Church, Suffering

Throwback Thursday ~ 4 Things You Need to Understand About Christian Persecution

I usually wait at least a year to “throwback” an article, but with the Canadian government’s seizure of GraceLife Church
yesterday, I thought a refresher might be in order.
Please keep the whole GraceLife family in your prayers.

Originally published February 26, 2021

Persecution. It’s a hot topic in pop-evangelicalism these days in the wake of Pastor James Coates’ arrest in Canada (please don’t forget to pray for him, his family, and his church).

Though Pastor Coates’ arrest was heartbreaking, one good thing that has come out of it is that the online discussion about it has pulled back the curtain on just how much biblical ignorance is running rampant out there among professing Christians on the issue of persecution.

In a way, it’s understandable. American citizens (and many citizens of other Westernized countries as well) alive today have grown up with the guarantee of freedom of religion, codified in our Constitution. Until the last ten years or so, finding the proverbial needle in the haystack would have been much easier than finding an American who had experienced actual Christian persecution at the hands of her government.

To us, the persecution of Christians has always been something that happened thousands of miles away in far off, uncivilized, unsophisticated lands. “That could never happen here,” we mused thankfully, and promptly pushed the matter out of our thoughts.

But it can happen here. It’s already happening here. And it will increasingly continue to happen here.

And so, it’s a good thing that the issue has come to the forefront now, while we still have time to develop a biblical theology of persecution and prepare to act on it.

Let’s examine four popular misunderstandings about persecution, and what the Bible has to say about it.

1.
The degree of persecution does not equal
the definition of persecution.

“That’s not persecution. Persecution is being burned on sticks.”

I forget what the “that” was in this comment I recently saw on social media, but the “burned on sticks” part stuck in my memory. Whatever the “that” was, it some sort of unpleasantness aimed at a Christian for his faith, but it was much less intense than being burned on sticks.

But that diminished intensity doesn’t mean “that” wasn’t also, in fact, persecution. It only means “that” was less painful, less inconvenient, less life-altering, less terrifying persecution than the persecution of being burned on sticks.

I think maybe people don’t understand the difference between the definition of persecution and the degree of severity of persecution. Persecution is like stealing. Taking a paper clip from your office isn’t as severe as embezzling millions of dollars, and doesn’t garner as severe a consequence, but both are, qualitatively, and, definitionally, stealing. When you take something that isn’t yours without permission, that’s stealing, regardless of the value of what you take, and regardless of the consequences that follow.

The Bible doesn’t give a cut-and-dried definition of Christian persecution – i.e. there’s no one verse that specifically says, “Persecution is _____,” – rather, we glean the definition from looking at examples of it in Scripture. And, actually, if we look at it on a spiritual level rather than a temporal, tangible, earthly level, the definition of Christian persecution is rather simple: Christ is always right. Satan is always wrong. Any time Satan opposes Christ, that’s persecution.

Christ is always right. Satan is always wrong. Any time Satan opposes Christ, that’s persecution.

If you are obediently following God’s Word, standing with Christ and His Word, and you face opposition for that – regardless of the official reason given for the opposition (more about that in a sec) – you’re being persecuted, whether it’s somebody responding to your Christian worldview Facebook post with an “angry face” emoji or somebody executing you for sharing the gospel.

The Bible says in 2 Timothy 3:12:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

If the definition of persecution is being “burned on sticks” – martyrdom – then this verse of Scripture isn’t true. Millions of Christians living godly lives in Christ Jesus have lived and died without being martyred. Yet this verse says all will be persecuted. Since we know this verse of Scripture is true, that means persecution has to include lesser forms of mistreatment of Christians.

We should never say that somebody calling you a booger head for being a Christian is as bad as, painful as, or difficult as being burned at the stake, but both are, qualitatively, persecution, just in different degrees of severity.

2.
We must think about persecution
on a spiritual level, not a tangible level.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12

We’ve simply got to wrap our minds around this concept if we’re going to properly understand persecution.

There is an entire, real spiritual realm that we cannot see, hear, or touch. And in that realm, Satan and his minions are constantly rebelling against God and attempting to, for lack of a better word, “attack” God and thwart His purposes. 

And what better way to really stick it to God than by using His own Creation against Him? People made by God in His image. People He loves so much that He sacrificed His only Son for them.

Because we can’t see Satan and his demons, he “puts on flesh” by using his children – his slaves – to do his bidding. 

