According to the New Testament, persecution occurs in various forms — from beatings (Acts 5:40), stonings (Acts 7), and imprisonment (Acts 16) to insults (Matthew 5:11), slander (Acts 14:2), and lies (Luke 26:59). The New Testament does not define persecution by the kind of action taken against Christians. Rather, the New Testament defines persecution by the nature of the hostility. Simply put, the New Testament labels any hostile action against Christ or his righteousness a form of persecution.

Listen to the instruction Jesus gave his first followers concerning persecution:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12, ESV).

Notice from Jesus’ own description that persecution includes slanderous words and false accusations. Often, when Christians in America speak of persecution, they mean only suffering of the more fantastic varieties such as torture, imprisonment, and death. To be sure, a great deal of that kind of persecution is happening around the world. But there is also a great deal of persecution of the less dramatic kind happening as well.

Related: Religious liberty and persecution: a global perspective — David Platt

The truth is, persecution is more about the presence of Jesus than it is about the tactics used to silence his followers. Persecution is ultimately a retaliatory action against the revelation of God’s righteousness in Christ. Christ is the ultimate target of the persecution, even if the most immediate objects of the persecutor’s wrath are his followers.

Understood this way, persecution happens when an individual or group lashes out against a Christian in word or deed to silence, control, or punish him for what he has said or done in Christ’s name. The issue is Christ and his righteousness. Love Christ and conform to his teaching displaying the righteousness of God, and you, too, will be persecuted (according to the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:12).

The practical application of this definition is much needed in our day. Quite a lot of confusion surrounds incidents of retaliation against Christians. The title of this article alludes to a couple of these recent incidents, which illustrate the need for Christians to speak with clarity concerning the definition of persecution.

Bombings and other forms of killing have taken place regularly in the northern tier of Nigeria since 2009. The Islamic terrorist group responsible for the bombings, Boko Haram, has killed more than 5,000 Nigerians — 2,000 of those people dying in 2014 alone. The majority of those killed have been Christians. As a result, the term “persecution” has been kicked around like a political football.

On one side is the government of Nigeria, headed by President Goodluck Jonathan — who professes to be a Christian. On the other side of the persecution debate are those churches and leaders who comprise the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). President Jonathan claims that Christians in Nigeria are not facing persecution. In his favor, he points out that Boko Haram has killed many Muslims as well as Christians. He says the killings are not religious in nature, but political.

Related: Read the full issue of the winter issue of Southern Seminary Magazine titled Religious Liberty Imperiled 

President Jonathan’s statements were unsettling to the churches of CAN. They refuted the reports and pointed out that while it may be true that Muslims are being killed as well as Christians, the fact remains that no mosques have ever been targeted for bombing. The bombs target Christians as they gather for worship. CAN leaders also quote Boko Haram operatives who have acknowledged Muslim deaths, but declared them to be unintentional consequences of targeting Christians.

The issue gets very complicated because a host of political clashes are involved as well as the more obvious spiritual battles. What must be determined is not what kind of hostile action is being taken — bombing or stabbing or lying — but who is the target of the hostility. Is it the mere presence of Christ or Christians which is fueling the fire of persecution? Are people being persecuted on account of belonging to Jesus Christ? In this case, it does appear that the bombings are targeting Christians as they gather together for worship. One cannot blame President Jonathan for trying to diffuse religious tensions in his country. But Christians must stay with biblical definitions for persecution.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the case in the U.S. of Phil Robertson, the “redneck millionaire” from Duck Dynasty fame. Robertson was suspended from the show by the A&E network in 2013 ostensibly because of Robertson’s Christian beliefs. By his own admission, Robertson has not always spoken with charity. His coarse descriptions of the sexual proclivities of homosexual, as well as heterosexual, men are cringe worthy. Nevertheless, nationwide controversy ensued following Robertson’s effort in GQ to defend the biblical condemnation of homosexual behavior.

As it turns out, because of a huge backlash against A&E’s decision to suspend Phil, the network reinstated him. However, the original suspension may well have been an example of Christian persecution. Why? Because it appears that the offense was the righteousness of God. The network was not offended by how Robertson spoke against homosexuality; rather, the network was offended  by the very fact that he believed the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual intercourse. The statement made by A&E made clear that Robertson’s beliefs were the problem. The network suspended him originally for believing the Bible’s teaching.

What this means is that Phil Robertson did suffer a loss of employment, even if it were temporary. Perhaps he lost additional income from sales of merchandise. According to Michael Daly at The Daily Beast, the price of Phil Robertson bobblehead dolls dropped by 20 percent during the fiasco. Robertson certainly was maligned on thousands of websites and social outlets for weeks as unloving and homophobic. Slanderous words were surely spoken against him abundantly on account of God’s righteousness revealed in Scripture. For these reasons, he seems to have been persecuted according to Christ’s instruction to His first disciples.

These examples — from bombings to potentially losing money on the sale of bobbleheads — demonstrate why Christians in America need clear thinking when it comes to persecution. Obviously, these two examples illustrate a vast difference in the degree of persecution — bombing being intensely more deadly and more costly than losing Bobblehead revenue. Yet, each of these two examples is rightly termed persecution.

As persecution continues to intensify, Christians will need to be clear on how it is classified so that blessings are not mislabeled as curses. You are blessed when people persecute you on account of Christ, as was the case with the bombings in Nigeria; and you are blessed when people insult you and say all kinds of evil against you on account of righteousness, which was the case with Phil Robertson.


Greg Cochran, a doctor of philosophy graduate at Southern Seminary, is director of the Bachelor of Applied Theology program in the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University. He writes widely on Christian persecution and is an advocate of the persecuted church. Learn more at This article was originally published in the winter 2015 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.