Fight or Flight?
If the state of Washington compelled churches to act in a way that directly violated the Bible’s teaching, what would the response be?
Let’s imagine that Governor Inslee issues a proclamation that requires pastors to perform a wedding for any two consenting adults, regardless of their faith or sexual orientation.
How would Christians respond? I can think of three common responses.
- Accommodation - If history is our guide, many churches would accommodate the ordinance. They might justify it by saying that a) faith is a personal matter, b) it’s unloving and divisive to discriminate about such matters, and c) performing these weddings would be an opportunity to share Christianity with non-Christians. This is exactly how the Three-Self Church in China reinterpreted biblical teaching to accommodate the Chinese Communist Party.
- Relocation - I’ve had several conversations with Christians this year on this topic. If this scenario took place in Washington, I am certain that many Christians would move to another state. You can make a strong argument that it’s a win-win: 1) you get to practice your faith without compromise and 2) you don’t have to experience any persecution for doing so.
- Non-compliance - Perhaps a few pastors and church-goers would stick around and try to obey God rather than men. I can imagine two sub-groups in this category:
- Some of these people might subversively disobey the mandate. Let’s say a church gets a call requesting a Bible-obeying church to perform an unbiblical wedding. Here are some rather sneaky replies: “We’re sorry. We have a policy that we don't perform weddings at all.” “Unfortunately, we don’t have any official pastors on staff who can do that.” “Due to another scheduled program, we can’t do a wedding on that day.”
- A few churches might publicly denounce the mandate and boldly comply with the truth of the Bible.
Which would be the best decision? Realistically speaking, which decision would be yours?
The early church faced a very similar problem in 249 AD. We can learn a lot from it.
For the first two centuries of the church’s existence, persecution of Christians varied according to the will of each emperor. Early Roman emperors, like Nero (54-68 AD) and Domitian (89-96) severely persecuted Christians, but the persecution was primarily in the city of Rome. But that would change in 249 AD.
In 247 AD, Rome celebrated its 1,000th anniversary. But this nationwide patriotic festivity was celebrated while the borders of Rome were under attack from Germanic tribes. The historian Justo Gonzalez writes, “The barbarians beyond the borders were increasingly restless, and their incursions into the Empire were growing more and more daring,” (The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, 85). Despite Rome’s desire to inspire patriotic sentiment in its citizens, many Christians refused to join in the celebration since it paid homage to the Roman pantheon of gods.
Consequently, popular sentiment claimed that Christians had caused the empire’s decline by undermining both Roman patriotism and its devotion to the gods. The Christian apologist Origen responded to these criticisms in his book, Against Celsus, where he defends Christians against such criticisms from the Roman philosopher, Celsus. Predictably, this book did nothing to stem growing anti-Christian ire throughout the Empire.
In 249 AD, the Roman general Decius took power as the new emperor in a coup d’etat. Immediately, Decius began the first nationwide persecution of the church. But he did it in a very strategic way.
Unlike previous emperors who had compelled Christians to deny Christ or suffer, Decius merely compelled every citizen to honor the Roman gods or suffer. Every citizen must declare his allegiance to the Roman pantheon, make (and eat) sacrifices to the gods, and obtain a document, called a libellus, that states one’s allegiance to the gods and testimony from close friends or relatives that one is truly loyal to them. Archeologists have discovered many of these libelli throughout the Roman empire in the last hundred years.
What was the church’s response?
Historian Nick Needham writes, “Christians who refused, such as Origen, were imprisoned and tortured. Many died. However, large numbers of Christians gave in, and either offered a sacrifice to the gods or purchased a fake certificate by bribing magistrates,” (2000 Years of Christ’s Power, 156). Thousands of professing Christians signed these documents to demonstrate their patriotism alongside their devotion to Christ. Sadly, this was still denying Christ. Any devotion to other gods is a denial of the sole devotion we owe Jesus Christ.
Even some of the highest church leaders responded with cowardice. Gonzalez adds, “Cyprian [the bishop of Carthage, Africa]…thought that his duty was to flee to a secure place with other leaders of the church, and continue guiding the flock through an extensive correspondence,” (88-89). Cyprian would have used Zoom today. But this would still be no substitute for abandoning the personal shepherding of his flock.
