A parenthesis about Persecution: Are today’s Christians different from first century Christians?

Paul’s rebuke to the believers in the Corinthian Church, in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, gives me pause. If you are like me, before (re)reading this epistle you already knew that there were problems in that Church; including some rather scandalous sins. Therefore, since we know better than to get into that kind of trouble, it is easy to slip into the role of observers as we read the letter; to think it is all about them not us. But Jesus already warned us against that mentality that sees the speck in my brother’s eye but is ignorant of the utility pole stuck in my own. So, if I take Jesus’ words to heart, how do I respond to Pauls’ rebuke?

I mentioned last time that the Corinthians’ stumbling stone appeared to be pride. They thought they were “super Christians.” Paradoxically, that led to sin spreading through that Church, unchecked. How did this happen? I think it happened because they had not yet reaped the consequences of their choices. You see, God is long-suffering…

Isaiah 48:9 For my name’s sake I will defer mine anger, and [for] my praise will I refrain as to thee, that I cut thee not off.

God does not punish us immediately for our sins, to give us time to repent:

Romans 2:3-4 (NASB) But do you suppose this, you foolish person who passes judgment on those who practice such things, and yet does them as well, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and restraint and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?

But the Corinthians did not “get it.” It is history repeating itself. In the days of Uzziah, King of Judah, and Jeroboam II, King of Israel, Amos the prophet spoke up. Their society was falling apart, justice corrupted by bribery, the poor oppressed; but they did not want to hear correction:

Amos 5:10-12 They hate him that reproveth in the gate, and they abhor him that speaketh uprightly… For I know how manifold are your transgressions and your sins mighty: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside [the right of] the needy in the gate.

Yet they kept telling themselves how great it would be when the “Day of the Lord” arrived, when God would build His kingdom and defeat all their enemies. And God, through the prophet, tells them: the day is coming, but…

Amos 5:18-20 Woe unto you that desire the day of Jehovah! To what end is the day of Jehovah for you? It shall be darkness and not light… Shall not the day of Jehovah be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?

Just like the Corinthians they were oblivious to how far they had fallen. They kept holding the feasts, and making the sacrifices prescribed by the Law, as if nothing were wrong. So, God had some harsh words for them:

Amos 5:21-22 I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will not smell [a sweet odour] in your solemn assemblies. For if ye offer up unto me burnt-offerings and your oblations, I will not accept [them]; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fatted beasts. Take away from me the noise of thy songs, and I will not hear the melody of thy lutes…

In the same vein Paul has harsh words for the Corinthians. They think so highly about themselves that they cannot see how slippery the slope is onto which they have boldly trod. But instead of bringing up that slippery slope first, instead of throwing those sins in their face right now, Paul tries a different tack. He appeals to their ability to reason as believers:

It is almost like he is saying: If you really are super Christians, explain to me why your life experiences, here in the world, are so different from mine and that of the rest of the Apostles. Why is everything for you triumph, filling, riches, and reigning in this world while we carry the cross?

1 Corinthians 4:9-13 For I think that God has set us the apostles for the last, as appointed to death. For we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and men. *We* [are] fools for Christ’s sake, but *ye* prudent in Christ: *we* weak, but *ye* strong: *ye* glorious, but *we* in dishonour. To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are in nakedness, and buffeted, and wander without a home, and labour, working with our own hands. Railed at, we bless; persecuted, we suffer [it]; insulted, we entreat: we are become as [the] offscouring of the world, [the] refuse of all, until now.

If the Corinthians had not lost the ability to reason as Christians, this rebuke should have stopped them cold, made them take a step back, and think again.

What does it mean to carry the cross?

Luke 9:23-26 And he (Jesus) said to [them] all, If any one will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me; for whosoever shall desire to save his life shall lose it, but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, *he* shall save it.

For what shall a man profit if he shall have gained the whole world, and have destroyed, or come under the penalty of the loss of himself? For whosoever shall have been ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he shall come in his glory, and [in that] of the Father, and of the holy angels.

