In the middle of the Covid-19 drama of a couple of years ago, a friend of mine was strolling around after a Gospel Express concert when he was approached by an older man who demanded to know why he was wearing a mask. You are being controlled by fear! The government is trying to manipulate us through the mask mandate. Don’t go along with the spirit of the age! The man clearly thought that not only did he know the reason why others wore masks, but also why the government mandated masks for everyone in public spaces. He spent five minutes droning on about why it was this young man’s Christian responsibility to unmask. This is just one example of many, many times that those who chose to mask in conservative Anabaptist circles were misunderstood and mocked. Some who wore masks in my church were rejected. Some people even refused to invite masked people to their homes for a meal.
My point is not that choosing to wear a mask at all times was the only “moral” choice. I understand well both sides of the complicated questions of constitutionality and respect to governmental authority. Rather, I wish to open a different conversation: how our view of persecution shapes our relationships both to the world around us and to each other. During the Covid-19 era, I heard many people state that the lockdowns and masks were a “precursor to the mark of the beast” and “the government’s test of their ability to control us.” Everything that the government (exclusively Democratic politicians, of course) did was cast in a conspiratorial light. The Real Reason why they imposed lockdowns was to hamper churches. The Underlying Goal of mask mandates was to break down society and keep Christians from singing. Even stimulus checks had a nefarious motive behind them– they were given to destroy the economy from inflation so that either Trump would lose the 2020 election or so that the One World Government would have to kick in to save the world.
It’s hard to imagine nearly as many charged conversations and outright rejections without the underlying assumption in place that persecution was coming. It’s odd, because the one perceived benefit of being “prepared” for persecution is that we would be living as strong churches before persecution strikes. But the most fundamental Christian act of grace is enablement to love as Christ loved us–neighbors, friends, even enemies. It means making the hard choices, through God’s Spirit, to work for each other’s good, to do our best to really understand each other, and to be one another’s greatest encouragement in living in Christ. But that’s exactly what didn’t happen, broadly speaking, in conservative churches during the pandemic. Could it be at least partially because our view of the future turned those who made different choices than us into the enemy?
How Fearing Persecution Distracts Us
An explanation is probably in order for how this works, since at least some of you are questioning this theory. The one thing we can agree on, to start, is that conservative Christians tend to believe that in the future, the government will try to persecute us. Not a bad bet, historically. And, of course, Jesus said that “in this world, you will have persecution.” In most countries, this is the everyday reality of believers in Jesus. In the US, Christians have not had the same history of governmental oppression. But especially in the last hundred years, as post-millennial optimism about the church’s future has been largely replaced with a pre-millennial expectation of cataclysmic destruction in the near future, conservative believers have viewed the daily news with morbid fascination. This supercharges political discussions, since every new technology or political innovation is probably It. But not only could it be It, the news could alternatively mean the rise of the long-awaited persecution of Christians. And this, too, raises the stakes of every conversation. So you believe that we should wear masks? Sell-out. You think that we should take a break from in-person meeting because of a public health crisis? You’ve clearly been taken with the spirit of the age. What are you gonna say when they take away your Bible next?
Remember, few people thought that wearing a mask was a sin. Many simply believed it was a harbinger of the real thing, the real deception just down the road. But since it was deemed a sign of future government-sponsored persecution, the mask and all who wore it became emblems of future oppression. It seems to me that this proclivity toward searching for the Deeper Meaning behind current news events ended up devastating our collective ability to respond in ways that would have actually built the church during the tumultuous time. And doesn’t it seem likely that in the present, too, this mentality will do nothing to help us as churches be genuinely prepared for persecution?
Why We Should Stop Looking for Persecution
Not only does that lens distract us from participating in church-building, it is not biblical. Jesus, on multiple occasions, challenged our tendency to interpret current events as having some cosmic significance. Some people came to Jesus (Luke 13:1-5) and asked him if he had heard about the Galileans that Pilate had killed while they were sacrificing. It seems, by Jesus’ answer, that people assumed that these people had it coming to them, possibly because of their spiritual inferiority. But Jesus’ answer put an end to such speculation: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Another time Jesus was teaching his disciples about the end of all things, and he deliberately corrects a misunderstanding they had. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”
They thought that they could read the news, and through it decipher the timeline of God’s judgment and restoration. But Jesus says, “No, those things don’t mean the end of the world. They merely serve as birth pains, reminders that the earth is corrupt, needs to be destroyed and remade.” Some have actually misread this to mean that when the number of earthquakes and wars increase, then we can divine that the end must be soon. But this is exactly not what Jesus is saying! We are to be ready for his return, but we are not to take the news headlines as a kind of divine code spelling the timeline for the end of the world!
