Lies and Persecution
Let’s put it simply: Sin begins when we agree with a lie. Eve believed the serpent’s lie, “You surely will not die.” Adam believed it, too, and condemned mankind to a life separated from God. The persecution of the church all over the world also started with a lie. Take a look at the account of Stephen in Acts 6:8-15.
Most people see persecution starting in Acts 8:1: “And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem.” Yet persecution really began when a group of Jews at the synagogue in Jerusalem were convinced to tell lies about Stephen, saying that he had spoken “against this holy place and the Law” (Acts 6:13).
Stephen had done no such thing. What he did was offer a Christian perspective on the dwelling place of God, which was contrary to Jewish teaching. (God no longer dwelt in the Temple but in the hearts of believers.)
In his book The Message of Acts, John Stott plots the progression of the build-up against Stephen: “The opposition degenerated from theology through slander to violence. At first there is serious theological debate. When this fails, people start a personal campaign of lies. Finally, they resort to legal or quasi-legal action in an attempt to rid themselves of their adversary by force. Let others use these weapons against us; may we be delivered from resorting to them ourselves.”
And so Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr, and a great persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem as a result. It is no different today. Christians all over the world are the victims of campaigns driven by lies. In many places, these lies lead to severe persecution.
In every corner of the world
According to Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, chief strategy officer for Open Doors International, there are at least four lies that drive the persecution of Christians today:
- In the Middle East, the lie is that “Christianity is a foreign religion, a Trojan horse for pro-Israel, pro-American forces.”
- In the Asian subcontinent, the lie is that “Christianity only grows through unethical or forced conversion and wants to take over our countries by stealth.”
- In those countries where the Marxist ideology still lingers, such as China, North Korea, Vietnam, and parts of Latin America and Africa, the lie remains this: “Christianity is for weaklings who can’t face the world on its own terms and need
crutches of illusion.”
- In the West, the lie is that “Christianity is intolerant, anti-scientific and best kept out of public life completely.”
According to Boyd-MacMillan, the persecuted church teaches us two incredible truths about lies:
First, the lies are only told when our enemies feel like they cannot defeat us fair and square. Stephen’s opponents lost the argument in the synagogue, so they resorted to lies. As one Chinese pastor said, “When they lie about us, we take it as the ultimate compliment—that they have had to resort to these tactics to make life hard for us.”
Second, God can turn our enemy’s lies into our love for them. Even as his oppressors were stoning him to death, Stephen was praying that this transgression would not be held against them. Sound familiar?
Acts also tells us that there was a man named Saul present at the stoning who approved of the killing. Yet after a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, this man would become the greatest apostle of them all.
This is how God’s irresistible gospel grows. “We are being killed all day long for your sake,” Paul writes to the Romans. But then he adds: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
Persecution—and the lies that drive it—are the dynamic of growth forgotten by the Western church today. Paul’s words to Timothy are sounding loudly in my ears: “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12, New American Standard).