Apr

24

2014

Kevin DeYoung|6:06 am CT

But What About Gluttony!?!

Why do conservative Christians make such a fuss about homosexuality and give everyone a free pass—most notably themselves—when it comes to gluttony?

That’s a question you hear a lot of us these days and one you should expect to hear again and again, posed in a hundred different ways, in the years ahead.

Why are we asking about gays in heaven when we should be asking if there will be fat people in heaven? How can we say “their” sin of homosexuality is terrible while “our” sin of gluttony is no big deal? Everyone’s a biblical literalist until you bring up gluttony. Besides, the Bible contains three times as many exhortations against gluttony than against homosexuality.

How should Christians think about these claims? Well, the operative word in that question is “think.” We can’t settle for gotcha headlines and arguments that are more slogan than substance. We have to be open to reason, open our Bibles, and think this through.

1. Do we really want to suggest that one sin is no biggie because we’ve been pretty lax about a different sin? If it’s the case that Christians are wrongly intolerant of unrepentant gluttony–or any unrepentant sin, then shame us. Sins separate us from God. When we choose to embrace sins, celebrate sins, and not repentant of sins, we keep ourselves away from God and away from heaven.

2. Is it really wise to equate gluttony with being fat? People are overweight, underweight, or fit as a fiddle for all sorts of reasons. Can we be sure that those with a few pounds to shed are worse sinners than the fried-food loving bean pole blessed with an amazing metabolism? If we want to draw a ramrod straight line between gluttony and corpulence, Job has three “friends” we can hang out with.

3. It bears repeating, the reason Christians are talking about homosexuality is because everyone else is talking about homosexuality. Strange coincidence that evangelicals did not become “obsessed” with homosexuality until about 40-50 years ago when the culture became obsessed with sexual freedom. If the Supreme Court finds a constitutional right to jab people in the kidneys with poison-tipped spears, we’ll get worked about that too.

4. Gluttony is a favorite vice to throw into the rhetorical mix because it is one of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. As Will Willimon explains, the earliest formation of the list of seven comes from Evagrius of Pontus, a desert monk and follower of Origen (who was later condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 553). It’s not surprising that an ascetic who lived in a commune separated from the world might considered the temptation for food one of his chief maladies. One can detect more than a little monkish asceticism and some Stoic disdain for the body in the Fathers’ abhorrence to gluttony.

Throughout church history, theologians have understood the sin of gluttony in different ways. For some, immoderate desire is the issue. For others, eating more than we need is the problem. According to Augustine, food was not the problem but how we sought it and for what reason.

The Catholic Catechism does not call the seven “deadly sins,” but “capital sins” because they engender other sins and other vices (art. 1866).

C.S. Lewis, with typical insight, has the devil Screwtape note how persnickety old ladies–the kind who always turn aside whatever is offered and always insist on a tiny cup of tea–are just as guilty of gluttony because they put their wants first, no matter how troublesome they may be to others. Health conscious foodies beware: the problem of gluttony, according to Lewis, was not too much food, but too much attention to food. We might say, in the broadest ethical sense, gluttony is using food in a way that dulls us from the spiritual and distracts us from God. That’s certainly a danger for most of us, but it’s not the same as enjoying a meal, feeling stuffed, or being overweight.

5. And what does the Bible say? Some will be surprised to learn that “gluttony” appears in none of the New Testament vice lists. In fact, most of the Bible is overwhelmingly positive about food. There are Old Testament feasts and visions of heavenly feasts. Jesus finished his ministry with a meal and instituted a supper for his remembrance in the church. If the New Testament has an overriding concern with food, it is that God’s people not be overly concerned about it. Food does not commend us to God (1 Cor. 8:8), and the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink (Rom. 14:17). No honest reader of the New Testament can deny that Jesus and the apostles were much more concerned about what we do sexually with our bodies than with the food we eat (Mark 7:21-23; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-5).

