Christians in the Crosshairs: Persecution in the Bible and around the World Today

Written by Gregory C. Cochran Reviewed By Matthew Bennett

The week I received this book, large bombs exploded in two nearby Coptic churches where I was living in Egypt, killing upwards of 45 worshippers. A book offering a biblical perspective on the persecution of Christians had my undivided attention. Though such events occur daily and all over the world, author Gregory Cochran contends that Christian persecution has yet to be biblically defined. Furthermore, Cochran notes that the tendency in the West when discussing persecution is often to speak of it as something that occurs elsewhere, and not something that is occurring in America (p. 5). If persecution is not occurring in America, however, Cochran asks how the church is to interpret 2 Timothy 3:16, which promises that all who desire godliness will face persecution. In light of these realities, Cochran writes Christians in the Crosshairs as an attempt to define persecution biblically and to awaken Christian leaders to the reality of present persecution (pp. 2–3).

In presenting his argument, Cochran divides this work into three parts. The first section (chapters 1–2) presents the reader with the problem: since the missions conference of Lausanne 1974, the evangelical world has been searching for a biblical definition of persecution (p. 15). While Cochran makes the reader wait until chapter 11 to flesh out his proposed definition, he provides Nik Ripkin’s (The Insanity of Obedience: Walking with Jesus in Tough Places [Nashville: B&H, 2014], 38) definition as a starting point: Christian persecution is, “A negative reaction to the incarnate presence of Jesus” (p. 16–17). One might be forgiven for being underwhelmed by the clarity provided by this initial definition. Yet it allows Cochran to distinguish Christian persecution from other kinds of suffering, as he concludes, “Christian suffering is persecution only when it occurs because of the presence of Jesus Christ” (p. 17).

For Cochran, such persecution can be further divided into two kinds: individual and institutional persecution. Institutional persecution occurs when governments or organizations align themselves against Christians through policies and regulations pertaining only to Christians and churches. Individual persecution, then, is less systemic and more interpersonal in nature. Beyond these kinds of persecution, Cochran groups what he considers to be the most prevalent forms of persecution into six categories: bias, slander, discrimination, incarceration, violence, and oppression (p. 17). Cochran reinforces some of these forms with Scripture (cf. Matthew 5:10–12; Acts 22:4–5; 1 Corinthians 15:9), however his decision to include bias among the forms of persecution remains in want of a clear biblical reference point. Regardless, Cochran intends to broaden the definition of persecution to encourage believers everywhere to recognize the presence of persecution in their lives because they exhibit the presence of Jesus Christ. This broadening of the category of persecution is clear as he notes, “The fact that I have never been thrown into prison on account of Christ is a lack of degree of persecution, not a lack of kind” (p. 5).

The second part (chapters 3–10) comprises the bulk of the book wherein Cochran traces persecution throughout the Bible. While he begins building a doctrine of persecution with Abel and Cain, much of his treatment of the topic of Christian persecution naturally leads him to the New Testament. Cochran draws on Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:10–12 to show that Jesus establishes the expectation that his followers will be persecuted for following him, and that it would result in their blessing (p. 43). Following this trajectory of expected persecution, Cochran takes the reader on an exegetical tour of the rest of the NT, demonstrating that each of the NT writers considered suffering to be an inescapable part of the Christian experience.

Readers will appreciate the breadth of Cochran’s exegetical work, though perhaps most helpful is his treatment of John’s epistles and Peter’s writings. He argues convincingly that Peter and John see the presence of Christ as both the cause of and comfort in persecution (p. 146). What greater comfort might be given to those suffering persecution for Christ’s name than the promise that He who suffered on their behalf is present with them in the midst of the persecution they are currently undergoing? Cochran highlights the fact that Jesus’s presence with the persecuted is to be the source of their joy despite their circumstances. Thus, when Peter speaks of suffering and persecution, he commands his audience to respond in joy. Cochran does well to demonstrate that Peter does not expect suffering to generate joy, but rather Christ’s presence with the believer provides the basis for the persecuted to choose joy. He writes, “Strictly speaking, the suffering itself does not produce the joy. The joy is a responsive action. Peter commands his readers to rejoice. Rejoicing is the ethic—how the Christian ought to respond to the fiery trial of persecution” (p. 120). Such attention to the source of the persecuted Christian’s joy helps Cochran to achieve his stated goal of providing a structure of response to persecution.

