I recently gave a talk called, “Persecuted for righteousness: should we flee?”, which can be accessed here. I cleaned up my notes to make it into the essay below.
We have passed through a season of persecution, and that is saliently undeniable, unless of course one writes for Gospel Coalition Canada where men work extra-hard to deny the persecution while attempting to convince the world all is well for the Canadian Christian. That aside, all our elders have been charged multiple times over, each facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines with years of jail time. I spent a few Saturday evenings in the winter telling my family I might not come home from church because I could be taken to prison. We made plans accordingly. Some of our parishioners have been fined. Police officers parked on the road outside our church and chased us down in their cruisers to issue fines after our services. By-law officers from several vantage points stalked us with binoculars and cameras, shamelessly observing even women and children entering and exiting the church building. Multiple armed police officers have shown up at some of our homes, often in the dark of night, while children cried in fear on the inside, to issue tickets for attending church. The government stole our building from us. As of writing this, the building remains in the government’s possession, and we have resorted to worshipping outside under the heat of the sun and dampness of the rain. Media personalities have smeared and defamed us, which has further inflamed online vitriol and horrifyingly evil voice mails and emails. Christian leaders and other churches are embarrassed by us, and no other church in our community of six-hundred-thousand people has publicly supported us. A professor from a local Bible college, where I earned my undergraduate degree, has spoken out against us in a sermon and also criticized us to the secular press more times than I can remember. Our lender reminded several times they could call our church mortgage, and they did freeze our line of credit. Some have lost relationships. Some families are divided. We watched online dozens of police surround, occupy, and erect three layers of fence around GraceLife Church in Edmonton. Through our computer screens we witnessed pastors arrested, one dragged across asphalt from his vehicle to the police car and another pulled away by multiple police from his family to be driven away in a cruiser with bars in its window through which he reached out his hand to comfort his distraught and crying children before his departure. We grieved and wept with deep sorrow for James Coates and Tim Stephens and especially for their wives and children and churches, as the two pastors remained imprisoned at different times for undefined terms for the sake of conscience – James released after thirty-five days and Tim after eighteen days – unable to agree to release terms which would bind them to forsake their sacred duties and abandon their flocks. All of this is the consequence of obeying the Saviour who calls the church to faithfully gather to worship Him. This last winter and spring saw the devils, with chains loosened, fly at the faithful in the name of healthcare. It was a cold dark winter of terror.
Some have likely thought of fleeing to more peaceful places, to environs less bigoted of and more tolerant of Christianity. Some have investigated the possibility. When do we flee? When is it acceptable for a Christian to run from persecution? I hope to answer that in a moment, but first I want to speak of the blessing of persecution.
THE BLESSING OF PERSECUTION
Persecution is a blessing of God upon the church and for the Gospel. It is not something we go looking for. We would rather live a quiet and peaceful life (1 Timothy 2:2), but when we walk into it we are blessed. Jesus said, “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 5:11-12). We should meditate on that for a moment. It contains imperatives to “rejoice” and “be glad.” We have been through a lot lately, but have we been faithful to rejoice and be glad?
God sends persecution for our good. He sends it because He loves us. Do we believe that? And have we received it as a gift from God? John Bunyan observes,
It is true, a persecutor has a black mark upon him, but yet the Scriptures say that all the ways of the persecutor are God’s (Daniel 5:23). Wherefore as we should so again we should not, be afraid of men: we should be afraid of them, because they will hurt us; we should not be afraid of them, as if they were let loose to do to us, and with us, what they will. God’s bridle is upon them, God’s hook is in their nose, yea, and God has determined the bounds of their rage, and if he lets them drive his church into the sea of trouble, it shall be but up to the neck, and so far it may go and not be drowned…. I say the Lord has hold of them, and orders them; nor do they at any time come out against his people but by his licence and commission how far to go, and where to stop.1
It comes from God. And it is a gift. Saint Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). Note that it is not strange to be persecuted, but rather it is strange for the church to not be persecuted. Observe that it is a privilege to share in the sufferings of Christ. We are to rejoice over that privilege. Suffering for Jesus is an honour. It is an opportunity to demonstrate our love for the One who bled for us. Has that been our disposition? If so, we have suffered well. If not, we might yet have some things yet to learn.
THE PURITAN EXAMPLE
Having noted the blessing of persecution, I am going to weigh in on fleeing during persecution by offering an historical example of the English Puritans. Some fled during persecution. Some remained. I will explain the history of that season to set the table. Once the table is set, I will borrow from an English Puritan, John Bunyan, to teach some principles about fleeing amidst persecution. He didn’t flee. No, he spent thirteen years in jail, but he did help people think through fleeing.
