Hell, Hate, and the Peril of Christian Witness


A few years ago, a friend of mine got in trouble. This time, my friend got in trouble for doing the right thing.

In solidarity with his union brothers, my friend was walking a picket line because the company he was working for had been taking advantage of employees. My friend was enjoying conversation with his colleagues talking about a number of items in the news, talking about the weather, about fishing, and traffic.

Death Life Christian Witness Card My friend cared for his colleagues, and so he explained to them the gospel. To make his explanation clear, he used a simple, two-sided tract called Life or Death. The tract was the size of a business card and had the word “Death” written in such an ornate and elaborate way that any calligrapher would have coveted the skill of its artist.

Death” was the beginning point—and the bad news. The card was designed in such a way that all my friend had to do was flip it around and the word which had looked like “Death” now appeared to say “Life.” From the simple flip from death to life, he shared the gospel message of John 3:16.

The workers hearing the gospel message gave it little merit. They held their tongues and kept their death, but not without recourse. They quietly filed a grievance with the union and filed charges against my friend for making “Death” threats against them.

At the time, I thought the entire affair was ludicrous. As it turns out, it was portentous, an ominous sign of things to come. Earlier this week, another

Baptist hate crime hell norfolk attleborough

Source: Steynonline

harbinger of hate crimes to come arose from Great Britain. Mark Steyn tells the story of one Robert Gladwin, a twenty-year old peace-loving, uber-tolerant Brit who simply could not tolerate the sign posted by the Attleborough Baptist Church.

The church sign featured an 8.5 x 11 color flyer with flames coming up from the bottom. The words of the sign read: “If you think there is no God, you’d better be right.” Death, judgment, and hell were not mentioned, but certainly implied. Steyn’s piece makes the excellent contrast between this rather benign flyer and the often seen (and protected) signs of Muslims in London: “Behead those who insult Islam.”

Still, the twenty year-old Gladwin was offended enough to report the crime to the police, who quickly launched a hate crimes investigation against the church. The pastor of the church, John Rose, removed the sign as a result of the investigation and replaced it (unfortunately) with a sign featuring the message “God loves you” with a meerkat saying “Simples” in a floating speech bubble overhead.

Christians must be clear on the gospel message as never before. Any number of issues—Hell perhaps preeminently—will become intolerable hate speech in the days to come. The simple message of eternal life in Christ for those who believe may easily be reinterpreted as a death threat by those who reject the Lord.

None of this is new, really. Christ told His followers from the beginning,

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Why Persecution Is a Social Justice Priority


Persecution Social JusticeBrooke Parks at Persecutionblog asks an excellent question: Is Christian Persecution a Social Justice Issue? I believe that it is. At least, I believe that persecution is a justice issue. Parks is correct to note the limits of social justice. Parks points out that the goal of ministry to the persecuted is not to remove inequality. The goal is not simply to make the persecution go away. The goal, according to Parks, is “for the church to be the body of Christ to them and with them.” I completely agree. From the New Testament perspective, “Being the body of Christ to them and with them” is primarily an action of justice.  Caring for the persecuted is a fundamental expression of biblical justice. Perhaps the term “social” can be abandoned, but the idea of justice cannot. And here is why.

In the Old Testament, God Himself proved to be the one who would always “execute justice” and “love” the strangers and aliens among Israel (Deuteronomy 10). The revelation of God as the source of justice and love was supposed to govern Israel. Israel was expected to be like God, executing justice in her own midst, making sure that the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the powerless were not forgotten.  In addition, Israel was supposed to show love to those who came into her midst from the nations around. In this way, Israel, like God, was supposed to model justice and love.

When the time came for Israel to adopt a king, the Lord gave specific instructions for the king: (1) That the king should first read, study, meditate upon, and obey carefully God’s law (Deut 17:18-20); (2) Then, second, that the king would execute justice and righteousness. This function of the king was on splendid display when the Queen of Sheba came to call upon Solomon. She proclaimed,

because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:9)

According to God, the king’s task was first to be just and, next, to execute laws of justice and righteousness for all of Israel.

When Christ came to establish His kingdom, He did so in righteousness. Christ was, of course, just. As He announced to John the Baptist, Christ also fulfilled all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).  Christ would later explain that basic discipleship—that is, a basic knowledge of what it means to follow Him—includes learning to be obedient to all His commands (Matthew 28:18-20, commonly called the Great Commission). Being obedient to Christ’s commands is essentially putting God’s justice and righteousness into action.

