A History of Persecution

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The horrific ruthlessness of ISIS, the brazen cruelty of Boko Haram, the obsessive repression of the North Korean Juche, the vicious terrorism of al-Qaeda—I confess that when confronted with the persecution of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world in recent days, I am shocked. But I know I shouldn’t be. Long ago, the Apostle Paul asserted, “All those who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). There is no way around it. Persecution is inevitable.

Throughout church history, believers have suffered persecution and obscurity. They have been beaten, ridiculed, defrocked, and defamed. They have suffered poverty, isolation, betrayal, and disgrace. They have been hounded, harassed, and murdered. The heroes of the faith have always been those who sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and reputations for the sake of the gospel. Indeed, persecution and martyrdom have been among the church’s highest callings and greatest honors.

In the first three centuries of the church, from Nero to Diocletian, Roman imperial and provincial persecutions were fierce. Tradition tells us of gladiators in the Colosseum, lions in the Circus Maximus, and staked pyres in the Forum as threatening the earliest believers. They were forced into a precarious, often secretive existence, living on the margins of society and meeting in catacombs, caverns, and copse (thicket of trees) hideaways. Yet they persevered. As Tertullian quipped, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Despite the spread of the gospel from the fourth to the sixth centuries, the hazards of persecution remained a lamentable feature of everyday life. Whether from marauding barbarian bands along the Germanic frontiers or from doctrinal and ideological rivals at home, faithful men such as Athanasius and Augustine were often forced to stand contra mundum, “against the world.”

The rise of Islam out of the desolate Arabian Peninsula and its subsequent westward expansion posed new threats to Christians throughout Byzantium and across the North African shore. From the seventh to the eleventh centuries, the Christian heartland was crushed under the weight of Islamic invasions. The plunder of churches, the rape of Christian women, the torture of priests and monks, the pilfering of villages and owns, and the occupation of the territories sent shudders of horror throughout the West—eventually prompting the efforts of the Crusaders.

Throughout the medieval age, Islam remained a persistent danger to believers, both in the conquered lands of the old Christian East and along the frontiers of the West. Invading Assassini armies marched to the gates of Vienna; marauding Ottoman armies controlled the eastern Mediterranean. Their policy of enforced servitude for Christians who would not convert to Islam threatened to swallow up the last remnants of the faithful. There were other dangers to Christians as well—from the Teutonic tribes of the north, from the last of the pagan Viking warlords, and even from overzealous inquisitors.

With the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came a new wave of persecution. Many believers were, in the words of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, “bound to relinquish not only goods and children, but life itself, for the glory of their Redeemer.” A vast host were swept away in the wars that raged across Europe: the German Peasants’ War (1524–25), the Battle of Kappel (1531), the Schmalkaldic War (1546–47), the Huguenot repression (1562–98), the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639–51).

The Age of Discovery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries afforded new opportunities for missionary deployment around the world. Plunging into the darkest jungles, trekking across the harshest deserts, and sailing along the deepest seas brought new dangers—for both the missionaries and their first disciples. The story of the great missions movement cannot be told apart from the terrible sacrifices made by faithful followers of Jesus.

Astonishingly, though, it has been the twentieth century, along with the first decade and a half of the twenty-first, that has seen the greatest increase in persecution. According to ministries such as Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs, more Christians have been killed for their faith in the last century than in all other ages combined. The lethal assault against the church by the minions of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Kim Il-sung, and Pol Pot unleashed untold horrors. In prison cells, gulags, concentration camps, detention centers, torture chambers, reeducation centers, and labor camps, millions were (and still are) sacrificed on the bloodied secular altars of the proletarian utopia.

Now, with the rise of a new generation of Shiite, Wahhabi, Salafi, and Sunni jihadists, a new tidal wave of persecution threatens devastation and destruction to Christians and non-Christians alike.

None of this should come as a surprise. It seems that the greatest glory, majesty, piety, courage, vision, humility, and grace the world has ever known has always been marred by the “Judas kiss” of disaster and disgrace. Jesus explained this reality to His disciples, saying:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 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. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:18–20)

In light of all this, how should we then live? According to Scripture, it is incumbent upon us to comfort one another (2 Cor. 1:4), “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), and “encourage one another and build up one another” (1 Thess. 5:11). The mandate to care for one another and all those who suffer—even in the midst of our own travails—rings as clear as a clarion down through the ages (Rom. 12:10–16).

Some of the most inspiring examples of faith in history are invariably those instances when the family of God has actually acted like a family and when the household of faith has actually functioned as a household. They have been when the church served as Christ’s own instrument of mercy, when it became a kind of medicine of immortality to the dying denizens of the world. As E.M. Bounds said, “The easy smile, the temperate deportment, and the contented visage of successful and prosperous Christians can but impress few, but the determined faithfulness, the long-suffering fellowship, and the stalwart compassion of yokefellows in hardship is certain to convey the hope of grace to many.”

Like so many before and after him, Bounds discovered the beauty of fellowship, the strength of communion, and the brilliance of grace at a time when ugliness, weakness, and dullness seemed most certain to prevail in his life. It was only as he witnessed the service of the true church during his bitterest days of adversity that he began to comprehend the place and power of prayer—a comprehension that would in later years bring blessing to generations of readers through his many incisive books.

Merciful service in the face of suffering is “often the glue that holds together the varied fragments of the confessing church,” Romanian pastor Josef Tson says. It affords the church “strong bonds of unity, compassion, and tenderheartedness,” Russian evangelist Georgi Vins says. “In the face of tyranny, oppression, and humiliation, the church has no option but to be the church,” Croatian pastor Josep Kulacik asserts. “Disguised as evil, persecution comes to us as an ultimate manifestation of God’s good providence,” Bosnian Christian leader Frizof Gemielic says, “because it provokes us toward a new-found dependence upon His grace, upon His Word, and upon His people. It is in that sense a paradoxical blessing perhaps even more profound than prosperity.”

Our response to the “fragrance of oppression,” as Herbert Schlossberg has dubbed the sufferings of our world, is perhaps the single most significant indicator of the health of the church. After all, it is in “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, and hunger” (2 Cor. 6:4–5) that our mettle is ultimately proven. In a day of heightened awareness of the plight of the persecuted church, may that mettle indeed be proven anew.

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