Refugees or Missionaries? Responding to Cultural Hostility and Persecution

Photo by Jonas Verstuyft on Unsplash

One of the fundamental reasons we read Scripture is to train our minds to run in biblical ruts. As Christians, we want our imaginations to be shaped and molded by the narratives of the Bible, both the big story of God’s mission to rescue the world from sin and death through Jesus, and the smaller narratives within the big story that shed light on our circumstances. Preaching through the book of Acts recently at our church, our pastors have been struck by how relevant it is for our present circumstances. Of course, not everything in the book is prescriptive. But God even gives us Acts’ descriptive passages to establish patterns for our encouragement and to clue us in on the stories he likes to tell so that we know how to live faithfully in our own day.

Imagining the Aftershocks

The first verses of Acts 8 provide a great example of the kind of pattern I have in mind. In the aftershock of Stephen’s martyrdom by mob, a general persecution against the church in Jerusalem breaks out. The result of this persecution is a scattering, a diaspora of Jewish Christians throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1). The young Saul, execution witness and execution approver, is moving from house to house and dragging men and women to prison. He’s a church-ravaging rage monster (8:3; cf. Acts 26:11, “in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”) People lose their homes. People lose their jobs. Families are split up, as one spouse is hauled away to jail. A truly awful situation, one that is familiar to many of our brothers and sisters around the world. These Jewish Christians are refugees, exiles.

Now, I’ve never been in that kind of circumstance. But as I prepared to preach this passage earlier this year, I spent some time trying to imagine what kind of temptations I might be experiencing if I were them.

For example, if I were in their shoes, I’d be tempted to blame Stephen:

“Why’d he have to mouth off that way (‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit!’)? Why couldn’t he have tried dialogue and discussion, instead of insults and pointed words? Did he really have to resort to name-calling? I mean, his actions didn’t just affect him; look at what they did to my family.”

Or I’d be tempted to grumble and complain about the injustice of it all:

“We were just trying to help people. We were seeking their good. We were seeking their eternal good by calling them to turn from the suicide of sin and embrace the joy of forgiveness (Acts 2:38; 3:26). We were the messengers of everlasting joy. We were calling them to eternal pleasures at God’s right hand (Ps. 16:11), the deepest satisfaction of their souls. And even if they couldn’t recognize that, we also sought their temporal good through healings and generosity (Acts 2:46; 5:12–16). We were good neighbors, good friends, good co-workers. This isn’t fair. If we do good works, people should see them and glorify God, not drag us to prison and ruin our lives.”

Finally, I’d be tempted to despair:

“It’s hopeless. There’s no way it’s ever going to get better. It looked hopeful for a while, when those 3,000 people came aboard (Acts 2:41). And even after the terrifying ordeal with Ananias and Sapphira, believers were added to the Lord (Acts 5:14). Sure, it got a little intense sometimes with the Sanhedrin, but wiser heads always prevailed, and we were growing in number because the Word of God was increasing. But now, this is a whole different level. This church-ravaging rage monster named Saul—he’s never gonna stop. He’s just going to keep going from house to house to house and carry our friends and family away. This is hopeless.”

Acting Like Missionaries, Not Refugees

Those would be my temptations if I were scattered because of persecution: blaming the loud-mouthed preacher who got me there, complaining about the injustice of it all, despairing about the future. That’s what it means to be an exile, a refugee, right?

What’s amazing in Acts 8 is that these ordinary Christians (verse 1 tells us the apostles weren’t scattered) don’t travel from place to place doing any of those things. Those who are scattered go about “preaching the word” (8:4), the same word that caused them to be kicked out of their homes. As one commentator puts it, they don’t act like refugees; they act like missionaries. They don’t act like they got kicked out; they act like they got sent out.

How Will We Act if Acts 8 Happens to Us? 

This short passage is a challenge to me in these present days. Of course, things in America aren’t nearly as bad as Acts 7–8 . . . yet. There’s no official persecution targeting Christians. But hostility to the Christian faith is increasing, and so Acts 8 confronts me with what I will do if and when that hostility and opposition comes to rest on me.

For example, in the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, many of us who work for churches and Christian non-profits are concerned about the fate of our organizations, given the possible threats to our tax-exemption. When the Solicitor General of the United States says “It’s going to be an issue,” and dissenting Justices wave a warning flag about religious liberty, we have no choice but to take them seriously. So what will I do if Bethlehem College and Seminary, where I teach, loses its tax-exempt status and is forced to close?

But we don’t even need to focus on religious organizations. Many Christians in the workplace already walk on eggshells at their place of employment, lest anyone discover they believe what the Bible says about men and women and marriage and sexuality. They know that they could easily be fired if an activist co-worker or the outraged mob sets their sights on them. So we all have to ask ourselves: If that should happen—if I should lose my job because I refuse to bow the knee to the cultural idols of our day—what will be my demeanor? Will it throw me into despair or blame or bitterness at the injustice? Or, like the Christians in Acts 8, will I see it as an opportunity for even greater fruitfulness?

Jesus Is Real 

My fellow pastor, Jonathan Parnell, is always eager to remind our people that “Jesus is real.” He’s more real than anyone or anything else in reality. You don’t view your forced exile as a new set of marching orders unless you really believe Jesus is real. And not just that he’s real but that, by his design, hostility, opposition, and persecution is simply another pathway to gospel fruitfulness.

O great God, make me to remember Jesus is real.

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