The Nature of Christian Persecution

What is the nature of Christian persecution and opposition? Jesus declared that we should expect to face persecution, and throughout history, Christians have often faced different types of oppression and hardships for their. Christians have come to not only expect persecution, but will even find validation in opposition from society. What types of opposition have Christians experienced, what are “good” forms of opposition, and what type of hardships should we reasonably expect and prepare for?

Jesus set the expectation for persecution early on, saying: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”. Jesus went on to encourage and even suggest reward for those who face this persecution.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

First, it is important to remember that persecution or hardship can never alone be used to validate the truth of one’s ways. This is a classic example of the genetic fallacy. Genetic fallacy is when we argue for or against something because of who believes it. A silly example would be saying that Nazi’s drank water, so therefore water is evil. A more serious example, is that Westboro Baptist firmly believe that they are doing the right thing with their ugly protests, and they say the opposition they receive proves it. We must be careful not to fall for genetic fallacy, and assume that since there is opposition that challenges our beliefs, therefore our beliefs must be right. Sometimes we face opposition for our beliefs, because our beliefs are wrong.

However, while recognizing that we can’t use opposition as a solid basis of truth, it is still helpful to recognize what types of patterns of persecution to legitimately expect. We can look for these both in scriptures and in history.

As we look at the verses above, this already gives some narrowing definition to legitimate persecution. Legitimate persecution is tied to who Jesus is and what he represents: righteousness. Certainly the great prototype and example of suffering religious persecution, is Christ Himself. So can we draw from His example?

One of the first things to notice is the source of Jesus’ persecution. The challenges and conflict that led to the cross are a major theme in the gospels. And who is the opposition in this conflict with Jesus? The Pharisees. These were the religious leaders of the day. And these weren’t just any religious leaders, they were, in fact the religious leaders of Jesus’ own religion. They (attempted to) follow the same God that Jesus preached. They were the proto-Judeo-Christian leaders of the day. They were the church leaders. In fact if we look more closely at the major theological division of the day; the resurrection, the Pharisees would even legitimately be categorized as the same denomination as Jesus. Yet these leaders were the major force of opposition and ultimately persecution against Christ. (And I say this as a leader in our church; it is humbling to remember that I am in position which is so prone to being in opposition to Christ).

This story of persecution continues well into Acts, as the early followers of “The Way”, as they called themselves, were thrown and imprisoned and killed. And again, who was the source of these attacks? They were the dominant church/religious institute. The conflicts between the dominant religion and the followers of “The Way” are the main narrative of Acts as they (the disciples) challenge the power structures and traditions of the “church” at the time (the religious organizations).

As Americans, we should recall our history, to be keenly aware of our experience with this. The pilgrims themselves were a group that were persecuted. And who were they being persecuted by? That’s right, again, the Christian leaders and organizational structure of their society. And even within our country Christians spearheaded the oppression of Salem Witch Trials and defended slavery.

Christians have come to expect persecution to come from secular society, but the Biblical narrative and even American’s own history demonstrate that isn’t always the case. They indicate that to follow Jesus is to invite hardship and challenge from Christians and their culture, as much as anyone else. If we are truly follow Christ’s radical and revolutionary call, that turns the natural way of religion upside down, this is as likely to illicit backlash from the Christian culture as anywhere else. The point is that Christ’s teaching are so contrary to our natural ways, that it is a challenge to every culture and sub-culture, whether it be Greek, Jew, American, or even Christian culture.

Now again it is worth remembering that persecution from either side does not validate the truth. You aren’t correct just because you are being opposed by Christians either.

Let’s also consider what types of activities actually lead to persecution. Being persecuted simply for what religion you belong to is actually quite rare. There are indeed cases of it. However, if you study the statistics on Christian persecution, you will see enormous variations in the counts. Why is this? It is because persecution solely due to religious affiliation is extremely rare. But persecution due to religiously inspired or commanded activities is much more common. Categorizing these activities as religious is naturally very difficult and subjective.

Again, this is demonstrated by scriptural accounts as well. They didn’t crucify Jesus because he was a “Christian” or believed in God. In fact, if his only teaching was just that he worshiped YHWH, he would have been welcomed with open arms. Jesus wasn’t crucified simply for being Jesus of Nazareth, or for his religious affiliation. Nor was Jesus even persecuted for laws that he established. In fact, the crime that Jesus was crucified for was clearly stated: sedition, or insurrection.

