By Brannon S. Howse
I am under growing conviction that this next generation, especially young people who are currently high school and college students, will increasingly see persecution. As of this writing, I’m 46 years old and was raised at a time when America enjoyed a great deal of religious liberty. When I was young, though, I heard people like Francis Schaeffer predict that persecution would come to America, and I remember thinking, “How could that ever happen here?”
Now, many of Schaeffer’s predictions have come to pass. Americans regularly endure “soft” persecution for their biblical beliefs. For instance, New York City plans to levy fines of up to $250,000 against ministries, businesses, or individuals who do not correctly describe someone who is transgender. If a person was a “he” at one time but now claims to be a “she,” you can be fined $250,000 for referring to the person as “he.” It appears to apply primarily to organizations or businesses which communicate with constituents, and I guess if your transgender database isn’t up to date and you send out a “Dear Sir” letter, you could be in big trouble.
Other forms of soft persecution include things such as being ridiculed for naming the name of Christ or for standing by our biblical convictions. We often run afoul these days of what our postmodern world considers to be “intolerance.” Christians are accused of being bigoted or narrow-minded because we believe in the exclusivity of Jesus. We take seriously His words in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” That’s not a tolerant position in today’s world. It’s not the wide path the world wants to think is acceptable. To a mindset that says, “Truth and reality are created by man, not by God,” it’s inexcusably intolerant to say that Christ is the only way to God.
The history of persecuted peoples suggests that this is how it starts. Then the soft persecution gets a little harder. Financial persecution follows. In 2015, for instance, a husband and wife who owned a bakery had to pay more than $100,000 because they refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. That sort of fine can put an end to a family business. So, persecution often starts with name calling and ostracizing, and then it gets financial. That’s still not full-blown “hard” persecution in which people are imprisoned, tortured, or killed, but the trend is clearly in that direction. As hard as it is to grasp, though, persecution has a significant, positive purpose in the life of the Church.
A Legacy of Persecution
The problem of Christians being persecuted for their faith began with the Church itself. In Acts 7:54-60, the Bible records the story of Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr:
[quote] When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man is standing at the right hand of God.”
Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. [end quote]
Stephen dies, but rather than satisfying the persecutors, the mistreatment of Christians intensifies. Acts 8:1-4 recounts how the story proceeds:
[quote] Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
As for Saul, he made havoc of the Church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the Word. (emphasis mine) [end quote]
As terrible as we may think persecution like this is, I believe there are specific reasons why persecution is of benefit to the Gospel. I’ve identified ten that I want to share with you.
1) Persecution preserves the Church.
Opponents of our faith through the centuries have believed that if they persecute the Church, it will collapse. Christianity will cease to exist. In the twentieth century, Chinese communists under Mao Tse-tung thought they could destroy Christianity in China. Yet they failed. In 1970, after two decades of torment by Chairman Mao, there were 1.5 million Christians in China. And 20 years after that, the church had grown to more than 40 times that number—65 million believers!
As the persecution increased, Christianity spread. People began to take note of the Christians’ faith, and the testimony of persecuted believers spread throughout China. It’s the Acts 8:3-4 story played out on a modern stage. Compare what happened after the death of Stephen:
[quote] As for Saul, he made havoc of the Church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the Word. (emphasis mine) [end quote]
The believers scattered, and they planted churches all over the very pagan Roman Empire. That recurring theme is why it is said that the blood of martyrs is water for the seed of the Gospel. Persecution preserves and grows the Church!
2) Persecution preaches the Gospel.
Believers who spread out as a result of persecution preach the Gospel wherever they go, and the persecution also creates great preachers. Saul, who supervised the stoning of Stephen, became the great apostle Paul, evangelist and writer of much of the New Testament. In Philippians, a book Paul wrote while in prison for preaching Christ, he explains this principle of Gospel expansion through persecution:
[quote] But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the Gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the Word without fear. (1:12-14) [end quote]
What things have happened to Paul? Prison. Chains—probably chained to a wall in prison. But he claims it actually furthered the Gospel. In fact, it has been spread even among the imperial guards in Rome.
