As many people are aware, James Coates has been in jail for almost a month now. The decisions surrounding him and the Church he pastors have sparked no shortage of controversy. There are some who think that faithful Christian ministers should be doing all they can to defend the headship of Christ and the authority he gives elders over a local Church. Others think that Romans 13 just doesn’t provide the answers to such questions as to the purpose and limits of our government, and we should therefore be submitting to every single restriction or lockdown our government imposes. There are numerous other theological discussions that have come out of this, and many have rightly identified those topics that need to be further developed in our day. It’s not like the saints of old never wrestled with these things in the past, but given the state of the Church in the 21st century, many of us would readily admit that we haven’t spent adequate time reading Church history or historical theology. As a result, we do not have a good grasp on what theologians of the past taught and believed or how the Church has navigated similar situations throughout its rich history. This has been a time when we’ve had to think more carefully about many topics: the Lordship of Christ over his body, ecclesiology, expository preaching, the role and limits of government, and persecution, to name a few. In his last sermon before being hauled off to jail, James Coates mentioned that there was a deficiency in our theology of persecution, and it is to this point that I hope to make a small contribution.
A basic word study of persecution in the original Greek indicates that this word literally means “pursuit” or “chase.” It has the imagery of a hunt where someone is trying to bring an animal down. Other lexicons talk about the idea of suppressing and even punishing one’s conviction. This will help as we seek to develop a better understanding of persecution.
As the events at GraceLife Church unfolded and details came out, many were quick to say “this isn’t persecution because the government isn’t singling out the Church regarding its restrictions.” Unbelievers, Christians and even pastors were often repeating this. The idea was that, because restrictions equally applied to restaurants, gyms, libraries, and others, it could not be labelled persecution. The assumption behind this objection is that in order for persecution to be properly labelled as such, it must be a kind of attack or hostility specifically aimed at Christians and the Church.
But is that what we see in the Bible? Do we only see persecution occur against the people of God because the government or its citizens single them out for being the people of God? I hope to address this idea and expand on it a bit. Embedded in that concept is the presupposition that the catalyst for persecution is the hostility that unbelievers have towards Christians just because they’re Christians. But does persecution stem solely from the animosity towards Christianity because of something inherent to Christianity? I’m sure at times it does. But if we think this is the only legitimate way to label something as persecution, we are not drawing fully from the examples given to us in God’s word to develop our theology of persecution. As we take a close look at a few passages of scripture, I think we’ll develop a better understanding of why persecution occurs.
Persecution of the Prophets – Matthew 5:10-12
In the Beatitudes, Jesus says those who have been persecuted and falsely accused for his sake are blessed. Then he provides a word of comfort to his hearers, saying “rejoice and be glad.” Why? Because the prophets likewise were persecuted. These prophets, like the rest of the Jews, were part of the covenant people of God. However, these prophets were not being persecuted and singled out because they were part of God’s chosen people. Their persecution came at the very hands of the Jewish community they were part of. The prophets did not suffer persecution because they were outsiders in their land. Their example demonstrates that persecution did not come from the “outside” simply for being God’s people. The entire Jewish nation was said to be God’s people. The persecution of the prophets is proof that true persecution does not only take place when the people of God are specifically targeted by the unbelieving world or authorities.
Persecution of Daniel and his friends – Daniel 3 and 6
Chapters 3 and 6 of the book of Daniel also provide help in seeing that persecution is not simply a singling out of a particular group. Daniel 3 tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar raised a golden image and decreed that everyone bow down and worship it. That decree was not given only to the exiled Jews living in Babylon; rather, the decree to worship the image applied equally to everyone. There was only one group however that couldn’t follow through with that command: the faithful Jews. Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (also known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego) were not being singled out because of their Jewish heritage. The command to worship the image did not discriminate. Everyone had to do it, so the persecution that followed these young men didn’t have as its origin a singling out of Jews by the king.
Chapter 6 provides even more insight. Daniel was distinguishing himself among the other commissioners and satraps. The other two commissioners and satraps were growing jealous and did not approve of the thought of the king appointing Daniel over the entire kingdom. They realized that Daniel was totally above reproach and could not find anything to accuse him of. But they did realize one thing: if they were going to find anything against him, it would have to be regarding the law of his God. In other words, they realized that Daniel’s primary allegiance was to his God and His law. They realized that Daniels’ commitment to that law bound him in thought, word and deed. So, they coerced the king to come up with a law that would require Daniel to go against God and His law.
Daniel’s subsequent visit to the lions’ den did not come because he was being singled out by the king’s decree. Granted, he was singled out by those seeking to find fault in him, but the edict of the king, again, applied to everyone, not just Daniel. What we see here, as in chapter 3, is that persecution did not come because the authority was somehow singling out one group. Rather, Daniel and the others had an allegiance to God and His word that prevented them from following the king’s edict. Faithfulness to God demanded that they not obey the authorities’ commands or law. It does make one wonder whether Daniel would have still refused the king’s choice food (and not defile himself) if his request for a different diet had been denied.
