Saturday, June 29, 2013

Persecution in the 21st Century World (Persecution 101, #6)

This post is #6 of a series. For other posts please see here: #1 - #2 - #3 - #4 - #5 - #6 - #7 - #8 - #9

As we've seen when we defined persecution, the idea of a "persecuted church" and a "non-persecuted church" is somewhat of a misnomer. Because Satan hates Jesus, he mounts an intentional pursuit of every Christian in his long war against God. That pursuit takes many forms including spiritual warfare, oppression, and persecution.

However, the balance point of the definition is that there are certainly degrees of persecution - areas where overt rather than covert persecution is the norm, where the enemy of our souls is able to cause havoc with little to no intervention by the authorities that God established to fight such evil.

As we survey the landscape of the modern "persecuted church", we'll focus on these areas of extreme persecution. Never forget, though, that if you are a follower of Christ reading this blog, you, too, are part of the "persecuted church". As we meet some of the most hurting members of the body, pray that God will cause you to identify with them and meet them in their suffering. As Boyd-Macmillan observes: "Persecution is not an abstract tragedy. Persecution is always an individual tragedy first, and then it becomes a universal tragedy as the worldwide body shares and cares for the victim" (p 144).

Profile #1: Righteousness vs. Lawlessness: Latin America
Latin America is a predominantly Christian continent but has a shocking level of persecution. In Colombia alone, over 100 pastors have lost their lives since 1995. This violence and persecution in an overwhelmingly Christian region comes as a direct result of the church's vibrant commitment to righteousness. Essentially, lawlessness reigns and catches Christians in its grip in a variety of ways (see Boyd-MacMillan, 148-150):
  • Caciques: local bandits, often linked to drug lords, who see Christians as a threat to their bottom line financially. They control the local economy by instilling fear, and don't appreciate when someone refuses to buy alcohol and drugs after coming to Christ. 
  • Revolutionaries: Maoist insurgents still see Christians as peddling lies to the public and want to stop them. 
  • Religious extremists: The exponential growth of Protestantism on the continent has led to persecution from extremists (usually Catholic) in rural areas who want to deny evangelicals their legal rights out of jealousy over the growth.
  • Paramilitary groups: Privately funded groups working for drug lords, these groups force thousands of people to leave the land and massacre Christian villages. 
  • Governments: Military and police often suspect Christians of supporting insurgents or of being Communists due to their work with the poor. 
  • Witches and Satanists: These demonic influences are hostile to Christianity to an extreme. In Colombia, for example, 50 pastors are on a Satanist hit list. 
Profile #2: Fight for Dominance: Africa
African Christians - as well as the entire population - have suffered the ravages of war, genocide, and government mismanagement. The predominant areas of persecution, though, are centralized along the "Sahel Belt" where the two dominant religions of Christianity and Islam meet. North of this band, the nations are predominantly Muslim. The southern nations are generally Christian. Both groups have sought to expand among the animist peoples who practice traditional religion. Boyd-Macmillan paints a picture of the conflict: "With Christians comprising 48.4 percent of Africans, and Muslims 41 percent, it is the battle of the giants concentrated in small areas wherre Muslims and Christians overlap and compete to convert the few remaining animists.They are like elephants and tigers trying to drink from the same dwindling waterhole." (p. 171). African Christians report that their strongest churches are in these places of political hostility, intolerance, and cultural intimidation.

Profile #3: Fighting to Maintain Control: Asia
Asia is an incredibly diverse continent. It's also home to 75% of the world's population and 85% of the world's non-Christians. Overall, Christianity is only 7% of the population in these lands. Yet the church in Asia is strong, and very missional: Over 25,000 people a day are coming to Christ; Chinese Christians are seeking to mobilize 100,000 missionaries to go along the Silk Road from China to Jerusalem; and South Korea is second only to the United States in the number of missionaries sent to other lands. Persecution in Asia arises from four major domains, all of which seek to retain their control.

  • Buddhist Zone: Burma/Myanmar; Bhutan; Sri Lanka; Cambodia; and Thailand are countries where Buddhism either is the state religion or is  practiced by the majority of the population. In some areas, local Buddhist priests incite attacks on successful churches. In others, nationalistic monks challenge anyone of a religion other than Buddhism. And in Tibet, Christians experience a very different reality from the tolerance promoted abroad by the Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama. Some of the most shocking atrocities against Christians in the Buddhist Zone have come in Tibet. (see Boyd-MacMilland p. 185-186)
  • The Hindu Zone: India and Nepal are predominantly Hindu. In India, a low-caste Hindu loses privileges for converting to Christianity but retains those privileges if converting to another non-Hindu religion. Hindu extremists, often nationalistic, have burned churches, raped nuns, and killed missionaries. 
  • The Communist Zone: China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea. Persecution in China is much more subtle now than in years past, mainly centering around registering churches, bribes, and intimidation. Vietnamese pastors face imprisonment, and Laotian believers are pressured to recant. In North Korea, the situation is far more severe. Christians languish in work camps just for their faith, and Christians there are even forbidden to look heavenward! Extreme violence and starvation are considered the just "reward" for profession of faith in Christ. 
  • The Muslim Zone: Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Maldives.  In these nations, Muslim extremists seek to force the marginalization or expulsion of Christians. In the Maldives, for example, the only known Christians were rounded up in 1998 and interrogated to force their "return" to Islam. Indonesia has seen the death of more than 8000 people in Christian-Muslim violence on one of its islands since 1999. An internal conflict among Muslims in Indonesia has temporarily resulted in an approach of continued tolerance to non-Muslims, but the underlying tension remains and Christians are well aware that not all Muslims want to live side-by-side with Christians.

