The short answer is “Yes, all the time.”

The not as short answer is: “Yes, Christians in America are persecuted, but not as frequently, consistently, or with nearly the intensity that Christians are persecuted in many other parts of the world.”

For a longer answer, keep reading.

What’s In a Word

I understand why non-Christians would say Christians in this country are not persecuted. It doesn’t help their cause to make martyrs of rank and file evangelicals. And besides, many secular people still think the Christian Right is intent on instituting a theocracy and punishing all infidels. Persecution is hardly in their purview.

I also understand why progressive Christians would say Christians in this country are not persecuted. Christians on the left are apt to see evangelicals as the meanies, not secularists. Progressive Christians hold to a narrative that blames conservatives for instigating the culture war and driving young people from the church. Persecution is not the problem; intransigence is. Progressives long for the day when—if we would just beat our fundamentalist spears into NPR pruning hooks—our churches would be full of Christian activists attuned to the sensitivities of our cultural despisers.

I even understand why many conservative Christians are reticent to use the p-word to describe our troubles. We think of persecution as church bombings and physical violence—the sort of stuff our brothers and sisters in North Africa and the Middle East and in parts of Asia face every day. We understand, rightly, that getting a forced hiatus from Duck Dynasty is not exactly suffering on the same scale. If persecution means “there’s a decent chance this year that someone will try to kill me or a family member for being Christians” then no, we are not persecuted in this country.

Bringing in the Bible

But is that what the Bible means by “persecution”? Like most Greek words, the word translated “persecution” in our English Bibles (dioko) has a wide semantic range. According to the standard lexicon for the New Testament (BDAG), dioko can mean “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute.” In many place in the New Testament, persecution refers to violence toward Christians. Matthew 10:21-23 speaks family members killing other family members. Luke 11:49 references killing and persecution in the same breath. And in Acts persecution is linked with arrest, murder, and physical violence (Acts 7:52; 9:4; 22:4, 7; 26:11, 14; see also Gal. 1:13).

But there is reason to think dioko is not limited to these extreme acts of oppression. In Matthew 5:10, Jesus promises that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will be blessed. Then in v. 11 he further explains what this persecution is like: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” It’s possible that reviling and persecuting and uttering evil are three distinct acts, but considering verse 11 flows out of verse 10, it’s better to see these as overlapping categories. When verse 12 says “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” Jesus does not mean every prophet was killed, but rather that all the prophets were reviled and spoken against, and in this manner (or worse) they were persecuted. Persecution may mean being put to death (Matt. 10:21), but it can also refer to being “hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matt. 10:22).

We are confirmed in this broader understanding of persecution by two other passages:

John 15:20 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.

2 Timothy 3:13 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

Persecution is not something that befalls only a few Christians. While it’s possible to read Jesus’ words in John 15:20 as a unique promise for the apostles, the passage from 2 Timothy cannot be read so narrowly. The point is plain: while martyrdom is a special category set aside for a select number of Christians (Rev. 6:8-11), persecution is the normal experience of every Christian everywhere. From stiff fines, to family shame, to being kicked off college campuses, to laws against sharing our faith, to unjust trials, to public mockery and scorn, to arrest and brutality, if we faithfully follow Jesus in this world we all will face persecution at some point in our Christian discipleship.

Why This Matters

So what? What’s the big deal in proving that “technically” Christians are being persecuted in this country? Is this about feeling sorry for ourselves and finding more ammunition to blame the media for our troubles? Not at all. We should not think more highly of our suffering than it deserves.

But neither should we make it out to be something less than it is. There are at least four reasons it’s important we realize that Christians in America will be, and often are being, persecuted.

First, we do not want to miss out on the privilege of suffering, even a little bit, for the name of Jesus (Acts. 5:41). Being hated for Christian beliefs and Christian virtues is no fun under any circumstances, but the pain is made worse when we have no category for joining in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering (Phil. 3:10).

Second, we should not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes to test us (1 Peter 4:12). If we expect persecution to only come in the form of imprisonment and death, we will not know what to think of slander, derision, and disdain. The New Testament assumes that being hated for one’s Christianity is the norm, not the exception.