While Cochran’s exegesis is helpful overall, readers may find themselves curious about his treatment of the book of Hebrews. Cochran admits that he takes a minority reading of Hebrews 13:3, seeing the reference to suffering in “body” as the “Body of Christ” and therefore a call to the church to suffer empathetically with those in persecution (p. 111). This reading overshadows the idea of the physical, embodied condition in which humans undergo persecution. Furthermore, the fact that the persecuted suffer in bodies has already been highlighted by Hebrews 2:14–18 in conjunction with the rationale for the incarnation. Thus, is seems more likely that Hebrews 13:3 also appeals to the empathy available to those vulnerable to physical persecution based upon their common embodied condition. Likewise, as Cochran himself admits, it may be anachronistic to import contemporary familiarity with the imagery of the church as a body into the discussion in Hebrews (p. 109). Regardless, in the context of his larger exegetical work one might excuse this questionable treatment of Hebrews as an anomaly and move on to his concluding section.

Having traced the biblical teaching on persecution, Cochran’s third section draws conclusions, returning to the original concern of the book: a proposal for a definition of Christian persecution. On page 146, Cochran offers the reader his long-awaited definition: “Persecution is a retaliatory action against the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ, which is represented or proclaimed by the faithful followers of Jesus.” This definition intends itself as a corrective to what he sees as a fault in Lausanne’s attempts to define persecution: they begin with the intentions of the persecutors in their assessment of what counts as persecution (p. 155).

Cochran, on the other hand, prefers to define persecution in terms of the righteousness of Christ exhibited by believers and churches (p. 152). His primary concern with persecutor-based definitions is that the motives of persecutors are notoriously difficult to determine. While difficulty certainly exists in assessing the motivations of persecutors, the reader is left wondering if Cochran’s shift of focus successfully avoids the same dilemma as he contends, “Definitions of persecution ought primarily to follow the persecuted and ask whether Christians were acting righteously on account of Christ when the negative, hostile action took place” (p. 157). For instance, in the church bombings I referenced at the beginning of this review, one encounters the same interpretive problem as with interpreting the motives of the offenders: were these churches revealing the righteousness of Christ, or where they merely cultural artifacts representing the antithesis to the Muslim majority around them? Cochran’s point is well-taken that we must be careful to discuss martyrdom and Christian persecution in terms that make the manifest presence of Christ the explicit cause of the persecution. However, the quandary remains for those attempting to determine whether or not it was Christ’s righteousness on display that caused the persecution. Yet, even if Cochran’s shift of focus does not resolve the difficulty in accurately recording incidents of Christian persecution, perhaps it could prompt believers undergoing suffering to reflect on the cause of their suffering, convicted when their suffering is not because of their demonstration of Christ and comforted with the presence of the Lord in their suffering when his manifest presence is the cause of persecution (p. 154).

Overall, Cochran’s attempt to raise Christian awareness and expectation that persecution will attend Christian living is successful. Whether the proposed definition helps the evangelical world to more accurately present statistics for occurrences of persecution around the world, remains uncertain. At the very least, I commend this book for its ability to demonstrate biblically that Christians should anticipate the ubiquity of persecution we see today rather than respond with surprise. In the midst of such persecution, however, Cochran rightly exhorts us to take solace in the comforting presence of the one who first suffered for us.

Matthew Bennett

Matthew Bennett
Cedarville University
Cedarville, Ohio, USA

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