Tag Archives: Persecution

I Hope My Son's Life Is in Danger

My son believed God's Word when he heard it preached from 2 Thessalonians. Like most of us, some things he forgets, some things lodge themselves deep in his soul where they germinate over time, and some things arrest his imagination so that he can't think about anything else. If for some reason the pastor mentioned volcanoes, for example, he would think about that. If the pastor mentioned a bad guy, he would think about that.

This Sunday there was a bad guy in the text. My son Carson heard it, his imagination went to work, and his response made God's harder promises more real to our family.

father-and-child-holding-hands.jpg?w=750The Antichrist Is Scary

Kristi was making dinner, the girls were hollering in play, I was setting the table, and that's when Carson asked, "Is Satan going to send a man to kill us?" An ordinary moment just became one of the most important moments in the life of my son.

Carson was talking about the man he heard about in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10, who comes "by the activity of Satan," who will "proclaim himself to be God" and lead many away from Christ "with all wicked deception." He is called "the son of destruction," the "antichrist" (1 John 2:18), and in Revelation he's pictured as a beast (Revelation 13). My son was about to find out what it really means to be a Christian. "Yes, son. Satan hates Jesus Christ, and he hates the people who belong to him. He is always scheming, and the Bible says that one day he will send a man to deceive many and destroy others who refuse to turn."

I planned to continue with true and happy promises but was cut off when Carson started wailing. He didn't want to die, and I could understand. I told Kristi to start dinner with the girls. I took Carson into my office to talk about Jesus' cross and about ours.

Jesus Has Strong Breath

By the time we sat down to talk, Carson was already on a fix. He wasn't the first with this idea, and he wouldn't be the last. With urgency, he made his proposal: "What if we tell the man that we don't believe in Jesus? What if we trick the man?" Creative? Yes. Honoring to Jesus Christ? He agreed, no. The fear and tears returned in force. My son was fully convinced of the Word of God. Just not yet the good part. And so it was my job to teach him the whole counsel of God, which does not end with Gethsemane, a cross, and a tomb. "Son, Jesus died on the cross for us, and death may be the cost of following Jesus. But do you remember what happens to dead Christians?"

With each biblical reality we discussed came a new and corresponding wave of emotion. Smirking through his tears, Carson looked into my eyes, and in perfect bad-guy defying, 5-year-old form, he made his hand into a knife, dragged it across his throat, and applied the Bible to his life: "Then Satan can cut off my head." I couldn't believe my eyes or ears, and yet I could. He remembered the resurrection, and death lost its sting.

I knew only to pour more gas on his little fire of gospel faith.

"Son, Satan may send a man to kill us. This is true. And many more will come who hate Christ. But Jesus will come and destroy this man. Do you know how?"

"How?"

"With his breath."

He rose to his feet, walked across the room, picked up the Bible off my desk, put it in my hand where it belonged in this conversation, and told me what to do: "Read me the Bible. Read me the part where Jesus breathes on the man." Suddenly 2 Thessalonians 2:8 became my new favorite Bible verse: "And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming." Hearing this word, Carson breathed in my face like a dragon and then giggled. It was the sound of faith. Breathing doesn't take a lot of effort, and Carson understood. Jesus' breath is stronger than death.

I studied 2 Thessalonians for a week before preaching it to my son and our congregation. In a day my son knew it better than I did.

Something Scarier than Death

But isn't it cruel or at least premature to fill the imagination of children with the stories and Scriptures of death for Christian discipleship?

When my son posed his question before dinner, I was tempted for a moment to comfort him by saying that he may not actually die for his faith. But that's not what the children who saw Christ die on the cross would have understood. And that's not how Jesus talked when he said things like, "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you [on my account]" (Matthew 5:11). There is nothing more eternally healthy for the imagination of a young boy than to hear these words and place himself in the drama of Scripture. The same young imagination that may at first fear death, when captivated by Christ will remember these words and the breath of Jesus that lays low his enemies. In fact, we will know our children believe Jesus' promises about heaven when they believe Jesus' promises about now.

But death for Christ isn't inevitable for those who profess him as Lord. There's another possibility that is far worse: deception. The bad guy Carson heard about on Sunday comes with "wicked deception for those who are perishing," and those who turn on Christ will "suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might" (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Many of us won't have to pick between our lives and Christ. But some of us will, and some of our children will, or perhaps their children. This is the kind of Christianity we must pass down.

So, yes, I truly hope my son's life is in danger. No, not because I want him to suffer in any way. I lock the door at night, buckle his seatbelt, and give him food for a reason. I'm talking about danger from unflinching association with a crucified man. The safest place in this world outside of Christ is, in reality, the most dangerous place we can be.

With that lesson before us, we sat down to eat, thanked God for our food, and prayed as Jesus instructed: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

How to Survive a Cultural Crisis

Public opinion appears to be changing about same-sex marriage, as are the nation's laws. Of course this change is just one in a larger constellation. America's views on family, love, sexuality generally, tolerance, God, and so much more seems to be pushing in directions that put Bible-believing Christians on the defensive.