Third, if we overly limit the scope of persecution, we will neglect the Christian ethic incumbent upon us to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom. 12:14; see also 1 Cor. 4:12). When people slander us, mock us, or pass laws against us because we are thought to be anti-gay, anti-science, and anti-women, that is persecution. And as such, we are commanded by Christ himself to pray for those and love those who hate us so.

Fourth, if John 15:20 is true, and 2 Timothy 3:13 is true, and the expectation of the entire New Testament is true, then no amount of PR work is going to rescue the church from being thought by some as backwards and bigoted. Where in the gospels did Jesus promise that the world would love us if we just kept our heads down and tried to be good neighbors? Where in Revelation is war with the dragon presented as anyone’s fault but the dragon’s? I know many outsiders think of the church as being very “unchristian” and evangelicals as being political operatives for the Republican Party. So let’s have the humility to see if we are as obnoxious and unintelligent as many people surmise. But let’s not assume that bad press with the world means we’ve done wrong by God. This is Holy Week after all, where Jesus was hated by the crowd and abandoned by his own disciples.

As followers of a crucified king we should expect to be like the scum of the earth to some (1 Cor. 4:13) and like the aroma of death to others (2 Cor. 2:16). We should not think misinformed hatred and intolerant harassment mean the church has gone off the rails. The presence of persecution is no sign that Christians have failed to engage the world properly. In fact, from everything we’ve seen in the passages above we ought to suspect something is wrong with us if we have avoided all of the world’s persecution successfully.

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24 thoughts on “Are Christians in America Persecuted?”

  1. Curt Day says:

    Being a Christian Fundamentalist and a Socialist, I really don’t think, for the most part, American Christians know what persecution is about. It isn’t just about being harassed, there is a degree, not necessarily martyrdom, of suffering that is associated with persecution which I don’t see.

    But if we insist that we being persecuted, then let’s look at other groups that are being persecuted too to see we are involved with their suffering. First, let’s look at gays. Despite the current trends, they have suffered immensely in this country. Some have been beaten to death. Some have been dismissed from their jobs while others can’t marry the person they love because of their sexual orientation–imagine how we would feel if we were prohibited from marrying fellow Christians. And the stereotypes projected on them are intended to insult. And some of us have played a role in their persecution or their expectation of persecution and rejection.

    Socialists are mildly persecuted. We are mocked for having beliefs we don’t have and for being represented by the Soviet Union and Red China though many of us find their system of gov’t to be against what we believe. And then there is the absurd accusation of socialism made with Nazism. I, myself, have been insulted, laughed at, mocked, and looked down on for my political beliefs by fellow Christians because my political beliefs are not conservative. And yet, I don’t look at that as persecution.

    The wife and I teach the high school kids at Church and one of our alumni came back and was describing college life to our kids. And though this person goes to a secular college in a major city on the East Coast, he reported that he didn’t face persecution. He described his professors as wanting their students to think for themselves rather than being antagonistic against the Christian faith and wanting to brainwash the kids.

    Now just as we can’t generalize from his not being persecuted in college nor can we generalize from the experience of others who have been. But to talk about Christians being persecuted in a society over which Christianity has had a predominant influence seems disingenuous to those on the outside. And there is a degree of truth to their perception. That is because some of the changes in society have not been against Christianity per se but against Christian dominance over culture. And if we look at that push back to our past dominance as persecution, we will sabotage our own efforts to evangelize as well as bypass opportunities to work with nonChristians because we have developed some degree of persecution complex.

  2. Bill says:

    I have a friend who often signs off his emails with “much love and many tribulations.” He’s playing off Acts 14:22 “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

  3. stevenkopp says:

    Nice post.
    To your list of reasons why it’s good to acknowledge we are being persecuted, ever so slightly, I might add a fifth: So that we can suffer alongside those being persecuted (See Heb 10:33-34). It’s fashionable, especially among the progressive wing of evangelicalism, to critique those who are being reviled already (i.e., the Christian baker/photographer) for following their conscience. I think, instead of piling it on, we as Christians have an opportunity to stand alongside our brothers and sisters.

  4. ChrisB says:

    “Are Christians in America Persecuted?” Not like they’re going to be.

  5. Melody says:

    Steven, great point. We are so quick to criticize or be embarrassed, but they’re our brothers and sisters in Christ and the Bible is clear that we ought to be loving them and praying for them.

