Saturday, December 5, 2009


Want to see two of my least favorite verses?

Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2Ti 3:12)

No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. (Jn 15:20)

Every time I read or hear about believers undergoing persectuion, I shudder. I’m a self-centered weenie, so my first thought is that if I were persecuted, it would hurt and I wouldn’t have the time or freedom to be able to do the things I want to do. I really wonder how long I would last even if I could get past the pain and inconvenience. Do I really love Jesus enough to endure weeks or months of hard labor, splinters under my fingernails, or inadequate food or sleep? For that matter, how long would I last in a 50-degree room wearing only a t-shirt before I said, “What do I have to do to get out?”

So I’m playing the armchair martyr as I pass on gleanings from a dissertation I’m currently freelance editing that is written by a fellow from northern Nigeria, someone who has seen firsthand the burned churches, razed homes, and bereaved survivors of persecution. I knew I was out of my league when I read this in his first chapter (quoted with permission):

Of concern to me in this project is not the persecutors and their instruments of persecution but the theological evolution that is taking place as a result of the social, economic, psychological, emotional, and physiological tow the experience has had and is having on the lives of believers. I have observed ongoing efforts at reinterpretation of certain biblical verses with no exegetical or hermeneutical justification to align with the mood of the time; I have seen and heard of calls to arms by pastors and church leaders that encourage their membership to rise and fight back [emphasis added].

You read right. He thinks it’s wrong to resist persecutors and would-be persecutors forcibly, even though he knows his wife or children could be the next ones shot, stabbed, or burned.

Then he backs up his theological argument with the biblical examples of Abel; Lot (!); Elijah; Micaiah; Isaiah’s “Servant of the Lord”; Jeremiah and Uriah; Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel; John the Baptist; Jesus; Stephen; and Peter and Paul. None of these resisted persecution forcibly. His conclusion is that persecution is an integral part of the Christian life, and if we’re not being persecuted, we might not be living aright.

What must he think of us US Christians who, far from accepting persecution as inevitable, are willing to drop bombs on babies halfway around the world to avoid it? He can probably name people who would order and even carry out persecution of him and his loved ones, and he knows that his would-be persecutors have his Christian brethren outnumbered and outarmed, yet his dissertation shows no trace of fear or hatred of those persecutors. How unlike US Christians, who feel the need to send the most powerful armed force the world has ever known to chase down a few hundred dedicated “ragheads” at the cost of thousands dead and wounded, millions made homeless, and our grandchildren in debt to the Chinese to pay for it.

If Tertullian is right, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Yet the same US Christians who would nod their heads in agreement with Tertullian have wholeheartedly embraced the military-industrial-surveillance state to avoid martyrdom. At the same time, they have seen the church go from being influential in society to being something between irrelevant and a laughingstock. Could the two phenomena be related? It would seem that church growth is fine, provided it grows elsewhere, at least if it’s to grow through martyrdom.

If we are to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us, it would seem to me that a good place to start would be with al-Qaeda. Do they see the church as fools for Christ, unarmed servants of a dead Jewish carpenter trying our utmost to make friends with them for his sake and the sake of his kingdom? Or do they only know us as barbarians who drop half-ton bombs, depleted uranium, and white phosphorus on the women and children Jesus called us to preach the Gospel to?

I believe it was Mike Warnke who told of his conversion at the hands of a fellow soldier in the 1970s this way:

I told him, “If you mention Jesus one more time, after you go to sleep I’ll take my bayonet and carve you up like a Christmas turkey.”

And he said to me, “If you do, every piece will say, ‘I love you, Mike.’”

Would that work with al-Qaeda? Is it worth a try?

I say it’s time we get serious about church growth. You first.

Update: A correspondent reminded me that Mike Warnke has lost a certain amount of credibility lately and that therefore any reference to him might be suspect. I had heard the reports and so wondered if including the anecdote were appropriate. I went ahead only because I think most Christians in the readership would recognize the sentiments: when we really want people to know Christ, we're willing to suffer to share Christ with them. So yes, the story itself may be apocryphal, but I'm guessing it stands for many similar stories that are true.


  1. Hmmm. Seems to me the last time I read Romans 13 the civil government has the God-given responsibility to wield the sword, and has been charged with punishing evildoers. And since when has the U.S. military become the representative of the Christian church? When the church starts picking up weapons (other than spriritual ones), I'll concede that you have a point. Until then, well . . . .

  2. Given that Romans 13, as best we can tell, was written when persecution was as likely to come from the civil government as from anyone else, and given the persecution of Christians by the civil government throughout the Bible and the New Testament in particular, not to mention throughout history, I would say Romans 13 needs to be taken at somewhat less than face value; look at the Westminster Confession, chapters 23 and 31, and see how often they qualify the magistrate's role with the word "lawful," a word that doesn't appear in Romans 13.

    As to your second point, my particular congregation has officially voiced no objection to the present wars and indeed prays for the military "who are protecting us," so I can only assume that it views the US military as its representative. And when it prays that a son of the congregation succeed in becoming a Navy SEAL, it is indeed taking up weapons other than spiritual ones.