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.

No comments: