The Heart-Breaking Complexities of Persecution

Many of us have simplistic understandings of persecution in the beginning. We latch onto radical ideas like “persecution purifies the church” and “the blood of the martyrs is seed” and perhaps we even long for persecution to come to our own churches so that we can experience these things. The reality is woefully more complicated.

The scriptures call persecution blessing when it is for Jesus and the gospel’s sake (Matt 5:10). But they also command us to pray for peaceful, quiet lives, free from persecution (1 Tim 2:2). They hold up examples of how God worked mightily through persecution (Acts 11:19), and tell us that it is inevitable for the godly (1 Tim 3:12), then they offer us warnings which reflect the first century believers who were getting persecuted because of their own sin, not because of Jesus (1 Pet 2:20). Even then it was complicated. The presence of persecution is not the fix-all some think it is. It actually makes the normal life and mission of the church very difficult, and sometimes impossible.

Here’s why I ask that you pray that God end persecution in places like Central Asia and that you also pray that if he doesn’t, he will grant the strength for believers to endure faithfully.

When we look at the history of the Church, we see a mixed result in contexts of persecution. Sometimes the church thrives and spreads like wildfire. Other times it is exterminated. Persecution led to the ascendancy of Christianity in the Roman empire. But next door in the Parthian/Sassanian/Islamic empires, it led to its eventual death. While we have examples like the house church movement in China, we also have examples like the Anabaptists of the Protestant Reformation. While some who fled west ended up surviving, those who fled east were never able to find refuge and were entirely killed off. Or what of the almost immediate extinction of Christianity in North Africa after the rise of Islam? Ever heard of the ancient church of Socotra? It existed for hundreds of years before finally disappearing. How do we make sense of these histories alongside of the heroic stories of Christian witness under Roman paganism or under communism? If we read church history we inescapably find that sometimes God allows persecution to be a spur for revival, but other times God allows it to be that which kills off an entire movement.

I started to get a taste for the complexities of persecution when it started happening to my own Middle Eastern/Central Asian friends. For a number of years I worked with refugees in the US. I was thrilled to find out that many of the Iranian refugees being resettled in my city were religious asylum-seekers. I had heard tales of the underground movement to Christ taking place in Iran. These refugee claimed to have left Islam, experienced persecution, and to have become Christians. The UN had now granted them a new life in the West. But my experiences with most of these Iranians were very disheartening. In the beginning they showed some desire to study the Bible and join a church, but the vast majority stopped showing interest after they figured out that the government wasn’t watching them and making sure they were attending church and staying true to their claim of being Christians. Once they realized it was not advantageous to be a Christian in America, they quickly abandoned their faith and lost themselves in materialism, drug use, or homosexuality. One close friend still possessed the blindfold put on him when he was imprisoned for being a leader-in-training in an Iranian house church. But this experience made him feel superior to other Christians and he balked at the idea of submitting himself to the accountability of a Christian community. So many Iranians quickly abandoned their faith after arriving in the West that the Iranian community passed around comics about it on social media. It was becoming well-known that (alongside a few who were genuine in their faith) a vast multitude was using Jesus to get a visa and then abandoning him as soon as they could.

My friends who came to faith after arriving in the US and I began to develop a serious skepticism towards refugees who showed up as formerly-Muslim Christian refugees. So many of them ended up falling away, consumed by the temptations and freedoms of the West. I started to learn that there were many ungodly reasons that people would identify with Jesus, even in contexts of persecution. Some identified as Christians out of a hatred of Islam, not out of a love for Jesus. Some did it as a way to stick it to their oppressive government or to display their attraction to Western culture. Some did it for promises of a salary and tickets to attend Christian conferences. Again, many did it simply as the ticket to a better life.

The UN was and is on to this dynamic. Their interviewers (most of them pagan) devise many kinds of methods to try to discern whether someone has truly become a Christian or not. But lacking spiritual eyes themselves, they are inept at recognizing the new birth. Instead, they rely heavily on signed baptism certificates, which has created an underground industry of sorts, where “seekers” approach churches or missionaries in the Middle East in pursuit of the coveted piece of paper. Some churches issue these freely, deciding that it’s not worth the effort to walk with someone until they can truly vouch for their faith. Others, like me and my coworkers, refuse to issue these certificates on principle, much to the consternation of local believers who, because of the UN requirement, believe we’re somehow denying them something integral to Christianity.

The presence of historic ethnic Christians in our part of the world also complicates the picture. The historic churches of the East lost the gospel a long time ago and have fallen into a system of religious patrilineage. This means you automatically inherit the faith of your father; you really have no other option. “I’m a Honda, you’re a Toyota, we can’t change that,” is how one ethnic Christian responded to one of my friends who had come to faith out of Islam. Ethnic Christians in the Middle East and Central Asia believe they are Christians because of their blood and because of their infant baptism. They cannot tell you what the gospel is. The overwhelming majority do not know that they must be born again and believe the gospel for themselves. This message has been buried under centuries of tradition, religiosity, and syncretism. If any do come to faith and begin to read the Bible for themselves, they are persecuted by their own community, just as might happen to a Muslim coming to faith. When the term “Christian” is used in our part of the world, it means a certain ethnicity, not a faith that transcends ethnicity. Therefore, missionaries had to come up with a tragic new term: CBBs, Christian-Background Believers.

