Could the Persecuted Church Rescue American Christianity?

Christianity in this country is big, powerful, and familiar. We need it to become strange again.

I was distracted at the Baltimore Orioles’ game the other night. At the end of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), my wife and I joined friends at Camden Yards, but a new friend with us there in the stands kept driving my attention to a jail cell overseas.

A few hours earlier, that new friend, Naghmeh Abedini, had joined me on the platform of our gathering of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. I called the SBC to stand with her husband, Saeed, an American citizen who is imprisoned in Iran for his evangelical faith. As we ate hamburgers and watched umpires call balls and strikes, I wondered what was happening, at that very moment, to Saeed. Was he being beaten? Was he, like Paul and Silas of old, singing hymns behind the bars?

I couldn’t help but wonder if we were living a parable.

After all, before and after we had prayed for Saeed and the persecuted church on our knees on the convention floor, we had prayed for awakening and revival in our American churches. Southern Baptist baptism rates are robust compared to tanking mainline Protestantism, but they are anemic given our history and our aspirations of reaching our neighbors with the gospel.

It would be easy to assume that American evangelicals are the “strong” ones, standing up for our “weak” brothers and sisters imperiled around the world. In one sense, that’s obviously true. We can pressure the State Department to act. We can send relief to communities in peril. We can use information technology to alert the global community to what is happening to religious minorities (not only Christians) due to persecution.

But more and more American Christians are recognizing that we should not only advocate for our persecuted brothers and sisters; we should also learn from them how to live as Christians.

Evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer warned in the 1970s that affluence is spiritually dangerous for Christians. He pointed to the ancient words of the Hebrew prophets and said that those who need never to wonder where daily bread will come from soon stop praying for it — and turn to immorality.

It’s hard to question his diagnosis, especially since it echoes Jesus himself.

For a generation, American evangelicals have talked quite a bit about “faith” and “values.” We want “faith-friendly” movies and we build coalitions of “people of faith.” We talk about “traditional values” when it comes to policy questions. But “faith” and “values” aren’t necessarily praiseworthy. Jesus told us there are all sorts of faith responses to the Word he was preaching. He compared these to seeds that fall on different kinds of soil. The seed that falls on rocky ground, Jesus said, appears to be vital, until persecution comes and then the hearer walks away.

But what happens when there is no persecution?

We have grown accustomed to an American civil religion, nominally Christian, where in many places it does someone social good to join a church. To say “I’m not a Christian” has been in those places the equivalent of saying “I’m not a good person.” This has inflated membership rolls, yes, but it has done so at the expense of what Jesus calls the gospel: the call to carry a cross.

Moreover, this nominal Christianity has emphasized the “values” and “meaning” aspects of Christianity while often downplaying the “strangeness” of Christianity, namely the conviction that a previously dead man is alive and returning to judge the living and the dead.

This Bible Belt experiment will not long survive the secularizing of American culture, where increasingly even the “values” seem strange to the culture. The church will survive, and, I believe, flourish — but it will mean the stripping away of the almost-gospels we’ve grown accustomed to.

In the “religion” aisle at any given bookstore, one can see volumes promising “every day a Friday” and so on. Jesus is the totem to acquire what American culture has told us we deserve. This is closer to Canaanite fertility religion than to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have become the people Jesus warned us about.

When we encounter those persecuted around the world, we see a glimpse of what Jesus has called all of us to. We see the sort of faith that isn’t a means to an end. We see the sort of faith that joins the global Body of Christ, across time and space, in the confession of a different sort of reign. We see a gospel that isn’t the American Dream with heaven at the end.

When we pray for those in prison for their faith, we remember that the gospel came to us in letters written from jail. When we plead for those whose churches are burned in Egypt, we remember that our hope isn’t in building religious empires but in a New Jerusalem we’ve never seen. When we weep for those crucified in Syria, we remember that our Lord isn’t a guru or a life coach, but a crucified Christ. That can remind us of the gospel we signed up for in the first place, and free us from our fat, affluent, almost-gospels that can never save.

Maybe at next year’s denominational meeting, we’ll go to another ball game. And, I pray, it’s possible that not only Naghmeh but also her husband can join us — as a free man. We’ll celebrate, and we’ll pray for those still in chains. But then I think we’ll just ask him to preach. We American evangelicals need our persecuted brother more than he needs us.

 

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

Image by bigbirdz.

Russell D. Moore
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  • Reubonics

    Excellent article.