It's easy to feel like we've become the new "moral outlaws," to use Al Mohler's phrase. Standing up for historic Christian principles will increasingly get you in trouble socially and maybe economically, perhaps one day also criminally. It's ironic that Christians are told not to impose their views on others, even as the threat of job loss or other penalties loom over Christians for not toeing the new party line.

In all this, Christians are tempted to become panicked or to speak as alarmists. But to the extent we do, to that same extent we show we've embraced an unbiblical and nominal Christianity.

Here, then, are seven principles for surviving the very real cultural shifts we're presently enduring.

1. Remember that churches exist to work for supernatural change.

The whole Christian faith is based on the idea that God takes people who are spiritually dead and gives them new life. Whenever we evangelize, we are evangelizing the cemetery.

There's never been a time or a culture when it was natural to repent of your sins. That culture doesn't exist, it hasn't existed, it never will exist. Christians, churches, and pastors especially must know deep in their bones that we've always been about a work that's supernatural.

From that standpoint, recent cultural changes have made our job zero percent harder.

2. Understand that persecution is normal.  

In the last few months I've been preaching through John's Gospel, and a number of people have thanked me for bringing out the theme of persecution. But I'm not convinced my preaching has changed; I think people's ears have changed. Recent events in the public square have caused people to become concerned about what's ahead for Christians. But if you were to go back and listen to my old sermons—say, a series preached in the 1990s on 1 Peter— you'd discover that ordinary biblical exposition means raising the topic of persecution again and again.

Persecution is what Christians face in this fallen world. It's what Jesus promised us (e.g., John 16).

Now, it may be that in God's providence some Christians find themselves in settings where, even if they devote their lives to obeying Jesus, they won't encounter insult and persecution. But don't be fooled by the nice buildings in which so many churches meet. This Jesus we follow was executed as a state criminal.

One of my fellow pastors recently observed that, in the history of Christian persecution, it's often secondary issues—not the gospel—that elicit persecution. Persecutors don't say, "You believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ; I'm going to persecute you now." Rather, some belief or practice we maintain as Christians contradicts what people want or threatens their way of seeing the world. And so they oppose us.

Again, to the extent we respond to changes in our culture either with panic or alarmism, to that same extent we contradict the Bible's teaching about ordinary Christian discipleship. It shows we've traded on the normalcy of nominalism.

Pastors especially should set the example in teaching their congregations not to play the victim. We should salt into our regular preaching and praying the normalcy of persecution. It's the leader's work to prepare churches for how we can follow Jesus, even if it means social criticism, or loss of privilege, or financial penalties, or criminal prosecution.

3. Eschew utopianism.

Christians should be a people of love and justice, and that means we should always strive to make our little corner of the globe a bit nicer than how we found it, whether that's a kindergarten classroom or a kingdom. But even as we work for the sake of love and justice, we must remember we're not going to transform this world into the kingdom of our Christ.

God hasn't commissioned us to make this world perfect; he's commissioned us chiefly to point to the One who will one day make it perfect, even as we spend our lives loving and doing good. If you're tempted to utopianism, please observe that Scripture doesn't allow it, and that the history of utopianism has a track record of distracting and deceiving even some of Christ's most zealous followers.

It's good to feel sadness over the growing approval given to sin in our day. But one of the reasons many Christians in America feel disillusionment over current cultural changes is that we've been somewhat utopian in our hopes. Again, to the extent you think and speak as an alarmist, to that same extent you demonstrate that utopian assumptions may have been motivating you all along.

4. Make use of our democratic stewardship.

I would be sad if anyone concluded from my comments that it doesn't matter what Christians do publicly or with the state. Paul tells us to submit to the state. But in our democratic context, part of submitting to the state means sharing in its authority. And if we have a share in its authority, we just might have, to some extent, a share in its tyranny. To neglect the democratic process, so long as it's in our hands, is to neglect a stewardship.

We cannot create Utopia, but that doesn't mean we cannot be good stewards of what we have, or that we cannot use the democratic processes to bless others. For the sake of love and justice, we should make use of our democratic stewardship.

5. Trust the Lord, not human circumstances.

There's never been a set of circumstances Christians cannot trust God through. Jesus beautifully trusted the Father through the cross "for the joy set before him" (Heb. 12:2). Nothing you and I will face will amount to what our King had to suffer.

We can trust him. He will prove trustworthy through everything we might have to endure. And as we trust him, we will bear a beautiful testimony of God's goodness and power, and we will bring him glory.

6. Remember that everything we have is God's grace.

We must remember anything we receive less than hell is dancing time for Christians. Right? Everything a Christian has is all of grace. We need to keep that perspective so that we aren't tempted to become too sour toward our employers, our friends, our family members, and our government when they oppose us.

How was Paul able to sing in prison? He knew that of which he'd been forgiven. He knew the glory that awaited him. He perceived and prized these greater realities.

7. Rest in the certainty of Christ's victory.

The gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. We need not fear and tremble as if Satan has finally, after all these millennia, gained the upper hand in his opposition to God through the same-sex marriage lobby.

"Oh, we might finally lose it here!" No, not a chance.

People around the world now and throughout history have suffered far more than Christians in America presently do. And we don't assume Satan had the upper hand there, do we?