Unfortunately, evangelical organizations that serve the persecuted and mobilize prayer do not deal with this distinction publicly at all. I’ll read reports written by evangelical Westerners about thousands of Christians experiencing persecution in a certain parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, when the reality is the number of true Christians is in the hundreds, if that. Where are they finding these thousands of supposed Christians? There are no “Christian villages,” unless they are referring to the ethnic Christian villages where they run off those who become born again for going against the traditions of their fathers. Is it tragic that ethnic minority Christians are experiencing persecution? Absolutely. But if you don’t tell your audience that they’re not actually believers, that many actually despise evangelicals, they will fail to pray as they should – that God would be merciful and save them out of their dead Christianity, alongside of ending the persecution. Many who have been killed and proclaimed martyrs by these evangelical organizations sadly never knew Jesus. They trusted in their father’s blood instead of Christ’s. This is worthy of great lament.

When our friends from a Muslim background believe, they often experience moderate persecution. By this I mean they lose jobs, get kicked out of their homes, and lose marriage prospects. Occasionally they experience severe persecution and are physically beaten, experience house arrest, or credible death threats. We know of two or three among our people group that have died for their faith. But even in the midst of these tragic things, those experiencing persecution are often brand new in their faith, and it becomes awfully hard to discern whether their father beat them because of Jesus or because they were simply disrespectful punks in taking their dad’s car to church when he told them not to. Many experience persecution because of brave, but reckless attacks against Islam. If they would focus on Jesus and the gospel more and stop talking so much about Mohammad’s child bride, their relatives might not get so angry and violent. Diving into the real causes of persecution and whether or not someone is inflating their story is woefully difficult – not to mention hurtful to those whose claims are legitimate. But what else is to be done? So many have been played by those who knew how to spin a good tale.

We want to err on the side of mercy, but if Westerners are too quick to intervene they can actually make it worse, facilitating a “believer drain” that prevents the local church from being able to take root. Once persecution escalates, a missionary or pastor find themselves in a minefield of less than ideal options. Each case can become all-consuming and difficult decisions must be made about if/when to intervene, when to wait and pray, how to provide emergency housing, whether to facilitate a way out of the country (which entails visas, tickets, housing, food) – and all of this when other local believers are divided and skeptical about the situation themselves. In a place without a network of local churches, a need exists to develop a persecution infrastructure that can respond when first-generation believers lose their housing, their jobs, or are in physical danger. But the logistics, money, and time needed to pull something like this off is daunting. So proactive persecution response tends to get put on the back burner until the next crisis, when the missionary is faced once again with the bad choice of doing nothing or harboring a new believer secretly in their own home.

While some local believers are set free from their fear by experiencing public persecution, others buckle, compromise, and even apostatize. One young man whose baptism I attended immediately recanted his faith after his father found out, threatened him with death, and then bribed him with the cash value of their house to return to Islam. They then both proceeded to hold his younger brother, a genuine believer, at knife-point while threatening his life. Another promising leader-in-training experienced brutal persecution from his coworkers and tribe, and managed to make it through with his faith intact, but the experience caused him to abandon the small church he had committed to help lead. Out of fear, many local believers have committed to never gather with other locals for worship, but only with foreigners – thus making church planting impossible.

Persecution is woefully complicated. And yet God uses persecution for the advance of his church. Does this mean I should pray for more persecution? No, just as I shouldn’t pray for more physical suffering because God uses that for my sanctification. Should we pray for “stronger backs to endure” as Brother Yun says? Yes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for the persecution to stop as well. It’s a both/and, a fiery furnace type of prayer where we call on God for deliverance because he is able, and we proclaim that he will sustain us even if not.

We must never let persecution stop the spread of the gospel, and this requires a dogged commitment to be faithful unto death. Persecution can be a form of blessing, which purifies our faith. Yet seasons of peace are also a blessing, one which the Bible commands us to seek, where the church has time to do the deep work of discipleship, leadership development, and the sending of missionaries. The blood of the martyrs is seed, but let’s not make that formulaic. The seed will inevitably sprout, but that might or might not happen in this age; It will with all certainty happen in the age to come.

In the meantime, pray for the persecuted Church. And pray for those of us who are trying to plant churches in contexts of persecution. We are not sufficient for these things. Yet we pray to a Lord who is. He alone can untangle the heart-breaking complexities of persecution and weave them into glory.

Photo by Nicola Nuttall on Unsplash

Book sources:

Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren

Yun, The Heavenly Man

Baumer, The Church of the East

Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity

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