Profile #4: Postmodern, Post-Christian: The West
Persecution in the West - Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand - looks very different than persecution in other parts of the world. For one thing, the West is the only area of the world where Christianity's numbers are on the decline. An African Christian observed, "The world church is having a feast, but the West hasn't turned up at the table" (Boyd-MacMillan, 210). Persecution in the West typically doesn't look bloody, but it's no less serious. Christians are marginalized by an increasingly (and often intentionally) secular worldview which brings some presuppositions to the table - ideas that directly conflict with Scripture, setting up a certain challenge for those who adhere to Biblical faith:

  • Private Affair: The idea that faith is private and should not impact a person's public choices or actions. This is often called the "naked public square" approach (as opposed to an "open public square, where all ideas have an equal chance to be heard). 
  • Relativism: The idea that faith is a matter of opinion and preference is pervasive. While the idea that individuals are free to choose their beliefs is a basic tenet of free society, this type of relativism elevates the "human rights" of individuals to such an extreme that sharing one's faith is offensive - and increasingly challenged on legal grounds. 
  • Anti-minority church mindset: This is primarily a European issue, where ties remain between states and church traditions. Non-dominant religious groups of all stripes suffer persecution in these settings. 
  • Anti-Christian elites: There are some secular political elites who are intent on bringing a "neo-secular inquisition" (Professor Rocco Buttliglione's phrase, quoted in Boyd-Macmillan, p. 217) to professing Christians. One example from Europe demonstrates how this looks: Buttiglione, a devout Catholic, was nominated to the European Parliament as a justice commissioner in 2004. He was questioned about his private views on homosexuality and stated that he personally considered it sin but would never fail to uphold the civil rights of a homosexual. He was banned from office in an action that sent the message that a homosexual atheist could protect the rights of Christians, but a Christian could not be trusted to protect the rights of homosexuals. 
  • Anti-absolutes culture: Increasingly, the West is hostile toward religions with uncompromising ethical beliefs. There is an "anti-absolute militancy" (Boyd-MacMillan, p. 219) that presents several lies as norms. If these are challenged, marginalization and persecution occur.This anti-absolutes mindset is so strong that it led to France forcing legalized homosexual marriage on its population, who overwhelmingly opposed the bill and took to the streets in protest. 

Profile #5: The Disappearing Church: The Middle East
One of the most common myths I hear about persecution is that it always results in the growth of the church. Certainly growth can result, but as Boyd-MacMillan observes, "Persecution usually occurs because the church is doing something right" (p. 58). Persecution is, generally speaking, the enemy's way of lashing out at a growing and expanding church. What happens as a result of the persecution can lead to further growth - or deepen the challenges of a region.

Today's Middle East is an excellent case study. The Gospel first took root in this part of the world and Christians were a strong presence throughout the centuries since it was established, even after the rise of Islam. In some cities and regions they even retained a majority, yet today Christians are a rapidly dwindling minority due to persecution, war, and financial pressures. Just a few examples:

  • In 1900 there were 40 million Muslims and 6.5 million Christians in the countries comprising the Middle East (15%). Today, there are 300 million Muslims and 12 million Christins (4 percent).
  • 20 years ago, there were  1.2 million Christians in Iraq. Today there are fewer than 350,000. 
  • In 1950, Christians were 15% of the population of the West Bank and Gaza. Today, they make of less than 2% of a much smaller population, leaving only about 60,000 Christians. Furthermore, two cities that were predominantly Christian before 1948 (Ramallah and Bethlehem) now have only a minority Christian population.
  • Turkey was 30% Christian in 1900; today there are only 200,000 Christians in this nation of 62 million.
  • In Lebanon, the Christian population dropped from 75 to 35% since 1900.
  • Syria has long had a population of 10-30% Christian (figures vary widely) but the attacks over the past year have been largely targeted at areas where Christians are dominant. In one city commonly in the news, Homs, 90% of the Christian majority has fled due to persecution or threats.
Some ask how this is any different than Acts 8, when the persecution caused the church and the Gospel to spread. The differences are twofold: (1) In Acts 8, the church fled from a reached area to an unreached. Most fleeing the Middle East leave for Muslim-minority countries with higher degrees of access to the Gospel - mostly reached countries. (2) In Acts 8, a core remained behind to lead the church in Jerusalem. We know this from Paul's experience when he went up to Jerusalem after being converted and was taken by Barnabas to the apostles. We also know from Paul's missionary journeys that a church remained in Jerusalem, albeit under persecution. The witness was not removed. In today's Middle East, the goal of those opposing the church is to completely eradicate the Christian presence.

These few examples illustrate the problem facing the Middle East today and do not even touch on the silencing effect such persecution has on those who choose to stay. While there are many hungry for a true relationship with God, there are fewer and fewer Christians left to evangelize, much less disciple, those who want to know more about Jesus. An additional challenge arises when a church is "burned" by false converts who then report the church's efforts to authorities.

This also demonstrates the vital importance of prayer. As we will see in a later study, praying for deliverance is Biblical! Praise God, though, that even though persecution may not result in "growth", God still redeems it for His purposes.

As we end this lesson, please pray for all those who are persecuted to have divine wisdom to know what to do. We cannot judge their choices to stay or leave, to be outspoken or secret believers. We must trust the Holy Spirit in their lives and pray faithfully, remembering the words of John Bunyan:
Thou mayest do in this as it is in thy heart. If it is in thy heart to fly, fly; if it be in thy heart to stand, stand. Anything but a denial of the truth. He that flies, has warrant to do so; he that stands, has warrant to do so. Yea, the same man may both fly and stand, as the call and working of God with his heart may be. Moses fled, Ex. 2:15; Moses stood, Heb. 11:27. David fled, 1 Sam. 19:12; David stood, 1 Sam. 24:8. Jeremiah fled, Jer. 37:11-12; Jeremiah stood, Jer. 38:17. Christ withdrew himself, Luke 19:10; Christ stood, John 18:1-8. Paul fled, 2 Cor. 11:33; Paul stood, Act 20:22-23. . . . 
There are few rules in this case. The man himself is best able to judge concerning his present strength, and what weight this or that argument has upon his heart to stand or fly. . . . Do not fly out of a slavish fear, but rather because flying is an ordinance of God, opening a door for the escape of some, which door is opened by God’s providence, and the escape countenanced by God’s Word, Matt. 10:23. . . .
If, therefore, when thou hast fled, thou art taken, be not offended at God or man: not at God, for thou art his servant, thy life and thy all are his; not at man, for he is but God’s rod, and is ordained, in this, to do thee good. Hast thou escaped? Laugh. Art thou taken? Laugh. I mean, be pleased which [how]soever things shall go, for that the scales are still in God’s hand.
John Bunyan, Seasonable Counsels, or Advice to Sufferers, p. 726