Not only that, other believers—both in prison and out—hear of this and become more bold in their faith. They appear to be thinking, “If Paul can endure this, I can endure this as well. If Paul can take a stand for Christ, he’s an example that I want to follow; I’ll take a stand, too. If God can give Paul the grace, He’ll give me the grace.”
3) Persecution persuades the unbeliever.
Paul asserted that the whole palace knew why he was in prison, and many were persuaded of the truth of the Gospel by the testimony of Paul’s suffering. They may well have felt something of what Peter refers to in 1 Peter 3:16: “[W]hen they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.” Even unbelievers can be persuaded to the point of being ashamed because of a Christian’s endurance under persecution. Paul reflects this reality also in 2 Timothy 2:9-10:
[quote] [F]or which I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. (emphasis mine) [end quote]
Notice that Paul says he endures this persecution “for the sake of the elect, that they may also obtain the salvation.” This means there are people whom the Bible refers to as being among the elect, but who are not yet saved. It makes sense, of course, since all of the elect were chosen before the foundation of the world, so at any time before Christ’s final reign, there will be some elect people who have not yet chosen Christ. So, Paul endures for the sake of the elect who have not yet been saved but who will be—through the testimony of faithful Christians like Paul.
4) Persecution purifies the Church.
Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed shows how this happens. Look at Mark 4:17: “[The seeds in shallow soil] have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the Word’s sake, immediately they stumble.”
What do we see here? That there are those who name the name of Christ but who are not really saved. They may have walked the aisle, been baptized, signed the pledge card, and started giving, but then persecution comes, and they show their true colors. They say, “Wait a minute. This whole Christian thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; it comes with a hefty price. I’m being ridiculed, and it’s just not worth it.” The Bible variously refers to them as false converts, tares among the wheat, and goats among the sheep.
The good news for the Church is that when these folks move off, the Church is left with only true believers. I said earlier that persecution in America is increasing, and when our problems go beyond just name calling, and we face financial penalty or physical persecution such as torture, imprisonment, and death, the pretenders will bow out. The Church will consist only of those who really mean what they say about their faith in Christ.
5) Persecution propels us to godliness.
Paul doesn’t mince words on this point. He says, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Persecution has a way of driving people to Christ, of causing people to recognize what’s truly important. It motivates them to stop playing games and to more deeply understand the Gospel and the price that must be paid to believe. This creates a greater dependency on Christ and hence, more godly character.
Many preachers today refuse to share this message. Instead, we hear false promises like “Come to Christ, and have your best life now.” The best life they’re talking about has nothing to do with suffering. We have Americanized Christianity. We think that Christianity here is the way it is all over the world, or the way it’s always been. The historical reality, though, is that Christianity and persecution have always been connected. In many places today, if you become a Christian, you endure persecution immediately. As in Jesus’ day, converts lose their families. In the first century, Jewish families rejected new believers. Now it’s communism, Islam, and an assortment of other hostile belief systems that bring the rejection.
Persecution is the true history of Christianity. While in America we think we can come to Christ and “have a great life,” most of the world knows they can come to Christ and be imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Scripture explains that this persecution reveals Christ to the world:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11, NKJV)
Persecution has a way of causing us to depend more on God. We are weak vessels, and when we feel the weight and perplexity of persecution, we see the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us to help us endure. That’s what Paul is talking about in Philippians 4:13 when he says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It’s not a “life verse” for slam dunking a basketball or getting the corner office. It’s a claim of hope in the face of persecution, affliction, and hard times. We realize the power is not in us to endure. It’s in Christ. This is why we have the promise of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:
And He [Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you; My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in my infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
6) Persecution protects the Church.
What does persecution protect the Church from? From false teachers. Many false teachers “proclaim Christ” so they can sell books, build mega-churches, and make the commensurate mega-salaries as celebrity pastors. Yet they’re not truly pastors, and their churches are not New Testament churches at all. They fail the test of both.
When real, hard persecution comes, many people playing this game will stop because they won’t want to pay the price. So, as I said earlier, persecution purifies the Church of the false converts; it protects the Church from the false teachers.