Each nation and age has a unique way to express its depravity, to attack God. But none will succeed any more than the crucifixion succeeded in defeating Jesus. Yes, he died. But three days later he got up from the dead.

Christ's kingdom is in no danger of failing. Again, Christians, churches, and especially pastors must know this deeply in our bones. D-Day has happened. Now it's cleanup time. Not one person God has elected to save will fail to be saved because the secular agenda is "winning" in our time and place. There shouldn't be anxiety or desperation in us.

We may not be able to out-argue others. They may not be persuaded by our books and articles. But we can love them with the supernatural love God has shown to us in Christ. And we can make his Word known today—with humility, with confidence, and with joy.

The Litmus Test of Genuine Christianity

In our pluralistic culture, churches have become so varied that they spread confusion about what it really means to be a follower of Christ. When it comes to hot-button issues like gun rights, abortion, and homosexuality, professing Christians line up on opposite ends. Can Christianity legitimately be so divided? Or, to put it another way, can anyone discern the "real deal"? Is it possible to know what functional, practical Christianity truly looks like? 

James, the brother of Jesus, says yes—and he gives us a simple litmus test:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (Jas. 1:27).

James provides a short, two-item checklist: (1) love—helping those in need, and (2) holiness—separating from worldly influence. These two traits summarize the practical outworking of a life changed by the gospel.

Much of the current division within the church comes from overemphasizing one trait over the other. Some churches tend to emphasize love, whereas others tend to prioritize holiness. But neither is negotiable. Both are essential for living the Christian life.

First Essential: Love

One way Christians can be tempted to forsake the requirement of love is to pursue our rights. Especially in America, where individualism is one of our sacred cows, we can get caught up in fighting for our rights, particularly as they pertain to religious freedom. There are certainly times and places to use proper legal means to secure those rights (as Paul did in Acts 22:22-30), but we should be known for something better than demanding equal treatment.

We can become so consumed with our liberties that we end up treating those in the world as our enemies, to the detriment of the gospel. God has called us to proclaim a message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20), something that is hard to do if we constantly approach unbelievers armed for a fight.

The Christian is called to consider the needs and preferences of others (Gal. 5:14). Yes, we must sometimes draw attention to a person's—or even a nation's—sins, but are we going to do so with our fists in their faces or with tears on our cheeks? During New Testament times, the government was far more corrupt and hostile to Christianity than ours is today, yet we don't see Scripture commanding us to fight for our rights. Instead, we are instructed to expect unfair treatment—even blatant persecution—and to return hostility with love (John 15:18-20; Rom. 12:18-21).

Second Essential: Holiness

The sacred cow of individualism has affected not only our love but also our holiness. Too often, we have turned our personal happiness into the greatest good. As long as it makes me happy (whatever "it" may be), and as long as no one else gets hurt, I can and should pursue it. If I don't pursue my own happiness, I am being untrue to myself. Or so the argument goes.

But the second fruit of genuine Christianity, James says, is "to keep oneself unstained from the world." The world may tell us to follow our hearts, but we are called to be true ultimately to God and his Word—not to our autonomy. And being true to God often comes in the form of denying ourselves what we think we want, because it is actually bad for us (Rom. 13:4; 1 Pet. 2:11).

At the same time, we don't want to be so far removed from the world that we don't understand it. We can't affect the culture if we aren't engaging with it. In many ways, though, we have sacrificed our holiness on the altar of relevance. With the apparent purpose of being more engaged with our culture, the church has tried so hard to fit in that the distinction between churched and unchurched peoples has often been obliterated. We must take James' warning to heart: aligning ourselves with worldly values is aligning ourselves against God (Jas. 4:4).

Christianity Is Countercultural

Christ-like love is a beautiful thing. To love unconditionally, regardless of another person's maturity or theological depth or moral purity, is to love like God loves. It reveals a heart transformed by the gospel. Likewise, true holiness is a beautiful thing. Avoiding conformity to this world is a sign of a heart satisfied with promises and pleasures found in the gospel that exceed anything the world can offer.

Pure and undefiled Christianity is counter-cultural. It stands out as radically different from anything we would naturally think or do. Wherever we stand politically or denominationally, the true path of Christianity challenges us to confront the animosity and worldliness found in our own hearts. True Christianity may look to the world like foolishness, but it reveals God's saving power.

Better or Worse? The State of Persecution in China

It's been a confusing couple weeks for anyone paying attention to news about the church in China. If all you did was read Christianity Today, you probably have whiplash by now. On February 18, the magazine posted a story with the headline "How China Plans to Wipe Out Chinese House Churches." On February 25, it posted a response titled "China Is Not Trying to Wipe Out Christianity."

The first Christianity Today article was a wire service story about ChinaAid Association's claim that persecution is getting worse in China. The response, offered by ChinaSource president Brent Fulton and Open Doors International's Jan Vermeer, challenged the conclusions of the ChinaAid report and put the numbers in a broader context. Fulton writes:

Without a doubt, Christians in China face many obstacles as they live out their faith in an often hostile environment. But Christians are not persecuted simply for being Christians, nor are house churches targeted for attack simply for being house churches. If this were the case one would expect to see hundreds of house churches being closed down each week. (Beijing, which had the highest number of persecution cases in 2012, reportedly has more than 3,000 house churches, yet the ChinaAid report mentions only two cases involving Beijing house churches for the entire year.)