Christ came as a righteous king to establish God’s righteous kingdom. Consequently, Christ taught His followers that they must pursue righteousnessRighteousness Persecution and the kingdom as matters of first importance (Matthew 6:33).  Christ also taught His followers that their pursuit of justice/righteousness would lead them to be persecuted (see Matthew 5:10-12).

What all of this means is that to live the Christian life is to display God’s justice. Such a display will provoke persecution now just as it did when Christ and the Apostles ministered on earth. When Christ’s followers suffer persecution, they do so on account of righteousness (justice). They suffer for doing what is right in His name. It is His authority and His presence in His people which provokes the persecution.

So, in the New Testament, the first priority for social justice—that is, for feeding the poor, caring for widows, providing for orphans, and showing mercy to prisoners—is to minister to the persecuted and oppressed church. To use a common metaphor applied to the people of God in the New Testament, the first priority is to care for one’s own family—the family of God.

The idea of family first is evident in Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the care of widows:

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Christians are to do good to all people, but, especially, we are to do good to those who are of the household of faith, according to the Apostle Paul (Galatians 6:10). Not surprisingly, the New Testament is replete with examples of Christians doing good for fellow saints who are suffering.

Most references in the New Testament concerning feeding the poor actually understand the poor to be persecuted and suffering Christians. The offering Paul took from the churches was collected to care for needy, suffering saints in Jerusalem (see 1 Cor 16:1-4, Rom. 15:25). Paul Himself was partly responsible for the persecution which put these saints in such a needy state (see Acts 9:1-13). Little wonder, then, that after his conversion he felt responsible for their care.

When Paul went before Peter, James, and John to validate his commission to preach to the Gentiles, they gave him the right hand of fellowship and encouraged him to continue caring for the poor believers as he had been doing in Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:1-10).[1] Likewise, the admonitions in the book of James concerning the poor also are references to the brother or sister among you, that is, to the poor and needy Christians.

Further, the care of widows and orphans—which is called by James a “pure and undefiled religion”—is care for widows and orphans in the household of faith. These issues—typically called issues of social justice—are primarily issues of Christians acting rightly toward fellow brothers and sisters of the faith. They are issues of justice within the household of faith.

When the New Testament speaks of visiting prisoners, it means that Christians are responsible to remember (Hebrews 13:3) and care for fellow Christians who have been thrown into prison on account of Christ (cf. Hebrews 10:34). In fact, Peter made sure the early church held to an important distinction in categorizing imprisonment:

Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name (1 Peter 4:15-16; cf. 1 Peter 3:17).

John love persecutionIn the New Testament, issues of justice begin with the household of faith. As the household of faith learns to love one another rightly and, thus, executes the justice of God rightly so that God’s righteousness is on display, the world begins to see what justice and love actually are like. The whole world begins to know that Jesus Christ is present because of the way the Church loves one another (John 13:35). In this way, the Church witnesses to the world of Christ’s love.

So, it is important that the church exercises “justice” in caring for the poor and suffering Christians. In this way, ministry to the persecuted is the first order of “social justice” business. Our love for one another is crucial to our witness before the watching world.

Brooke Parks’ question has to be answered affirmatively: “Yes!” Persecution ministry is the foremost and primary act of social justice. Parks answered the question negatively, but only with regard to the non-biblical idea that justice concerns equality. Parks is correct to say that the goal of persecution ministry is not to bring society back into some arbitrary notion of balance or equity.  Rather, the goal of persecution ministry is to display the righteousness of God in the face of world’s unrighteous desire to be rid of Christ by executing His people.

See also:

http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2014/5/christian-persecution-an-injustice-for-all

 

[1] For fuller discussion, see Thomas Schreiner, Galatians, in the Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, published by Zondervan.

Voice of the Martyrs Helps Two Nigerian Girls Escape


Voice of the Martyrs has helped to rescue two young women from captivity in Nigeria. You can read the full story below. More information is available on their website. I publish this story from Voice of the Martyrs here to get the word out and offer support for the care VOM is giving to the persecuted church.

Nigeria: Kidnapped Girls Escape
 

VOM is providing assistance to two sisters who recently escaped captivity from Boko Haram.

Two sisters, Kamka, 19, and Naya, 16, were sleeping when radical Muslims invaded their home. The armed terrorists entered their brother’s room and shot him in the hand before demanding to know where the girls’ father was. When they realized the two sisters were not married and their father was not home, they took the girls by force.

