Submission to Persecution
There are many verses in Scripture that speak of Christians being persecuted or becoming martyrs. It is important to evaluate these verses without preconceived expectations. Some people assume Christian pacifism and therefore might automatically read a verse about persecution as if it is prescriptive for all Christians in all situations. It needs to be considered whether such passages are prescriptive of godly behavior, or simply descriptive of an event or the implications of an event.
It is also not unusual to encounter Christians who confuse any attack with persecution and neglect a careful consideration of events. They tend to equate attacks on Christians with religious persecution simply because those attacked were Christian. But the act of violence may instead have simply been an act by one person against another or against a group of people who coincidentally happened to be Christian. It may have been merely a crime. Bible passages about the persecution of Christians shouldn't be uncritically applied to mere criminal acts.
This is an area with which I personally continue to wrestle. Where is the line between resistance and submission? When is something genuinely persecution for the faith, and what are the legitimate responses? I provide this page as a glimpse into some of my wrestling.
Do you think this section is missing or avoiding a clear passage that would require pacifism or martyrdom in the face of persecution? Let us know. Send an email with the passage and your understanding of it. email@example.com
That Christians are to expect persecution, or that they are called to persevere and remain faithful even unto death, is not the same thing as saying that they must submit without resistance.
Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name.
They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.,
Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.
And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.
They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated
The Honor of Persecution
While there are a number of passages that do speak of the honor, privilege, or blessing of suffering for Christ’s name, they still don't clearly provide us with a prescription for compliance and submission. In other words, that we may count it a blessing to have been persecuted like our Savior was, this is not clearly a command to be persecuted or to never resist those seeking to persecute the church. At the very least, it is clear from scripture that Christians are not required to willingly go as sheep to the slaughter, as we instead see a resistance to persecution in the form of commands to flee.
But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.
And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.
1 Peter 4:14-16
If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters.
Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.
This is again descriptive. We can recognize that persecution, when not able to be avoided, is something that we should find honor in, in that our Lord Himself was persecuted. What we suffer for the name of Christ is honorable, but we aren't required to seek it out. We are simply told here that if and when we suffer, we ought to suffer because of the faith.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
This is speaking about self-denial and not counting worldly pleasures as something more important than serving God. As Barnes put it, "Let him, deny himself - That is, let him surrender to God his will, his affections, his body, and his soul. Let him not seek his own happiness as the supreme object, but be willing to renounce all, and lay down his life also, if required."
Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Paul was specifically called to go to Jerusalem. Just as it wasn't appropriate for Peter to seek to save Jesus from the death that awaited Him, Paul expresses his need to go and do what he has been called to do. The duty of self-defense and the impressibility to flee persecution does not mean one is disallowed from obeying their calling, however dangerous it might be. Commentary
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
[Jesus] is not describing a situation in which our lives are imperiled. He is not talking about an adversary coming at you with deadly force. The law provides for self-defense and defense of your house, family, and property if someone is breaking in. Jesus is not eliminating that. He’s talking about honor and dishonor, insult and shame. If I receive a slap on the right cheek, either the slapper has slapped me with his left hand or he is slapping me with his backhand. Either way, it’s insulting. In Israel, the left hand is reserved for dirty work—using the bathroom and such. So, getting slapped with the left hand is insulting. But a slap on the right cheek with the right hand is a backhanded slap, an insulting slap rather than a danger to life and limb. The person who slaps you with the back of his hand is treating you as a slave, as an underling. He is not treating you as an equal. He’s sweeping you away like a flea. ((Peter J. Leithart, The Four: A Survey of the Gospels (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2010), 143.))
But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil,.... This is not to be understood of any sort of evil, not of the evil of sin, of bad actions, and false doctrines, which are to be opposed; nor of the evil one, Satan, who is to be resisted; but of an evil man, an injurious one, who has done us an injury. We must not render evil for evil, or repay him in the same way; see James 5:6. Not but that a man may lawfully defend himself, and endeavour to secure himself from injuries; and may appear to the civil magistrate for redress of grievances; but he is not to make use of private revenge. As if a man should pluck out one of his eyes, he must not in revenge pluck out one of his; or should he strike out one of his teeth, he must not use him in the same manner; but patiently bear the affront, or seek for satisfaction in another way. John Gill Commentary