Those of us who work in China are often asked if we think the situation is getting better or worse for the church here. I've always found that to be a problematic question. "Better" and "worse" are relative terms, so the first response has to be, "Better or worse in comparison to what?" Compared to what we're accustomed to? Compared to a certain time in the past? By what standard should the question be answered?

The second problem with the question is that it assumes only two possibilities: better or worse, good or bad. It's based on a false dichotomy that leaves little room for the complicated reality—and China is nothing if not a complicated reality.

If we're comparing the situation to what we're accustomed to in the West, then of course it isn't good. There are far too many restrictions on religious practice. Regulations either permitting or restricting activities are arbitrarily enforced. Religious issues are still considered too politically sensitive for open discussion and debate. This certainly isn't good, but is it "worse" than the situation during the Cultural Revolution?

If, however, we're comparing the current situation to what it used to be, then there's ample evidence that things are better, even if they aren't good. Thousands of house churches operate openly without harassment; Christian books are being published; Bibles can be freely downloaded to computers and smartphones; Christian celebrities are open about their faith; and ordinary believers are using the internet for encouragement and evangelism. All of these things would have been unthinkable even as recently as 10 years ago.

Neither Will Nor Resources

ChinaAid claims its numbers show things are getting worse, but putting the figures in a broader context actually reveals the opposite. Let's assume the conservative estimate for the number of Christians in China is 50 million (the government acknowledges 23 million). This report says that out of 50 million believers in the country, more than 4,000 experienced some level of persecution or harassment. That's a small number relative to the total number of Christians. But the report misses this larger context, thus giving readers the impression that persecution in China is more widespread and serious than their statistics actually show. Again, if the numbers are true (or if there are more incidents than reported, which is likely), they indicate persecution isn't particularly widespread.

Regarding the supposed secret plan to "eradicate" house churches, it's absolutely true the powers-that-be would prefer such unregistered congregations to ally themselves with the Three-Self associations and register accordingly. But with tens of millions of Christians worshiping in house churches, the government has neither the will nor the resources to force the issue.

In fact, according to Liu Peng of the Pacific Institute for Social Sciences, a Beijing-based think tank focusing on issues related to religion and law, all of the government's previous eradication attempts have proved ineffective:

They may be effective in the short run, but in the long run, they are ineffective, risky, and lead to escalating conflicts with ever more serious consequences. In the end, they only drive the people opposing the government. At the same time, most house churches have become accustomed to surviving under extreme pressure. They are not afraid of pressure and hold that constant crackdowns only strengthen the unity of the church and foster growth. The crackdowns in the past resulted in revival and the growth of even larger house churches. It is unrealistic and useless to use extreme pressure to force millions of people to change their beliefs and to resolve religious problems. It will never be successful, no matter how much pressure is used.

The government must find a new way of giving house churches legal status—and there's evidence some officials understand. Nevertheless, the relationship between house churches and the state is extremely complex. Again, I'd direct you to the Pacific Institute for Social Sciences to read analyses written by mainland Chinese scholars of this complex relationship, as well as proposals for resolving problems.

So as to the question of whether or not things are getting worse, I've come to this conclusion: when people say "Things are getting worse" in China, what they really mean is, "Things aren't improving at the rate and scope we'd like."

That is not the same as "getting worse," and it's a distinction we need to be clear about.

* * * * * * * * * *

During The Gospel Coalition 2013 Missions Conference, Joann Pittman will lead a workshop on "Misconceptions about the Chinese Church." In this workshop, Joann will share what Chinese Chrisitans themselves view as the major challenges they face today. You can still register for this workshop and the entire five-day National Conference, April 6 to 10 in Orlando.

 

Dare to Be Immoral

If you only knew Christians from television, why would you want to become one? You have only a few kinds of media role models, none of them appealing. You could be a goody-two-shoes rube, most likely from the Midwest or South, like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons or Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock. You could be a judgmental hypocrite like Angela Martin from The Office and take only the Bible and The Purpose-Driven Life with you on a desert island but sleep around with your coworkers. Or you could be a deranged serial killer. As Gene Veith observes, you can usually identify the culprit in a suspenseful TV drama when you find the most religious character.

Our journalistic sensibilities don't exactly help matters. It's not news when Christians serve soup to the homeless. But it's always news when a church leader misappropriates benevolent funds for selfish gain. The world resents our moral standards and gloats over our failings. Somehow we've perpetuated the myth that what sets evangelicals apart is our moral superiority rather than an acute sense of our moral inability.

"Evangelicals' distinctive moral outlook, inherited from their fundamentalist forebearers, is dark and somewhat puritanical (or Victorian)," write public policy experts Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of the influential study American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. "[Evangelicals] share a view of the world as sinful and of God as a harsh judge. For them, heaven, hell, and judgment day are realities, not metaphors, and moral issues are framed in absolute, black-and-white terms."

