Fight or Flight: A Christian Persecution Perspective

I’d like to preface this post by saying that I have almost never been truly persecuted for my faith. No one I know has really been persecuted for their faith, besides a few insults or maybe some dirty looks. I’ve seen plenty of insults toward Christians lately in the news – especially Kirk Cameron – but can we truly call this persecution? For anyone who undergoes real persecution (threats, torture, death) for their faith, I doubt seeing the puny insults Christians in America put up with makes them think we know what persecution really is. So, perhaps I have no ground on which to stand to talk about how people should act when they face persecution. All the same, this is the topic that has been placed in my lap today, and I feel led to write about it.

In preparing for this Sunday’s lesson for my 6th grade Sunday School class, I read through Acts 9, where it talks about the Apostle Paul’s conversion. Something that stood out to me as I read through the story, and as I thought about other passages where similar kinds of events occurred, is that Saul (as he was still known at that time) took flight when he was threatened with persecution. And not just once, but twice!  And it wasn’t just his decision, either. When he was still in Damascus, it was the church that sneaked him out of the city. And when he was in Jerusalem, it was “the brothers” who helped him escape to his hometown of Tarsus. I found this very interesting, because I tend to believe that, in the face of persecution, we must stand up and be willing to argue our stance, even in the face of death. But if that were the case, was the early church wrong to help believers escape persecution?

I titled this post Fight or Flight, obviously referring to the physiological phenomenon where an organism either fights or flees a perceived attack. My first college degree was in psychology, so I know I’m using the phrase inaccurately.  The true “fight or flight response” is a physical and automatic phenomenon, not a thought-out choice, like whether to stand up to persecution, or whether to run away. But the outcome is still the same – one chooses to either stand up against the attack or run away. And because it is a thought-out choice, our actions can be judged as right or wrong. As I mentioned previously, if asked a year ago whether running from persecution was wrong, I probably would have said “yes.”  After today’s reading (and some previous readings), I wasn’t so sure. So I did some research…

The first major truth I found was that persecution is normal in the life of a Christian. In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul told Timothy “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We should come to expect persecution in some form if we are living a godly life in a world full of ungodliness. Jesus tells us in John 15:18-19 that we are going to be hated, simply because we don’t belong to the world: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

The second major truth I found was that persecution is to be considered a good thing (seriously??). James 1:2-3 states “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” He goes on to say that this developed perseverance and endurance leads to maturity in Christ.

The third major truth I found was that we are commanded to tell the world about Jesus, and forbidden to deny Him. Jesus said in Matthew 10:32-33, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” This tells me that we don’t have the luxury of fleeing persecution if we instead have the opportunity to acknowledge Jesus before men. Our actions of fleeing without proclaiming the Gospel make a statement: we value our lives more than we value Jesus.  It’s important to note, though, that in both cases in Acts 9, where Paul flees persecution, he had already been preaching the name of Jesus. In fact, it was because of his acknowledgment of Jesus that he was being persecuted. So perhaps this truth doesn’t apply here.

The fourth major truth I found was that we are commanded to be prepared to defend our faith. Peter writes to believers to “…always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15). This idea of being prepared for defending yourself (not physically…) brings with it the necessity of understanding that, once we follow Jesus, we could be called to suffer extreme persecution, including death.  One article on martyrdom uses a good analogy:

Those enlisting in the armed services should do so with the understanding that they may be called into battle and may be called upon to die in the service of their country. This is (or should be) the mindset of everyone who joins the military. Clearly not all enlisted men and women die in the service of their country, and not all are even called into battle. Despite this, they are trained daily to be prepared for battle. The same goes for the Christian. We are in a state of ‘warfare’ (Ephesians 6:12-20), and our Lord may call upon any of us to witness and even be martyred for our faith. Thus we must be prepared!

These truths point to the fact that we must expect persecution, and not allow the threat of persecution to hinder our witness. That said, what about the multiple stories in the early church of disciples fleeing for their lives?  (see Acts 8:1, Acts 9:20-25, Acts 9:26-30, Acts 14:3-7, Acts 17 – fleeing Thessalonica and Berea) Even Jesus told his disciples “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.” (Matthew 10:23). How do we fit these two seemingly contradictory approaches to persecution together?

I’ve decided that, as with most things in the Christian life, it comes down to motive. In every case I read, the disciples that fled were doing so after having met every standard I listed above. They preached Jesus in the public arena, knowing full well that persecution was coming. They didn’t stop preaching just because they were threatened, nor did they ever deny Him. They simply fled in hopes of fighting another day.  The wrong motives when it comes to persecution would be:

  • Not fleeing, in hopes of becoming a martyr and therefore receiving the glory that is due only to Christ.
  • Not fighting, because you value your life more than you value Christ.

I honestly can’t say that I would not flee for fear of my life if I were in that situation. I know some wonderful Christians who have publicly said that they could stand up and have courage in that situation, but I don’t know that I could. My only hope is that God would grant me the grace to handle the situation if the need ever does arise. And in the mean time, I will take comfort in knowing that, as long as I never deny Jesus, and as long as I don’t value my own life more than I value my relationship with Him, God is cool with me fleeing in order to fight another day.

How about you? Have you ever experienced persecution for your faith?  If so, how did you handle it?  If not, how do you think you would handle extreme persecution?


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