Your turn: Did you learn something new? What area of the world did God place on your heart as you read this quick overview of persecution? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Boyd-MacMillan, Ronald. Faith that Endures: The essential guide to the persecuted church.Revell, 2006. 
Bunyan, John. Seasonable Counsels, or Advice to Sufferers, p. 726

Friday, June 07, 2013

The Pattern of Persecution (Persecution 101, #5)

This post is #5 of a series. For other posts please see here: #1 - #2 - #3 - #4 - #5 - #6 - #7 - #8 - #9

Groups who study religious persecution on a global scale have found a disturbing truth emerge: millions of people are not needed for intense persecution to begin.

That might sound strange to us in the West, familiar with news programs showing marching mobs and burning flags. But when religious persecution is analyzed, it can frequently be broken down into a predictable pattern. As we examine this pattern, please remember that while our study is Christian persecution, this same pattern can be seen in other types of religious persecution, as we will see in today's example.

According to Boyd-MacMillan, a climate of persecution is usually created by "a tiny elite who manipulate handpicked mobs and ... manufacture a chaos that leverages them into power." (p. 45).
The recurring pattern is simple:

- A power vacuum -  exploited by extremists. Extremism always needs a power vacuum. Typically, extremists are invited into power when moderates fail. Essentially, extremists end up center stage because of a failure in the forces of moderation.

- A villain - created by extremists allowing them to establish a strategy to come to power
- A lie
- A mob - organized to instigate chaos. Often, supposed "spontaneous" violence is actually often highly organized and superbly planned (p 54).
- A megaphone to repeat the lie loudly and often

It's vital to watch for this pattern in the early stages, whether with Christians or other minority religious populations, because there is a "creeping" nature to persecution. In fact, Boyd-MacMillan states that historically three facts emerge related to persecution:
- It rarely happens in the way expected.
- It often comes out of the blue - people are blindsided with it.
- "When it comes, we see that we are partially responsible for its appearance." (v. 45) This doesn't mean Christians "ask for it" but often that there are signs that could have stopped things sooner, had they responded differently. Syncretism, compromise, allowing the opposition to define terms, and handing over rights are some actions that smooth the path for persecutors, making it easier for them to do their evil deeds.
A familiar example highlights this pattern at work (summary is mine from multiple readings over the past few years). In the 1920s-1930s Germany was bankrupt as a result of World War I. Nationalism was on the rise and political instability was growing, The moderates were unable to restore stability, and into this power vacuum stepped an extremist with an agenda: Adolf Hitler. Hitler created a villain by playing on people's nationalism and fears, laying blame for numerous problems in Germany at the feet of the Jewish people. As he expanded his reach, he used a series of lies to exploit incidents by blaming them on Jews, and repeated those lies through the megaphone of his propaganda campaigns. Before going into a country he sent individuals ahead to organize mobs to make the supposed support for Germans to be part of the Reich seem stronger, instilling fear into leaders of small countries and gaining capitulation. By the time registration of Jews began, the argument made sense to enough people that many of Hitler's evil plans proceeded right before the eyes of the people who would not have agreed to "genocide".

During this time, the church in Germany was largely silent, some out of fear and others out of direct complicity with the state's goals. Some estimates are that only 20% of the churches were members of the Confessing Movement, openly defying the state's orders to display Nazi flags, excommunicate Jewish Christians, and other commands. In an effort to take responsibility for the appearance of extremism in Germany, one resistance pastor, Martin Niemoller, insisted on a clause to be added to the 1946 Stuttgart Declaration of the Evangelical Church of Germany: "With great anguish we state: Through us inestimable suffering was inflicted on many peoples and lands" (Boyd-MacMillan, 45, italics his).

"Through us." Those words were controversial but they underscore the reality that Boyd-MacMillan finds: When we don't see the pattern, we become part of the problem of bringing extremism into power. Niemoller expressed his personal experience in one of the most stunning paragraphs of the post-war era:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me. (p. 46)
So what do these patterns look like in modern Christian persecution? We'll consider that in the next couple of sessions.

YOUR TURN:  Is your brain churning as you think of historical and current events that fit this pattern, or times when you've seen exceptions to it? Share your insights in the comments!

Boyd-MacMillan, Ronald. Faith that Endures: The essential guide to the persecuted church. Revell, 2006. 

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Sources of Persecution (Persecution 101, #4)

This post is #4 of a series. For other posts please see here: #1 - #2 - #3 - #4 - #5 - #6 - #7 - #8 - #9

As we've already seen, the Biblical definition of persecution is broad-based. The Apostles didn't really limit what persecution might look like in a believer's life. Similarly, the New Testament doesn't limit persecution to one particular source. In fact, the New Testament demonstrates five sources of individual persecution (Boyd-MacMillan, 105-108):
  1. The state (Rome; Herod; etc.) 
  2. The religious elite (Jewish priests/Pharisees; etc.) - often the religious elite (of Christianity or of a rival religion) is the group that feels most threatened by radical Christian faith
  3. Families (Jesus' warning in Matthew 10:35-36; His own experience as noted in John 7:3-5)
  4. Merchants/economic establishment (Acts 16 and Acts 19)
  5. Mobs (Acts 17; see especially verse 5)

As we read the New Testament, we see that most of the time, these forces worked in combination. For example, the religious elite Sanhedrin manipulated Pontius Pilate to bring about Jesus' crucifixion. Paul and Silas's quick exit from Ephesus was precipitated by angry merchants who stirred up a mob. The man in John 9 whom Jesus gave sight was confronted with questions from the religious elite who had involved his family in the controversy.

