The horrific ruthlessness of ISIS, the brazen cruelty of Boko Haram, the obsessive repression of the North Korean Juche, the vicious terrorism of Al-Qaeda: I confess that when faced with the gleeful persecution of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world in recent days, I am shocked. But, I know I shouldn’t be. Long ago the Apostle Paul asserted, “All those who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). There is no way around it. No amount of compromise can divert it. Persecution is inevitable.
Though that may be a novel notion to many of us today, it has been the common experience of virtually all those who have gone before us in faith: apostles, prophets, martyrs, confessors, pastors, evangelists, missionaries, reformers, and witnesses. They tasted the bittersweet truth that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to “those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10) and that great “blessings” and “rewards” eventually await those who have been “insulted,” “slandered,” and “sore vexed” but who nevertheless persevere in their high callings (Matthew 5:12-13).
Throughout the history of the church, believers have suffered both fierce persecution and enforced obscurity. They have been beaten, ridiculed, defrocked, and defamed. They have suffered poverty, isolation, betrayal, and disgrace. They have been hounded, harassed, and murdered. The heroes of the faith have always been those who actually sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and reputations for the sake of the Gospel. Indeed, persecution and martyrdom have always been among the church’s highest callings and greatest honors.
In the first three centuries of the church, from Nero to Diocletian, Roman Imperial and Provincial persecutions were famously fierce. Gladiators in the Coliseum, lions in the Hippodrome, and staked pyres in the Forum constantly threatened the earliest believers. They were forced into a precarious, often secretive existence, living on the margins of society and meeting in catacombs, caverns, copse hideaways. And yet, they persevered. As Tertullian quipped in his Apologeticus, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Despite the rapid spread of the Gospel during the Patristic Age from the fourth to the sixth centuries, the hazards of persecution remained a lamentable feature of everyday life. Whether from marauding barbarian bands along the Germanic frontiers or from doctrinal and ideological rivals at home, faithful men like Athanasius and Augustine were often forced to stand “contra mundum,” against the world.
The sudden rise of Islam out of the desolate Arabian Peninsula and its subsequent westward invasions posed new threats to Christians throughout Byzantium and all across the North African littoral. From the seventh to the eleventh centuries, the Christian heartland was crushed under the oppressive weight of the Saracen Sharia. The plunder of churches, the rape of Christian women, the torture of priests and monks, the pilfering of villages and towns, and the occupation of the territories sent shudders of horror throughout the West—eventually prompting the rescue efforts of the Crusaders.
Throughout the age of Medievalism, Islam remained a persistent danger to believers, both in the conquered lands of the old Christian East, and along the frontiers of the West. Their invading Assassini armies marched right up to the gates of Vienna; their marauding Janissaries fleets controlled the Eastern Mediterranean; and their Aza’sin Dhimma threatened to swallow up the last remnants of the faithful. But, there were other dangers as well—from the Teutonic tribes of the north, from the last of the pagan Viking warlords, and even from over-zealous inquisitors.
With the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, came a new wave of persecution. Many believers were, in the words of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, “bound to relinquish not only goods and children, but life itself, for the glory of their Redeemer.” A vast host were swept away in the doctrinal wars that raged across Europe: the Peasants Revolt (1524-25), the Battle of Kappel (1531), the Schmalkaldic War (1546-47), the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), the Huguenot Repression (1562-1598), the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651).
The Age of Exploration and Colonization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries afforded new opportunities for rapid missionary deployment all around the world. But, plunging into the darkest jungles, trekking across the harshest deserts, and sailing along the deepest seas also brought new dangers—for both the missionaries and their first disciples. The story of the Great Missions Movement cannot be told apart from the terrible sacrifices made by the faithful followers of Jesus.
Astonishingly though, it has been the twentieth century, along with the first two decades of the twenty-first, that has seen the greatest increase in persecution in all of church history. Indeed, according to ministries like Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs, more Christians have been killed for their faith in Modernity than in all the other ages combined. The lethal Orwellian assault against the church by the minions of Nikolai Lenin, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Kim Il-Sung, and Pol Pot unleashed untold horrors. In Prison Cells, Gulags, Concentration Camps, Detention Centers, Torture Chambers, Re-Education Centers, and Labor Camps millions of souls were (and even now are) sacrificed on the bloodied secular altars of the Proletarian Utopia.
And now, with the rise of a new generation of Shia, Wahhabi, Salafi, and Sunni Ji’hadists, a new tidal wave of persecution threatens devastation and destruction to believers and unbelievers alike.
None of this comes as a surprise. At least, it shouldn’t. It seems that the greatest glory, majesty, piety, courage, vision, humility, and grace the world has ever known has always been marred by the “Judas kiss” of disaster and disgrace.
Jesus explained this reality to His disciples saying:
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the Word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My Word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20).
So in light of all this, how should we then live?
According to the Scriptures it is incumbent upon us to “comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). We are to “bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We are to “encourage one another and build up one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The mandate to care for one another and all those who suffer—even in the midst of our own travail—rings as clear as a clarion down through the ages:
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:10-16).
The tenderest stories, the greatest adventures, and the most inspiring examples of faith across the wide span of history are invariably those instances when the Family of God has actually acted like a family and when the Household of Faith has actually functioned as a household. They have been when the church served as Christ’s own instrument of mercy, when it became a kind of medicine of immortality to the dying minions of the of the world.
E.M. Bounds said it well, “The easy smile, the temperate deportment, and the contented visage of successful and prosperous Christians can but impress few, but the determined faithfulness, the long-suffering fellowship, and the stalwart compassion of yokefellows in hardship is certain to convey the hope of grace to many.”
Like so many before him, and so many who would follow, Bounds discovered the beauty of fellowship, the strength of communion, and the brilliance of grace at a time when ugliness, weakness, and dullness seemed most certain to prevail in his life. Indeed, it was only as he witnessed the constant and fervent service of the true church during his bitterest days of adversity that he began to comprehend the place and power of prayer—a comprehension that would in later years bring blessing and strength to generations of Christian readers through his many incisive books.
Merciful service in the face of suffering is “often the glue that holds together the varied fragments of the confessing church” says the remarkable Romanian pastor Josef Tson. It affords the church “strong bonds of unity, compassion, and tenderheartedness” says Russian evangelist Georgi Vins. “In the face of tyranny, oppression, and humiliation, the church has no option but to be the church,” asserts Croatian pastor Josep Kulacik. “Disguised as evil, persecution comes to us as an ultimate manifestation of God’s good providence,” says Bosnian Christian leader Frizof Gemielic, “because it provokes us toward a new-found dependence upon His grace, upon His Word, and upon His people. It is in that sense a paradoxical blessing perhaps even more profound than prosperity.”
Our response to the “fragrance of oppression,” as historian Herbert Schlossberg has dubbed the persecutions and sufferings of our world, is perhaps the single most significant indicator of the health and vitality of the church. After all, it is in “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, and hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5) that our mettle is ultimately proven.
In this day of heightened awareness of the plight of the persecuted church may that mettle indeed be proven anew.