Does doctrine matter when Christians are dying for their faith?

Whenever we hear news about the killing of Christians, we’re reminded of the dire circumstances many believers face. And it doesn’t take long to realize there are hundreds of stories we never hear. It’s simply too much for anyone to wrap their mind around. The statistics are overwhelming. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates 100,000 Christians now die each year, targeted because of their faith.

That’s 11 per hour.

But would Jesus ever rebuke the persecuted church? He did 2,000 years ago.

I Have This Against You

The church of Pergamum was living where “Satan had his throne.” Whatever you think that means, we can all agree it was a hard place. On top of this, a man named Antipas had been killed, and Jesus commended him as a faithful witness (“martyr”). The congregation was under attack, and Jesus comforted them by assuring them “he knows” what’s going on. Their significant struggles weren’t lost on him.

And yet he said: “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you.” Let that sink in for a moment. Two others churches described in Revelation were in oppressive situations, yet Jesus offered them no correction. Why this one?

Because it had to do with their teaching.

A teaching voice had arisen in the church, openly advocating compromise. So if the members wouldn’t resolve the doctrinal crisis, Jesus warned, he would intervene in judgment. Either the church take care of the problem, or Jesus would in a more severe way (think Ananias and Sapphira).

This church that’s in a difficult place and has even seen someone die is now being threatened by the Lord. What do we make of this? Here are two things not to do:

1. Don’t underestimate false teaching.

Satan’s attack on Christians comes from two main directions. We see this later in John’s description of the beast of the sea and the beast of the earth (Rev. 13). The beast of the sea kills the saints, a terrible ordeal. And the beast of the earth, though appearing like a lamb, speaks like a dragon. You can’t tell if he’s attacking solely by his appearance, in other words; you have to listen to what he says.

Which is harder to deal with, the Devil’s physical attack or deceptive lies? When Christians are persecuted and killed, a general unity often develops, and in some cases a purification of commitment arises. People rush to help. Money is raised. Few questions are asked.

I wonder if a group of contemporary theologians would even agree on a definition of false teaching beyond generalities. They may not be able to agree on the meaning of “evangelical” or even “Christian.” As we look back throughout history we can see where the church’s theological battles have been decided, but what about today? Satan seems to have many professing Christians in a bind on the most basic questions.

2. Don’t make physical persecution the gold standard of faith.

Jesus’s words to the Christians in Pergamum reveal, among other things, that persecution isn’t a sign Jesus is automatically pleased with a church. It’s easy to hold up the persecuted church as the model for all Christendom. For example, how many times have you heard the purity of the global church (especially the persecuted church) extolled in contrast to the vile American church? I’ve lost count. It usually goes something like this:

X Christians in Y country risk Z in order to share the gospel. X Christians have undivided, passionate devotion to Christ. They’re way more committed to the gospel than the American church.

Most who speak like this, I’m afraid, don’t really know what’s going on around the world.

There are numerous organizations that run sponsorship programs for persecuted pastors. Many are solid, and I’ve seen them in action firsthand. But have you ever wondered what these pastors actually believe? I never did, and I sponsored one for several years. What would you think if the pastor was peddling the prosperity gospel or denying the Trinity?

A friend recently attended a conference in Asia for missionaries from a nearby country—one known for its missionary zeal. Led by recognized evangelical leaders, the conference offered ethnocentric messages on how God had chosen the Christians in this nation to finish the Great Commission and had given them visions to confirm this calling. One missionary called it a “Western-funded joke.”

Same Solution Today

Still, humility demands we be slow to criticize. The global bride of Christ is a complex, messy, mistake-prone body. No wonder Jesus comforts and warns both self-sufficient and persecuted churches. And he offers the same solution today that he offered to the congregation in Pergamum: Repent!

The global church in all its diversity—theological depth and shallowness, opportunities and oppression, peace and war—needs to heed Jesus’s arresting words. Doctrine matters, even when Christians are being killed.