Jesus taught His disciples about many things during the course of His earthly ministry. One topic he addressed, on more than one occasion, was the hostility that they would encounter for following him (Matt 10:17–23; Luke 6:22; John 15:18–20). These were not idle words. We know that the disciples of Jesus did experience persecution; we see evidence of it in the book of Acts, for example, in Acts 4:3 the apostles Peter and John were put in jail. The persecution of the followers of Jesus was not limited to the original twelve apostles. We read in Acts 7:57–60 that Stephen was stoned. Acts 8:1 (NIV) tells us that “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem”. A few chapters later we are told that James was killed (Acts 12:2) and Peter was imprisoned (Acts 12:4). In Acts 16 we find that Paul and Silas were beaten and put in prison. However, church leaders were not the only ones who suffered persecution. Members of the Thessalonian church experienced it (1 Thess 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thess 1:4) as did the believers that the apostle Peter wrote to (1 Pet 4:12–16). Persecution was a regular part of the Christian life in the first century.
In some places in the world persecution of Christians, like that which we read about in the New Testament, is still taking place today. Hostility toward Christians, up to and including death, is a reality in a number of nations. For example, it is common knowledge that Christians in Iran, China, and North Korea can be persecuted and killed for their faith. The governments of these countries strongly oppose the Christian faith. And these are not the only countries in which Christians are persecuted.
I am fortunate to live in the United States, a country in which such violent opposition to Christianity rarely takes place. Don’t get me wrong, we have had some churches burned and have had gunmen go into churches and kill people. These are horrific events whenever they occur. But I do not know what percentage of these acts of violence were religiously motivated. Stated differently, I am not sure how many took place because the perpetrator was anti-Christian. We have a lot of freedom here with regard to our faith. We can generally gather as we wish without fear of government interference. Sometimes in church, usually around July 4th which is our Independence Day, you may hear someone express thanks for the country in which we live and the freedoms that we enjoy. This may be done in a general statement made in the church or in a prayer of thanksgiving to God.
In the last year some Christians have felt that the government restrictions placed on churches during the COVID-19 pandemic were a form of persecution. They viewed the forbidding of in-person meetings or the limiting of the size of the gathering as government interference. After all, in the United States we are supposed to have the separation of church and state. Some churches were even involved in lawsuits because they refused to comply with government restrictions.
The COVID-19 church restrictions aside, I think there is a growing intolerance in the United States of the Christian viewpoint. Some of our Christian values are at odds with those of the larger culture. This is not a new development; it has been true since the church came into being in the first century AD. Christians believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, in other words, it is the word of God. In its pages we find God’s revelation of himself and his will. Our biblical views conflict with the views of society in two key areas: abortion and LGBTQ+ issues. Based on the teachings of Scripture we are pro-life; we are against abortion. The larger culture does not hold this same view. In addition, because we accept biblical teachings regarding sexuality we oppose gay marriage (sadly some churches have compromised on this issue). In the United States abortion and gay marriage are legal. These two issues make it clear that our biblical worldviews are at cross purposes with society.
I think that opposition to Christians will likely grow in the United States in the not-too-distant future. If our culture continues to move further away from biblical values, the tension between believers and non-believers will grow. Whether this will result in believers being ignored, oppressed, or persecuted remains to be seen. Because society will likely become more secular in the future, I think that Christians in the United States need to come to terms with the possibility that the persecution that has impacted so many of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world may become a reality for us too. This will certainly happen if the government continues to affirm laws that are increasingly contrary to biblical teachings.
The Bible shows us that the early Christians were persecuted, and persecution may yet become a part of our experience. Jesus warned his followers that they would suffer for him (and it happened); he even mentioned them being taken before governmental authorities (Matt 10:18). The Apostle Paul wrote “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 NIV). I do not like the prospect of these things happening nor do I look forward to them, but Scripture has clearly warned us that such things will take place. Experiencing persecution is a normal part of being a Christian, it does not matter where the believer lives. By God’s grace may we exalt the Lord with our life and, if need be, by our death (Phil 1:20). To this we have been called.