What does it mean to be persecuted for our faith?
Quite often I hear people say that Christians aren’t being persecuted in the United States. What they mean is that we aren’t suffering physically for our faith, in contrast to so many Christians in other parts of the world. I recognize, of course, that there is a significant difference between what is happening to Christians here and to Christians elsewhere who are sacrificing their lives or being tortured for their faith.
Still, it isn’t right to say that Christians in the United States are free from persecution. We should be more precise: We are free from physical persecution.
Consider what 1 Peter says about the suffering of believers:
In this [salvation in Christ] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7)
Later he writes,
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you. (1 Peter 4:1–4)
And he goes on to talk about suffering in 1 Peter 3:13–17 and 4:12–16, and we see from these texts that sometimes the suffering was quite intense.
Slandered and Maligned
Peter doesn’t use the word persecution to describe what the readers are experiencing, but they are clearly suffering for their faith, and that is another way of saying they are being persecuted. They are being slandered for being Christians, and they are also maligned for not indulging in the same lifestyle as unbelievers. Peter says they shouldn’t be surprised at the fiery trials they face.
But here is the crucial point to see in all these passages: Peter says nothing about physical suffering when he describes the difficulties his readers were experiencing. They were criticized by people in the world; they may have experienced some persecution from governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13–17), and they were certainly out of step with society. But nothing is said about believers being put to death, or flogged, or stoned — in fact, Peter makes no mention of any kind of physical mistreatment.
We see something similar in the words of Jesus when he said to his disciples, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” (Luke 6:22).
Notice how Christians were maligned, criticized, and rejected for not following the societal ethos of their day. In the same way today, many are astonished that we have such a restrictive sexual ethic. Many contemporaries think we are detrimental to society, and many in the Roman world thought the same thing about Christians. They oppose us because we don’t approve the sin that is celebrated in many quarters (as in Romans 1:32).
So what did the persecution look like? The maltreatment Peter talks about consists of verbal abuse and presumably included unjust discrimination in everyday life. Even though they weren’t experiencing physical abuse, they were genuinely suffering.
A Word for Today
Peter’s words speak directly to American Christians right now.
Out of our biblical convictions, we cannot support the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage in all fifty states. As Christians, we weep over the judicial approval of sins that dishonor God. We weep and mourn over the sin that is accepted in our society. And this response will lead to tensions with our family and our friends, who simply cannot understand us. And this response will lead to tensions in the workplace with employers and coworkers, who think we are out of touch with society and reality. Those teaching in public schools may face unique pressures to conform in the coming years. As a result, unkind words may be said behind our backs or to our faces. And it may lead to discrimination in our jobs and the loss of religious liberties in society.
Of course, all of these more subtle types of verbal abuse and discrimination may lead to the next step: physical abuse and suffering. Peter prepares his readers for this very possibility in the future. Still, verbal abuse is one form of persecution. At the same time, he reminds them that God reigns and rules over all and that they need to live in an exemplary way as believers and show the character of Christ to an unbelieving world.
When persecuted we are tempted to threaten and to seek revenge, but we are called to endure suffering as Christ did and to entrust final judgment to God (1 Peter 2:23). We are to love those who hate us and show them kindness and grace, the same kindness and grace our Savior lavished upon us.
As Christians in the United States, we also experience suffering since we are maligned for our faith. The persecution may be relatively light; we recognize that our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world face something much more severe than what we are experiencing. But all believers in Christ are persecuted in one way or another (2 Timothy 3:12). Verbal abuse and various forms of discrimination are still suffering according to 1 Peter.
None of us knows what the future holds for believers in the United States, but Peter exhorts us in his first letter to be ready for fiery trials, to follow the pattern of our Lord and Savior, and to live by a faith that knows with certainty that eternal glory comes after this moment of suffering.
After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)