So when we see, for example, governmental officials placing restrictions on the church and giving COVID as the reason, we’re not seeing reasonable, uninfluenced people altruistically doing what’s best to protect others. That’s just the deceptive window dressing Satan wants us to see. That’s his sleight of hand to distract us from what’s really going on in the spiritual realm: he’s attempting to attack God and His people and thwart God’s plan for the church. And he’s using God’s own creation – people and government- to do it.

In this whole debate about Pastor Coates and whether or not he should have obeyed the government’s COVID regulations, and whether or not he should have gone to jail for refusing to obey them, and whether or not his imprisonment is actually persecution, one of the things Christians are failing to grasp is that, in God’s economy, the government has no right or authority to place any restrictions on the church in the first place.

In God’s economy, the government has no right or authority to place any restrictions on the church in the first place.

Stop myopically looking at one itty bitty little tree, and back up and look at the whole forest: God is King of the Universe. He purchased the church with the blood of His Son. He founded it. He owns it. He is the head of it and rules over it. 

The government is God’s servant. A servant has no right to override his master’s commands:

  • God says:
    proclaim the gospel to the whole creation and make disciples of them,
    come, all who are thirsty, and
    whosoever will may come.
    He casts out no one who comes to Him.

    His servant, the government, has no right to issue an edict that only a select few may enter the church to serve the Lord with gladness, come into His presence with singing, enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise, when God has said, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” God does not place capacity limits on who may come into His church. The government certainly has no right to do so.

Open your spiritual eyes, sisters. Look beyond what you can see in this tangible realm, and grasp the bigger picture. This isn’t about what your physical eyes can see. Persecution is about spiritual warfare.

3.
Satan is a deceiver.

Have you ever heard the old saying, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”2? Well, it’s true and he pulls that trick on various levels with various people. It’s not just on the macro level with atheists or lost people who are convinced Satan is just a mythological character. There’s also the micro level of the sleepy-eyed Christian who has forgotten that Satan is the underlying inspiration for every unholy act in the world. (And we’re all prone to that forgetfulness from time to time.)

That’s why Satan doesn’t march right up to Christians and say, “Hi, I’m the Prince of Darkness. Wouldn’t you like to sin against God today?”. He’s smarter than that. He knows if he presents himself to you as what he really is, and sin as what it really is, you’d see right through him and stay away from him. 

There may come a point in time in the West at which the government clearly and overtly says, “Christianity is against the law, and if you’re a Christian, you’ll be executed.”

But that time is not now. That’s the last leg of the race for Satan. And you don’t get to the last leg of the race without first having stretched, put on your running shoes, and run the first, second, and third leg of the race. And that’s where we are right now: at the beginning of the race.

At the beginning of the race, Satan has to con you into believing there are good reasons for the havoc he’s wreaking on the church, and he’ll even disguise himself as an angel of light and dress up his reasons in the costume of Christian-ese to do it. And that’s exactly what he has done as he has persecuted God’s church with COVID regulations3:

It’s for your safety…

It’s for the safety of others…

It’s loving your neighbor…

The Bible says you have to obey the government, no matter what…

And…

James Coates wasn’t arrested for preaching, he was arrested refusing to obey COVID regulations.

Again, put on your spirit realm thinking cap and your spiritual eyeglasses and see what’s really going on here. Satan doesn’t give a flying flip about COVID regulations, or the virus itself, or how many people it kills or doesn’t kill. His mission (though futile) is to destroy God’s church, and to  oppose, rebel against, and attempt to thwart God’s plans and purposes at every turn. And he will use anything he can get his hands on to do that – especially deception that veils what he’s really doing.

Don’t believe me? What capital crime did the Roman government officially charge Jesus with and execute Him for? It wasn’t for preaching or being a “Christian”. It was for insurrection. Because in Rome’s eyes, there was only one King of the Jews, and it wasn’t Jesus.

And what about the riot in Ephesus? When the Ephesian business men grabbed Gaius and Aristarchus, they didn’t say, “We’re about to beat you senseless because you’re Christians.” Nope, it was, “It’s the economy, Stupid.” They were riled up at the Christians because they were losing money.

And when Paul was arrested in Acts 21, the reason given was inciting a riot, not his beliefs or practices as a Christian.

And when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the furnace, the capital charge was not: “These men worship the one true God,” The official charge was that they refused to obey the king’s unbiblical law – which as the governmental “servant of God” he had no right to make in the first place, nor to punish God’s people when they obeyed Him rather than man. Selah.

Need I go on? Search your Bible. Search the nightly news. You’ll find many instances in which Satan sets the stage with elaborate props of perfectly logical sounding reasons why God’s people are being attacked, while backstage, he’s singing second verse, same as the first – I hate God and I want to kill what He loves.

He wants you to think pastors are being arrested and fined and sanctioned because of COVID regulations, or that Christian businesses and organizations that won’t get on board with the government’s sexual perversion agenda (let the reader understand) are violating anti-discrimination laws, but that’s not the real reason. They’re being arrested and fined and sanctioned because Satan wants to obliterate the church.

If you are walking in obedience to the Lord and you face opposition or restriction, that’s persecution, regardless of the “official” reason given.

4.
Knowing the consequences ahead of time
doesn’t mean it’s not persecution.

“James Coates had been warned multiple times that he was violating COVID regulations and he kept doing it, so he can’t cry ‘persecution’ now that he has to pay the piper.”

Um…seriously? Have you ever read your Bible? Persecution is not defined by whether or not you know what the consequences for your actions will be ahead of time. I would even argue that most victims of persecution in the Bible knew what they were in for, and they chose to obey God rather than evil men anyway.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew they would face the furnace.

Daniel knew the consequences for his prayers would be the lion’s den.

Jesus knew the cross was coming.

The Apostles had already been beaten and imprisoned for preaching the gospel, so they certainly knew they were in for more of the same when they went out and preached again.

Persecution is when Satan attempts to attack God and His people. It has nothing to do with whether or not the Christian being attacked knows what consequences his actions will bring.

Knowing the consequences ahead of time and obeying God anyway doesn’t mean you aren’t being persecuted, it means you’re a Christian.

There’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there about Christian persecution. If you’re a genuinely regenerated Christian, you will face some level of persecution at some point in your life. That’s a promise from Scripture. It’s important to be prepared for that so you can respond in a godly and obedient way, because responding to persecution by refusing to bow to man over God and doing so with a holy, humble, honored attitude is a testimony to the world, and an encouragement to your brothers and sisters, that Jesus Christ is King, and that He alone is worthy to rule and to reign.


1The Greek word for “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia. It literally means a gathering or an assembly. The church, is, by definition, a gathering together – in person – of “the called out ones” – Christians. Watching a church service online is a blessing when you are temporarily Providentially hindered from being there in person, but it is not the same as going to church, as we are commanded, and it is not a biblical substitute for going to church as we are commanded. It is not church at all, because where there is no gathering, there is no church.

2Quote attributed to 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire

3Please understand, I’m not saying that if you have to stay home from church temporarily to stay healthy that you’re automatically deceived or unsaved. Remember, we’re talking about the long term, big picture of Satan’s agenda here, not individual trees in the forest.


Additional Resources:

Persecution in the Pew

Why Pastor James Coates’ Imprisonment is Actual Persecution at The Cripplegate

Why are COVID restrictions on gathering size persecution, but fire codes limiting gathering size are not? Glad You Asked (~23:21) at A Word Fitly Spoken

Erin Coates Interview

I did not have an opportunity, before I wrote this article, to listen to James Coates’ last sermon before he was arrested, but he does a much better job of explaining the government’s roles and responsibilities, and exegeting Romans 13 than I ever could. Please give it a listen:

Easter, Suffering

Christ- the Suffering Servant

Originally published April 14, 2017

Isaiah 53

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

What a beautiful passage describing Christ’s suffering for us. Usually, when we think about suffering, we think about suffering we’ve personally experienced, things loved ones have been through, newsworthy events from around the globe, and natural disasters. And, as normal human beings in a broken, sinful world, that’s what we tend to do- we think of people, topics, and circumstances in light of our experiences with them or how they affect us. But as Christians, it’s imperative that, when we think of suffering, we look first to Christ, the Suffering Servant, and see all other suffering in light of His suffering.

Certainly, Isaiah 53 doesn’t cover every aspect or incident of Christ’s suffering, but let’s take a look at a few of these verses that prophesy – over 700 years before He was ever born – about the suffering of Christ.

Christ suffered physically
Most have read the Bible’s account of the crucifixion. But in the same way a verbal description of abortion doesn’t really capture the horror of the act the way a video can, our English words used in Isaiah 53 can’t adequately express the extreme physical suffering Christ endured on the cross. The cross was such an agonizing experience we had to invent a new word for that kind of suffering: excruciating. Ex– out of, cruciare– the crucifixion. Suffering drawn out of the cross.

So, how did Christ suffer physically?

Verse 5 says He was pierced, crushed, chastised, and wounded. Let’s take a closer look at those words:

Pierced– The Hebrew word means: “to wound (fatally), bore through” We see this with the crown of thorns that “bore through” Jesus’ head and the nails that pierced His hands and feet.

