A Sign of the Times: When Persecution Comes from Within the Church

A Sign of the Times: When Persecution Comes from Within the Church July 9, 2020

Not too long ago I remember having a discussion with two dear friends about the events we were witnessing happen in our country. The specific details were not so important—what was important is that the discussion revolved around the notion that we all believed the time was at hand for us to teach our children how to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Out of this conversation was birthed a wonderful blog post calling for reflection on the truth that the norm of the church is to suffer for the sake of the gospel, which you can read here. This is still something I don’t believe the modern Evangelical church has any clue how to handle though. Many agree with the sentiment that the historic church ebbs and flows between times of prosperity and persecution, but scarcely does one believe it will happen to them in their time.

Part of this stems from what I believe is a weak theology of suffering. Out of that weak theology of suffering comes an inability to willingly and joyfully endure our present sufferings for what gets produced as a result. The American gospel has so long imbibed a gospel message devoid of telling people of the cost it takes to follow Christ, and the reason I believe this is so, is that many do not believe it themselves. In many ways, they’ve yet to see the hardship and suffering Christ says is part and parcel to following Him. Even those of us who see it plainly in Scripture don’t necessarily “get it” because we are more inclined to see the kind of luxury-suffering indicative of a soft generation, as suffering for our faith. What I mean by this is that we sense it to be suffering when we are passed over for a promotion, we don’t have as many friends as we once had because of our Christian convictions, we aren’t able to find a spouse, and so on and so forth.

In other words: we confuse the natural results of living as a Christian in the midst of a broken and fallen world with genuine suffering and persecution, but this is not the way the Bible portrays suffering for the sake of the gospel. Rather, these would all be issues the apostle Paul speaks into to challenge our presuppositions and the object of our affections. I say none of this to diminish the very real loneliness, rejection, and mistreatment some might feel as a result of such things. I also say none of this to diminish that these types of things may even fall under various types of temptations designed to test you, as passages like Jas. 1:12 would suggest in the term πειρασμόν. While the term is often translated as “trial,” it is more often used to convey the enticement toward sin (i.e. Matt. 6:13, 14:38, 26:41; Lk. 4:13, 8:13; 1 Cor. 10:13). Incidentally, this is particularly why James can say that no man is tempted (read: enticed to sin) by God in Jas. 1:13, yet God is said to bring sufferings and persecutions upon His people by Peter (1 Pet. 3:17; 4:19).

What I am saying here then is that by and large, many Christians confuse temptation with suffering, and therefore, they have no accurate category for how to deal with legitimate forms of persecution for the sake of the gospel. In the same breath, many have swung so far to the opposite extreme so as to say that the mental assault on believers isn’t a form of persecution. I believe it is, and is demonstrable from Scripture (Matt. 5:11; Lk. 6:22; 1 Pet. 4:14). These people tend to surmise that the only valid form of suffering and persecution for the sake of the gospel is physical persecution. I believe they are guilty of neglecting that there are varying degrees of persecution, which were even present in the life of Christ as He made His way to Golgotha. As a result, they have no accurate categories to see the writing on the wall when it comes to how swiftly we are actually approaching the days when physical persecution is the norm yet again. In this sense, you either fall into the ditch of denying legitimate degrees of persecution altogether, or trivializing severe degrees of persecution in favor of making yourself a victim when you are tempted of your own wicked desires.

In either case you find a people who are unable to think biblically about these things and the fruit of either position is to avoid suffering at all costs. One side will claim suffering is of the Accuser while the other side will claim suffering is of our own concoction. Neither are prepared to handle it when it inevitably comes upon them, and sadly, when it does, many fall away because their foundation is not built upon counting the necessary cost of following Christ on His road to the cross. Instead, their foundation presupposes that things will or should remain as they are—that the life of relative ease and prosperity is God’s blessing upon us rather than the result of living in an affluent country. To put it another way: one sees persecution behind everything while the other sees persecution behind nothing, and both will be completely blind-sided when they actually experience any kind of suffering firsthand. Both will likewise confuse the enticement of their own sin, or the forsaking of biblical teaching and the subsequent reaction garnered, as a kind of persecution for righteousness, when in reality they are embracing a victimhood mentality.

In many ways the church has been in a collective stupor, even as the writing has been on the walls for years. The Christian worldview is not one that is generally accepted in mainstream thought. Instead, it is seen as a worldview that binds and fetters a culture that desires to throw off the shackles of an oppressive worldview. There is no tolerance for this worldview under the new regime. Lest we think this mindset is contained to the broader culture at large, it has long infiltrated the church. A great example of such a mindset is the perpetual victim culture and the “cancel culture” built into modern evangelicalism today. Even confessional-types are guilty of perpetuating these tropes, airing their dirty laundry for all to see rather than strictly embracing the proper channels of the Presbytery (I say this as a Baptist who has no real dog in that fight). Rather than people being slow to speak and quick to listen, what often transpires is the same mob-mentality that the broader culture portrays as the correct means to achieve justice. They fail to consider that the first to plead their case seems right until another comes and examines him (Pro. 18:17).

This, I believe, is more of a sign of the times we live in than all of the bad news we see each and every day with the world falling apart around us. When the church is not on guard and equipped to deal with these things, it is only a matter of time before they savagely rip one another to shreds with their teeth (Gal. 5:15). Incidentally, I believe this is also why so many in the church at large are being swept up into various movements that are born out of ideological worldviews diametrically opposed to the gospel. The point being that when people lack a framework to deal with the fact that Christians are supposed to suffer for the gospel, they will invariably do all they can to maintain the status quo, wherever they fall on that spectrum. They will either call their struggle with the flesh suffering, or they will imbibe the culture’s view of suffering, which is invariably comfort-driven and presupposes that suffering itself is to be avoided at all costs. The natural result of either view is a capitulation of biblical commands in favor of getting their pound of flesh, under the guise of biblical-faithfulness, no less.

