Persecution is alive and well in the modern world. For Christians in Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and other places around the world, persecution is a very real and present danger.
When I hear Christians in the west talk about persecution, though, I’m struck by how often I hear something like the following:
No one has ever stopped the church through persecution. Indeed, whenever the world persecutes the church, it just grows even more. Look at the early church. The Romans tried to persecute it out of existence, yet it spread the gospel throughout the entire empire. And, more recently, the church in China blossomed during the twentieth century despite tremendous persecution.
Unlike the lazy and complacent Christianity that develops in “safe” countries, persecution fosters a robust Christianity, confident of its faith and bold in its proclamation. The church thrives under persecution.
And I understand where that sentiment is coming from. Christians are optimists. In general, we have a deep and abiding sense that God is in control and that he’ll make sure everything works out his people in the end. Thus, even when we hear that things are going badly for Christians in some part of the world, we’re comforted by the fact that God is still at work and that he can do amazing things in even the most difficult circumstances.
So we take a theological conviction (God is in control), combine it with some historical examples (the church in China), and come up with a pretty impressive conclusion (the church thrives under persecution). But there’s one little problem: it’s not true. Or, at least, it’s not true as it is usually stated. Here’s why.
1. A Faulty Argument
The logic of the argument just doesn’t work. To see this, let’s try a different form of the same argument:
• God is in control.
• God made Abraham and Solomon wealthy (in material possessions owned during this life)
• God makes his people wealthy (in material possessions owned during this life)
Now the problem should be pretty easy to see. The third point does not follow from the first two, both of which are true. God may well have other purposes that would lead him to allow some of his people to remain poor. So we can’t just assume that he will act in precisely the same way at all times and with all people.
The same applies to our argument. Assuming for a moment that the church does thrive under persecution at times (more on that in a moment), we can’t simply draw the conclusion that it will always do so. Our theological optimism would like us to believe that this is true. But what we’d like to be true and what actually is true aren’t always the same.
2. A Selective History
The main reason the argument seems to work is that we’re most familiar with those instances where the church appears to have thrived under persecution. And that makes sense. We like to tell those stories. Who wants to talk about when things went badly? That’s no fun.
So we forget about the church in North Africa That was once the thriving heartland of Christianity, but after the Muslim invasions, the church slowly receded into the background before fading entirely. And we fail to talk about Asia Minor (especially after the 14th century) and Japan (after Christianity was outlawed in the 17th century), other instances where persecution had disastrous consequences for the church.
I often have my students read a letter that Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan in the second century. After describing a variety of oppressive measures used to persecute early Christians, Pliny describes what happened.
There is no shadow of doubt that the temples, which have been almost deserted, are beginning to be frequented once more, that the sacred rites which have been long neglected are being renewed, and that sacrificial victims are for sale everywhere, whereas, till recently, a buyer was rarely to be found. From this it is easy to imagine what a host of men could be set right, were they given a chance of recantation.
As Pliny describes things, it sure doesn’t sound like the church is thriving. Instead, persecution has limited the growth of the church, bringing people back to paganism.
These examples don’t prove that Christianity can’t thrive under persecution any more than the other examples prove that it always does. The point is just to demonstrate that the historical realities aren’t as simple as we often suggest.
3. A Weak View of “Thriving”
Another reason the argument appears to work is that we don’t take the time to talk about what it means for the church to thrive. Sometimes people just mean that the church grows numerically under persecution (e.g. China). We just saw that this isn’t always true. But, even if it was, surely numerical growth alone isn’t enough to constitute thriving. Otherwise, the largest churches would always be the healthiest, which would be a difficult argument to sustain.
Other times, people seem to mean that a persecuted church is stronger (i.e. more committed) than a non-persecuted one. And I’m sure there’s truth to this. I certainly have tremendous respect for those who have kept the faith despite intense persecution, though I’m concerned about the subtle implication that you can’t be a truly dedicated Christian unless you’ve gone through persecution. But is just being dedicated enough to say that the church is truly thriving?
I recently spent two weeks with Christian leaders in Slovkia where the church is still recovering from decades of communist rule. During that time, the Christians in Slovakia were unquestionably committed. But talking with those leaders, it’s difficult to say that they were thriving during those years. Restrictive laws made it difficult to maintain fellowship with Christians beyond their particular communities, leaving churches somewhat isolated and fractured. Christians lost the ability to speak as Christians to the broader society, reducing the voice of the gospel to what happened within the walls of a church. And, as Christians struggled to survive, they lacked time and opportunity to reflect deeply on their faith and what it means, leading to a theological superficiality that still plagues the church today. As one Slovak leader said, 1,200 years of Christian culture was largely lost in just two generations.
Is that thriving?
Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Slovakian Christians, or any other group of Christians who face persecution. Their faithfulness in the midst of terrible circumstances is inspiring, and humbling. We have a lot to learn from Christians like that.
But we can admire them without whitewashing the reality. If we have a more robust understanding of Christian thriving that includes preaching the gospel and growing ever more deeply in our understanding of the gospel, Christian fellowship that transcends local particularities, and the impact of the gospel on society as a whole (regardless of precisely how you think the church should relate to the surrounding culture), then it becomes more difficult to find examples of the church truly thriving under intense persecution.
Surviving and thriving are not the same thing.
Persecution & Christian Thriving
Does the church thrive under persecution? Maybe it does at times. For the most part, the early church seems to have done so. Even though persecution hindered the church’s growth at times and made it more difficult to thrive, it’s amazing how much those early leaders accomplished: spreading the gospel, connecting with one another across vast distances, reflecting deeply on their beliefs, and impacting the broader society. And, though I haven’t spent as much time studying the persecuted church in other times and places (e.g. China), I certainly hope that it has managed to thrive in this more robust sense.
But, even if we find examples like these, that only tells us that the church can thrive under persecution, not that it always does so. To claim otherwise is naive and unhelpful. And I think statements like that make it more difficult for us to appreciate how tragic, painful, and challenging persecution really is. For those of us in “safe” countries, stories of persecution in the modern world are easier to digest when we can comfort ourselves with the notion that persecution will just make those churches “thrive.”
Yes, God is in control. And yes, God’s people can remain faithful in the midst of tremendous persecution. But neither of those truths should blind us to the tragic reality of persecution and the devastating impact it can have on the church.
Marc Cortez is a theology professor and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. Visit him at MarcCortez.com.