The Persecution of the Church

This article was written to accompany the 'The Mission of God and the History of the Church' hangout.

This article was written by Tom O'Toole, based on an outline created by Andy Johnston.


CONSIDER

  • In what ways would you say that the experiences of 21st Century western Christians closely correlate with the historical experiences of Christians across the globe? In what ways do they differ?

Persecution

Persecution is normal for Christians.

It is easy to be blinded to this reality. In Western nations, Christianity has tended to dominate the cultural agenda since the reformation. This experience can divert our focus from the global, historical, and Biblical reality that persecution is a part of the normal Christian life.

When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, he did not invite them to a life of ease and privilege. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)

The idea of ‘taking up our cross’ is often applied to mean making sacrifices for Christ. Whilst this is important, we can often miss the edge that Jesus’ words carried. The cross was an implement of death. Jesus had just taught the disciples that he would be killed, and then insisted that following him meant taking up their crosses too. He was warning them that following him could lead to them being opposed and killed. History bears out the accuracy of this prediction.

To follow Jesus is to follow one who was opposed, slandered, beaten, and murdered. It would be foolish to expect to be received with honour as we come in the name of one who was received with hatred and hostility. “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20)

Peter taught his readers not to be surprised when persecution comes, and instructed them how to respond well to their circumstances. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13)

Paul even went so far as to suggest that his own persecution in some way complemented Christ’s. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (1 Peter 4:12-13) Paul is certainly not suggesting that Jesus’ death is somehow insufficient for salvation, but rather that through the suffering endured by Paul (and countless others through the history of the church), the message of Christ’s sufferings is being spread and reaching the ends of the earth.

THINK IT THROUGH

  • If persecution is the normal Christian experience, should we be concerned it we are not facing persecution? Why/why not?

Early Persecution

The church faced persecution from the get-go. As soon as Peter and the apostles emerged on the day of Pentecost, full of the Spirit, with the good news of the risen Christ, they faced opposition.

This initial persecution came at the hands of the Jewish leaders. The message that God had vindicated Jesus through the resurrection necessarily meant that those who put him to death were going against God’s will. This was not a popular message.

It wasn’t long before Peter and John were arrested (see Acts 4:3) and the religious leaders attempted to silence the fledgling Jesus movement.

In Acts 5, the apostles were arrested again, but an angel broke them out in the night, and so they continued preaching about Jesus. They were brought before the high priest and asked to give an account, which they did. The high priest and his attendants wanted to kill them on the spot, but he was reigned in by the more moderate position of the Pharisee Gamaliel, who suggested allowing some time to see how things played out. “…Keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39)

Still, the early Christians continued to face opposition, and this was particularly strong when they evangelised.

Acts 6 tells the story of Stephen, a key leader in the early church who was preaching the gospel and performing great signs and wonders. Whilst he was preaching, some Jews from the ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen’ took issue with Stephen’s message and began disputing with him. They were unable to say anything against him, so instead brought false witnesses, claiming that, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:13-14)

Stephen was brought before the courts and asked if the claims were true, and so he embarked on re-telling the history of Israel, showing how the prophets had been persecuted throughout history and culminating in Jesus. This account filled the priests with rage and so they dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him – the first Christian martyr.

As Stephen died, standing looking on with the coats of the murderers was a young man called Saul, who approved of the murder.

Saul began to take more and more of a lead in the persecution of the church. Not content to have scattered the church, he wanted to pursue them and put them on trial in Jerusalem. “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 8:1-2)

God saved Saul (a.k.a. the apostle Paul), but this did not stop the persecution. There were still many people opposed to the spread of Christianity, and amongst them was King Herod, who made the apostles the focus of his persecution.

“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” (Acts 12:1-3)

Peter ended up escaping from prison, but James was the first of the apostles to be killed for his faith – a fate that would ultimately be shared by eleven of the twelve.

CONSIDER

  • How do you pray when you face opposition for your faith?
  • What can you learn from the prayer of the early Christians in Acts 4:23-31?

Roman Persecution

Jesus’ commission to his church was to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) As the church set out completing this commission, and thanks in no small part to the success of the missionary journeys of Paul, Barnabas and others, Christianity came onto the radar of Rome.

The first wave of persecution of Christians by the Romans came in 64 A.D. under the Emperor Nero.

For the first 5 years, (54-59 A.D.), Nero’s reign was prosperous and peaceful, perhaps largely due to the influence of Nero’s mother Agrippina over the young emperor. It was during this time that Paul urged Christians to be submissive to the authorities (Romans 13:1-7), and it was to Nero that Paul made his appeal in Acts 25:11.