This points to the fundamental nature of most legitimate persecution in the world. Persecution isn’t usually about religious affiliation. It is not even about what laws the Bible teaches. Persecution is about power. Jesus wasn’t persecuted because he had some good sermons, or for a particular set of rules. He was persecuted because he was subverting the power structures and hierarchy around him. Jesus represented a threat to the order of power that the religious leaders were wielded. Jesus was turning this upside down, creating a kingdom where the first will be last, where the weak are lifted up and the strong are torn down. And this upheaval was not welcome by those at the top of the order.

Of course, Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This was partly due to the Jewish leaders insistence, but their own role was important as well. Jesus immediate challenge to the power structures of the church were most direct, but there was some truth to the threat Jesus played to Romans as well. To be sure, Jesus was very clear in resisting any type of military and violent coup against the Romans. But his followers had indeed switched their alliance. They no longer held to an unassailable alliance to the Roman empire. The Romans certainly didn’t have any physical threat to worry about from the Jesus followers, but to the degree that the Romans hunger for and demanded allegiance, the threat of allegiance to another Kingdom was very real in Christ followers.

And this persecution wasn’t just something that was externally triggered. Christ was on an intentional and committed path of sacrifice. It is on the committed path to sacrifice for others, sacrificing for the subversion of power, for the sake of those in need that real persecution takes place.

Likewise through the history of Christian persecution. It is not those that quietly have a private faith that are persecuted. It is those that are committed to sacrifice that challenge hierarchies of power around them, and choose to stand with the oppressed, that face the greatest threats.

Unfortunately, I feel like we have sometimes forgot this. In our Christian culture talking about persecution has far too easily become a replacement for real sacrifice. We talk about slippery slopes (it is also shocking to me when people explicitly state that they are basing their fears on a logical fallacy, like slippery slope) that will supposedly lead to persecution. This is a convenient replacement for making any real sacrifices.

This slippery slope fallacy is far too common. Many of us have mistaken the path of secularism as moving us towards persecution. But this path is not towards greater interest in (against) religion, but towards disinterest. The secular world is not growing hostile toward religion. It is growing bored with religion. Now this may be a worse fate. It has been said that the opposite of love is indifference. This reality may be hard to swallow, but many people just don’t really care that much about your religion or what laws it includes.

This exaggeration of hardships among Christians is not only out of touch with reality, but I believe it represents a shallow, wimpy Christianity. There are people who are tortured and killed for Christ. Comparing the types of opposition American Christians face with someone has to truly pay for their belief is, to be blunt, pathetic. Not getting your way with legislation and then comparing it to a slippery slope to persecution is nothing but weak and whiny Christianity. Until we have actually bled or been injured for our faith, we have little room for complaint.

Jesus called us to take up our cross (Matt 16:24). This isn’t a passive call, to sit around and worry, and fret, and wait for someone to come persecute you. This is active call, that begins with denying ourselves. Likewise, in our society, sacrifice doesn’t come passively. It comes when we actively and voluntarily give up our time and money for others. Christ-based sacrifice is found when we identify with, help, and give to others that are hurting or oppressed, and challenge the structures and hierarchies that hold them there (Eph 6:12). This is how we follow Christ on the cross.


Collective Generosity

Generosity is almost universally regarded as a virtue. When someone with wealth makes a decision to give in order to help the poor, this is generally applauded. However, when a decision is made on behalf of a group, to generously give of that group’s resources to some cause, this type of decision is often less popular. When and how should groups make decisions to be generous, to help those less fortunate? How we view collective generosity can have a big impact on how we see the role of the church and the government. Many feel that when an individuals help the poor it is generous, but when organizations or governments use their resources to help the poor, it is coercion, or even theft. In this post, I wanted to examine what scriptures say about this subject.

Looking for direct scriptural examples can be helpful, but difficult. In 2 Corinthians, Paul points to the church in Macedonia as an example of a church collectively demonstrating generosity, and uses this to encourage the church of Corinthians to follow suit. This certainly appears to be an useful example. However, due to the lack of details, we can’t be certain of exactly how this was carried out, how people gave, and how these decisions to give were made.

It is worth remembering that in reality there is actually a wide spectrum of scenarios from true individual generosity to completely leader-dictated giving. When a family has a discussion and based on the outcome of the discussion decide to give to cause, this has an element of group decision making with a high degree of individual input. What about if a church votes and decides to give a certain amount of the budget to a specific cause? This has a larger degree of group decision making, there may be some members that vote against it. What if leaders make recommendations for causes to donate to? What if a country or state votes on a budget, choosing to allocate a certain amount for helping the poor? What if individuals vote for representatives who then decide on budgets? Again in all of these situations there may be decisions made to use resources that some disagree with, but there was also free-will input from individuals that influenced that decision as well. Of course, on the far side of the spectrum, you could have a dictator that makes decisions on budgets with no input from citizens. However, the majority of group decisions that we experience fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Returning to scriptures, is there any other teaching that can be applied? One of the most important keys that Jesus taught in understanding scriptures is to look for purpose. I described this in more depth in the previous post. One of Jesus biggest critiques of the Pharisees was that they went through surface obedience, yet ignored the purpose behind the law. Likewise, if we take a look at generosity, what it might mean to a group of people, we should examine possible purposes behind generosity. There are a couple possible purposes I think we can consider (and they are not mutually exclusive). Determining the purpose behind generosity has a big impact on what it means for how we apply it to a group.

First, we can consider that generosity is for the purpose of the giver making a sacrifice. In particular, the purpose of generosity might be the voluntary, free-will decision of a person to make a sacrifice. Certainly the notion of sacrifice is incredibly important throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law has a heavy focus on sacrifice, and Christ, as our example, paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Furthermore, freely making a decision to sacrifice, is an opportunity for a giver to demonstrate love. Certainly, love is most clearly demonstrated when someone makes a decision to sacrifice on behalf of another. Without this free-will decision, the giver is not really demonstrating love.

And acts of sacrifice are not simply a negative experience for the giver, a giver, who gives cheerfully can expect to be rewarded by God. As Paul said, it is better to give than receive.

This element of an individual’s choice to sacrifice is indeed important, and in the context of the question about collective giving, we should definitely seek to maximize the opportunity that people have to freely choose their contribution. However, the possible purposes don’t end there.

Next, we can consider that the purpose of generosity for the sake of the recipient. While generosity is important as an act of sacrifice of the giver, obviously it also serves a purpose for the recipient. Generosity is an act that offers mercy for those who are in need. As we consider generosity as a form of mercy, it is important to note the center of focus: the focus is on the target of generosity instead of the donor. This is important when we consider generosity as an act of love, and what form of love that might be. Love may take an emotional form, often manifested by the emotions that a donor may experience as they feel the satisfaction of helping another. However, the Bible frequently lifts up “agape” (one of the Greek words for love) love as the highest form of love. Agape is characterized by a sincere interest in well-being of the object of love, rather than the experience or emotion of love. Generosity with focus on the donor may be an exercise in the emotions of love, but generosity with a focus on the benefit to the recipient is an act of agape love.

Again, the purpose of generosity has a significant impact on how we assess the collective versus individual generosity. If the purpose is making individual choices of sacrifice, than collective giving is pointless. However, if the purpose is mercy for the recipients, than the nature of the donation is not of substantial importance, and trying to make a significant distinction between individual and collective giving is erroneous.

Interestingly, when we analyze generosity from the perspective of purpose, the Bible is suddenly surprisingly clear. Hosea is very explicit about the true, underlying purpose:

Hosea 6:6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;

In fact, this is not only stated in the Old Testament, but it is so important that Jesus actually repeats this verse:

Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

This is one of the clearest declaration’s of purpose found in scriptures. Based on this, it is unavoidably clear that generosity is not all about individual’s exercise of sacrifice (although that is an important mechanism), that the true end goal is to bring mercy.

Another helpful insight from scriptures comes from the emphasis we see on community in scriptures. While the scriptures certainly demonstrate that individual’s are responsible for the decisions, this does negate the strong theme of building community. And community is shallowest when it is simply a group of individuals that tolerate and stay out each other’s way as they all make their own decisions. True, deep community comes when we actually consider, discuss, and see to understand, and work through our values, priorities, and commitments, and seek purpose together, sharpening each other in the process.

The Bible teaches that wisdom is found in the multitude of counselors, and giving wisely has tremendous impact on our giving. If our generosity is for the purpose of mercy, than we should be deeply concerned with the fact some forms of giving have 10s, 100s, or 1000s of times more impact in bringing mercy than other forms. Wisdom is important to the true purpose of generosity, and we can be much wiser together. We should not be surprised to find that the collective generosity of a group has an impact far beyond what individuals might do on their own because the collective wisdom can multiply the effect of the collective resources.

In assessing collective generosity, it is often important to think in absolute terms, rather than in relative terms. While we can certainly make comparisons between individual and collective generosity, we also have to recognize that in many situations these are not even mutually exclusive options. When a group, organization, company, or government is considering generosity, such possibilities are often compared negatively to individual giving, when in fact that this does not replace individual’s opportunity to be generous as well. Leaders that are making decisions to be generous are usually only using a small fraction of available resources, and this has a negligible impact on the individual’s resources and ability (in fact collective generosity can often be just as likely to encourage individual giving as to discourage). The frequent complaint that collective generosity will replace individual generosity or vice versa is a false dichotomy and a poor excuse for the generosity of a group or society.

By looking at the purpose of generosity, we can hopefully can gain a better understanding of appropriate forms of giving. We should indeed strive to encourage individuals to freely choose to sacrifice for the sake of others. However, when individual generosity and collective generosity are not mutually exclusive, the true purpose of giving reveals that we should pursue collective generosity alongside individual generosity.

Legalism vs Purpose

In this post I wanted to consider what I believe to be one of most critical lessons in the Bible on how to actually interpret the Bible itself: we must look for the purpose as we read scriptures. I intend to do some other posts that will build on this principle, so I wanted to layout this post as a foundation for later posts.

One of the key narratives from the gospels is Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees and their legalism. Traditionally, when we speak of legalism in the church, it is contrasted with grace. And Paul clearly teaches us to leave behind legalism and accept grace. Paul’s challenge to legalism addresses the issue of attribution of righteousness. His main focus was on helping us to see that we would not attain righteousness on our own, but only through the grace of Christ.

However, Jesus addresses a distinctly different issue, as he confronts the Pharisees. A substantial portion of the gospels is devoted to Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees (and Sadducees). This rebuke perhaps reaches a climax in Matthew 23, which is entirely devoted to this subject. Interestingly though, this chapter (and most other passages) never says that the problem with Pharisees is that they aren’t relying on grace for righteousness. Jesus never tells the pharisees that their righteousness is insufficient, and that they need to lean on faith in Christ instead. As far as I can tell, he never tells them anything remotely close to this. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of many things, including pride and hypocrisy, but one of the biggest issue addressed in this chapter is how they’ve been following the law. Jesus accuses them of observing the law legalistically without any concern for the purpose of the law. This is less of an issue of attributing righteousness to one-self (although their pride does indicate that is an problem), and more to do with purpose, and looking below the surface to see what God was revealing through the law. This is more than an issue of attitude, but Jesus is actually saying that they aren’t even interpreting and obeying the law correctly.

Jesus demonstrates a correct interpretation and obedience to the law, in contrast to the Pharisees, in the beginning of Matthew 12. Here Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. According to the shallow interpretation of the Pharisees, this was a clear violation of the 4th (or 3rd, depending on your tradition) commandment. But Jesus says that they are not understanding the law properly, they need to look deeper, to understand the *purpose* of the 4th commandment. He corrects them, saying that the purpose of this law is that the Sabbath is for man (Mark 2:27). Note again, Jesus doesn’t make any suggestion of eliminating the law, that grace will replace the law, or any such thing. His point is very clear: we must look to the purpose that is being revealed by ordinances, and not just at the surface statement of behavior.

Going back to Matthew 23, there are a number of examples of how Jesus criticizes legalistic shallowness and points to deeper purpose. He condemns a legalistic approach to tithing, where even herbs are tithed (Matt 23:23), and points to the deeper purpose of tithing: to pursue justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He condemns the legalistic obsession with cleanliness (Matt 23:24-26), while pointing to the deeper purpose of being cleansed from greed and self-indulgence.

To reiterate this point, according to Jesus’ teachings, we are and will fail to obediently submit to God if we only mechanically follow the surface readings of ordinances and rules without seeking to understand the purpose of these rules, and the deeper concepts and truths that they are seeking to reveal about God and His Kingdom. This is true regardless of whether these rules are found in the Old or New Testament. Jesus’ teaching on obedience holds true for the whole of scriptures.

It is worth pointing out that Jesus’ different angle of condemnation of legalism than Paul’s is not contradictory, but instead is a foundation. Demonstrating how our mechanical legalism falls far short of true obedience to the deeper concepts that these laws reveal, provides foundational proof of how desperately we need the grace that counters attributive legalism. Jesus rebuke of the Pharisees gives us an important lesson on legalism.

As we read the Bible, let us not treat the Bible like the Pharisees, who viewed it as instructions to mechanically follow for divine favor, but rather see every law, story, parable, and exhortation as a revelation of who God is and what His purpose is, and how we can join in that. We must constantly be seeking to understand what scriptures is telling us about God, for this its purpose. If we simply go through the motions of obeying Biblical rules, without regard for understand the purpose behind these rules, we have come no closer to God’s intent for scriptures than if we were to ignore them altogether.

More to come…

Biblical Principles for Politics, Part 2

Continuing our discussion from yesterday… 


Again, this is a theme with too many verses to count, but probably a great summary verse would be Proverbs 3:34: “He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble.” Not only does the Bible give us direction about where to focus our advocacy, it also directs how to do it: with humility. As long as we pursue political gain by mocking, through arrogant insults, through derision, we are not walking in the way of Christ, who humbled himself to the point of death (Phil 2:8).

Much attention is given to the negativity and derisive nature of political campaigns. However, this is merely a reflection of the citizens that they are appealing to, and how they act and what they are drawn to. Unfortunately, those who identify themselves as Christians do not seem to be above the fray. Many church-goers are just as quick to mock and deride politicians and candidates, and lower themselves into the mire of political bickering.

Let me take this opportunity to try apply this principle myself. I certainly don’t suggest that these posts are an error-free exposition of the Bible. This is just my attempt at faithfully applying scriptures, and assuredly I’m probably wrong on many levels. Its my intention to be respectful towards all our leaders and candidates, and I offer my apologies to any I have disrespected. I merely hope that I can provide a small piece of perspective that can contribute to a respectful dialogue on important issues.


Holiness, the concept of a way of living, set apart by its distinct approach from the world, is another major Biblical theme. However, we must recognize that this concept isn’t just an arbitrary idea God decided to implement, but is designed to glorify God by demonstrating the wisdom of God, as a set apart people live out his principles (Eph 3:10). God is glorified when people, voluntarily choose to follow his ways, and experience the harmony and goodness that results.

However, I believe many of us apply this concept to politics in a backwards fashion. Attempting to coerce or have government endorsement to push people towards the behavior of holiness undermines the central purpose of this Biblical concept since it blurs the distinction of the set apart people. Only when people freely choose to walk in God’s holiness, is the distinct contrast of holy living truly made visible.

Christ’s Kingship

Another key theme of the Bible is the centrality of Christ. The old testament looks forward to and foreshadows his coming reign, and the new testament delivers and applies his teaching. Specifically the old testament focuses its narrative on a chosen nation, Israel, to be the reflection and conduit of his God’s grace that would demonstrate His glory and invite the nations to enjoy it. Part of this narrative was the Davidic line of kings. The OT is laden with prophecies that point this story forward. God clearly intended his people, Israel, to be expanded to all who follow him, and include all ethnicities. And even more prophecies point to the line of kings to culminate with the Messiah. Jesus ultimately fulfilled this, becoming the true and final king of Israel. Today, Israel is those that would submit to his authority.

There are some key implications to Christ’s sole, authoritative, and eternal kingship over the kingdom that had grown out of the seeds of Israel. First, we must understand that the theocracy of the old testament- the rules, regulations, commandments, ordinances, and even principles- are backed by the authority of God’s kingdom alone (and contextualized to a certain people). To hand the enforcement of these rules over to an earthly kingdom simply because “the Bible says so” is to misunderstand the line of authority, and risks the subversive act of give authority that is rightly God’s to an earthly kingdom that has not inherited such a constitution. It contradicts Biblical teaching on the line of authority to assert that biblical commandments must be enforced by an earthly government. No national law is good or bad because it matches or doesn’t match or reiterate a commandment in the Bible.

Not only did Christ inherit and define his kingdom as distinct from earthly kingdoms, he sought to govern in a way that is dramatically different than the standard governmental approach. Normal governments must ultimately rely on some type of threat of harm to deter it’s citizens from ignoring laws in order to protect each other. Governments act in power-over role to provide its services of protecting it’s citizens. Jesus on the other hand demonstrated a rule characterized by submissive servanthood. He taught and demonstrated service to those that were following him and acted in humility, ultimately allowing himself to be crucified. This is a kingdom intentionally built on principles of leadership dramatically different than the world’s. Engaging this in public policy is naturally tricky without falling into the politics and practices of coercion.

These principles provide some constraints of both the extent to which we influence government and the role of government itself. However, the Bible doesn’t condemn government.

Role of Government

The Bible says very little about explicitly what governments should do. To be certain, governments are not an end themselves, in the Bible. They are simply a tool, and their purpose is defined by our greater vision that God has given us. However, Romans 13 does provide some small insights into the role God has ordained appropriate for governments, as it is the most direct teaching in the new testament on the role of the government. This passage doesn’t say a lot about the exactly what the government is supposed to do, but it does indicate that we are to submit to governments as legitimate, ruling authorities. As a legitimate authority, there are two activities ordained: punishing crime, and gathering taxes (and thus implicitly distributing them appropriately).

What Romans 13 doesn’t say about the government is also important. It doesn’t indicate that it must enforce every moral standard of the Bible, it doesn’t suggest building large militaries, and it doesn’t even suggest protecting religious freedom. That doesn’t mean the government can’t or shouldn’t pursue these things, but the ordained activities should certainly advise what we hope to accomplish and focus on through the government.

Like other things in our life that the Bible doesn’t give us definite directions for, a proper view of the government is to view it as an instrument or tool. Like a screwdriver that can be used to construct a dwelling or stab someone, the screwdriver itself isn’t good or bad, it is the result of how it is used that is good or bad. We must not force the Bible to say more than what it really says about the government, the government’s role must be treated pragmatically. A law isn’t good because it matches an Biblical command (again using this is a basis subverts Christ’s authority), it is good if produces a beneficial outcome for society based on God’s vision, His mission. This might sound like minor semantics, but there’s a major difference in the real world of public policy. With God’s mission being central, we must consider the potential outcome or fruit of different possible policies and priorities. Many political endeavors have seemed very moral, but have little to no chance of actually bearing any real fruit.

Loving People Over Ideology

The central theme of Jesus’s ethic was loving God and your neighbor. This care for others trumps everything else, including political parties and affiliations. In the Kingdom of God, people are more important than ideologies. This is was vividly demonstrated when Jesus challenged the Pharisees about their understanding of the Sabbath on multiple occasions. Quite simply, the pharisees had come to understand that observing the Sabbath was an ideology of God that they must not deviate from. Jesus shattered this notion, asking them “is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm”? The Sabbath existed for the purpose of benefiting people, not as an end in itself. What Christ demonstrated here was again that ideologies are only tools, and we must be ultimately concerned with whether a policy will benefit the welfare of others, rather than whether it matches the ideology of our culture.

We must also remember that we are people of with limited time and money. There are only so many battles that we can effectively fight. If we really care about achieving meaningful goals, it requires that we prioritize. When politics is not serving such purposes, it quickly devolves into ideological battles that accomplish nothing. Consequently I would suggest that even more important than being “right” on every issue, is prioritization, understanding where we can really make a difference. If you care more about winning arguments than prioritizing it isn’t important. But if you care about really benefiting people, we need to know on what issues we can make a difference and focus on them.

In the next post, I will try to look at what how we might prioritize our advocacy and involvement when we are driven by God’s vision.