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Worldview Wednesday

Is the American church being persecuted, and how has the historical Church responded to persecution?

2020 has been a year dominated by the global spread of the novel coronavirus, and the subsequent illness (Covid-19) that has emerged from it. As of the writing of this piece, there have been 4.85 million cases of Covid-19 in the United States, and over 150,000 people have perished. New vernacular has come about to accommodate the new practices we have been implementing; phrases like ‘social distancing’ and ‘flatten the curve’ have become common utterances. Masks/face coverings have become necessary features for those venturing out into public. Movie theaters, sporting events, concerts, and festivals have ceased to invite patrons. Most restaurants are now virtually take-out only. This is indeed a strange time.

In the midst of global happenings, the likes of which can be compared to nothing since the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Church is included in the long list of entities affected.

This has led some church leaders and Christians across the country claiming government persecution as some church communities have chosen to defy health ordinances in favor of large corporate gatherings.

This is a significant topic to consider, with major worldview ramifications. Two important questions need to be considered:

1- Is the American Church being persecuted?

2- How has the historical church responded to persecution?

Let’s answer these questions in reverse.

How has the historical church responded to persecution?

Jesus promised His followers they would be persecuted (click on any verse to access it):

While all of these predictions would come to pass in the very near future for the Apostles, it is actually what Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that is most fascinating.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The Ancient Greek Word for witness is martys. It has the dual function of labeling one who has witnessed the resurrected Jesus, while also serving to describe what happens to the one who proclaims what he/she witnessed… martrydom (one who is killed for their beliefs).

So, let us look carefully at what Jesus promises to His closest followers in Acts 1:8 now that they have seen the risen Lord:

  • They will publicly proclaim what they have seen.
  • They will be violently persecuted for what they proclaim.
  • And, somehow, through this violent opposition the movement will actually grow to the ends of the known world!

The remaining chapters of Acts (2–28) all affirm the accuracy of Jesus’ threefold promise. The Church is persecuted wherever it spreads, and yet as the movement is forced out of one place, it simply takes root elsewhere. By the end of Acts, a movement that began with a dozen uneducated men and some women now has the audience of almighty Caesar. How did this happen? The power of the Holy Spirit mixed with Roman persecution!

Perhaps this odd relationship between persecution and Church growth is why Jesus said it is a blessing to be persecuted.

Also, the Apostles learned to approach persecution as blessing!

It can’t be an accident that there is a direct, consistent correlation in the New Testament canon between sufferings, salvation, and future glory.

Even more so, look what Paul the Apostle asserts in 2 Corinthians 1:6–7.

If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort.

Paul draws a clear line from persecution to comfort. What a paradox! That which brings trouble, actually produces comfort!!!

Friends, history insists that persecution is gasoline on the fire of the Church’s witness. Even as mighty Rome insisted on halting the spread of Christianity by violent means, it grew all the more — and Christians believed they were blessed to endure such trials. But, why did such trials arise?

To put it simply, it was because a new Lord was being proclaimed.

Common jargon in Imperial Rome was to refer to Caesar as….. LORD. “Caesar is Lord!” was a common proclamation. There was even an imperial cult dedicated to deifying the Emperor. Rome’s power was also grounded in their intimidating tendencies. In order to maintain peace throughout their empire, Rome physically dominated their citizens, and crucifixion was the ultimate weapon of intimidation.

And so, what did Christians do?

  • They proclaimed JESUS as Lord.
  • They claimed they were citizens of THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
  • They glorified Jesus work on the Roman Cross… they did not shrink away from it.

Thus, Rome responded with typical intimidation against this infectious community that was spreading throughout its land.

This is al hugely important as we shift back to today.

Is the American church being persecuted?

No. The American church is not being persecuted to the extent we see even today in other regions of the world (like China and Iran), or even to the extent seen throughout world history. However, what leaders and Christians are sensing certainly feels like persecution. And, something certainly is changing across the American landscape as it pertains to Christian worship. But if it isn’t actual persecution what is it?

It is the loss of privilege.

The American government has not historically been hostile to the Church.

Federal, state, and local governments are restricted from creating any laws that impede on religious observance/practice (see First Amendment to the Bill of Rights). The American Church has enjoyed truly unprecedented privilege in her freedom to worship freely and without consequence.

Nevertheless, this privilege has been challenged in recent years; Covid-19 restrictions being just the most recent example.

Even still, the loss of privilege does not equate to persecution.

In fact, and odd thing has manifested itself in American society that a Christian residing in the Roman Empire would not have understood at all.

American Christians celebrate their Caesar.

The fervor with which various American Christians have celebrated our current President or even former Presidents would be hard for an early Christian to understand. If a Roman Christian in the second half of the first century came to a house-church love feast on Sunday afternoon wearing a “Make Rome Great Again” head piece and a tunic displaying the Roman Emperor in an honorable fashion, the rest of their fellowship would have been severely troubled. Christians, after all, were casting away the glory of Rome and honor of the Emperor for the glory of God’s Kingdom and the Lordship of the Risen Jesus. They were fighting back against the systems of Roman society that benefitted only a few, and were instead giving priority to the majority of the Roman population that was vulnerable and impoverished. Such a juxtaposition would have been grounds for Paul to write a letter addressing such confusion in the church.

The early church understood with remarkable clarity that Jesus was Lord and God’s Kingdom had arrived and was arriving with greater clarity with every movement of grace and care the Church enacted. This was all an act of defiance against Rome and the Emperor.

In contrast, the American church has been fertile ground for honoring political figures. Why? Because, American church organizations have benefitted hugely from government sanctioned freedoms:

  • American churches have been able to gather wherever/whenever.
  • American churches have been able to proclaim whatever they’ve wanted.
  • American churches don’t pay taxes.
  • Tithing is tax-deductible.
  • Political candidates have been rewarded for identifying with and considering the Christian voter for decades.

Privilege.

This is what American Christians are sensing. These privileges are indeed being eaten away at. But, this is not persecution.

The American Church has a decision to make.

The early Church knew nothing of privilege, and yet Jesus-followers were ardent proclaimers of the resurrection of Jesus.

The early Church in some ways is enviable to today. Most early Christians benefitted little from the social-economic realities of the Roman Empire. They already suffered, so suffering for a better King was worth it. American Christians most choose between the immediate privileges and comforts provided by today’s Caesar (even as the slowly erode from before us) and the glory being prepared for those who are faithful to the King of Kings.

  • The American Christian is able to post as much about Jesus as they desire.
  • The American Christian can own and distribute as many Bibles as they desire.
  • American churches can still meet safely in each others homes, and even in public as long as it won’t pose a threat to the physical safety of others during a pandemic.

American Christians have enormous privilege… so much of it, that I fear we don’t know which Lord to choose.

I for one, am happy that theAmerican Church might lose some of her privilege. Perhaps now, American Christians will truly choose which Lord they will serve; Ceasar or Jesus.

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Ty Benbow

Ty Benbow

Doctor of Ministry — Assistant Professor — Biblical Studies Department, Warner University