Persecution: What is it?
Persecution can come in many forms. Some may be so subtle that one may not even recognize it as persecution and yet it's purpose, to suppress Christians, is still sought to be fulfilled. Other types of persecution are far more obvious and more painful, even deadly. Whatever the degree, it is good for a Christian to realize that Jesus promised that Christians would be persecuted. And why wouldn't the children be persecuted if the Son of God Himself was persecuted unto death?
In this paper, my hope is to discuss some of the different types of persecution that take place, and have taken place. There will be a varying degree of persecution discussed but it is all persecution. The Webster's Dictionary defines persecution as, "to oppress unjustly for holding an opinion; to subject to persistent ill-treatment; to harass". This kind of treatment is not supposed to be comfortable, but we do have consolation. That's because we know what Jesus says that those who are persecuted and slandered, for Him, will truly receive a great reward in heaven (Mt 5:11-12).
When we look at the question of why people are persecuted we must come back to the source of evil on this planet, the devil himself. As Bruce Shelly points out (Church History in Plain Language (p. 45), "John (in the book or Revelation) traces the oppression of believers to the devil himself, to the great red dragon, who wages war against the saints ..." Although Mr. Shelly was directly referring to the apostle's vision as it applied to Rome, there is yet another dimension that is unfortunately still true: the devil is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. The very truths of the Word of God and the freedom and victory that it brought to that first century church, rose like a sweet song after Christ's death and resurrection. But, to the enemy, this song was the very sound of his own defeat, which drove him on an obsessive mission to silence this reminder of his ultimate punishment. And even still today, he fights the same, hopeless battle.
None the less, God allows Satan's attempts to continue. Not only that but, God in His sovereignty allows for harassment of His children in order to bring about good, as it is written, "all things in the life of a believer work for good". But, we will take a closer look at some of the ways persecution has been used to God's advantage later in the paper. Immediately, let's briefly consider some of the sources of persecution.
Sources of Persecution
As we have already stated, Satan is the ultimate source of persecution, but how does this fallen angel actually reach out and touch the believers of Christ? Well, it seems that he usually uses people in authority here on earth.
This is why it is all the more crucial that we follow Paul's advice to Timothy by praying and interceding for the leaders above us so that all may go well! Satan can influence authorities on any level to instegate them to persecute or he can influence a single king or leader and the orders can be passed down.
Rome as a Source and Instrument of Persecution
One severe case of a king whose heart was severely influenced by Satan is the Roman Emperor Nero. Durring 64 AD, Nero's reign was a time of horrifying burnings of Christians and others, who were fed to wild dogs. Nero appeared to really take great joy in watching Christians suffer. This is obviously a satanic trait. But, this hatred was passed down to the civilians as Tertullian noted, "Public hatred, asks but one thing, not the investigation of the crimes charged, but simply the confession of the Christian name." This hatred for God's children, whether passed down from Nero (by edict), or Satan (by coercion), led to some terribly viscious crimes against humanity.
The case with Rome was definitely one of the most severe that I know about. One of the things that made it so terrible was that it was a Nation-wide movement. There are other examples of Persecution that are on the local, state, city, village, or even family level and these can also be severe but if it is openly accepted by the highest governing authorities, then it justifies anyone who wishes to do the same. With Rome, we are told that the empire was looking to build stonger bonds and deeper allegiances, and forcing subjects to sacrifice to Caesar would help this cause. The Jews were exempted from this but they pretty much kept to themselves as far as proseletyzing went. And, at first, the Christians were seen as a sect but, as the Jews rejected Christianity, and then the Christians began to seek to evangelize any and all who would listen, Rome immediately recognized the threat. Their way of trying to suppress this was by applying pressure through persecution.
Other Reasons for Persecution: A Martyr is What You May Become
But, there were other things that caused Christians to be abhorrent to the society of the day. Bruce Shelly makes a great point when he says that , "The Christian ethic in itself was a criticism of pagan life."(Church History in Plain Language,p. 39) This point is still true today. A Christian living a holy life is going to abstain from things that pagans readily dive into. Mere abstaining sets off the spark of conviction, and/or condemnation that pagans look to avoid at all costs and so it makes them either convicted or angry (in most cases). It's interesting to notice that the word Martyr comes from the root for: "to witness". And, if one is witnessing by their example, especially in the first few centuries, a martyr is what you may become.
But, death is only one form of persecution and some may even argue that it is not the most severe. When one considers Origen, for example, it is easy to see how perhaps death would have been easier than the alternative. Shelly (p. 86) says, "He (Origen) was flung into prison, chained, and tortured. The authorities made him as miserable as possible while preserving his life in constant torment." This seems to me, to be the most suffering that could happen to someone, but I have every confidence that he was richly rewarded for sharing in Christ's sufferings.
Various Types of Persecution: As Many As Governments!
There are many types of persecution going on all over the world. There is Bible-burning and the destruction of property. Whole churches are destroyed in efforts to make it so that there is no place for Christians to go. People are arrested and thrown in jail. Laws are passed so that there can be no converting to the Truth or, no sharing of the gospel. There are people who are exiled from their home countries. Others include rectricting churches from meeting together, or the pastors/bishops are thrown in jail. The degrees and varieties of persecution are as many as governments. Christ said that persecution will come and it does, in all shapes and sizes.
Gossip and slander are a very common type and it was also quite common in the early church. The church was misunderstood, and certain things such as the sacrament were food for gossipers and slanderers. This is a type of persecution that feeds other types. It encourages harsher policies and meaner treatment. But, it is more than just a springboard to other physical punishments. It attacks a person in their identity, and if a person is not secure in who they are in Christ, gossip can be very painful. Thankfully, this can be something that the Lord uses to refine us and bring us into the place where we take our identity in Him.
In the first verses of James, we are instructed of the importance of trials and how it builds, perseverance and maturity. No matter what kind of persecution it is that we face, we can look to the Lord who will be faithful to use whatever trial it is that we may be facing to His advantage. And in the case of the early church we see this clearly happening.
One way that persecution brought about refining in the early church was because it forced the nominal Christians to leave the church. Not only that but also, as Tertullian stated in about 160 AD, "The blood of Christians is their very harvest seed." Many times, when a Christian was martyred, he or she stood before dozens if not hundreds of witnesses, confessing their faith boldly, and, quite often, the dramatic scenes caused many to see the truth in their Faith. God used this to reveal His Son and the persecutions had an effect exactly opposite of what was hoped!
The persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-251AD) also had an intersting end result on Christianity as a religion. It forced the Church leadership to reshape the theology that they had been governing the church by. The church had labled sins regarding sexual immorality, murder, and apostasy as unpardonable sins. God could forgive them, but the church would not. However, when Decius began his terrible persecution by torturing Christians until they would renounce their faith, the problem was that many people did renounce their faith in great numbers and then repented of it. Today, it is not even a question of what we would do. We would take them back based on the grace of our God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, the early church had already made set decisions regarding this and so, it had to change its policy in order to accept them. This decision to allow these people back into the church was a change that would have not occurred unless there was such a huge movement of persecution.
The important thing to know is that God can and will use persecution for His purposes. Not only that but also, we are not merely pawns that He is willing to sacrifice. He had declared that our blood is precious and that every drop will be accounted for. He remains with us to the end if it should be that He would allow one of His children to suffer for His name unto death. Then we can also count on Jesus being there to usher us into His heavenly kingdom. The rewards there will always make anything we have suffered seem like, for lack of better words, small potatoes!