The Bible doesn’t use the phrase “persecuted church,” but it does have a lot to say about the persecution of God’s people. Jesus promised his disciples that they would be hated for his name’s sake (Luke 21:17). The apostle Paul said that everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).
Persecution is to be expected because “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”
In a sense, then, all Christians face some level of persecution as a result of living in a fallen world. Persecution is to be expected because “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Satan is seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8). But having a co-worker who thinks you’re weird for talking about Jesus is different than being thrown in prison simply for owning a Bible. So who are we talking about when we refer to the “persecuted church”?
Christians around the world experience suffering for a variety of reasons: famine, war, economic hardship, natural disasters, etc. However, when we talk about the persecuted church, we’re not referring to suffering in general. Open Doors defines Christian persecution as “any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Jesus Christ.”
Christian persecution can be defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Jesus Christ.
To drill down further, it’s probably helpful to distinguish between different kinds of persecution and different levels of severity. When we talk about the “persecuted church” we’re usually referring to those Christians and churches that face the most intense and consistent levels of persecution. The point in making these distinctions is not to minimize the difficulties faced by Christians in less-hostile contexts, nor is the goal to treat persecuted believers as a special class of super-saints. The point in identifying persecuted Christians is to grow in our awareness of those who most need our prayer and support due to the kinds of opposition they face.
Kinds of Persecution
Sometimes persecution can be unorganized, occasional, and sporadic. In other cases, there may be a sustained, intentional effort from the government or another religious group to suppress or stamp out the church’s witness. In North Korea, for example, Christian persecution is state-sponsored. In Nigeria and surrounding countries, the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram intentionally targets Christians.
In many places, Christians feel constant pressure from their family and community to renounce Christ. Conversion to Christianity may technically be legal, but it’s difficult to experience the security that comes from close relationships if you don’t identify with the religion of the surrounding culture.
Severity of Persecution
There is also a spectrum when it comes to the severity and consequences of persecution. In some places, Christians aren’t imprisoned for their faith, but it does it make it more difficult to get a job, obtain an education, or make meaningful friendships. You may also be treated differently by the legal system.
In places that are more hostile, Christians face the constant threat of imprisonment and death. North Korea, Afghanistan, and Yemen would fit in this latter category. Simply owning a Bible or being known as a Christian could put your life in danger. These believers are constantly confronted with the high cost of following Jesus (Matthew 10:38).
So, what are the reasons for these different kinds and levels of persecution?
Reasons for Persecution
The persecution of Christians is ultimately part of a larger spiritual battle. We’re dealing with more than flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:10–20). The Evil One wants to silence and destroy the church and its witness. At the same time, Satan works through individuals, groups, and governments. Regardless of the human motivation, sin is always at the root.
In some cases, persecution stems from a conscious hatred of the God revealed in Scripture. In other cases, people have been deceived into thinking that they are carrying out a divine purpose (John 16:2). This was Paul’s story prior to his conversion (Galatians 1:14). Still, in other cases, Christians may be targeted for their political and/or tribal affiliation. Persecution can be complex and multi-layered.
Regardless of the reason(s), we should not ignore the plight of those whom Christ purchased with his own blood. So, how should we respond?
Responding to Persecution
We should not forget or ignore fellow believers who are suffering for their faith. Scripture exhorts us,
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)
The word “remember” here means more than merely bringing something to mind. In the immediate context, the author of Hebrews is likely calling on the church(es) to care for the needs of fellow believers who had been imprisoned for their faith (Hebrews 10:32–34). Jesus likewise taught his disciples the importance of caring for the “least of these,” including fellow believers in prison (Matthew 25:34–40).
Of course, most Christians will not be able to travel the world to provide ongoing, in-person support to persecuted believers. We don’t have to feel guilty for what we can’t do. But we can seek to serve persecuted believers in other ways. For many, the first step is getting informed.
Learn about the plight of persecuted believers. If your church supports global workers in a place that’s hostile to Christianity, ask them about the kinds of challenges they face. You can also get informed by visiting websites like Stratus and Joshua Project. And be sure to stay updated on Open Doors’ annual list of the 50 most difficult places for Christians to live.
When you give through your local church to support global workers in persecuted contexts, you are playing a part, even if indirectly, in strengthening the hands of struggling believers.
Don’t underestimate the role of regular, sacrificial giving through your church.
Don’t underestimate the role of regular, sacrificial giving through your church. You and your church can also support disciple-making and church-planting efforts in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places through the work of Urgent.
The most obvious way you can support persecuted believers is to pray for them. Scripture gives us various ways to do this. Ask the Lord to sustain their faith and bless their witness, even in the face of suffering. Ask him to protect and provide for them. If the Lord chooses not to convert those who mistreat them, ask him to execute justice on those who seek to harm his people and silence their gospel witness.
Ultimately, we can pray with confidence because the Lord does not abandon his people (Psalm 94:14; Hebrews 5–6). He may choose to relieve their suffering now, but even if not, they will be rescued fully and finally on the day of Christ’s return.
 Darren Carlson, “The Complex Problem of the Persecuted Church,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed at www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-complex-problem-of-the-persecuted-church/.
 For this point, see the note in the ESV Study Bible on Hebrews 13:3.