Similarly, modern persecution typically stems from a combination of these factors (Boyd-MacMillan, 69-81). It's critical to distinguish these strands, in order to provide the most effective type of assistance. We'll use China as an example throughout, to show how these different strands can appear within the same society, but it's important to note that none of these factors are limited to China. We see them woven throughout persecution stories around the world.
  1. Ideology - Persecution based on a desire to "re-educate" or otherwise squash opposition to a primary school of thought. The extreme persecution in China during the 1950s-1970s was largely ideological persecution. Today, however, the persecution in China has shifted away from this emphasis and in general is much less extreme.
  2. Government - This type of persecution stems not from an ideology but from a desire to hold on to power. Governments that fear opposition will suppress any group that acts independently - Christian, Muslim, Mormon, or non-religious. The persecution of Chinese house churches that refuse to register is an example of governmental persecution.
  3. Family - When becoming a Christian means the new believer faces choices that feel threatening to the family, this type of persecution can arise. Familial persecution is one of the hardest forms to endure, for it strikes at the heart of a person's identity in much of the world. Also, most of the world places a huge emphasis on extended family, so familial persecution can actually have a further reaching impact than other types. When you add in the reality that often the persecution is based on areas where Christians find disagreement (such as whether to destroy household idols belonging to another family member), the believer persecuted by family members can often feel quite alone. In China, familial persecution is "massive", in Boyd-MacMillan's words. Women especially feel the brunt of this, since 70% of house church members are women. Chinese culture permits spousal abuse, and so a woman beaten by her husband because of her faith will find little support.
  4. Culture - Cultural persecution occurs when a surrounding group of people determine that a Christian should suffer for his or her faith. In China this often occurs within small villages. In one community, a couple came to faith and destroyed their household idols. Soon their two-year-old son was killed in an accident. The villagers sought protection from similar tragedies by placing household idols everywhere - but of course, the newly Christian couple no longer had household idols. The villagers didn't ask them to give up faith - just to put up an idol for protection for the sake of the entire village. When they refused, everything bad that happened in the village was blamed on the dead son's spirit and on the Christian couple who rejected the idolatry. Ultimately, no one would even sell them goods at market, and so they were forced to leave the village where their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years.
  5. Church/religious elite - Boyd-MacMillan underscores the harsh reality of this type of persecution when he writes that from the 3rd to 19th centuries, "the biggest persecutor of the church was, well, the church! Calvinist slaughtered Anabaptist. Catholic slaughtered Protestant in the Inquisition" (p. 76). In fact, he notes many have learned that "the price of being true to the Gospel is sometimes to forsake the church" (p. 134). Within China, persecution OF the church BY the church takes three forms: 1) Jealousy which leads to some older pastors of official churches collaborating with authorities against younger pastors; 2) Church factions within official churches where influential members partner with security personnel to forcibly remove pastors; and 3) Attacks from one strand of house church leaders against leaders from a different strand of house churches.
  6. Corrupt Individuals - Typically the motivation for persecution by corrupt individuals is money - either individuals hoping to profit from the persecution, or others taking revenge for financial losses they blame on the church. Within China, Boyd-MacMillan (79) observes, an increase in the number of arrests occurs around the lunar new year - and these individuals can get out of jail by paying hefty fines.
  7. "Over boldness" - Boyd-MacMillan (79-80) uses this term to describe Christians living or trying to minister in a hostile context who act rashly or recklessly. In China, this happened when a Western mission went into China and blanketed the cities where they landed with thousands of Gospel tracts. In this particular incident, a Western Christian couple who lived in the area were blamed for the tracts and kicked out of the country - after living there for three years, living out the Gospel in practical ways. Sometimes the individual who is over zealous never sees the impact of his or her actions while others bear the brunt of the persecution. 
These seven factors weave together the threads of persecution across a variety of sources and countries. On a global scale, patterns of persecution can be traced back to four major sources (Boyd-MacMillan, 123-142):

  1. Religious nationalism - This type of persecution argues that the purity of the religion is at stake. The more religion is considered important in these societies, the more the government tries to control it. This may not necessarily stem from non-Christian religions; for example in some Eastern European countries, Orthodox priests are the leaders in blocking new evangelical churches from forming. In India, Hindu nationalists cause much of the persecution of Christians.
  2. Islamic extremism - This is pan-national and can be traced to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran. From that date we see an increase in direct state persecution, communal violence, and attacked by radical Islamic terrorists. Because Christianity is the main evangelistic competitor to Islamic extremists, it bears the brunt of this extremism; however, minority Muslim sects and other non-Muslim religions also face persecution. 
  3. Insecurity (totalitarian and power struggle) - We see totalitarian insecurity result in persecution mainly in Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea. Most have adopted a "squeeze, don't smash" approach to the Christians in their lands. Within Africa, Latin America, and other parts of Asia, there is persecution from those who feel a need to retain power (drug warlords, tribal chieftains, etc.) as opposed to state persecution. 
  4. Secular intolerance - This is an increasing form of persecution in the West. Secular intolerance can be traced back to the Enlightenment's theory of values vs. facts - essentially a two-tier thought process where values could be distinguished from facts and were expected to be considered separately. We see this, for example, in the debate over evolution. "That's an issue of faith and outside the scientific realm" some might say about the existence of God; while others would say, "I believe in the science of evolution - that's not in the faith realm. But in my faith realm I believe that somehow God was involved." (Pearcey).  This false dichotomy has resulted in a shift in the object of tolerance. Originally, the idea of religious tolerance was promoted to limit the state. Government was expected to "tolerate" all religions. The limit was not placed on the church, but on the state, with an expectation to treat all religions equally. Increasingly today, however, the object of religious tolerance is the individual. Each individual in a secular society is expected to treat all religions as equal. Over time, this has had the effect of privatizing faith (separating personal faith from public actions) and minimizing the differences between religions. 
 Paul wrote, "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted". The reality for every single believer in Jesus Christ is that some form of persecution will happen over the course of a faithful lifetime. How Christians handle it, individually and corporately, requires much prayer and discernment. As a Chinese pastor wisely stated: "Some kinds of persecution you have to fight with all your might; and some kinds you have to embrace with all your heart."

