Acts 6:11 says, “Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”Sin begins when we agree with a lie. Eve believed the serpent’s lie; “You surely will not die.” Adam believed it too and condemned mankind to a life separated from God. The persecution of the church all over the world also started with a lie.
Take a look at the account of Stephen in Acts 6:8-15.
When did persecution begin? Most people see persecution starting in Acts 8:1, “And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem.” Persecution really began back in Acts 6:11 when a group of Jews at the synagogue in Jerusalem were convinced to tell lies about Stephen saying he had spoken, “Against this holy place and the Law.” (Acts 6:13) Stephen had done no such thing. What he did was offer a Christian perspective on the dwelling place of God which was contrary to Jewish teaching. God longer dwelt in the Temple, but in the hearts of believers. Stephen’s Jewish accusers saw the law as God’s word, whereas Stephen saw it twisted and misinterpreted burdening rather than releasing God’s faithful people. This ignored the fulfillment of the law that had occurred in Christ. John Stott plots the progression of the build up against Stephen: “The opposition degenerated from theology through slander to violence. At first there is serious theological debate. When this fails, people start a personal campaign of lies. Finally, they resort to legal or quasi-legal action in an attempt to rid themselves of their adversary by force. Let others use these weapons against us; may we be delivered from resorting to them ourselves.”
And so Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr, and a great persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem as a result. It is no different today. Christians all over the world are the victims of campaigns that are driven by lies. In many places, these lies lead to severe persecution.
There are at least four lies that drive the persecution of Christians today. In the Middle East, the lie is that “Christianity is a foreign religion, a Trojan horse for pro-Israel, pro-American forces.” In countries such as Egypt and in the Palestinian Authority, Christian leaders feel it is necessary to be extra forceful in their condemnation of Israel and the United States, because, as one Coptic Bishop put it, “otherwise they will think we are anti-Muslim.” How ironic given that this is the very soil in which Christianity was born and first flourished. In the Asian subcontinent, the lie is that “Christianity only grows through unethical or forced conversion, and wants to take over our countries by stealth.” This is the cry of the Hindu extremist in India and the Buddhist nationalist in Sri Lanka. But the fact is that it is Christianity’s growth among the poorest segments of the population that threatens the extremist agenda. In India, over 60% of the 30 million plus Christian population has come from the so called Dalit community – the low caste and untouchables who must do the dirty jobs in society that the high caste groups cannot do, lest the system collapse. It is easier to claim these groups have been tempted away “unethically” than to admit that a rival religion is more effective in empowering the poor.
In those countries where the Marxist ideology still lingers, such as China, North Korea, Vietnam and parts of Latin America and Africa, the lie remains this: “Christianity is for weaklings who can’t face the world on its own terms, and need crutches of illusion to get by.” Remember it was Karl Marx that said, “It [religion] is the opiate of the people.” In a country like China for example, this is manifested in a government fear of organized countryside house groups because, as one official was overheard to say, “The peasants will harm themselves and create social instability through foolish messiah seeking.” In reality, those who turn to Christianity in totalitarian societies show great strength in confronting a hostile government proving that this weakling idea is a lie.
In the West, the lie is that “Christianity is intolerant, anti-scientific, and best kept out of public life completely.” Most often perpetrated by the secularist elite, the concern is that Christianity entails sub-rational belief in absolute categories, resulting in an anti-liberal bigotry that is subversive to the essential nature of democracy. The view illustrates a misunderstanding of the history of democracy and of the nature of belief. Democracy never initially excluded religious viewpoints from public discourse, but welcomed their role in forming moral codes. All beliefs find expression in behavior, so to outlaw Christianity in public life is to allow only atheistic views to flourish publicly – a stealth move of staggering intolerance. Thomas Jefferson would be horrified.
So what’s the challenge of lie detecting for the Church today? Is there a lie threatening to marginalize the church where we are? It is very important to name it, confront it, and refute it before it becomes full-fledged persecution. The persecuted church teaches us two incredible truths about lies. First, they are only told when our enemies feel like they cannot defeat us fair and square. Stephen’s opponents lost the argument in the Synagogue so they resort to lies. As a Chinese pastor said, “When they lie about us, we take it as the ultimate compliment; that they have had to resort to these tactics to make life hard for us.” He also added, “Make sure the world is telling lies about you…otherwise you may not be a threat for Christ to it.”
Second, God turns our enemy’s lies into our love for them. Stephen makes a strong speech, but even as his oppressors were stoning him to death, he was thinking of forgiveness, thinking of Christ as he prayed that this transgression would not be held against them. Sound familiar? This passage in Acts also tells us that there was a man named Saul present at the stoning and he approved of the killing. Yet after a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that led to his complete and total transformation, this man would be the greatest apostle of them all. This is how God’s irresistible Gospel grows. “We are being killed all day long for your sake” writes Paul to the Romans, but adds, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Persecution – and the lies that drive it – is the forgotten dynamic of growth in the Western church today. I wonder how the church would grow in the West if we suffered under the mighty hand of oppression? Paul’s word to Timothy are sounding loudly in my ears, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2Tim. 3:12) Maybe that’s the issue right there. We have no desire to live godly. Oh I’m not saying that we want to engage in unbridled sin, we’ve simply redefined what godliness is.
So what can we do today? There are three things that will make an incredible difference in the lives of the persecuted church. We can pray, act, and give.
First we need to pray. Through weekly prayer alerts. Trough the Frontline Faith brochure. Through monthly prayer calendars. Through IDOP. When you unite in prayer for the persecuted church, you notice a powerful connection, to Christ, to one another, and to our brothers and sisters living under oppression. Brother Andrew has said, “Prayer is not preparation for the battle – prayer is the battle.”
We can act. Get involved. Become the voice of the persecuted by blogging about it, texting, telling your Christian friends. Call or write you elected officials to move persecution higher on their priority list. Write letters to our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ – over 100 million of them.
We can give financially to support the persecuted church. Financially support the work of Open Doors. Give through the Gift of Hope catalog where you can support the persecuted church through gifts of bibles, discipleship training, or supporting a secret church.
The people of the persecuted church are not a myth or a legend; it is reality for over 100 million people. Won’t you join in the fight so they can be free to believe?