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Ask a persecution expert: Is persecution actually a ‘good’ thing?

March 23, 2020 by Ron Boyd-MacMillan in Ask a Persecution Expert

Yes, except sometimes it doesn’t!

Biblically speaking, there is no absolute promise that Christian persecution will always grow the church, but there are many examples where it does. The most explicit is in the Book of Acts. Chapter 8:1 tells us a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, which acted as a motor for mission so that the gospel gets out from a Jewish enclave to the “ends of the earth.”

Two main dynamics kick in to help spread the gospel. First, power gets shifted downward to people who have never had it before! Up until this point, apostles in Jerusalem think the gospel is only for Jews. They stayed in the city. The first cross-cultural evangelist of the church then is not an apostle, it’s a deacon—Philip.

Second, people get pushed outward to places they have never been before. Philip finds himself among the Samaritans, hated half-Jews and a despised people group. There is no way the church in Jerusalem was interested in offering the gospel to Samaritans. But persecution pushed Philip into their territory, and—maybe to his astonishment, too—the Samaritans believe and join the Church! It’s not long before the gospel has arrived in Antioch, and that church replaces the Jerusalem fellowship as the primary sending church of the New Testament era, responsible for funding the missionary journeys of Paul.

When the church dies from persecution

Historically speaking, we can see, however, that when two circumstances come together, the church can die from persecution. One circumstance is where persecution lasts for many generations; the other when a hostile culture is created that daily discriminates against the exercise of the Christian faith. These are called by scholars the time and totality elements.

For example, from 635 to 1000 AD the Islamic persecution of Christians took place in the heartland of Christianity. At the end of the period, Christians were wiped out from large parts of North Africa, and barely survived as a minority in other countries where they had once been the dominant majority. In the violent 14th century, leaders like Timur Lane finished Christianity off in Asia, where it has been a tiny minority ever since. Scholars like Samuel Moffat tell us that when persecution is short and sharp, it revives the church in the same way that a tree is the better for having its branches pruned, but when the trunk is cut down, the whole tree falls—same for the church.

If we look at the contemporary persecuted church, though, persecution must be a “good” thing because persecuted Christians pray for those in Western countries “to be more persecuted.” This has to do with their experience that nothing spreads the gospel more than if it has cost the Christian to witness. A Pakistani Muslim convert said recently: “My Muslim friend told me he had found Jesus. I was aghast, and at first I wanted to kill him. But then I thought, he has just put his life in my hands to tell me this news, because if I reported him, I could gain all his property because the tribal elders would take it away from an apostate and give it to his denouncer. So I thought, who is this Jesus that my friend would risk all to tell me about the joy of knowing him?”

What is Jesus worth?

When witnessing to Christ costs the most, it proves Christ must be worth knowing above all else. That turns the gospel into its true worth: a priceless treasure. As a Korean Christian in China said, “It’s more important to witness than to live.” She went back into North Korea, from where she had fled. She wanted to tell her family about Jesus. She knew it would probably cost her life itself!

Still, we can’t go making an easy formula out of it. The picture is mixed. For example, persecution in Iraq has resulted in the Iraqi church going down from 1.5 million members in 1991 to less than 200,000 today. Yet in neighboring war-torn Syria, the church is growing, especially among those from a Muslim background. In China, the world’s largest revival took place after the terrible persecutions of the 1960s and 1970s, so that 50 million people turned to Christ in the 1980s, and by some counts, the church numbers over 100 million.

So, pray for persecution. It may not always revive the church or spread the gospel, but it often does. But it always—always—reveals the infinite worth of knowing Christ, because it makes clear the believer is risking everything to keep and to share that Divine Friendship!

And that always makes the gospel clear!

Dr. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan is a professor teaching on the persecuted church at Fuller Seminary, and at the Lahore College of Theology, Pakistan.