What Is Christian Persecution?
by Tom Ascol
Jesus told His disciples: “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). He promised that if we follow Him, we will be persecuted. But what does that mean? What does the Bible actually teach about this important issue?
Two experiences that I had as a young pastor have helped clarify my understanding of Christian persecution—that is, the kind of which the Bible speaks as inevitably coming against followers of Christ.
The first was with a young professional who was full of love for Jesus and zeal to see the gospel spread. Steve became burdened about an unconverted coworker and saw it as his Christian duty to witness to this man in an effort to persuade him to become a believer. His zeal caused him to spend hours of his time at work talking to his friend about salvation and explaining the gospel to him.
When his boss warned him to stop “pushing his religion while on the clock” Steve took it as an affront to the lordship of Christ and refused. After he was fired, he told me his story in terms of suffering for his faith. Steve saw himself as having been persecuted by his boss.
The other experience involved meeting a pastor who spent twenty years in a Communist prison because he refused to quit preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. I met Samuel Lamb while visiting the church that gathered in his home in Guangzhou, China. After two hours of worship in cramped conditions, our group of ten American pastors was invited to talk with Pastor Lamb at length.
I will never forget his response to one of our questions about persecution and the advance of the gospel. “In America,” he said, “the church has experienced prosperity and is growing weaker. In China, the church has experienced persecution and growing stronger. Persecution is much better than prosperity.”
Both of those experiences have helped me frame two important questions involving what constitutes Christian persecution. Steve’s comments raise the question, “Can Christians claim to be persecuted anytime they are treated harshly or are mistreated?” Pastor Lamb’s comments cause me to ask, “Is persecution limited to severe actions like imprisonment or the infliction of physical pain?”
Steve saw himself as a martyr because he was fired for talking to his coworker about Christ. From my vantage point, however, it was not Steve’s faith that provoked his dismissal. It was his failure to put in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, even after he was warned. Though talking about Christ is a good thing, doing so at the expense of your employer is a bad thing.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). Steve stole time from his employer and suffered the consequences of his thievery. He did not lose his job for the sake of righteousness, or “doing good” but “for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). If the reason a believer experiences opposition is due to anything other than his identity with and devotion to Christ, then what happens to him is not Christian persecution.
Peter specifically forbids Christians from thinking that all suffering is necessarily Christian persecution. “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler” (1 Peter 4:15; see 2:20). When Christians suffer for doing what God forbids, they are not experiencing Christian persecution and must not twist Scripture in an attempt to comfort themselves with the promises that are designed for those who suffer because of their faith in Christ.
Pastor Lamb spoke in generalities when he described the church in China as persecuted and the church in America as prosperous. To a certain extent, this generalization is warranted. Who can deny the vast differences between living as a Christian in America versus living as a Christian in China?
It is legitimate to speak of “the persecuted church” when thinking of those places in the world where our brothers and sisters are systematically attacked with harshness and even physical violence because of their faith. However, we must be careful not to limit our understanding of persecution to those extreme situations. The beheadings, mutilations, stonings, and imprisonments that are regularly carried out against Christians simply because they are Christians are examples of severe persecution. But the Bible does not limit its definition of persecution to certain levels of severity.
It is not just physically violent acts that constitute persecution. Lesser forms of opposition to followers of Christ are also included. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:11). He mentions three categories of opposition. The first and third are exclusively verbal, and the second includes both verbal and physical assaults. Christian persecution encompasses all of them.
When a believer is spoken to derisively or abusively because of his devotion to Christ, he is at that point experiencing persecution. Granted, it is not as severe as the violence that is carried out against those who are made to suffer physically because of their faith, but it is nonetheless real. The same is true for slanderous accusations that are made about believers because of their devotion to Christ.
When we experience such things, Jesus tells us that we should “rejoice and be glad” for two reasons—first, because our reward will be “great in heaven” and second, because in the same way “they persecuted the prophets who were before [us]” (Matt. 5:12). In Luke’s parallel passage, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil on account of the Son of Man,” again invoking the experience of the prophets who lived long before (6:22–23). With this language, He expands the idea of persecution to include even attitudes and dispositions of hatred.
So, Christian persecution can include a wide variety of responses to believers—from scorn, hatred, and ridicule to physical violence, imprisonment, and death. But for such opposition, no matter how mild or severe, to be regarded as persecution in the biblical sense, it must be provoked by the believer’s devotion to Jesus Christ and His righteousness.
This helps make sense of Paul’s statement that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12) and Jesus’ promise that His followers will face persecution “for my sake and for the gospel” (Mark 10:29–30). Every Christian should expect to experience persecution, not all in the same way, but all for the same reason—because of uncompromising devotion to Jesus.
Our Lord experienced opposition. Hatred against Him led to His crucifixion. Those who follow Him must realize that by identifying with Jesus, we are inviting into our lives the very opposition that came against Him. He said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).
Followers of a persecuted master will themselves be persecuted. When we intentionally live according to the way of Christ, we can count on meeting opposition from those who hate Christ. Whether that opposition comes in severe forms of physical violence, imprisonment, and loss of life or in comparatively benign forms of a low grade on a school paper, loss of position on a sports team, or being mocked by family and friends, if it is provoked by submission to Christ and obedience to His commands, it is Christian persecution.
We must not call every affliction that comes into a Christian’s life persecution. That designation should be reserved for opposition that arises because of devotion to Christ. Neither should we dismiss lesser degrees of persecution because they do not result in bloodshed. Instead, we should remember that the trail that our Savior blazed for us is a path of suffering and death. As we follow Him and refuse to compromise our devotion to Him, when persecution comes—in whatever form it comes—we should be encouraged by this admonition of Peter:
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)