Persecution - What Is It?
Persecution, what does it mean? What causes it? What is its purpose? And is it something to be dreaded? And can it have any good outcome?
Through out the ages there has been persecution going on for all kinds of reasons and with all kinds of outcomes. For this response paper we are discussing the persecution of the early church and the ramifications of it on the Church, then, and now.
Persecution can take on all kinds of appearances. In general, it can be anything from excluding of people from social circles or commerce, public mockery, slander, and to actual physical harm. Simply because a person has strong convictions or are just different in some way that makes them stand out.
Why were the Christians Persecuted in the Past?
So, why were the Christians persecuted in the early years of the faith and why does it continue to this day? In our text book it is pointed out that the primary reason that Christians were persecuted was the fact that they lived lives that were (as Tertullian put it) "aloof from the crowds". It is also noted that the culture of that day was filled with idolatry, so much so that almost every aspect of living was somehow a glorification of some weird god. And so since the Christians could not participate in these idolatries, they were noticed and treated according. To this day the life of a Christian should contradict the world view of the unbelieving around them. We are not to live in the same manner in which we lived before we were saved but we are to live in the truth and hope of the Gospel that contradicts the ways of the world around us.
What Is the Purpose of Persecution?
- To get rid of guilt, or at least make it easier to live with. From personal experience I think I can somewhat understand the frustration of the unbelievers when they see someone take the high road as a Christian and are feeling convicted and troubled by the fact that they have to deal with this discomfort. When I was younger, I at times would do things that I knew were not quite "square", and whenever I saw someone else encounter the same situation I had, and do right by it, I would be upset because I was feeling convicted, I would rather they did just as I had done and thus condone and agree with me. Guilt is an amazing motivator. A person's response to guilt can be to try to deal with the actions that caused it or to shut off the "voice" that is putting the pressure on that area of their life so that they can continue to try to bury it. I believe that this is a major cause and purpose of much of the persecution that has taken place, and does take place.
- Another major cause of persecution was the fact that the spreading of the Gospel was affecting the financial well being of those who were profiting off of the fears, Idolatry, and vices of the average person. The highest priority of the unbelieving world is the betterment of their personal pocketbook and their earthly well being. And so to threaten this aspect of their lives is extremely reacted against. The situation Paul and Silas encountered in Philippi for example, when they, through the power of the cross, cast a demon out of a young girl. Her "owners", when they discovered that she had lost the powers that the demon had given her, (and thus their ability to profiting from her torture) caused a riot to try to harm them physically.
What a Challenge!
These realities were a major hurdle for the evangelists who were witnessing, and much more so to those who did choose to take on this new identity. I am challenged by this awesome display in itself of common folks who were so convinced of the truth that they would commit to this kind of struggle.
The Effect Was an Amazing and Aweson Witness
The effects of the persecution on the church as a whole is an amazing and awesome witness of what God can do in situations that one might think could have little to no good outcome, other than an early ticket Home. One thing that stands out to me as a reason for this amazing phenomenon is the fact that people everywhere have a deep desire to live and even die for something that is greater than themselves. The examples that the early and current martyrs demonstrate, I would think, would challenge anybody to look seriously at the beliefs they held because to be willing to go to that point of abandon is not of little consequence.
In a recent issue ofTime magazine, I read a section on North Korea about a woman that had encountered the horrors of communism while in a prison camp where she had been put for some "crime" against the State. And on almost a side note, the author noted that while there in prison, the women had become a believer due to the testimony of the Christians who were there as well that were being tortured for their faith. So it is still benefiting the growth of the Church and causing the Light to be shone in the darkest places (a communist prison in this example). Praise the Lord!
Another benefit of persecution is the fact that anyone who is not serious about their faith will not be sticking around too long. Thus we have a refining of the church. A purging of the elements that draw and do not give to the edification of the body so that a more dynamic and effective group is developed.
What Made, and Makes, People to Stand Against Persecution?
So what was it in the lives' of the martyrs that caused them to stand against the pressure that they encountered? I recall hearing someone speaking to the fact that all of the apostles of Christ encountered severe persecution and most of them were killed as a result of it. The point that was drawn out was the fact that all of these men chose to die for something in which they placed all of their trust, it demonstrates that none of them were perpetrating a fraud in some scam to better themselves but they were completely convinced of everything that they were claiming. This fact in itself is a major testimony to the truth of the gospel.
I came across a statement in Bruce Shelly's book (Church History in Plain Language)that the "early Christians were moved by a burning conviction" of what had happened and were thus driven to spread the Gospel and move forward with "unshakable assurance". They were witnesses of what had taken place and experienced in their own lives the joy of salvation. When I read this section of the book I felt within myself the same joy and burning that I believe was being evidenced in the lives' of the early Christians and even now as I am writing this I am overwhelmed by this feeling and with gratitude to my heavenly Father for what He is doing in me, and will continue to do to the building up of His Church.
What Should We Be Willing to Put Up With?
What am I willing to put up with should the pressure be put on me to change some conviction that I hold. While growing up my mother read Fox's Book of Martyrs to me and my siblings and I remember thinking on this question at that time. The one thing that really stood out to me was that I could not, in and of myself, handle the extreme pressure that is outlined in the pages of that book, but if and when the time came to face it I could rely on God's grace to bare me through it. The words of Jesus come to me "do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of it own."(Matt.6:34)
In Revelations 12:11 we see that "They (the brethren) overcame him (the accuser/Satan) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony and they loved not their lives unto the death". Lord, Let this be said of me. Amen