  • Tom K

    Speaking of the affluence in our Pulpits. Many Pastors of larger churches make a nice 6 figure income, go on speaking engagements and or attend or hold Conferences ( that’s where the big money is) and keep all proceeds to themselves and then brag about “How much they are giving back out of their abundance “. It’s not going back to the home churches that pays this 6 figure income, the same church that they take time away from on their time clock and call this behavior, Fair, Ok, it’s not called by it’s name Greed. They in fact have told God, “I’m not satisfied with what you gave me, I want more, I’m going to get more.” This behavior has been going on for decades and no one seems to want to admit that many in our pulpits are living in Greed and Worldly behavior and when you have these two you will almost always have Pride. You men in leadership roles need to address and do some “House Cleaning.”

  • Gina Murray

    I agree with the thrust of the article and hold the author in high esteem. I do think that the spiritual health of the Bible belt has long been over emphasized as a conflation of culture with Christianity. I do think it is high time for some truth spoken in love. For some decades, at least, there has been a tendency for the masses of Christians in the so called Bible belt to adorn ourselves with the trinkets of Christian-ish catch phrases while often living an utterly carnal life. Case in point: the so called Bible belt is also the syphilis belt and the gluttony belt.

  • T.J.

    Persecution is needed when there is no church discipline. God will purify his church one way or another.

  • David

    American Christians are afflicted by “Christian exceptionalism” the same way Americans in general are afflicted by “American exceptionalism”. The notion that they deserve something more because, well, they are Christian. A huge disservice has been done by certain pastors (names withheld) who preach prosperity instead of persecution. I read this by Kierkagaard the other day and it’s appropriate to the discussion – “The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

    • Tex Taylor

      Great comment. I agree wholeheartedly, and find myself many times guilty as charged.

      As I like to explain during theological debate, we Christians in America love the cooing baby, parts of the Sermon on the Mount, even the judge not. But we sure seem to grow uncomfortable when it comes to recognizing the authority of the King of Kings.

  • TheAmazingT

    The pregnancy rate, abortion, and pre marital sex are higher in in the Bible Belt. Atlanta, Austin are among America’s gay friendly places. I think the author misses something. There is no Bible Belt anymore and even if there was one..

    • Tex Taylor

      I think that’s too simplistic a statement, some of it inaccurate. For instance, the abortion rate in MA is twice as high as it is in OK. I don’t think anybody could make a fair determination on the frequency of pre marital sex by just one statistic.

      While I certainly don’t claim some degree of piety simply because I live in the Bible Belt, anyone that thinks there aren’t massive cultural differences between the Northeast and West Coast vis-a-vis the South or the Southwest is not looking very hard. That’s not to say the Bible Belt doesn’t have its far share of lost sheep, we do, but just casual conversation about religion in general most often brings a very different response.

  • JC

    An excellent article and pointedly true! There’s a startling difference from days gone by to today in how the body of Christ in America perceives faith and shares the gospel. When I read about the unbending faith of Pastor Saeed Abedini and others like him who are persecuted, unjustly jailed, beaten, half starved, whipped, disgraced, denigrated and more, yet stand firm and will not recant their faith in God, it truly inspires me (and I certainly hope other as well.) And when I see family members like Saeeds wife Naghmeh taking a stand, not for her husband alone, but for the body of Christ and the persecuted church, it makes me wonder at times just how easily we (the American church) would fold & give in given the same circumstances! We’ve become too accustomed in America to sit back and let the “preachers” do the work of sharing the Gospel and defending the faith. We’ve become old, dried up branches that need a good pruning to rejuvenate and revive our enthusiasm and unyielding love for the Word. To stand strong in our faith. And to not just hear the message each week in our comfy pews, but to go out and share that message, defending it even to the point or persecution. We can surely learn much from the persecuted church… if only we’ll open our eyes, ears & mouths!

  • TogoHum

    Author brought out a few good points…but he could use a lesson in writing. I could hardly grasp his overall point.

  • Paul Roese

    i alway find it interesting to note the amnesia of conservative Christians. they generally harken back to some time be it 1910? 1950? when Christianity was in full flower. they seem completely oblivious to the history that racism was triumphant and stalking the land and Jim Crow the order of the day.. that Christians who were black and brown were subjected to terrible treatment most often as not by their supposed fellow Christians who were white. any guesses as to how many black churches were bombed or torched during the “golden” years of Christianity in the US. any idea of how many white churches were subject to similar threats? the treatment of other minorities was not much better. how about when the churches all stood by as the government rounded up and interned citizens who’s only crime was their parents came from Japan and some of those interned were Christians. Oh but we don’t want to recall the suffering of those here at home but rather on the other side of the world. what’s with that????