If we look this question up on the internet: What does it mean to carry the cross? We are going to get all sorts of answers, each possibly emphasizing a different aspect because the Cross, being the core of the Gospel, plays many roles in the teaching of that Gospel. Some will emphasize that it means dying to ourselves; namely, rejecting sin by putting it to death on the cross. Some will emphasize that denying ourselves is all about choosing to commit our whole life, 100 percent, to Jesus’ will. What dies on that cross is our selfishness, our plans, our worldly definitions of happiness, to be replaced by the new life that Jesus offers us.

There are more, and they all have something good to say, but it seems to me that most of them are telling us what carrying the cross means in terms of what we do. I don’t find too many talking about what the world does to us. Yet, if we step back a couple of verses there in Luke 9, this is what Jesus was talking about.

Luke 9:20-22 And he (Jesus) said to them, But *ye*, who do ye say that I am? And Peter answering said, The Christ of God. But, earnestly charging them, he enjoined [them] to say this to no man, saying, The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up.

The cross speaks of hardship and suffering that comes as a consequence of a choice I have made: the choice to follow Jesus.

When Jesus carried His cross, he had made all the choices required to fulfil the Father’s plan. They brought Him to that point on purpose and then He let the world take over and do its worse. After flogging him to near death, the world made Him carry that cross. Like all convicted capital offenders of their day, apparently totally humbled and defeated, He was forced to carry His own instrument of death to the very end.

Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this chapter of Luke, gets it right, but today we have to read it slowly to fully grasp what he is telling us:

“We must live a life of self-denial, mortification, and contempt of the world; we must not indulge our ease and appetite, for then it will be hard to bear toil, and weariness, and want, for Christ.”

“We are daily subject to affliction, and we must accommodate ourselves to it, and acquiesce in the will of God in it, and must learn to endure hardship. We frequently meet with crosses in the way of duty; and, though we must not pull them upon our own heads, yet, when they are laid for us, we must take them up, carry them after Christ, and make the best of them.”

Bearing the cross has nothing to do with enduring the hardships of life to which everybody is subject to. It is about bearing the hardships that come our way as a result of having chosen to follow Christ.

And this is why Pauls’ rebuke to the Corinthians gives me pause: Because it does not mention their sins. It makes no reference to their actions. It simply asks them to compare the results of their lives as Christians to the results of the apostles’ version of the same life.

1 Corinthians 4:9-13 …*We* [are] fools for Christ’s sake, but *ye* prudent in Christ: *we* weak, but *ye* strong: *ye* glorious, but *we* in dishonour. To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are in nakedness, and buffeted, and wander without a home, and labour, working with our own hands. Railed at, we bless; persecuted, we suffer [it]; insulted, we entreat: we are become as [the] offscouring of the world, [the] refuse of all, until now.

By setting the standard that way, Paul shortcuts any temptation we might have today of looking down on the Corinthians for their blindness to sin; because whether you have a speck in your eye or a utility pole, Paul’s question is the same:

How has the world been treating you?

“But we are not living in the 1st Century Roman Empire…”

Is it unreasonable to expect that suffering is the natural consequence of living for Christ?

To answer that question, we should start with another set of questions: Was the world in the time of Jesus and his disciples worse than it is today? I mean, why were Christians persecuted – even to martyrdom – back then, and not us today? Has the world somehow “evolved” its moral fiber? Or is it that we are “better” Christians than those first disciples?

We are rightly thankful to live in this country. It is not difficult to prove that many of the laws and customs built into our society since the founding of the United States, laws that foment freedom and oppose oppression, are based on Scripture. We are blessed to live here. But there is a difference between being blessed by it and being entitled to it.  

When faced with the question, “Why are we not persecuted for our Christian faith?” I think sometimes we come dangerously close to answering: “Of course we can’t expect to be persecuted for being Christians. We live in a Christian nation!”

