Western Christians most often think of persecution as being sponsored by atheistic governments or by antagonistic adherents of a false religion. However, Jesus also warned His disciples about persecution from a different, unexpected source: from the professing adherents of true, biblical religion. For example, in John 16:2 Jesus told His disciples that the longest thorn in their sides as they went out to preach the gospel would be their fellow unsaved Jews: They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God (NAS). Today, South African Christians are experiencing something similar: not persecution by unsaved Jews, but persecution by unsaved Christians.
Faithful Christians always experience hostility, not just from the world, but also from professing Christians who desire a broader, more liberal, more embracing, less stringent, less doctrinal, unbiblical Christianity. To illustrate this, let me ask you a question: As a believer living in South Africa, does the mocking or animosity that you occasionally experience for loving God, the Bible, the church, and God’s morality usually come from people of other religions or from so-called Christians? In fact, ninety-eight times out of a hundred, the opposition you face comes from friends and family who profess to know Christ.
There is no fury like the fury of a professing Christian whose lack of love for Christ and lack of commitment to God’s Word is exposed by the devotion and faithfulness of a true believer.
In fact, Jesus warned that many of the most menacing persecutors of true believers in the days before His return will be apostate “Christians” who, after having abandoned Christ, will wheel their cannons around and unleash a barrage of hate on their former comrades: Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another (Matt 24:9-10, NAS).
Surveying the landscape of evangelical Christianity in our country, it’s easy to see just how this could happen. A vast percentage of the professing Christians in South Africa define Christianity with three words: health, wealth, and prosperity. When imprisonment threatens their health and legislative penalties threaten their wealth, it’s not hard to predict that the counterfeit believers in the prosperity movement will quickly abandon the Christ they never truly loved in order to seek their personal prosperity elsewhere.
What about the professing believer who defines his Christianity in terms of the self-love of pop psychology? What will he do when the person he loves most – himself – comes under threat? Will he stand for Christ? Or how about the masses who saunter through the doors of the seeker-sensitive mega-churches each Sunday? If you go to church because it’s convenient, because you enjoy the humour, the skits, the music, and the stage show, and because you like the fact that they don’t ask you sing anything, sign anything, give anything, forsake anything, or believe anything, are you going to stand firm when persecution comes?
How about liberal theologians whose ministry seems to consist entirely of ridiculing and discrediting the Bible? It’s entertaining to play higher-critical games with God’s Word as long it’s safe to do so, but what will the critics do when owning a Bible might send them to jail?
The Emergents? Ambiguity and agnosticism might seem intellectually noble in days of peace, but playful questioning, “sincere” doubting, and a contempt for certainty are shaky grounds on which to withstand persecution. Traditional, cultural Christians? Will those in our society who attend church primarily out of ritual and habit seek the fellowship of the faithful when going to church could cost them their jobs or lead to their children being denied the opportunity to attend university?
When the first wave of real persecution sweeps the church in South Africa, all the prosperity, self-love, entertainment-enthralled, liberal, agnostic, Emergent, and traditional Christians are going to head for the exits en masse. What’s more, they’re going to be furious that you won’t go with them. They’re going to be enraged that you won’t join them in abandoning biblical Christianity, as they frantically “reimagine” their faith in order to secure the approval of the world.
If you’re like the people in my church, you are already experiencing censure and derision at the hands of unsaved Christians, primarily in the form of scorn or displeasure expressed by professing Christians among your family, friends, or co-workers. Don’t be surprised. Unsaved Christians will always do their best (and their worst) to discredit, marginalise, and even abuse those who have the audacity to believe that the Bible is true and authoritative, and that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved.
How can you persevere in the face of that kind of discouraging resistance? One way is to remember that the early church’s most bitter and violent enemy was Saul of Tarsus. He embodied John 16:2, believing he was serving God by expelling Christians from the synagogue and by lobbying for their imprisonment or execution. But when Christ intervened on the road to Damascus, Saul became the apostle Paul – the church’s greatest church-planting missionary and theologian. In other words, if you’re faithful, God might save your persecutor and turn him or her into a loyal and effective tool in His hand. Wouldn’t that be great? Be faithful, pray, and see what God does.
Joel James serves as Pastor-Teacher at Grace Fellowship, Pretoria.