The Boko Haram terrorist group has declared war on Christians in Nigeria, frequently attacking Christian villages, burning Christians’ houses and murdering indiscriminately. They also kidnap teenage girls and force them to convert and marry Boko Haram members.

After forcing Kamka and Naya to walk through the woods at gunpoint, the terrorists immediately put them to work fetching water and cooking. A few days later, the girls were told that both of them were to be married. “We’re too young,” Naya protested. But the leader then showed them his daughter, a girl of 7 or 8, who was already married.

“If we refused to cooperate, we would be killed,” Naya told a VOM worker. “The man whom I was forced to marry took me. He picked up his gun and a knife and threatened to murder me if I continued to resist.”

The sisters cried and prayed together, unsure of what would become of them. But after two weeks, a Muslim woman took pity on them. While fetching water with the girls, she showed them an escape route and told them to run away.

The girls escaped under cover of darkness. They knocked on the door of the first house they came to, praying the owner would be friendly. Although he was Muslim, the man took pity on the girls. He allowed them to bathe and eat, and then had his sister take them to a nearby Christian village.

The girls were traumatized by their experience but are now doing reasonably well. Since it is unsafe for them to return to their home, VOM is providing care for them at a safe house through one of our project partners.

“I thank God that He has saved us from the hands of these bad people,” Naya said. “Everything is now behind me and I’m not afraid anymore. I only want to look forward now.”

And Kamka is also thankful for God’s protection. “I am very grateful that many Christians pray for me,” she said. “Despite what I’ve been through, I still have faith in God.”

The Voice of the Martyrs invites you to support our work in Nigeria. Your contributions help believers like Naya and Kamka as well as providing support to families of martyrs and medical assistance to victims of extremist attacks.

Make a Contribution to VOM’s Work in Nigeria

Please remember to pray for those kidnapped by Boko Haram and for all our brothers and sisters in Nigeria who are under attack. Share this e-mail with your Christian friends so they can join us in prayer.

Does Persecution Create Strange Bedfellows?


In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a drunken jester named Trinculo declares, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”  This familiar expression has oft been adapted to the political arena: “Politics makes for strange bedfellows.”  Indeed, the twisted manipulations of political warfare can lead former enemies into convenient beds of agreement.

Yet Trinculo’s statement is not meant to highlight the peculiarity of such sleeping arrangements as much as it is intended to focus their necessity. Misery made it impossible for Trinculo to survive a terrible tempest without snuggling up to a monster for security. Necessity called him to action.

Christian persecution middle eastPerhaps necessity has raised a spiritual tempest of misery to such a degree for Christians suffering persecution that strange bedfellows are beginning to emerge once again. Hundreds of Christian leaders have joined together to sign a pledge of solidarity and call to action on behalf of Christians suffering persecution in the Middle East (particularly in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq).

As Nina Shea points out, this pledge was signed by a host of Christians across both the lines of denomination and lines of doctrinal conviction:

Some 200 Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox leaders have signed on — from Catholic Cardinal Wuerl, to National Association of Evangelicals’ chair Leith Anderson, to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church to Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Oshagan Cholayan.

The pledge describes some of the atrocities Christians face in these countries:

  • Christians, including some clergy, after being identified as such by their names, identity cards, or some other means, have been beheaded, shot execution-style or otherwise brutally murdered. Clergy have also been killed for their peace-making efforts or simply as personifications of the Christian faith.
  • Untold numbers of Christians, including bishops, priests, pastors, and nuns, have been kidnapped and held for ransom.

    Nina Shea Hudson Christian Persecution

    Nina Shea

  • Young women have been abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry their captors.
  • In some instances, Christians have been told to convert to Islam or be killed; some have been forced to pay protection money.
  • Muslim apostasy and blasphemy codes and standards for dress, occupation and social behavior are being enforced for Christians, as well as for Muslims, in some communities.

I agree that Christians and all people of “good will” ought to voice their concerns and call others to action. Government leaders and concerned citizens alike ought to care for oppressed and suffering people. Christians in particular have an obligation before God to care “especially” for the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). Our own faith family is suffering these atrocities; thus we must not remain unconcerned.

There are other concerns, too, that must not be forgotten. The list of signatories seems short on theologically-minded evangelicals. Evangelicals rightly hesitate locking arms with those (like Katharine Jefferts Schori) who advocate for doctrine and ethics contrary to the Scriptures. Some on the list of signatories advocate for abortion rights, gay marriage, and errant ideas related to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. These are matters of utmost importance.

