Some while ago, I was with a group of highly committed Christians from South Asia, all of them professionals. We were discussing the issue of Christian identity.
One of them said that although he comes from a South Asian country he cannot identify as a national of that country because Christians there are persecuted and he is made to feel that he does not belong.
Equally, he continued, although he had lived in the UK for some 20 years, he has encountered repeated racism and abuse and now finds he cannot identify with the UK either. The rest of the group agreed.
He and the others concluded that all they had was their Christian identity, and this was paramount. It was their loyalty to Christ that was important to them, not their earthly nationality.
Indeed, this is what the Bible teaches. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” wrote the Apostle Paul (Philippians 3:20). Around the year 200, the pagan inhabitants of the Roman city of Carthage (in modern Tunisia) also recognised this, calling Christians the “third race” of human beings.1
They meant that Christians were not considered to belong to either of the two categories into which their society was divided: Jews and Gentiles. (Little did they know it, but they were reflecting the words of Paul in Galatians 3:28 ‒ “There is neither Jew nor Gentile … for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”)
This was at a time when to be a Christian was to lay oneself open to immense persecution by the Roman authorities. Many Christians were martyred in Rome, Carthage and Gaul (France) under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180).
In Lyon there were wholesale slaughters of Christians in the amphitheatre while others were individually martyred by cruelly ingenious methods, such as being roasted to death in an iron chair. Another bout of persecution soon followed, under Emperor Septimius Severus (ruled 193-211), and later came many more.
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The history of the Church is a history of persecution, of suffering for Christ. There have been many mass killings of our brothers and sisters, as in Lyon, sadly unknown and unrecognised even by most Christians. If Christians are considered another race, the term “genocide” is particularly appropriate.
Jesus suffered for us and He calls us to suffer for Him. There is no escape from this, for “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus took care to warn His followers of this (John 15:18 – 16:4).
In our identification with our Lord, we must be ready for that suffering and ready, if necessary, to pay the ultimate price by dying for Him. Much of the Christian writing and preaching that circulates in our world comes out of Western contexts where Christians have for centuries enjoyed freedom and, until recently, general societal approval.
But this is an abnormal situation for Christians worldwide and throughout history. Furthermore, things are changing and increasingly we are all faced with the issue: what is my identity? If it is a Christian identity, founded on Christ and His cross, we are called to journey in the way of the cross, which will bring with it opprobrium.
But we can learn lessons from the past, from the faithfulness of those who have gone before (Hebrews 11), and apply those lessons to our own age as we seek to be faithful to Christ in an ungodly world which lies in the hands of the evil one.
The Bible sees only two categories of person: either we belong to Christ or we do not. “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).
The world will inevitably persecute those who belong to Christ. Let us therefore rejoice in all our sufferings, especially if we are granted the privilege of suffering for Christ, and join our prayers with all our fellow citizens of heaven.
This article was originally published in September/October 2023 Barnabas Aid Magazine