Crushed– The Hebrew means: “to be broken, shattered, beat to pieces” Interestingly, it can also mean “contrite”- He was contrite for our iniquities.

Chastisement– The Hebrew means: “discipline” as you would discipline a naughty child

Wounds/stripes– The Hebrew means: “a welt, blueness, bruise, hurt”

The flogging. The thorns. The pummeling He took from the soldiers. And carrying the cross to Calvary after all of that. Nails through His wrists, nails through His feet, the agony of trying to breathe, and, finally, the spear through His side. Jesus’ physical body took some of the worst abuse that’s ever been doled out by professional torturers.

Christ suffered emotionally
Jesus was a human being, just like you and me. That means he had feelings and emotions just like you and I do, and people and circumstances hurt Him just like they hurt us.

He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Jesus had loved ones die and friends betray Him and turn their backs on Him. He wasn’t immune to the hurts of life.

We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. Stricken, smitten, afflicted- those aren’t words we use very often. What do they mean? Stricken is to reach out and touch someone. It’s the same idea as God striking someone down or striking someone with leprosy. Smitten by God– same idea, but with more of a judgment or punishment angle: “smite, chastise, send judgment upon, punish, destroy.” To be afflicted is to be “oppressed, humiliated, be bowed down.”

This phrase in verse 4 carries the idea that people thought Jesus had done something(s) that so displeased God that that God’s punitive hand of judgment was upon His life. Of course, that wasn’t true. Yet, there were people thought of Him that way and treated Him that way- at the cross, certainly, but also, to some extent, during His life.

And yes, that grieved Him as the God who loved and wanted to save these people, but, on the human side, well, we all know how it feels to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Christ felt those slings and arrows of the heart.

Christ suffered spiritually
When I say Christ “suffered spiritually” I want to be clear that I do not mean anything ever happened to Christ that marred His sinless perfection or in any way diminished His deity. What I mean is that He suffered due to fallen man’s sinfulness regarding theological or spiritual issues. For example:

He was despised and rejected by men…he was despised, and we esteemed him not. We see this constantly in the gospels. The Pharisees were always trying to trick Jesus and trap Him with difficult questions. They repeatedly accused Him of “working” on the Sabbath by healing people, picking grain and eating it, and so on. They plotted against Him. They tried to stone Him. Even at the end, when He was on the cross, Scripture says “they hurled insults at Him.”

And why? These aren’t just playground bullies picking on a random kid for no reason. They had a reason. And those insults the chief priests and scribes and elders hurled at Jesus in Matthew 27:42-43 sum up that reason pretty neatly:

He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’

Jesus was God. He was their Messiah. Yet these men didn’t want to humble themselves and admit it and bow the knee to Him. They looked Jesus in the eye – the God who loved them, created them, and breathed the breath of life into them – and said: We will not have this King reign over us! They despised and rejected the core of who Jesus was: Savior, King, Son of God.

But Jesus suffered in other spiritual ways, too…

The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
[He was] stricken for the transgression of my people
His soul makes an offering for guilt
He shall bear their iniquities
He bore the sin of many

Christ carried our sin. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree… (1 Peter 2:24). There’s no way we could begin to fathom what it was like for Christ to carry every single sin of billions of people in His body. But He didn’t just have the weight of that sin on His shoulders, He also propitiated God’s wrath toward every single one of those sins. God poured out the cup of His wrath for our sin and Jesus drank every last drop of it.

Jesus suffered tremendously. How did He respond to all that suffering?

Christ’s Response to Suffering
Hebrews 2:17 tells us: Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect.

One of the ways Jesus was made like us, His brothers, was that He suffered. He suffered physically, He suffered emotionally, and He suffered “spiritually,” just like we do. In fact, He suffered far more in each of these respects than any of us ever have or ever will.

But what’s even more amazing to me than the actual extent of Jesus’ suffering was the fact that He endured all of it, from the moment of His birth to the moment of His death without ever sinning. Not even once. Not even in His thoughts or the attitude of His heart.

That’s huge. Think of the suffering you’ve experienced in your life and how you responded to it. I’ve retaliated against people who have hurt me, or at least harbored bitterness against them. During times of calamity, I’ve yelled at God, I’ve questioned His love for me, I’ve not trusted Him, I’ve been angry at Him.

But Jesus never had a sinful response to suffering. How did He respond?

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 1 Peter 2:23

In some cases, Jesus just didn’t respond at all to the person or situation causing the suffering. He communed with God instead. Jesus knew that He was in God’s hands and God would mete out judgment at the proper time.

