If you were asked to summarize the Good News of Jesus in one word, what would it be? For me, I think “love” would be at the top of my list. Words like Victory, Resurrection, and Restoration would also be pretty high on the list. According to Ben Myers in his book, “The Apostles’ Creed,” the early church summarized the Gospel message with a much different word: Suffering.
Persecutions of Christians globally are on the rise. According to the World Watch List 2019 report compiled by Open Doors USA, 245 million Christians experienced high levels of persecution. That is an increase of 14% over the 2018 reporting period. Christian women experienced “double persecution” in many countries for being both Christian and women. Here are some of the statistics from their 2019 report:
- 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution.
- 4,136 Christians were killed for their faith.
- 2,625 Christians were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned.
- 1,266 churches or church buildings were attacked.
Not surprising are the countries at the top of the list:
- North Korea
Except for Pakistan, all sorts of violence and oppression plague these countries. However, Christians seemed to be singled out, as the report labels it, for “extreme persecution.”
There were some surprises for me on the list of top 50 places where Christians experience persecution: Mexico (39), Russia (41), and Colombia (47). All of these countries have deep Christian roots and sizeable Christian presence, yet Christians still face high levels of persecution.
Even within the USA, many have come to the realization that we live in a Post-Christian Nation. The National values that we identified with Christianity appear to be under attack on every level. If your Facebook feed is like mine, you see posts every day lamenting the current state of affairs and sounding the call to reclaim our “Christian nation!” As the old hymn goes, “Soldiers of Christ, arise and put your armor on!”
However, there is one thing I have not heard anyone say or post in recent memory: “Christians are being persecuted around the world! Praise God!”
Persecuted for the Faith
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of early church history. The first 250 years of Christianity were probably the most violent against Christians that the world has ever seen. Untold numbers of Christians were tortured and killed for their faith. Of the 11 remaining Apostles of Jesus, tradition says that all but one were executed for their faith. It’s staggering the number of early church fathers killed for their faith. It’s probably easier to count those that did NOT die for their faith than those who did.
As the church began to spread, the question was not IF they would be persecuted, but WHEN.
Reading these early church accounts, I have been struck by the fact that they celebrated the persecutions! Some even went so far as to seek out martyrdom! For them, it was the highest honor to share in the suffering of Jesus for their faith.
According to ancient documents, early church leaders debated how to treat people that renounced their faith to avoid persecution. Should they be allowed back into communion with the church body or were they to remain outside the body of Christ forever? There was no unity of opinion on this issue, but the majority seemed to lean towards permanent (or extended) excommunication.
This view of persecution goes back to the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. Jesus warns his disciples that the world will hate them because of him (Luke 21:17). As the Apostles later began to spread the good news of Jesus among their fellow Jews in Jerusalem, performing miracles, they ran into opposition from the religious leaders. After several attempts to get them to stop proclaiming Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, they hauled the Apostles in for a more physical lesson:
…and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.Acts 5:40-42, NRSV
Did you notice their response? “They rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” The persecution was validation that they were on the right path. They were becoming more like Jesus—even sharing in his suffering.
When Paul and Barnabas headed out on their first missionary journey, they traveled into the area known as Galatia, to the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe (Acts 13 & 14). In each of these cities, they were eventually run out of town, beaten or stoned for the message they proclaimed. Amazingly, after all that they endured in these towns, rather than head directly home, they turned around and revisited all of them! On their return trip, Luke records the following:
There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.”Acts 14:22
Paul and Barnabas knew that the spread of the Good News of Jesus was going to bring about personal suffering and persecution. They didn’t shy away from it. They faced it head-on. Furthermore, they reminded those that accepted the message that they, too, would face persecution.
Later, Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth about the persecutions that he had faced during his many travels to spread the Gospel:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.2 Cor. 11:24-28
From Paul’s letter, it seems like suffering and persecution were par for the course. Aggressive persecution of Christians continued throughout the Roman empire up until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 CE.
Ironically, with the legalization of Christianity, the church now found itself at a crossroads. Without persecutions, how were they to share in the suffering of Jesus? To our modern, Western ears, this sounds ridiculous. However, for them, it was a serious issue. Suffering was an integral part of the Gospel message.
Their solution was creative. In effect, if the world were no longer going to be the cause of suffering for Christians, then they would bring about their suffering through self-denial. Asceticism, celibacy, and monasticism rose sharply in the years following the Edict of Milan. All because suffering and persecution were considered to be a mark of the Christian life.
How Did We Get Here?
I have never suffered for my faith. Honestly, I don’t think I want to either.
So, how did we stray so far from the message of suffering? I suspect the roots go back to 313 CE with Constantine. However, I think our American/Western culture that idolizes the trinity of success, prosperity, and freedom put it into overdrive. We are much more comfortable with a victorious Jesus that is triumphant over death than we are with his sufferings.
Perhaps we need a different outlook on suffering and persecutions.
Maybe we need to consider how the current shift away from Christian values could spread the Gospel. How can we better share Jesus through our weakness and suffering? Throughout history, God has always done his greatest work when His people were at their weakest—unable to do it on their own. Paul summed it up nicely in his letter to the church in Rome:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:6-8, NIV
What the world may need right now is for Christians to set aside their power to become weak. Because in our weakness, we step out of the way to let God demonstrate His love for a world that desperately needs to know him.