Persecution of Paul in Acts 16:16-21 and 19:23-27
Luke gives us a few accounts of the persecution that Paul faced in his missionary journeys. In Acts chapter 16, we read about Paul and Silas’ encounter with a slave girl on their way to the place of prayer. Luke tells us that this slave girl had a spirit of divination and brought much profit to her masters by fortune-telling. In his annoyance, Paul rebuked the spirit to come out of the girl and it did. The slave girl’s masters subsequently dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace before the authorities and accused them of proclaiming things that were illegal (not lawful). While this passage does have a singling out of sorts of Paul and Silas, it is helpful here is to note the charges that were made and the motive behind them.
Why did these men respond the way they did? Why were they so angered that they brought them before the authorities? Was it their disdain for the Christian message? It’s hard to believe that, especially since the very slave girl they owned was affirming the truth that Paul and Silas were slaves of God and were proclaiming the way of salvation. Luke, being careful to record the details of his investigation, mentions that they started to act this way when their hope for profit was threatened. Now, they might have just been upset at the thought of a potential financial loss, but I think Luke captures more than that. I think the reason Luke communicates this particular idea is to highlight the undue level of trust these men had in their financial situation. The fallen human heart is inclined towards all kinds of idols. When Paul exposed this idol in the hearts of the masters, that’s when the hostility began. What we see here is that Paul’s actions created a threat to the girl’s owners that exposed their false sense of security and the idol that it had become.
We see this play out with even more clarity in Acts 19. Demetrius and the other craftsmen whose prosperity depended on the making of shrines and idols were upset that Paul was disrupting their trade. Their concern was twofold: first, that their trade would fall into disrepute; and second, that the goddess they worshipped (Artemis) would be regarded as worthless and dethroned of her magnificence. At the heels of this conclusion, they were filled with rage and started crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” Even after they dragged Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s travelling companions, to the assembly, the commotion that ensued led them to continue crying out the same thing for two hours! Paul’s faithfulness to his calling and to the gospel confronted and exposed the idols that these people served, which in turn caused them to respond with hostile persecution.
What is also noteworthy from the last section of chapter 16 is the interaction between Paul and the policemen when being released. In his February 14 sermon, James Coates introduced a third category, aside from the two most generally agreed upon by Christians, as to when civil disobedience is appropriate – when the government commands what isn’t theirs to command. While I don’t intend to elaborate on this point here, it is helpful to keep this category in mind. The chief magistrates had ordered Paul to be beaten and imprisoned. After the supernatural liberation of Paul and Silas and the jailor’s conversion, the magistrates sent the police to release Paul and Silas and the jailer communicated this to Paul. In essence, the command from the authorities was for them to be released and go in peace. Did Paul submit and obey the magistrate’s command? Why is it that the same author who wrote Romans 13 finds reason to disobey the commands of the authorities? They were not forbidding what God commanded or commanding what God forbade. Yet, there seems to be, in Paul’s mind, good enough reason to disobey what appears to be an unjust or unlawful command. Much more could be developed on this point but for now, it’s enough to just bring attention to it.
As we’ve taken a look at these narrative portions of Scripture, we’ve noticed a few things. First, we see that persecution does not always single out the people of God. It may very well at times do that, but, as in the case of the prophets, sometimes persecution even comes at the hands of those who think they are on the same side. Second, it is evident that persecution is not borne simply out of the animosity that people have towards Christians and Christianity. As we saw in the above passages, hostility and subsequent persecution may also come out of the confrontation of the idols that people have. Sometimes the exposure of idols is a direct result of a Christians faithfully proclaiming Christ as Lord. As Paul, Silas and other Christians were being faithful to their calling and mission, and others were being converted, it exposed and even threatened the idols that those in society had.
Given all that has happened with GraceLife Church and James Coates, I think we can see something similar in our day. This Church has not been doing anything out of the ordinary. They’ve been doing what the Church has always done for the last 2000 years! They have sought to remain faithful to the commands of Scripture and through that have likely exposed the idols in our society and culture. The idol of health and safety has been clearly on display, as has the idol of Caesar i.e the State. People have been trusting our government for too much for too long. Our own false sense of security in our government is now being exposed. I hope that, as we’ve walked through some of these biblical passages, you’ll be able to see that persecution comes in many shapes and forms and that it’s usually spurred on by the fidelity and loyalty of Christians to their King. With all that we’ve looked at, there’s no denying that what is happening with GraceLife, and similar Churches in Canada and around the world, falls in the biblical category of persecution. But we must always continue to shape our thoughts and actions by an ever-deepening understanding of God’s word. Regardless of persecution, we must strive to remain faithful to the very end.
[EDITOR’S NOTE, MARCH 17, 2021: We received word that Pastor James may be released this week. Please continue to pray.]