But this is the same Jesus who instructed us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your cloak as well as your tunic. And Jesus certainly embodied these responses to those who caused Him suffering.

Let’s look at Jesus’ response to Pilate in John 18:33-38. But before we do, bear in mind that Jesus has the power to call down any number of angels to destroy Pilate, the courtyard where He’s about to be flogged, Calvary, Jerusalem, the whole world, if He wants to, in order to avoid the suffering He’s about to endure, and Jesus is fully aware of that. But watch how He responds to Pilate:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.

Jesus took the time to, essentially, share the gospel with this horrid man, whose next move was to have Jesus taken out and beaten to a bloody pulp. Jesus not only refused to retaliate against Pilate, He blessed him with the gospel instead.

When Jesus was on the cross, how did He respond to those who had crucified Him and those who were mocking and insulting Him? Did He yell back? Tell them they were all going to burn in Hell? No, He prayed for them: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Every time Jesus suffered, He responded to it in exactly the right, godly way. He trusted Himself, the situation, and everyone involved to God, He loved His enemies, and He said or did whatever would best proclaim the gospel or glorify God in that situation.

It’s difficult to wrap our minds around all of the ways Jesus suffered, and more difficult still to comprehend that He never responded sinfully to His suffering. But perhaps the most baffling aspect of Jesus’ suffering is that He willingly chose to endure it all for rebellious, thankless, undeserving sinners like you and me. To serve us. To purchase the salvation we could never earn. To live the life we could not live. To die the death we could not die. And to conquer the grave that, for us, was unconquerable.

All hail King Jesus- the Suffering Servant.

Suffering

Erin Coates Interview

Normally, when I feature a full length video in a post, it’s for leisure time entertainment, or maybe it even focuses on something important that you need to educate yourself about.

This time, it’s urgent.

Let me get this part out of the way first because I know some of you, like me, looked at that 3 hour time stamp on the video and your visceral reaction was, “There’s no way I have the time or the attention span to watch all of that.” I get it. But here’s how the video breaks down:

  • Justin Peters’ interview with Erin: About 45 minutes long
  • James Coates’ February 14 sermon: About an hour
  • GraceLife Associate Pastor Jacob Spenst’s February 21 sermon: A little over an hour.

If you read my article from last Friday, 4 Things You Need to Understand About Christian Persecution, or if you’ve been paying attention to Christian news and social media, you’re familiar with the story of Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (And if not, it’s explained in the video.)

I want to urge you to at least listen to the interview with Erin and pray for her, James, their family, and GraceLife, especially today and tomorrow. Thursday is the hearing to determine whether James can bail out of jail without agreeing to the shamefully discriminatory bail conditions that have been put in place. Erin explains more in this Instagram post:

At the end of the interview, Justin asks Erin if there’s anything we outsiders can do to help. Here’s what you can do:

  • Pray
  • Contact Jason Kenney, Premier of Alberta, Canada via phone, mail, email, or via Facebook and Twitter, and request that all charges against James be dropped. Do so kindly and politely. Remember, you are representing Christ. Mention where you’re from. Even if you don’t live in Alberta or anywhere in Canada, the Premier needs to know this is a bad look for Canada in the eyes of a watching world – and so do other world leaders who are undoubtedly watching to see what Canada will do in this case. Never underestimate the power of negative publicity in the hands of an Almighty God.
  • Help get the word out. Share this post with your pastor. Post it on social media and ask all your friends to share. If you have any contacts in the media or anyone with a large platform who could aid in spreading the word, ask that they help shine some light on this situation. The more publicity, the better.
  • Pastors, open your churches. Especially if you’re Alberta. Not only is it obedient to Scripture, can you imagine how encouraging it would be to Pastor James and GraceLife to see other churches and pastors standing in solidarity with them?
  • Keep your mouth shut. I can’t tell you how many horrifying comments I’ve read from professing Christians about this situation. If you can’t be an encouragement to your brother in Christ, just be quiet, and maybe examine yourself against Scripture. I definitely won’t be publishing any comments or reading any emails that are discouraging or critical.

Watch. And pray.

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you…in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25: 37a, 39-40

Church, Suffering

4 Things You Need to Understand About Christian Persecution

Persecution. It’s a hot topic in pop-evangelicalism these days in the wake of Pastor James Coates’ arrest in Canada (please don’t forget to pray for him, his family, and his church).

