Does persecution benefit or harm the church?
Last week I heard of two well-known church leaders in America make an assertion that has become familiar to many evangelicals. I call the assertion the “persecution principle.” It goes like this:
Persecution of the church is a good thing, because during times of persecution the church is purified and it grows numerically.
Why is this true? The argument is usually furthered this way: During persecution (1) the church is purified because the threats of harm separate the wheat from the chaff, and true believers must be deeply committed to Christ in order to face the cultural/political pressure; and (2) the church grows numerically because of the faithful witness of these dedicated saints.
Persecution produces an increase in both quality and quantity of Christians? Sounds like a pretty good deal.
OK, I admit that’s a snarky way to put it, but self-loathing Christians in the West are getting a little tiresome, in my opinion. It’s supposed to be a sign of true spirituality if we bemoan our worthlessness in the kingdom of God because, well, we’re Americans. We’re weak, worldly, compromised – oh, yeah, and we’re fat, too.
Therefore, we should stop fighting the secularization of America because persecution of Christians in this country, if it really does come, will only make us better believers. (More on the issue of ceasing from culture wars in my next post.)
I believe this “persecution principle” and its corollaries are not only unprovable historically but unprovable biblically – not because the statements are never true but because they are not always true. Thus, the statement, at least in its unqualified form, should not be made.
Historically speaking, the evidence for the assertion that persecution of the church is a good thing is all over the map. Yes, there is the example of China, where the underground church appears to be thriving. There are rumors of a mini-revival occurring in Iran, but that’s a bit more difficult to quantify. However, since persecution of Christians in those nations is very real, let’s admit the validity of the persecution principle in these two nations.
In some Middle East countries like Iraq, however, Christianity is being decimated. It may simply cease to exist. Is that really a good thing? The church can’t grow quantitatively or qualitatively because Christians are being slaughtered or driven away from their homes.
The history of Christianity under Islam in prior centuries clearly undercuts the persecution principle. Throughout the Middle East, Asia Minor, North Africa and Iberia, Christianity was thoroughly gutted and subjugated for centuries. Great centers of Christian learning in these regions were overthrown. Perhaps the quality of Christians in these areas shot up into the stratosphere, but we have no way of knowing.
Biblically-speaking, the issue is not any more clear-cut.
True, the Bible promises the Christian persecution. In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul states that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (NASB, here and throughout).
Also true: Persecution sometimes seems to have a positive effect. In Acts 8:1-4, persecution of the church under Saul of Tarsus scattered the Christians so that the message of the gospel spread.
But in the very next chapter, when the persecution under the leadership of Saul of Tarsus ended with his conversion to Christianity, we find peace – and growth!
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:31).
True, the Apostle Paul was getting chased and threatened everywhere he went, but the church seemed to be prospering in the far more peaceful atmosphere.
Moreover, Paul tells Timothy that Christians should pray for those in authority (2 Timothy 2:1-4). Why? Well, for one obvious reason, so that pagan leaders might be saved (vs. 4).
But there is another reason: “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (vs. 2).
The implication is clearly that “a tranquil and quiet life” is desirable and allows progress in the Christian walk – i.e. as we learn “godliness.” Obviously, persecution does not allow for “a tranquil and quiet life.” Thus we are to pray for our leaders to become Christians so persecution does not occur.
If the Bible does not tell us whether or not we should desire persecution, what should our attitude toward it be? Answer: We trust God with that part of our lives as well as every other part.
Romans 8:28 says: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
If we truly believe that well-known verse, then wouldn’t it be true that God can and does work in the lives of His people wherever they live and in whatever circumstances they find themselves? That He accomplishes His purposes whether His children live in difficult countries or “safe” ones?
After all, Romans 8:28 says God causes all things to work together for good.
We pray for – and in this country where we still have right to do so, fight for – peace and tranquility. It is beneficial for the flourishing of Christianity that believers have some elbow room for the work of the kingdom.
But if persecution comes, we rejoice in it (Matthew 5:11-12) and look for ways to bear witness for Jesus in such a faithful manner that it makes our Lord visible to our persecutors.
Otherwise, if we simply assume that only one side of this matter is true – the persecution principle – why wouldn’t Christians in the West abandon the suffering church? After all, if persecution is good for Christians, then let the church suffer overseas! Don’t pray that persecution ceases; don’t write articles to awaken American believers to what is happening; don’t ask political leaders to do something to stop persecution.
Down deep, we know God can’t want us to have such a disgraceful attitude.
Unless American Christians really are that bad.