Persecution Impels the Church to Grow

A lot has happened in 2000 years of church history, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the reality of persecution against followers of Christ. Persecution can come in several forms—social, intellectual, and physical[1]—but despite intense opposition (actually because of it), Christianity continues to grow now just as it did during the early church era.

One form of opposition to Christianity during the second century was intellectual. An example of this is the philosopher Celsus. Celsus was a Platonist philosopher who disparaged Christians as “illiterate and bucolic yokels” who preyed on children and “stupid women,” trying to get them to forsake the instruction of their fathers and schoolteachers and follow the Christians.[2] Christians were portrayed as willing to accept and believe doctrines on the basis of simple faith without engaging in rational thought.[3] Origen was willing to engage Celsus on his own terms and answer his accusations against Christian beliefs in a rational way.[4] The Apostle Peter encourages us in the same way to “set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts, always ready to make a defense to anyone who asks you for an accounting concerning the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15-16 LEB).

Unfortunately persecution against Christians did not remain simply mocking the intellect of Christians; they were also actively persecuted physically and killed for their faith in Christ. One example of this is the martyrdom of Polycarp. The eyewitness testimony of this event is recorded in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a martyrdom described as “in accord with the gospel.”[5] I appreciate this description of Polycarp’s martyrdom since in it we see a willingness to submit to God’s sovereignty and ordination of all things even in suffering, as well as a real concern for the encouragement and salvation of others.[6] Polycarp could respond this way to the suffering he endured because he was convinced that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the Son of God who came in the flesh, who died and was resurrected so that we “might live in him.”[7] He wanted others to know that truth as well.

In modern times we see persecution against Christians continuing just as it did during the early church. In the West, persecution generally takes the form intellectual disparagement or social isolation. In other parts of the world though, physical persecution is a very real threat. Recently we did a podcast with a pastor from India who described the situation there.[8] Though Christians are a very small minority and face maiming and death because of their faith, the church continues to grow—dramatically. One of the reasons for this is that their witness for Christ impels people to question their pagan beliefs and inquire about the truth of Christianity, similar to the witness of the Christians during the first centuries of the Christian church.[9] Just like Polycarp, my hope is that all of us, when confronted with an opportunity to deny Christ would respond in the same way he did, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”[10]

[1] Scott Manor, “Church History I,” Lecture 9, (Knox Theological Seminary: 2017).

[2] J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius, 2nd ed. (Great Brittain: Ashford Colour Press, 1987), 135.

[3] Ibid, 134.

[4] Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 67.

[5]Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 147.

[6] Ibid, 143.

[7] Ibid, 138.


[9] Ferguson, Church History, 82, 84.

[10] Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 150.

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