In the English Standard Version, the word “glutton” appears four times and in every instance is paired with the word “drunkard” (Deut. 21:20; Prov. 23:21; and in a slander against Jesus Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). The word “gluttonous” shows up once, again alongside a reference to “drunkards” (Prov. 23:20). Two other times we have “gluttons,” once in a quotation from a poet speaking of lazy Cretans (Titus 1:12) and the other time in reference to the company a shameful son keeps (Proverbs 28:7).

The other passages often associated with gluttony are much less than meets the eye. For example, the point of Proverbs 23:2 (“put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”) is about not being ensnared by the deceptive hospitality of rich hosts. And the saying in Philippians 3:19 (“their god is their belly”) is either a euphemism for sexual sin (see the next phrase, “they glory in their shame”) or a reference to the Judaizer’s legalistic demands regarding Mosaic dietary restrictions.

So what does the sin of gluttony look like? When we take time to open our Bibles and read the relevant passages, we find that gluttony is much more than eating a McRib sandwich and that partaking in food is much less of a concern than partaking in sexual sin. The composite picture from these verses suggests that a glutton is a loafer, a partyer, and a profligate. He’s the prodigal son wasting his life on riotous living. She’s the girl on spring break who thinks the pinnacle of human existence is to eat, drink, and hook up. A waistral living for the weekend. A big city high flyer who cares for nothing except for indulging in high society. A ne’er do well who takes lifestyle cues from the Hangover franchise.

So, absolutely, the church should speak against the sin of gluttony. But once we understand what the sin entails, I’m guessing most people would say they have a good idea where the church already stands on these issues.

 
 

Apr

23

2014

Kevin DeYoung|5:47 am CT

Books at a Glance

Yesterday, Fred Zaspel (of B.B. Warfield fame) posted an interview with me on my new book at the new site Books At a Glance.

If you haven’t looked into Books At a Glance, you should. It’s not just another blog or website. It’s not a sermon research service. It’s a time effective, cost-effective way to get the low down on new books. While Books At a Glance does author interviews and traditional book reviews, their bread and butter–and what makes them unique–is the book summary:

First, what is the difference between a Book Summary and a Book Review? The easy way to say it is that a Book Review is evaluative in nature and interactive, whereas a Summary is simply a condensed re-presentation of the book’s contents. In a Review our staff will tell you generally what a book is about and then offer comments assessing the work, commending or criticizing this or that about its contents, and so on. But in our Summaries we “crunch” the book into 7-10 pages, condensing the argument(s) of each chapter into a paragraph or two.

Book summaries are the heart of what we do here. They are designed to help you keep up to date and informed regarding new and significant publications. After reading a given summary you will know what that book is about and how it develops its thoughts. From there you can decide if that is all you need or if you should purchase the book yourself to study the matter further.

“Executive summaries” like these have a long and proven value in the business world, and we are excited to bring the same to Christian readers and students of biblical studies.

The aim of this venture is to provide top notch book summaries from trustworthy evangelical scholars. There is a subscription fee for the summaries, but the small cost may be well worth it for many pastors and interested church members.

 
 

Apr

22

2014

Kevin DeYoung|6:06 am CT

Building a Better Earth Day

Today is Earth Day, the 44th anniversary of the original Earth Day 1970, which “capitalized on the emerging consciousness [in the wake of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring], channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns front and center.” Today we will hear about Earth Day in the news, online, and in our public schools.

It’s hard for me to be excited.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible for Christians to celebrate Earth Day in the right way. I’m sure many do. We can thank God for the physical world, enjoy the beauty of creation, and think through ways to steward the earth God has put under our dominion.

But the official Earth Day movement is full of stock phrases about “the ravages of climate change,” “well-funded oil lobbyists,” and “climate change deniers.”  More to the point, there are deep assumptions–usually unspoken assumptions–that provide a wobbly foundation for thinking realistically and humanely about the environment. Not to mention biblically.

I’m going to assume that Christians reading this blog understand the Creator-creation distinction, that they aren’t worshiping the earth or divinizing the creation. I imagine most Christians celebrating Earth Day do so because they believe God gave us the world as a gift and we should take good care of it. I don’t think any Christian would disagree with this motivation.

