“Christianity especially has always thrived under persecution. For then it has no lukewarm professors.” – William Wilberforce
In the early days of the Church, Christianity was not a legal religion in the Roman Empire, which created a climate of expected, though intermittent, persecution. Church Historian Stephen Neill describes it in this way: “Every Christian knew that sooner or later he might have to testify to his faith at the cost of his life.”1
We see 2 effects of this persecution: The first is that it caused the church to grow. Persecution didn’t happen in private, but was a public spectacle. And, the character of the Christian martyrs was evident to the onlookers: “The Roman public was hard and cruel, but it was not altogether without compassion, and there is no doubt that the attitude of the martyrs, and particularly of the young women who suffered along with the men, made a deep impression… What we find is…cool courage in the face of torment, courtesy towards enemies, and a joyful acceptance of suffering as the way appointed by the Lord to lead to his heavenly Kingdom. There are a number of well-authenticated cases of conversion of pagans in the very moment of witnessing the condemnation and death of Christians; there must have been far more who received impressions that in the course of time would be turned into a living faith.”
The second effect is that it purified the Church. Active or possible persecution tends to create a purity of faith and strength of conviction that is often diluted in times of popularity and safety. We see this in retrospect as we observe the change in climate that came with Constantine. With legal protection, favor and popularity replaced hostility and disdain. This brought both benefits and dangers. One significant benefit was doctrinal development: now the church could meet in councils, answer questions and controversies which had arisen about proper Christian belief, and produce creeds. But, at the same time, this favorable climate proved to weaken the quality of Christian faith among its adherents. Neill says of the change brought by Constantine, “But Christianity was fashionable, and the majority of men, then as now, found it convenient to follow the fashion… In all this there were great dangers. Faith became superficial, and was identified with the acceptance of dogmatic teachings rather than with a radical change of inner being. With a new freedom, the Church was able to go out into the world; at the same time, in a new and dangerous fashion, the world entered into the Church.”
In the book of Hebrews, the author recounts the persecution suffered in the past by his audience, along with the cost many heroes of the faith in the Old Testament endured. How did they do this? He gives us the answer in 11:34: Christ and his reward was so real to them, and so worthwhile to them, that they were willing and able to endure, no matter what the cost. They could, in the famous words of Jim Elliot, “give up what they couldn’t keep to gain what they couldn’t lose.”
In our context, it seems that a time of favorability to biblical Christianity is shifting to a time of hostility. At least on a broad social level (and speaking very generally), it hasn’t until more recently cost much to identify with Christ. Ceratinly Christians shouldn’t seek out persecution or be too quick to cry “Persecution!” at every little mistreatment or inconvenience. But, persecution does come. And if it comes to us, how will the Church respond? How will you respond? The choice now, as always, is either to compromise on the truth in order to accommodate to and placate the culture, or to remain faithful even at the cost of the world’s hatred and scorn. Will you be a faithful Christian, or a fashionable one?
1 Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions. Quotations from pp 38-41.