Feature Article

DOES PERSECUTION CAUSE THE CHURCH TO GROW?

by

Andy Sochor

(from www.PlainBibleTeaching.com  January 22, 2020)


Following the death of Stephen, a time of persecution began against the church in Jerusalem. The result of this was that the disciples were scattered and the gospel was preached and received in other places.


“Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1-4).


The early church faced much persecution. It also experienced a lot of growth. We do not experience the same degree of persecution today (at least not in this country). We also do not see the same rate of growth (generally speaking).


Because of this, some have wondered if we might see more growth if we experienced persecution. If persecution and growth seem to go together, does that mean a lack of persecution will result in a lack of growth? It is a good topic to consider. So let us examine the question: Does persecution cause the church to grow?


Why Do Some Think It Does?

The reason for the question is because some theorize that there is an inherent connection between the persecution of Christians and numerical growth of the church. Why might some consider this could be the case? There are a few possible reasons.


First, there is the history in the book of Acts. In that record, the church grew in the face of persecution. While the Jewish leaders were threatening the apostles (Acts 4:18; 5:40-42), Luke recorded, “All the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (Acts 5:14). When Saul began persecuting the church in Jerusalem, the disciples were “scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” and they “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1, 4). When the Jews in Ephesus began to oppose Paul’s teaching, he continued teaching in the school of Tyrannus and “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:9-10). In these cases of persecution and opposition to the gospel, the gospel continued to spread.


Second, there are modern examples that seem to show the connection between persecution and growth. Periodically we hear reports of Christianity spreading in hostile places. One article from 2018 stated that Iran has “one of the fastest growing underground church movements in the world.” Another article from 2019 reported that China arrested over 5,000 Christians and 1,000 church leaders in that year, was demolishing church buildings, and Christianity was still growing. In those examples, the people being counted may or may not have been Christians in the New Testament sense; but the point is the same. There was growth despite strong opposition and persecution.


Third, peace often coincides with complacency (at least this is the perception). Complacency was the mentality described in the church in Laodicea: “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:16-17). The idea many have is that stagnation comes from complacency and complacency comes when it is “easy” to be a Christian. Therefore, if it is “difficult” to be a Christian (which it would be in the face of persecution), there will not be the same type of stagnation.


What Causes the Church to Grow?

Before we try to answer the question about whether or not persecution causes the church to grow, we need to see what the Scriptures teach about what actually causes growth.


First, the Lord has given us the gospel. Paul described the gospel as “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). Jesus commissioned His apostles to “preach the gospel” in all the world (Mark 16:15). In the examples we noticed in the book of Acts which recorded growth following persecution (Acts 5:14, 40:42, 8:1-4; 19:9-10), every one of them started first with the gospel being preached before the growth happened (Acts 2:40-41; 8:4; 19:9-10).


Second, Christians and churches must be working to spread the gospel. When disciples in Jerusalem were scattered because of persecution, they did not just flee out of the city – they “went about preaching” (Acts 8:4). The efforts of some of these brethren led to the establishment of the local church in Antioch: “So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except the Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:19-21). Merely facing persecution and relocating did not produce this growth – the preaching of the gospel did that. The church in Thessalonica set an example in that they “sounded forth” the word (1 Thessalonians 1:8).


Third, there need to be willing listeners. This is necessary because we cannot force people to believe and obey the gospel. Jesus called upon people to hear (Luke 8:8). Faith comes by hearing the word (Romans 10:17). Faith is also based upon evidence (Hebrews 11:1). Therefore, people must be willing to hear so they can be persuaded to believe and obey the gospel (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:11).


These factors have nothing to do with whether persecution is happening or not. In fact, the New Testament indicates that peace actually helps the church to grow. Notice the following passages:


“Praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).


“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:31).


“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).


In the passages in Acts, the favor and peace that the disciples enjoyed corresponded with the growth of the church. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he instructed him to pray for leaders to allow Christians to live a peaceful and quiet life because God wants all to be saved and come to know the truth. How strange it would be to tell Timothy to pray for peace if persecution actually caused more people to be saved and come to know the truth! When there is growth in the face of persecution, it is despite the persecution, not because of it.