But there are a few other bricks to lay in the foundation of wise environmental stewardship. Let me mention three.

Brick #1: We must distinguish between theological principles and prudential judgments.

Consider this wise counsel from Jay Richards in the Introduction to Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition:

With respect to the environment, the theological principles are easily stated and uncontroversial. The biblical picture is that human beings, as image bearers of God, are placed as stewards over the created order. We bear a responsibility for how we treat and use it. We are part of the creation, as well as its crowning achievement. God intends for us to use and transform the natural world around us for good purposes. Proper use is not misuse. But as fallen creatures, we can mess things up. No serious thinker in the Judeo-Christian tradition questions these basic principles.

Prudential judgments are another thing entirely. They require careful analysis of the relevant scientific, economic, and political aspects of an issue. They require us to weigh costs and benefits, and to discern where facts leave off and fashion begins. (3)

Richards goes on to use global warming (er, climate change) as an example. Before we make definitive pronouncement about the “Christian position” on global warming we should consider a number of questions: 1) Is the planet warming? 2) If so, are humans causing it? 3) If we are, is this warming bad? 4) If it is bad, what are costs and benefits of the proposed solutions? There is legitimate debate about all four questions. But if often feels like to be taken seriously as a person who wants to steward God’s creation you must quickly answer yes, yes, yes to the first three questions and then be in favor of cap and trade, Kyoto, or some other government initiative. Earth Day is steeped in politics, advocacy, and a host of assumed solutions so that it becomes difficult for Christians of a different ideological bent to appreciate what may be good about the modern environmental movement.

Brick #2: People matter most.

I know it’s not the point of the Legion story in the gospels, but I think it is a reasonable conclusion: the life of one man is worth more than 2,000 pigs. Does this mean every desire of men and women should be put before every consideration of the plant and animal world? Of course not. The Bible wants us to care for animals too (Exod. 20:10; Jon. 4:11; Deut. 22:4, 10; 25:4). But human life is more valuable than animal or plant life (see, for example, the priestly sacrificial system). Christians should not be intimidated by the charges of speciesism. The Bible plainly teaches that man is the crown of God’s creation with dominion over it  (Gen. 1:26-28; 9:3).

Similarly, we in the West who, after centuries of increasing affluence, have the time, energy, and resources to pursue new environmental goals should not impose those same sensibilities on people in the developing world still struggling to survive. As Environmental Stewardship puts it:

[F]urther advances in human welfare for the poor are not often threatened by a belief in the West that human enterprise and development are fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection…This false choice not only threatens to prolong widespread poverty, disease, and early death in the developing world, but also undermines the very conditions essential to achieving genuine environmental stewardship. (68)

Brick #3: People are producers, not just polluters.

If there is one biblical insight missing from the modern environmental movement, it is this one. Too often a model is assumed where the earth is a healthy organism and humans are cancerous cells. All we do is pillage, pollute, and destroy. The world would be better off without us. Our goal then is to minimize our “footprint” at all costs. All we do, it is implied, is consume the planet’s valuable resources. The nightmares of the Malthusians still haunt us.

But the Bible also teaches that we are (sub)creators. We are capable of spilling 11 millions of gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska. But we are also capable of turning virtually worthless sand into silicon chips. We can create beauty as well as despoil it. We can actually make a harsh planet more inhabitable, more conducive for human flourishing. Would anyone but the most ardent environmentalists rather live on Earth now or 4000 years ago? By God’s grace, humans have learned to feed more people and help those people live longer, healthier, easier lives.

The Noah movie notwithstanding, we must resist the temptation to think of humans as intruders from another world wrecking carnage in a pristine environment. Instead we must see ourselves as stewards, called to subdue, enjoy, protect, use, develop, and make more humane God’s fallen creation. I would argue that Christians should not be seeking a romantic ideal where the earth is untouched by human hands. Rather, we want to think carefully about how we can use our hands to make the earth more hospitable for more people, so that we might enjoy the beauty, grandeur, creativity, and productivity of our Father’s world.

