Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Is It Ever Right to Be a Secret Christian?

In many parts of the world, the persecution of Christians is severe. Believers are routinely denied employment, imprisoned, assaulted and even killed for their faith.

Because of this persecution, many who believe in Jesus choose to keep their beliefs secret from everyone or almost everyone they know. Especially in Muslim-majority countries, where most of the worst persecution of Christians takes place, this phenomenon of secret believers in Jesus is a common one. There are many who regularly attend the mosque and whose lives are outwardly no different from Muslims. Only in secret do they practise anything of the Christian faith.

This raises an important question. Is it ever acceptable to be secret about the Christian faith in this way? Does God sometimes approve of believers hiding their faith in order to avoid persecution? Or should every Christian be open about believing in Christ?

To answer this question, we need to turn to the Bible to see what it has to say. Scripture is “The Manual for the Human Life,” and what it teaches must be followed. Let’s look, then, at what it has to say about this issue.

Matthew 10

One very important text for this topic is the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 10:32-33: 
32 Therefore, everyone who acknowledges Me before people, I will also acknowledge before My Father in heaven. 33 But whoever denies Me before people, I will also deny before My Father in heaven.” 
(Bible quotations in this article are my own translations of the Greek text.)

When Jesus speaks here about Himself acknowledging and denying people before His Father, He is surely referring to God’s choice about whether to admit people to final salvation. Those Jesus acknowledges are the ones who will end up in heaven, and those He denies are the ones who will end up in hell. No other interpretation is at all plausible.

Importantly, these verses are explicit that the people Jesus will acknowledge are those who acknowledge Him, and the people He will deny are those who deny Him. It is therefore essential that we all acknowledge Jesus when we should and avoid denying Him when we should.

That is not to say that those who have sinned in this area would necessarily be unable to repent and be forgiven. But nevertheless, Jesus is surely implying that those who are unrepentant, at the time they die or He returns, of denying or failing to acknowledge Him when they should will not finally be saved.

Next, let’s consider what Jesus means in v. 33 when He speaks about those who deny Him before people.

To begin with, some of the ones He has in mind are surely those who tell others that they don’t believe in Him. And this would certainly include not only those who really don’t believe, but also those who do believe but tell others that they don’t. So v. 33 is very clear that it is wrong and very dangerous for a believer in Jesus to lie and tell others that they don’t believe.

But it seems a mistake to understand denial of Jesus only as something that would happen through spoken words. If someone acts in such a way as to make others think that they are not a believer in Jesus, that would surely be the equivalent of using words to convey that information. It would surely be a form of denying Jesus.

So, for example, when those who believe in Jesus go to the mosque and pretend to be Muslims, they are acting in such a way as to make people think that they don’t believe in Him. And that is surely a form of denying Him.

We should have no hesitation in saying, then, that it is wrong for a believer in Jesus to say or do things that would lead others to think that they are not a believer.

But this leads us to our next question. What if someone doesn’t actively deny Jesus by word or deed, but just says and does nothing, still hiding the fact that they are a believer? Would that conflict with this passage?

I think it probably would. Notice how in the passage Jesus doesn’t just condemn those who deny Him. He also says, in v. 32, that He will acknowledge before God those who acknowledge Him before people. This seems to imply that without our acknowledgment of Him, He will not acknowledge us before God. It seems highly likely, then, that if a believer keeps their faith a secret, they would not be doing enough for Jesus to acknowledge them before God.

We should note too that Jesus speaks the words of verses 32-33 in a context that mentions the martyrdom of Christians. Several times in the speech of verses 5-42 He refers to believers being martyred. See Matthew 10:21, 28, 38-39.

In view of these verses, it cannot legitimately be argued that Jesus’ words in verses 32-33 stand only as a general rule that could be overlooked if there is a danger of being killed. Instead, He is teaching that we must acknowledge and not deny Him, even if it costs us our lives.

Nor can it reasonably be argued that there is a place for denying or not acknowledging Jesus if our aim is to avoid the suffering of family members. Matthew 10:37 is clear that we must not love relatives more than Jesus. So, coming closely after verses 32-33, it makes sense to think that v. 37 is, in part, a warning not to shrink from acknowledging Jesus out of a desire to protect close relatives.

In conclusion, then, we can say two things. First, Matthew 10:32-33 strongly implies that it is never right for a Christian to deny, by word or deed, that they believe in Jesus. And second, this passage seems to suggest that it is never right to be a secret Christian.

