How Biblical Training Prepared Me For Persecution
Preparing Christians for persecution. That is the mission of Open Doors worker Nathan*. All over the Middle East and in North Africa, he visits Christian leaders with Open Doors’ Persecution Big Picture Training, providing them with a biblical theology on persecution and practical advice on how to deal with it when it comes. We visit one of his trainings and have an in-depth talk with Nathan about his work and hear how Christians from different contexts respond differently to it:
When do you feel persecuted? When this question is raised in a room full of Christian leaders – all involved in supporting the persecuted church in the Middle East – at first, they are silent. But after a moment of hesitation, when they sense there is a safe atmosphere, they dare to speak out. “I feel persecuted when I take a public bus and the driver puts on a CD with Koranic verses on maximum volume. There is just no way to ignore it; they are forcing me to listen,” one of the participants says.
“Anything done publicly in Jesus’ Name will get us in trouble,” another adds. “Speaking publicly against the teaching of imams and mullahs is also very problematic. And being in the company of Christian believers from a Muslim background? That will definitely get me into trouble.”
We are visiting a three day training on persecution preparedness in a country in the Middle East. Open Doors worker Nathan is facilitating this training, which he has been giving all over the Middle East and North Africa the last few years. “The purpose is to help them to make sense of their persecution, by giving them a theology of persecution. So they know how to understand it, biblically and historically.” Nathan explains later, when we meet him in private and he is able to share about his work.
Both priests and pastors opening up
In this particular country, the pressure on Christians in tangible. That is not the same everywhere, Nathan explains: “It really depends on the region and the background of the participants how they respond to the questions. When we gave this training in 2014 with a group of evangelical pastors in one of the countries in the Middle East, they immediately opened up, responded and kept asking for more theological insights.”
A week later, Nathan gave the same training to a group of Orthodox and Catholic priests. That was a whole different experience. At first, they were wary, even suspicious of the training, fearing it might be too evangelical for their taste, Nathan sensed. “We had very intense discussions. It is an intense topic. We wrestled with questions like: Should Christians take arms up to protect themselves. At moments, the emotions were very high. But in the end, the forty of us celebrated mass together, and they took time to pray for each other. What struck me about the priests is how real they are, in a sense that they don’t spiritualize everything but are looking for real answers and real hope.”
The Open Doors developed Persecution Big Picture Training tries to provide answers to their questions by digging into what the Bible has to say about persecution. A key passage in the training is Matthew 10:11-42, where Jesus prepares His followers to be persecuted, hated, excommunicated and even killed for following Him.
Persecution not part of theological training
While Nathan has been working with Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical pastors and priests in the Arab world, none of them studied the theology of persecution during their theological training. “Somehow, that is a blind spot in the seminaries and Bible schools,” he says. “For many of us, it’s really an eye-opener that the Bible so clearly prepares Christians to be persecuted.”
A specific challenge for Nathan when working with some Evangelical Christians, is opening their eyes for persecution in church history. “Some evangelicals can only identify with other evangelicals. They somehow don’t perceive traditional Christians like Orthodox and Catholics as being part of the same family, while the Christians we now call traditionalists were heavily persecuted in the past. We can learn from that, and should not act like Christianity in the Middle East was invented two centuries ago.”
During the training, several ‘confirming moments’ were clearly noticeable. For example, when Matthew 10:36 was discussed: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” For many believers from a Muslim background in the Middle East, this is a daily reality; their family might lock them out, hurt or even kill them for following Christ. Nathan: “When you meet people who experience family trouble, use this passage! Show them that God knows their situation, and actually prepares us that it may happen to us.”
Another surprise for the people in the training is that the Bible does not necessarily ask Christians to stay on their post when being persecuted. Matthew 10:23 says: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next…”. “So clearly fleeing is an option,” Nathan states. “Based on this part of Scripture, there are different responses for the church when being persecuted, all of them biblical: dive and survive, register and submit, flee and live, and stay and die. What we cannot do is tell them which one to choose. The Spirit will have to lead you! But you should know that none of those are unbiblical. Jesus did all of them at different times.”
“No one can take away your voice”
The main tactic of Satan with Christian persecution, in whatever context, is to silence the Body of Christ, Nathan explains. “Whatever response you have, be assured that no one can take away the voice of God’s people. They tried it with Jesus, they tried it with Stephen, they tried it with many others, but the voice of the church was not and will not be silenced. They might succeed in killing you, but somehow God makes your voice resound throughout the ages.”
That is not just his message to the Christians in the Middle East but also to Christians in Western countries. “One of the responses of the West to the Islamic terrorism is to become more intolerant towards all religions including Christianity. Already in some European countries you can lose your job if you wear a cross. And then there is the huge influx of immigrants from the Middle East. Things are changing and the church better prepares for that.”
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*Name changed for security reasons