Early on in my faith, I spent a fairly considerable amount of time reading church history. I was even able to take a seminar in early church history as part of a masters degree program at Washington University in St. Louis. While it was more than 20 years ago, what I remember most about the course was two things: the professor’s deep admiration for the late 19th and early 20th century church historian Adolf von Harnack (a leading proponent of what was then called “higher criticism”) and my research project on forms of government in the early church.
You can’t read anything about church history for very long without coming into the subject of persecution. I originally understood (likely thanks to a lot of movies) was that the Romans spent 300 years avidly persecuting the church before finally throwing in the towel. In fact, it didn’t actually happen that way. Persecutions tended to be local or at most regional, with a few notable exceptions, such as the empire-wide persecution under Diocletian about 300 A.D.
The major charge against the Christians wasn’t that they believed in Christ; it was that they wouldn’t worship the emperor as a god.
Not long after receiving my degree, I was among a small group of corporate speechwriters asked by a national PR association to write a short article on a speech I deeply admired. Most of the group selected speeches like the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, or “Blood, Sweat and Tears” by Winston Churchill. I selected Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin, the one that ended in his death by stoning and the persecution of the church in Jerusalem.
My article wasn’t used. I was asked to write on something “not religious.” I declined, pointing out that the articles that would be printed actually had religious underpinnings and even direct references to God, while mine didn’t refer to God. They declined to print mine, an indication of what was already happening in American culture more than 20 years ago. I don’t consider this a form of persecution, but it was an example of anti-Christian discrimination.
Things have not gotten better since then.
What I said in my article was that Stephen’s speech and death, and the persecution of the church in Jerusalem that followed, had actually resulted in the first great wave of Christian evangelism, scattering Christians from Jerusalem to cities all over the Mideast and perhaps all the way to Rome. Paul, a leader in the persecution effort, was on his way to Damascus to extinguish the church there when he had his roadside conversion.
This became a pattern for the next three centuries. Persecute the church – and watch it grow. In fact, whenever the church has experienced persecution, it has grown. Today, in places where Christians face imprisonment and often death for their faith, the church is growing.
“We often think persecution is horrible, and certainly in many ways it is,” writes David Platt in Follow Me: A Call to Die. A Call to Live. ”But persecution is often a sign that the gospel is progressing. As long as the gospel lies dormant in a country or amid a people, and as long as no one is coming to Christ, then no one cares about Christianity. It’s only when the gospel spreads and people are converted to Christ that opposition begins to arise against Christianity.”
Persecution is a terrible thing, but for Christians, it is also a sign.