Serious Christians often lament the poor spiritual state of the western church. All around them, they see what Tim Keller calls “sleepy” Christians, those who are united with Christ but lead anemic spiritual lives with little in regards to ministry or carrying out the Great Commission. They also see “make-believe” Christians; those who proclaim faith in Christ, come to church semi-regularly but whose lives are firmly planted in the world.
From time to time, I have heard serious Christians speak openly that perhaps what the western church needs to experience is a little persecution in order to purify the church by waking up the sleepy Christians and giving the make-believe Christians a choice of either standing with Christ or the world. The thinking is that if the church was to undergo a bit of suffering for being an expression of Christianity in the public square, believers would be jolted from their comfortable spiritual lifestyle and forced to take their faith seriously or renounce all identification with Christ.
Under such a scenario, people both inside and outside the church would realize that following Christ is serious business and not a kind of leisure activity that enhances personal fulfillment. Those who decided to follow Christ would then do so with a deep commitment to Jesus, regardless of the personal cost. The words of Christ would be soberly taken: “If anyone would come after me, must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.”
The logic is not without precedent. Many people come to Christ or have their spiritual lives revitalized when they are faced with a deep personal crisis that dislocates their lives and often brings internal grief, despair and suffering. They turn to Christ not only out of desperation but also out of dependence on Him, leading them to a deeper relationship with Him that they could not have experience otherwise. In God’s economy, He often uses the trials of life to call individuals and whole groups of people to Himself.
However, I argue that a desire to see the western church engulfed in some kind of moderate persecution is not only unbiblical but harmful for the following reasons:
1. The New Testament never calls on Christians to ask God for persecution in the quest for greater godliness. Although hardships are part of being a disciple of Christ, Christians are not called to pray for persecution as a means of attaining greater Christlikeness. In fact, Paul seems to call for the exact opposite. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 he writes, “I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone. For kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
2. There is no such thing as made-to-order persecution. People who talk about it always add the adjective “little” in order to express the desire that they are not looking for a large amount of persecution but just enough to wake up people. However, the history of the church is not one of “little” persecution. Millions of Christians through the ages have had to suffer incarceration, the loss of their families, the loss of their careers, even their lives in the face of brutal and long lasting persecution. I’m sure these believers were not looking for any persecution, be it big or small.
3. It paints the persecution experience as some kind of noble enterprise that will achieve positive ends. But this is only to romanticize something that has cost the lives of millions of believers through the ages, torn families apart and sometimes destroyed the church in certain parts of the world, such as in North Africa and the Middle East. In some cases, persecution does not achieve the desired results the romantics are looking for.
4. It trivializes those who are enduring great persecution for the sake of Christ in many parts of the world. The global church should and does fight the persecution of believers around the world, calling on governments to stop the jailing and killing of people whose faith they do not like. To think that a bit of persecution for the western church is a good thing is almost saying that those in jail for their faith are somehow better off for it. It sends a conflicting message in an age where the world wide persecution of the church is at an all time high.
The thinking that a little persecution is the best antidote for a sleepy western church may be well meaning but it is misplaced. It falsely romanticizes persecution and turns it into something minor that leads to a greater payoff. Instead, the church should start taking the scriptures seriously and asking the Holy Spirit to move her heart towards greater discipleship.
Persecution is deadly serious and the western church must respond vigorously against it for the sake of the persecuted church in other parts of the world. Jesus has already promised His church that, in this world, she will experience trouble. She doesn’t have to go looking for it or ask for a little bit of it. She only has to take heart because the Bridegroom has overcome the world.
2016 © Ed LeBlanc