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Submission to Persecution

Many verses in Scripture 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.

Do you think this section is missing or avoiding a clear passage that would require pacifism or martyrdom in the face of persecution? Send an email with the passage and your understanding of it.

Some confuse any attack against Christians as 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 have simply been an act against others who coincidentally happened to be Christian. It may have been merely a crime.  

This is an area with which I continue to wrestle. Where is the line between allowing resistance and submission? When is something genuinely persecution for the faith, and what are the legitimate responses?  What constitutes a calling to submit to death, such as Christ going to the cross, that might disallow attempts to save your own life? 

Descriptive Passages

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. 


Matthew 24:9 

Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name.

John 16:2

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.

Revelation 2:10

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.,

John 15:20

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.

Acts 12:2

And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.

Hebrews 11:37

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 several passages do speak of the honor, privilege, or blessing of suffering for Christ’s name, they still don't provide us with conclusive evidence of a prescription for compliance and submission. In other words, that we may count it a blessing to have been persecuted like our Savior was, is not necessarily a command to submit to being 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.

Matthew 10:23
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.

Acts 8:1

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.


See also Acts 9:25 &30; 14:6; 17:10 & 14

James 1 tells us to "count it all joy when you fall into various trials, but no one understands this to be a command to seek to fall into trials or to not work to extricate oneself from them. Instead, it is a call to remember God's care and providence and know that he is sanctifying us.

Submission Required?

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. 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.

Matthew 16:24-25

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."

"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it."  The meaning here is not that one must lose his life in all circumstances. John Gill states it this way. "or whosoever will save his life,.... Whoever is desirous of preserving himself from troubles, reproaches, persecutions, and death; and takes such a method to do it, as by forsaking Christ, denying his Gospel, and dropping his profession of it; and by so doing, curries favour with men, in order to procure to himself worldly emoluments, honour, peace, pleasure, and life,"


So one must be willing to die rather than deny the truth of the Gospel. This isn't a command to avoid the use of options to save your life if it can be done without denying the Gospel or denying a specific call to submit to death. 

Acts 21:13

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 His appointed death, Paul expresses his need to go and do what he has been called to do. The duty of self-defense and the call to flee persecution (Matthew 10:23) does not mean one is disallowed from obeying their calling, however dangerous it might be. Likewise, one person's calling doesn't constitute a universal command for all others in every situation.  Commentary

Matthew 5:39

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 contradicting that or changing it. 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

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