Not long ago I was speaking with a pastor who had just returned from a mission trip to Thailand. While there one of the local church pastors was found dead in the road. He had been taken away in the night and shot in the back. Tragically this was just a normal occurrence for the church, which regularly experiences persecution at the hands of the authorities. At a time when many Christians in the UK are feeling under pressure in a hostile secular society it was helpful to be reminded that we face nothing comparable to the persecution endured by many of our brothers and sisters. We enjoy religious liberty that is unparalleled in most of the world. Our rights and freedoms are strongly protected by British and European Law, and we enjoy privileges and protection that believers in North Korea could only dream about.
Despite this there is a growing feeling that we are being ‘persecuted’ for our faith. This perception has been exacerbated by a small number of high profile cases concerning Christian views towards homosexuality. Until very recently British citizens could discriminate against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation, but this was removed in 2007. Same-sex marriage was introduced in 2013, but Christians were already required to treat civil partners identically to married couples. These new equality laws, together with the criminalisation of ‘hate speech’ on the grounds of race, religion or sexuality, have meant that Christians are no longer free to act as they once did. Christian bed-and-breakfast owners cannot refuse a double bed to a gay couple. Christian street preachers cannot use offensive language about homosexuality.
Afraid to speak
The wide public acceptance of homosexuality as an equally valid lifestyle choice has also made it more difficult for Christians to express their disapproval of gay relationships. Employers and political parties require staff and candidates to subscribe to their ‘inclusivity’ policies. Teachers in schools are expected to teach a positive perspective on gay relationships. Religious belief is being squeezed from the public square into the private realm so as to ensure that no one is ‘offended’ by the beliefs of others. Employers are curtailing the right of their employees to wear religious symbols and engage in evangelism in the workplace. These changes have created a culture of intimidation that is causing Christians to feel unable to speak the truth about what they believe for fear of recriminations. Many are far more fearful of speaking about Christ at work, in public or on social media.
It remains questionable whether these restrictions on the freedoms that Christians have taken for granted can properly be described as ‘persecution’. In some instances they only require Christians to be more sensitive in the way that they speak, which ought to be the case anyway (1 Peter 3:15). In the New Testament we read how Christians faced a wide variety of opposition, ranging from criminal sanctions, mob-lynching, social-exclusion, employment discrimination, marginalisation and mockery. Whether we regard all of these as ‘persecution’ or not, they each have the same aim: to silence Christians and prevent them fulfilling the Great Commission. The nature and level of persecution experienced by the Church has varied from place to place and time to time, but the goal is always to stop the growth of the gospel.
The vast majority of the pressure we face as Christians in the UK today is social pressure because our views are seen as foolish, bigoted, intolerant or unacceptable. This is nothing new. I became a Christian at university in 1988, and one of the major barriers that kept me from turning to Christ was that I knew I would be mocked and that my family would be deeply unhappy. This is exactly what happened. When I felt called to go into full-time Christian ministry my mother threatened to throw me out of the house. Today, it is more difficult for a person from a non-Christian secular liberal family to ‘come out’ as a believer than it is for a person to ‘come out’ as gay. Non-Christian parents often have the same reaction to the conversion of their children as would Muslim or Jewish parents.
Follow and give thanks
However we understand our present circumstances in the UK, we need to hear what the Bible says about suffering for our faith, and then determine to follow Jesus faithfully. We need to remember that our Lord was rejected and persecuted, so we should expect to face suffering, shame and persecution as we follow him (John 15:20). Persecution is not a sign that God has failed us. Jesus taught that those who suffer persecution for his sake are blessed (Matt. 5:10-12).
We ought to give thanks to God for the astonishing gospel freedom that we continue to enjoy and not exaggerate the challenges that we face. This only ensures that our opponents achieve their goal more easily, because we are cowed into silence, and it dishonours our brothers and sisters around the world who face very real suffering.
Pray and obey God
We must pray for our government to continue to allow us to live in peace, with the freedom to practice our faith (1 Tim. 2:1-4). Acts tells us how the apostles claimed and defended their civic right to freedom of religion (Acts 16:37-40; 18:12-17; 22:22-29; 25:10-12), so it is important that we stand up for our freedoms and campaign for them to be enforced and extended.
Whilst we are called to be obedient to the authorities, if their demands conflict with commands of Christ then we must obey God and not men, and be willing to accept that punishment that follows (Acts 4:19-20). Christians give a powerful testimony to Jesus when they rejoice to suffer for his sake (Acts 5:41). We need to make sure that we love our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ by praying that the Lord will give them strength to endure and remain faithful, and giving generously to meet their needs.
Hope and mercy
We need to avoid falling into the trap of anger or despair. It is impossible to know how the situation in the UK will change in the coming years. Whatever happens we are called to love our enemies and bless them rather than curse them (Luke 7:27-36; 1 Peter 3:9-12). We cannot resort to the rhetoric of victim-politics if we follow the example of the Lord Jesus. We need to maintain our confidence that Jesus is the living, ruling and reigning Lord, and that no matter what happens, his purposes will triumph and his Kingdom will come. We are not losers but on the winning side. He is working all things out for good, and will accomplish his plan for the redemption of his people and the renewal of creation (Rom. 8:28-30).
Finally we need to commit ourselves afresh to the work of prayer and evangelism in our nation. The reason why there is growing pressure on Christians in the UK is that, despite our history, we are no longer a Christian nation. Only a tiny minority of our population are Bible-believing Christians (perhaps 2-3% at most) so it is not surprising that our culture has turned away from historic Christian values and freedoms. We need to pray that the Lord would have mercy on us and move in power in our land as the gospel is preached, and that multitudes would come to know the Lord Jesus and his wonderful salvation (Acts 4:23-31). Only in this way will the nation be transformed.