Today I was at the gym with my amigo Elliot and we were having your typical gym talk: Eschatology, religious martyrdom, and Political persecution. It sparked a couple thoughts in my head that I want to share here. I also want to say up front that I do NOT want this to be another political post clogging up your news feed. It is directed at Christians and is meant to encourage you and hopefully spur you toward dislodging some notions of the American dream, the Prosperity Gospel, entitlement to comfort, etc.
Our conversation began when I brought up some recent occurrences in politics that seemed to move the American population away from religious liberty, and even begin to sound like some anti-Christian rhetoric. This shouldn’t be news to us, as religious liberties have been coming under fire for years in the US, but the interesting part is what came next.
“I think victimizing Christians wouldn’t be the worst thing for us,” I stated. “I think it would dislodge a lot of those nominal Christians who claim Christianity as their religion on Facebook but have little else going for them. I think persecution would also expose a lot of churches that have used flashy lights and the allure of rock concert-style worship for the spineless counterfeits they are.”
“Wow, wow, wow,” replied Elliot. He noted that my thought was valid, but extreme. He reminded me that Christians should not seek out persecution for the sake of persecution, but that there is a balance to strike. I agreed with him…to a degree.
Let me give a VERY brief history of Christian persecution in the first couple centuries.
Back in the first and second centuries, Christianity was sweeping across the Western world, and spreading about much of the Roman Empire. These Christians publicly made allegiances to Jesus, which made the Roman government nervous. They saw Christ as a threat to their power and control of their people, so they did what they saw fit: They persecuted Christians.
This did not always mean death. Sometimes it just mean public humiliation and being ostracized by many. But there were many times when it did mean death. Christians were brought to coliseums to be killed by wild animals or gladiators. Nero even reportedly covered Christians in tar for use as “human torches” to illuminate his parties, hanging them from tall poles and lighting them on fire.
In the midst of all this martyrdom came two camps: Those who committed to Christ and His name until the very end, all the way through torture and death; and those who recanted, denying Christ and being freed from persecution.
Accounts from these early centuries report that the latter, those who saved themselves from torture and death, often felt such remorse and guilt that they returned to the Romans and went through with their martyrdom. In other words, they had the opportunity to publicly suffer and die for the cause of Christ, but they turned it down in order to return to comfort, only to be haunted by guilt that they had denied their Savior.
Much of the early Church’s passion for the crown of the martyr came from Revelation 2:10, where John writes that God will give a special crown to those who are faithful unto death. It could be argued that they wanted to be martyrs too badly.
However, historians would often come to note a resounding phrase that has echoed through the centuries and remains true today:
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Because of their persecution, Christians were dislodged from the comfort of their own homes and forced to relocate to other parts of the world, taking the Good News of Jesus Christ with them. Therefore, thanks to the violent slaughter of Christians, the gospel began to spread globally.
Not only did the gospel spread geographically, but even those who were killing the Christians, the Romans for example, began to come to Christ as a result. They saw the dedication to Christ the Christians exhibited, and the calmness and peace with which they gave their lives for this singular cause. This is why Paul wrote in Philippians 1 that his chains and persecution have advanced the gospel. (Note that the early Christians didn’t cry out about the unfairness of their persecution, or write angst blogs against their enemies. They simply laid down their lives, joyfully proclaiming Christ…Just like Jesus had done.)
This persecution continued until about 313 AD, when Constantine took power and put an end to the religious persecution in Rome. It’s debatable whether or not he was a true Christian or if he held to the Arian heresy until the end of his life, but that’s beside the point. What Constantine implemented was the Holy Roman Empire: A toxic blend of politics and Christianity from which the world is only now recovering.
Constantine laid the path which would lead to the modern idea of a “cultural Christian,” someone who simply grew up in church, could spout out pithy statements about their faith with no real substance or relationship to back them up, and assumed they deserved to go to heaven because they safely claim the monicker of a Christian. Constantine’s Christianity is one that spouts the jargon of victory rather than defeat. Yes, Christians are victorious over sin and death because of Jesus, but Constantine translated this to politics and warfare, claiming that it was his Christian faith that drove him to conquer his enemies.
But true Christianity is not victorious.
It is not glamorous.
True Christianity looks like the man Jesus Christ hanging on a tree in utter defeat and humiliation.
This pseudo-victorious cultural Christianity is what will be eliminated if persecution comes again.
I’m not trying to be a conspiracy theorist or a paranoid doomsday sayer, but Christians are well on their way to being on the other side of popularity once again. And when this comes, how will we respond? Will we take up swords like Peter did when the Romans came to arrest Jesus, slashing at our enemies with a violent zeal? Or will we take the mentality of the early Church, who followed the example of their Lord, laying down their lives just as Jesus had laid down His?
I can’t predict the future, and whether or not America will ever come to such violent opposition of Christianity once again, but I can say this: If it comes, it will do the American church some good. It will uproot us from our notions of entitlement and comfort, and put to shame pastors who promise material wealth in this life. There will be a distinction between those who truly knew Christ in His suffering (Philippians 3), and those who were just claiming His name for the benefits it came with.
Elliot told me that no Christian should intentionally go seeking out persecution, and he is correct. That would be masochistic. But I see far more Americans who fear persecution (read: fear man) and would rather maintain their status as ‘protected by the government’ than have Christianity divorced from politics and go underground.
My dad mentioned recently in a similar conversation that Christianity flourishes when it is forced to be subversive. When it is mainstream and popular, it becomes fat and lazy, and this is what I see happening in America.
We see the opposite today in many other countries. For instance, the Chinese Church has been violently persecuted for decades, forcing them to meet in secret and in constant fear of ambush. Yet the Chinese Church is growing at rates exponentially above the comfortable American Church! The same is true of our brothers and sisters being slaughtered by ISIS and Boko Haram. The violence suffered by these men, women and children has only strengthened their bond to Christ and commitment to His gospel.
I see the American Church reflected in Christ’s words in Revelation 3 to the Church at Laodicea:
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
We should not fear persecution, because what can humans do to us? Kill us? Then we depart and get to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). Instead, should it come to American soil, it will be a way of sorting out those who are hot from those who are cold. Too many of us American Christians have sat comfortably in the middle, living like practicing atheists while claiming the monicker of a Christian.
We should not look forward to persecution, but we should prepare for it. One of the scariest things I perpetually ask myself is, if ISIS had me tied to a pole, about to light me on fire, would I be one of the Christians who remained faithful to the end, or would I beg for my life at the cost of denying Jesus?
I hope we don’t need to face persecution.
But I hope that if we do, we will all be able to say we remained faithful to Christ until the end.
PS, I hope this post also calls us to pray for our international brothers and sisters who face this persecution daily. Those who are crushed by steam rollers and flogged and beheaded should be our examples. But pray that God will ease their suffering and be with them in their suffering. Let us who are not presently facing this violence not forget the Christians in the world who are. And may we follow their example, should the opportunity arise. Learn more here.