Question: Is Suffering Persecution Normal for a Christian?

This question is indeed excellent, in that one must look at the historical context and the intent of the original authors to determine what and how these “persecution” passages are to be applied. That is, one must apply a consistent hermeneutic to the ascribed verses that deal with this subject. To begin the evaluation on this topic, the author will first turn to Genesis chapter 3; a vital section to determine what the believer is to face in his earthly journey. The setting is after the fall, where the Lord God is issuing Divine judgment on the Serpent, where the Lord proclaims; “And I will put enmity, between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” (Gen. 3:15 NASBU)[1]

The application of this verse is essential to understanding the issue of persecution, because it speaks to the spiritual antithesis that is between the people of God and the people of the evil one. On this point, R.C. Sproul proclaims the following; “Humanity is now divided into two communities; the redeemed who love God and the reprobate who love self…This division finds immediate expression in the hostility of Cain against Able.”[2] Noting Sproul’s words, and more importantly, the Genesis text, it is evident that a hostility was [is] present within the world; a hostility that, as noted by Genesis 4 and Sproul, resulted in undo persecution of Able. That is, according to the Genesis 3 text, an antithesis is normative between the people of God and the world, since there is a fundamental issue of worldviews which are clashing.

However, this is vastly different from “suffering persecution” as expressed in the Bible, where the Greek word diogmos[3] is only used nine times in the New Testament (Matt. 13:21, Mark 4:17, 10:30, Acts 8:1, 13:50, Rom. 8:35, 2 Cor. 12:10, 2 Thess. 1:4 and 2 Tim. 3:11). It is important to note that in all of these cases (except possibly Mk. 10:30), the context is historically specific or it is relation to a Parable. For instance, Matthew 13:21 and its parallel account in Mark 4:17 are explanations of the Parable of the Sower. Acts 8:1, 13:50 and 2 Thess. 1:4 are early church, historically specific. Moreover, Romans 8:35 is speaking in general terms of the elect; with 2 Cor. 12:10 and 2 Tim. 3:11 specifically referring to Paul.

Rather, the author has concluded that the more appropriate term for the purposed thesis is thlipsis, which occurs forty-five times in the NASBU and carries with it a more general meaning of;

  • a pressing, pressing together, pressure
  • oppression, affliction, tribulation, distress, straits
  • NAS Word Usage – Total: 45
  • affliction 14, afflictions 6, anguish 1, distress 2, persecution 1, tribulation 16, tribulations 4, trouble 1[4]

With that said, clarification is needed. There is a vast difference between “persecution” and “affliction” as noted in both the Greek and the English usage of the words.

  • Persecution: the condition of being persecuted, harassed, or annoyed
  • Affliction: the cause of persistent pain or distress[5]

Noting the definitions above, and noting the New Testament word usage of “persecution” in its infrequent, limited sense, and the word “affliction” (or “tribulation,” which is most often used in an eschatological or apocalyptic sense) in its more frequents sense, it is more appropriate to proclaim that the Christian will, more often then not, suffer the latter rather then the former. This seems to be consistent with Bock’s usages and understanding of the word “Diogmos;” because he too expresses the limited sense in which this word is used on pages 317-18 of the text. This understanding is also better understood by evaluating one’s presuppositions regarding eschatology; whereby those in the Dispensational camp may deem or perceive “oppressions” as “persecutions” – while those in a Postmillennial mind frame may see legitimate “persecutions” as temporary afflictions.

Further support for the use of “affliction” over and against, “persecution” is seen twofold. First, it is common for a believer to be “afflicted” or “distressed” without being persecuted. An example of this would be the growing liberalism and disregard for justice in the present cultural and political climate. However, this is not necessarily persecution and is far from the N.T. usage. Next, there is a difference noted between the presented words in Romans 8:35, where the text proclaims; “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”[6] Here, the words “Thlipsis” (tribulation) and “Diogmos” (persecutions) are set side by side, with the former being the more common and more oft cited occurrence unto the believer.

In closing, it is the author’s assertion that the Christians suffering of persecution need not be normative. However, as noted, there is an antithesis between the seed of the Lord and the seed of the evil one[7], which will produce conflict and distress in this world. Also, it must be fairly stated that this essay is written from the prospective of an American Christian who has certain freedoms and liberties regarding the expression of religion. Hence, the cultural setting of the individual is key in some respect; with a Christian in China undergoing actual persecution, rather then mere distress.

[1] Genesis 3:15 NASBU

[2] The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version. Sproul (Ed.) Thomas Nelson (Ed.), Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishing. 2001; pg. 14.

[3] Smith, Thayer. The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon. 1999. http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/adelphos.html (accessed 08 02, 2010).

[4] Ibid., Smith, Thayer

[5] Marriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Incorporated Merriam-Webster. 2010. http://www.merriam-webster.com/ (accessed 08 02, 2010).

[6] Romans 8:35 NASBU

[7] Genesis 3:15