    • Very Conservative

      This is a very good conversation regarding persecution & freedom. Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost, if freedom from chains, shackles, tyrants, or even a bad government is what he was saving us from then he would have setup his kingdom then. The problem here in America is the failure to adhere to God’s holy word and trade or compromise it for greedy lucre and or power, as we have seen in some churches. God allowed persecution of his church to move from Jerusalem to the other most parts of the earth. We are no different than the Israelite in the old testament when they had peace all around them & they strayed from God’s word. Times can change but God’s word does not. People in other countries are being thrown in jail for what we have the freedoms to do but if you look at what we are doing with our freedom you might as well lump us in with the Israelite,. Judgement is coming and is here all at the same time. Too many natural disasters in recent days and I just keep praying God will be merciful to us, (Christians), and allow us to “turn from our wicked ways”. Remember the Bible, (God’s word), tells us we are suppose to be a peculiar people. I keep asking God to change me, mold me, so i can be peculiar even to my own bro & sisters in Christ that are not following God’s word so they may be encouraged to do the same. I am just a alien passing thru this world trying my best to please my master Jesus. We just need to do what God has called each one of us to do in our realm of influence and if we do that then God will hear our prayers, heal our land then we may be able to provide better help to our bro & sisters in Christ no matter where they may be. I tell my brothers & sisters in Christ I am here to be used & abused any way that God would seem fit to use me.

    • Tex Taylor

      Assuming you are correct, and I believe you operate under a false premise, does not your point only reinforce what the author just said? Your comment would lead people to believe it was Christians who were doing the burning, the looting, the bombings. Billy Graham, perhaps the greatest Christian Evangelist of the 20th century, was one of the leaders who refused to evangelize to a segregated audience. It would appear to me it was Christians in large part who ended segregation. MLK, after all, was Baptist preacher.

      But to my point. Let’s consider the then and now.

      No doubts blacks, which I will use in this example, were persecuted in during Jim Crow – Jim Crow being ideology straight from the gates of hell.

      But was happened to the black community the last 50 years? 50 years ago, 25% of black children were born out of wedlock. Today that number is 72%. Blacks now make up a disproportionate amount of violent crime. Their inner cities are cesspools, most of their entertainment vile and crass and that after America spending more than $16 trillion dollars to form a ‘Great Society’ – granted blacks received only a part of that, but the part once again disproportionate. Blacks are five times as likely to abort their fetuses as whites.

      Does that read like more freedom led to more spiritual awakening vis-a-vis the black community at large?

      While I grant you blacks now enjoy much greater secular freedom, what of their spiritual standing? What of their family structure? What of their voting patterns?

  • David

    The Church in America needs to be persecuted because there are just sooo many Christian believers in Saudi Arabia and North Korea. If someone believes that persecution leads to more decisions for Christ, then they should advocate for persecution and then start persecuting Christians. I’m sorry, believing that persecution leads to more believers is a superstition that is not based on the facts. Christianity is, at its core, a reason based world view, not a superstition. South Korea has a much higher percentage of believers than North Korea because South Koreans are free to choose Christ. Throughout the world and throughout history, the more free the society, the more believers and the less free the less believers. There is a reason God created us to be free and Christ restored this freedom and Satan works so hard to prevent freedom. Hoping for more persecution is hoping for more Satan. We need to pray and advocate for freedom, not persecution. You need to rethink your position Russell.

    • JC

      David – I think you’ve missed the whole point of the article. Unless I missed it, I don’t recall reading anything about persecution leading more believes to Christ. It’s not so much about evangelization as it is about moving away from casual Christianity in America and how the persecuted church can & is teaching us how we should live as Christians. It means living the way God intended us to live, by surrendering everything to Christ and allowing ourselves, no matter the situation, to know that God is in control, This is certainly the message I get from the persecuted Christians who will stand firm in their faith, no matter the circumstance! In his powerful statement, the author notes “But more and more American Christians are recognizing that we should not only advocate for our persecuted brothers and sisters; we should also learn from them how to live as Christians.”

      • David M.

        Hi JC, perhaps I read into what Russell wrote, but when he asks what happens when there is no persecution and then answers that the result is nominal Christianity, it appears he believes persecution leads to better Christianity. My point is that the opposite is true. Freedom leads to better Christianity. God created us to be free; Christ restored this freedom; Christians living in freedom produce fruit. Too many Christians want to be able to do what they want to do as they vote and advocate for less freedom for others. We need to advocate for other what we want for ourselves which the freedom to enjoy the rewards and suffer the consequences of our own choices without the mandates or the safety net of the broader society.

