Myth: Persecution Always Grows the Church

The following is a guest post by Troy Frasier. Troy is a podcast host and co-founder of Revived Studios.

If we are unwilling to take a stand for Christ now, what makes us think we will do so when persecution hits? I was having coffee with a friend, and we talked about current events and the state of the church. He mentioned that he welcomed the idea of persecution. I asked him why, and he said something many of us have heard before, “Because it will make the church stronger. It will force us to live for our faith in more robust ways.”

To be fair to my friend, he is not alone in thinking this. We have all heard this phrase, haven’t we? I remember in 2012, 2016, and 2020, people told me they were voting for a particular candidate so that persecution would increase and the church would grow up.

The church has grown stronger under persecution at times. “For the Lord will not forsake His people,” as Psalm 94:14 states. God will take care of His cherished and beloved ones during persecution. Also, times of persecution will force the tares and chaff to be separated from the wheat.

But please do not look forward, longingly, to persecution. God never abandons those whom He loves, but the church does not always thrive in persecution.

Great Men Are Remembered For A Reason

I run a church history podcast studio, so church history is often on my mind. There are examples of the church flourishing and growing, despite persecution. Classic examples of this include aspects of the Roman Empire, the Reformation, and even the more modern-day example of the Chinese church. These extraordinary events give the impression that, on some level, we westerners might be better off with persecution. If only our freedoms and rights were put to the test, then we would lose our decadence and immorality and actually stand for Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Watchman Nee, and Martin Luther come to our minds when we think of those who stood for Christ with no fear in death. In Scripture, we even see Paul and Stephen, along with several other apostles, all faithful unto death. We often imagine ourselves living and dying that way, don’t we? “If put to the test, I would surely go to jail or the guillotine for Christ.”

These men were all stand-outs for a reason. They bucked the trends. When Bonhoeffer was told by his boss to get onboard with Nazi theology and ideology or take a hike, he was the only one in his department to say no. Do not expect that you will have the courage to stand for Christ in big ways when you are struggling, with all your freedom, to stand for Christ now. Those who are faithful in little things will be put in charge of greater things, but those of us who do not show courage in the little should not expect suddenly to grow in courage when it counts.

The story remains fixed in my mind. A few months after my family left China in 2018, a crackdown on churches and Christians began. Students at a particular school were being told to give up their faith. At first, half of the Christian students refused, but after pressure, threats, and warnings, only one student was left who did not denounce Christ. “These are kids,” you might say. When under persecution, those could be your kids. To that one who remained steadfast, my heart goes out to that family for how they suffered for their refusal. For you, are you sure you will be the one who to hold onto Christ? Are you certain your kids would stay strong if forced into a situation like that, when their parents’ jobs, their reputation, and their own chances of graduation were being threatened? I pray my own children will be firm when and if that time were to come, but, no, I do not long for something like that to happen to our children, families, and churches.

Societal Persecution

Let us take a broader view for a moment and talk about societies that experienced persecution and did not come out the other side as beacons of the faith. Did these churches always multiply and grow under persecution?

One hundred years ago, the church in Armenia went through one of the worst and most often overlooked genocides in history. 1.5 million Armenians, mostly Christians, were killed. To this day, the Armenian churches are not safe; a church was shelled just a few months ago. Is the church of Armenia flourishing today? God’s Kingdom is never stopped, but I do not think we should arrogantly assume that this genocidal persecution was a good thing.

What about Japan? In the 1500s-1600s, attempts were being made to Christianize Japan. Then Japan closed the door on Christians and wiped them all out. They enacted a complete eradication of all things Christian, and Japan closed out all western influence for the next 200 years. Amazingly, two hundred years later, when America opened it up, there were remnants of Christians who had passed on the Bible orally and secretly. These tiny groups of Christians had survived the persecution and attempted to hold on to the faith. Still, some of them had sadly drifted into heresy. They had lost much of the scriptures as they tried to pass them on orally and privately under great duress, and the lack of formal training for the clergy had dire consequences. Although these groups deserve the highest commendations for their courage and bravery, this hardly seems like the kind of faith we should be desiring.