Galatians 6:12 pegs the standard operating procedure of false teachers in the face of persecution: “As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (emphasis mine). They compromise with outsiders who want to make life difficult for true believers. John 12:42-44 shows this same reaction at work:
[quote] Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. [end quote]
These people didn’t want to be persecuted by the Pharisees, Sadducees, or other religious leaders. The pretenders go away when things are tough, and that’s a great blessing to the true Church.
7) Persecution prepares the Church for more persecution.
Early victims of persecution stand as an encouragement for those who will follow. The pattern started with Jesus Himself:
[quote] If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me. (John 15:18-21) [end quote]
This same process happened with the apostles—who were the most persecuted early believers—and continued through the early church.
8) Persecution prioritizes our lives.
I’ve already mentioned this in passing, but let’s look at it more deeply. Romans 8:18 clarifies the comparative value of what we lose through persecution and what we will gain in the long run: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
Few places these days are more troubled by soft persecution than our schools. If you’re a student, you may wonder at times if it’s worth it. But the persecution we endure is not worthy to be compared to the inestimable glory that will be revealed in us. Persecution alerts us to this important comparison. Does it really matter that we’re unpopular? Certainly not, if the alternative is to give up the Faith.
Under persecution, we discover that many of the things we thought mattered are actually quite fleeting. Even friendships can be transitory. Christ said, “I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword” and that He would even divide families because of the truth (Matthew 10:34-37). He has to become what is most important to us.
9) Persecution perfects the will of God in our lives.
I’ve already explained that it is the will of God that you’re saved and that you be sanctified. The Bible also specifically says that it is God’s will for you to abstain from sexual immorality. The more these things are accomplished in your life, the more God’s will is perfected in you, and persecution adds one more element like these.
The Bible says it is the will of God that you suffer persecution: “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19). And in 1 Peter 3:17: “For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” God allows evil people to persecute His Church for His ultimate, providential purpose. As Philippians 1:29 confirms: “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Who grants this? Who allows suffering? Christ Himself. So, suffer, and as you do, His will is furthered in your life.
10) Persecution produces rewards.
The end result of enduring persecution is greater than any earthly prize, as Acts 14:22 points out: “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” What greater reward is there than entering the kingdom of God? It gives us the opportunity to hear Jesus say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
This idea of reward for persecution also shows up in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:10-12 provides details of the plan:
[quote] Blessed [i.e., rewarded] are those who are persuaded for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in Heaven. (emphasis mine) [end quote]
We’re specifically offered a reward for undergoing persecution. Even faithful people in the Old Testament understood this principle, as Hebrews 11:24-28 says of Moses:
[quote] By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. (emphasis mine) [end quote]
Persecution has occurred throughout history, so it is unwise—as I’ve heard some people say—to think that we will not suffer because we will be raptured before persecution starts. Your end-time beliefs are irrelevant to the issue of persecution. Look what’s going on in Cuba, China, and the Middle East right now. Even if you hold to the eschatology that the Church is raptured before the tribulation, that doesn’t mean we won’t endure persecution in the meantime. Christians for thousands of years have been persecuted. There’s no guarantee in America or anywhere else in the West that we won’t endure hard persecution. Men may mean it for evil, but God means it for good.
Persecution There and Here
When people I know and who contact my show think of persecution, they automatically think of it happening somewhere in the world other than the United States of America. And they’re right, of course, that hard persecution is not a present reality here. As we examine the purpose of persecution, though, it’s helpful to look at specific examples of how it does occur “out there” and also consider the perspective we need on what could happen right here.
My friend Michael Furchert spoke at our Contend Conference and recounted his family history of persecution. Furchert’s grandfather was persecuted under the Nazis, and when the Allies defeated the Nazis, the communists took over who then persecuted him, his father, and his sisters.
Another friend, Daniel Long, along with his parents and siblings, suffered in communist China. Long’s 10-year-old brother was so severely beaten in front of his parents and the rest of the children to try to get them all to deny Christ that he eventually died from internal bleeding. The mother and father were imprisoned where, like Paul, their testimony became known, and many of the prison guards came to Christ. Some joined the underground church in China.
