Starting Gospel Movements on Campus: Persecution

by Paul on December 22, 2009

Every once in awhile I like to create scenarios that require me to think about implementing Gospel planting strategies and applying tactics in new environments.  This is this is the seventh of a 21 part series talking about ways to use Gospel planting strategies with online and offline tactics to catalyze Gospel Planting Movements on a University Campus.

Also, these posts come from things I’ve learned from David Watson.  I’m applying them to what God has called me to do.  I encourage you to read David’s blog.

What is Persecution?

Persecution is a negative response of lost people to Believers who love Christ, obey His commands, and live to glorify His name.  In Matthew 5 Jesus talks about persecution,

10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12, NIV)

We can see from this passage that God blesses people who are persecuted because they are being righteous, not because they are behaving in a way that breaks God commands.

There is a pretty broad range of behavior that can be considered to be persecution.  Take a look at Hebrews 11:

32And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.36Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:32-38, NIV)

When you combine this passage with Matthew 5:10-12, you see that persecution can be:

  • Insults
  • Lying and bearing false testimony
  • Physical punishment (flogging, torturing, etc.)
  • Imprisonment
  • Death
  • Cast out of society
  • Mistreated

I don’t think that we can emphasize enough that these behaviors must be the response of people or of a community that rejects Christ and the righteousness they see in His followers.  If these behaviors come because a follower of Christ rightly deserves them (i.e., stole something or killed someone), they are not the kind of persecution Jesus talks about in Matthew 5:10-12.

Preparing New Believers for Persecution

When people we disciple complete the Discovery Bible Studies and chose to obey Christ in baptism, we ask them several questions.  We ask them if they believe there is one God.  We ask them if they believe God created man for relationship.  We ask them if they understand that sin separated us from God.  We ask them if they believe Jesus is God’s Son.  We ask them if they believe He died on the cross to pay the price for sin.  We ask them if they believe Jesus rose from the dead to reestablish our relationship with God.  We ask them if they have repented from their sin.

Finally, we ask, “Are you willing to obey Christ even if it means you will die?”

You may think this is pretty intense and morbid.  As I read and understand Scripture, however, persecution will not decrease over time.  This world will not get better until Christ returns.  Every generation of Christians needs to understand that the price of their obedience to all the commands of Christ may be their life.  They must understand that faith is demonstrated by obedience (because of our love for Christ) to all of Christ’s commands regardless of the consequences – good or bad.

This isn’t alarmism.  This is a reality we need to understand and greet calmly, understanding that Christ awaits us on the other side of persecution.

Teaching Gospel Planters How to Die

Many Gospel Planters live in places where being a Christian is dangerous.  And, if simply being a Christian is dangerous, then planting the Gospel and making disciples in those areas is even more dangerous.  We teach our Gospel planters how to die.  If they are about to be martyred, we teach them to look into the eyes of the person who will kill them and say, “You do not take my life from me.  I give it to you freely so that you may one day know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.”

Morbid? Perhaps.  Necessary? Absolutely.

We recently trained some Gospel planters who live in a country where Christians are heavily persecuted.  In that country, even becoming a Christian is illegal.  On the last day of our training, we ask them to share things they learned that were important to them.  One 27 year old woman stood up and said, “You taught me how to die.”  I was undone.  I had laughed with her and her husband throughout the week.  I knew how they met and married.  I knew their story and their heart for their people.  And here she was thanking our team for teaching her how to die in a way that glorifies Christ.  The possibility that she could be imprisoned and killed for her faith was a reality for her.

I talked with their team leader, who just turned 30.  He shared a little about the burden of leading his team, “When I send him,” pointing to one of his team members, “to follow up with someone who indicated they wanted to become a follower of Christ, I know it may be a trick.  It might be the government trying to arrest us.  He (the Gospel Planter) has a wife and kid.  They may live without their dad because I sent him to that village.”

Jesus didn’t hesitate to talk about death and persecution.  He didn’t shy away from teaching His disciples how to handle things they would face in the near future.  For Jesus, teaching the disciples how to handle life in a manner that glorified God was the core of discipleship.  He told them:

John 15:18-16:4 (New International Version)

The World Hates the Disciples

18“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. 22If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. 23He who hates me hates my Father as well. 24If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’

26“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

John 16

1“All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. 2They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. 3They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.

Persecution is part of being a follower of Christ.  We don’t pursue persecution.  We don’t want it to happen to people we’ve trained and whom we love. But, we have to be prepared for it if, and when, it happens.  More importantly, we have to prepare them for it as well.

Teaching University Students to Respond to Persecution

“But Paul,” you might say, “We live in America.  That kind of stuff doesn’t happen here.  We don’t really need to talk about it.  Our university students won’t ever have to die for their faith.”

How can we know?  Are we God that we know the fate of all those in our care?  How does the hope they never face persecution justify sending disciples out into the world without preparing them for something that is quite possible?

We will disciple international students who return to countries and families who will beat them, perhaps to death, for choosing to follow Christ.

We will disciple people online who live in countries where they will be killed for following Christ.

We will disciple people God calls to go to people groups who will kill them and their families for discipling families into relationships with Christ.  You have a responsibility to prepare them to die in a way that glorifies God and is a testimony to their murderers.

Persecution will get worse as we get closer to Christ’s return.  I hope I don’t see it.  I hope my children won’t experience it.  But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t prepare them for what will come because I hope it won’t happen.

One of the biggest problems with our church today is that we have generations of Believers who have not considered what it means to love Christ enough to die for Him.  I think that glossing over the ultimate price of our love for God is gross negligence on the part of church leadership and has created a shallow generation of Believers who will fall away when persecution comes.

Sit down with those you disciple.  Read these passages on persecution.  Let them tell you possible scenarios in which they might face persecution.  Brainstorm responses to those situations that would glorify Christ without being harsh, obnoxious, and unnecessarily inflammatory.  Talk about the difference between being persecuted for righteousness and being punished because you did something wrong.

Other posts in this series:

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