While visiting a country in South Asia some years ago, a church planter and friend recounted an event to a group of us. We were meeting to encourage our top leaders as they faced new forms of government persecution. And what better way to encourage young leaders than reading an epistle written to a church planter: 2 Timothy. Timothy, in Ephesus, confronted challenging times as Christians were being led astray by false teaching. Paul, in Rome, imprisoned for declaring Jesus as the true anointed one. Both clearly facing persecution, it was the perfect epistle to bring refreshment in a difficult circumstance.
Struck by the persecution faced by Paul and Timothy, my friend shared the instance faced by his team. Two of his church planters entered a Buddhist village. Upon seeing the traditional prayer flags waving in the wind and observing the syncretistic worship of gods and goddesses, the church planters declared to the villagers that they were worshiping devils! Immediately the villagers rose up against them and began throwing stones while chasing them out of their village with bamboo poles.
A Riot Avoided
As he recounted the incident, my attention turned to Acts 19. In a not too dissimilar event, a mob of people confronted two of Paul’s disciples in protest against the loss of business from selling silver crafted images of Artemis. As you read Luke’s account, you begin to get a real sense that these disciples are in dire straits. They could easily lose their lives if the mob continued in a riled frenzy. Then, unexpectedly, the town clerk intervenes and quiets the crowd. And, just as unexpectedly, he makes one of the most remarkable testimonies of the early followers of Christ.
“Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” (Acts 19:35-40)
The gospel work of Christ-followers focuses on the declaration of Jesus in meaningful language in a posture of respect. This brings us to our next characteristic of the disciples in the church at Ephesus.
Eighth, disciples are respectful of people and culture when they do evangelism (Acts 19:8, 37). They understand that all people are created in the image of God, and that very fact demands that people are respected. This does not mean that disciples agree with the belief system or worldview of every person they meet, but they understand that God is in pursuit of them. A disciple helps remove the scales from peoples’ eyes so they too can see plainly the God who is in front of them. (Ephesiology, loc 3759)
There is a striking difference between in the approaches of the two church planters in that Buddhist village and of the two disciples in Ephesus: respect for people and their culture. Respect doesn’t mean that you must agree with the beliefs or behaviors of a culture. Instead, respect of people recognizes their inherent quality in possessing the image of God. Granted, as marred as it might be, there is something of God’s design in the people we encounter.
Whether they are Buddhists in South Asia, or our next door neighbor, the disciples in Ephesus remind us that proper love of others doesn’t include tearing down their culture. In fact, proper love looks for ways to connect with culture in order to engage in conversations about Jesus. He should be the only reason for someone to persecute you, not because you insulted their traditions or customs. Indeed, you might actually find that a culture’s beliefs and behaviors provide pathways to the gospel. No doubt Paul discovered such a pathway when he proclaimed Jesus as the logos in the city where the logos philosophy was first formulated (Acts 19:10).
Good and Bad Persecution
There is good persecution and there is bad persecution. Good persecution—if any persecution can actually be good—occurs when Christians proclaim Jesus in culturally meaningful language while in hostile areas, people reject Him, and you suffer for it. This persecution is good because it does not originate from insulting another’s culture. It isn’t blasphemous or sacrilegious. You suffer because of the message about Jesus not a message against culture.
In some places around the world, bad persecution occurs when Christians present Christianity as foreign by building Western looking churches or conducting worship services like the Western churches on YouTube. Untold numbers of brothers and sisters around the world suffer because Christianity presents itself as a foreign religion in spite of the fact that God is the creator of all people and He determined their ethnic boundaries in hopes that they would search for Him (Acts 17:26-27).
Persecution also occurs when we reduce the message of the gospel to the condemnation of people for their customs. ln essence, bad persecution occurs when we disrespect the communities and cultures we attempt to reach. Even in places where Christianity boasts the majority population, Christians often disrespect others by criticizing their political, social, or economic views. Interestingly enough, Paul reserved such criticism for Christians, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Rom 2:1-2).
The Marks of Christians
Yes, Christians are different. The way we act with each other, the manner in which we speak to one another, even how we treat those who are different mark the Christian as unique in the world. Consider, for example, this lengthy description of Christians in the second century:
For the Christians are not distinguished from other people by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any distinctiveness. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of clever people. Nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.
But, living in Greek as well as barbarian cities, according to the lot determined for each of them, and following the native customs regarding clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They live in their own countries, but simply as strangers. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all. They bear children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws and at the same time surpass the laws by their private lives. They love all people and are persecuted by all.
They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich. They are in need of all things and yet thrive in all things. They are dishonored, yet are glorified in their very dishonor. They are spoken of as evil, yet are justified. They are cursed, yet they bless. They are insulted and repay the insult with honor. They do good, yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if brought to life. They are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks. Yet, those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred. (Letter to Diognetus 5-7 in First Christian Voices)