This sixth of seven issues inhabiting the otherwise Biblical “young restless Reformed” movement is more vague than the others. I don’t know what to call it besides a Persecution Complex.
And I don’t mean feeling you are persecuted when you are not — for example, saying a non-Christian is rejecting you because of your faith, when really he only thinks you’re a jerk. Instead I mean feeling you should be persecuted or have a harder time as a Christian, when you aren’t.
6. Desiring persecution on purpose (or feeling guilty for not having it).
Last time I had specific examples to illustrate this notion; this time I only have fragments of quotes in my head. So let me just smash them together into a single synthetic paragraph:
The American church is in trouble. We’ve been all about entertaining ourselves, and coming up with programs that cater to our felt-needs, that we’ve missed out on the Gospel. But I want to challenge you that it’s time to step out of your comfort zone. While we’re sitting inside our air-conditioned buildings, eating three meals every day, people in other nations are dying from lack of basic necessities. And while our brothers and sisters in other countries are suffering for their faith, even tortured, the worst thing that could happen to Christians in America is having someone laugh at us for wearing a WWJD bracelet! Now, are you really sold out for Jesus? Are you so devoted to Him and to your faith that you’d stand in the street, or go to a foreign land, and die for your Savior?
Do elements of that sound familiar? I know I’ve heard them, either echoing in my own mind or from pieces of rhetoric found throughout the YRR blogs-and-books world. And there’s so much there to agree with. The American church is in trouble (when has it not been?). Evangelicalism does suffer from too much amusing-ourselves-to-death. And many Christians are too relaxed with their own Americanized Christianity, and persecution, if it did come here, would weed out many from professing faith who, it would turn out, were never truly among us anyway.
Yet can we prove those points, and enhance the Gospel message, without also connoting guilt?
Here’s what notions Christians may logically, but not Biblically, deduce from the above material:
- Christians should always or often expect persecution.
- Some more-zealous types, again with much Biblical basis and right motives, may even imply or say: If you’re not being persecuted, you must not be doing it right.
- And by implication, a third notion accompanies those two: If you’re being persecuted, the Bible shows only one right response: face it directly and suffer.
But Christ does not call all Christians, at all times, to suffer in only one way for the sake of His Name. All the cautions in Scripture about persecution never imply the same kinds of suffering happen to every believer, 24/7. If that were true, Paul would not need to remind some believers to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Others wouldn’t need the reminders to respect their employers or love their families (Colossians 3, Ephesians 5). And we wouldn’t expect at least some downtime from persecution to set up church policy (1 Timothy 3) or work out Godly church discipline for those who aren’t behaving as believers should (1 Corinthians 5).
Furthermore, Scripture contains not only one, but at least three different reactions Christians have in response to even overt religious persecution. They’re best shown in the book of Acts. When Christians came under persecution, did they only ever face it head-on? Not at all.
1. Christians can flee persecution and minister elsewhere.
And Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
Acts 8: 1-4
Different believers, through circumstances not mentioned here, had different fates thanks to the persecution wrought by Saul and others. Some may have been unwilling or unable to leave Jerusalem, because of family or job restraints. The text singles out the apostles, for example, but doesn’t say why they stayed. Others were “scattered” all over the place, for reasons the text doesn’t give — but it certainly sounds like they were hoping to avoid being captured. And neither the author nor his inspiring Spirit condemns them for this. Instead, God used them.
Ever heard a line like this? The early Church had gotten too lazy by then. That’s why God sent the persecution, to drive them out of their comfort zone in Jerusalem and make them take the Gospel to the nations like He’d commanded them to do.
But the author of Acts never draws this conclusion. Also, at least twice the apostles had already been arrested for preaching, and been warned not to continue (Acts 3 – 5). So Jerusalem was hardly a spiritual comfort zone for believers. Regardless, though, we’re faced with the truth that at least in this case, God used these Christians’ attempts to evade persecution to spread the Gospel to the nations. This gives the lie to implications that you should always face persecution.
2. Christians can complain to the governing authorities.
But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.
