and messy fact for the religion-should-be-a-private-matter crowd: history teaches that the Church’s most explosive periods of growth have tended to coincide with the most painful periods of persecution. Why is that? Perhaps because it tests and sifts the faithful like nothing else really can. Heroes of the faith would not even exist were it not for persecution. Without persecution, the Church tends toward apathy, lethargy, and self-inclination. And there is a reason for this.
Ask yourself this question: What prompts Christian persecution? Answer: When a Christian refuses to bow, bend, or yield (publically) on a fundamental aspect of the faith. Take, for instance, the exchange between Peter and the High Priest in Acts 5. The High Priest: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name [Jesus].” Peter: “We must obey God rather than men.” Peter had a few more things to say which resulted in this: “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.” That is pretty straightforward. Do not teach in this name. We will do what we believe God wants us to do despite what you say. We will seek to kill you. For the Apostles, the name of Jesus was non-negotiable as evidenced by Peter’s statement in 4:12- “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Persecution ensued (see 5:40) and they were reminded again “not to speak in the name of Jesus” whereupon these words were written “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:41). Though the Church was under direct attack yet it was not diminished.
Despite all the hardships Peter suffered for his uncompromising faith, he did not believe that discussion about even the most fundamental aspects of Christianity was anathema or off limits. So he wrote, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Being prepared to discuss matters of faith is one thing. Looking down at the ground when your faith or Lord is being slandered is another. When Christians do not run away from Jesus, budge from the clarity of His statements, or obscure the clear intent of His teachings we become objects of ridicule and targets of persecution. The really interesting thing is that Jesus said the correct response to persecution should be: “rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12).
One thing more needs to be said. Persecution is not some knee jerk reaction to an over the top fundamentalism. The first great persecutor of the Church was Saul of Tarsus. Acts 8:1-3 records his approval of the murder of Stephen and how he led the first great Christian persecution. Acts 9:1-2 furthers Saul’s story by telling how he continued “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” getting permission from the high priest to export his persecution. My point is that Saul had a plan. The violence he perpetrated on the first Christians was not a spontaneous reaction of outrage from Peter’s accusation that the Sanhedrin was responsible for killing the Savior (Acts 5:30). Rather, it was part of a calculated plan of attack (policy) adopted by the Jewish leaders of the day against the followers of Jesus.
As the First Amendment and religious freedom continue to come under fire in America, today’s Christian faces a choice. Either he or she can continue to kneel in obeisance at the altar of political correctness in hopes of not being ridiculed or ostracized, or, we can do what we said we would do when we were children singing “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B –L-E.”
Make no mistake about it. Shying away from trial and persecution will not make either you or your faith more acceptable or tolerable to those who oppose it. Standing courteously but firmly on your scripturally based convictions may seem detrimental to self and Church but scripture and history actually bear out the opposite. The Church has always done the most for God when it had the least opportunity and the greatest opposition. As the Apostle John puts it “they have conquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). C.S. Lewis also put it succinctly when he wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
Standing firmly on your Christian faith will not be your downfall. Rather, it will be your salvation.