Discipling MBBs through Persecution

This blogpost was written for a training manual. Therefore, it is in a bullet point style. This blog post is a continuation of special issues in discipling Muslim-background believers (MBBs).

For the previous post on helping MBBs go public in their faith, click here.

  • Persecution is normal for MBBs. The Bible describes persecution as a normal experience for followers of Jesus. Therefore, MBBs should be taught that persecution is normal as they begin to follow Jesus. Efforts to completely eliminate persecution lead to unbiblical compromise. Jesus told His disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Matt 10:16a). When He sent them, He knew that most of His closest disciples would die for obeying His commands. But our Lord sent them anyways. Persecution is a normal part of the Christian life. Paul told Timothy, “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). There are a few ways we need to apply this to our lives.
    • First, if we share the gospel with Muslims, we must know that the people we share could face persecution – even death – because of the gospel we brought to them. However, if the gospel is true (and it is!), then it is the only hope for Muslims to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. To share the gospel with Muslims, we must fully believe that it is better to have eternal life with Christ than have a long life on earth.
    • Second, if we want to call Muslims to follow Jesus, we need to be ready to stand with them and face persecution. 
  • Persecution should be avoided and reduced when possible. While persecution is a normal experience for MBBs, not all persecution is necessary or helpful. While Jesus told His disciples that He was sending them as lambs among wolves, He finished that verse by saying, “be shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16b). Sometimes, foolish actions by MBBs or those working with them lead to excess persecution. We need to be shrewd and innocent as we disciple MBBBs in the early stages. Here are five activities that can invite undue persecution:
    1. Unforgiveness or bitterness in MBBs. Some MBBs are angry with Islam when they first follow Jesus. I was introduced to one young believer who was facing significant persecution as a new believer in Jesus. As I talked to him, I realized that he had considerable anger in his heart towards his father and the whole Muslim community for deceiving him. As a result, he had significant bitterness that led him to disrespect his father and the leaders of his childhood mosque. The young man asked me to help him flee from his family and community. Instead, I mentored him to help him walk through his bitterness. When he forgave his father, he was able to confess his own shortcomings to his father. The result was that he was restored in fellowship with his family and lived publicly as a follower of Jesus in his family’s home. As the character of MBBs is transformed, their family will notice. As they live holier and holier lives, their society is less likely to attack them.
    2. Changes in behavior that move MBBs outside of cultural norms. Many years ago, I was in Central Asia when some young Muslim college students repented and believed in Jesus. In our foolishness, we did not adequately think through cultural issues. Within a few weeks, these young men began wearing Western clothes, even shorts, to class. They took on not only Christ but also many aspects of our Western culture. When it became known that these young men had been baptized in Jesus’ name, a significant part of the offense was how Westernized the young men had become. Instead, MBBs should retain their culture while separating from Islam religiously.
    3. MBBs attacking Islam, the Qur’an, or Muhammad. The brother above, with the unforgiveness issues, took out his anger by sending an article to his Muslim friends that Muhammad was demon-possessed and an immoral man. His friends passed that article to their imam, which eventually led to a fatwa being written against the young man. If the young man had been trained in better ways to proclaim Jesus to his friends, the offense would have been reduced. The persecution would likely have also been reduced, or perhaps not have occurred. 
    4. Financial help, especially from foreigners. Years ago, my MBB friend was attacked by others in his village, resulting in a broken arm. Unfortunately, there was no medical care available in that brother’s village. His fellow villagers told him that he should ask Jesus to help him, and they refused to help him go to the hospital. I offered to go pick up this MBB brother and get him appropriate medical care. But this MBB brother was wiser than me. He said, “If you come to pick me up from my village, I will never be able to come back. Then who will bring the gospel to my people?” I prayed with grief for this brother daily for about a week. Then, this MBB brother called me and told me, “The village elders made a decision. They said that I was living like a better Muslim than the rest of the village. They made the men who beat me publicly apologize, take me to the hospital, and even pay for my medical care!” If I had swooped in and helped, then this brother might not be a witness to his own people today.
    5. Being baptized by outsiders. In some contexts, outsiders, especially foreigners, baptizing MBBs has led to MBBs being rejected by their community. Ideally, MBBs or near culture workers baptize MBBs. 
  • Persecution and MBB evangelism. MBBs often face persecution as they go public in their faith and proclaim Jesus as Lord (read here about MBBs going public in their faith). This persecution of MBBs can be reduced as they are trained in ways to share the gospel that are culturally sensitive (here is how we train MBBs to share the gospel). However, the gospel is ultimately offensive to many Muslims! If an MBB is genuinely transformed by the power of Christ, they will also want their families to follow Jesus. Evangelism should not be discouraged by new MBBs to avoid persecution. Instead, efforts should be taken to prepare MBBs to stand in the persecution that comes from sharing Christ.
  • Levels of persecution against MBBs through analysis of persecution in Pakistan. In 2005, Edward Evans wrote a study about 70 Pakistani Muslims (63 men; 7 women) who came to Christ in Pakistan from 1947-1998 whose decision to follow Jesus became public to their families (buy the Kindle book here). The two tables below provide a snapshot of the severity of persecution during a particular period in one context. Table 1 rates the severity of persecution of those 70 MBBs. Table 2 describes the eventual outcome of the faith of those MBBs in relationship to their families. 