        • JC

          Hi David! OK now I see where you’re coming from. Yes, I would agree that we have freedom through Christ, but I would take that to mean more about freedom from eternal damnation, not necessarily the freedoms we are privileged to enjoy here in America..

          • David M.

            Hi JC, I think Christianity and freedom go together everywhere. Where there is more freedom, there are more Christians, where there are more Christians, there is more freedom. More freedom leads to more Christians and more Christians leads to more freedom. Nowadays, in America, we are losing Christians as we are losing freedoms and we are losing freedoms as we are baptizing fewer new Christians. One doesn’t lead to the other; both go together. I think the belief that persecution will lead to better or more Christians is a nutty superstition not based on the facts of history. I admire those who maintain their faith as they are persecuted, yet I am almost certain they pray for relief from suffering as Paul prayed for relief, not for more suffering in order to become better Christians. I do think suffering is part of the life of a follower of Christ; the suffering we choose as we grow closer to Christ.

    • Tex Taylor

      I feel you really missed the premise of this wonderful article. I’m not often impressed anymore with Christian articles, but I was concerning this one.

      Perhaps an example would make my point better. [Evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer warned in the 1970s that affluence
      is spiritually dangerous for Christians. He pointed to the ancient words of the Hebrew prophets and said that those who need never to wonder
      where daily bread will come from soon stop praying for it — and turn to immorality.]

      Thank about that. Was Francis Schaeffer not prescient about what’s transpiring in American Christendom right now? I certainly have concluded as much. I don’t mean to condemn all churches and all congregations, but an aggregate view of American sphere of influence pertaining to Christian influence. For all intents and purposes, Christians in America have lost the cultural war. Our freedoms apparently did little to win the hearts and minds of our youth. Our country is in free fall, and apparently our protective hedge is quite short.

      And I claim guilt. How many times have I eaten without even giving a ponder to “give us this day our daily bread?” I’ve come to expect it – it’s reflex. How many of us are uncomfortable going to battle with “christians”, small ‘c’, wishing for their ears to be tickled? We Christians in America, at least most of, have become creatures of comfort. We have never known real persecution, never really been personally threatened, have never really had to put our faith to the test under duress. And I believe this author is right. It is my opinion, we in America have become the church of Laodicea.

      If freedom from tyranny is the prerequisite for ‘decisions for Christ’, why was the 1st Century Church so successful in evangelizing? Never in recorded history, did our body grow stronger than during its formations. Christ felt persecution his entire life. Paul, perhaps the great Christian who ever lived certainly was persecuted and said these words from Romans…

      But we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

      IMO, this author is spot on and if we could ask Christ who is His will, I believe we Christians in America would be in for a rude awakening. From my vantage point, we more resemble Babylon.

      • David M.

        Hi Tex, thank you for your thoughtful response. I did miss the premise of this article because the premise makes no sense to me. A whole lot of Christian leaders believe persecution strengthens the Church. I think their belief is nonsense. I’ve been reading Act of the Apostles over and over again, and as I read, I see time and time again that believers went into a new area, had success at persuading those who would listen, but then were driven out of an area as the Gospel message was stopped by the authorities. This may or may not have been God’s plan for spreading the Gospel to the world, but there is no indication in Acts that the Church was strengthened by the persecution. I agree with you about suffering and I agree withFrancis Shaeffer regarding affluence. Freedom does not protect us from suffering. Many of our free decisions will cause us and others to suffer. Freedom allows us to come to the correct conclusions about suffering. Proverbs 30:8-9 is true, we don’t hope for too much or too little. The American Church does have issues, but greed does not seem to me like one of the big issues, since American Christians are very generous. Perhaps we could and should give more, I don’t know. I do think our tolerance, even in some churches celebration, of sexual sin is hurting our message of Christ redemption because if we can’t define and describe sin accurately, non-believers have no reason to need Christ. Thanks again for your thoughtful response. It was a good challenge to what I wrote and helpful to me in thinking deeper.

    • Still Waters

      I respectfully disagree. The belief that persecution is beneficial to the Church is not superstitiously derived. Christ himself said it in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when men persecute and revile you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake”; Luke illustrated it in recounting the growth of the Church in Acts, “they that were scattered went everywhere, preaching the Word”; Paul applied it personally, “the things which happened to me have turned to the furthering of the gospel”; and Peter reminds us that the blessing only applies if we suffer for Christ, not for our own wrongdoing, “for this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endures grief, suffering wrongfully.” Moore is Biblically accurate when he says the Western Church has much to learn from our persecuted brothers and sisters.

      • David M.