The only problem with this summary is that I doubt Putnam and Campbell could find any evangelicals who would describe their faith this way. Whose testimony says, "I was looking for an unflinching moral standard, and I found it in the harsh Christian God"? Even so, evidence suggests that Putnam and Campbell accurately describe how outsiders at least have viewed evangelicals at least since the tumultuous social revolutions of the 1960s and probably before. Statistics analyzed by Putnam and Campbell lead us to believe that the 1960s unleashed a counter-revolution of concern about declining moral standards. And many of these concerned citizens found their way to evangelical churches in the 1970s and 1980s. Somehow we failed to convince the watching world, maybe even ourselves at times, that the church only accepts immoral sinners who confess their need for a Savior.

No Going Back

In the days ahead, however, you won't need to convince anyone of your immorality. You will be judged and found woefully wanting. No longer suspected of faux moral superiority, you will be accused of real moral inferiority. The revolution recounted by Putnam and Campbell has come full circle. Rather than Victorian prudes, evangelicals will be likened to Jim Crow segregationists. The presenting issue might be homosexuality, given rapidly changing public opinion. Already you can see how the mechanics of power and influence have turned the allegedly judgmental into the actually judged. Never discount the human ability to justify ourselves. We judge one another as immoral for not recycling. For not buying organic. For voting against the anointed candidate. For sending our children to the wrong schools. For eating the wrong fast food. For buying the wrong shoes.

The backlash against immoral evangelicals will sting all the more because we bear much blame for the pattern of retribution. We wielded "majority rules" politics to try and roll back the excesses of the 1960s when the "Silent Majority" backed Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. And when that effort failed, the "Moral Majority" resurrected to bolster Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Even while winning our share of political battles, we lost the culture, so now we can't even win the political battles. There is no going back. There is nothing left to recover. There is no majority to recover it anyway. There must be a better way.

Indeed, there is. Our situation does not differ altogether from the challenge endured by early Christians in the Roman Empire. By the standards of state religion, deemed essential to secure divine favor and battlefield victories, Christians were regarded as sacrilegious. "[T]o many Romans, including some of society's most influential citizens, Christians practiced an impious religion whose way of life was seditious and subversive of the commonweal," Robert Louis Wilken writes in The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. So emperors, including the infamous Decius in AD 250, imposed mandatory pagan sacrifices designed to divide and conquer the small but growing Christian community. Though many Christians succumbed to the persecution—whether by death or by capitulation—the church grew in stature and number. 

Put to Shame

We face nothing approaching these threats. Yet we marvel at these resilient believers, memorialized in the remarkable testimony of martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage. Do we not worship the same God? Do we not read the same Scriptures? Do we not follow the same Jesus? Remember, Jesus was not faulted for his holiness. The Pharisees, accusing him of immorality, asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered his would-be judges, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:11-13).

We are not the moral majority. We are sick sinners. But neither can we remain silent. We shout good news about a Savior who wants more than morality from us. We do not shy away from the political process when we can enact and enforce laws that will serve the common good. Indeed, we seek common ground even with political opponents. But we do not argue on the basis of our numerical or moral superiority. We tread carefully knowing how sin inclines all of us to judgment and self-righteousness, whatever our politics. We all have blind spots. So neither lament nor activism ever outpaces our gratefulness for grace. Along with the apostle Paul, we say,

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:12-16)

These are your marching orders: lean on the "perfect patience" of Jesus so that through your example many might "believe in him for eternal life." Dare to be immoral in society's eyes for the sake of the kingdom. And return kindness for insults, "so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame" (1 Peter 3:16).

What We All Need to Learn from the Minority Experience

On Monday, January 21, the United States celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For many we pause to remember the deep pain of segregation and hate that have plagued our country. God can teach us from our history, specifically from the oppression of African Americans in our midst. And one thing is certain: he doesn't waste our experiences.

I corresponded with Thabiti Anyabwile, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman and Council member for The Gospel Coalition, about his perspective on Christianity in decline and what it's like to be a minority.

Do you believe the reports that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, that it's declining in America, and that atheism is on the rise? If so, why do you think this is happening? 

I don't know. I'm certain there's a healthy element of truth in these reports, but also a fair amount of sensationalism attached. For example, we're reading a lot about the increasing numbers of "nones." But that's an incredibly diverse category. It seems to me Christianity is the or at least one of the most persecuted faiths in the world since the days of Jesus. There's nothing new there. And as for its decline, has there been a time we didn't lament its decline? Every generation does. It's a wonder any Christians are left given how often the lament has been voiced!

But we know why there's still a church, of course. We know why, despite severe persecution, Christian converts are multiplying worldwide. It's because Jesus made a promise in Matthew 16. He promised to build his church and assured us that even hell's gates wouldn't prevail against us. So whatever the reports, our mission remains the same: tell the world about the crucified and risen Son of God who saves repentant believers from the wrath of God to come, and prepares for them an invincible kingdom in which there's no more dying, crying, or pain—and where the persecuted are the most gloriously rewarded.

Should Christians be alarmed? If so, how should we respond?