    Kevin, I appreciate this blog post. When I think of people being snarky as just obnoxious people I respond differently than if I’m thinking of it as being persecution.

  6. What is persecution? We should look to the Bible to form our definition. Brother Kevin has done a good job here.

    Paul writes that Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Gal 4:29). So what was Ishmael doing to Isaac then to make Paul call it persecution? Fingerwalk back to Genesis 21:9 – following the editorial notes in several of my bibles. He was ‘laughing’ and mocking.

    Persecution can be real bad or it can be just mockery. Bible says.

  7. Cedric says:

    The problem with this article, and the “short” and the “not as short” answer is what is missing.

    For example:

    1) If we apply the same standards, members of non-Christian religious groups in America are _by far_ more persecuted than Christians.

    2) If we apply the same standards, Christians also persecute other Non-Christian groups, much like Pharisees in Jesus time.

    3) Ofter, when Christian are persecuted, it is not because of Jesus name, it is because we behave like idiots or like Pharisees.

    Because of the above, I think it is disingenuous to claim that Christians are persecuted.

  8. Megan says:

    “Where in the gospels did Jesus promise that the world would love us if we just kept our heads down and tried to be good neighbors?”

    Not necessarily Jesus’ promises but, Luke 2:52, Acts 2:46-47.

    I’m also a bit confused in the New Testament as to which cultural entity was engaged in persecution. My understanding from my college Western Civilization class was that the Romans were somewhat impressed by the respectful and law-abiding behavior of the early Christians, to the extent that some leaders took pains to try to shield the Christians from persecution. From what I can tell, it was the Jewish theocracy (for example, Saul of Tarsus), not so much the Romans, who were actively engaged in persecution.

    In most parts of the world today, you’d see persecution tends to come from religious extremists, not from from secularists.

  9. stevenkopp says:

    Cedric,
    Even if we grant your three points, and I’m sure there are instances of all three, I’m not sure why it invalidates DeYoung’s point. “You’re persecuted less” doesn’t equate to “you’re not persecuted.” If granting this standard means we must apply the same standard to ourselves and other groups, I’m still for it.

    Megan,
    Good point with the passages mentioned above. To that I might add 1 Peter 3:13. Logically, we aren’t going to be persecuted for doing good. Nevertheless, it still happens, hence 1 Peter 3:14.

    As for who persecuted the Christians? The NT presents persecution from both sides – Roman and Jewish. For an example of Roman persecution see Acts 19:23ff which describes the riot in Ephesus. Granted, the silversmith couldn’t be called a “secularist” in a modern sense, but his issue was more financial than religious. Also, while some Roman leaders may have been sympathetic to Christianity, many (like Nero) were more than happy to bring about intense and targeted official persecution.

  10. Dave says:

    This is a need post. We need to think of the type of persecution Christians are subjected. True it is not physical and thus identifiable. Physical persecution has a tendency to bring a group together.

    In America we are subjected to subtle psychological, social, intellectual persecution that tends to seperate. It is not well defined so as to be critiqued and critized.

    I believe that the persecution of Christians in the USA may be more damaging to the cause of Christ and growing in Christ.

    Were is Christianity growing? Where there is physical persecution or the subtle type we experience?

    America is a better place to live but not sure it is a better place for Christians to thrive because of the unrecognized and denied persecution.

  11. Simon says:

    I’m sure conservative Christians in America feel persecuted. They are not. Instead they are happy to go to countries like Ukraine and Russia, who really do have persecuted Christians – of the Orthodox variety who have endured real persecution for many decades – and peddle their brand of evangelical Christianity. Now it appears that conservative Evangelicals are using the Ukraine crisis as an avenue to spread their “Gospel”. No Kevin, we’re not having any talk of the persecuted evangelical Right.

  12. a. says:

    “We should not think misinformed hatred and intolerant harassment mean the church has gone off the rails”

    and I like these passages too…

    for what reason did Cain slay Abel? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. 1 John 3:12b-13

    we speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire. 2 Thess 1:3-7

  13. Mike says:

    Glad to see some responses that point out the problems with this. I’ll keep it brief.

