Persecution as Normal: After Acts
Currently at High Point, we are looking at the beginning of the book of Acts to understand what the “normal” Christian life is. This past Sunday, Nic gave us much food for thought on the subject of persecution. We looked at how persecution is part of the “new normal” for anyone who has accepted Jesus as their rescuer and undisputed ruler. We don’t need to look far to find evidence of this. Acts is filled with examples of persecution and abuse directed toward believers because they were faithful to speak out about the truth about Jesus.
For the Church after Acts, things continued on with about the same trajectory. We have records of an exchange of letters between the Roman Emperor Trajan and a Roman governor named Pliny from around 112 AD in which Pliny asks Trajan for advice on how to deal with the Christians in his district. Emperor Trajan advises Pliny to punish the Christians when they are brought to his attention, but not to seek them out. To put 112 AD in perspective for those non-historical-date-oriented people like me, this is likely just 12 years after John the evangelist’s death. This persecution was directed toward people who were discipled by John, Paul, Peter, and the other evangelists that we see in Acts. It overflowed right out of the pages of Acts. You can see from the exchange between these two political figures that persecution of Christians was largely at the discretion of the rulers of a particular locality.
Fast forward 65 years. In 177 AD, we see the earliest recorded comprehensive intellectual attack on Christianity, a work called True Doctrine by a Greek philosopher named Celsus. His writing was preserved for us in the writing of the Christian who wrote a rebuttal to his arguments, a church father from North Africa named Tertullian. When Tertullian responded to Celsus’s accusations that Christianity was anti-intellectual, there was no empire-wide policy on the persecution of Christians, but from where Tertullian sat in Roman North Africa, he must have seen the blood of Christians spilled, because one of the things that Tertullian is most famous for is his statement, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Fast forward again, this time to 250 AD. Emperor Decius took the throne, and the heat started to rise across the empire. In a political effort to stamp out divergent sects and to unite the empire around the state religion, Decius required every citizen to have a certificate (libellus) that would prove they made a sacrifice to the state gods. The penalty for being without such a certificate was torture or execution.
Things seemed to cool down on the state level under the hand of Emperor Gallenius (ca. 260), only to burst forth in what is often called The Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian (ca. 284). Diocletian began by purging all Christians from government positions, including the Roman military by requiring that they sacrifice to the state gods or incur penalties including loss of rank, pension and savings. In 303 AD, he issued a formal edict of persecution calling for the destruction of Christian writings, places of worship and property. It prohibited Christians from appealing in courts and required that any Christian freedmen be returned to a life of slavery.
Persecution as … Seed?
There have been many times when I’ve tried to pray about stories of persecution in global news and found myself confused about what to ask. Do I ask God to end the persecution? Do I ask that he use it for his glory? Both? Am I just hopelessly lost on the subject? How do we move beyond the acceptance that persecution is “normal” and enter into the conversation on whether it is good or bad for the church? It’s a complicated and sensitive question. I’ve found myself advocating for both extremes (and rather naively for both) at different times. What can we learn from Scripture and from observation of the Church through the ages? Does persecution cause the church to thrive?
There are many examples of when persecution resulted in the purification and expansion of the Church. We hear many stories of Christians who held fast in the face of threats, abuse, and death. We praise God for his faithfulness and power in the lives of those brothers and sisters just as we ought to do.
But, we don’t usually hear the stories of the people who abandoned the faith because of outside pressure and never returned to it, or the people who denied Christ for a season and later sought to rejoin the Church, leading to a crisis of theology for Christians who remained faithful through persecution.
We hear much more about the meteoric growth of the Church under gruesome conditions in China than we do about the near eradication of the Church in settings such as Japan in the 1600s-1700s and North Africa after the fall of Rome. We hear about courageous imprisoned pastors singing songs of praise in the earshot of their captors, but we hear less about the Christian prisoners who, even after release, carry debilitating physical, mental and emotional scars for the rest of their earthly lives. We don’t always hear about the wives and children of imprisoned pastors who are driven out of their villages, denied education, employment, dignity and community. We don’t hear about the children of imprisoned Christians who are taken in by the state and raised to hate their parents and the “god” they worship.