Your turn: We're about halfway through our study. What's been eye-opening to you? What's been challenging? What questions do you have that we can discuss in future lessons? I want to hear from you!!


Boyd-MacMillan, Ronald. Faith that Endures: The essential guide to the persecuted church. Revell, 2006. 

Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity. Crossway, 2004.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Tours of Duty - What is Persecution? (Perscution 101, #3)

This post is #3 of a series. For other posts please see here: #1 - #2 - #3 - #4 - #5 - #6 - #7 - #8 - #9 

I have a dear friend whose husband is a career military officer. Over the 18 or so years he's been on active duty, they've had seasons when he was assigned tours of duty in combat zones while his family stayed stateside. During other seasons, he was assigned to risky non-combat zones where his family could not join him; at still other times he was assigned to international posts and lived there with his family. Along the way they have also been blessed with several tours of duty at various posts stateside - seasons when they lived in houses off base and he drove in to his job just like you or I might do every day.

Throughout all these tours of duty, though, he was always a soldier. Since most of his service has been post 9/11, he has always remembered that just wearing the uniform made him a target. Even when serving in the "safest" job stateside, he knew that he was part of something bigger than himself. He knew that he shared common enemies with his fellow soldiers throughout the world. He never forgot that the tour of duty to which he was assigned did not define him. Even today, he knows he is a soldier and is willing to follow through on all that means.

Among the many analogies scripture gives us about our faith, the analogy of a soldier is one linked directly with suffering:
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. (2 Timothy 2:3-4)
As we discuss various definitions of persecution today, I ask you to keep this analogy in mind. By the end of today's lesson, I hope that we can each better identify with the "persecuted church" as we realize that we are also involved in the same battle.

What is persecution? Legal definitions
Most modern nation-states look to Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations document, for guidance on their legal definitions of persecution. This document uses the phrase "violations of religious freedom" and guarantees that all peoples should have the following rights:
- The right to believe
- The right to practice those beliefs
- The right to transmit those beliefs to their offspring
- The right to spread their faith
- The right to change religions

Article 18 is not limited to violation of Christian religious freedom. This is important to note, for while Christians are heavily persecuted, minority religions throughout the world often face persecutions in similar patterns. For example, more Muslims than Christians have died at the hands of Muslims. Muslim sectarian violence often follows similar patterns that we will discuss when we look at the pattern of persecution. As we become aware of potential "hot spots" for persecution, we should watch for ways any minority religion is treated. For the purposes of this study, however, we will consider definitions of Christian persecution for the remainder of this post.

From a legal perspective, and even within the church, there is no common agreement on a definition of persecution. One reason for this is that the word "persecution" has political consequences. For example, Chinese authorities accused of jailing Christians to "persecute them" will defend themselves by saying, "This isn't persecution. They have broken the law." Another challenge to legally defining persecution is that from a legal viewpoint, there is a difference between the right to believe (generally considered absolute, as even oppressive societies will claim they give citizens this right) and the right to exercise that belief (always conditional, even within the most free society - someone whose religious beliefs require human sacrifice, to give an extreme example, would find themselves limited in the ability to practice those beliefs). (Boyd-MacMillan, 85-90). The line between religious freedom and the responsibility to society is constantly fluctuating within any culture.

Two broad legal approaches to persecution have emerged. One school of thought uses the word to describe any violation of religious freedom. An example of this approach is David Limbaugh's book Persecution, which highlighted abuses of the "separation of church and state principle" (Boyd-MacMillan, 90). The second school of thought limits the definition of persecution to "extreme, gross violation of one's religious freedom, such as torture and imprisonment".  Michael Horowitz, a Jewish lawyer who has advocated for Christian liberty and helped with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, prefers this second approach. He sees the struggle American Christians face as no different from the fight for rights that goes on with any minority group within a democracy, and that Christians have a mechanism to fight those violations. He states, "To whine about persecution here [in the United State] only dilutes the desire to do something about it elsewhere....The idea of equating what we go through with what they go through in North Korea or China or Pakistan or Sudan or Cuba is wrong." (quoted in Boyd-MacMillan, 91).

These different approaches have led to inconsistent usage of the term "persecution". Organizations that work within the world of persecution are beginning to delineate "phases" of persecution, including disinformation, harassment, discrimination, reductions in religious freedom, as well as outright hostility and systemic targeting of religious populations. It's also worth noting that even those who advocate a broader definition of the word "persecution" recognize that there are different degrees of persecution. It's important to realize, though, that a consensus of the definition of "persecution" is still evolving (Boyd-MacMillan, 92); as we read about persecution we should be aware of the perspective of the author to best understand the meaning behind his or her words.

Article 18 of the UDHR lays out a legal foundation. However, it completely ignores the spiritual dimensions of Christian persecution. A Biblical understanding will round out the definition.

What is persecution? A Biblical Overview 

To most effectively draw principles for a theology of persecution, we must understand what persecution truly is. Technically, persecution is defined as “the systematic attempt to suppress or to exterminate Christianity by social pressure to the point of violence” (Adeyemo, 1979: 23-24). Some church leaders promote a definition of persecution that requires the motive to be solely religious. However, Schirrmacher notes that in the New Testament and early church, persecution for “purely religious” motives was rare. Instead, political, cultural, national, economic, and personal motives mixed with religious ones to create “a confusing blend of religious concerns with cultural and social problems” (Schirrmacher, 2001:17) – a situation seen in most of the persecutions of the modern era.

Mixed motives can readily be seen in some of the prominent persecutions of the New Testament: Paul ministered in Ephesus for two years openly, but persecution came when the converts quit purchasing idols and caused financial concerns (Acts 19:23-20:2). Paul’s later arrest in Jerusalem was precipitated by a violent Jewish crowd. Roman authorities, seeking to maintain political peace in the region, arrested him to find out why the crowd was upset (Acts 23:24).