From this promising start, Nero’s reign degenerated. He began removing anyone he perceived as a rival for the throne and ruled as a despot. This included the murder of his mother in 59 A.D. Nero established gymnasiums, theatres, gladiatorial shows, and other extravagances throughout the empire, all funded by heavy taxation to the poor.

On July 19th 64 A.D., there was a great fire in Rome that blazed out of control and engulfed the city. It is not entirely clear what the cause of the fire was, but many (including the Roman historian Tacitus) suggest that Nero himself may have been responsible in an attempt to clear the slums for another new building project.

Regardless, the public wanted a scapegoat, and to deflect blame from himself, Nero held the Christians responsible for the fire and executed many of their number in brutal and barbaric ways, such as feeding them to wild animals, burning them to death and crucifying them. As Tacitus records these events in his Annals (written in 110AD), he cannot hide his contempt for the cruelty of these acts.

Among the Christians killed at this time were the Apostles Peter (crucified upside down) and Paul (beheaded).

THINK IT THROUGH

  • What do you think would be some of the ways that Christianity and the Roman Empire came into conflict?

One of the key focal points of conflict between Christians and Rome was the Imperial cult. Although it was treated in a purely formal manner, there was the expectation that Emperors of Rome were to be treated as deities – something Christians could not do. It is impossible to simultaneously proclaim that ‘Caesar is Lord’ and ‘Jesus is Lord’.

This situation became even more serious at the end of the first century A.D. under the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) who styled himself ‘Lord and God’ and made an oath to his genius compulsory.

Second Century Martyrdoms

CONSIDER

  • What thoughts come to mind when you think about martyrdom?

In the second century AD, Christian martyrs were uncommon, though not unheard of. Persecution and martyrdom became a theme of some Christian writing of the time, such as that of Origen.

Amongst such thinkers, martyrdom came to be seen as an honour, and was considered to be the highest possible imitation of Christ. There were even some who desired martyrdom for this reason!

Two of the best-known Christian martyrs of the second century are Ignatius and Polycarp.

Ignatius

Ignatius was an early Christian who had been a disciple of the Apostle John. He had risen to leadership in the church and was the third bishop of Antioch.

In around 110 A.D., he was taken to Rome and met his death by being fed to wild beasts. As Ignatius prepared for his death, he prayed a prayer that reflected the attitude of many believers of the time to martyrdom and persecution:

“May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me in this: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or things invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let the fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.” (Ignatius)

Polycarp

Polycarp had also been a disciple of the Apostle John as a young man, and like Ignatius, he became a leader within the early church as the Bishop of Smyrna.

At the age of eighty-six, Polycarp was arrested and tried for being a Christian. The magistrate took pity on him and wanted to give him a way out.

The ancient source, ‘The Martyrdom of Polycarp’, picks up the story:

“When the magistrate pressed him hard and said, ‘swear the oath [to Caesar], and I will release you; revile the Christ,’ Polycarp said, ‘Eighty-six years have I been his servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’…

“Then he said to him again, ‘If you despise the wild beasts, I will cause you to be consumed by fire, unless you repent.’ But Polycarp said: ‘You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.’…

“So they tied him. Then he, placing his hands behind him and being bound to the stake, like a noble ram out of a great flock for an offering, a burnt sacrifice made ready and acceptable to God, looking up to heaven said: ‘O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers and of all creation and of the whole race of the righteous, who live in Your presence; I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You did prepare and reveal it beforehand, and have accomplished it, You that art the faithful and true God’…

“When he had offered up the Amen and finished his prayer, the firemen lighted the fire. And, a mighty flame flashing forth, we to whom it was given to see, saw a marvel, yes and we were preserved that we might relate to the rest what happened.” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp)

Polycarp was burned at the stake.

Widespread Persecution

Whilst men like Ignatius and Polycarp were martyred in the second century, this was not the routine experience of Christians at the time. There was not a concerted effort by the Roman Empire to crush Christianity at this moment in history, and often when persecution did arise, it was for other reasons. For example, in 177 A.D., 49 people were martyred in the church in Lyons because the church was being persecuted by a local mob as an immigrant community.

It was in the late third and early fourth centuries that more serious and systematic persecution came under a series of Emperors hostile to Christianity. Examples include Decius (249-51), who ordered every person in the empire to make sacrifices to the Roman gods or die; Valerian (253-60), who banned Christian meetings and ordered all high-ranking church leaders be put to death and Diocletian (303-12), who destroyed Christian buildings and books, removed many civil rights of Christians and ordered sacrifices to the Roman Gods.

This persecution was largely ended in 312 when Constantine became emperor. Christianity was normalised and for the next thousand years there was great freedom for Christians to practice their faith.