Jesus can be found giving very similar teaching in Luke 12:8-9.

Mark 8

Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-38 are also relevant for our topic. Here the Lord says: 
34 . . . If anyone wants to follow Me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow Me. 35 For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world yet lose his life? 37 Indeed, what will a person give in exchange for his life? 38 For anyone who is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” 
The reference in v. 38 to the Son of Man being ashamed of people when He comes in glory means more or less the same as Christ’s denying people in Matthew 10:33 that we have just looked at. Those Jesus are ashamed of when He comes in glory are those who will end up in hell.

And v. 38 makes it clear that He will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of Him and His words.

So what does it mean to be ashamed of Jesus and His words?

Before answering this question, there are two preliminary points to make.

First, note how verses 34 and 35 refer to the martyrdom of Christians. It is true that these verses also have a metaphorical element to them – picking up the cross and losing one’s life are symbolic ways of referring to following Christ obediently. But these verses refer as well to a willingness to literally be martyred.

Second, note how this passage is quite a tight unit. The causal word “for” (Greek: gar) that begins each of verses 35, 36 and 38 helps to show this. So there is surely a connection in thought between the references to martyrdom in verses 34-35 and the reference to being ashamed of Christ in v. 38.

That is not to say that the being ashamed applies only to situations where potential martyrdom is an issue. But it surely applies partly to situations of potential martyrdom.

It therefore makes sense to think that the being ashamed of Jesus and His words in v. 38 includes actions that would lead to avoiding martyrdom. Such actions are obviously ones that are visible to others, and the most obvious things are openly denying allegiance to Him and the Christian faith, or failing to publicly acknowledge Him and the faith.

The most natural way of understanding this passage, then, is that it teaches the need for Christians to be open about their faith, even if it costs them their lives.

Jesus gives very similar teaching in Luke 9:23-26.

John 12

John 12:42-43 is an important text for our topic. Here we find clear criticism of those who are secret believers in Christ: 
42 Nevertheless, many even of the leaders believed in Him [i.e., Jesus], but because of the Pharisees they did not acknowledge Him, so that they would not be expelled from the synagogue. 43 For they loved praise from people more than praise from God.” 
This passage makes it clear that during the ministry of Jesus, it was unacceptable for people to keep faith in Him a secret so as not to be expelled from the synagogue. And there is no good reason for thinking that this would be any more acceptable today.

Furthermore, when we take account of what else we find in John’s Gospel, it makes most sense to think that this passage is telling us that secret faith is never acceptable. John 16:2 refers to the martyrdom of Christians. So it is natural to understand that when John 12:42-43 criticizes secret faith in Christ, it means that this is unacceptable even when the secrecy is for the purpose of avoiding being killed.

John 19

John 19:38 is also relevant for our discussion. Here we are told: 
“After this, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he was afraid of the Jews, asked Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus’ body . . .” 
The reason for mentioning Joseph’s secret discipleship is probably to show that by asking Pilate for Jesus’ body he has now had the courage to be open about his faith. If this is the reason, Joseph is being held up as an example of doing what is right by no longer being secret about his faith.

Even if there is some other less clear reason for mentioning Joseph’s secret faith, in the light of 12:42-43 that we have just looked at, it would surely be a mistake to think that his secrecy is being portrayed as something that is acceptable.

Matthew 26

Peter’s denial of Jesus is also relevant for our purposes. All four Gospels refer to this event, and here is the version in Matthew 26:69-75: 
69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a slave girl approached him and said, ‘You too were with Jesus of Galilee.’ 70 But he denied it in front of everyone and said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ 
71 When he had gone out to the gateway, another slave girl saw him and said to those who were there, ‘He was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ 72 And again he denied it with an oath and said, ‘I don’t know the man.’ 
73 Then a little later the people who were standing there approached Peter and said, ‘You are certainly one of them. We can tell by your accent.’ 74 Then he began to curse and swear, ‘I don’t know the man!’ And immediately a rooster crowed. 
75 Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said, ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went out and cried bitterly.” 
What Peter did is of course a famous biblical example of committing sin. And it is important to understand that in all the Gospels the awfulness of the sin is not seen primarily in his lying or his cowardice, but in the fact that he denied Jesus. See, e.g., Matthew 26:34-35.

