As a marketer, I am privileged to work with several charities on a regular basis. In order to help them “tell their story” better and increase awareness and support for their cause, I have the opportunity to immerse myself in their ministries. Lately I have been reading heavily on the topic of the persecuted church. I’ve been reviewing the different organizations that are shining a light on this issue and are doing great things to help our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
Much of the surface language is about the pain and suffering of the persecuted church. When you dig a little deeper however, a few give you a real glimpse of their “theology of persecution”. This is the good stuff and reading it has shifted my mindset about persecution – how we should view it, what the Bible actually says about it, and what that means for me as a Canadian Christian.
Recently I posted a quote from Glenn Penner of Voice of the Martyrs on facebook, and followed it up with the question “Why aren’t we persecuted in Canada?”. There were several, varied comments so I decided to try unpack it further here. The article I quoted from was titled “Is the Blood of the Martyrs Really the Seed of the Church?” and in that context, Penner states that in fact the answer is; not always. Consistent persecution does not always grow the church. Instead, he turns the table on the concept with this statement:
“Will persecution make us better Christians? Perhaps. It seems to me, however, that the witness of scripture and the testimony of today’s persecuted Church is better reflected in the phrase, “Better Christians tend to produce persecution.”
Some of the respondents took issue with the quote and wanted a clearer definition of “better”. I understand their apprehension to declare anyone “better” but I believe Penner is challenging us to consider what makes a Christian real or true. What he’s really saying is that when the church is growing, and Christians are faithfully proclaiming the gospel, persecution is inevitable. In cultures where the persecution is most public, making a decision to follow Christ is a decidedly counter-culture decision. Few make it without knowing the consequences. They are literally taking up their cross, from day one. Does that make them better than me? Not in the sense that they’re more valuable, or smarter or have achieved something greater. We all need God’s grace. Without it, none are deserving. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that I have something to learn from them.
Others made great points about actual persecution in an increasingly secular Canadian culture. It’s true that in the name of tolerance, we are tolerated less. In the name of equality, we are being called bigots. I have no doubt that Christianity is under attack in Canada, but what are we doing about it? I’m not talking about political activism here (though we should also fight for justice). I think the reason we aren’t persecuted MORE is because we retreat. We see the potential costs and we flee to our safe, like-minded communities and we feel righteous and indignant as we talk about holding strong in this struggle – but are we really struggling?
Consider this quote, also from Penner in a different article entitled “A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship”:
“Contrary to the Western belief that it is a blessing not to be persecuted, they knew that it was the persecuted who are blessed (Matthew 10-12). Rather than following the common Western practice of thanking God for the privilege of living in a free country where we do not suffer for Him, the early Christians thanked God for the honor of suffering for His sake (Acts 5:41). They knew that in order to bring life to others, they must die; to see others experience peace with God, they would have to suffer the violence of the world; to bring the love of God to a dying world, they would have to face the hatred of those whom they were seeking to reach.”
This quote struck me deeply.
I have heard and prayed those very words myself. I realize we live in a different time and place than those early Christians. We live far enough away from many of the present-day regimes that inflict open, government-sanctioned persecution on Christians. The fact that we are blessed with prosperity and freedom is not a reason to feel guilt, but to praise God. So is it fair to compare their situation with ours? Is it fair to point the finger at ourselves and say, “if God warns us that when we follow him, we WILL be persecuted, why aren’t we?” Is it really because we live in a civil society, or is our complacency for the saving grace of the gospel what’s actually holding persecution at bay?
I’m not advocating that we openly invite ridicule and needless persecution on ourselves by being ignorant and abrasive to everyone we meet. And yet, I do feel a conviction that I am too comfortable. I am too willing to hide in my faith community, safe from being challenged for believing something that now puts me in the minority in my country. I am afraid. Even in the process of wrestling with this topic, I feel the pull of apathy or the willingness to trivialize their suffering into some pious explanation of something God allows and uses, SOMEWHERE ELSE.
I don’t have all the answers, and if I’m honest, I really don’t want to be persecuted – at all! I’m going to continue to read and reflect on this topic, but I am sure of one thing: I will never view persecution the same way. I will no longer look at my persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ and feel only pity. I will try to imagine their pain as if it were my own, but I will also see God at work in them. I will learn from them and hold them up as an example and pray that if I ever experience the privilege of persecution, he might give me grace to view it that way.
November is persecution awareness month, and November 13 is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I will post again on this topic with resources for churches and individuals to learn more. For now, I recommend the book “The Privilege of Persecution” by Dr. Carl A. Moeller and David W. Hegg. I’ve only ready the first “free” chapter, but hope to complete it in the coming months.