Monday, June 03, 2013

Why Study Persecution? Some historical background (Persecution 101, #2)

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

On a hot July morning in Afghanistan, 23 South Korean Christian aid workers awoke with plans for a busy day of service. Their intentions were honorable: with a team of medical providers, they hoped to contribute in a small way to the international development initiatives in this war-torn country, demonstrating the love of Christ as they served. As they proceeded throughout their day on the rented bus, they never dreamed their world would change so abruptly. They soon became pawns in a political battle, their motives questioned and their lives endangered. By the end of the day, they were prisoners of the Taliban.

The sufferings endured by this portion of the body of Christ affected the rest of the body of Christ – some directly, as the believers’ home church organized prayer groups and gathered to await word of their fate; others indirectly, as field workers had to decide whether to continue plans to minister in Afghanistan or forego those plans in light of the escalating situation. The world watched the unfolding of their drama as the pastor and another man were killed and new stories displaced the updates from the headlines. The questions raised became a fresh reminder to the modern church that persecution is not relegated to the pages of the New Testament.

Need for awareness
For much of the world, persecution is a daily reality. David Barrett notes that martyrdom “is a regular, ongoing feature of church life in the 25 percent of global Christianity that we call the underground church” (Reapsome, 1990:37). The widespread social, economic, and political unrest through the world exacerbate the spiritual motivations for persecution. While non-Christians are also tortured and punished in many countries, Christians “are the chief victims of this religious persecution,” suffering discrimination, bigotry, torture, imprisonment, and martyrdom (Shea, 1997:4-5).

Yet, despite the prevalence of persecution in the body of Christ today, our understanding of and preparation for it is woefully lacking. Christians in the West tend to know little about the persecution of the rest of the body of Christ, and have difficulty empathizing when they do learn of it (Shea, 1997:4-5). However, as Thomas Schirrmacher notes in his detailed effort at developing a theology of martyrdom for the German Evangelical Alliance, “…those who suffer for their faith are not Someone Else, but the Body of Christ. We are involved…we cannot evade the responsibility of bearing their burdens in prayer and petitioning the Lord to care for them in a special way” (Schirrmacher, 2001:9). He rightly observes that repression and persecution are far more common to Christians than the general state of religious liberty most Western believers experience (Schirrmacher, 2001:9).

Understanding persecution is also highly relevant for Christians in areas where persecution is likely, or even a reality. Bong Rin Ro underscores the need for a theology of suffering in Asia, noting both the increased persecution and the devastating poverty in the region (Ro, 1988:2). Ro draws parallels to the nationalism, religious climate, and type of governmental authorities faced by the early church to underscore the importance of the Asian church studying the New Testament and early church for biblical principles which can be applied in its specific situation (Ro, 1988:2).

Persecution in the early church
Persecution appears on the pages of Acts alongside the stories of miracles, preaching, and prayer that so characterized early church life. As soon as the church began to flourish, its leaders – the apostles – were arrested and threatened (Neely, 2000: 915). Before a single book of the New Testament was written, the apostles taught a theology of persecution by example. These men set the tone that thousands of martyrs would echo through the centuries when they saw their suffering as honorable and as a means of witness (Acts 5:41).

The earliest persecution of Christians was not by the Roman government, but by Jewish authorities (Clouse, 1993: 45-46). Specifically, they were attacked by Jewish leaders for proclaiming Jesus to be Savior and Lord and for accusing the Jewish leaders of killing Jesus (Ruffin, 1985: 17). Scripture records the death of the “first martyr,” Stephen, in great detail in Acts 6-7, and clearly lays the blame at the feet of the Sanhedrin (including Saul, soon to become Paul the Apostle). The dispersion of the church following Stephen’s death “had the opposite of the intended effect” (Moreau, 2000: 747); Christianity did not die but instead spread beyond Jerusalem into the Gentile lands. When the Gospel was expanded to the Gentiles, Jewish leaders’ hatred of Christianity increased (Frend, 1990: 5). James the Apostle was killed, and both Josephus and Eusebius record James the brother of Jesus’ death in A.D. 62 (Clouse, 1993: 45-46). As the church continued to grow and spread, its leaders came to expect suffering as part of the normal Christian experience and taught the young churches to see suffering as imitation of Christ (Frend, 1990: 5).

