By their teaching, the Lord Jesus and His apostles lead us to expect that the normal state of the Church is to live under persecution. (Matt.5:11, 12; John 15:18-20; 16:2). Paul wrote to timid Timothy: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (Read 2 Tim. 3:10-13)
Persecution and Church Growth in the Early Church
The history of the early Church in Acts shows a direct link between persecution and Church growth. (Acts 4:1-4; 5:41 -6:1). Acts 8 describes how persecution led to the spread of the Church into its second growth phase, the phase Jesus had predicted in Acts 1:8 (Acts 11:19-26; 13 onwards). Paul found that persecutions and suffering preceded major people movements into the Kingdom (13:44-52) prompting Paul’s teaching that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). The churches of Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth and Ephesus were born through persecution. It was through long imprisonment that Paul reached Rome.
By contrast, evangelicals in South Africa have lived quite comfortably. We had freedom to evangelise (non-politically!), and taught Scripture in state schools, and with access to state radio/TV for presenting the Gospel. Conservative evangelicals who visited us from other countries have envied our freedom under a “Christian government”.
But by Biblical standards, we have been living untypically. Paul would have questioned our godliness! Under such a government, the Church apparently thrives. Many people adopt Christianity knowing it won’t cost them too much. Christianity easily becomes Nominal. Census statistics give an inflated picture of Christian strength. These nominal Christians dilute the image of true, virile Christianity. There is little difference between Christian and non-Christian lifestyles. Devout ministers find they must evangelise their own members inside the church. Second-blessing theologies develop in an attempt to explain the mediocre level of Christian experience, and help professing Christians become more like true Christians.
The detrimental effects of the first Christian Government
For the first three centuries of its existence, the Church experienced persecution. The cost of becoming a Christian sifted out any who might be tempted to come on board for an easy ride (cf Matt. 8:8-22). Consequently, the quality of Christian discipleship was high like “refined gold” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
And in those first three centuries the Church grew numerically too. “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church”. The morethe martyr-seed was scattered, the more the Church spread.
The Church not only survived Rome’s three centuries of all-out blitzes which tried to exterminate Christianity, it grew. It grew not “in spite of” persecution. It grew “because of” persecution. It grew with a qualitative and quantitative growth.
The scene changed. In AD 313 Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome, and immediately stopped all persecution of Christians. He inaugurated the first “Christian” government. Whereas before it had been dangerous to BE a Christian, now it was dangerous NOT to be a Christian.
Suddenly, tens of thousands of heathen adopted Christianity. Numbers increased, but quality decreased, converts brought many of their heathen customs with them. As ‘the world’ entered the Church I grew wealthy and powerful, as the Church Empire emulated the Political Empire. Furthermore, idolatry entered the Church, as statues of the saints replaced the heathen idols. With idolatry came superstition. Insted of the Church being in the World, the World was now in the Church.
The persecution that had kept the Church humble and pure had ceased. The new government of Constantine favoured Christianity, and the Church became flabby and weak. Do you wonder that I do not want today’s government to favour Christianity above other religions? I do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. I do not want a flabby, weak Church!
Survey of the health of the Church in the world
How does the Church fare in today’s world?
There is still plenty of persecution around. There are more Christian martyrs in our century than in any other century since Christ.
My study of Patrick Johnstone’s “Operation World” (1986 edition) found convincing proof that the Christian Faith grows best in a climate of religious neutrality or opposition. Look at the Church under repression: In Angola, Burkina Faso, Zaire, Romania and other East European countries then under Marxist repression, the Church has thrived. China’s record of Church Growth from 1 million to 50 million Christians under the severest Communist persecution well proves my point.
It is not only State repression of Christianity that enables it to flourish. Some nations have chosen the path I am advocating: Freedom of Religion without discrimination or favouritism. In these countries too, the Church prospers. Mexico is a “secular State with freedom of Religion”, and there is steady church growth. Singapore has the most complex mix of world religions of any nation in East Asia. Its official policy is “a secular state with Freedom of Religion”, and the government states the reason for this policy: “to achieve social peace and harmony by maintaining religious equilibrium” Yet between 1986 and 1989, the number of Christians in Singapore grew from 12% to 18%! Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew devoted his 1989 National Day speech to expressing concern that Christians were now upsetting the religious equilibrium of the nation! If the government tries to restore the equilibrium by repressing the church, it will aggravate their problem even further!
And what of our own country? South Africa’s church growth has levelled off and is dropping, under a Government that favoured Christianity, gave free air time to Christian churches and promoted Christian National Education in the schools.
There is enough evidence from Scriptures and from the contemporary experience of Christians worldwide to derive a Theorem that reads: The Christian Faith is most likely to prosper in a climate of political disadvantage. Wise politicians who wish to stifle the Church would then adopt policies favouring the Church, sure that this will eventually render it weak and useless in the nation. At the same time they would restrict other religions and ideologies, knowing that this would enhance their chances of success. For the Christian Faith is not the only “philosophy” that thrives under persecution: note how the PAC, ANC, SACP prospered under the South African government’s 30 – 40 year banning! (*3)