Somehow, evangelicals must find a way to act on matters of utmost urgency without compromising doctrines of utmost importance.  The severity of Christian persecution pushes unity and action on behalf of Christ’s followers into the urgent need category.  Our brothers and sisters urgently need our prayer, support, advocacy, and physical care. They need for us to advocate on their behalf with one voice against the horrific crimes of persecution.

If evangelicals of good will cannot join with liberal professing Christians (or vice versa), then, by all means, let them advocate separately. But advocate we must. We must pledge our support. We must minister. We must call other professing Christians to action. We must obey the command of Hebrews 13:3: Remember the persecuted.

I, for one, am not comfortable with an Orthodox vision for icons and intercession of the saints. I’m uncomfortable with Roman Catholic instructions on justification and congruent merit. I reject liberal Christianity’s capitulation to the sexual revolution. Yet, I am very glad that these groups are speaking out against the atrocities of persecution being perpetrated against the body of Christ around the world.

As the tempest of persecution rages against Christ’s flock, let us be sure—whatever our doctrinal convictions—that we are found very near to our fellow Christian soldiers, regardless of who else may have drawn near to help. Our obligation is first and foremost to Christ Himself. And He is present with His suffering sheep. Are we?

What Matthew 10:32-33 Looks Like in Person (Nigeria)


The four gospels in the New Testament provide abundant examples of Jesus teaching his followers the cost of discipleship. Persecution by the world is part of what it means to be a Christian.

On some occasions, the stark reality of Jesus’s teachings come into such sharp focus that human experience seems to be nothing less than a dramatic interpretation of biblical texts. Recently, I came across such an instance.

The story below concerns a teenage girl named Debbie.  Debbie is from an area of Nigeria particularly hard-hit by the terrorist activities of the Islamic group Boko Haram. Debbie recently agreed to cooperate with the Hudson Institute and the Jubilee Campaign to work on behalf of the hundreds of girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria.

Debbie’s story is a dramatic interpretation of the reality of Christ’s words to his followers in Matthew 10:32-33.Matthew 10 Jesus Teaching on Christian Persecution

At 7:30pm, three men knocked on the door. Debbie’s brother opened it because the leader was a Muslim acquaintance from a nearby village. However, this was no social call. Boko Haram had arrived. The men asked the children where their father was. Upon hearing that he was in the shower, the men dragged Pastor Peter from the bathroom into the main room. The three men demanded that he deny his faith and convert to Islam. Pastor Peter refused, stating that “Jesus said whoever acknowledges Him in front of man, He will acknowledge in front of God; and whoever denies Him in front of man, He will deny in front of God.” The men threatened to kill him but Pastor Peter still refused to deny his faith. The men then shot him dead. Debbie’s brother hysterically started demanding, “What did he do to you?” “Why did you kill him?” Boko Haram then discussed whether they should kill Debbie’s brother. One man said he was too young because Boko Haram’s rules of engagement forbid killing children. However, the leader decided that they should make an exception in this case because a pastor’s son will only grow up to be a pastor evangelizing about Jesus. So the men brutally shot and killed the boy.

Debbie grew emotional as she described, in graphic detail, how Boko Haram slaughtered her brother. After composing herself, she continued her story. “I was in shock; I didn’t know what was happening,” she recounted, “so they put me in the middle of my dad and brother.” The men threatened her, telling her to be quiet or be killed, and then left Debbie tied between the corpses of her dad and brother. It took the army a day to gain courage to enter the area, find Debbie, and take her to the hospital.

Debbie speaks to Hudson Institute

Debbie speaks to Hudson Institute

After Debbie finished her story, moderator Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom, asked her why she had not told her story to the world before now. “I want to help the other kids,” Debbie stated, “I hope if people hear my story, they will understand and they will know more and more of what God said, and understand what it means to stand strong and courageous.” Debbie explained that Chibok, where her parents originated, is a mostly Christian community. The Chibok people, both Christian and Muslim, lived peacefully with one another as friends before Boko Haram invaded the area. Debbie’s mom graduated from the Chibok school where the girls were kidnapped. In fact, Debbie even knows some of the kidnapped girls and had played with them as a child.

She finished her statement by standing in solidarity with her sisters against Boko Haram violence, holding up a sign stating “Bring Back My Sisters.”

Watch the Hudson video here.