Acts 16: 35-39
But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” […] So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Acts 22: 25-26, 29
Paul used his Roman-citizenship card, at least twice. The first time he was very snarky about this — almost like an American Christian who could get a bit too gleeful slamming the ACLU. The second time you can almost imagine him thinking, I’ve already been beaten enough and illegally so, and I’m sick of it, and it’s time for it to stop. Scripture doesn’t draw any conclusions one way or the other about his motives. Yet Acts’ author does not condemn Paul’s choice, or any other believer’s choice to attempt halting persecution by claiming legitimate rights.
One might also point out that in the latter case, the soldiers still didn’t set Paul free. But they did stop beating him, and were thus obeying the civil authority as Scripture teaches (Romans 13). That same standard applies to Christians today, to support the civil government that God has set up, encouraging it to be “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13:3).
This could entail being persecuted under a bad government. But it could also entail supporting good government by speaking up when someone violates the law — as the U.S. government or any court or person does when it acts contrary to its founding document, the Constitution.
Paul also had a higher purpose to being captured: he wanted to take the Gospel to Rome. Even then, other believers tried to dissuade him from going, and aren’t condemned (Acts 21: 1-16).
Someone I know recently said about suffering victims that they must always “suffer in silence,” because of Jesus’ actions before governing authorities and the “turn the other cheek” principle. Yet the same Bible that outlines this truth shows us that a) Jesus also had a higher purpose, to die for the sins of His people, and at many other times opposed sinful authorities; b) the “turn the other cheek” reaction does not apply to illegal persecutions, but to personal blows to pride.
3. Christians can suffer under persecution, rejoicing that they’re ‘counted worthy.’
[… W]hen [the Jerusalem religious leaders] had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus].
Acts 5: 40-41
Here’s the part we all must face: despite options to evade persecution, or stand up for our God-given rights both as humans and as beneficiaries of our nation’s good laws, God may have “counted [us] worthy to suffer dishonor” for His Name. All Christians should pray that if that time comes, they will indeed pass through the test and glorify God with their testimony.
But that’s a far cry from what may be a logical deduction that’s internally self-consistent, but not consistent with all of Scripture, that if persecution is good, let’s go find it, or, if you’re not being persecuted, you must be one of those comfort-zone Christians.
That conclusion just doesn’t follow from Scripture. It relies on selective reading of believers’ actions described in narratives, and isn’t based on any direct prescription in the epistles.
Why do some Christians, Reformed and otherwise, have this belief? Maybe it’s because selective reading of Scripture affects us all, coupled with Ministry Myopia that says my ministry Thing must be your ministry Thing just as much. Yet such Christians may need to consider that:
- God may test His people with prosperity, not persecution.
- We shouldn’t overcorrect for the “prosperity gospel” nonsense with the exact opposite, as if we feel we must teach people to fear God’s blessing of possessions or just-plain rest from active service that results in persecution or not.
- Believers suffering persecution in China may be growing in many ways, but have many drawbacks as well. Some bad theology gets around a lot over there, I’ve heard! Yet believers in countries such as the U.S., which is relatively free of religious persecution, have the advantage of growing in other ways — and helping their brothers and sisters in China or elsewhere from the blessing of a safer position.
- If we have in the backs of our minds the notion that my real ministry will begin when God brings persecution, we may wait for that far-in-the-future imaginary moment to get moving instead of working with what we have, even in our “comfort zone” lifestyles.
- Christians should not be afraid of persecution or pleasure God sends our way — which is according to His timing, and not ours.
That last is one of the best reasons, and I can’t cite it here without presenting the quote and source from one of the better blogs around the YRR online universe. (And my YRR friends, you know this: if it’s on the Gospel Coalition, you know it’s Gospel truth!)
Lord, save us from making locale the measure of Christian commitment. God gifts us, nurtures us, and calls us to different places and different kinds of ministry. All matter to God because all people matter to God.
Be willing to suffer, but don’t feel guilty for pleasure. Be strategic, but don’t think our strategies are always God’s strategies. Be willing to do anything, go anywhere, and minister to anyone. It matters more who you are than where you are. City, suburb, or country, if we are growing in godliness we will not be unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:8).
“They Need Good Pastors and Good Churches Everywhere,” Kevin DeYoung, March 9, 2010, on GospelCoalition.org