Throughout history, the church has dealt with persecution. It’s interesting that the persecution, meant to intimidate followers of Christ, often leads to more followers of Christ and church growth. When the Cultural Revolution began in China in the 1970’s there were about 3 million followers of Christ. After years of dealing with persecution, the church in China has grown to over 130 million believers. As persecution has taken root in India, thousands of churches are being planted. In Iran, as persecution has caused the number of official churches to dwindle, house churches have followed and the growth of the church continues to confound Iranian officials. It is said that while house church leaders would love a more open society, they would be apprehensive about life in a western society where “Christian” is seen as a label and not a matter of faith in the face of persecution.
The Church began in times of persecution as Jewish leaders continued to arrest and harass early Christians. Eventually, the government joined in the persecution. From the beginning, followers of Christ had to be sincere believers. Ananias and Sapphira were involved with the early church. They noted the applause that others got for selling land and bringing in the proceeds to lay at the apostles’ feet. They wanted the applause, but they wanted their comfort too. So, they sold a piece of land and brought in part of the selling price and put it in the offering plate with great fanfare. Peter called them out on it, and they both died when confronted with the truth. It wasn’t the gift that was wrong, it was the attitude, and they paid dearly for that. The Church, however, gained a stronger reputation and in the midst of times when people were losing jobs for following Jesus, they gained new followers. People were afraid to be seen with them. “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” (Acts 5:14)
The story of Ananias and Sapphira is mind-boggling. They were struck dead because they made a rather large offering to the Church. That money would be used to help those who were dealing with lost jobs and lost family because of a commitment to follow Christ. The problem they had was their attitude in giving this offering to the church. They held back some, perhaps in a lack of faith that God could provide or perhaps in a desire to get some of the nicer things of life, and made a very public gift of part of the money, making people think that they had great faith. They wanted the attention and the money. When they were struck dead, word spread. Signs and wonders spread among the believers and they had their own special place in the Temple. The end result is that more people heard the gospel and started following Jesus.
It would have been easy to take the money quietly – knowing the lie behind it. Imagine how the applause for those two would have inspired others to give. There was a problem with doing that. The reputation of the church would suffer. Imagine someone on the street using those two as an example of great faith as they shared the gospel with the person who bought the land. “What? They said they got X for their land? I bought it and paid Y. What frauds!” By maintaining the reputation of the Church, something different happened. People understood the reality of this church thing. They understood that following Jesus required integrity. When they committed to following Jesus, they committed fully. I think today, many leaders would take the money and run. They wouldn’t confront the donor with the lie behind the gift. We must stay true to the message of the gospel and not trade integrity for money no matter what the circumstances or how great the persecution. No church has ever died from lack of money. Churches die when the gospel message is watered down to appeal to a society that hates them. We must always preach the gospel in good times or bad; in persecution or safety.
Lord, so many before me have proclaimed Your word in the midst of persecution. Give me that same faith.