A couple of weeks ago I was at a breakfast for local Christian ministers and pastors. Two guest speakers were also there to talk to us about their efforts to stop the change of marriage legislation in Australia. The language they used, which reflected a lot of the language I have heard coming from the conservative Christian right during this campaign, was very war-like. They talked about battles, winning, trenches, fighting, control, and so on. They also shared stories from countries who have allowed same-sex marriage, and warned us that religious freedom of Australian Christians will be lost if this legislation is changed.
Over the last few months, as I have listened to Christian brothers and sisters who are opposing the change of our legal definition of marriage, I have become increasingly concerned that their campaign has been about generating fear. My concern was reinforced as I listened to the guest speakers warn us that if same-sex marriage is allowed in Australia, our religious freedom will be lost, pastors’ messages will be censored, our children will be corrupted and Christians in Australia will become a persecuted minority.
Christians have enjoyed a privileged position in European society since Emperor Constantine made practising Christianity legal in the Roman Empire in about AD313. Before that, Christianity was an underground movement. Jesus’ followers sometimes even worshipping secretly in catacombs where the Romans buried their dead. Early Christians regularly suffered persecution as their worship of Jesus as Lord brought them into conflict with the decree of some Roman Emperors that their subjects were to worship them as gods.
During this time, Christians didn’t talk about fighting for their rights, or winning battles to influence their society, or controlling the government. Instead, their language reflected the language of Jesus, such as in the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12. Here Jesus talks about being humble, thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, being pure-hearted, and working for peace. The language of Jesus and the language of the gospel is not about winning battles or controlling political processes. Instead the language of Christ and of the gospel is peace, humility, grace, love, and sacrifice.
Jesus warns us that when we live faithfully to him and to the gospel, we will encounter persecution. In verses 10 to 12, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be mocked, persecuted, lied about and have evil things said about us for his sake. Throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament we are told that following Christ will bring us into conflict with the world, and we will suffer as the result.
Most of the New Testament was actually written to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. The authors of the New Testament were writing to encourage Christians who were suffering for their faith in Jesus, sharing the good news with them that in Jesus they had a Messiah who suffered for them, and who was suffering with them, but who has overcome suffering and death through his resurrection.
It should be no surprise, then, that we could face the reality of persecution of one sort or another in our own country when we follow Jesus faithfully in what is becoming an increasingly post-Christian culture. When we suffer for Christ’s sake and for the gospel, we are united in the suffering of Jesus who was insulted, harmed physically and abused, whose freedom was taken from him as he was arrested and crucified, and who was crucified because of who he is.
However, we do not just believe in a God who suffers with those who are persecuted for his name, but a God who has triumphed over the persecution by rising again from the dead and defeating the forces of evil. Throughout history, God’s people have suffered persecution without compromising their faith because they have believed that death is not the end for the people of God, but we have a life to look forward to that will be free from suffering and evil. When the Apostle John saw the multitude worshipping before the heavenly throne in Revelation, he was told that ‘these are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white’ (v14b NLT). For followers of Jesus, persecution does not end in defeat, but a victory that goes beyond what we imagine, a victory that is far greater than any postal vote or political process. This victory is ours because Jesus was victorious on the cross and through the empty grave. Jesus gives this victory to us through faith in him, and it is a victory which will last for all eternity.
It is vital, however, to listen to Jesus’ words that if we suffer, we need to suffer because we are Jesus’ followers. There are people campaigning in this postal vote who are saying that they are being persecuted who are actually fighting a worldly, political battle with worldly, political weapons. This is not suffering for Jesus’ sake. To suffer as a follower of Jesus means that we are living as citizens of his kingdom which is not of this world (John 18:36). The weapons God has given us to use are qualities like grace, compassion, humility, forgiveness and Christ-like love. As followers of Jesus, we are not to use fear or threats or intimidation to achieve our goal. Instead, we are called to return threats with prayer, insults with blessing, conflict with peace, and hatred with self-sacrificing love.
don’t know how the issue of same-sex marriage will play out in Australia. I don’t know if our religious freedoms will be eroded or if we will start suffering persecution for our faith. I don’t know what the future holds for us or for our children. But I do know that we don’t need to be afraid. I believe that Christ suffers with all and for all, and he calls his followers to be ready to suffer for his sake. I believe that when we are mocked or persecuted or lied about or evil things are said about us, not because we are arrogant or hardhearted, but because we love Jesus, then we can be glad because we have a great reward waiting for us in heaven.
Because ultimately, I believe that Jesus’ love is stronger than hate, God’s acceptance is stronger than political tolerance, and the life Jesus gives us will never end.
More to think about:
- Would you consider Australia (or your own nation) a ‘Christian’ country? What do you think makes a country ‘Christian’ or not?
- In the Beatitudes, Jesus says that those who are humble (v5), who hunger and thirst for justice (v6), who are merciful (v7) and who work for peace (v9) will be blessed. Whatever your views on same-sex marriage might be, how can you display these qualities when discussing the issue with others who hold a different view to you?
- Jesus makes it clear that if we are to suffer, it needs to be for his sake (see v11). How is this different from suffering because we are harsh, condemning, or hostile in our language or actions?
- There are some who talk about the postal survey being a battle that Christians need to win. How can the victory that Jesus gives us through faith in him help us approach this issue in a way that can build people up in faith and love?
- If we lost our religious freedom in Australia and Christian start to suffer persecution, what do you think might happen to your faith? To the health of the church? How can we approach this possibility in faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13)?