The widely known story of missionaries Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Peter Fleming, who were slaughtered by the Waodani tribe in Ecuador, still stands as one of the modern Church’s most inspiring examples of faith in the face of persecution. Their deaths flung wide open a door for the Gospel. The very men who killed the five missionaries came to Christ when the widows and children of Elliot and the others moved into the village just a few short years after the killings. Mincaye was one of the men who speared Nate Saint to death, but he later preached the Gospel here in America, using Nate Saint’s son, Steve, as his interpreter.
The side of this story that is less well known is that Elliot, Saint, Youderian, McCully, and Fleming made a critical choice the day they were attacked. The men had a gun and could have protected themselves but chose not to kill their attackers for fear it would interrupt the work of other missionaries who would follow.
I’ve been asked if Christians should pray that such hard persecutions as the Furchert’s, Long’s, and the others come to the United States for the good of the church here. I’m reluctant to think, though, that we should desire hard persecution. We should want people to do whatever is needed in order to honor the Lord. Our prayers should focus on seeing the government fulfill its biblical purpose: to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. We should want men to do what is right or just, even if they’re not believers. Praying for hard persecution to come would be to pray that people would break the law in their treatment of Christians or others. So no, I don’t think we should pray for hard persecution. Instead, we should pray for revival.
One prayer we should make with regard to persecution is that we respond correctly if it does come. We need to be properly prepared for the possibility of severe persecution. One way to prepare is to learn now to share your faith boldly, without concern over what other people will think of you for doing it. Sharing your faith more and more reduces your fear of the consequences. As with anything you practice—public speaking, water skiing, gymnastics, whatever—it becomes less intimidating.
Reading the stories of others who have been persecuted, whether in Scripture or other accounts, is another good method of preparation. That’s why I offer resources such as videos of Michael Furchert and Daniel Long through the Worldview Weekend online Situation Room (www.worldviewweekend.com/today). When we see how others have endured, it encourages us to stand fast as well. Their testimonies show how God provided a martyr’s peace. Not everyone, of course, who is persecuted becomes a martyr, but many who have been persecuted tell of the peace, happiness, and contentment they felt even in the throes of persecution.
One likely inroad for persecution in America and the West is through hate speech laws. They’re spreading in Europe. Tony Blair is pushing for legislation that will prosecute people who say unacceptable things, and “hate speech” makes the news frequently in the U.S. and Canada as well.
Some people wonder how to know whether or not they’re being persecuted for the right reasons. People in cults, for instance, who are looked down upon for their beliefs often think they’re being persecuted. Yet disdain for their beliefs is simply a natural response to a deviant or anti-social belief system. Many cultists look odd and act odd. People in cults may also be harassed because they're ignorant or foolish in their pursuit of non-truth. Yet they believe they’re under persecution.
Some Christians think they’re being persecuted, but they’re not. Rather, they’re encountering the natural response of unbelievers to improper methods of evangelism or lack of socially appropriate preaching. For example, people who mock an “evangelist” screaming the Gospel through a bullhorn are not persecutors. And it is not persecution to deride so-called Christians who hold up placards at the funeral of a homosexual or an honorable soldier, claiming that God is glad the deceased person is in hell. Derision is a natural reaction from both unbelievers and believers who recognize that such behavior is just plain wrong. They’re not being persecuted. There are proper and improper times and means for evangelism. To use an improper method and be called out for it is not persecution. It’s correction.
Many people prefer not to hear about persecution. They prefer the Christian happy talk—which, of course, may be happy, but it’s not Christian. Persecution may not be an attractive topic, but it is biblical. To many people, teaching about persecution is a downer. They don’t want to hear any of this. But true believers want to know what Scripture says—not only because they want to know the truth, but also because one way to remove fear is to be prepared. And when we think through these things biblically—why they happen, what the results are, and how God provides for us and gives grace to go through it—we become ready to face it if we have to. That is our goal.
Copyright 2015 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.