Is persecution good for what ails the church? Here’s the word on the street:
Viewpoint A: Everyone knows that persecution purifies the church –
- Therefore, if revival is to come, it will be through suffering.
- Therefore, persecution is a good, a benefit.
- Therefore, the committed Christian should pray for persecution to fall on their country.
Now, I know of no verse where Christians should hope for or pray for persecution. Nor is there a passage that says, “If you pray for revival, you’d better duck, God will send you tribulation.” Viewpoint A strikes me as one of those Bible interpretations which are, to use the British phrase, “too clever by half.” It’s similar to the one I’ve heard people say, that we shouldn’t pray for patience – after all, if we do, God will send trials on us! I’m stymied, how a Christian could balk at praying for a fruit of the Spirit, or imagine that God will use our sincere prayer in order to play a trick on us!
The Bible is clear, and 2000 years of history give the same message –
- Revival comes with or without persecution.
- That is, revival and persecution do not follow a strict cause and effect. Nor are they typically correlated.
- If there is correlation, it’s the question of the chicken and the egg – sometimes persecution comes because the church is growing and lively.
- Persecution does not necessarily result in purification or vitality.
- Persecution may be an impediment to church growth as much as it is a spur to growth.
- People who pray for, seek or volunteer for persecution are on thin ice.
Acts 19 – persecution does not lead to revival; rather, revival (19:10) leads to a revitalized church, and this in turn results in persecution (19:23).
James 1:2-3 – Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Comment – James does not tell them to seek trials; he comforts them that if they have faith it will yield steadfastness.
1 Pet 1:7 – “so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ”. Comment – Peter is not in favor of persecution; he says that in faithful Christians it can result in benefit. The same is true of 1 Pet 4:13 – “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” But in and of itself persecution does not lead to purification; rather we have our souls purified “by your obedience to the truth” (1 Pet 1:22; see also 2 Tim 2:11-13; Heb 2:9-11).
1 Thess 3:4-5 – “For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.” Comment: Paul did not regard suffering as a good; he was pleased, in fact, that the Thessalonians survived the onslaught.
Rev 2:10-11 – “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’” Comment: Jesus does not tell the Smyrnan church that persecution is good medicine; rather, it might be fatal. They must prepare to be “faithful unto death.”
This idea that persecution has a revitalizing effect is based on a secular model of revival. Do we really wish to say that government persecution (arrest, imprisonment, death, confiscation of property) or social rejection (ostracized by family, unemployment, lawsuits, mob violence) is the formula that will turn a lukewarm believer into a fervent one? What sort of mechanism do we imagine that can spiritually change a believer because of outside pressures? The Scriptures are direct and clear on this point: spiritual growth comes through Spirit-power and direction, applied from the inside out as God rewrites our heart, soul and mind to conform to his righteousness.
But someone will say, what about Acts 8?
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word (Acts 8:1, 4).
So, isn’t it axiomatic, that the church is revived and grows best during times of trial? No, because we tend to read Acts 8 as if it were the entire story. A few years later the persecution subsided, and at that point the church thrived, through the power of the Spirit:
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied (Acts 9:31).
The church spread during persecution; it grew numerically and spiritually when it ceased. There is no clear cause-and-effect between persecution and revival.
Many or most revivals of history have come as the result of prayer and the Spirit’s power absent of any persecution as a proximate cause: the Reformation, Great Awakening, the Wesleyan Revival, the Second Great Awakening, the Korean Revival, the Welsh Revival.
Therefore I propose Viewpoint B:
- Christians follow their Lord and like him undergo persecution.
- Tribulation is not a “good” but an evil, albeit one that can be turned to good use in the one who is faithful.
- Therefore, Christians should not pray that persecution would come, hoping for a “bank shot” which will lead to revival.
- If revival is what we want, we should pray for revival and trust God to send it in the way he wishes.
- And finally: we should pray that persecution will NOT come; and that if it does come, that it will abate.
Of further interest:
Gary Shogren, Martyrdom Fantasy Camp
Glenn Penner, “Is the Blood of the Martyrs Really the Seed of the Church?” (http://www.persecution.net/download/seed.pdf)
“Persecution: Does It Help or Hurt Church Growth?” (http://www.oprev.org/2011/07/persecution-does-it-help-or-hurt-church-growth/)
“Persecution is NOT good for what ails the church (Part One),” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica