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lightstock_788_medium_tgcWith 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.

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17 thoughts on “Four Thoughts on Persecution in America”

  1. John Myer says:

    Looks like some good balance here. For a while, I’ve gone back and forth wondering about the true nature of the American Christian experience. Compared to decapitations and long term imprisonments in other places, I’m embarrassed to complain. On the other hand, there is the undeniable daily reality that we don’t exactly live in a faith-enthusiastic place. I call it distinct discomfort, which is, as KD points out, all a part of the normal Christian experience.

  2. Thank you, for a thoughtful and well balanced approach to the all too real condition of Christ’s Faithful.

  3. Dean says:

    Yes, & that would have been just as true 50 or 100 years ago too. Nevertheless it is good to elaborate on what is going on in society at present. Even the psalmists had such struggles in a Theocracy.

    The Bible covers so many circumstances & we need to grow in discernment in how it relates to us specifically. And lets not forget satan goes about seeking to devour in the east just as much as the west, taking advantage of any situation.

    Wealth & prospering (& even freedoms) comes with its own deceptions.

  4. neville briggs says:

    It has been the common assumption that taking up the cross means having to endure some sort of inconvenience or the imposition of an unwanted trial.
    Is that what Jesus meant.
    His followers would have been shocked to hear Him say that because at that point in their discipleship, taking up a cross was a reference to brutal Roman execution.

    To take up, plainly means to accept voluntarily in the same way Jesus chose to take the cross.
    The full saying was ” If any man would follow me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me “.

    It appears that taking up the cross is about denial of self, self-sacrificing love. Love that is ready to suffer loss for others, to diminish self in order to worship God. To follow the one who was wounded, beaten and crucified for us.

    I suggest that if we think of taking up the cross in terms of coping with personal hardship coming from without, then that is the opposite of what Jesus meant. That would be self regard and even maybe self pity.

    Isn’t taking up the cross; Agape.

  5. Eric says:

    1) This is one of my favorite conservative Evangelical blogs to read, because I think it valuable to encounter beliefs I find ludicrous (in some cases) or (in most others) just prosaically wrong. 2) I’m all in favor of Christians, regardless of their specific definition of what Christianity is, not being harassed or bullied by people. I saw too many gay people, poor people, black people, just plain weird people, bullied in my earlier life to ever feel comfortable seeing anyone subjected to that. But, 3) disagreeing with you is not harassment, not being enthusiastic about your religion is not persecution, and expecting you to treat everyone equally before the law is not discrimination. I say this as someone who was generally on your side on the whole wedding cake thing (on your side legally; I’d never myself patronize a business that treated gay people so despicably though), but on the whole I don’t believe your view of life and the universe deserves special treatment in our society.

    All that said, any Christian who is a victim of a crime deserves all the justice that anybody is entitled to. The way I look at it, any cross a Christian might have to bear ought to be entirely self-chosen.

    Regarding 2) I do wonder what intelligent Evangelicals think about their complicity in the persecution of LGBT folks (to name one minority community) over the years. Not that eye for an eye makes it right, but can’t you see how some gay folks, for instance, might receive your cries of discrimination with something less than enthusiasm? Maybe your cultural diminishment (which I agree with probably continue to grow more pronounced) is a “judgement” for your own sins?

  6. Dean says:

    Eric, I think KDY addresses this in his point 2. And as far as modern culture diminishes, yes it will be at odds with God & we are seeing it more & more.

    In a way it is what they did to Jesus to get him out of the way. They had their own sense of self righteousness. LGBT folk also turn from their sin & look to Christ & all that entails.

  7. john says:

    5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

  8. Curt Day says:

    I fully agree with thoughts #1 &2. Thought #3 needs a more nuanced answer. For some of the persecution Christians have faced in this nation is due more to how we do not always share society as equals than to our Christian faith itself. Is it part of our Christian faith to have society marginalize the LGBT community?

  9. Serving Kids In Japan says:

    No amount of PR work is going to rescue the church from being thought by some as backwards and bigoted.

    Maybe not, but it will probably help not to actually be backwards and bigoted. Too many evangelical Christians are, I fear.

    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.

    Especially if those views are harmful to women, destructive to relationships, and unloving to sexual minorities. Which, in my view, makes them unbiblical.

  10. neville briggs says:

    What people think of the church is mainly irrelevant, what God thinks and approves is relevant. See Rev chs 2&3.

  11. Eric says:

    Dean, I don’t see that KYD’s point #2 has anything to do with it. He counsels not whining in public–which surely good advice for all of us– but has nothing to do with how we got to the point where telling Christians their inherently worthy of respect has become discrimination or persecution. It hasn’t. And yes, of course society will be more at odds with your notion of what it should be. We’re becoming more secular, so it’s to be expected. I don’t see how that absolves the Church of its past violations against the dignity of people it finds unworthy. How does a community reckon with its victims once the victims have demanded (and won) a measure of equality for themselves? At the moment, it seems it reckons with it by refusing to accept responsibility and crying persecution.

  12. Eric says:

    Sorry about the typos. The format of the commenting system is difficult for me to edit. :(

  13. Dean says:

    Hi Eric,I would say the persecution is real, particularly in academia (where it would prefer Islam over Christianity) & now business (chic o fill). I am not sure what kind of dignity you are advocating apart from a legalistic one. It would be irresponsible & unthinkable of the church to walk away from revealed truth & Jesus in favour of popularity or whatever secularism happens to feel presently.

    As Kevin points out there is a cross to be carried as secularism goes its own miserable way regardless of how much political power it seeks to flex.

    Sorry about the late reply, the site displays 12 comments but when you click on it goes to five. I happen to be at my wife’s work place & checked out the posts for updates, this time it worked.

  14. Serving Kids In Japan says:

    Dear Dean,

    I don’t intend to speak for Eric here, but I’d like to address some parts of your comment.

    I am not sure what kind of dignity you are advocating apart from a legalistic one.

    You mean for gay or transgendered people? How about not seeking to squelch their rights as citizens under the Constitution? How about not trying to inject religion into politics, in order to reduce homo- and transsexual people to second-class citizens? Or how about counselling parents not to throw their children out on the street, or inflict reparative “therapy” on them, when they come out as same-sex attracted? I think these would be some steps in the right direction.

    It would be irresponsible & unthinkable of the church to walk away from revealed truth & Jesus in favour of popularity…

    How is loving our neighbours as ourselves “walking away from Jesus”? It’s what He commanded us to do. And it’s not for the sake of “popularity”, but of justice and compassion.

  15. Miguel says:

    There is alot of Christian persecution here in America. Try walking down the street knowing that “everyone” hates you. I have been fired from many jobs because I could not fit in with my coworkers. If you are closer to the Lord people can smell you are a believer and they will persecute you. Just because we are not in Syria does not mean we have it made. Maybe if this was the year 2000 you can say that but. not now. ty

  16. Will says:

    Kevin, most of what you wrote I do not disagree. But on one, you are wrong. In your first point, you say that we are beinô to prison. You forget: Jack Philips from Colorado, Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski of Arizona, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis.

  17. mstair says:

    “Today, as in Jesus’ time, people who decide to actively live out integrity, virtue, purity, rightness, and correct thinking are persecuted. Those who choose to compromise their convictions to avoid criticism enjoy security and acceptance. ”

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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