The meaning of “persecution” is frequently misunderstood. Michael Wilkins observes two common misunderstandings: 1) Persecution is a radical commitment for the spiritual elite; 2) Persecution is the “highest form of spirituality.” Against both of these Wilkins points out the teaching of the early church fathers: “All Christians are disciples, hence, the radical nature of discipleship displayed by Ignatius is a personal extension of his own Christian life.” Wilkins proposes a third understanding of persecution: a radical commitment to Christ in difficult circumstances – even martyrdom – seen by the disciple as “a natural extension of the Christian life” (Wilkins, 1991: 332-334).

One term that seems to link persecution with discipleship is summatheetees, or “fellow-disciple.” This term appears in Martyrdom of Polycarp as the author prays that he would become a “fellow-disciple” in martyrdom. This word in rare in Hellenistic and early Christian usage, but does occur once in the New Testament, in John 11:16 where John records Thomas’ words upon Jesus’ heading toward Jerusalem: “Thomas…said to his fellow disciples (summatheetees), ‘let us also go, that we may die with Him.’” Interestingly, both the John reference and the Polycarp reference are in martyr contexts (Wilkins, 1991:319).

Paul’s observation of the certainty of persecution to those who desire to live godly lives (2 Tim. 3:12) uses a different term, dioko. From the root dio, “to flee”, this word is used in Paul’s writings for both “persecution” and “follow after.” It seems to denote a pursuit, an intentional action by those who carry out the action. Persecution can thus be said to be related to the intentional pursuit of a Christian. This pursuit, we will see, comes not from the human agents involved but is part of a larger spiritual war. Boyd-MacMillan (103) observes that an "ungodly trinity" pursues the Christian: the world, our flesh, and Satan. He notes that dioko is linked to the idea of "to pursue" and illustrates two ways that persecution goes back to Satan's war against God: 1) It is about trying to get to Christ through His followers. We are the victims, not the object of persecution; and 2) It is universal. Satan wants to destroy God's creation. According to his understanding of Revelation 12:13, Satan has been persecuting the church since the birth of Christ.

Scripture portrays as persecution various forms of suffering other than martyrdom. The ostracism experienced by the healed man expelled from the temple (John 9) is contrasted with those who failed to openly speak of Jesus because “they loved the approval of men more than the approval of God” (John 12:43). 1 Peter, written to persecuted Christians, uses the generic term “suffering” far more frequently, though in 4:12-13 Peter makes clear that their “fiery ordeal” is sharing in the sufferings of Christ.

Peter repeatedly uses the word pasko, translated “suffer.” This verb is used in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts to refer to the literal, physical sufferings of Christ – in the KJV it is even translated “Passion” in Acts 1:3. Paul uses the term to refer to sharing in the sufferings of Christ, noting that one part of the body cannot suffer without the rest of the body feeling that suffering. But Peter uses the word the most, building I Peter around the theme of suffering. For Peter, there are two types of suffering: suffering for the sake of Christ, and suffering for one’s own sinful choices.

Outright, blatant persecution in the form of arrest and torture with possible martyrdom is actually one of the last steps in a process that begins with dislike, social pressure, and even political policy and personal ambition (Osborne, 1999:72-1). Osborne calls persecution a ‘form of hatred’ (Osborne, 1999:72-2). Tson concurs, seeing arrest and torture as only one type of “suffering for Christ” (Tson, 1997:424). He explains:
[Suffering for Christ] begins when one leaves close relatives for the service of Christ. For some, it means selling their possessions and giving them to the poor, which often means giving them for the propagation of the gospel. For others, suffering for Christ may mean agonizing in prayer for the cause of Christ, or agonizing and toiling for the building up of the body of Christ and the perfecting of the saints….suffering for Christ is not a self-inflicted suffering (Tson, 1997:424).
Thus, persecution can be broadly defined as any suffering that would not occur apart from a radical commitment to Christ. But there is a second component to the definition that we will now consider: this radical commitment attracts an intentional pursuit of the Christian in a spiritual war.

The book of Revelation, written from the viewpoint of a Christian enduring persecution to other Christians during a time of persecution (Johnstone, 1978: 3), contains a message that supersedes all of the eschatological arguments that it has engendered over the years. In Revelation, we see God’s victory in and through the church. We see God sovereign over history. We see the successful outcome of all missions efforts as worshippers gather around the throne from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people group. And significantly, we see that this victory is achieved “neither by power, wealth, or force, but through the authority of Jesus, by the Word of God, by the Holy Spirit, and by prayer” (Schirrmacher, 2001: 20).

The word group martur/martus (“witness” or “martyr”) plays a significant role in the book of Revelation. Within its 22 chapters, some form of this word is used 17 times. Even Jesus is identified twice as martur/martus (1:5; 3:14). This introduction sets the tone for the entire book: Jesus is the “Forerunner and Pioneer of the ones who are facing the threat of torture and execution for their faith. Yet He is not only their Forerunner into death; He is also their Forerunner out of that death by the fact of His resurrection” (Tson, 1997: 271-272).

The word “martyr” is used more broadly in Scripture than someone who dies because of Christian faith. The Greek martus originally meant “witness,” and over time came to mean one whose witness for their faith resulted in death (Ruffin, 1985: 1). The verb martureo encompasses the ideas of both truth and Scripture. Its meaning includes “Christ-like values, such as faithfulness, truth, witness, and lifestyle. Eventually, even ‘death-style’ is subsumed” in the connotation of the word (Tallman, 2000: 602). J. Ray Tallman further notes that “The word does away with any distinction of what a true believer might live and die for. Death does not stop the witness given. It merely adds an exclamation point of truth, faithfulness, and love for the glory of God. It is the supreme witnessing act” (Tallman, 2000:602).

