Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dispelling the Myth of Beneficial Persecution

Last night, I began our mid-week Bible study's study of the Book of Acts. I began with a survey of the book and touched on who the author was (and why we know this), the date of the writing, the theme of the book, the outline and significant events that happen in Acts. Then, I touched on a personal pet peeve of mine: I talked about how persecution is a bad thing for the church. Now, that may not seem like such a revolutionary idea, but I have encountered plenty of folks who seem to think that persecution is a good thing for the Church. I have encounter this in a wide range of people, as well: from the average Christian up to the Seminary professor. I specifically remember attending a Bible study in college, where, when it came time to share prayer requests, one young lady requested that we pray that the Church be persecuted. I was shocked.

The reason I brought this up last night, as we began our study of Acts, is because I believe Acts give us examples of the success of the gospel and the growth of the Church, once persecution ceases. And, negatively, we have examples of times of persecution where we are not told that the Church grew. Let's look at a few of these passages.

First, examples of early church growth are found in Acts 2 (Pentecost sermon by Peter--3000 converted), Acts 5 ("Believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women" because of the the apostles' preaching in Solomon's Portico (5:14)), Acts 5:42-6:1 records the Apostles' tireless preaching "in the Temple, and in every house," and because of this "the number of disciples was multiplying," then in Acts 6 after the seven deacons were appointed to their tasks, we read that more disciples were added, including a great number of the priests (6:7), then, we come to the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7. There is no mention of church growth being caused by this persecution. As a matter of fact, the next thing that happens in chapter 8 is the church being scattered due to the persecution of Saul (8:1). However, note, that when Saul's persecution ends (through his conversion), "the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and...they were multiplied" (9:31). It is not persecution that causes the Church to grow, as if persecution is beneficial for the Church, but when the persecution ceases, then the Church grows. Of course, there are examples of the Church growing in the face of persecution, but in these cases, the Church grows in spite of the persecution, not because of it.

If you don't think the case of Saul is sufficient, then read Acts 12 and the case of Herod persecuting the Church. No where does it mention the church growing under this persecution, but, after Herod dies, "The word of Good grew and multiplied." (12:24).

Note also that the Proconsul in Paphos converts after Elymas the sorcerer, who opposed Paul and Barnabas, is blinded and no longer able to oppose them (Acts 13:4-12). The persecution of Elymas was not beneficial to the spread of the Gospel in Paphos. The silencing of the persecutor certainly was, though!

Now, all this is not to say that these persecutions recorded in Acts were somehow outside the will of God: obviously He ordained these things to come to pass for our ultimate benefit and His glory; however, I think it does trump the idea that persecution is a thing to be desired, sought after, and prayed for! What we ought to be praying for is that the Gospel can go forth freely and without resistance.


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  2. Good post, Seth. There is no directive or precedent in Scripture for praying that the Church be persecuted. When we pray "Thy kingdom come, They will be done, on earth..." we are asking that God accomplish His will for His kingdom on earth, and we know what that is: It is to grow like a mustard seed into a huge tree (Mat 13:31-32), and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the advance of the Church (Mat 16:18).

    And yet, when we look at places in the world where the growth of the Church appears to be on the decline, and contrast that with where the Church appears to be growing (at least according to reports), we see a comparable contrast of affluence and freedom with poverty, persecution, and oppression. Perhaps this is why people state that persecution is good for the Church.

    Having reflected on what you said in your post, along with what I stated above, I suggest that, perhaps, this is a more biblical analysis: In the midst of years of freedom and affluence, the Church in the West is on decline due to luke-warmness, apathy, error, and tolerance of Evil. Western priorities are out of whack. And the Church has voluntarily become like the world it was supposed to reach. So much for the errant "all things to all peoples" approach.

    If the reports about the third world are true, perhaps this is due to the fact that these people are daily forced to look at reality and order their priorities. They need their basic needs to be provided in order to survive each day, they need to be freed from oppression, they need a Savior. And so, there may very well be a greater interest in the things of God.

    And what these people need is to be freed from tyranny so that the Gospel may spread to them with greater ease. The cultures they live under have their own share of opportunities for sin. But ease often results in apathy, and apathy again provides an avenue for abandoning God.

    Christ came to set men free. That is why the true Christian faith has always sought for the spread of Christianity under freedom and not compulsion and led to the freeing of the peoples under which Christianity flourishes.

  3. A little contrarian perspective: "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church;" and *By Foot to China* by John M.L. Young on the advance of the gospel in the East through the preaching of the gospel via the Nestorians who were driven into Persia and further East to China and Japan. The Church of St. Thomas in India may trace its origins to the Nestorians. I would contend that persecution was a providential vehicle of God that got Christians out into the pagan world so that the church did grow. Should we pray for persecution is another issue altogether?

  4. But Nestorianism isn't Christianity. :P

    I was definitely thinking of the "blood of the martyrs" quote when I wrote my comment, but never fit it into what I was writing.

    You're absolutely right that God has used times of persecution in history to advance His kingdom here on earth. Another example that comes to mind is Foxe's Book of Martyrs that is full of stories of persecution that have served as an encouragement to many to stand firm and defend the Faith.

    In addition, I think it is worth mentioning that when the Church was first persecuted it scattered throughout the Mediterranean. God used this persecution to spread the Gospel throughout the known world.

    God sometimes uses hostility and persecution to accomplish His will in spreading the Gospel. Nevertheless, I don't think we find any warrant in Scripture for desiring persecution come uppon the Church.

  5. Yes, I completely agree that God sometimes uses hostility and persecution to accomplish His will. But, as you said, Van, I don't see any warrant in Scripture for desiring persecution (and I feel rather confident that if we were to ask a Christian in a persecuted country whether they would like to live under persecution or not, they would choose the latter).

  6. Vaughn: You said, "I would contend that persecution was a providential vehicle of God that got Christians out into the pagan world so that the church did grow."

    Yes! I agree. What men intend for evil, God often uses for good. That persecution has been used by God in the past for His own purposes, I make no argument against. However, desiring persecution makes as much sense to me as desiring that any other sin be allowed to go unchecked. I wonder if those who pray for persecution (and, I'm certainly not saying you are one of those, Vaughn) would also pray for adultery, murder, theft and blasphemy?

  7. Seth, this reminds me of something else I have experienced. I have encountered people who said we should ask God to bring us trials in order to strengthen our faith.

    Maybe its my carnal nature or my lack of sanctification, but I just can't seem to bring myself to to ask that God bring trials, suffering and persecution to me and my family so that we might grow through and as a result of them!

  8. Absolutely, and this accords with my own biblical and historical research. Even Tertullian, who spoke of positive results of persecution, demanded the end of it from the empire. People renounced Christ in the persecutions in the first three centuries.

    Take a look at Turkey and Tunisia today: two of the most desolate places spiritually on the globe (each has than than one-hundredth of 1% Christians), but before persecution they were two of the major centers of the faith.

    The evangelical church shrank, not grew, under the Soviets. Over the last century we have seen severe damage to the church in Albania, Japan, North Korea, South Sudan, Palestine, Iraq.

    If we want renewal, let's ask God for renewal, period.