Persecute - to oppress or maltreat someone because of race or religion.1
So, given the definition above why would anyone need to pose the question
as to whether persecution is good or bad? Most "normal" people do not
enjoy being oppressed or maltreated; in fact, most people these days
would do as much as they possibly could to avoid pain or discomfort.
Why then, would something by its own definition classified as a foe
ever be considered a friend - perhaps in the next few paragraphs we
might gain a little more insight into this strange phenomenon.
Powers of Darkness Through Real People
Throughout the history of the church there has always been an opposition
to its very existence. Paul may advise us that our true enemies are
"powers of this dark world" and "the spiritual forces of evil in the
heavenly realms"2 but they are usually expressed through
very real people in very real ways. Burnt at the stake, fed to the lions,
crucified, beheaded, stoned . . . these are all different ends that
the church's founding fathers met. Amongst the pagan members of society,
the church and its pietism was a great threat. They openly spoke out
against pagan rituals; they refused to perform its offerings, and even
went so far as to try to persuade others to join them in this revolt.
This was especially bothersome to the Roman Empire and its leader -
Ceasar was god
To the Romans Caesar was god, whether they truly believed it or merely
practiced Caesar worship as an outward form of political allegiance
is up for debate, either way this proved to be a problem for the professing
Christian. Not long after the deification of Caesar a law was passed
that stated all people must come into the temple of Caesar, and while
tossing a pinch of incense from their fingers utter the phrase "Caesar
is Lord"3 ; simple enough . . . not for the Christians. For
a follower of Christ to declare that Caesar was Lord would be outright
heresy because to them there was one Lord and King, Jesus of Nazareth.
Yet, for all those who refused to perform this annual ritual there was
only one other option - death.
Killed for the Name of Christ
Of course, it was only a matter of time before word of this rebel group
spread. Before long Christians were no longer being killed for their
rebellion against the deification of Caesar, they were now being killed
en masse simply for the name of Christ. Even the possession of Scriptures
would result in death,4 anyone labeled as a Christian would
surely die. Word of this flowed forth as quickly as the blood of the
Christians themselves and it was only a matter of time before the term
"Martyr" was born.
Martyr as the Witness
Originally the word was defined as "witness" 5. What an
appropriate title to apply to those that died for their faith, for they
truly became a witness to all who watched in horror and delight. Of
course, one would think that this would have irreparable damage upon
the Church as a whole. Quite the contrary! Actually, many now clamored
to the forefront with the hopes of attaining martyrdom for their beliefs.
This new found obsession with death was unsettling to some of their
fellow Christians but through these public acts thousand upon thousands
of people heard the Gospel and saw the passion in the hearts of those
who were willing to die for it.
Frustration for the Romans, Vicotry for Christ
With this last piece of the puzzle we have finally reached the true
heart of the situation. That which was brought upon the Church to quiet
its voice and kill its members was the very agent responsible for its
growth. How frustrating it must have been for the Roman Empire to strive
so hard at the destruction of the Christian movement and yet only increase
its numbers and the speed by which they grew. The blood of the martyrs
truly paved the road by which the Gospel came to us and their voice
still cries out to this day.
Form Changes, Substance Remains!
Persecution is still prevalent within present day society; the only
major difference is those who perpetrate it have changed. By professing
the Truth and holding to the Name of Christ we subject ourselves to
the "whips and stones" of the media, educational system, government,
friends, family, and even our most loved ones. Yes, persecution is still
a part of our everyday lives but through the lens of history we need
not fear it any longer. Instead, we must turn and embrace it for what
it really is - one of the last true friends of the Christian church.
Paperback English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. 2nd Ed.; Word Publishing, 1995 (pp. 44)
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. 2nd Ed.; Word Publishing, 1995 (pp. 57)
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. 2nd Ed.; Word Publishing, 1995 (pp. 36).