Is It Ever OK to Be a Secret Christian?

Published October 2, 2013 by

by Max Aplin

I heard recently about people living in Islamic countries who believe in Jesus but do so secretly. They attend the mosque and outwardly their lives are no different from Muslims. Only in secret do they practise anything of the Christian faith, so that they can avoid being persecuted or even killed for what they believe.

This raises an important question. Is it ever OK to be secret about Christian faith in this way? As always when asking what Christians should do in various situations, we need to search the Bible. Let’s look, then, at what it has to say about this issue:

(1) Matthew 10:32-33 (paralleled closely in Luke 12:8-9) is a very important passage. Here Jesus states:

‘Everyone who acknowledges Me before people, I will also acknowledge them before My Father in heaven. But whoever denies Me before people, I will also deny them before My Father in heaven.’

Verses 34-37, which follow, speak about the need to choose the Lord over family members, thus loosely continuing the theme of vv. 32-33. And then this theme is continued further when Jesus says in v. 38: ‘And the person who does not take their cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.’

The reference to disciples taking the cross should surely first of all be understood literally: we should literally be prepared to be crucified for Jesus. The connection between the need to acknowledge and not deny in vv. 32-33 and the willingness to be crucified in v. 38 suggests that acknowledging Jesus and not denying Him is something that we should do even if it costs us our lives.

In the preceding context in v. 28 Jesus has also already said: ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul’, thus making it even more sure that the acknowledging and not denying in vv. 32-33 should take place even if they lead to death. Verses 21-22, which also refer to martyrdom, point to this conclusion too.

We can say, then, with a high degree of confidence that Matt 10:32-33 teaches us that we must acknowledge Jesus and must not deny Him even if it costs us our lives.

We can also say that this passage teaches us to acknowledge and not deny Jesus even if it causes suffering for family members. I have already mentioned that there is a thematic connection between vv. 32-33 and the following verses up to v. 38. (The connection actually extends beyond v. 38 too.) In v. 37 Jesus states: ‘The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.’ The fact that this verse is thematically linked with vv. 32-33 surely means that v. 37 stands in part as a warning against failure to acknowledge Jesus out of concern for family members.

(2) In Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23 Jesus speaks about the importance of carrying the cross and following Him, which, as I have already mentioned, should first and foremost be understood as a willingness to undergo literal crucifixion. This interpretation is made even more sure by the following verse in each Gospel (Mark 8.35 and Luke 9.24), which speak positively about losing one’s life for Him.

A few verses later in each Gospel Jesus warns against being ashamed of Him and His words (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26), with terrible consequences for those who are. The word ‘for’ that begins each new sentence in Mark 8.36, 37, 38 and Luke 9.25, 26 shows that there is quite a close connection between the willingness to be martyred in Mark 8.34-35/Luke 9.23-24 and the being ashamed of Jesus and His words in Mark 8.38/Luke 9.26.

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

The most natural way of understanding these passages, then, is that they teach the need for Christians to be open about their faith, even if it costs them their lives.

(3) John 12:42-43 is an important text. Here we find clear criticism of those who are secret believers in Jesus: ‘Many even of the rulers believed in Him [Jesus], but because of the Pharisees they did not acknowledge Him, for fear that they would be expelled from the synagogue; for they loved the approval of people rather than the approval of God.’

John 19:38 is also relevant. In this verse we are told that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus, and the reason for mentioning his 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.

John 12:42-43 and 19:38 show at the very least that being a secret Christian in order not to be expelled from the synagogue is unacceptable. However, John’s Gospel also knows of Christians being martyred (16:2), and it is natural to understand that when this Gospel criticises secret faith in Christ, it is saying that secret Christianity is unacceptable in all circumstances, including those situations when the secrecy is for the purpose of avoiding being killed.

(4) Peter’s denial of Jesus is also very important for our purposes (Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27). This of course is a famous biblical example of committing sin. Yet we need to be clear that it is not as if Peter could really have helped Jesus by not denying Him. Jesus was going to suffer whatever lay in store regardless of what Peter said to those who challenged him.

The alternatives facing Peter were either to acknowledge that he was a disciple of Jesus, even though this would mean a real possibility of being tortured or even killed, or to deny Jesus and avoid these dangers. The fact that what Peter did is treated as such a serious sin shows us how important it is to the Lord that we are open about our Christian faith even if it is dangerous to do this.

(5) In the book of Revelation, showing courage in acknowledging that Jesus is Lord, even if it leads to persecution and death, is presented as something praiseworthy.

In Rev 2:13 the church in Pergamon is commended because they ‘hold fast My name and did not deny faith in Me, even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you . . .’ Here acknowledging faith in Christ is presented as something worthwhile even if it leads to being killed.

Rev 3:8 also refers to the importance of not denying the Lord, and Rev 21:8 condemns those who are cowardly, surely for giving in to persecution in some way.

The passages we have looked at show that it is wrong for those who believe in Jesus to hide that fact, even if their lives might be in grave danger by being open about it. Matt 10 also shows that being secret about Christian faith out of a desire to protect family members is not a valid excuse.

This does not mean that a Christian has to wear a cross necklace or tell everyone they meet that they are a believer, but they should surely tell their families and those close to them, and be honest with anyone who asks. Their Christian faith should not be a secret.

It is also surely wrong for a Christian 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 this faith. It would therefore surely be a form of denying Jesus to go to the mosque and practise the Islamic religion.

I don’t say any of this 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. Yet we must choose to obey God. And when we do, all His mighty power is available to help us through all that He calls us to suffer. And if it costs us our lives, then it will all be worth it. We will have endless years of great joy ahead of us in heaven.

I want to stress that my point in this article is just that Christians need to be open about the fact that they are Christians. I am not saying that Christians under persecution should never alter their behaviour as a result of that persecution.

For example, it is often OK for persecuted believers to flee to a place where they can avoid danger (Matt 10:23; 23:34; Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19; 12:17). I am sure too that there are times when it is the will of God for Christians to go into hiding (Acts 9:23-25; 2 Cor 11:32-33). And I also believe that there are times when it is OK for Christians to avoid doing certain things when threatened.

For instance, if the government of a country tells Christians that they must not preach the gospel on the streets, I am sure 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.

What Christians must not do, however, is to deny that they are Christians or to keep that a secret. Genuine Christian faith is open. If you want the Lord to acknowledge you before His Father in heaven, you must acknowledge Him before people, even if it costs you your life or the lives of those you love.

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 ( and Barnabas Fund ( and contact them if you need support.

If you are a Christian who does not live in a country where persecution is severe, please 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.

I have been a Christian for over 25 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament Language, Literature and Theology from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.

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