The Bible presents three legitimate ways that Christians can respond to persecution: fleeing it, facing it, or staying to fight it. We need God’s wisdom to know which strategy to apply when.
What happens when Christians face hardcore opposition and persecution? If heavy resistance to the faith is underway, how should believers respond? Is there a one size fits all sort of response, or are there several options available to them?
I recently argued that the New Testament presents three main strategies: submit, flee or fight.
Here we will look at this further, with a focus on the book of Acts and the Old Testament. Consider one proverb which is repeated twice (Proverbs 22:3 and 27:12): “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” Here is a general principle about avoiding danger, which at times can certainly be applied to cases of persecution. We need not always be a doormat to be run over by anyone for any reason.
We have examples in the Old Testament of people fleeing real danger and enmity. One obvious case would be that of David. When Saul was still the king, he took a very dim view of David and even tried to kill him. David did not just hang around and take what Saul wished to dish out to him: he fled, and more than once! We see this in 1 Samuel 19:10-12 and 18-19:
And Saul sought to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he eluded Saul, so that he struck the spear into the wall. And David fled and escaped that night. Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, told him, “If you do not escape with your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.” So Michal let David down through the window, and he fled away and escaped…
Now David fled and escaped, and he came to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. And he and Samuel went and lived at Naioth. And it was told Saul, “Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.”
Flee From Persecution
There is a place for flight. Jesus often did this. Let us now look further into the book of Acts on this strategy. There are many instances of Paul or others fleeing when things got too hot and heavy. Recall the famous case of Paul being let down an outside wall in a basket to get away from angry opposition.
Sometimes we see how persecution resulted in believers being scattered – but with the result, others got to hear the gospel being proclaimed. Consider the following passages:
And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:1, 4)
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. (Acts 11:19)
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. [after persecution in Thessalonica] …
But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. (Acts 17:10, 13-14)
Sometimes flight came about by a miraculous deliverance, such as in the following cases:
And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands…. When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (Acts 12:7, 11)
At other times, persecution or trouble was avoided when God warned his people about it in advance:
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. (Acts 16:6-7)
Sometimes a negative reception of the gospel message – which may have led to worse opposition – was enough for the early believers to move on, at least to another part of town. This was the case with Paul in Corinth:
And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. (Acts 18:6-7)
Let us now look at the other two main options found in Acts. We have examples such as Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:8-8:60) regarding staying and facing persecution. Whether Stephen had any chance to flee – and whether he would have availed himself of it – is not fully clear from the text.
Paul often fled when danger was pressing. But at times, he felt it was God’s will for him to stay, even ignoring the warnings being given. Consider these two episodes:
While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” (Acts 21:10-14)
When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation. (Acts 22:17-19)
Now for the third main option: sometimes one must stay and fight. Paul very famously did take this stance. Consider these three texts on resistance:
But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realised that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. (Acts 22:25-29)
And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. (Acts 26:24-25)
After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. (Acts 28:17-18)
So we find all three options available to believers in the Bible: submit, flee and fight. As the days grow darker in the West and we find more and more anti-Christian bigotry and opposition – including even state-sponsored persecution – Christians will need to think and pray carefully about how they respond.
Some of us will be led to flee the danger. Some will stay and take what is thrown at them. Others will stand and fight as God leads. May we all have the wisdom and divine guidance as to how we must proceed in the coming days.