Last Friday (4/10/15) in Pakistan two men stopped 15-year-old Nouman Masih, asked him what religion he belonged to, then beat him, doused him with kerosene, and set him ablaze when he said he was a Christian. Masih died after several days of suffering, but not before offering forgiveness to his murderers. This week 14 Africans were thrown from a boat and drowned in the Mediterranean Sea when they identified themselves as Christians to their Islamic attackers. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians in Africa and Asia has become a weekly, if not daily, occurrence.
In the United States we have not seen persecution as it is occurring elsewhere, but this does not mean that persecution is non-existent. Nor does it mean that we should fail to prepare for persecution. In particular, we should prepare new Christians for the certainty of suffering and the inevitability of persecution. In addition to persecution from unbelieving family members, some believers are suffering economically and socially for living out their faith and exercising freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Kevin Cochran, until recently the Fire Chief in Atlanta, GA, was terminated from his job because he gave a copy of a book he had written to his staff. The book identified homosexuality as sinful and this cost Cochran his job. At Eastern Michigan University a graduate student was booted from a counseling program for refusing to counsel gay clients in a way that affirmed their identity. Others have claimed they were fired, demoted, or not hired because they affirmed intelligent design or creationism rather than the theory of evolution.
One of the big questions under debate in our nation is this: does religious liberty extend to the individual in his/her public life, or is religious liberty extended only to religious institutions (churches, synagogues, etc.) and individuals in their private lives? Secular progressives believe, in general, that religious convictions and liberties are limited to one’s institutional religious observances and private life. Also, some believe that certain groups of people should be protected from “hate speech,” advocating laws similar to those in Canada where a person can go to jail for speaking “hatefully” about a particular group of people. But who gets to define which groups are protected? Who defines what is “hateful?” And who determines the dividing line between an individual’s public expressions of religion and private expressions?
Some say that we should ignore what is happening to religious liberty and free speech in America because we are not suffering as severely as believers elsewhere. But this is a mistake. It is wrong to cede to the government freedoms that are given by God. The preamble to our nation’s Declaration of Independence declares the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable and given to all mankind by God, not by any government. Additionally, the first of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech….” Vigilance in defense of religious liberty and freedom of speech is essential to maintaining all other freedoms.
My point is not simply that we need to defend our religious liberty, but that we need to prepare believers for the likelihood that subtle, and not so subtle, forms of persecution are likely to grow in coming years. In addition to what we are observing in current news stories and debate, consider the demographic reality that America is becoming “less Christian” each year.
Based on current demographic trends, the Pew Research Center predicts that from 2010 to 2050:
Muslims will grow 73 percent worldwide (due mostly to high birthrates)
Christianity will grow by 35 percent worldwide
In the United States, Christians will decline from 78.3 to 66.4 percent
In the United States, Muslims will grow from 0.9 to 2.1 percent (more than doubling)
In the United States, those indicating “no religion” will grow from 16.4 to 25.6 percent
In the United States, Jews will decline from 1.8 to 1.4 percent
These numbers can change. Revival and spiritual awakening has happened and can again. But the Pew Research Center’s predications are based on current demographic trends, including birthrates, and these are difficult to change. We must pray for, and work toward, the kind of conversion growth that has been seen in Africa and China over the past century. And we must also prepare believers for increased hostility to Christianity based on current realities, not just demographic predications.
Sometimes following Jesus brings pain into our lives. Persecution should come as no surprise because Jesus warned of this. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first,” (John 15:18). And, “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Later, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
Following Jesus will bring rejection and sometimes worse. Believers need to prepare for this. Every new believer should be taught this. If you need help teaching new Christians, Northwest Baptist Convention churches can order a study book for new Christians titled “Following Jesus from the Beginning,” which includes evangelism training and teaching about suffering and persecution, among other topics. Your church has already paid for the printing of these books through your Cooperative Program contributions.