Can the gospel spread, and thousands be converted, and churches grow, and love abound where Christianity is continually spoken against? Yes. It not only can, it has. I say this not to discourage winsomeness, but to encourage hope. Do not assume that seasons of hostility or controversy will be lean seasons with little power or growth. They may be seasons of explosive growth and great spiritual blessing.
How do we know this? Consider the way Luke reports the state of the church in the book of Acts. When Paul finally gets to Rome near the end of his life, he invites the “leading men of the Jews” to come hear his gospel. What these leaders say about the “sect” of Christians is very significant. They say, “Concerning this sect, it is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere” (Acts 28:22).
This is not surprising to disciples who knew that Jesus said, “You will be hated by all nations because of My name” (Matthew 24:9). And: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). And: “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they malign the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:25).
The early church was an embattled church. Yes, there were seasons of calm (Acts 9:31); but that was the exception. Most of the time there were slanders and misunderstandings and accusations and persecutions, not to mention internal disputes about ethics and doctrine. Virtually all Paul’s letters reflect controversy in the church as well as affliction from outside. The point is not that this is desirable, but that it need not hinder great power and growth. In fact, it may be the occasion and reason for great power and growth.
This seems to be Luke’s view, because, even though he portrayed Christianity as “spoken against everywhere,” he also portrayed relentless growth throughout the book of Acts. “The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). “The disciples were increasing in number” (Acts 6:1). “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase” (Acts 6:7). “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). “The word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied” (Acts 12:24). “The churches...were increasing in number daily” (Acts 16:5). “All the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). “The word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:20).
Therefore, we must not think that controversy and conflict keep the church from experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit and dramatic growth. We are taught in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” But we are not taught to sacrifice truth for peace. So Paul said, “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8).
And if there is enough conflict and hostility that those who speak the gospel are even imprisoned, that very moment of bad press may be the occasion of gospel triumph. Why? Because, Paul said, “I am suffering and wearing fetters like a criminal [for the gospel]. But the word of God is not fettered” (2 Timothy 2:8). In fact, it may be that when God and truth are loved enough that we are willing to take stands that incur slander and hostility, the Spirit may move more powerfully than in times of peace and popularity.
Sometimes Christians have favor with society and sometimes we “are spoken against everywhere.” In either case, God can, and often does, pour out his power for effective witness. Both peace and slander can be the occasion of blessing. Therefore, let us not embrace the assumption that times of social ridicule must be times of weakness and fruitlessness for Christianity. They may be a sign of faithfulness, and occasions of great harvest. The church was “spoken against everywhere,” and “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.”
(via Email, September 6, 2000, Desiring God Ministries, www.desiringgod.org)