 
 

Apr

21

2014

Kevin DeYoung|5:27 am CT

Monday Morning Humor

 
 

Apr

20

2014

Kevin DeYoung|4:00 am CT

As He Stands in Victory

 
 

Apr

19

2014

Kevin DeYoung|5:20 am CT

The Silence of God

 
 

Apr

18

2014

Kevin DeYoung|1:30 pm CT

How Can This Be? A Good Friday Meditation

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he had put him to grief (Isaiah 53:10a).

There are four stanzas in Isaiah 53. The first starts at the beginning of the chapter (actually, it probably begin at 52:13) and goes through verse 3. The second stanza covers verses 4-6. The third stanza verses 7-9, and the fourth verses 10-12. There is a problem in Isaiah 53 that builds through the first three stanzas and is not answered until the fourth stanza.

The problem is this: How can it be that one so righteous should be so brutally punished for the sake of the wicked? Verse 1: “Who has believed what he has heard from us?” The message about this Suffering Servant is, it seems, beyond belief.  How can it be that one so righteous should be so brutally punished for the sake of the wicked?

We have on the one side the utter sinfulness of God’s people. Isaiah does not shy away from talking about sin. He does not repackage it as some biological misfiring or the unavoidable outcome of bad society. He does not soften the blow by speaking merely of our mistakes, our errors in judgment, our growth edges, our learning curve. No, he speaks of our “transgressions” twice (v. 5 ,8) and another two times call us “transgressors” (v. 12). He speaks of our “iniquities” three times (v. 5, 6, 11). He speaks of the “oppression” of his people, and not the oppression they endure, but the oppression inflict (v. 8). Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, uses strong words like “wicked” (v. 9) and “guilt” (v. 10). The picture is not a flattering one. God’s people are depicted as selfish, lawless, foolish sinners.

And opposite these transgressors-people like you, people like me-we have the Lord’s Servant. Verse 9 says this man did no violence. There was no deceit in his mouth. There may have been good men in the Old Testament, even good men who suffered. Job may have been a righteous example in all the earth. But Isaiah is saying something more. This Suffering Servant had done nothing wrong. No violence-not in his heart, not in his actions, not ever. No deceitful words. He is as blameless as God’s people are blameworthy.

Which makes his suffering so unbelievable. The torrent of anguish upon this Servant keeps building and building and building. His appearance was marred, beyond human semblance (52:14). He was despised (53:3). He was rejected (v. 3). He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted (v. 4). He was pierced. He was crushed. He was wounded (v. 5). He was oppressed (v. 7). He was cut off (v. 8). He was killed, died and was buried with the wicked (v. 9).

How can this be? How can one so righteous be so brutally punished, and that for the sake of those who deserved to be punished?

Perhaps it was some mistake? Some accident? Some cruel injustice. Some profound misfortune that could not be avoided? Good people suffer all the time, after all. They face injustice. They are wrongly accused. They have to put up with things they want to escape but just can’t. So this is just one of those sad, twisted tales of man’s inhumanity to man, right?

Not at all. Something much deeper is going on here. This Servant sufferers willingly. He chooses to bear our griefs and voluntarily carries our sorrows. No one takes his life; he lays it down of his own accord (John 10:18). He does not go to his death kicking and flailing and bemoaning his inescapable fate. Verse 7 says he opened not his mouth. He endured his affliction silently. He approached his death purposefully. He took upon himself the sins of the people freely.

Did you notice  in verses 6 and 7 that both the sinners and the Suffering Servant are compared to sheep? We are like sheep in that we wander and go astray. The Servant of the Lord is like sheep in that he approaches his shearing, and even approaches his slaughter, without a word. He knows what awaits. He embraces what has been meted out for him. This Servant is not a hapless victim, but a willing participant in his own punishment.

So how can this be?

How can one so righteous be so brutally punished, so willingly slaughtered, and that for the sake of those who deserved to die? This is the problem mounting in the first three stanzas of the chapter. This is the mind boggling plight that has Isaiah asking, “Who will believe this report?!” Who has heard of such a thing? How can such violence, such tragedy, such injustice be tolerated? How can the righteous suffer and the guilty go free?

