Fleeing Persecution

            After calling His twelve disciples, Jesus gave to them several instructions. Most of the instructions are in the form of imperatives. They are principles which must be followed. These instructions are found for us in Matthew 10. They were rules for the disciples and those who would follow them. Thus, they are rules for us also. Here is one such imperative: “But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23). That imperative is almost totally ignored by the modern church and has seldom been followed by the church in any age. Calvin’s comment on this verse, as usual, is full of wisdom:

Now these orders include permission to leave a conflict. What we are to realize about fleeing from persecution, is that not all who flee are to be censured indiscriminately; and at the same time, not every kind of running away, is permissible. In former days, there was too much passion over this issue, and flight was condemned as being none other than a kind of desertion. If that were true, some part of the disgrace would fall on even Christ and the Apostles. On the other hand, if one were allowed to run off without limit, there would be no telling in time of persecution which was the good pastor and which the hireling. So we must take the moderate line, which Augustine set out for Honoratus, that no-one should desert his post for fear, or treasonably betray his flock, or give an example of cowardice, and yet no one should throw himself forward heedlessly.[1]

            The imperative to flee persecution is not without limits, but it is an imperative from our Lord just the same. This is where the true shepherd must exercise the wisdom of a serpent and the innocence of a dove. The hireling flees at the first sign of danger and that is wrong. Yet, it is also wrong to remain under persecution year after year after year. The example of both Christ and the disciples is instructive at this point. Jesus patiently answered the questions of the Pharisees, but He was wise enough to know when they were plotting to harm Him. When King Herod Antipas had John the Baptist arrested and imprisoned in the fortress at Machaerus, Jesus withdrew to an area of Galilee where He would not be in direct conflict with that wicked ruler. When the citizens of Nazareth wanted to throw Jesus down the brow of a hill, He slipped through their midst and withdrew from the city where He spent most of His life. Jesus did the same things on the many other occasions when the Jews wanted to seize Him, until His time came to lay down His life for the sheep. The Apostles also followed this rule. At Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas patiently tried to prove to the Jews who lived there that Jesus is the Messiah. When the Jews began to contradict them, Paul and Barnabas said, “It was necessary that the Word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).  

            The persecution which Paul and Barnabas faced at Pisidian Antioch was the rejection, contradiction, and blasphemy of the Jews against the message of the gospel. At Iconium, the Jews were plotting to mistreat and stone Paul and Barnabas, but when they learned of it, they fled to the next cities, Lyaconia, Lystra, and Derbe. The crowds there initially received Barnabas as Zeus (the chief pagan god) and Paul as Hermes (the spokesman for the pagan gods of Greece and Rome), but when Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, the crowds stoned Paul, dragged him out of the city, and left him for dead. When Paul revived, they fled to the next city, per Jesus’ principle. 

            In the history of the church, there have been numerous instances when members, pastors, and congregations had to break away from their various connections for the cause of the gospel. Persecution can take many forms, but it is always an attack on the gospel. The only reason to ever join a congregation is because the gospel in its purity is preached there. When the gospel is no longer tolerated in a congregation, presbytery, or denomination, that is the type of persecution that Jesus had in mind. It is the type of persecution to which Jesus refers in the 8th beatitude, Matthew 5:10-11, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” 

            Such persecution might be insults or false reports or slander. Such persecution might be the stopping of the ears when the gospel is being preached. Such persecution might be threats of bodily harm or hefty fines. When those threats come from the majority of a church court against a minister, then that minister must flee the persecution. That is what the Reformers came to understand. After the Diet of Worms, Luther realized that there was no place left for him in the Roman Catholic Church. He was hidden for a year at the Wartsburg Castle before coming forth in great power to lead the Reformation. Others soon joined him. 

            Sometimes, that persecution is of members of a congregation by the pastor and/or officers. As a young man of 19 and 20, I was in that situation when I realized after my conversion that the pastor of the church where I belonged did not preach or even understand the gospel. That pastor scolded and berated me for believing the Bible is true. I knew then that I had to flee such persecution.

            The Puritans in Great Britain were persecuted when Charles II was restored to the monarchy in 1660 and forced all churches to worship according to the Book of Common Worship no later than August 24, 1662. Many Puritans simply could not accept that dictate and over 2,000 ministers were ejected from their pulpits. Some were imprisoned. Some were shackled and paraded through the streets as common criminals. Some fled to Holland and then to America where they influenced the colonies with their gospel preaching. Some compromised and remained in the Church of England under the misplaced hope of reforming the church from within. Reform never comes by making compromises first. Such reform has not come to the Church of England over the past 359 years since 1662. Indeed, the last evangelical bishop in the Church of England was John Charles Ryle who was Bishop of Liverpool from 1880 to 1900. It is always amazing to me that too many people define Puritans as those who try to purify the church from within. The real reform always comes when Puritans are also Separatists. 

            The Presbyterian Church in Colonial America persecuted those ministers who were part of that great movement called the Great Awakening. It led to the division of the denomination into two branches—Old Lights (opponents of the Great Awakening) and New Lights (defenders of the Great Awakening). Before that rupture, the Old Light ministers had taken many steps to persecute the New Light ministers—refusing to accept their seminary credentials, censuring them for their zealous efforts to evangelize, and refusing to let them even be seated as commissioners at the 1741 Synod meeting. Those of you who have read my book, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, know that I believe it was a mistake for the New Light Presbyterians to reunite with the Old Light Presbyterians in 1758. There are two main reasons for my opinion. First, the Old Lights never apologized for their illegal actions against the New Lights and their persecution of them. Second, the persecution of the New Lights began again before the ink was dry on the reunion documents. Sadly, the New Lights fled back into persecution and that mistake has tinctured all of Presbyterian history in this country thereafter. 

            We must remember that Jesus told us to flee persecution, but He also told us to continue to labor in the ministry. Persecution is not a reason to give all up as hopeless. We will be persecuted, but we are in a holy war and we cannot quit until the Apostle and High Priest of our confession permits us to do so. I know too many ministers who faced some hardships in the ministry and quit altogether. I know of church members who have ceased to attend church at all because of some bad experience. Jesus told us to “flee to the next.” He did not tell us to retreat to a cave and lick our wounds. Vanguard Presbytery wants to be a home for persecuted pastors and church members. We have already received several ministers and churches which have faced such persecution. There are those who have slandered Vanguard for being a city of refuge for the persecuted. Let them do so. We will not change. 

            Persecuting times are coming to the US. Most pastors and churches, I fear, will compromise and accommodate whatever the government tells them to do. Some of us, I pray, will be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Jesus was. Paul and Barnabas were. The other Apostles were. We must be also. Do not compromise with persecution. Flee from it, but flee to the next place. Take the gospel there also. We will not finish that task before Jesus returns. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery

Please send any donations to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

There are several mission churches that are starting throughout the country which will be joining with Vanguard in time. We will announce those mission churches once they are received by presbytery. If you are interested in being a part of a mission church where you live, please let us know of your interest so that we can see how we might be able to help a new work get started.      

[1] David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, eds., Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew Mark, and Luke, Vol. I (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 301-2. 

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