What can we do? Knowing that persecution is part of our new normal, where do go from there? Where do we find information, how do we pray, and what do we do for our persecuted members?
- Let’s remember what we know: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3) and “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26a). Let’s go to the Bible and ask God to help us understand what he says about suffering for the name of Christ. [Good places to start: Acts; 1 Peter; 2 Corinthians 1-6; John 15-17; 2 Timothy 1-3]
- There are many organizations that do great work equipping Christians to pray for and support those who are under pressure in other areas of the world. To learn more, start with Open Doors USA and Voice of the Martyrs. Both have facts, stories, and resources for joining the Church in prayer.
- You can click here for a past post by Nic that lists out numerous resources particularly on the subjects of religious freedom and persecution in American society. There are many international religious rights advocacy organizations, both Christian and secular, that are worth investigating if you’re interested in being more involved on that front.
- Let’s humbly attend to the pleas of those such as Brother Yun, a Chinese church leader who suffered horribly at the hands of the communist state, when he asks Western believers not to pray that their burden be lifted, but that their backs would be strengthened to bear the load.
We must remember the stories of glory and remember that the Church of the Almighty God will always stand. The gates of hell will not win out against the Church of the Risen Christ (Matthew 16:18). We must see with sobriety, though, that that promise does not mean that the Church will stand with equal strength in all places in all times. The Church has seen dramatic ebbs and flows across the world since it first began.
We must also live in the tension of rejoicing when we are persecuted, when we are counted worthy to bear the sufferings of Christ (Acts 5:41), and mourning with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). In 197 AD, Tertullian wrote his famous words, “The more we are mown down by you, the more our numbers grow; the blood of the Christians is seed.” St. Augustine, another father of the Church from modern day Tunisia who lived roughly 125 years after Tertullian, penned a verse with similar sentiments:
Despite the fiercest opposition,
the terror of the greatest persecutions,
Christians have held with unswerving faith
to the belief that Christ has risen,
that all men will rise in the age to come,
and that the body will live forever.
And this belief, proclaimed without fear,
has yielded a harvest throughout the world,
and all the more when the martyrs’ blood
was the seed they sowed.
Both men wrote from their experiences under Roman rule in North Africa. Half a century later, Muslim invaders transformed the landscape of their home and set it on the path to what has been in our modern times – a seeming stronghold of Islam with small pockets of Christian faith intact along with continued persecution of those Christians.
Did the church grow in numbers from that persecution in North Africa? Globally, perhaps, but not in the region where the persecution took place. Did the church in Japan thrive under state oppression in the same way that the Chinese church famously has? Not at all, at least not in a way that the eye of history can show us. And is it even just for us to judge the means according to the end in the way we sometimes seem tempted to do? Was persecution a good thing in Communist China because there are more Christians to show for it now than when it began? How many new Christians are enough to make the horrific sufferings of thousands of Chinese Christians “worth it”? Regardless of how we answer that question, shall we neglect our call to weep with those who weep and silence a history of loss and grief for generations of Christians because we are in too great a rush to rejoice that it “turned out okay”?
The Nature of Seeds
So is it true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church? True, yes. Simple, no. It seems like, as with all seeds, the difference lies in the soils and the seasons. Seeds can touch the ground and make it burst forth with fruit, or they can be carried away to other fields where they may thrive and reproduce wildly. They may be trampled on dry ground or be choked out by their environments. They may lie barren on soil that could later yield fruit a hundredfold, but the season is prohibitive. And yet, we retain our hope in the character of God and his power to redeem seeds and soils in the seasons he chooses. And our hope does not put us to shame (Romans 5:5).
We hungrily seek the glory of his name in every corner of the world including in our own neighborhoods – we lean into the hope that men and women will recognize their Creator for who he is and come to know him in his fierceness, beauty and love. We recognize that our new – but temporary – normal in this world is trouble. We neglect neither weeping nor rejoicing, and we certainly do not neglect our brothers and sisters around the world, because in Christ, we are members of one another (Romans 12:5, ESV).
Maybe better than praying either for persecution to come or to go, the better place to begin is to pray that God be recognized as holy by certain peoples in certain places – and all over the world – and then to ask the Spirit to use us to accomplish that and to teach us more about what that really means day by day.