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):
Profile #2: Fight for Dominance: Africa
- 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.
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.
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
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