And if we ask, how did that come about? It isn’t too much of a stretch to hear the answer: “We paid the price through many wars to get where we are. We have established and enshrined our God-given rights in our Constitution through the sweat and blood of generations. And we are going to defend them, take arms if necessary, to ensure that that (holy) sacrifice was not in vain.”

I guess I can see the point of that kind of answer but then it makes me wonder, how does that compare to Jesus’ sacrifice? I mean, we are talking about sacrificing for the same Christianity. But somehow it makes Jesus’ sacrifice pale by comparison… Think about it: After He died, the Romans were still in charge; slavery was still a practice allowed in the laws of nations all over the world; and if you pledged allegiance to Jesus as King of Heaven instead of to Caesar, your life was forfeit.

Jesus knew full well persecution would come. He gave His disciples instructions about what to do when it happened. Exactly what did He tell them to do?

Matthew 10:23 (NASB) “But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.

I cannot find anywhere in Jesus’ teaching, an admonition to stand and fight for my rights in this world. In classic “truth in advertising” form, He made this clear in His foundational sermon, the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:38-41 Ye have heard that it has been said, Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But *I* say unto you, not to resist evil; but whoever shall strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other; and to him that would go to law with thee and take thy body coat, leave him thy cloak also. And whoever will compel thee to go one mile, go with him two.

There is nothing difficult about understanding these words. He is clearly referring to someone intending to do evil to us, by either humiliating us or even by taking us to court unjustly to steal our property. And Jesus says, ‘let them get away with it.’

What? Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but that sounds downright unamerican.

Obviously, Jesus has something in mind for my life in this world that is more important than my own possessions.

Matthew 5:43-45 Ye have heard that it has been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy.  But *I* say unto you, Love your enemies, [bless those who curse you,] do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who [insult you and] persecute you, that ye may be [the] sons of your Father who is in [the] heavens; for he makes his sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain on just and unjust.

To Jesus, fulfilling our mission as His followers in this world is the absolute top priority: living in such a way that any who see us will know we are children of the God of Mercy and Grace; even in the face of persecution; especially in the face of persecution.

Do we really think that that expectation is outdated? After all… we live in a “Christian nation.”

I sometimes think, but I hope it isn’t true, that somehow we are under the illusion that our nation’s forefathers became such powerful Christians that they were able to carve a piece of this world out of the grip of the “prince of the power of the air”… that we think America was established by God as the first bastion in the eventual overthrow of the enemy of mankind.

Maybe I will talk more about that next time. But for now, right in our very own Arizona, we have an example of being persecuted for being Christian. Maybe you saw this in the news.

Washington Elementary School District versus Arizona Christian University

On Feb. 23, the school board of the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix voted to terminate an ongoing contract that allowed ACU students to gain teaching experience at the district’s campuses. The reason was not for any actual actions by any of ACU’s teachers or based on any complaint against them. Rather, in the words of board members:

(I have numbered the points, to comment on them later.)

  1. “My concerns, [is] when I go to Arizona Christian University’s website, [ they are] ‘committed to Jesus Christ, accomplishing his will and advancements on earth as in Heaven’.”
  2. “Part of their values is… [to] ‘transform the culture with truth by promoting the Biblically-informed values that are foundational to Western civilization, including the centrality of family, traditional sexual morality, and lifelong marriage between one man and one woman ,” she said.
  3. “I, too, echo what Ms. Valenzuela said _____ when I… looked into not only their core values, but the statement of faith… [which they] ask their students to sign and live by,” he said. “Proselytizing is embedded into how they teach. And I just don’t believe that that belongs in schools…”