        Hi SW, Thank you for your response and for your challenge. I agree with most of your points. Suffering is part of the Christian life; those of us who come after Christ must take up our cross and follow him. I recently read the New Testament as I would read a novel and as I read the theme of “suffering” jumped out as a big theme; the suffering that was experienced and suffering that is expected. I agree that the American Church has issues, perhaps because of affluence, but perhaps not. I also agree we can learn a lot from those who have been persecuted; they are our Saints, we need to honor them and learn from them. Where I disagree is that persecution is good for the Church or that affluence is equivalent to lack of suffering. The only benefit of the persecution described in Acts of the Apostles is how the Church spread as “the way” fled persecution. If persecution is good for the Church, Paul and others would not have fled the persecution, they would have embraced the persecution. Paul prayed for relief from his pain, he did not pray for more pain for himself and more pain for others. We spend our lives as Christians trying to relieve the suffering of others. Christians are persecuted in many Countries as a way to reduce the number of Christians, not as a way to strengthen Christians. To me, it is sick to start hoping a praying for persecution. I realize I am arguing against conventional wisdom, but my hope is that my arguments will make sense to you and others.

  • David M.

    Communist and Muslim countries do not persecute Christians in order to strengthen Christianity. They know that persecution creates fewer Christians as well as reducing the influence of existing Christians. This is how it has always been since the time of the Apostles and is how it will always be until Christ returns. Our problem in America is not a lack of persecution. Our problem is the slow recess of freedom; freedom to choose Christ; freedom to influence society for good. I don’t think the American Church as a whole is as bad as the Southern Baptist Convention, but I do agree with Russell that more Americans should be choosing Christ. The answer to this problem is more freedom, not more persecution.

  • Sola Obatoki

    The issue in the
    Islamic world is not persecution but genocide and it appears the Church in the
    Free world is either oblivious or unconcerned on what is going on particularly
    in the North East of Nigeria. The Islamists in Nigeria would not give Pastor Saeed
    the pleasure of imprisonment. They would slit his throat with glee in no time.
    They have done this to tens of thousands of Christian pastors, laymen, women
    and children in the last forty years. Much of the North East and North Central
    of Nigeria is Christian but serious efforts are on-going to convert them to
    Islam by force, or failing this, denude the region of its people. Towns and
    villages and schools are being attacked and burnt because they profess
    the Christian faith. People in most of these places dare not sleep in their
    homes at night. The Church everywhere, particularly in North America, should
    wake up before it’s too late. A call to your Representative in the
    Congress may save someone’s life in North East or North Central Nigeria this
    night.

    • David M.

      Thank you Sola, I am ashamed that America allows innocent people to be systematically murdered in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

  • TogetherWeStand

    I completely agreee that “…Christianity has emphasized the “values” and “meaning” aspects of Christianity while often downplaying the “strangeness” of Christianity…”. It is the strangeness that turns something on inside people and draws them in. How strange that God Loves people unconditionally or that their Savior was lowly and transformed the most dispised people in the community into devoted followers the were loyal to their deaths.

  • TogetherWeStand

    I completely agree that “…Christianity has emphasized the “values” and “meaning” aspects of Christianity while often downplaying the “strangeness” of Christianity…”. It is the strangeness that turns something on inside people and draws them in. How strange that God Loves people truly unconditionally or that their Savior was lowly and presented Himself on a Cross to bear all sin, or that transformed the most despised people in the community into devoted followers that were loyal to their deaths.

  • David M.

    Christianity is not about purity or purification of the Church. Christianity is about responding to a God who pursues sinners. Hoping for persecution is almost as bad as those who persecute. Making disciples is the primary purpose of the Church while relieving suffering is a secondary purpose. Hoping for persecution is really messed up.

    • David

      David – I agree with you by in large. I don’t think any rational person hopes for persecution. There are some afflicted with a martyr complex who would seek out persecution for its own sake, a sort of spiritual masochism. However, Christians should understand that persecution is likely a byproduct of living a truly Christian life, especially in countries who don’t exactly embrace conversion to the faith.

  • Michael Totten

    OK, so we’re hopefully supposed to become abstract martyrs to Hollywood endings in order to obtain biblical/Godly approval? Perhaps even worldly admiration?! C’mon man, really. Deniable, self-driven thirst for peace of mind is mostly what persecutes congregations and spiritual Relationships these days.
    Just shut up and go out there and do good for others. Do so humbly, not proudly. Do so freely, not for the sake of its rewards. Don’t let compassion become your obsession. But graciously accept that your good efforts will, by definition, sometimes cause successes in life; even materially.