We need to be clear too that Peter could not have helped Jesus by not denying Him. It is not as if he was somehow responsible for not rescuing Him. Jesus was going to suffer regardless of what Peter said to those who challenged him.

Peter was faced with two alternatives. Either he could acknowledge that he was a follower of Jesus, even though this would mean a real possibility of being tortured or even killed. Or he could deny Jesus and avoid these dangers. The fact that the Bible treats what Peter did as such a serious sin shows us how important it is to the Lord that we don’t deny that we are Christians.

It is true that the Peter incident is first and foremost about denial of Jesus and Christian faith rather than simply keeping faith a secret. Nevertheless, this event does fit poorly with the idea that it is ever right to be a secret Christian. There seems to be an impression in the story that it is important that Christians stand up and be counted.

Summing up

From the above discussion, we can reasonably draw two conclusions.

First, the Bible is clear that Christians must never deny, by word or deed, that they are believers in Jesus.

And second, the idea that it is ever right to be a secret Christian fits awkwardly, very awkwardly at times, with Scripture.

The fact is that the Bible never suggests that God ever approves of believers keeping their Christian faith secret. And it seems to imply that being open about the faith is required of all believers.

It is therefore surely wrong for a believer to go to the mosque and outwardly practise the Islamic religion. Although there are beliefs and practices in Islam that coincide with the Christian faith, there are also major things that conflict with our faith. It would therefore surely be a form of denying Jesus to attend the mosque and practise Islam.

There are times for keeping quiet

Despite the conclusions just reached, it makes sense to think that there are times when it is right for Christians to keep quiet about their faith.

For example, if I meet someone I don’t know, it would be very rare for me to immediately tell them that I am a Christian. And my conscience is clear about this. There should be no doubt that if believers were constantly forcing the topics of conversation onto Christian things, it would often serve to put people off the faith.

So it is surely true that in many conversations we have with people, it is fine for us to keep silent about our Christian faith. And I think it may well be God’s will for Christians in countries where persecution is severe to keep silent more often than they would in other parts of the world.

Persecution affecting what we do

It is true too that it is frequently right for Christians to try to avoid persecution.

For instance, there are biblical references to early Christians fleeing from places where they are persecuted (Matthew 23:34; Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19; 12:17). And none of these passages suggests that fleeing is wrong. What is more, Scripture even contains a command to flee persecution (Matthew 10:23)!

That is not to say that it would always be God’s will today for persecuted Christians to flee. But it is surely often His will.

The Bible tells us too that the apostle Paul was once secretly let down through a city wall in a basket, so that he could avoid detection (Acts 9:23-25; 2 Corinthians 11:32-33). This makes it clear that it is sometimes right for Christians to go into hiding and be secret about things.

I am also sure that there are times when it is right for believers to avoid doing certain things when threatened.

For example, if the government of a country tells Christians that they must not preach the gospel on the streets, I am certain that there will be times when it is God’s will to do what the government says, even though that is regrettable. Obviously, however, God must always come first, and His will should be sought in each specific situation.

Not using this as an excuse

There are times, then, when it is right for us to keep quiet that we are Christians. And there are times when it is right for us to alter our behaviour in response to persecution.

However, we mustn’t use any of this as an excuse to do what is wrong. If we are asked whether we are Christians, we must always say that we are. Nor should we ever lead people to believe that we are not Christians by our actions. And it does seem very difficult to believe that it would be God’s will for any Christian not to tell their close family that they are a believer. That would seem to be taking things too far.

Choosing to obey God

I don’t say any of what I have said in this article lightly. I am aware of how very difficult it must be to stand up for Jesus in a hostile and dangerous environment, especially for those who have children.

Nevertheless, every Christian must choose to obey God as their first priority. And when we do, all His mighty power is available to help us through all that we suffer. And if it costs us our lives, it will be well worth it. We will have endless years of great joy ahead of us in heaven.

Final words

If you are a Christian in a country where persecution is severe, please know that your brothers and sisters worldwide are praying for you. I would also like to suggest that you look at the websites of Open Doors (https://www.opendoors.org) and Barnabasfund (https://barnabasfund.org) and contact them if you need support.

If you are a Christian who does not live in a country where persecution is severe, make sure that you are not neglecting your duty to care for your brothers and sisters who are being badly persecuted. This is not someone else’s responsibility. It is all of ours.

See also:

All Christians Are under Obligation to Help the Persecuted Church