“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote the second-century Church Father, Tertullian. From that time onward, the idea has persisted that churches – and individual Christians – grow most when the pressure is highest. But do they? Our writer says there is another side to this story and telling only one side risks harming those who urgently need our care.
It is a widespread belief among Christians. We have all heard it said: when persecution comes, Christians suffer but churches and personal faiths grow. In fact, there seems to be enough evidence to back this unquestioned belief.
Bookstores are full of biographies or collections of stories of how Christians persevered through the most intense trials eventually to witness great blessings in their lives and among the people they served. Letters flow from Christian ministries often speaking of large-scale conversions and church growth in situations where there has been strong persecution. Christians have been inspired to sacrificial living and witness by the examples of those who gave their lives for Christ.
Yet, the truth of the matter is more complicated and varied than we often hear.
It is indeed true that in some places the Church has grown significantly against all the odds. Fifty years ago it would have been unimaginable to think that there would be more than 60 million Christians in China today. Similarly, while we take it for granted today that around a third of South Koreans are Christians, only a few generations ago the church there was paying a heavy price. Since the 1979 Revolution, Christians in Iran have also found themselves pressured, coerced, imprisoned, threatened with death, or executed, and yet, Iran has the largest number of believers to have embraced the Christian faith from across the Islamic world.
However, the opposite is also true. In many towns, cities and lands which were once vibrant Christian centres in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor, only a scattering of Christians and archeological sites remain of once flourishing Christian communities. The last 100 years in particular have seen immense persecution of Christians in the Middle East, claiming many lives and causing millions to leave the region.
We see this sad truth elsewhere too. While in 1800s Japan was home to hundreds of thousands of Christians, most were killed and forced to reconvert or hide their faith when the Emperor banned Christian faith. It was only after World War ll that some of Japan’s secret Christians emerged and a small number of churches were opened. To this day, the number of believers in Japan is a fraction of what it was before.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Todd Johnson, an Evangelical scholar who works on the on the World Christian Encyclopedia and the World Christian Database, estimates that 1 million Christians have died for their faith, an average of 100,000 per year. 1
What is most heartbreaking is that we only hear the stories of miraculous conversions, but don’t hear how the majority of new Christians who face either intense pressure or isolation from their communities in fact give up on their Christian faith eventually. While we read of Christians who endured threats and violence and stood boldly, we don’t hear of those many Christians who die unnoticed, or who suffer and live in lifelong physical and psychological pain without any evident sign of healing. Most Christians who experience wretched, inhumane jails and are subjected to physical and psychological torture never get over their experiences.
Over the years I have seen enough men and women of God completely destroyed by persecution with no “but it worked out well in the end” story-line. And even in the West, while we see some Christians who go through suffering grow and find blessings in their situation, others go under and give up on God or church all together.
So the truth of the matter is that ‘yes’, sometimes churches grow and Christians flourish under persecution, but often they struggle, they are handicapped by suffering, or they perish.
Hurting the wounded
Sadly, one-sided stories and perceptions of persecution do not merely blur reality, but they also do damage both to the persecuted and non-suffering church. When persecution is only told as a story of heroism, it blinds us to the fact that Christians living under persecution are human beings who desperately need our help and care and support. It also pressures persecuted Christians to only share their “heroism” or “miracles” and to hide from us the depth of their suffering and tears.
Similarly, it creates an illusion of an other-worldly Christian experience that we do not see in normal settings. The outcome of this is that people think their personal stories and faith do not mean as much as the celebrated persecution stories. They forget that it is grace that saved us all and only grace that sustains all of us. A persecuted Christian is a sinner just like a non-persecuted one. Both need Christ’s redemption.
Sadly, the lack of a mature theology of persecution in the contemporary church shows itself here once more. We desperately need theological guidance in not only understanding and surviving persecution, but also how we should speak of and share the stories of persecution to those who have never known these conditions.
1John L Allen Jr, 9 November, 2012, National Catholic Reporter
Please bring to the Lord all those known and unknown believers who face family or community rejection, hardship, violence, death threats and torture for continuing their faith in Jesus. Pray for them, for their oppressors, and for those who seek to support them, often at risk to themselves.
From UI in Pakistan:
I am very consoled to read your views. There are lonely sufferers as well communal. Christians suffering … Sometimes the community itself does not get recognised and from every side it is not sympathised. Members of the dominant faith choose their victim very systematically to appear as if it is the victim who is a misfit. This judgement makes the victim helpless and suffers alone, the persecutors become more daring and increase their attacks and then it becomes noticeable. Still help from within the community is not forthcoming except from the foreign missionary or journalist organisations but the secular western governments do not see it … The West is unsympathetic!!!
From Dave P:
1st thank you for your article about the other side of the coin with regards to suffering as a Christian.
How do we in the relatively safe West define persecution? Do we only see it in articles we read such as yours? Yet Jesus said if they persecute me they will persecute you. So what is persecution? I think it is relative to the believer. For instance, we think that if a person is ridiculed for their faith by friends and family that is persecution. What about the Christian who for some reason has a very low self esteem through some trauma in their past or present life and is struggling to accept the truth that they are special: is that not persecution? The Bible says that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces in heavenly realms, so I believe in one way or another we all suffer some form of persecution.
It is possibly how we perceive it that blinds us to the truth. It maybe temptation but when we realise that the devil will use any method to demoralise Christians, then isn’t anything that comes against us trying to weaken our faith some form of persecution?
This is in no way intended to belittle the suffering that a lot of Christians go through, and our response to their sufferings might be wrong. Comments please.
From John S:
The writer is seeing events from only one outlook. He sounds like a man battered by the waves crashing against his beleaguered boat. His comments are describing others in his boat undergoing the same sort of suffering. To make comments in this fashion is to insult our God and Creator.
Christ said that you are not worthy of me unless you are prepared to take up your cross and follow me. Where is our honour in taking up the cross and grumbling along the way?
‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’
If we grumble in suffering how are we behaving any different to the world? Yet if we rejoice in our suffering then Christ is truly in us!
The writer of the article wrote: ‘We desperately need theological guidance in not only understanding and surviving persecution, but also how we should speak of and share the stories of persecution to those who have never known these conditions.’
James wrote: ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
I fear that the writer is talking about a sense of loss through suffering when Scripture clearly teaches us that there is much personal gain for the believer who suffers.
Peter wrote: ‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.’
From whatever angle we look at suffering we are called to rejoice in our suffering even though at the time it is often painful and uncomfortable.
‘Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I write this to those who have a faith as precious as ours.”
From Joss C:
I agree with the view that persecutions have not and are not in many cases helping.
The majority of elderly who attend churches do not want to discuss Christianity at all, particularly not those who’ve been suffering a lot, or had loved ones doing so. They attend the churches for the fellowship, friendship, comradeship and many, majority do seem to very much appreciate this … Tender, loving care, reliable fellowship, friendship, compassion – these seem to be what are wanted, particularly by the older generation.
Praying for sensible wisdom re. persecution, including the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: 1-12 – Blessed are the persecuted? …
Have persecutions been wrongly accepted, condoned? What are, will be sensible solutions, conclusions? Praying for sensible solutions, conclusions and for ongoing beneficial blessings.