Persecution of the church is certainly a growing concern these days. While I personally believe the governmental restrictions of church gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is not persecution, I also understand the concerns of many around me who believe that such closures could become abuses, if not outright persecution. What the Church is facing around the world is far more worrisome, especially in places like China, where even state-sanctioned churches (Three Self churches) have been closed and faith in Jesus is now explicitly prohibited. One Three Self church was closed in April after its members had done all that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had required of them; it was not enough, and the church was closed for good April 21. The church’s director said, “We’ve proven our patriotism, donated money to help curb coronavirus in Wuhan, as they had required. Still, the government says that our church grew too rapidly, and they fear that having many believers is unfavorable to them” (“Not Even State-Approved Churches Are Safe in China Now,” Jessica Mouser, ChurchLeaders.com, May 28, 2020).
As we watch this persecution of brothers and sisters in Christ increase, many of us become increasingly concerned about our own future ability to follow Christ openly. Many American Christians are afraid of losing our rights to worship freely, which is why many resist the idea, if not the practice, of restricting church services, even voluntarily. Within this worry we often find a question, “Why would God allow this to happen to the faithful?” It seems that there is an expectation of God to protect the faithful from opposition and persecution. Unfortunately, that expectation is unbiblical and not likely to be fulfilled.
Jesus expects his followers to experience the same kind of opposition and persecution that he experienced. When Jesus first sent out the Twelve, not only did he give them instructions, but he gave them a warning:
“A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:24, 25, NIV 1984)
Simply stated, Christ followers shouldn’t expect to be admired or protected more than Jesus himself was. Disciples are like the teacher. Just as Jesus was mocked and opposed and eventually killed, Jesus’ followers shouldn’t expect to be treated any better.
Sure, we expect that when a government is openly opposed to Christianity, as is the case with China, but we don’t expect that in a nation whose culture and history has been formed largely and purposefully by Christians. And when those expectations are challenged, a tension forms: should we work to bend our culture and government to ensure our safety or work to conform ourselves more to Christ? Considering Jesus’ warning that his followers would be persecuted as he was, I am inclined to think our efforts ought to be focused on conforming ourselves to Christ, so that we will be like him no matter what happens.
How do we become more like Jesus? Jesus said, in a similar statement in Luke 6:40, “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (NIV 1984). In order for us to be like the teacher, we need to be fully trained. That means we need to know who Jesus is so that we might follow him more closely, saying what he said, doing what he did. That means getting into the Word and doing what we were called to do – love God, love others, and make disciples – whether we’re persecuted or not.