Throughout the book of Revelation, ‘witnessing’ leads to martyrdom to such an extent that Josef Tson says, “The essence of being a Christian prophet is expressing Christ by one’s words, lifestyle, endurance, and ultimately martyrdom” (Tson, 1997: 288). Revelation makes no distinction between those “persecuted because of their faith” and those “persecuted for their active support of justice” (Schirrmacher, 2001:18). Thus a martyr can be considered “a Christian who suffers death of his own free will, as the penalty for the confession of his faith or the refusal to deny it or one of its dogmas, principles, or practices” (Schirrmacher, 2001: 18).

Revelation has been called “a martyrological document” (Weinrich, 1981: 73; Johnstone, 1978: 3). William Weinrich notes that a continual reference to the persecuted and the martyrs is consistent with Revelation’s overall understanding of Christian existence: “the eschatological war in which Satan is the true enemy” (Weinrich, 1981: 73).

A consistent theme throughout the book of Revelation is that “bearing witness” is linked closely to the word of God and the “witness” or “testimony” of Jesus. John’s role in recording the Revelation was to bear witness to God’s Word and Jesus’ testimony (1:2); John is on Patmos because of God’s Word and the testimony of Jesus (1:9); the souls under the altar had been slain because of the word of God and the “testimony” they maintained (6:9); those who overcame Satan did so because of the blood of the Lamb, the word of their “testimony,” and not loving their life (12:11); the dragon makes war with the saints who keep the commandments of God and hold to the “testimony” of Jesus (12:17); and finally, the souls John saw had been beheaded because of the “testimony” of Jesus and the word of God – they along with the faithful came to life and reigned with Christ for 1000 years (20:4). The juxtaposition of these ideas makes clear that those who are “witnesses” for Christ do so on the firm ground of God’s Word – not their own ideas or traditions – and they maintain this “testimony” through obedience to God’s commands. In other words, not only do they preach the message, they live it. And in the living of the message, sometimes they die.

Yet it is in death that Scripture calls them conquerors (Rev. 12:11). These were individuals who entered fully into the battle of world evangelization and the spiritual warfare it entails. For them, Jesus was Savior and Lord, and both their faith and evangelism were not cheap. Brother Andrew writes of the significance of a strong Christianity that embraces this spiritual battle:
Weak Christianity is very often the result of cheap evangelism….God’s plan is to establish the testimony of Jesus firmly in the world today….World evangelism means spiritual warfare. When we enter into spiritual warfare, we begin to understand why whole areas of the world are closed off from the preaching of the Gospel, why whole nations seem to be in the grip of the evil one, why there is persecution….If we don’t see the spiritual warfare, then by failing to see it we tend to switch over to alternatives within our reach. Then we fail to attempt the impossible (Andrew, 1979: 140-141).
Josef Tson concurs with Brother Andrew’s emphasis on the spiritual battle as reflected in Revelation. Tson interprets Revelation as “the entire history of the Christian church, from the time of Christ on the earth to the time of the final victory of Christ and His church” (Tson, 1997: 284). From this perspective, he sees an ongoing war that Satan makes against the church, which God allows for two purposes: 1) Bringing the nations to God; 2) Allowing the martyrs to participate in the ongoing battle that will end in Satan’s defeat (Tson, 1997: 292).

Tson sees the letters to the seven churches as representing various aspects of the spiritual war (Tson, 1997:276-277). The church at Smyrna was obviously a persecuted church and will be examined more fully below, but Revelation portrays the other churches as being engaged in the battle as well. In my own inductive study of the churches from this perspective, I observed that Ephesus fought the battle of truth (2:2); Pergamum faced warfare so obvious that John said it existed “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13); Thyatira encountered false teachers who presented “the deep things of Satan” (2:24); Sardis faced a battle for her very spiritual life (3:1); Philadelphia encountered “the synagogue of Satan” (3:9); and Laodicea was losing the spiritual battle because of materialism and apathy (3:15, 17).

Smyrna was the church known specifically for its persecution and death (2:8-11). They were encouraged to be faithful to death for the 10 days of tribulation they would face. For the first century persecuted church reading this passage, the reference held a very distinct meaning. Prison in this time was for detention prior to trial; after trial they were sent to exile, labor camp, or death. During trial, individuals who claimed not to be a Christian were expected to pick up incense and put it onto a flame while claiming “Caesar is Lord.” Those who refused to do so were tortured for an entire day. If they survived, an execution order was issued. However, to avoid sending them to death with open wounds that the public would be able to see, authorities detained Christians in prison until the wounds at least began to heal – a process that took about 10 days. Prison in the first century Roman Empire was a brief holding place until public execution. The Christians in Smyrna were likely being prepared for torture and martyrdom. The admonition to be faithful unto death would have been significant to them, as well as to readers of John’s day (Tson, 1997: 275).

However, in the context of Revelation’s emphasis on martus/martur, Tson observes that this was not merely a call to die, but a call to witness (Tson, 1997: 276). He expounds: “Moreover, they were also assured that they would defeat Satan by their martyrdom, again just as Jesus had done. Their victory would come through death” (Tson, 1997: 276). Smyrna’s role in the spiritual battle required them to pay the ultimate price.

Perhaps because of the emphasis on the spiritual war and martyrdom throughout Revelation, John begins with a strong reminder of the sovereignty of God. Nine of the 10 New Testament references to God as “the Almighty” (ho pantokrator) occur in Revelation (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:2; 16:7; 16:14; 19:6; 19:15; 21:22). Jesus shares this supremacy; John introduces Him as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). Read from the perspective of a persecuted believer, Revelation’s message is clear: “The kings of the earth are the ones who are persecuting the Christians; however, Christ is their ruler!” (Tson, 1997: 272-273).

Even in death, the sovereignty of God so emphasized throughout Revelation assures believers of ultimate victory. Josef Tson has written about the persecution he experienced in Romania:
For many years...I was groaning and saying ‘Lord, why?’...Now I have as the main pillar of my theology the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God means Satan at the end always finds out that he just promoted God’s cause. All God’s enemies combine to destroy His work, and they always discover at the end that they just promoted it. That’s the sovereignty of God (Schlossberg, 1991: 130-131).

