Yesterday was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. While Christians were praying for persecuted believers around the world, a shooter walked into a Texas church service and opened fire. At least twenty-six people were killed and twenty more were injured.
Sutherland Springs, population 643, is in Wilson County, about thirty miles southeast of San Antonio. The First Baptist Church was holding morning worship services when a gunman identified as twenty-six-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley entered the church about 11:20 a.m. After attacking the congregation, he fled into neighboring Guadalupe County where he died.
The New York Times describes the horrific scene: “Families gathered in pews, clutching Bibles and praying to the Lord, were murdered in cold blood on the spot.” The victims ranged in age from five to seventy-two. Among the dead were several children, a pregnant woman, and the pastor’s teenage daughter.
It was the deadliest shooting in Texas state history.
Wilson County Commissioner Albert Gamez Jr. told CNN, “My heart is broken. We never think where it can happen, and it does happen. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. In a small community, real quiet and everything, and look at this.”
Shootings at churches
Shootings at churches have become so common that authorities have created a National Church Shooting Database. It documents 139 shootings at churches between 1980 and 2005, killing 185 people, including thirty-six children.
Since 2005, there have been numerous other church shootings, including the 2015 massacre of nine at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. By one calculation, 2015 saw 248 violent incidents on religious property.
We might think that churches would be the safest of locations. People meet to worship, study Scripture, and share Christian community. In no sense are they harming anyone by their attendance and activities.
But we are at greater risk than we may know.
Meeting times are posted and anyone is welcome. Most church buildings have multiple points of access. Few churches have security personnel or policies in place. Some congregations resist employing security guards, worrying that they will frighten children and distract from worship.
The reality of persecution
On one level, church attacks are a component of the larger escalation of violence in our country. According to the Washington Post, there have been 132 mass shootings in America since 1966, killing 974 people. No populated places are immune, from malls to movie theaters to schools.
On another level, however, violence against churches are spiritual attacks. Scripture teaches that persecution is a basic fact of Christian life:
- “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
- “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
- Jesus warned us: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19).
- Our Lord was blunt: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mark 13:13).
Three biblical responses
What should Christians do when facing violence?
First, pray for our enemies:
- “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
- “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28).
Second, defend ourselves:
- “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe” (Luke 11:21).
- “Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:4).
Third, let our adversity become our testimony:
- “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:16).
- “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19).
- “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Jesus promised: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). In heaven, we will meet “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Revelation 6:9).
Now twenty-six of our sisters and brothers have joined their number.
John Greenleaf Whittier: “The steps of faith fall on the seeming void, but find the rock beneath.” The less we can see the path, the more we must trust our Guide.