Persecution is normal for Christians, which means we shouldn’t be surprised when we lose jobs or esteem in others’ eyes, or worse forms of rejection. But that doesn’t mean we should expect certain types of persecution in the US in a certain amount of time. I’ve grown tired of hearing the many speculations about what will happen in the next year, five years, ten years, etc. They almost never come true, and it just makes us look foolish to promote them. I remember working with someone when I was eleven or twelve who told me ominously that the US government was buying up hundreds of guillotines from France (why the US government needed guillotines to mass-murder Christians, or why he thought that France still has a stockpile, still escapes me). For me, the threat of persecution was a motivation to read my Bible, memorize, or pray more–although the impetus always wore off pretty quickly. I wondered if I would hold up under torture when the time came.
But government-sponsored, life-endangering persecution (or anything remotely similar) hasn’t come to America. And the more I think about it, the sillier the somber talk of thumbscrews and Bible-banning seems. It is not at all that I take my Christian life less seriously, or feel like the stakes are less high for our walk of faith. To the contrary. We should care about being ready for whatever the future holds. We should hope that our churches are more prepared to face natural disasters, pandemics, and economic collapses than we are now. The thing is, I think preparedness comes from living church as we should in the present: learning to love other believers as family, and doing Christian activities like prayer, art, gardening, gospel-sharing, and singing. And I suspect that the speculation over what the future may hold for the church in America is not helping true preparedness in the least.
We don’t know whether the next fifty years will lead to world wars, famines, horrible diseases, or terrible natural disasters in our neighborhoods. We don’t have a clue. And speculation about economic downturns, natural disasters, or wars doesn’t help us be more prepared when something does come. Nor does speculating about the Real Meaning behind disasters when they do occur. The only way we’re prepared for anything is by being the church in all the mundane, ordinary ways.
Staying on Track with What’s Important
The book of 1 Peter was written to Christians like us: some who are economically hurt because of their faith, some who are rejected socially because they love Christ, and some who may face violence in the future because they remain faithful. And it should provide us with a lens for thinking through what’s important in church life.
First, Peter does not include any speculation on the future for the believers he was writing to–he doesn’t warn them to quickly memorize the Bible so they won’t be sorry when persecution comes. He reminds them of the coming resurrection and restoration of all things (1:3-10). He reminds them of their calling to steadfastness and holiness (2:1-9). Then he encourages them to practice their faith by being good citizens (2:13-15), submitting to and suffering for each other in our various ways (2:16-3:7), and through persisting in doing good to those who treat us unfairly because of our faith (3:8-17). Peter says that we should “keep a good conscience in everything” so that those who don’t believe will be ashamed. Then, in 4:12, Peter tells his listeners to not be surprised by the “fiery trial” that they would go through. Like Jesus, Peter taught that suffering for believers was normal, since we also are planning to share in the glory to be revealed in the future. Finally, Peter ends his letter exhorting pastors to treat their congregants with honor and care.
Basically, Peter’s message to a church facing pushback and physical threats was to…live as the church should. It was to be the sort of people that accurately and joyfully reflected God’s goodness in ways the surrounding society would be forced to notice and admire. That message does not transmit through idly speculating about when the Democrats will take away our Bibles, or why an economic downturn signifies the start of some cataclysmic event. Our neighbors definitely won’t get that message through watching us acrimoniously dispute about the nature of the “end times.” They’ll see a strong church when we respond Christianly to the groaning of the earth–avoiding the temptation to speculate and cast blame. Then we’ll have the proper space and unity to care well for the sick among us, submit to each other from love, cover for each other’s weaknesses, and choose to enjoy each other’s company doing the little things of life.
“And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 1:7-8).
We don’t know the future. We do know our calling.
Note: I’ve referenced the idea that Scripture doesn’t teach that we should be looking at the news to try to figure out what will happen in the future. For more conversation on this topic, including looking at the book of Revelation and discussing how to understand and apply it to our lives, check out a recent podcast series that Paul and I are doing on Think Truth.