Persecution is NOT good for what ails the church (Part Two)

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. Revivals of history have come as the result of prayer and the Spirit’s power; most are 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.

Read Part I: https://openoureyeslord.com/2013/03/26/persecution-is-not-good-for-what-ails-the-church/

And now, Part Two:

Therefore I propose Viewpoint B:

  • 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 finally: we should pray that persecution will NOT come; and that if it does come, that it will abate.

Here are some key Bible texts:

Acts 4:29-31 – “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Comment: the apostles did not pray for the persecution to continue; rather, they prayed for boldness despite the persecution, which they acknowledged to be evil.

1 Tim 2:1-4 – “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Comment: a peaceful environment, free from imperial persecution, is the best milieu for preaching the gospel without hindrance.

While legend has it that the church grows best in the confusion and deprivation of trials, the evidence of Scripture and of church history does not bear it out. Scholar Leonhard Goppelt writes of the church in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) that “such rapid growth can be explained not only on the basis of the strong impetus provided above all by Paul, but also on the basis of generally favorable conditions, which could be matched in no other region of the Roman Empire…This rapid and intensive spread of Christianity was responsible for the early outbreak of conflicts with non-Christians.” (L. Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament, 2:6, emph added). That is, revival led to persecution, not the reverse.

On our missionary travels we are listening to a recording of Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of those Who Survived. His point is that survivors of a disaster – we might mention shipwreck, 9/11 or the Sandy Hook slayings – assemble a set of stories which show how people come together in heroic self-sacrifice. As I write this, the news is broadcasting stories of how the first responders acted bravely after the Boston Marathon explosions. We are so overwhelmed by the enormity we look for brighter stories of hope, rescue, selflessness, and simple motives; we try to erase stories of cowardice, betrayal, mixed or complex motives. We feel the need to know that tragedy brings out the best in us.

And it’s true that ordinary people find the strength to do extraordinary things: the teacher who risks her life to protect children; the firemen who perished when the Twin Towers collapsed.

The other side of the coin is that tragedy can bring out the worst in people: for example, the men who brushed off the call for “women and children first” and dove into Titanic lifeboats to save themselves.

Christians too feel the need to tell themselves stories of ordinary believers who step up and do the right thing; they hope that Christians will be heroes when the moment comes.

But, as Jesus warned, in some cases when persecution comes, a person who has received the gospel with joy

endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away (Matt 13:21)

Also he predicted that due to tribulation

many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another…the love of many will grow cold (Matt 24:10, 12).

In fact, during the persecutions of the early church there were plenty of people who didn’t act as they should. In northern Asia Minor, there were those who renounced Christ. Some who were arrested

declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped [the image of Caesar] and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ (Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97, around AD 112).

When the officials of Smyrna were hunting for Polycarp, the leader of the church, they arrested two boys; under torture, one revealed where Polycarp had hidden from the soldiers (Martyrdom of Polycarp 6, around AD 155-160). In the same persecution, a man named Quintus of Phrygia, along with some friends, ran forward in order to volunteer for persecution. When the time came, they decided they didn’t want to be Christians anymore, and they renounced Jesus. The author chides him and his kind, since “the gospel does not so teach” us to run toward danger (Martyrdom 4).

Polycarp stands with his brothers and sisters before being martyred

Polycarp stands with his brothers and sisters before being martyred

In the aftermath of the persecution under Decius (c. AD 250), the church was bitterly divided, since some Christians of means had fled the cities, leaving poor Christians to suffer.

In the second century AD, one Christian after another wrote defenses (or “apologies”) to the Roman government or to other prominent unbelievers: an anonymous book To Diognetus, two apologies by Justin Martyr, one by Quadratus, and works by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. These authors argued that Christians did not deserve to be persecuted; did they tell the government to keep it up? No! To a man they called upon the pagans to cease persecuting the righteous. Even Tertullian, who in his Apologeticus 50 (around AD 200) wrote the famous line, “semen est sanguis Christianorum” – “the oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” But he too called upon the government to cease and desist!

Then too, we should examine closely the relationship between persecution and revival. It was usually the case in the early church that persecution did not result in revival; rather, it was the growth and vitality of the church that led to persecution – several of the apologists mention this point, as does Goppelt, above.

But what about the Reformation? Wasn’t the English reformer Latimer burnt at the stake, saying, “we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out”? True enough, and the church in England flourished. But that was not always the pattern: the Reformation touched Spain and France in the 1500s. At one point, there were 2 million French evangelicals; Spain too had many converts to the gospel. Soon, persecution came crashing on them, and today less than 1% of the population of Spain and of France is evangelical.