Are we shocked? The board is absolutely correct…

  1. Jesus told us: Matthew 5:17-19 Think not that I am come to make void the law or the prophets; I am not come to make void, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Until the heaven and the earth pass away, one iota or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all come to pass. Whosoever then shall do away with one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whosoever shall practise and teach [them], *he* shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens.
  2. He also taught: Matthew 5:31-32 It has been said too, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a letter of divorce. But *I* say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except for cause of fornication, makes her commit adultery, and whosoever marries one that is put away commits adultery. And: Matthew 19:4-6 And the Pharisees came to him tempting him, and saying, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? But he answering said [to them], Have ye not read that he who made [them], from the beginning made them male and female, and said, On account of this a man shall leave father and mother, and shall be united to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh? so that they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.
  3. Actually, Jesus never told us to proselytize (which means convert someone from one religion to another). He commanded us to Evangelize: Matthew 28:16-20 But the eleven disciples went into Galilee to the mountain which Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they did homage to him: but some doubted. And Jesus coming up spoke to them, saying, All power has been given me in heaven and upon earth. Go [therefore] and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined you. And behold, *I* am with you all the days, until the completion of the age.

On these three points, by the words of His own mouth, Jesus Himself is condemned. The board of the Washington Elementary School District wouldn’t want Him being a teacher in their schools.

Again, the board members objection is not based on any actual offense committed but rather its potential. They went on to justify their stance by saying that ACU’s “…policies do not align with our commitment to create a safe place for our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and community. This is not a rejection of any particular faith as we remain open to partnering with faith-based organizations that share our commitment to equity & inclusion.”

In an opinion piece in the Arizona Republic, on this subject, the writer claimed that the board further said that they are not discriminating against Christians… because there are plenty of Christian faiths that are inclusive to LGBTQ.

But, since Jesus Himself wouldn’t pass muster, I wonder how the board could possibly recognize a “Christian faith”.

Now, to be fair, in what I called point number 2 of the board’s objection, there is an interesting statement about ACU. Let me repeat it: “Part of their values is… [to] ‘transform the culture with truth by promoting the Biblically-informed values that are foundational to Western civilization…’”

I think, here, they have a point. I cannot find anything taught by Jesus or His apostles that supports that statement. I know some people teach that Jesus’ command to be “the salt of the Earth”, implies changing the world for the best, by our presence. But I think it is safe to say that Jesus’ main concern from the beginning to the end of His ministry was not about changing cultures or civilizations in this world. He came to change human hearts so that we all might become fit citizens of the Kingdom of God.

True, a society full of the children of God ought to be the safest place on Earth. That is only logical. But it is dangerous to use logic to extrapolate Jesus’ words. As John, the disciple said:

Revelation: 22:18-19 (NASB) I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.

Anything that we dare stand up next to the Lord, that is not the Word of the Lord, and then claim for it His endorsement, is an idol… as much an idol as a Christianity that claims that name and yet picks and chooses only that which is convenient to obey from the words of Jesus.

What next?

Here there is no need to guess. Just read today’s (March 10, 2023) news: “Christian university suing Phoenix school district, claiming religious discrimination”

And here, at this point, I have to bow out and claim that I am not competent (or have standing – both in the legal sense) to suggest what is right or what is wrong. I am not part of ACU. I am not in their leadership. I can imagine the thoughts and feelings that went through the minds of that leadership as they took this step. After all, they have made a commitment to their students to train them for a vocation that is going to be their livelihood; and now that livelihood is threatened. For their sakes, they need to do something.

But I hope that if I found myself in that situation, if I were in that leadership and had the responsibility to make a choice, that I would be willing to tell everybody, from the Board of Trustees, to the Professors, to the Staff, and to the Students:

“In all my life, I haven’t seen such a clear example of persecution, directed at us strictly because of our Christian beliefs. Jesus said it would happen, and here it is. I know this is a threat to our mission and our livelihood. But if I really believe in what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 10:23, I do not think it is our job to ‘resist this evil’ in the courts of this world. We have the opportunity, in this moment, to show the world that there are followers of Christ who are willing to risk taking Him, exactly, at His Word.

“But I understand if you disagree. I will gladly step out of my position of leadership. The decision really belongs to all of you.”

 I wonder, if ACU took such a stance, what would the world do?

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