Yes and no. Yes, we should be alarmed because human life is being brutalized and taken. We'll face Jesus with great shame if we coldly steeled ourselves against persecution. The early Christians counted it a joy to suffer for the Name and to have their possessions plundered as they identified with those imprisoned for the faith (Acts 5:41; Heb. 10:32-34). We should be so alarmed that we actually enter into the suffering of the persecuted.

But we can't be so alarmed that we're anxious, doubtful, or unbelieving. Christ's rule is never thwarted. His kingdom is coming. His church will prevail. We must not "throw away our confidence; it will be richly rewarded" (Heb. 10:35).

Christians increasingly feel like the minority in the United States, where African Americans have always been minorities. How can Christians learn from their African American brothers and sisters about being a minority?

There are lots of ways the church needs to learn from the African American experience. In no particular order:

1. Learn how to deal with shame and anger when you should have stood up but didn't because it was too costly.

One of the most tortuous experiences African Americans have faced is the inability to respond to oppression and mistreatment. Grown men being called "boy" and unable to answer their juniors who used the term. Men being dragged from their beds and lynched while watching families could do nothing. A flood of shame and anger rushes into the heart in the face of such overwhelming force and mistreatment. The church will need to learn how to deal with that. African Americans can help teach us to do so.

2. Learn how to hope in God when life and liberty are in peril.

I'm reading so many evangelical leaders announce the end of the country because President Obama was re-elected and states have passed "gay marriage" laws. There's concern in cases like Hobby Lobby that religious liberty is in danger. But what I don't hear is much wisdom on how to hope in God when life and liberty are threatened. African Americans survived the long dark night of slavery and Jim Crow with little more than hope. We believed history bends toward justice and a righteous God would defend the oppressed. The church will need to learn that, and there are plentiful resources in the African American experience.

3. Learn how to suffer.

What American believers are now calling "persecution" is mild compared to the brutality Christians face in other parts of the world. What we're facing is almost loving treatment compared to what African Americans from the early 1600s beyond the mid-1900s faced. Black people have been a suffering people and have managed to endure that suffering with tremendous dignity. Right now, the church in the United States doesn't seem to know how to bear reproach very well. The theologies dominating the airwaves are prosperity theologies—of the materialistic word-faith type as well as of the more mainstream American triumphalistic and moralistic type. So when the church hurts it quickly finds the fetal position and whines its way through the conflict. African Americans didn't have that luxury of meeting suffering with whining—and no one was listening! We had to learn that suffering wasn't the end, and that our humanity was proven by our suffering even if it was sometimes distorted by it as well. The church must draw from those resources.

4. Learn how to persevere when everything is against you.

Are we going to close our churches, withdraw from the public square, avoid our neighbors, and hide our faith because we're opposed? We won't if we're genuinely Christians. We'll have to press on in the face of minority status and systemic repression. This also means learning not to whine and to get on with living. So what if the deck is stacked? It's not going to change by complaining. No one is going to give you anything. If you have a case to make, you're going to have to make it from the floor of the lion's den. Everything about it is unfair. Get over it. Get on with it.

5. Learn to be a community.

Stop having juvenile debates about whether church membership is required by Scripture. That's a conversation you only have when enjoying extreme privilege. If you're part of a persecuted community, life and death are bound up with making your place in that community real, secure, and meaningful. The American church is still too individualistic. She still has problems creating and sustaining community boundaries—inside of which are hope, healing, and help in times of trouble. If the black church has been anything, it's been a community of refuge for black people throughout our sojourn in America.

6. Learn how to tell your children it's wonderful to be black (or Christian, in this case) when the world says it ain't.

How will the church raise its children? How will we shape their thinking in a hostile environment? That's a challenge African Americans have faced and continue to face. One overarching theme of the black experience is self-definition and self-determination in a hostile context. We have fought and struggled to seize control of labels and definitions (Negro, Black, African American) and re-appropriate symbols ("Black is beautiful") in a way that dignifies African American people. Those efforts where the thoughtful push-backs against a society that devalued and demeaned black people. The church can learn from African American experience how to create resistance by fostering identity.

7. Learn that being a Christian isn't a matter of lifestyle or preference—something you can lay aside—but an identifying mark everyone notices the moment you walk in the room.

Our white evangelical friends enjoy a privilege African Americans did not. By virtue of skin color, No African American could escape his or her identification with the African American community. Nor did they want to. But "Christian" is not identifiable by visible physical markers. You can declare yourself a Christian or remain anonymous. The ability to "pass" as something other than Christian will create tremendous pressure in settings of real persecution. The church will need to learn that it's better to identify with Jesus even if it costs your life than to keep your life and lose your soul (cf. Matt. 10:28; 16:26)—just as African Americans chose to embrace themselves sometimes at the cost of their lives.