In the plus column, in recent history, China is the example that is usually held up as an example of a church that thrives under persecution. After all, it has grown tremendously since the Communists took over. True enough: nevertheless, the church is hobbled by poor training, lack of theological education, false teaching.

In the minus column, the church in Albania was decimated under the Marxists. The evangelical church of Russia declined dramatically under the Soviets. North Korea was a major center of the gospel 100 years ago; today the church has all but disappeared; meanwhile, the South Korean church is thriving. Christians from Palestine, Syria and from Iraq have been scattered to the winds. The church of Japan was once strong, but persecution in the 17th century left it mangled. The church started to rebound, but the largest Christian center in Japan was erased from the map with the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki. The Japanese church is badly disunified, attendance is low, and relatively few men participate. The church has been harmed in Ethiopia and Mali.

This matches what we have seen in earlier times, as countries that were considered the most Christian are now mission fields. Turkey and Tunisia are today the two top unevangelized countries, with an evangelical population of less than .01%. But for centuries, Turkey was the principal Christian nation on earth, defending the faith and sending missionaries to remote nations. The Muslims took over in the 15th century and today a tiny handful of Turks are Christian.  Modern Tunisia was once a heavily Christian nation (Tertullian called it home); today the church is all but gone (see photo below). All around the globe are skeletons of churches that once were, and are no more.

Tunisia - ruins of the ancient church in the shadow of today's mosque

Tunisia – ruins of the ancient church in the shadow of a modern mosque

Let’s not cling to the notion that all who are persecuted act nobly: tribulation reveals the faithful, but it pushes others to the breaking point. And as Jesus said, “the love of many will grow cold” – even in the persecuted areas today one can find sectarianism, denominationalism, pettiness, lack of vision, lack of vision for the lost.

There is a quote attributed to James T. Draper Jr., who was president of the Southern Baptists and later of LifeWay Christian Resources. Draper had contacts with the house church movement in China. Under the banner headline, “Persecuted Chinese Christians Praying for Revival of America,”

Draper quoted the prominent leader in the rapidly expanding Chinese house church movement, ‘Stop praying for persecution in China to end, for it is through persecution that the church has grown.’

In the same article:

The Chinese house church leader further stated, ‘We, in fact, are praying that the American church might taste the same persecution, so revival would come to the American church like we have seen in China.’

This quote has been circulating since at least 2005, although it is still be quoted as recent news. I have no reason to doubt its basic veracity, but it should be noted that the statement has taken on a life of its own, becoming part of the oral tradition of the evangelical church in America. It may be the perspective of some, but it is not an obvious truth.

With ALL due respect to Chinese Christians, who suffer more in a week than most of us will suffer in a life-time – Please don’t ask us to cease from our duty of praying that China finds relief from persecution; please don’t pray that America church be persecuted; please do pray that we will have revival.

Every Christian must be ready for tribulation and, in my eschatology, the Great Tribulation. But persecution is not the only, nor even the typical, environment in which revival takes place. If revival comes, it will be by means of prayer and repentance. A revitalized Christianity in America might follow persecution (as in China), lead to persecution (as in the Roman Empire, the English Reformation), be stifled by persecution (Turkey, Iraq, Tunisia, Spain, France), or have no visible correlation with persecution (as in most of the revivals throughout history). In this matter, may God’s will be done, not ours.

Let us not by like Quintus of Phrygia (above), taunting the Beast Persecution in order to demonstrate our spiritual bravado. Rather, let us all pray for a vital walk with Christ, ready for persecution and also ready for quiet times. Let’s renounce our obsession with prosperity, money, things, good feelings. Let’s live for Christ for today, not for some imagined future when we might have to risk it all; let us walk, empowered by the Spirit, as we live as members of a church revived and revitalized. 

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 Two),” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I really appreciate this thoughtful scholarship and reflection. I have often heard the quotes about the Chinese church praying for our persecution taught in my church. As an intercessor I have really struggled to reconcile Jesus’ prayer for the God’s will to be done on earth with statements about praying for persecution. Thank you for shedding light on a complex and poorly understood topic.

    • Thank you, Nancy! Sometimes we pass around traditions, and we really need to stop and ask “How do we know that X is true?”

  2. thank you for this, it is such a refreshing study for such a crazy world that we live in today. Bless you

  3. […] Does it really need to be said? Persecution is not good for what ails us (Part Two) […]

  4. Agree, so much is assumed, the Spirit of God is free to do as he choses and when and how, often the scriptures are used to try to formulate the behaviour of God based on our emotions rather than on his actual presence in his will, or response to one’s faith.

    Discernment is required from the Holy Spirit in order to have the mind of Christ in all these matters for sure. In expectation and awareness maybe the best state to be in, May faith may abound.

    FS

  5. Amen!


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