Persecution: Lessons from Pliny, Newsom and Lightfoot

Paul once commented to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”[1] This text tends to make the typical American Christian uncomfortable.  They immediately compare their experience to that of the underground church in China or something similar.  Yet, the text has a universal application no matter where we live.  For example, mention the name of Jesus in certain circles, even in America, and you will experience persecution.  Some might wonder if a family member’s passing annoyance or a co-worker’s irritation rise to the level of those who would hunt down or pursue Christians so that we are put to flight for our faith.  That is not often the case.  Perhaps the most that happens is dinner invitations dry up and opportunities for promotions are no longer presented.  And so, we are tempted to think that our light afflictions do not rise to the level of actual persecution.

But rather than comparing our American experience to that of the house church in China we ought to find our understanding of persecution in God’s Word. For example, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…if they persecute me, they will also persecute you.”[2] The world’s hate for Christ is the source of their persecuting fervor and that hate can be hidden behind a smile as you are graciously ushered toward the door at the end of the evening.  However, once the door closes behind you, the smile of your once congenial host falls to the floor and it is announced to the house that those people will never cross this threshold again.  And yet, this is no different from a dictator who stops “roaring and issues forth sweet talk” at least for the moment.[3]  Hatred for Christ is common to the hostess and dictator.

But perhaps a point that is worth making is that hatred for Christ can be and is often cloaked with a smile and feigned good intentions.  And sometimes it is masked by civic authorities seeking the civil good.  For example, when Pliny the Younger was a provincial governor in first century Rome he was a loyal servant of the Emperor.  His duties bore the significance of a trusted official.  He was an auditor, a civil engineer, a lawyer and a military inspector!  What is more, his letters indicate that he sought to do all of these responsibilities to his utmost. It is in the midst of these responsibilities that we find something interesting.

In Claudiopolis Pliny discovered a problem. Fire had destroyed the central part of the city. After investigating, Pliny decided that what was needed was a fireman’s association.  So, Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan outlining both the problem and solution.  Trajan denied Pliny’s request stating that an association or club of any type had and could lead to political upset.  Trajan told Pliny to buy them buckets but do not allow an association!  It is obvious that Pliny knew what the Emperor’s response would be but asked him anyway. This puts Pliny’s famous letter regarding Christians in context.[4]

Soon after his stay in Claudiopolis Pliny discovered that in or nearby Pontus the “flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it.”  Business was poor because people were not making sacrifices. What is more, citizens approached Pliny to complain about the Christians living in the vicinity.[5]  We can only guess that the cause of the complaints was due to people forsaking their idolatry.  However, we do not need to conjecture about what Pliny did.  He told Emperor Trajan that the Christians were an association or club.  He went on to say that if those accused admitted to being part of the association of Christians he put them to death.  Trajan praised his actions. 

What is the point?  Pliny did not persecute believers for being Christians.  He persecuted them for being an association.  It was understood that associations could and did have political ramifications.  Associations could not be tolerated even if they existed to put out fires.  In other words, persecution came under the guise of the civic good.  Yet, who would deny that it was indeed persecution?

Today our elected officials are acting in Pliny-like fashion.  Governor Newsom of California has restricted the church in the name of health.  Singing is not permitted all in the name of the civic good.  Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has blocked church parking lots, had cars towed and fined outside of churches all in the name of public health.[6]  Brothers and sisters, Governor Newsom and Mayor Lightfoot may speak of concern for public health but behind the show of benevolence is something sinister. It is hate. And they are not alone. And we would be fools not to see it as it is.  It is persecution.    

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 



[1] II Timothy 3:12.

[2] John 15:18, 20.

[3] Herbert Schlossberg, A Fragrance of Oppression: The Church and its Persecutors (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 1991) 73.

[4] Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale, 2003), 12-15. Wilken does a wonderful job of walking the reader through the letters regarding these events.

[5] Ibid., 15.