8. Learn how to effectively use the courts to address oppression for all.

In a tragic irony, the persons against whom evangelicals line up in the "culture wars" have consistently advanced their cause through the courts. The decisive battles of the "culture wars" are not happening in the culture. Perhaps we should re-title them the "court wars." Evangelicals have mistakenly taken a defensive position in the courts and largely focused on public opinion, while their opponents have focused on the courts and effectively disdained opposing public sentiments. Consequently evangelicals find themselves increasingly on the losing side, while their "opponents" now appear to be using governmental machinery to limit them. It's as if the church hasn't read the civil rights history of the country—and I suspect it hasn't. The advances of African Americans would likely never have happened without winning major decisions in the courts and then bringing the government machinery to bear on opposing public sentiment. The church will need to advance a positive court strategy and win public support later. And the church will need to be the champion for freedoms and rights rather than the miserly keepers of a privileged and fading "majority." I'm afraid the church sounds too narrowly self-interested, fearful, and sometimes negligent in defending the dignity of others. If persecution is the church's future, she would do well to consider the black experience as a case study in fighting not only for its own privilege and way of life but also for the dignity, freedoms, and appropriate rights of all.

Ethnic persecution isn't foreign to African Americans. Have you ever experienced discrimination or racism? 

Sure I have. It would be hard to imagine an African American who hasn't. In fact, the instances are too numerous to recount. One of my earliest recollections of my father is having him teach me in the mid-1970s to enter the still informally segregated kitchen side of a local barbecue restaurant. The city swimming pool maintained that same informal segregation, backed by racist slurs and threats for those who trespassed. There was the high school guidance counselor who insisted I shouldn't apply to a major university. She suggested I'd be better able to perform in a smaller, predominantly black college despite the fact I was an advanced student making A's while sleeping through most classes. Then there's the time I was detained and questioned at the major "white" university I attended since I matched the description of someone who accosted a white coed. The description? "Tall and black." Never mind that I had 40 faculty witnesses to the fact I'd been playing basketball for the past hour, was clearly drenched with sweat from the games, and had only stepped outside two minutes prior to put money in a parking meter. That's a random sampling of typical experiences.

How do you think that experience could prepare others for what's being predicted?

I don't know. I used to think greater awareness would help the problem, as if it were a matter of familiarity and education. But depravity is too strong to be cured by education alone. The gains in interethnic personal understanding and acceptance seem marginal in most cases. The seismic shifts have all occurred as a consequence of major legal victories that, in time, changed public and personal attitudes. I'm not sure we can easily move from personal anecdotes of mistreatment to lessons for others. I suppose there are the kinds of experiences that inspire and motivate. That's good. But when you're really oppressed, there's nothing in another's experience that quite prepares you for your own. We should try to convey it, but there's a shudder and terror that lies beyond imagination and vicarious experience. There's no way to effectively describe waking up to a burning cross in your yard so that others can adequately "get it." Some horrors have to be lived to be understood.

It seems to me any preparation for true persecution will come from a higher place, namely the Lord. Drawing close with him in his suffering readies the soul. If only the church would desire to share in his suffering.

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Evangelical Leaders Call for Civil Disobedience Against U.S. Government

The Story: After the Obama administration's announced that health insurance coverage would require the inclusion of contraception and abortifacients, several Christian leaders---including Chuck Colson, Richard Land, and Rick Warren---called on evangelicals to stand with Catholics in civil disobedience to this law.

The Background: In a special edition of his weekly video segment, Chuck Colson said:

We have come to the point---I say this very soberly---when if there isn't a dramatic change is circumstances, we as Christians may well be called upon to stand in civil disobedience against the actions of our own government. That would break my heart as a former Marine Captain loving my country, but I love my God more . . . I've made up my mind---sober as that decision would have to be---that I will stand for the Lord regardless of what my state tells me.

On the same day, Saddleback pastor Rick Warren wrote on Twitter:

I'm not a Catholic but I stand in 100% solidarity with my brothers & sisters to practice their belief against govt pressure [...]

I'd go to jail rather than cave in to a govement mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you? Acts 5:29

And Richard Land and Barrett Duke wrote in an op-ed:

The Obama administration has declared war on religion and freedom of conscience. This must not stand. Our Baptist forebears died and went to prison to secure these freedoms. It is now our calling to stand in the gap and defend our priceless First Amendment religious freedoms.

Why It Matters: Because opposition to contraceptives is most closely associated with orthodox Catholics, media have portrayed the current controversy as a Roman Catholic issue. But as these evangelical leaders make clear, the direct assault on freedom of conscience should be a grave concern for all believers.

Acts 5:20 records a profession of Peter and the apostles that all evangelicals should heed: "We must obey God rather than men." In almost all cases, Christians are required to obey the laws of the state. But when we are forced to choose between obedience to God or obedience to man, we have no other recourse but to disobey the magistrate and obey King Jesus.

(Via: Denny Burk)

[Note: If you find a story our community should know about, please send the link to joe.carter *at* thegospelcoalition.org.]

What's Next for New York Churches

"Don't Leave Our Church Homeless" read the signs distributed during Thursday's press conference outside New York City Hall. More than 60 churches in New York meet in public schools for their Sunday services. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal this week, the churches learned they will need to find a new location before February 12.

Many of those church leaders, city officials, and concerned citizens met Thursday on the steps of City Hall to hear Council Member Fernando Cabrera introduce legislation seeking to overturn this decision. Some left excited and hopeful after hearing spirited speeches from elected officials, local pastors, and advocate ministries. This legislative push follows nearly 17 years of legal struggle between Bronx Household of Faith and the City of New York, which contends that churches meeting outside school hours inappropriately influence children.