Herbert Schlossberg comments that Tson’s insight underscores the importance of a well-rounded Biblical philosophy of history: “A theology of disaster that is true to a Biblical worldview recognizes the victory lurking behind every external setback to faithful followers of Christ” (Schlossberg, 1991: 130-131).

For Tson, who writes from the perspective of one who grew up under persecution in Romania, Revelation is encouraging. It shows Jesus Christ both reigning on His throne in heaven and present with His people in their affliction. He also knows their situation; each letter to the seven churches begins with the phrase “I know your…” following the introduction of Jesus (Tson, 1997: 272-273). Ultimately, Revelation serves as a reminder that God is sovereign, and that “His purposes are being fulfilled even by His own enemies. The Book of Revelation makes this truth shine with dazzling light” (Tson, 1997: 272-273).

That the battle is spiritual is underscored in other places in the New Testament. Paul explicitly tells the Ephesians that “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Boyd-MacMillan (112) observes that "principalities" here refers to Satan and his demons; while "powers" refers to earthly structures. Because Satan's goal is universal destruction of God's Creation and the church Christ died to build, he says that the demons work within earthly structures to get them serving Satan, instead of serving God. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Peter reminds his persecuted congregation that their adversary is “the devil,” who is actively seeking out prey “like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Like Revelation, Peter links the persecuted believers to a certain victory (1 Peter 5:10). Peter also reminds the church that they are not suffering alone, but that other believers around the world are suffering similarly – a reminder of the prevalence of persecution (1 Peter 5:9). Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road reminds us that the attacks are, ultimately, against Christ (Acts 9:4).

The recognition of persecution as part of Satan’s war against God is key to a strong Christianity in the face of battles. Without the recognition of the spiritual battle that rages, passivity and nominalism rise, and theological compromises are more prevalent (Schlossberg, 2001: 116-117). Schlossberg sees throughout all of Scripture the normalcy of persecution. The experiences of both Israel and the church teach today’s believers that “wherever people seek to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, they can expect to suffer persecution” (Schlossberg, 1991: 115). An awareness that today’s persecution is directly linked to that experienced by the New Testament and early church as part of the same spiritual war awakens today’s church to the truth that persecution is part of the heritage of the church.

The reality of suffering unites believers in non-persecuted countries with those who are being persecuted. Alan Neely aptly observes that a genuine Christian mission “in due time will involve suffering” (Neely, 2000: 915-916). Paul emphasizes that while suffering is part of discipleship, it is also a method of witness (2 Cor. 4:8-10). The regular emphasis on the body and blood of Christ in the Communion meal reminds us of the reality of Christ’s suffering – and should also remind us that this suffering “happens repeatedly outside as well as inside the walls of the church” (Neely, 2000: 915-916).

Paul’s words to Timothy that it is those who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus who will be persecuted underscores the radical claims of the gospel. Kenneth Scott Latourette observes that Jesus’ warning of persecution to those who would follow Him has consistently been fulfilled:
This is not so strange. So radical are the claims of the Gospel, so sweeping are its demands on the faithful, so uncompromising does it render those who yield themselves fully to it, that opposition and even persecution are to be expected….the dislike and the persecution which grew out of it were evidence that, as Jesus had said, in the Gospel something had entered the world with which the world was at enmity (Latourette, 1975: 81).
Summary Definition
So, as we move forward through this study, how should we define persecution? My study of the New Testament leads me to agree with Boyd-MacMillan that Scripture makes NO distinction between a persecuted church and a free church. Some experience suffering in different degrees, and those not suffering as severely are called to help those in difficult situations - but there every indication I see is that "persecution" or "suffering" is the normal life for a Christian. Boyd-MacMillan presents six reasons for his all-encompassing definition of persecution (pages 114-117):
1) The New Testament does not limit the word to extreme physical suffering. Instead, the verb form of persecution, "to pursue," focuses on the fact of the pursuit, not the results of it.
2) Scripture makes clear that every Christian should expect persecution (2 Timothy 3:12; Acts 14:22; Matthew 5:11; 1 Peter 4:12-13; 1 John 3:13).
3) Persecution is an outgrowth of a spiritual battle and as such, is not limited in location. He observes, "The hatred that spiritual forces bear toward Christ does not diminish in democracies." (p 115)
4) Throughout history, the church has embraced all types of hostility as forms of persecution.
5) Just because we are all "the persecuted church", we are not absolved from helping the "severely persecuted" who need our urgent assistance. In fact, recognizing that their suffering is an extension of the same battles we face should drive us further to action. As Boyd-MacMillan says, "The terrible danger is that Western Christians, who do not regard themselves as part of the persecuted church, often fail to see themselves in a spiritual battle at all. And those who are not aware of the fight are losing it."
6) If we limit the definite of persecution to its most extreme forms, we fail to address the causes of persecution. When we hold a broader definition, we are able to recognize patterns and address the roots of persecution. 

I thoroughly agree with these summaries. However, my biggest reason for a broad definition, outside Scripture itself, comes from the words of an elderly North Korean who fled the country in 1997: "If you limit persecution to those who are in jail or being beaten or having their property stolen, you are saying that all other Christians are dead. You see, the best and only way to know you are alive in Christ is when you are persecuted. The persecution proves Christ is within." (Boyd-MacMillan, p. 118).

Going back to the analogy we started with so many words ago: We are all given different "tours of duty" by our commanding officer. Those duty stations may change many times over the course of our lives. But always, always we remain engaged in the same battle as our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

So, I will conclude this post with two broad definitions of persecution: Ronald Boyd-MacMillan's, and my own. As we move forward, please keep these in mind.

 Ronald Boyd-MacMillan:"Christian persecution is any hostility, experienced from the world, as a result of one's identification with Christ. This can include hostile feelings, attitudes, words, and actions." (p. 114)

Rosa: Christian persecution is any suffering that would not occur apart from a radical commitment to Christ - a radical commitment attracts an intentional pursuit of the Christian in a spiritual war.
YOUR TURN: What do you think about these definitions? What is your definition of persecution? Talk to me through the comments!


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