Persecution reveals a church’s true character

Jul 28, 2022 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

“People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”. Most of us have heard this applied to us as individuals, but it is also true of the church. The most important aspect of the Christian life and the church is not optics, but interior health.

The early church at Pentecost looked wonderful, with prayer, generosity, successful evangelism and respect in the community. But its character was yet to be tested. The book of Acts shows the early church coming under severe pressure. Its first test of character was the change in how they were viewed by the authorities, from 2.47 to 4:3.

This is very relevant to Christians in the West. 50 years ago, most MP’s, doctors, lawyers and head teachers would have professed at least a nominal Christian faith. The Church had power, influence and respectability. Now the effect of decades of secularism is that most people in power are either indifferent to faith, or hostile to it.

Other churches around the world have been on the margins for years, even centuries. But for us it’s a relatively new place to be. What will be revealed about the character of our church when it faces persecution?

Acts 4: the pressure, the response, the principles:

Acts 3 tells the story of a severely disabled man who was healed miraculously by God through Peter and John. Peter preached the gospel of Jesus to an enthusiastic crowd which gathered. The religious authorities were angry that the apostles were talking about Jesus, blaming them for his death, and that the new Christian movement was growing in number. But it was more than that. The preaching of the gospel was not just calling people to believe in something or someone in their personal lives. It was an announcement of the reality of God’s reign which would challenge all human systems. Peter was not saying: “you might find it helpful personally to believe in Jesus”, but “look what has happened! The healing of the paralysed man reveals the true nature of reality, and proves the inauguration of the rightful authority which you have been ignoring!”

The religious authorities tried to suppress the movement by arresting the leaders, interrogating them and beating them. Peter and John were not intimidated, but calmly refused to stop speaking about Jesus. However, this was a real threat to the new church. A conflict had been set up. The followers of Jesus were now enemies of the religious establishment, who only a few weeks before had successfully petitioned for the use of Roman power to put Jesus to death. This wasn’t just being unpopular – there was threat of imprisonment and possibly death.

The response of the church, and its underlying guiding principles, can be seen in Acts 4:23-31.

First, we see the whole church taking responsibility. Peter and John didn’t just get together with an inner circle of leaders to decide what to do. They reported to the whole church what had happened. There was an assumption that the church is the community of faithful people, a body, not a structure and its leadership which people attend as spectators.

Second, we see the church praying as a first response. Sadly, and I include myself here, this is not the natural reaction for many church leaders influenced by secularism. When faced with a crisis, especially opposition like this, the first response is too often to panic, alone. And then maybe to think about solving the problem – can we raise money? Can we go away to a safer place? Can we give in to the demands of those who are attacking us, to make peace? But that’s not what happened here. You don’t see a leader panicking alone and making plans. You see leaders telling the church about the problem, and then the church prays!

Third, we can learn a lot from the underlying assumptions behind the prayer. As they turn to God, they begin by recognising that he is the creator of all things, and he is in charge of the situation. It sounds obvious but it’s amazing how Christian leaders can doubt these basic facts. At the start of the Covid pandemic, a well-known theologian wrote articles published in major outlets like Time Magazine as well as Christian websites, saying that God laments with us in our suffering, but was not responsible for the pandemic and had no control over it. I think he wanted to dispel the caricature of an angry, cruel God “smiting” people – but in doing so he denied that God is in charge. But when in Acts the Christians prayed “sovereign Lord” that is the first thing they affirmed, even in the face of a major threat when doubts might come in about whether God can help us. For them, we can trust that God is in control of everything, because he made everything.

In their prayer they then turn to Scripture. In a few words they express what they believe about the bible, the ancient words written over hundreds of years which were part of their faith background. God spoke those words, by the Holy Spirit, through the human author.  Acts 4:25 is a wonderful, short clear summary of the doctrine of the authority and inspiration of Scripture. They select a (presumably memorised) text which is relevant to their need. We’ll come back to Psalm 2 later.

In their prayer they outlined the problem to God, not because he didn’t know their need, but for them to be clear in their own minds what the issue was that they were praying about.

  1. They were realistic. A common misconception among some Christians is that it’s negative to focus on the problem. But here, there is a recognition of dangerous opposition from human forces – Jewish leaders and Roman authorities – which on the face of it seems too strong. How can the church survive in the face of this?
  2. But in their analysis of the problem, they weren’t primarily concerned about threats to their own safety or to blocks on the growth of their organisation. They saw the opposition as a continuation of the terrible scandal of opposition to God and to his anointed Son Jesus. The world trying to block out Jesus instead of giving him glory was, and is, and outrage.
  3. They affirmed again that God is still in charge of the whole process – he had permitted even the crucifixion of Jesus as part of his plan.
  4. Then they brought their request. They did not pray: “Lord help us to be winsome and not get into trouble again”. Instead, they asked God to “consider their threats”. They drew attention to the persecution in an appeal for justice.
  5. Then they prayed for boldness in evangelism, and miracles in Jesus’ name.

Their prayers were based on their understanding of reality shown in Psalm 2.

The secular view is that this world is all there is. There is no spiritual realm. Human society faces problems which can be explained in human terms. Maybe it’s because of class struggle, the oppressor against the oppressed. Or maybe it’s because individuals and markets are not free enough, or taxes are not low enough! or because of ignorance, or mental health, or lack of science and technological solutions.

Here in Psalm 2 there is another explanation, a spiritual and moral one. The natural orientation of human beings is to rebel against God and his anointed Son and King Jesus, trying to throw off God’s authority and establish our own, whether as individuals or as small and large groups.

The Psalm makes it clear that God is not just the local God of Israel, but the God of the whole world. His plan is to establish Jesus as King among his people, from where his authority will extend throughout the world. “I will make the nations your inheritance”, says the Father to Jesus. The call to rebellious human beings is to turn their attitude around, to recognise God’s authority and serve him, to “kiss the Son” which means to worship Jesus.

If this is God’s ultimate vision, then it was clear to the apostles and the early church what their role was. They had just seen Jesus rise from the dead and ascend to heaven. Their role was to tell everyone about this, not in their own clever ability with communication or impressive credentials, but with God’s power that would be shown in miracles. So they prayed, simply, “God help us to do this”.

The choice for our church: compromise, pietism, or mission-in-persecution:

This “priority of evangelism” does not mean that Christians should ignore the cultural context in which they live, withdraw from the mandate to challenge false and harmful ideologies, work to change unjust structures, and offer practical relief to the suffering. It does not mean using ‘commitment to evangelism’ as an excuse to submit to and go along with lies and injustice in order to avoid persecution. It does not mean, for example, that a school with a Christian foundation should justify displays of a rainbow flag and other symbols of secular ‘progressive’ ideology, with the excuse that “evangelism” (redefined and narrowed down to a private message of personal salvation) is still taking place.

Rather it means responding to opposition by praying on the basis of what the bible teaches, asking for prayer to share the message of the cosmic Lordship of Jesus, with power, and doing it boldly. The best examples of this today are found in the global south where the church is facing severe persecution, especially in China, Iran and northern Nigeria. If the church in the West wants to move away from compromise or pietistic irrelevance, and more towards the model of the early church, it needs to learn humbly from the church in the south.

[This is an edited text of a sermon preached on 24th July in Oxford].

See also: How to Pray in Opposition – Acts 4: A Model Prayer for Facing Persecution, by Kees Van Kralingen, The Gospel Coalition

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