Even after America forced Japan to open up, it adopted many of the characteristics of the West but hardly any of the Christianity. This led to one of the most oppressive but thankfully short-lived empires in the world. Even today, Japan is regarded as one of the most challenging missions fields a person can be sent to due to the lack of interest. The church did not flourish in Japan, thanks to persecution.

What about the Middle East? When Islam was on the rise in the 600s-800s, they forced conversion, required heavy taxes, and applied conscription to Christians across the Middle East. Though Christianity survived there, and still does, it took a heavy toll on the Christian populace. The Middle East, the birthplace of the faith, is no longer known to be a bastion of Christianity.

How about the French Revolution? Hundreds of clergy were killed during the Reign of Terror, and many pastors resigned or were forced to resign. Many church leaders never came back, and these local churches never returned to their former stature. During those years, churches were used as stables, all of the streets were renamed to remove the Christian history, and some clergy were forced to condemn Christianity to large crowds. 30,000 clergy were sent into exile. Even though the persecution was supposed to end after two years, church leaders were still being imprisoned or sent to penal colonies as late as 1799.

When we look at the revivals that swept through Europe and America in the 1800s, we do not see France participating. Can we name any famous protestant or reformed French preachers after all this persecution? Did anyone step up and make bold the name of Christ from France? In the age of Spurgeon, Talmage, Cuyler, Taylor, Mueller, Liddon, Ryle, Maclaren, Bonar, M’Cheyne, Carroll, Scofield, Moody, Murray, and so many others, the French are almost completely silent. The birthplace of John Calvin and the Huguenots does not participate with any gusto in any of the revivals that swept the continent or the new world. Should we long for what happened to France for churches today?

What Does God Say?

God does not seem to look favorably on persecution. He allows it. He promises it on some level to all believers, and He loves His martyrs. Revelation 6:9-11 shows that God loves His people who died in the name of His Son. They are clothed and remembered by our God. We see Stephen the Martyr seeing the face of Christ shining on Him in Heaven, and we know that Christ has called all of us to pick up our cross and follow Him.

God does use suffering to help us in our faith. Romans 5:3 tells us that suffering produces perseverance. 1 Peter tells us that when we are tried, it is to test and show our faith. Trials, suffering, and tests have their reasons, and God uses them. We should rejoice during suffering and count ourselves blessed to be worthy of suffering for God’s name when it occurs.

However, in no situation should we desire persecution. There is no evidence that Paul, the Apostles, or anyone else in Scripture sat around hoping the Pharisees would show up to burden their work. They would step up in the name of Christ if it happened, but they would not long for it.

God does not need to use persecution to show your faith. God can show your faith in the good times as well as the bad! Many have brilliantly demonstrated their commitment to Christ during times of plenty. Look back at that list of preachers from the 1800s if you would like some examples. He can use persecution, and we are to bow to His will if He so chooses, but do not sit there and think, “Man, I hope persecution comes.” God loves His martyrs, but no one should be excited that others are losing their jobs because of their faith, or celebrate the idea of their pastors or neighbors being sent prison, or secretly revel at the notion of their family being put to death for the Gospel. These are moments of terrible pain and suffering.

Do you lack courage?

I have often heard it said, “If you do not evangelize and tell people you are a Christian in America, you will not suddenly begin to do so when you are in another country.” There’s truth to this.

The same is true for courage. If you wait for the hard times to come, you will not suddenly start being courageous. Take courageous stands for Christ now while you can. If you sit back and wait for the persecution to hit so you can grow up and be strong in the faith, it might happen. God can do miracles. The Holy Spirit may empower you to do something you never dreamed possible, but you may also shrink back, just as you are currently doing.

Do you struggle to tell your coworkers, friends, and family about Christ now? Do you think when they are trying to find out who to fire that you will suddenly become brave? If your congregation struggles to attend Sunday to Sunday, do you think it will improve when cameras are focused on the church so that the government knows who comes and goes?

Yes, Christians will grow during persecution. Yes, some will even be converted by our courage and faith, and some will be martyrs, the highest honor in the Christian faith, but do not yearn for this. Accept it, but do not desire it because you assume it will fix what troubles the church. The church has flourished from persecution in days past, but history shows that it has dramatically diminished the local church too. God knows, and we do not. Instead, let us focus on living for Him now.

-Troy Frasier, Revived Studios

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