Let me lay out the history before I go to Bunyan.
Puritanism was a Christian movement in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England that eventually made its way also to New England in America. J.I. Packer explains its essence,
Puritanism was an evangelical holiness movement seeking to implement its vision of spiritual renewal, national and personal, in the church, the state, and the home; in education, evangelism, and economics; in individual discipleship and devotion, and in pastoral care and competence.”2
I hope you can see from that definition that Puritanism is very much akin to what I believe and how I have attempted to lead this church. Jesus is Lord, and therefore it is upon us, His representatives, to bring all aspects of life under His lordship. Whether it be family, prayer, church, worship, government, law, entertainment – whatever – all must come under Christ. He is Lord, and He is Lord of all. That was Puritanism.
It was a reformation of the English Reformation. In the mid fifteenth century, King Edward VI allowed for Calvinistic theology to be introduced into the church by way of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. After Edward’s death in 1553, Queen Mary, or Bloody Mary, rose to the throne and attempted to bring the English church back to Romanism. She martyred two-hundred-and-seventy Protestants, burning many at the stake including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Under her reign, Protestants fled to Europe where they even better learned the thinking of the Reformation.
In 1558 Queen Elizabeth I rose to the throne. She was a Protestant. Some who had fled under Bloody Mary returned with their refined Protestant ideas, desiring for further reformation in England. Puritanism was enlivened under Elizabeth. Elizabeth didn’t go as far as the Puritans had hoped, as she left vestiges of Romanism in the church, and the Puritan pastors were disgusted with the “immoral and incompetent clergy.”3 They wanted change, and the Queen didn’t. With Archbishop John Whitgift (1530-1604), Queen Elizabeth cracked down:
[She] suspended hundreds of clergy, accusing them of sedition and disloyalty in her Act Against Puritans issued in 1593. Some of the ejected ministers continued preaching in lectureships sponsored by sympathetic Puritan gentry while a few began to gather congregations in private homes. Although Elizabeth successfully ended any organized efforts to reform the church, a ‘spiritual brotherhood’ of reform minded moderates continued to flourish.4
The Puritans relinquished their political ambitions, and they started a grass roots reformation in the pew by preaching and printing. The Puritan movement stayed alive in England as the network of Puritan pastors and congregations strengthened and broadened under Elizabeth.
King James ascended the throne next, and despite the hope that he would further the reformation, he suspended ninety Puritan ministers from office between 1604-1609 for not accepting his headship over the church. Some fled to America, and others to Holland. But the Puritan movement stayed alive in England.
King Charles I followed King James, and he was brutal. In the sixteen-thirties and early sixteen-forties Puritan pastors led thirteen-thousand emigrants to America, to escape Charles’ brutality and establish a Christian society in New England. There was a civil war in England, followed by a new English Republic under Oliver Cromwell. The Republic allowed Puritanism to flourish in England because Cromwell ensured religious freedom.
In 1660, Charles II reinstated the monarchy, and a popish monarchy it was. It was a dark season. In 1662 he passed the “Act of Uniformity.” Approximately two-thousand Puritan ministers were ejected from their pulpits on St. Bartholomew’s day, August 24, 1662. Carl Trueman explains,
In 1662, with the passing of the Act of Uniformity, those within the Church of England who wished for a more thorough reformation of its practices, and who found themselves unable to accept what they regarded as the popish aspects of the Book of Common Prayer, were forced to make a difficult choice: either they should conform and give up their deeply-held beliefs about the church; or they could leave the church in protest. Nearly two-thousand chose the latter option and thus Puritanism made the transition to nonconformity.5
In 1664 he passed the “Conventicles Act,” and he banned “nonconformist from preaching in the fields or conducting services in homes.”6. In 1665 he passed the “Five Mile Act, which prohibited ejected ministers from coming within five miles of their former parishes or any city or town.”7 Then “a campaign of libel and slander ensued in an endeavour to sully and besmirch the whole Puritan movement as one composed of sectaries, fanatics and rebels, ignorant and unbalanced men.”8
Not until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 did the Puritans finely find religious liberty in England. In many ways, their persecution and tenacity through the fires of tyranny led to the religious liberty we have experienced until recently.