In summary, some stood tall and faced public humiliation, imprisonment, and death. Some gave in and made the sacrifice to false gods in front of witnesses. Some paid off officials to get fake documents. And others found greener pastures until the storm was over.
The aftermath of Decius’ persecution left the church divided into two basic groups: the “confessors” (those who defied the emperor’s decree) and the “lapsed” (those who had been spiritually cowardly in one way or another). Soon, a major debate developed as church leaders sought how to deal with the lapsed Christians.
Dr. Needham writes about how the church tried to resolve this issue, “Cyprian presided over a local Church council at Carthage in 251 and played a leading part in its decision that the lapsed could be received back into the Church, but only after a period of time during which they would be proving their sincerity by doing “penance” (repentance) for their sin. The time period of penance was to vary according to the seriousness involved in each individual case of apostasy. Cyprian also argued that the bishops alone had the authority to settle this question,” (146).
Ironically, Cyprian, the leader who had chosen to avoid persecution, returned to Carthage to create a system requiring a lengthy period of repentance to satisfy church leaders in order to be restored to the church and to God. This system found acceptance within the rest of the Roman Catholic church and was later codified into Catholic law.
Today, the Catholic system of penance not only applies to those who fall away from the church, but it requires anyone who seeks to be right with God to regularly confess sins to a Catholic priest. One saying from Cyprian’s book “On the Unity of the Church” stands today as a defense for this practice, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother,” (1:6). By this, Cyprian argued that the Roman Catholic church alone secures a person’s right standing with God.
The Bible gives only one priest to whom we must confess our sins. He is named in 1 Timothy 2:5-6, “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all”.
The Bible also has a different procedure for confession, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) While the church of believers has a role in preaching the gospel, warning about judgment, and discipling believers to maturity, no verse of Scripture gives the power of granting forgiveness to a church or leader.
In short, the Roman Catholic system of penance is a man-made mirage that drives people away from the oasis of forgiveness, Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, let’s reconsider our response to persecution. When persecution comes, should you give in, run away, stand boldly, or sneakily avoid the conflict?
Consider these verses:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10)
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy. Take note—your reward is great in heaven, for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the prophets.” (Luke 6:23)
“In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)
“If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (1 Peter 4:14)
These verses teach that God has magnificent blessings for those who willingly endure persecution for identifying with Jesus Christ. Second, the Bible teaches that persecution is normal for those who seek to live out a genuine love for Jesus Christ.
Based on this, we can clearly see that it would be wrong to forego persecution by accommodating the culture or capitulating to government mandates to disobey Scripture (response #1).
We can also see that God wants us to boldly endure persecution and publicly identify with Jesus Christ (response #3-B).
Regarding response #2, relocation, I can find no passage directly addressing those Christians who would flee from suffering. Certainly, it is wrong to lie, to deceive the government, or to misrepresent what the Bible teaches. Since running away from persecution is never rebuked in the Bible, I would hesitate to classify this as sin.
Yet there is one helpful story about fleeing persecution in the BIble. It’s the account of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After God publicly disproved the existence of Baal and sent fire to consume Elijah’s sacrifice, the people of Israel killed all Baal’s prophets. But later, when Elijah realized King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were seeking to kill him, he feared for his life and ran into the wilderness.
The Lord said five things to Elijah at this point:
“Get up and eat, or the journey [home] will be too much for you.” (1 Kings 19:7)
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1Kings 19:9)
“Go out and stand on the mountain in the Lord’s presence.” (1 Kings 19:11)
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13)
“Go and return by the way you came…” (1 Kings 19:15)
In short, God saw Elijah’s departure as spiritual weakness. He needed food, he needed to be in God’s presence, and he needed God to redirect him to his next ministry.
If persecution comes, the right response of the church isn’t to flee, deceive, or deny Christ. It’s to stand boldly for the truth of the gospel and obey God rather than men. But also, within the church, we are obliged to bear with the weak. If they succumb to worldly pressure, it is our opportunity to redirect them to the only Source of spiritual strength.