Part of the reason that Roman persecution did not begin sooner is that initially, Roman authorities did not distinguish Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism (Ferguson, 2003: 602). Acts shows that the earliest Christians remained in Jerusalem - worshipping in the temple, observing the Jewish prayer times, and using the Jewish Scriptures - until the stoning of Stephen forced their dispersal (Acts 2:41-8:1). As a result of its association with Judaism, Christianity shared the legal protection of Jews during this era (Ferguson, 2003:602).

The days of relative obscurity to the Roman government’s eyes came to an end, however, during the reign of Nero. The Roman historian Tacitus recorded how Nero first framed, and then persecuted, Christians in the wake of the fire that destroyed half of Rome in 64 A.D.:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Pontius Pilate....Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed by the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle. (Clouse, 1993: 45-46).

From that point, Ferguson observes, “Christians continued to be a convenient scapegoat to blame for political problems and natural disasters for a long time thereafter” (Ferguson, 2003: 593-594). Nero’s persecution, though furious, was regional and brief, and was followed by a period of relative peace. When Domitian came to the throne, however, he enacted strong persecution against many religious groups, including Christians (Workman, 1980: 83). Herbert Workman describes Domitian’s style of persecution as “a succession of sharp, sudden, partial assaults…harassing the Church with an agony of suspense” (Workman, 1980: 84). The Apostle John was likely exiled to Patmos during Domitian’s reign (Workman, 1980: 83).

Periods of peace punctuated by seasons of intense regional persecution remained the pattern for the church through 249 AD. There were respites of freedom – Emperor Hadrian in 122-123, for example, ordered that Christians had to be proven guilty of specific illegal acts before they could be condemned. Merely being called Christian was not grounds for persecution (Frend, 1990: 5). The church gained strength and recovered its missionary zeal. Tension increased in provinces where the church was strong, and under the Severan Dynasty localized persecution struck again (Frend, 1990: 5).

The persecuting emperors were not necessarily the ones who were most obviously demented and depraved; rather, those emperors who were determined to “crush out sedition and disorder” were the ones who targeted Christians (Workman, 1980: 84). The charges were rarely religious in nature – they were not on trial for their beliefs so much as their misunderstood actions or their failure to worship the state god, Caesar. Celsus, for example, accused Christians of being “unprofitable to society” because of their emphasis on sinners:
Those who summon people to the other mysteries make this preliminary proclamation: ‘Whosoever has pure hands and a wise tongue.’ And again, other says: ‘Whosoever is pure from all defilement, and whose soul knows nothing of evil, and who has lived well and righteously.’ Such are the preliminary exhortations of those who promise purification from sins. But let us hear what folk these Christians call. ‘Whosoever is a sinner,’ they say, ‘whosoever is unwise, whosoever is a child, and, in a word, whosoever is a wretch, the kingdom of God will receive him....Why on earth this preference for sinners? (Ferguson, 2003: 599-600).

Christians were accused of “atheism” for denying the existence and power of Rome’s gods (Frend, 1990: 5); their refusal to take part in pagan ceremonies and activities was labeled disloyal and antisocial (Clouse, 1993: 46); they were charged with immorality because of their love for each other and cannibalism because of the sacrament of Communion. Their stubborn refusal to worship Caesar when given the opportunity at trial earned them the labels of obstinacy and treason (Clouse, 1993: 46). As the church grew, so did the misunderstandings about their doctrine and the illogical accusations. Tertuallian, for example, confronts the illogic of claiming Christians offered bribes to avoid punishment: “If we save ourselves by a bribe…how is it that we are still oppressed?” (Tertullianus, 1885b).

In 249, Decius implemented the first empire-wide persecution, blaming Christians for the breakdown of morale and requiring an annual sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Christians could perform the sacrifice or purchase a libelli claiming they had done so. As a result, massive apostasies followed as few individuals openly defied the emperor. Even the Bishop of Smyrna performed sacrifice. The church was deeply divided as a result (Frend, 1990: 5).

