In the battle between good and evil, Christians have chosen to be aligned with Jesus and His Bride, the church. Yet 70% of the church lives in areas where persecution is common. Understanding the direct relationship between faith and persecution will affect the way we pray and witness. My wife loves to say, “There’s no such thing as a church in freedom and a different church in persecution. There’s just one church, always free and always persecuted.”
One believer living in persecution told us, “There are parts of the [human] body that you can see. Your arms, legs, chest and head. This describes the visible, open Western church. Equally important to the body are the parts you cannot see—your lungs, heart, liver and spleen. This describes the church in persecution. We are all parts of the same body. One part might live in environments with more freedom, while other parts experience persecution as normal.”
How we understand the different environments in which believers and persecution interact is vital for ministry. For instance, in mission efforts, it is important to locate the persecutors.
Historically, many of us are most familiar with persecution in the world of communism. For seven decades, communist leaders have done their best to suppress or eliminate followers of Jesus. In these types of settings, most forms of persecution that the church experiences originate in the corridors of power, such as the nation’s capital. This is what we call “top-down” persecution. These top-down persecutors love to have an ideological partner. They become more effective as they partner with local governments and sympathetic religious institutions. This gives hostile governments eyes on the ground—and total deniability.
Such was the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels. If one went to Pilate, asking him why he crucified Christ, he would vehemently deny that it was his responsibility. He would adamantly exclaim that he attempted to release Jesus, but the Jews demanded His death. He had washed his hands of the whole affair. He might say, “If it wasn’t for the Jews, Jesus would still be alive.” Then ask the Jewish leaders why they killed Jesus, and they too would deny any responsibility. They would demand that you view the calloused hands of those who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet. “Those are Roman hands,” they’d say. “Look at the uniforms worn by the crucifiers. Those are Roman uniforms. If it wasn’t for Rome, Jesus would still be alive.”
When the USSR disintegrated seemingly overnight, it was as if Western governments and Western Christians felt they had won the battle, that their mission had been accomplished.
So, in a short period of time, churches and mission agencies turned their focus toward the Islamic world. Wars and conflicts unfolded in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Churches and mission agencies sent workers to engage the world of Islam. Though following one’s military into an unengaged, unreached people group or country is problematic, it seemed to present an unusual open door.
With loving hearts, Western Christian workers carried with them the zeal for Muslims to have access to Jesus Christ. They also took with them the missiological practices used in top-down persecution, not realizing that persecution in Muslim-majority nations tends to be bottom-up.
In top-down persecution, where persecution is directed from the capital, one might lead people to Christ one by one and conceivably have five, 15 or 20 years to slowly gather individuals together into churches—usually churches housed in buildings. Baptisms and church planting can flourish until the persecutors become threatened. When that happens, they may kill Christians by the thousands, destroying churches without hesitation.
In bottom-up persecution, the persecutors are at your breakfast table or sleeping next to you in the bedroom. Here the persecutors, often one’s own family, hammer the seeker before they believe in Jesus. Someone observes a Muslim man or woman sneaking into a church and reports them to the family. They’re caught reading the Bible and experience severe punishment. If one is observed talking to a Western Christian, they have a lot of explaining to do. The baptism of a new believer could well lead to death, often at the hands of their family. If local Muslims embrace Jesus one by one, evil picks them off one by one.
In this kind of bottom-up persecution, the New Testament pattern of conversion and baptism is a useful guide. In Acts 6, Simon Peter is sent to Cornelius. As he presents the Gospel, Cornelius and his household believe in Jesus and are baptized together. This pattern is repeated several times in Acts. In chapter 16, Paul and his companions are in Philippi. They go down to the river to find a place of prayer. Instead, they meet a group of women, including Lydia. She and her companions come to believe in Jesus and are baptized. Immediately, she invites Paul and his coworkers into her home.
Later in the same chapter, Paul and Silas have been arrested, stripped, beaten and thrown into the center of the prison. While they are singing praises to God at midnight, an earthquake shakes the prison, and the doors of that foul place are thrown open. The jailer, fearing that his prisoners have escaped, draws his sword and is about to kill himself. Paul hastily assures him that the prisoners have not escaped. The jailer and his household believe in Jesus and are baptized.
This pattern continues in Corinth, with Crispus, a synagogue leader. Acts 18 tells us that he and his household decide to follow Jesus and are baptized.
What can we learn from the Biblical pattern to apply in places with bottom-up persecution?
One of the chief ways that Muslims are coming to believe in Jesus today and are experiencing believer’s baptism is through sharing meals together with Christians. Early on, the meals occur in the homes of Muslims and, as trust increases, in the homes of those who already follow Jesus.
These shared meals allow the Muslim family to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in a nonthreatening environment. As in the Book of Acts, new believers from within Islam often decide to follow Jesus as a family, in their home. They are baptized together in their home. And naturally, once the family has been baptized together, a house church has begun in their home.
When a family, often an extended family, embraces Jesus and experiences believer’s baptism together, they can both survive and thrive in places with serious bottom-up persecution.
This can be a pattern for evangelism, across the street in America or across the ocean in Islamic countries. One mission leader often says, “The only places where Muslims are not coming to Jesus in significant numbers are the places we have yet to go and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Locating the persecutors is important. Knowing whether the persecution is from the top down or the bottom up can affect how quickly persecution will arrive.
When persecution comes
But be aware, it’s not a question of if persecution comes but when it comes. This is also the Biblical pattern. When we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and families respond, persecution is to be expected. Individuals who come to Christ singly find it difficult to survive within environments of persecution. Families who believe together tend to find additional strength to endure persecution and grow in the midst of suffering. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should only evangelize families. We are called to proclaim the Gospel to everyone, and we must trust God to provide strength in times of persecution.
The battle between good and evil continues. Let us be wise sheep among the wolves as we carry out His Great Commission and take the Good News of Jesus Christ to all peoples. ©2022 Nik Ripken
Nik Ripken is a veteran missionary of 35 years, primarily in North Africa and the Middle East. He is an expert on the persecuted church, having researched extensively in more than 70 countries.