    • A few reflections on Table 1:
      • Only one of 63 male MBBs in this study died for their faith. In contrast, 42% of women were killed. Women in Pakistan faced great difficulty being the first in their families to follow Jesus.
      • 50% of MBBs in this study faced only moderate persecution or less, and 33% faced severe persecution. This means that 17% faced death or life-threatening persecution for their faith.
    • A few reflections on Table 2:
      • The ideal is that the first believer will result in others from their family repenting and believing. However, this only occurred in 23% of cases.
      • An additional 49% of MBBs either fully reconciled with their family or developed a truce with them. Adding this to the 23% who were evangelistically effective in their families, 72% of MBBs were able to live in their community after faith.
      • Only 8% had families that remained antagonistic.
      • Since 50% of cases were severe, life-threatening, or resulted in murder, many who initially faced significant persecution were able to eventually reconcile with their families. 
Severity of PersecutionNumber of Cases% of CasesDescription
Murder46%Killed for their faith in Christ. 3 of 7 women were killed for their faith. 
Life-threatening811%Attempt made to kill believer, usually by male family member(s)
Severe2333%Range of issues, such as physical beatings, deprived of food/needs, lost job, expelled from family, etc.
Moderate2434%Intense emotional pressure from close family members and boycott from the wider circle of relatives
Mild69%Family disapproval
Neutral57%No reaction. All five were Sindhis
Positive00%No positive reactions were recorded
TOTAL70  
Table 1. Severity of Persecution of 70 MBBs in Pakistan from 1947-1998.[1]Table 1. Severity of Persecution of 70 MBBs in Pakistan from 1947-1998.[1]
Eventual Relationship with FamilyNumber of Cases% of Cases
Some family members became followers of Jesus1123%
Follower of Jesus was fully reconciled to family, but family remained Muslim816%
Family maintained a “truce” with neither hostility nor full acceptance1633%
Family remained antagonistic towards the follower of Jesus48%
Follower of Jesus reverted to Islam or at least outwardly conformed to Islam1020%
TOTAL49 
Table 2. Eventual outcomes of family relationships off MBBs with their families in Pakistan from 1947-1998.[2]
  • Practical steps for dealing with persecution. Evan’s described seven levels of intensity of persecution. Our response to the persecution of MBBs should be different based on the level of persecution.
    • Murder. When an MBB is murdered for their faith, the results are often significant. Murder often leads to government investigations, more widespread persecution, and believers retreating in fear. There are two prominent martyrdoms in Acts, Stephen (Acts 7:57-60) and James (Acts 12:1-2). Stephen’s persecution led to “a severe persecution” against the church in Jerusalem, leading to believers being scattered in many areas (Acts 8:1). As they went to new locations, they shared the gospel, and the kingdom of God advanced (Acts 8:4-5; 11:19-21). However, the fear of the believers was significant enough that they were not ready at first to accept Paul as a believer after his encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:26). The murder of James led to Peter being arrested (Acts 12:3). After God delivered Peter, he hid so that Herod could not find him (Acts 12:19). Even when believers, like Stephen, were murdered in Acts, God used these circumstances for kingdom advance.
    • For those facing life-threatening or severe persecution, there is a biblical precedent for temporarily leaving the circumstance. Paul was lowered by a basket from the walls of Damascus (Acts 9:25). Peter went into hiding (Acts 12:19). Paul often fled from persecution. The ideal is that MBBs do not permanently flee from their homes. In the Pakistan study, many were able to reconcile with their families after significant persecution. In those circumstances, families were initially upset. Still, MBBs were eventually able to reconcile or build a truce with their families. An MBB fleeing from their family should be considered an extreme response and avoided in all but urgent cases. However, we need to be ready for when MBBs need to flee from a dangerous situation. I have personally told a few MBBs that if they face a circumstance where they feel significantly threatened to get out immediately and call me to help them. Even though none have taken me up on the offer, knowing that they are not alone is a great help to these believers. 
    • MBBs facing mild to severe persecution need support from followers of Jesus. In Evans’ study, 67% of MBBs faced persecution ranging from family disapproval (mild) to being boycotted by their family (moderate) to severe forms of persecution, like beatings or losing their job. In most cases, MBBs will face difficulties for their new lives in Christ, and we need to be ready to be their family as we lead them to Christ. 
    • Persecution and the family of MBBs. Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). He then went on to describe how the gospel would divide families in such a way that “a man’s enemies will be the members of his household” (Matt 10:36). MBBs should follow Jesus’ commands to love their enemies and pray for those persecuting them (Matt 5:44). These commands should first and foremost be followed in the family. In this way, MBBs are “innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16) regarding their families. 
    • Facing persecution with love. Turning the other cheek (Matt 5:39) is not a position of weakness. Instead, it is a position of strength to be able to face persecution with love. After all, Jesus gave the greatest model, saying, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34. Of course, He made that statement as He was being killed. While the bar is high, the Holy Spirit is powerful and can empower us also to love our persecutors. MBBs who have the honor of joining with Christ in His sufferings in this way perhaps have an opportunity to understand the gospel that is greater than most Westerners ever have a chance. 

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[1] For complete details, see Edward Evans, “’Coming to Faith’ in Pakistan,” in From the Straight Path to the Narrow Way: Journeys of Faith, ed. by David Greenlee (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic, 2005), Kindle locations 1621-1635.

[2] Ibid., 1605-1614.

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