    Without question we’re misunderstood (at times). Everybody is. Certainly we should be encouraged in our lives that while we’ll have trouble in this world, Jesus has overcome it. But by the definition of “persecution” put forth here (family unacceptance, loss of status on college campuses, the battle over how to legislate morality), Christians are hardly innocent bystanders. Does the author really put forth the claim that we are?

    Even if this definition of “persecution” were right, it’s highly debatable as to whether the “persecution” is a result of following the Lord. Merely listing these verses doesn’t prove that the “persecution” is because of “righteousness”. Does the author truly believe that the accusations commonly put against Christians – being anti-gay, anti-science, anti-women, intolerant etc. – are completely ungroundless?? There is no behavior that would support such claims? Unfortunately there are some that would wear these titles as badges of honor and then claim the “persecution” that follows as proof that they’re doing the right thing. Rather than believe in the author’s unsubstantiated claim that “the New Testament assumes that being hated for one’s Christianity is the norm” and thus feel no need to examine our thoughts and actions towards those with whom they have disagree, “let’s have the humility to see if we are as obnoxious and unintelligent as many people surmise”. We might spend more time discussing what it might actually mean to “love our enemies”, to put more energy into working that out. That’s a good place to start.

  14. Dave says:

    People:
    Jesus tells us if we follow him we will be treated like him. In Acts when some of the Apostles got to the point of being beat for their views, teaching, acting and thinking like Jesus, they danced for joy.

    I would submit if one is not feeling persecuted one must question why not. Any level of persecution is a sign of being similar to Jesus. John Piper encourages us to take risks for Christ. I ask is I am. Answer is not enough because there is little persecution. But, what type of persecution is there in this country?

    As I asserted above here physical persecution is less the issue then the subtle psychological stuff Christians and their families live with. Which type of persecution seem to be breaking the back of the Church?

    Instead of getting along, we need to be different even if it make people hate us. Jesus was was crucified because what he said and did threatened some.

    Mike, have you studied the life of Jesus? He did not discuss. He taught us what it mean to love our neighbor. We do not need to guess. Telling the truth as set out in scripture is love. Ever heard of tough love. I would rather be hated by some then miss the chance to keep others from hell.

    If any of you are not feeling some type of persecution you are numb to sin or not playing your part in the Theodrama. Step on stage. The world is waiting to applaud or persecute.

    Or stay there and worry what other will think or say. Get real, they are laughing no matter what you do. Think Benedict Arnold. The British had no respect for him and his mates hated him. Take a side.

  15. smh says:

    You people need to learn the difference of persecution and retribution.

  16. Blind Faithiness says:

    I second what Mike has written.

    I’ll add that Christians are much more often being ridiculed for blatant hypocrisy and the use of Christian doctrine to justify all manner of true persecution against their fellow man. Being ridiculed for hijacking a religion to justify inhuman acts and words, only to then claim “I’m being persecuted!!” as a response to criticism and ridicule is not persecution.

    But, when a Christian expects, or even desires persecution (as long as its only ‘aesthetic’ persecution and doesn’t actually involve violence or fear), one should hardly be surprised when that same person finds ‘persecution’ around every turn.

    In the USA, the claim that Christians are being persecuted is beyond ridiculous. Anyone bearing witness to the true persecution that is being perpetrated by Christians here finds these claims ridiculous (and warranting ridicule).

    What we see more often is a vast swath of Christians performing mental gymnastics and projection as a subconscious coping mechanism to absolve themselves of a guilty heart or to earn a ‘badge of (dis)honor’ that they can run back to share with their fellow church-goers.

  17. Holly says:

    Here is similar blog that I think really does a good job of pointing out the persecution of American Christians… in American churches.

    “As many churches increasingly follow the secular culture’s lead toward a self-referential, emotion-driven way of life, those who seek to faithfully proclaim and apply the whole, undiluted Gospel in accordance with the Great Commission are finding themselves more frequently and more vigorously persecuted from within the self-identified “body of Christ”.

    Of course, the term “persecution” covers a wide spectrum, and while in this context we’re not talking about the most serious forms of persecution imaginable, this is still a serious matter. Obedient Christians being nudged, shoved, or bullied into silence by fellow members in professing Christian churches is something we are seeing more and more as the culture accelerates its slide into darkness, and we’d be well served to note that this is not coincidental.”

    http://www.firebreathingchristian.com/archives/3055

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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