Though Pastor Coates’ arrest was heartbreaking, one good thing that has come out of it is that the online discussion about it has pulled back the curtain on just how much biblical ignorance is running rampant out there among professing Christians on the issue of persecution.

In a way, it’s understandable. American citizens (and many citizens of other Westernized countries as well) alive today have grown up with the guarantee of freedom of religion, codified in our Constitution. Until the last ten years or so, finding the proverbial needle in the haystack would have been much easier than finding an American who had experienced actual Christian persecution at the hands of her government.

To us, the persecution of Christians has always been something that happened thousands of miles away in far off, uncivilized, unsophisticated lands. “That could never happen here,” we mused thankfully, and promptly pushed the matter out of our thoughts.

But it can happen here. It’s already happening here. And it will increasingly continue to happen here.

And so, it’s a good thing that the issue has come to the forefront now, while we still have time to develop a biblical theology of persecution and prepare to act on it.

Let’s examine four popular misunderstandings about persecution, and what the Bible has to say about it.

1.
The degree of persecution does not equal
the definition of persecution.

“That’s not persecution. Persecution is being burned on sticks.”

I forget what the “that” was in this comment I recently saw on social media, but the “burned on sticks” part stuck in my memory. Whatever the “that” was, it some sort of unpleasantness aimed at a Christian for his faith, but it was much less intense than being burned on sticks.

But that diminished intensity doesn’t mean “that” wasn’t also, in fact, persecution. It only means “that” was less painful, less inconvenient, less life-altering, less terrifying persecution than the persecution of being burned on sticks.

I think maybe people don’t understand the difference between the definition of persecution and the degree of severity of persecution. Persecution is like stealing. Taking a paper clip from your office isn’t as severe as embezzling millions of dollars, and doesn’t garner as severe a consequence, but both are, qualitatively, and, definitionally, stealing. When you take something that isn’t yours, without permission that’s stealing, regardless of the value of what you take, and regardless of the consequences that follow.

The Bible doesn’t give a cut-and-dried definition of Christian persecution – i.e. there’s no one verse that specifically says, “Persecution is _____,” – rather, we glean the definition from looking at examples of it in Scripture. And, actually, if we look at it on a spiritual level rather than a temporal, tangible, earthly level, the definition of Christian persecution is rather simple: Christ is always right. Satan is always wrong. Any time Satan opposes Christ, that’s persecution.

Christ is always right. Satan is always wrong. Any time Satan opposes Christ, that’s persecution.

If you are obediently following God’s Word, standing with Christ and His Word, and you face opposition for that – regardless of the official reason given for the opposition (more about that in a sec) – you’re being persecuted, whether it’s somebody responding to your Christian worldview Facebook post with an “angry face” emoji or somebody executing you for sharing the gospel.

The Bible says in 2 Timothy 3:12:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

If the definition of persecution is being “burned on sticks” – martyrdom – then this verse of Scripture isn’t true. Millions of Christians living godly lives in Christ Jesus have lived and died without being martyred. Yet this verse says all will be persecuted. Since we know this verse of Scripture is true, that means persecution has to include lesser forms of mistreatment of Christians.

We should never say that somebody calling you a booger head for being a Christian is as bad as, painful as, or difficult as being burned at the stake, but both are, qualitatively, persecution, just in different degrees of severity.

2.
We must think about persecution
on a spiritual level, not a tangible level.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12

We’ve simply got to wrap our minds around this concept if we’re going to properly understand persecution.

There is an entire, real spiritual realm that we cannot see, hear, or touch. And in that realm, Satan and his minions are constantly rebelling against God and attempting to, for lack of a better word, “attack” God and thwart His purposes. 

And what better way to really stick it to God than by using His own Creation against Him? People made by God in His image. People He loves so much that He sacrificed His only Son for them.

Because we can’t see Satan and his demons, he “puts on flesh” by using his children – his slaves – to do his bidding. 

So when we see, for example, governmental officials placing restrictions on the church and giving Covid as the reason, we’re not seeing reasonable, uninfluenced people altruistically doing what’s best to protect others. That’s just the deceptive window dressing Satan wants us to see. That’s his sleight of hand to distract us from what’s really going on in the spiritual realm: he’s attempting to attack God and His people and thwart God’s plan for the church. And he’s using God’s own creation – people and government- to do it.

In this whole debate about Pastor Coates and whether or not he should have obeyed the government’s Covid regulations, and whether or not he should have gone to jail for refusing to obey them, and whether or not his imprisonment is actually persecution, one of the things Christians are failing to grasp is that, in God’s economy, the government has no right or authority to place any restrictions on the church in the first place.

