Persecution is alive and well in the modern world. For Christians in Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and other places around the world, persecution is a very real and present danger.
When I hear Christians in the west talk about persecution, though, I’m struck by how often I hear something like the following:
No one has ever stopped the church through persecution. Indeed, whenever the world persecutes the church, it just grows even more. Look at the early church. The Romans tried to persecute it out of existence, yet it spread the gospel throughout the entire empire. And, more recently, the church in China blossomed during the twentieth century despite tremendous persecution.
Unlike the lazy and complacent Christianity that develops in “safe” countries, persecution fosters a robust Christianity, confident of its faith and bold in its proclamation. The church thrives under persecution.
And I understand where that sentiment is coming from. Christians are optimists. In general, we have a deep and abiding sense that God is in control and that he’ll make sure everything works out his people in the end. Thus, even when we hear that things are going badly for Christians in some part of the world, we’re comforted by the fact that God is still at work and that he can do amazing things in even the most difficult circumstances.
So we take a theological conviction (God is in control), combine it with some historical examples (the church in China), and come up with a pretty impressive conclusion (the church thrives under persecution). But there’s one little problem: it’s not true. Or, at least, it’s not true as it is usually stated. Here’s why.