Early Modern Persecution

THINK IT THROUGH

  • What would it look like for Christians to disagree with each other on important issues in a godly way?

The Reformation period (around the 16th century), was another season where many Christians faced persecution. At this time, however, the persecution was not at the hands of the Jews or the Romans, but rather was usually one type of Christian persecuting another!

In the 1550s and 60s, a number of ‘martyrologies’ were written, describing and chronicling the sufferings and deaths of martyrs down the centuries, but focussing particularly on the sixteenth century. These included John Foxe’s ‘Acts & Monuments’ (better known simply as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’) and the Martyr’s Mirror.

Martyrs Mirror is a chronicle of Anabaptist martyrdoms. The Anabaptists emerged first in Zurich in the sixteenth century and were the first group for over 1000 years to argue for and practise believers’ baptism. As such, they were persecuted all over Europe by Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed authorities alike. Virtually wiped out in Europe, many fled to North America in the 17th century and survive today as Mennonite and Amish communities.

The Twentieth Century

Whilst there had been opposition to various radical leaders (such as George Whitefield in the eighteenth century) and the persecution of foreign missionaries (such as John G. Paton in the nineteenth century), it was in the twentieth century that persecution of Christians was escalated to a new level.

Under various fascist and communist governments, many were put to death for their faith in Christ. It has been observed that over the last 100 years, there have been more Christian martyrs than in the entire history of the church up to that point.

Two examples of twentieth century Christians that endured persecution are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Richard Wurmbrand.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in Germany and was a prominent opponent of Adolf Hitler. In 1932, when Hitler first came to power, Bonhoeffer made a radio address warning the German people against getting drawing into a cult of Fuhrer-worship.

As Nazi influence grew, so did Bonhoeffer’s opposition. He shunned the official state church and instead was a leader within the ‘confessing church’, attracting attention from the authorities. Bonhoeffer became aware of the extent of Nazi plans and was active in rescuing Jews from their German oppressors. He was privy to a number of plans to assassinate Hitler (though was not directly involved in any of them). In 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested, and by February 1945, he had been sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Eventually he was transferred to Flossenburg and hanged.

A witness of his death, Eberhard Bethge, said,

“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this loveable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” (Eberhard Bethge) 

Richard Wurmbrand

Richard Wurmbrand was a Christian minister in communist Romania. As the Soviet troops occupied his homeland, Wurmbrand would minister to his own people and to the Russian soldiers. He would publically declare that Christianity and communism were incompatible, and in 1948, he was arrested whilst on his way to a church meeting.

Wurmbrand was moved from prison to prison, enduring very harsh conditions, including three years of solitary confinement. He was released in 1956, only to be arrested again in 1959 for continuing his work with the underground church. Whilst in prison he was beaten and tortured, but remembers how God brought him through his ordeal.

“We didn’t see that we were in prison. We were surrounded by angels; we were with God. We no longer believed about God and Christ and angels because Bible verses said it. We didn’t remember Bible verses anymore. We remembered about God because we experienced it. With great humility we can say with the apostles, ‘What we have seen with our eyes, what we have heard with our ears, what we have touched with our own fingers, this we tell to you.’” (Richard Wurmbrand)

In 1964, a Norwegian group was able to negotiate Wurmbrand’s release and removal from Romania in exchange for £7,000, and he used the rest of his life as a spokesperson for the persecuted church.

Twenty-First Century Persecution

Today there are many parts of the world in which it is very dangerous to be a Christian. Globally, around 300 Christians a month are killed for their faith. This includes large swathes of the majority Islamic world and communist nations such as North Korea.

One of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a Christian is northern Nigeria. Since 2009, over 1000 Christians have lost their lives at the hands of the Boko Haram group. Christian leaders receive death threats and their family members are raped and blinded.

In addition, the regions of Iraq and Syria under the control of ISIS (to which Boko Haram is also affiliated) have seen a massive increase in persecution in recent months and news reports frequently show the execution of Christians.

In the midst of it, Christians are being taught to restrain from retaliation, to avoid playing into the hands of terrorist attempts to destabilise communities and create religious strife, and to show the love of Christ.

“The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” (John 16:2)

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Revelation 6:9-10)

“And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’” (Revelation 12:10-11)

APPLY

  • 'Persecution is normal'. Why then do we as 21st Century western Christians struggle with the idea of opposition and persecution so much?
  • What pastoral advice do the New Testament writers offer to Christians suffering persecution? Summarise the advice Peter gives in 1 Peter and the advice of the writer to the Hebrews.
  • How much of your prayer life is focussed on praying for persecuted Christians? Why not spend some time praying for them now?