What Does Persecution Do?

If we see that the New Testament shows that preaching the gospel to those who are willing to listen causes growth – with or without persecution – then what does persecution do?


First, persecution hinders unbelievers from hearing or wanting to listen to the gospel. In Thessalonica, Paul’s preaching persuaded “some” of the Jews and “a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women” (Acts 17:4). Yet this progress was halted and Paul fled the city when persecution started (Acts 17:5-10). After this he went to Berea where “many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men” (Acts 17:12). Yet persecution here also resulted in Paul being run out of town (Acts 17:13-14). Using Jesus’ illustration from the parable of the sower, this is one way in which “the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Persecution can keep the gospel from being preached, drive the proclaimer of the gospel to another place, and dissuade non-Christians from listening to the message.


Second, persecution causes weak Christians to fall away. Again, in the parable of the sower, Jesus described “those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13). In Matthew’s account of this parable, persecution is emphasized: “when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:21). The fact that persecution helps overthrow the faith of the weak is the reason why Christians in Smyrna were admonished to remain faithful in the face of persecution: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).


Third, persecution disrupts the work of the church. When we talk about the persecution against the church in Jerusalem, we often emphasize the preaching that was done by the disciples who were scattered (Acts 8:4). That is important. Yet it is also worth noting that the church in Jerusalem was nearly wiped out: “They were all scattered…except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). 


Regarding the disciples who were scattered and went about preaching, the reason why they preached was because they were already doing that. Persecution did not make them start preaching. If Christians will not spread the word during times of peace, they will not do it during persecution. The church in Jerusalem went from having hundreds of active, evangelistic members to having just a small group in that large city, all because of persecution.


Why Should We Pray for Peace?

We have already noticed Paul’s instruction to Timothy about praying for rulers so that we might have peace (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Why should this prayer be offered?


First, God wants all to be saved. Paul explained to Timothy that the reason why praying for peace was “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” is because He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4). Jesus told His apostles, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). Peter said that God “is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).


Second, God wants weak Christians to be strengthened. Some Christians seem to think that persecution would be “good” because it would “weed out” the less committed Christians and the church would then be left with the stronger, more dedicated disciples. What an awful way to think of our brethren! If our brethren are weak, we should want them to be strengthened, not “weeded out.” Paul wrote, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). The Hebrew writer said, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13).


Third, God wants the church to be at work. The church is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and is to be engaged in the work of proclaiming the gospel. It is a self-edifying body in which “each individual part” is working together to cause “the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). It is “a temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16) and together we worship Him.

Persecution hinders all of these things. Praying for peace is not about personal preference or comfort, it is about praying for God’s will to be done without hindrance and His work to be done more effectively.


What Should We Do If We Face Persecution?

If we face persecution, we must remain faithful. The difficulties that come with persecution do not excuse us from continuing to follow the Lord. The Christians in Smyrna were told, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). They would be persecuted, but they were to continue to faithfully follow the Lord, even to the point of death. The Hebrew writer encouraged his original readers (and us today) to keep serving the Lord and not give up the faith:


“Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:35-39).


We also need to continue to work as best as possible, even in the face of persecution. The church in Philadelphia had “a little power” and were threatened by “those of the synagogue of Satan,” yet they had “kept [the Lord’s] word, and have not denied [His] name” (Revelation 3:8-10). It would be easy to look at the difficulties and obstacles as excuses for not continuing the Lord’s work, yet they persevered through all of it.


Conclusion

The church can grow despite persecution, but not because of it. Yet this growth will happen only if the church is committed to doing what God wants it to do.


Whether we face persecution or not, let us determine to faithfully follow the Lord and continue doing the work He has called us to do.



"For I determined

not to know any thing among you, 

save Jesus  Christ,

and him crucified. "

 { 1 Corinthians 2:2 }

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