In many places around the world, persecution of Christians is increasing. China’s government is cracking down on house churches and even harassing registered churches. In a number of countries where radical Islamists have taken over or are fighting for control, Christians are being fined, starved, robbed, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, or beheaded. Someone has stated that in sheer numbers, more Christians are being persecuted today than ever before in history.
Here in America we can hardly imagine facing such opposition. We have known this as a “free country,” where freedom of religion is upheld as a founding principle and guaranteed right.
How long will this freedom continue? Only God knows. We cannot forecast accurately, but we can see the clouds gathering. The increasingly godless society around us, while promoting “tolerance” of everything immoral, is more and more intolerant of Christianity.
Recently, courts in several states have ruled against business owners who were sued for discrimination because they refused to participate in same-sex weddings. It was only by a 5-4 vote that the U.S. Supreme Court exempted privately held corporations from paying for abortifacients for their employees when doing so would violate the owners’ religious convictions. This has led some to fear that religious freedom in America hangs on just one vote.
Should we be surprised to see persecution in the United States? Actually, it would not be new. Historically, Mennonites and Amish in America have at times suffered for their faith. For their nonresistant stand in times of war, young Mennonite men faced fines, imprisonment, and even physical abuse. Many Amish fathers went to jail for keeping their children out of public schools.
Thankfully, provisions were eventually made for conscientious objectors, and approval was finally granted for private schooling. Social security exemptions were given to church groups who appealed on the basis of their convictions, and the recent Affordable Care Act includes an exception for members of such exempt groups. But in light of history, we cannot expect that the government will always respect our freedom of conscience.
Indeed, as the people of this nation increasingly reject God and turn to their own devices, He may very well punish them through an increasingly tyrannical government. So in light of present trends, persecution should not surprise us.
Furthermore, in light of Scripture, we should not be surprised when Christians need to suffer. “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you” (1Pe 4:12). We must realize that followers of Christ in any country may face opposition from “the powers that be.” In fact, this has taken place countless times throughout Church history since the day Jesus was crucified.
Jesus Himself warned His disciples to expect persecution. “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you … Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you…” (John 15:18,20). The Spirit tells us through the Apostle Paul, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2Ti 3:12).
So rather than guaranteeing our political freedom, the Scriptures teach us to expect opposition. At the same time, we are commanded to pray “for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1Tim 2:2). When God chooses to grant this request, let us humbly thank Him for it, recognizing that such freedom is not a guaranteed right, but a divine favor.
Actually, in America we continue to enjoy a large degree of freedom, probably unparalleled in most other nations of the world and in most other eras of time. Incidents of outright persecution are the rare exception, not the rule. We ought to be praising instead of complaining.
Observing the failures of man’s “justice” should simply drive us to a deeper trust in God. Our confidence cannot be in man or his institutions. No earthly government or constitution has the power to guarantee true liberty and justice. The repeated injustices of man bear witness to this. “And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter” (Isa 59:14). But God is perfectly just, and He will finally bring perfect justice. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Ecc 12:14). The injustice of man will not prevail. God is still on the throne. We must patiently wait on Him.
Furthermore, the governments of this world are subject to God’s control. “The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men” (Dan 4:17). He not only sets up government officials; He also controls them. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (prov 21:1). It is comforting to know that government officials cannot go beyond what God allows, and that He turns them to His own glory. “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain” (Psa 76:10).
We also find assurance in knowing that the survival of the Church does not depend on the good graces of any earthly government. Indeed, as James Madison wrote in 1785, “The Christian religion...disavows a dependence on the powers of this world...for it is known that this religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them.” Christ promised to build His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.
With this in mind, we will be content to leave the State in God’s hands and fill the distinct role of the Church in His plan. There is a place to humbly appeal to the government for conscience protection. But ours is not the place for public demonstrations and political involvement. As Article X of our confession of faith states, “It is the duty of the Church to keep herself aloof from all movements which seek the reformation of society independent of the merits of the death of Christ and the experience of the new birth.”
What if our freedom is taken away? Should we be afraid? Jesus said, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (mat 10:28). What is temporal bodily suffering compared to eternal suffering of soul and body in hell? How light is momentary affliction compared to the weight of eternal glory?
There is a bondage far worse than wrongful imprisonment. And there is a freedom far better than political freedom. This secret sustained the martyrs who have gone before us. “Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, Were still in heart and conscience free.”
If our heart and conscience are free, we need not fear the shame of suffering for wrongdoing. Instead, we can rejoice in any suffering we may face for Christ’s sake (1Pet 2:19-20; 4:13-16). In suffering the saint can give a powerful testimony of his inner joy in the Lord, as Paul and Silas did when they sang praises to God at midnight in the prison. Paul’s peace and joy in another prison are still shining out today from the sacred pages. “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Php 4:11-13).
Can we have the same testimony for Christ, whether in freedom or in persecution? Can we trust God to be with us through everything, as He was with Joseph in prison? Can we be confident that after we have suffered wrongfully, we will look back as Joseph did and see that God worked it all out for the good?
It all depends. It depends on whether we are serving the bondage of the flesh or the freedom of the
Spirit. It depends on whether we have pledged allegiance to unjust man or to the Judge of all the earth. It depends on whether we are mindful of this earthly country or are seeking that better country, where saints will enjoy perfect freedom forever. For heaven is our free country.