David Closson is FRC's Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview. Arielle Del Turco is Research Assistant for FRC's Center for Religious Liberty. This article appeared in The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on November 18, 2019.
Around the world, Christians increasingly face harassment, arbitrary imprisonment, and even death because of their faith. An independent review in the U.K. found this summer that Christians were on the receiving end of 80% of religiously motivated discrimination around the world. Open Doors USA estimates that 245 million Christians currently face persecution for their faith. Despite the severity of this problem, the American church has not always given this issue the attention it deserves.
From the church’s earliest days, followers of Jesus have been persecuted. Unfortunately, persecution still widely persists today, and the threats to religious freedom have grown more diverse than ever, making them harder to address. Nevertheless, around the world, Christians courageously stand in the face of serious threats from authoritarian governments, extremist groups, and social hostility.
Sadly, examples of persecution are everywhere. In China, unregistered house churches are shut down and destroyed, while state-sanctioned churches are required to comply with Communist party doctrine. In Nigeria, the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen attacked Christian farming villages and targeted Christians to kidnap and kill. Iran sentences Christian converts (even a 65-year-old woman) to prison for “acting against national security.” Across the world, and particularly in the Middle East, apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-conversion laws threaten individuals’ ability to choose or change their faith—as demonstrated in the case of Asia Bibi, a mother targeted by her neighbors because of her Christian identity.
How Christians in America should respond
Christians around the world who are simply trying to live out their faith face countless situations like these. But just because Christians are persecuted overseas, do we Christians in America have a duty to respond? Scripture says we do.
In a well-known passage, the writer of Hebrews encourages his readers to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). Jesus himself said that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). The “least” includes those the sick and imprisoned.
Persecution is a trial that the early church knew well. Even before the New Testament canon was written, Christians were beginning to experience persecution for their beliefs. In response, the Apostle Paul—a one-time persecutor himself—pointed readers to an important truth: unity ought to characterize Christ’s church, in times of persecution as in times of reprieve. He rebuked the Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
In the same way that it hurts to watch a family member get mistreated, when a member of the body of Christ is bullied or harassed, it is the responsibility of the rest of the body to speak out and provide relief.
In many ways, the church in Corinth is like Christian churches in Western countries; we are beset by division and controversy. But Paul reminded the Corinthians that Christians all belong to the same body. The same principle applies to how Christians in Western countries ought to respond to the persecuted church: because we are part of the same body, their suffering is our suffering. We must not be silent.
Another frequent metaphor Scripture uses to describe the unity of believers is that of a family. After his resurrection, Jesus refers to his disciples (who he formerly described as servants and friends) as “brothers” (John 20:17). Paul refers to Christians as “children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17). In the same way that it hurts to watch a family member get mistreated, when a member of the body of Christ is bullied or harassed, it is the responsibility of the rest of the body to speak out and provide relief. This is what the writer of Hebrews meant when he called on believers to remember those in prison as one way to “let brotherly love continue” (Heb. 13:1).
The message of the gospel reconciles sinful humans to a righteous God. In the process, the gospel reconciles Christians to each other. It reconciles people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and life experiences (Rev 7:9) into one body where they share a common faith, hope, and love. The gospel must inform the way Christians think about the scourge of persecution ravaging parts of the church around the world.
There are many ways to pray for persecuted Christians. The following are a few points worth raising in prayer:
- Pray that God would strengthen persecuted Christians with faith to withstand the often violent persecution.
- Pray that God would meet the physical needs of persecuted Christians, especially those who are ostracized from the community or forced to leave their homeland.
- Pray that government and non-government actors persecuting believers would stop, and that religious freedom would become the universal standard across the globe.
Let us remember our persecuted brothers and sisters who are in need. Caring for, praying for, and advocating on behalf of Christians facing persecution is the only appropriate response to the evil of religious oppression.