Verse 10: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he [the Lord] has put him to grief.” There’s the answer to all our mounting questions. It was God’s hand that pierced him, his purpose that afflicted him.

“This only makes it worse,” you may think to yourself. “I could scarcely accept such punishment befalling an innocent. I could barely embrace the idea that the righteous would suffer in the place of the guilty. But this is altogether too much. How does it help to know that it was the Lord’s will to crush him?”

But don’t you see what good news this is?

Because it was the Lord’s will to crush him we can behold the glory of our Triune God in planning and procuring our redemption. The Father did not punish the Son as a helpless victim of cosmic child abuse. The Son went to the cross freely and willingly. Likewise, the Son did not appease an angry God as some sort of divine good cop to the Father’s divine bad cop. The Father sent his Son to the cross freely and willingly. We do not have to look askance at Good Friday as if there were some rift of purpose, some difference in character, between the Father and the Son. The good news of Good Friday is that the Father did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all (Rom. 8:32) and that the Son drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath for our sakes (Mark 14:36).

Because if was the Lord’s will to crush him we can marvel at the love of God. In the mystery of divine redemption we must not think that the cross changed God’s mind to love us. Good Friday did not happen so that God could love us, but because he already loved those whom he had chosen in Christ. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). God shows his love for us in this that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).

And finally, because it was the Lord’s will to crush him we can be sure that full satisfaction has been made for our sins. “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). If the cross is something other than divine judgment upon the divine Son of God, if Good Friday is not the eternal, redemptive plan of God executed fully and finally on a hill outside Jerusalem, if what we are singing about is something other than the Lord’s will to crush his own Servant, than we cannot know if our sins have truly been forgiven. We cannot be sure that Christ’s death was enough. We cannot be certain that it is finished.

But if Isaiah 53:10 is the answer to all the problems mounting in verses 1-9, then we can say with the Psalmist the words which Jesus himself quoted: “The stone that the builder rejected had become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22-23; Mark 12:10-11). And then we can say with all our might and savor with all our hearts the very next verse in that Psalm: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

 
 

Apr

17

2014

Kevin DeYoung|5:16 am CT

Maundy Thursday

Like millions of Christians around the world, we will have a Maundy Thursday service tonight. If you’ve never heard the term, it’s not Monday-Thursday (which always confused me as a kid), but Maundy Thursday, as in Mandatum Thursday. Mandatum is the Latin word for “command” or “mandate”, and the day is called Maundy Thursday because on the night before his death Jesus gave his disciples a new command. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

At first it seems strange that Christ would call this a new command. After all, the Old Testament instructed God’s people to love their neighbors and Christ himself summarized the law as love for God and love for others. So what’s new about love? What makes the command new is that because of Jesus’ passion there is a new standard, a new example of love.

There was never any love like the dying love of Jesus. It is tender and sweet (13:33). It serves (13:2-17). It loves even unto death (13:1). Jesus had nothing to gain from us by loving us. There was nothing in us to draw us to him. But he loved us still, while we were yet sinners. At the Last Supper, in the garden, at his betrayal, facing the Jewish leaders, before Pontius Pilate, being scourged, carrying his cross, being nailed to the wood, breathing his dying breath, forsaken by God-he loved us.

To the end.

To death.

Love shone best and brightest at Calvary.

Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy, cast off that I might be brought in, trodden down as an enemy that I might be welcomed as a friend, surrendered to hell’s worst that I might attain heaven’s best, stripped that I might be clothed, wounded that I might be healed, athirst that I might drink, tormented that I might be comforted, made a shame that I might inherit glory, entered darkness that I might have eternal life.My Saviour wept that all tears might be wiped from my eyes, groaned that I might have endless song, endured all pain that I might have unfading health, bore a thorned crown that I might have a glory-diadem, bowed his head that I might uplift mine, experienced reproach that I might receive welcome, closed his eyes in death that I might gaze on unclouded brightness, expired that I might for ever live. (The Valley of Vision, “Love Lustres at Calvary”)

 
 

Apr

16

2014

Kevin DeYoung|5:44 am CT

A Hymn Worth Not Singing

I’m thankful for most of the hymns I learned in the church growing up. I’m thankful for the timeless ones from Watts and Wesley and even the campy ones like Victory in Jesus. Considering the move to all things digital, I’m increasingly thankful that we even had a hymnal to hold, peruse, learn from, and take home.

