It probably isn’t far-fetched to say that the concept of persecution is increasingly finding itself on the minds of believers in the West. As the culture grows at odds with the truth claims of the Bible, believers will likely be pressured to capitulate their religious beliefs (at least certain ones) and resistance will be met with some form of opposition (not least of which will be governmental in nature).
From where I sit, Western believers’ attitudes toward persecution seem varied. There are some who are calling for increased political action to ensure the protection of religious liberty. In their view, persecution is something that should motivate believers to let their voice be heard in the public square before it’s too late.
On the other hand, there are those who seem rather eager for persecution to take place because they believe it will be the silver bullet in restoring the Church’s purity. In other words, as cultural hostility grows, only those who are truly seeking to follow Jesus will remain. Persecution is viewed favorably because of its purging effect.**
And this is certainly true. Nominal believers (which are perhaps better referred to as non-believers) aren’t likely to stick around when Christianity becomes a barrier against their hopes for a happy and successful life in this world. When forced to choose between comfort here or in the here-after, they will choose here without much (if any) hesitation.
Be that as it may, I think it is important that we think soberly about the prospect of persecution and avoid the danger of romanticizing it. While it can and will separate genuinely converted believers from impostors, persecution in and of itself does not necessarily guarantee the purity of the Church. Here’s why…
In Revelation 2:12-17 we find the letter to the Church in Pergamum. And without getting into the nitty-gritty details, I just want to call your attention to a couple of things. First, in verses 12-13 Jesus encourages this church by saying, “I know where you live- where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to My name. You did not renounce your faith in Me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city- where Satan lives.”
So here we have Jesus commending this local church because they have endured faithfully through seasons of persecution (and as verse 13 indicates, a violent persecution at that). This church had gone through intense pressure and made it through without renouncing their Lord. This is commendable indeed!
Yet look at what Jesus says next…
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam [Old Testament symbolism going on here], who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.”
Again, without getting bogged down in the details, I want you to see the principle that arises out of this text. What Jesus has against this church is their tolerance of false teaching. And the passage ends with a strong word of warning and somber command to repent.
But if persecution was the silver bullet for a church’s purity, then this would have never been an issue for Pergamum. Yet the fact remains, a church is only as healthy as the teaching and preaching it propagates. Sure, a church may have great teaching and preaching and still not be healthy. For example, you can preach about the biblical mandate of church membership and discipline, but if you never get around to practicing them, then you are continuing in unhealthy ways of church life. But having said that… a church without solid teaching and preaching will never be healthy.
Consider one more example. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he spends a major portion of his time exhorting them to pursue humility for the sake of unity (1:27-2:18). Why would he need to do this? Because in 4:2-3 we learn that the seed of disunity had been planted due to a dispute between two people in the church (Euodia and Syntyche). What’s interesting, again, is that in 1:27-30 we learn that this church too was undergoing persecution. Paul writes that he wants them to contend for the gospel as one person in the one Spirit, “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you all will be saved- and that by God. For it has been granted to you all on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, since you ate going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”
I want you to catch this. Here we have a church that is in the very midst of persecution and still they are struggling with internal church conflict! While God can and often does use persecution as one of His means for helping the Church grow in maturity (Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:5-7), nowhere are we given the impression that this and this alone can bring full and lasting health to the Church.
So here is my challenge for us as we prepare for whatever challenges may lie ahead. Let us not grow slack in our determination to carefully read, understand, and apply the Word of God. We cannot rely on the prospect of persecution alone to bring health back to the Church. Instead of relaxing our efforts at solid biblical exposition and thorough theological training for church leaders, let us double-down in our efforts to study God’s Word so that we may show ourselves approved (2 Timothy 2:15).
**I want to also be sure to include the group which advocates for religious liberty while also realizing that persecution is a clear Scriptural reality for believers. This is the camp which I fall into.