Persecution of Christians and the Growth (or Decimation) of the Church

Greg Strand – February 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Often we hear that persecution, inevitable though not desired, is the seed that builds the church (to slightly edit Tertullian’s (160-220) dictum: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”).

We often hear that Japan is the example where persecution resulted in the opposite end – the decimation and almost obliteration of the church.

Phillip Jenkins recently wrote about Japan’s “Hidden Christians”. I include excerpts from his article.

Notionally, the Christian church was utterly destroyed by about 1650, and the authorities sought out possible underground believers by making them defile the cross. Yet their success was not as total as they believed.

Japanese isolation ended in 1853, when a US warship forced the nation to open to external trade and contact. Christian missionaries were among the other Europeans who arrived over the following years. . . . In remote fishing villages and island communities like Narushima, these Kakure Kirishitan, “hidden Christians”, had somehow maintained their clandestine traditions, together with other shreds of faith. One moving documentary from the 1990s, Otaiya, actually allows us to hear very old believers reciting Catholic prayers that first came to the region over four hundred years ago, some in Church Latin and sixteenth century Portuguese.

The story is awe-inspiring, but we have to put it in context. Not surprisingly, the total separation from an organized church meant that this catacomb church strayed far from mainstream Catholicism, and many of its practices make it look almost like a Shinto sect: their Eucharistic elements are rice, fish and sake. They knew nothing of the wider church, believing themselves to the world’s only true Christians. Also, the numbers involved were tiny, perhaps in the low ten thousands by 1865, and even those faced a renewed persecution once their presence became known.

More recently, the hidden Christian community, a pathetic remnant of the communities of the seventeenth century, has shrunk almost to nothing as a result of Japan’s demographic stagnation.

For practical purposes, Japan eliminated its Christians quite as thoroughly as medieval Europe destroyed its Albigensians, and the limited development of Christianity in modern Japan belongs entirely to the period after the 1850s.

I asked Harold Netland, former missionary educator with EFCA ReachGlobal in Japan and present Director of the PhD (Intercultural Studies) and Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at TEDS, this question: “What do you think of this brief statement about the ‘Hidden Christians’ by Phillip Jenkins.”  Netland replies:

This is a really fascinating and tragic chapter in Christian history. The hidden Christians and the persecution of Christianity provide the basis for Shusaku Endo’s haunting historical novel, Silence (based on actual people and events).

The percentage of Christians in the early 17th century is actually higher than the percentage today. The Bible was not translated into Japanese (only portions) and there was no real Japanese clergy, yet thousands were baptised. You cannot simply dismiss these as “rice Christians” or political converts, because in most cases there were few benefits to conversion. Moreover, at least 6000 were martyred for their faith, after enduring terrible tortures. So whatever their level of understanding they were clearly strongly committed to their faith.

Whatever the level of theological understanding among the original hidden Christians, by the time the tradition was discovered in the late 19th century it had become quite syncretistic, mixing elements of Japanese folk religion and Buddhism with Christian teaching and symbolism. This is not to make a judgment about the spiritual state of any of the hidden Christians or to question their commitment, but just to note that the tradition that survived is not clearly Christian but rather a syncretistic mix.

Yes, I do think that the church was effectively wiped out by the Japanese persecution. Undoubtedly some genuine believers continued for some time, but for all practical purposes the church was eliminated. This is a side of Christian history we do not like to acknowledge, but the fact is that opposition and persecution do sometimes wipe out Christian communities. Persecution sometimes strengthens local Christians and the church grows; at other times they are eliminated.

To this I replied:

Thank you for this insightful response. I appreciate your analysis and assessment.

It is, as you note, a side that not many know or like to hear about, a dark side of persecution of Christians. But, even with this reality, it is still important to remind oneself, God is still sovereign and providentially guiding toward an ordained, good end.

How the decimation of the bride like this in Japan fits into this plan I am not certain. There is, I confess, some unknown and some mystery. But there is also much we do know about God and his plan revealed in the Bible. That we trust. What we must be careful not to do, on the one hand, is to fill in the unknown and the mystery with conjecture and definitive statements about God, his purposes and his ways. And, on the other hand, what we must be careful to do is to rest in the known, speak it and live it with trusting humility, which is the heart of true faith.

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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