Valerian first tolerated Christians, then exiled bishops and forbade assembly. Finally in 258-259 he ordered executions and confiscation of property (Frend, 1990: 5). This was the bloodiest period to that point, but the final, heavy punishment came in 303, under Diocletian, following some 40 years of peace. Diocletian’s emphasis on uniformity and discipline was challenged by Christians who failed to comply (Frend, 1990: 5). He issued four edicts of increasing severity after seeing Christians make the sign of the cross before pagan priests attempting divination. Diocletian was succeeded in 305 by Galerius, who issued an edict of toleration, and Constantine, who decreed that all people, including Christians, had “full authority to follow whatever worship each man has desired” (Clouse, 1993: 48). The era of Roman persecution was formally over, but the church would again see persecution.

Contemporary Realities
As the summary about the Korean church missionaries illustrates, modern persecution raises many of the same questions, and reflects many of the same patterns, as we see in the early church's persecutions. In Faith that Endures (pages 13-17), Ronald Boyd-Macmillan notes three overarching convictions that inform the work he does in raising awareness about persecution: 

1) The fuller story of the modern persecuted church is untold. We hear stories of deliverance and martyrdom, but not endurance. He writes, "There is a grander, greater narrative of God's action underneath the stories of individual pain, suffering, deliverance, and endurance." 

2) Helping the persecuted church requires understanding the complexity of persecution. We want to serve, not use, the persecuted. We also want to ensure effective intervention and assistance. 

3) We need the persecuted church to learn about our own faith. Boyd-Macmillan poignantly quotes a Chinese Bible teacher who vividly said: "Wherever you go in this earth, you will be seduced by a false prophet, or coerced by a beast, into worshiping some idol that is not God. That is apocalyptic reality. Your worship is what you put your energy into. The only difference between you and us is that here it happened so brutally, we saw it so clearly; where you live, it happens so subtly, you cannot see it at all...Don't miss this, please don't miss this - you need our faith to find your own." (Teacher Cheng, p. 15). 

As we continue this study, we will gather accurate facts, feel the power that God gives to those in persecution, and begin to discern the right strategies to best help them. As we move forward, please remember these two key quotes to help you identify with the persecuted: 

"Just because I live in a free country does not make the devil less interested in stealing my worship away from Jesus Christ." -  (Boyd-Macmillan, p. 16) 

"We may not all sit on the same thorn, but we all sit on the same branch." - (Chinese pastor, quoted in Boyd-Macmillan, p. 17).

YOUR TURN: Why are you working through this study? Let me know in the comments!

Clouse, Robert G., Richard V. Pierard, and Edwin M. Yamauchi. 1993. Two Kingdoms: The church and culture through the ages. Chicago: Moody Press. 

Ferguson, Everett. 2003. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Frend, William H.C. 1990. Persecution in the early church. Christian History 9.3: 5.

Moreau, A. Scott. 2000. Persecution. In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A Scott Moreau. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Neely, Alan. 2000. Suffering. In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A. Scott Moreau. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books. 

Reapsome, James. 1990. Persecuted Christians Today. Christian History 9.3: 37.

Ro, Dr. Bong Rin. 1988. Need for a Theology of Suffering. Asia Theological Association 14.3: 2-3. 

Ruffin, Bernard. 1985 The Days of the Martyrs: A history of the persecution of Christians from apostolic times to the time of Constantine. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. 

Schirrmacher, Thomas. 2001. The Persecution of Christians Concerns us All: Toward a theology of martyrdom. 70 Biblical-Theological Theses Written for the German Evangelical Alliance. Retrieved August 23, 2007, from  

Shea, Nina. 1997. In the Lions’ Den: Persecuted Christians and what the Western Church can do about it . Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman. 

Tertullianus, Quintus Septimius Florens. 1885. Ad Nationes, Book I. Holmes, Dr. P., tr. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III. Retrieved August 23, 2007 from 

Workman, Herbert B. 1980. Persecution in the Early Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 

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