ADVICE FROM JOHN BUNYAN
John Bunyan found himself smack in the middle of that period. After over a century of being persecuted off and on, followed by a short reprieve of full liberty under Cromwell, all the while with Puritans emigrating to freer lands by the thousands, Charles II attempted to squash Puritanism once and for all. That led to John Bunyan’s thirteen-year imprisonment.
John Bunyan knew of the various exiles and was aware of the Puritan communities in America. Certainly, he had known of people who had fled, and he likely attempted to pastor those considering whether to flee. To flee or not to flee? Bunyan answers,
If it is in thy heart to fly, fly: if it be in thy heart to stand, stand. Any thing but a denial of the truth. He that flies, has warrant to do so; he that stands, has warrant to do so. Yea, the same man may both fly and stand, as the call and working of God with his heart may be. Moses fled, Ex. ii.15; Moses stood. He. xi.27. David fled, 1 Sa. xix.12; David stood. xxiv.8. Jeremiah fled, Je. xxxvii.11, 12; Jeremiah stood. xxxviii.17. Christ withdrew himself, Lu. ix.10; Christ stood. Jn. xviii 1-8. Paul fled, 2 Co. xi.33; Paul stood. Ac. xx. 22, 23.9
This is certainly what Bunyan witnessed among his peers, and it is what had happened throughout the Puritan movement in the one hundred years that had preceded him. Some stayed. Some fled. Fleeing isn’t bad. Staying isn’t bad. Paul after taking a beating in Lystra went right back into Lystra again (Acts 14:19-20). Paul stayed for the Gospel. The persecution in Acts led to a scattering, and “those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). They scattered for the Gospel. Let those who stay stay for the gospel. Let those who flee flee for the gospel.
Bunyan, acknowledging that men may flee or stay, offers six principles that should influence whether one flees. I’m going to list them, and then spend a bit of time on the sixth one, followed by a few personal observations before I close.
First, Bunyan says, “Do not fly out of a slavish fear, but rather because flying is an ordinance of God, opening a door for the escape of some, which door is opened by God’s providence, and the escape countenanced by God’s Word.”10 He references Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next…” Fleeing persecution isn’t motivated primarily by fear, but rather it is an open door gifted from God. In the text cited, the door is open to take the Gospel elsewhere.
Second, Bunyan says, “When thou art fled, do as much good as thou canst in all quarters where thou comest, for therefore the door was opened to thee, and thou bid to make thy escape.”11 He references Acts 8:1-5 which speaks of the scattered church taking the Gospel with them after they fled persecution. Those who flee must be God’s ambassadors in their new local. Both this and the previous point present persecution as an opportunity for the Gospel to advance.
Third, “Do not think thyself secure when thou are fled; it was providence that opened the door, and the Word that did bid thee escape: but wither and wherefore, that thou knowest not yet.”12 He references Uriah the prophet (Jeremiah 26:2) who “fled into Egypt, because there dwelt men that were to take him, that he might be brought again to Jerusalem to die there.”13 Uriah’s place of refuge was just as dangerous as the place he sought refuge from. Some might think things will be easier in various places. Each place is one event away from misery. I remember when Florida looked like a bleak place to live in 2008 and 2009 during the housing crisis, but now some see it as paradise. I remember when California seemed like paradise, but not so much anymore. Times change, and so do places.
Fourth, basically, if things don’t go well in the next place we should entrust ourselves to God still. There are no guarantees, so we must trust God with the events.
Fifth, if things don’t go well when we flee, and we are apprehended, we cannot be “offended at God or man: not at God for thou art his servant, thy life and thy all are his; not at man, for he is but God’s rod, and is ordained, in this, to do thee good. Hast thou escaped? Laugh. Art thou taken? Laugh. I mean, be pleased which way soever things shall go, for that the scales are still in God’s hand.”14 No matter what, good or bad on the other side, we trust God and laugh.
Sixth, “But fly not, in flying, from religion; fly not in flying, for the sake of a trade; fly not, in flying, that thou mayest have ease for the flesh: this is wicked, and will yield neither peace nor profit to thy soul; neither now, nor at death, nor at the day of judgment.”15 In other words, fleeing for ease might be unwise
THE DANGER OF SEEKING EASE
Bunyan warned against seeking ease. Fleeing is to be done with a purpose. Accordingly, I will make some scriptural observations about the danger of pursuing ease.