But most hymnals have a few clunkers. I grew up singing God of Grace and God of Glory. It’s a good title set to a strong tune (almost always CWR RHONDDA, though the author wrote it for REGENT SQUARE) and has the stirring refrain: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.” The problem is the hymn was written by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the well known liberal preacher who inflamed the modernist-fundamentalist controversy with his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” (1922), in which he set aside essential articles of the Christian faith like the virgin birth and the Second Coming.

Can we only sing songs in church written by solid evangelical Christians? I wouldn’t say that. We may not know the precise theological convictions of some ancient hymn writers and, no doubt, popular tunes can come from a wide array of sources. But I question whether we should sing songs meaning something with the words that the author did not mean. Fosdick wrote God of Grace for the dedication of the Rockefeller financed Riverside Church in New York City (October 5, 1930). Years later when he penned his autobiography, Fosdick entitled it “The Living of these Days,” an allusion to a line in the second verse of his famous hymn. When Fosdick wrote of the church’s need for courage and asked God that the church might bloom in “glorious flower,” he had a different vision for the church than we should be comfortable with.

Besides the question of authorial intent and a host of vague exhortations, the hymn has one dreadful line:

Save us from weak resignation,
From the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.

The first sentence is passable, though it comes across as an ode to willpower. The second sentence should simply not be sung. Is it really the case that the search for salvation is our eternal glory? Is this what liberalism has to offer—that we exult in our journeying after God? It’s no wonder so many contemporary hymnals have left out this verse or changed the line to “the gift of your salvation.” The surpassing glory of divine grace is not be found in our seeking, but in our being found.

How striking that the other famous hymn to use the tune CWM RHONDDA is Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, written by the great Welsh preacher and hymn writer William Williams. Where Fosdick celebrates earthly triumph and our seeking after salvation, Williams has us sing of God’s kindness in leading us through this pilgrim life until we safely reach our heavenly home on the other side of death and destruction. Both use the same stout Welsh tune, but only one deserves it. There are many true statements in Fosdick’s hymn, but not enough to overshadow the man’s errant theology and his misguided sense of where true glory lies.

 
 

Apr

15

2014

Kevin DeYoung|5:40 am CT

Are Christians in America Persecuted?

The short answer is “Yes, all the time.”

The not as short answer is: “Yes, Christians in America are persecuted, but not as frequently, consistently, or with nearly the intensity that Christians are persecuted in many other parts of the world.”

For a longer answer, keep reading.

What’s In a Word

I understand why non-Christians would say Christians in this country are not persecuted. It doesn’t help their cause to make martyrs of rank and file evangelicals. And besides, many secular people still think the Christian Right is intent on instituting a theocracy and punishing all infidels. Persecution is hardly in their purview.

I also understand why progressive Christians would say Christians in this country are not persecuted. Christians on the left are apt to see evangelicals as the meanies, not secularists. Progressive Christians hold to a narrative that blames conservatives for instigating the culture war and driving young people from the church. Persecution is not the problem; intransigence is. Progressives long for the day when—if we would just beat our fundamentalist spears into NPR pruning hooks—our churches would be full of Christian activists attuned to the sensitivities of our cultural despisers.

I even understand why many conservative Christians are reticent to use the p-word to describe our troubles. We think of persecution as church bombings and physical violence—the sort of stuff our brothers and sisters in North Africa and the Middle East and in parts of Asia face every day. We understand, rightly, that getting a forced hiatus from Duck Dynasty is not exactly suffering on the same scale. If persecution means “there’s a decent chance this year that someone will try to kill me or a family member for being Christians” then no, we are not persecuted in this country.