The church at large is fiercely divided and in many ways, rightly so. Another great schism is coming, one which I believe will produce several willing to turn in the other in order to avoid what is coming for them from the world. To say it more clearly: I firmly believe that we will soon see those professing to be Christians turn on other Christians in order to save themselves. The reason I say this is that in many ways, this is already starting to happen. One group in which I can say this is happening currently is with women seeking to be in prominent positions of teaching and authority within traditionally complementarian groups. What is being leveraged is not biblically faithful exposition of the Scriptures—but a particular narrative that is oddly similar to what is taking place in the Social Justice Movement. More clearly: victimhood is being leveraged in order to overthrow the existing structures. Rather than leave and cleave to an existing group that accepts their positions without qualifications, those leveraging victimhood are effectively seeking to transform the very makeup of complementarianism so that it becomes, in its essence and practice, egalitarian—but still adopts a confessional and/or conservative phraseology.

If you believe I am over-stating my case here, another example that is perhaps a bit more radical is this one, where the author maintains a conservative and confessional pedigree, yet simply rejects the biblical teaching on sexuality. My simple point in this is that I believe there are many who are not as vocal as their peers because the time is not yet at hand to be forthright. While the above example may be a bit more “on the nose” than the issue of women teaching and exercising authority in the church—it does serve to draw out the point that there are those who identify as a particular thing by name, yet the underpinnings of their theological positions show another reality at work, that is taking them (and others) down a particular theological road that it must by necessity. Ideas always have consequences, and hermeneutical principles, if consistent, will lead to particular conclusions, even if the ones who utilize them aren’t there yet.

What is perhaps more to the point of this whole piece though is the vitriol that has come along with those who have openly critiqued these things. More clearly: the reaction has been a rather large mob of angry social-media justicians calling for men to be removed from the pastorate, teaching positions, and leadership positions within various denominational backgrounds, namely, because they are perceived as misogynistic for holding the traditionally confessional (or complementarian) position. Here I speak broadly, encompassing the likes of even a gentleman like John MacArthur—so don’t get lost in the details of a particular brand of the complementarian ethic or a group of those who hold to it. If you’re following the major players within the SBC, PCA, OPC, etc., then you know precisely what I am referring to. Pay attention though to the argumentation being used and the end goals of some, who go without correction from the major players. This is but a small taste of what I believe is to come on the whole, where the sway that cultural movements have in the church will naturally continue to play out in some particularly nasty ways.

As in the days of Micah, we have come to the point where we ought to heed the imperative that we do not “…trust in a neighbor; do not have confidence in a friend. From her who lies in your bosom guard your lips. For son treats father contemptuously, daughter rises up against her mother, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own household” (Micah 7:5-6). The reason I say this is fairly straight-forward, but is driven by the fact that I believe many Christians have embraced the mentality that says we must get what we feel is justice, and we must see it immediately, rather than entrusting true justice to God Himself, which is often slow in its execution and delivery. Yet when we take such matters into our own hands, what we are left with is vengeance, which is not ours to have. All of this, of course, presupposes that our complaints are legitimate and what has transpired is an actual injustice as it is biblically defined, rather than a result of our own enticement toward sin.

What this means is that we are coming to the point where the church itself is the place where we ought to expect persecution, rather than just the culture we live in. The culture is increasingly becoming more and more hostile, and many within the church are in lock step with the methods of the culture, which invariably means that the time is swiftly coming where few men and women of honor will remain. Christ Himself quoted Micah 7:5-6 to describe the division that will come in our most intimate relationships as a result of following Him in the latter days. My claim here is not that this is necessarily the beginning of the end, but rather, that this dividing line is very real and being realized in our own day as many within the church act as judge, jury, and executioner. The important qualifier here being that every oppressive group believes they are justified in applying what is tantamount to persecution when they do it and this is no exception in what is transpiring currently.

In other words, the church, rather than embracing her role as one who suffers unjustly and embraces such suffering as a noble blessing, considers it a great evil, and seeks to do all within her power not to right those perceived wrongs, but retaliate in proportion to the offense taken in order to make others suffer. Malice begets malice, and inevitably, the motives are driven by such ends rather than a means of maintaining unity of the faith even while we do not have unity in doctrine. Yet the more pernicious reality is that many are “suffering” as a result of enticement to sin, particularly so in abandoning that body of truth that makes them what they claim to be and calling this an injustice on the part of those who remain faithful to that body of truth. The end result being that the unifying front is not in doctrine, but in leveraging this victimhood, which is a key tactic of the culture currently being employed in various social issues.

When the church at large adopts the methods and end-goals of a culture opposed to Christendom, the inevitable result is one of two outcomes: either the group will splinter and another denomination will be formed, or the house divided will not stand. I’ve been voicing as of lately that I wonder if Evangelicalism as a whole can survive these divides, simply because they transcend denominational and theological lines. In many ways, the divide within the church is as sharp as the divide in our country, which leads me to believe that in both cases, there is already a “civil war” well underway. If I’m correct in what I believe the unifying principles of the debate are, there will be a group prepared to suffer for the convictions they hold, and another group who will be glad to help them suffer, regardless of whether or not their theological heritage is the same.

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