Abram sought ease, and it was a mess. His wife was taken into custody by Pharaoh. God had admonished Abram to build the Kingdom in Canaan (Genesis 12:1-5). There was a famine in Canaan, so Abram fled to Egypt where there was food: “Now there was famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land” (Gen. 12:10). God told Abram to go to Canaan, and his move to Egypt during a famine was a move controlled by his appetite not by obedience to God’s command to go to Canaan. Pharaoh took Abram’s wife, Sarai, into his haram (Genesis 12:15). It was a disaster. Sarai was to bear the promised seed by Abram, and his decision had compromised the Kingdom because it now looked as though she’d bear the seed of Pharaoh to perpetuate Pharaoh’s dynasty instead of God’s. God ultimately preserved His seed by rescuing Sarai, and, ever gracious to Abram, sent him back to Canaan with wealth. Abram was called to live in Canaan for the sake of the Kingdom. His belly got the best of him, and it led him to Egypt on a stressful adventure only to be rescued by God’s sovereign grace. Fleeing for ease can be a bad idea.
During a later famine, Jacob, Abram’s grandson, waited for the permission of God to leave Canaan and go to Egypt to find food. Canaan was empty of food, but God had used Joseph to stockpile food in Egypt. At the Egyptian border Jacob paused to seek God by offering sacrifices (Genesis 46:1). God granted permission for Jacob to leave Canaan and enter Egypt: “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation” (Gen. 46:3). While the move happened during a famine, God’s purpose in permitting Jacob to go to Egypt was not primarily to find food for his belly, but rather to build the Kingdom: “there I will make you into a great nation.” When we chase ease and comfort before the Kingdom we tend to make bad decisions. Jacob entered Egypt for the Kingdom at the command of God, and it was a good decision. Abram ran to Egypt in haste, looking for food, and it was a dangerous season.
Lot made a similar error to Abram. He and Abram had a parting of ways because their herds and herdsmen were in conflict (Genesis 13:7). Abram had learned his lesson about chasing ease, as mentioned earlier, so in faith Abram let Lot pick (Genesis 13:8) where the two would settle.
And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other (Gen. 13:10-11).
Lot chose Sodom because he “saw.” That’s an ominous word, signaling covetousness. Eve chose the forbidden fruit because she “saw that the tree was good for food” (Genesis 3:6), a sin for which our race was damned. The “sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose” (Genesis 6:2), a sin for which they were later destroyed in the flood. Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” (Genesis 9:22), a sin for which his son Canaan was cursed. Lot chose Sodom because he was moved by his eyes, and he coveted the ease of what he “saw.” He perceived it as “the garden of the LORD,” heaven on earth, and because the grass appeared green he went to Sodom. Eventually he had to flee Sodom at God’s command (Genesis 19:16-17). His wife died (Genesis 19:26) in the process because she loved Sodom. And while his daughters got out of Sodom alive, Sodom stayed alive in them. They later conspired to get Lot drunk so that he would impregnate them both, and from that they bore the evil Moabite and Ammonite nations (Genesis 19:30-38). Lot’s appetite led him “east” (Genesis 13:11) to Sodom, like Eve’s appetite led her east of Eden (Genesis 3:23). Appetites for ease often are appetites for trouble.
Going back to the Puritans, we should remember that life on the other side of the Atlantic was often brutal too, just a different type of brutal from the brutal persecutions in England. The Puritans fled England for New England to build a new world. World building is not for the faint of heart. Some died on the trans-Atlantic journey, and many perished during the brutal winters. The ones who survived toiled to grow crops and build a civilization from raw elements. J. I. Packer observes,
… their sufferings, on both sides of the ocean (in old England from the authorities and in New England from the elements), seasoned and ripened them till they gained a stature that was nothing short of heroic. Ease and luxury, such as our affluence brings us today, do not make for maturity; hardship and struggle do, and the Puritans’ battles against the Evangelical and climatic wildernesses in which God set them produced a virility of character, undaunted and unsinkable, rising above discouragement and fears…”16
Whether in old England or New England, the Puritans walked through fire, different types of fire albeit, but fire nonetheless. They as a people were better for it. It refined them like a refiner’s fire.
I think that is a problem of ours. We have never known opposition. Christianity has been cushy, and we react to unease by wanting cushy again. I suspect our last winter of religious persecution in Canada was much cushier than the Puritans’ first winter of religious freedom in New England.