Bringing in the Bible

But is that what the Bible means by “persecution”? Like most Greek words, the word translated “persecution” in our English Bibles (dioko) has a wide semantic range. According to the standard lexicon for the New Testament (BDAG), dioko can mean “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute.” In many place in the New Testament, persecution refers to violence toward Christians. Matthew 10:21-23 speaks family members killing other family members. Luke 11:49 references killing and persecution in the same breath. And in Acts persecution is linked with arrest, murder, and physical violence (Acts 7:52; 9:4; 22:4, 7; 26:11, 14; see also Gal. 1:13).

But there is reason to think dioko is not limited to these extreme acts of oppression. In Matthew 5:10, Jesus promises that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will be blessed. Then in v. 11 he further explains what this persecution is like: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” It’s possible that reviling and persecuting and uttering evil are three distinct acts, but considering verse 11 flows out of verse 10, it’s better to see these as overlapping categories. When verse 12 says “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” Jesus does not mean every prophet was killed, but rather that all the prophets were reviled and spoken against, and in this manner (or worse) they were persecuted. Persecution may mean being put to death (Matt. 10:21), but it can also refer to being “hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matt. 10:22).

We are confirmed in this broader understanding of persecution by two other passages:

John 15:20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

2 Timothy 3:13 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

Persecution is not something that befalls only a few Christians. While it’s possible to read Jesus’ words in John 15:20 as a unique promise for the apostles, the passage from 2 Timothy cannot be read so narrowly. The point is plain: while martyrdom is a special category set aside for a select number of Christians (Rev. 6:8-11), persecution is the normal experience of every Christian everywhere. From stiff fines, to family shame, to being kicked off college campuses, to laws against sharing our faith, to unjust trials, to public mockery and scorn, to arrest and brutality, if we faithfully follow Jesus in this world we all will face persecution at some point in our Christian discipleship.

Why This Matters

So what? What’s the big deal in proving that “technically” Christians are being persecuted in this country? Is this about feeling sorry for ourselves and finding more ammunition to blame the media for our troubles? Not at all. We should not think more highly of our suffering than it deserves.

But neither should we make it out to be something less than it is. There are at least four reasons it’s important we realize that Christians in America will be, and often are being, persecuted.

First, we do not want to miss out on the privilege of suffering, even a little bit, for the name of Jesus (Acts. 5:41). Being hated for Christian beliefs and Christian virtues is no fun under any circumstances, but the pain is made worse when we have no category for joining in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering (Phil. 3:10).

Second, we should not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes to test us (1 Peter 4:12). If we expect persecution to only come in the form of imprisonment and death, we will not know what to think of slander, derision, and disdain. The New Testament assumes that being hated for one’s Christianity is the norm, not the exception.

Third, if we overly limit the scope of persecution, we will neglect the Christian ethic incumbent upon us to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom. 12:14; see also 1 Cor. 4:12). When people slander us, mock us, or pass laws against us because we are thought to be anti-gay, anti-science, and anti-women, that is persecution. And as such, we are commanded by Christ himself to pray for those and love those who hate us so.

Fourth, if John 15:20 is true, and 2 Timothy 3:13 is true, and the expectation of the entire New Testament is true, then no amount of PR work is going to rescue the church from being thought by some as backwards and bigoted. Where in the gospels did Jesus promise that the world would love us if we just kept our heads down and tried to be good neighbors? Where in Revelation is war with the dragon presented as anyone’s fault but the dragon’s? I know many outsiders think of the church as being very “unchristian” and evangelicals as being political operatives for the Republican Party. So let’s have the humility to see if we are as obnoxious and unintelligent as many people surmise. But let’s not assume that bad press with the world means we’ve done wrong by God. This is Holy Week after all, where Jesus was hated by the crowd and abandoned by his own disciples.

As followers of a crucified king we should expect to be like the scum of the earth to some (1 Cor. 4:13) and like the aroma of death to others (2 Cor. 2:16). We should not think misinformed hatred and intolerant harassment mean the church has gone off the rails. The presence of persecution is no sign that Christians have failed to engage the world properly. In fact, from everything we’ve seen in the passages above we ought to suspect something is wrong with us if we have avoided all of the world’s persecution successfully.