In God’s economy, the government has no right or authority to place any restrictions on the church in the first place.

Stop myopically looking at one itty bitty little tree, and back up and look at the whole forest: God is King of the Universe. He purchased the church with the blood of His Son. He founded it. He owns it. He is the head of it and rules over it. 

The government is God’s servant. A servant has no right to override his master’s commands:

  • God says:
    proclaim the gospel to the whole creation and make disciples of them,
    come, all who are thirsty, and
    whosoever will may come.
    He casts out no one who comes to Him.

    His servant, the government, has no right to issue an edict that only a select few may enter the church to serve the Lord with gladness, come into His presence with singing, enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise, when God has said, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” God does not place capacity limits on who may come into His church. The government certainly has no right to do so.

Open your spiritual eyes, sisters. Look beyond what you can see in this tangible realm, and grasp the bigger picture. This isn’t about what your physical eyes can see. Persecution is about spiritual warfare.

3.
Satan is a deceiver.

Have you ever heard the old saying, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”2? Well, it’s true and he pulls that trick on various levels with various people. It’s not just on the macro level with atheists or lost people who are convinced Satan is just a mythological character. There’s also the micro level of the sleepy-eyed Christian who has forgotten that Satan is the underlying inspiration for every unholy act in the world. (And we’re all prone to that forgetfulness from time to time.)

That’s why Satan doesn’t march right up to Christians and say, “Hi, I’m the Prince of Darkness. Wouldn’t you like to sin against God today?”. He’s smarter than that. He knows if he presents himself to you as what he really is, and sin as what it really is, you’d see right through him and stay away from him. 

There may come a point in time in the West at which the government clearly and overtly says, “Christianity is against the law, and if you’re a Christian, you’ll be executed.”

But that time is not now. That’s the last leg of the race for Satan. And you don’t get to the last leg of the race without first having stretched, put on your running shoes, and run the first, second, and third leg of the race. And that’s where we are right now: at the beginning of the race.

At the beginning of the race, Satan has to con you into believing there are good reasons for the havoc he’s wreaking on the church, and he’ll even disguise himself as an angel of light and dress up his reasons in the costume of Christian-ese to do it. And that’s exactly what he has done as he has persecuted God’s church with Covid regulations3:

It’s for your safety…

It’s for the safety of others…

It’s loving your neighbor…

The Bible says you have to obey the government, no matter what…

And…

James Coates wasn’t arrested for preaching, he was arrested refusing to obey Covid regulations.

Again, put on your spirit realm thinking cap and your spiritual eyeglasses and see what’s really going on here. Satan doesn’t give a flying flip about Covid regulations, or the virus itself, or how many people it kills or doesn’t kill. His mission (though futile) is to destroy God’s church, and to  oppose, rebel against, and attempt to thwart God’s plans and purposes at every turn. And he will use anything he can get his hands on to do that – especially deception that veils what he’s really doing.

Don’t believe me? What capital crime did the Roman government officially charge Jesus with and execute Him for? It wasn’t for preaching or being a “Christian”. It was for insurrection. Because in Rome’s eyes, there was only one King of the Jews, and it wasn’t Jesus.

And what about the riot in Ephesus? When the Ephesian business men grabbed Gaius and Aristarchus, they didn’t say, “We’re about to beat you senseless because you’re Christians.” Nope, it was, “It’s the economy, Stupid.” They were riled up at the Christians because they were losing money.

And when Paul was arrested in Acts 21, the reason given was inciting a riot, not his beliefs or practices as a Christian.

And when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the furnace, the capital charge was not: “These men worship the one true God,” The official charge was that they refused to obey the king’s unbiblical law – which as the governmental “servant of God” he had no right to make in the first place, nor to punish God’s people when they obeyed Him rather than man. Selah.

Need I go on? Search your Bible. Search the nightly news. You’ll find many instances in which Satan sets the stage with elaborate props of perfectly logical sounding reasons why God’s people are being attacked, while backstage, he’s singing second verse, same as the first – I hate God and I want to kill what He loves.

He wants you to think pastors are being arrested and fined and sanctioned because of Covid regulations, or that Christian businesses and organizations that won’t get on board with the government’s sexual perversion agenda (let the reader understand) are violating anti-discrimination laws, but that’s not the real reason. They’re being arrested and fined and sanctioned because Satan wants to obliterate the church.

If you are walking in obedience to the Lord and you face opposition or restriction, that’s persecution, regardless of the “official” reason given.