Some of these churches have been meeting in the same public schools for more than 25 years. We've been meeting in ours for almost two.

Our Story

 

I moved with my family to Manhattan on November 14 to serve as the pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side neighborhood. Less than a month later on December 5, after preaching only two Sundays, I learned that we're losing our meeting space.

I certainly didn't expect my first several months or even years as a pastor to be rosy. I just didn't expect this particular problem. I have read books and articles on conflict, difficult counseling situations, and even leadership challenges. But I can't say political conflict over our meeting space was high on my "to be prepared for" list.

But after eye-balling our apartment living room, wondering how many people we could fit for a Sunday service, the reality of the situation hit. Immediately I had two concerns:

  1. Anyone who has been a part of a church relocation knows that it's time consuming to look for a new space, negotiate lease terms, plan a budget, and meet to hash everything out. Now consider that more than 60 churches in the city will be searching for the same space in the same condensed time period during Advent.
  2. How will our response---positive, negative, or neutral---influence our community and neighbors?

I brought this second question to a prayer meeting on Wednesday with at least 30 fellow evangelical pastors and staff members from different parts of the city. Several pastors were losing their meeting space. We prayed together and encouraged each other to trust God and not to despair. Many pastors shared my concerns, but no one had a clear answer on how we should respond. Most of these pastors decided to plant or revitalize churches in New York in order to preach the gospel and offer faithful witness to God's saving work in our community. We're not immediately inclined toward activism and advocacy for the right to peaceably assemble.

Despite some reports of poor school-church relationships, many churches get along well with their school hosts. The pastor who preceded me, along with our congregation, had such a good relationship with our school they sent us an email to express regrets over our impending departure. We pay our rent on time, keep the place clean, and keep the terms of our lease.

Churches have labored years for a good reputation while preaching a faithful and persuasive gospel in a city where only 2 percent of the population attends an evangelical church. We won't forfeit the gospel, and we don't want to respond in anger and forfeit our standing in the community, either.

Public Implications

 

From what we understand, the city's move to prohibit churches from meeting in public schools is a clear constitutional violation. And, and as the saying goes, what happens in New York City will happen in your hometown five years from now.

Or at least that's the fear, that New York will set precedent for the rest of the country. So our response must be weighed against potential consequences for churches in Boston, Dallas, Chicago, and anywhere else believers profess Jesus as Lord.

Surely New York's ban reflects the intolerance of a tolerant society, as D. A. Carson has said somewhere. "It's ironic," one Brooklyn city official commented at Thursday's press conference, "that the Klu Klux Klan can meet freely in public schools, but churches, who were the backbone of the civil rights movement, are not allowed."

"Some people are afraid of what our children will be pressured into thinking if they see churches meeting in our schools," another city official said. "My fear is what they will think when they see that anyone can meet in public schools except churches!"

The city's decision provides further evidence that our pluralistic society seeks to banish religion and truth from the public square to the private sphere. As Leslie Newbigin once observed, this ideal they seek would eliminate all ideals. Any society attempting to explain the world as something without ultimate truths commits itself to a reality without purpose.

So We Pray

 

Yet this city desperately committing itself to reality without purpose is the city we love. As I left the Wednesday prayer meeting, another pastor welcomed me to the city. He's been pastoring in New York for years through some tough times. The elementary school where his church meets doubled then tripled their rent within only a few years. And now the church must leave. "You'll love this city," he told me with wide eyes and and even wider heart.

The pastors in the prayer meeting love the city, but not because they enjoy a good show, the night life, or the countless restaurants. They love the city because they've prayed for it so much that they can't get it out of their hearts. I want to love the city that way.

And so we pray. We pray that if this law is not overturned, God will provide meeting places for our churches. We pray that pastors will not neglect the task of preaching the gospel and shepherding the flock while looking for locations. We pray that our response to the city's decision will honor Christ, uphold the gospel, and gain us a hearing from our neighbors. We pray that we will trust the Lord, knowing that he holds the universe together in his hand and no church is removed from a building apart from the Sovereign's say-so.

Will you pray for us, too?

"...some of whom they will kill..."

We've decided to pull the video we had featured in this post until its accuracy can be verified. We agree with the following statement from Justin Taylor regarding the videos in question and add our apology for any contribution we may have made to confusion about the very real persecution of Christians going on in India (and elsewhere):

I’ve been in touch with the folks from Cornerstone Community Church, and the videos are being pulled until their accuracy can be verified.

The question is not, as one commenter thought, about whether or not we doubt that severe persecution is occurring in India or in other parts of the world. The question is whether or not the footage in these videos is depicting Christians being persecuted for their faith. If it’s not, we don’t want to show it, as doing so knowingly would be both misleading and manipulative.

I apologize for my contribution to any confusion. I hope this doesn’t distract from the fact that such persecution is real and terrible, requiring prayers for our brothers and sisters. Again, I commend to you The Voice of the Martyrs for ways to get involved and informed.