We react negatively to hardship because it is like our first time at the gym. God is forcing us to use muscles we have never used before. It hurts. The Puritans were not like that. J. I. Packer observes, “They accepted conflict as their calling, seeing themselves as their Lord’s soldier-pilgrims, … not expecting to advance a single step without opposition of one sort or another”,17
John Geree in The Character of an Old English Puritane or Nonconformist (1646): “His whole life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, praiers and tears. The Crosse his Banner and his word [motto] Vincit qui palitur [he who suffers conquers].”18
Do we want to advance the Kingdom by suffering? Or do we want to float to Zion on a raft down a lazy river sipping on a sugary beverage with sunscreen lathered on our soft skin while lifeguards keep us safe? Are you running for ease? Or are you moving to advance the Kingdom by prayers and tears?
The Bible admonishes us to fight like soldiers, work like farmers, and train like athletes, and it does not promise us we’ll vacation like vacationers.
I will conclude with a few observations from the past months.
The elders have suffered greatly, facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and potential jail time, coupled with the media’s attempts to publicly shame us prompting oceans of public scorn. I asked the brothers how they felt about fleeing at an elders’ meeting not too long ago, and all expressed a resolve to see this through, to continue shepherd the flock that God has entrusted to us. No one expressed an immediate desire to flee.
I have never seen a more fruitful ministry. I doubt any of you have. We’ve been praying for revival and growth and salvations. Then we get it. We found a good fishing spot. I don’t want to abandon it because we passed through a tempest to get here. The fish are jumping in the boat, but the waters are a little choppy.
I see how God has uniquely prepared our church. We can look back, whether it be receiving the gift of our building in the nick of time or some trials we’ve come through that have served to tighten our bonds of fellowship with a sweetness and richness that I personally have never experienced before. God has uniquely prepared us. He has a purpose for us. He has destined us for something. Many were discouraged a year ago. We can look back over the events of the last year and see God’s hand. I suspect we will do the same in a year’s time also.
We have never seen God give faithful pastors a platform in Canada like he is now, with opportunities to have the Gospel preached in media, invitations by politicians to preach the Gospel on their platforms. The Good News is spreading by faithful pastors in a way that I have not seen before. Just as God used the opposition from Queen Elizabeth I to form a grassroots brotherhood among the faithful pastors and churches that spawned the Puritan movement, I wonder if He’s doing something similar in this very moment. Perhaps He is laying the foundation for a great edifice.
We don’t know when it ends. We know it ends when Jesus gives the command, but when He gives that command we know not. With some suffering, it might end well even in our lifetime. How many did we see in Waterloo Square when I preached there a few weeks ago? Could you imagine two years ago, if I told you something like that would happen? How about the sixty-three baptisms since the first lockdown ended? Whitefield and Wesley’s preaching led England to revival after the Puritan movement died out, only to resurrect a new Puritan movement, new wine in new skins. Whitefield was shot at, some of his fellow pastors were beaten, the clergy hated him. He had no idea where it would lead. But it changed the English-speaking world. We have no idea where this will lead, but we serve the same God as Whitefield. Something very special is happening here. There is a love of holiness, an emboldening of the church, salvations are reported regularly, and the Gospel is increasing in its reach. I personally want to see where it leads.
Our children are seeing a true Christianity in stark contrast to a dark world and dead formal churchianity. None of us saw this growing up. When we were children it was not easy to tell the difference between a Christian and non-Christian environment. Now it is night and day. This is a blessing. The darkness platforms the brilliance of the Gospel to shine brighter.
I am more optimistic than ever about the end of the lockdowns. But they could return. And I wouldn’t be surprised. If they do, it would be devastating for many. But these have been sweet times together. More lockdowns would force more Christians to stand, and more lockdowns might be the final nail in the coffin for a bunch of churches that are nothing more than dead weight, balls and chains around our ankles, and worse.
I’ll close with words from George Whitefield about the Puritans:
Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross: the spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them. It was this, no doubt, that made the Puritans of the last century such burning and shining lights. When cast out by the black Batholomew-act, and driven from their respective charges to preach in barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority.19
It was a dark time, but it was a special time. So is this.
- John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan, ed. By George Offor, vol. 2, “Advice to Sufferors,” (The Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, PA, 1991), p. 725-6.
- J.I. Packer, cited in Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology, (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 2012), p.5.
- Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson, Meet the Puritans (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 2006), p. 4
- Carl Trueman, cited in Beeke and Jones, 3.
- Beeke and Pederson, 8
- Ibid., 9.
- Peter Lewis, The Genius of Puritanism (Carey Publications: Great Britain, 1979), 18.
- Bunyan, 726.
- J.I. Packer in the forward to Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as they Really Were (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1986), x
- Packer, in Ryken, x-xi
- Ibid., xi
- Whitefield cited on the cover flap of Bunyan.