With the release of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and the rescinding of Tim Keller’s Princeton prize, conservative Christians are once again going back and forth about how much we are or are not persecuted in this country.
Here are four thoughts:
1. However Christians might be persecuted in America (see below), let’s be clear that most of us still have it pretty good most of the time. We are not getting beheaded. We are not being thrown to the lions. We are not being thrown into prison. There are more than 300,000 churches in this country. The overwhelming majority of Americans still call themselves Christians. It’s legal to be a Christian. It’s legal to proclaim Christ. It’s legal to convert to Christianity. We don’t want to miss all the things we have to be thankful for or pretend that everyone is out to get us.
2. When we face trials or experience opposition because of our faith, let’s not throw a public pity party. I’ve never been a fan of retweeting public praise or public criticism. This doesn’t mean we can’t respond to criticism or defend ourselves (more on that in a moment), but there is something distasteful about the Christian who can only talk about how bad things have gotten or how much he has suffered. Christians are meant to carry a cross, but we are not meant to be complainers.
3. Having said all this, let’s not minimize the extent to which traditional Christianity and traditional Christians are facing increasing intolerance in this country. The fines, the lawsuits, the jobs lost, the public disdain—these are not figments of the imagination. No amount of PR work is going to rescue the church from being thought by some as backwards and bigoted. You can’t out-nice your way and out-justice your way into cultural acceptance, not if you hold traditional biblical views on gender and sexuality. And it does not help the church or our fellow Christians to insist that we kindly acquiesce to the culture’s demands. We have an opportunity to defend the faith as we defend each other.
4. While we are right to downplay American persecution in light of what so many other Christians face, let’s not make the word mean less than what it means in the New Testament. 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 places in the New Testament, persecution refers to violence toward Christians. Matthew 10:21-23 speaks of 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’s 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. Even American Christians—if they are really Christians—will have crosses to carry.