4.
Knowing the consequences ahead of time
doesn’t mean it’s not persecution.

“James Coates had been warned multiple times that he was violating Covid regulations and he kept doing it, so he can’t cry ‘persecution’ now that he has to pay the piper.”

Um…seriously? Have you ever read your Bible? Persecution is not defined by whether or not you know what the consequences for your actions will be ahead of time. I would even argue that most victims of persecution in the Bible knew what they were in for, and they chose to obey God rather than evil men anyway.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew they would face the furnace.

Daniel knew the consequences for his prayers would be the lion’s den.

Jesus knew the cross was coming.

The Apostles had already been beaten and imprisoned for preaching the gospel, so they certainly knew they were in for more of the same when they went out and preached again.

Persecution is when Satan attempts to attack God and His people. It has nothing to do with whether or not the Christian being attacked knows what consequences his actions will bring.

Knowing the consequences ahead of time and obeying God anyway doesn’t mean you aren’t being persecuted, it means you’re a Christian.

There’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there about Christian persecution. If you’re a genuinely regenerated Christian, you will face some level of persecution at some point in your life. That’s a promise from Scripture. It’s important to be prepared for that so you can respond in a godly and obedient way, because responding to persecution by refusing to bow to man over God and doing so with a holy, humble, honored attitude is a testimony to the world, and an encouragement to your brothers and sisters, that Jesus Christ is King, and that He alone is worthy to rule and to reign.


1The Greek word for “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia. It literally means a gathering or an assembly. The church, is, by definition, a gathering together – in person – of “the called out ones” – Christians. Watching a church service online is a blessing when you are temporarily Providentially hindered from being there in person, but it is not the same as going to church, as we are commanded, and it is not a biblical substitute for going to church as we are commanded. It is not church at all, because where there is no gathering, there is no church.

2Quote attributed to 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire

3Please understand, I’m not saying that if you have to stay home from church temporarily to stay healthy that you’re automatically deceived or unsaved. Remember, we’re talking about the long term, big picture of Satan’s agenda here, not individual trees in the forest.


Additional Resources:

Persecution in the Pew

Why Pastor James Coates’ Imprisonment is Actual Persecution at The Cripplegate

Why are COVID restrictions on gathering size persecution, but fire codes limiting gathering size are not? Glad You Asked (~23:21) at A Word Fitly Spoken

I did not have an opportunity, before I wrote this article, to listen to James Coates’ last sermon before he was arrested, but he does a much better job of explaining the government’s roles and responsibilities, and exegeting Romans 13 than I ever could. Please give it a listen:

Faith, Second Coming, Suffering

In the Mean Time

I am caring for my mom as she gets settled in at home after a lengthy hospital stay, so this article came to mind. With everything going on in the world, I thought we could all use this reminder. If you have a moment, I surely would appreciate your prayers for strength and wisdom for me, and that my mom would be able to sit and stand without assistance by the end of the week.

Originally published August 21, 2014In the Mean Time

 

When I was a little girl, around three or four years old, my mother occasionally needed to drop me off at a daycare center so she could run errands or attend to other things you can’t take care of with a pre-schooler in tow.

I hated it.

Even 40+ years later, I remember being terrified. I wasn’t a regular, so I didn’t know any of the other kids or the teachers or the routine or where anything was located. I didn’t want to be there because I didn’t fit in. I wanted to go home. I felt completely uncomfortable the entire time I was there. In fact, I remember crying unconsolably. When would my mom come back and get me out of this God-forsaken place?

Don’t cry. Your mom’s coming back for you soon.

I’m sure some kind teacher whispered that in my ear as she put her arms around me, the same way I’ve whispered it in the ears of children I’ve comforted over the years.

And, finally, Mom would come back, take me away, and everything would be all right.

Today, I still feel like that tiny child sometimes.

There are days when the evil and sadness of this world overwhelm me. When problems in my own life terrify me.

I hate it.

You see, I don’t fit in here. This isn’t my home. I don’t want to be here. And sometimes, I cry inconsolably…

When, Lord? When will you come back and get me out of this God-forsaking place?

And that’s when the kind and precious Holy Spirit wraps the arms of the Word around me and whispers…

Don’t cry. Your Savior’s coming back for you soon.

Soon, little ones. Dry your tears. He’s coming back for us soon.


Out of honor to my mom, I just wanted to say that I totally understand why she had to take me to the daycare from time to time. I would have done the same thing with my child. I’m sure it was a fine daycare with loving teachers. I’m just the kind of person who never outgrew stranger anxiety. This was my brokenness, not anyone else’s unkindness.