Emmanuel Ogebe, Nigerian special counsel for Jubilee Campaign which rescued Debbie, followed up Debbie’s story with a plea to end the violence. He disclosed how Debbie came to America-through a 9/11 foundation for child victims of terrorism and then through a school for needy children. Emmanuel explained why Jubilee Campaign had kept Debbie hidden for so long-because Boko Haram later decided that they should have also killed her, as the daughter of an apostate Muslim mother who converted to Christianity. For two years, Debbie remained hidden, protected from further violence by radical terrorists. “That changed a couple of weeks ago,” Emmanuel pointed out, “when the terrorists went to Debbie’s village and abducted hundreds of girls. We asked Debbie, do you want to speak up and put a face to this tragedy?” Debbie agreed to bring awareness to this issue shortly after her 15th birthday.

The Real Life Narrow Way Pictured


I’ve been off the grid for a bit, partly because of spending a week at the NorCal Pastor’s Retreat. This retreat, by design, was retreat from everything resembling a normal, daily routine, including cell phones, text messages, internet service, television, indoor plumbing, private bathrooms, etc.

For me, the retreat also served as a kind of metaphor for the Christian faith. On the drive in to this mountainous area of northern California, I was struck by how precisely the drive mirrored the Christian’s pilgrimage through life.

Jesus Christian Life narrow way persecution pastorsThe driving portion of the trip began with a very crowded arrival at San Francisco International Airport. I proceeded from there to a crowded train which took me to a very crowded rental car area. Apparently, a large number of folks desire to fly into San Francisco. (Are there tourist attractions or something?)

Not only are there a great many folks visiting San Francisco, but there are also tons of people living there. So, I drove north toward the mountains on a crowded U.S. 101.  The further north I drove, the less crowded the roads became. Still, U.S. 101 is a freeway in California. Therefore, it was still crowded with residents and visitors heading into and out of the beautiful wine country of Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties.

Once I left the freeway, however, the crowds diminished severely. The road from U.S. 101 to Potter Valley, CA, is as unpopulated as, say, the road from Dry Prong to Tioga in the rural center of Louisiana. As it turns out, not all of California is crowded. Anyway, leaving the freeway focused more sharply the lesson this trip offered for Christian living.

First, the retreat was accessible only to the determined. It was not located in a place which one might “happen” to see. A sign at the last intersection before heading up the hill made the point plain: “No Outlet.” As Christ taught is disciples that the kingdom life is one in which both hands would be fixed to a plow looking forward (Lk 9:62), so, too, this sign made clear that one need not hope to simply wander through or pass by this retreat setting. There was no way out.

Those who say they “tried Christianity, but it didn’t work,” prove only that they were never on the kingdom way. They prove, as John says, that they went out from us because they were not of us (1 Jn 2:19). Maybe in our discipleship, we ought to tell would-be Christians that the road begins with a sign that says, “No Outlet.” One is either “in Christ” and “on the way,” or he is not.

Second, as the road continued further toward its end at our retreat setting, another sign appeared. This time, the sign had an even more Jesus Christian life narrow way pastors persecution preachingunmistakable Christian message: “Road Narrows.” That sounds a lot like Jesus Himself:

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

The beginning of the journey in the sought-after Bay area of San Francisco ended in this remote, desolate wilderness with no one around. The road was already small and unoccupied, and, yet, it was still getting smaller, and more narrow, and less traveled. Christians need not wonder that they often feel alone. They are on the narrow way of life. As the road narrows, the crowds shrink.

Finally, the road itself not only narrowed but became rough and more difficult to traverse. There were potholes and washouts along the shoulders. Eventually, the patchy asphalt gave way to gravel and dirt. By the end of the journey, the road simply disintegrated into the retreat setting, a quaint, rustic Bible camp complete with outhouses and dinner bells to ring in campers three times a day for a hearty meal.

The illustration here is obvious. There are times when Christians mingle with the masses and live in the world. Yet, the more prevailing reality for Christian living is that—even when we are in the world, we are not of it. We are always on the narrow way that leads to life. Our life is promised to be (1) one way, from earth to the heavenly presence of Christ; (2) more narrow—and thus often more lonely—than the way most in the world travel through their time on earth; and (3) often difficult. As Paul told the Christians in Antioch (Acts 14:22),

Jesus Christian life narrow way pastors persecution preachingthrough many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.

Christ’s Heart for the Persecuted: A Simple Explanation with Current Illustrations


I know a woman whose life was very hard through no fault of her own. She and her husband had 8 children together when he was murdered, leaving her a widow with very little means to survive. Family members offered to take the younger children so she could try to survive with the older ones. She told them they might as well have asked for her arms, or legs, or her very heart. She could not part with any of her children.

Christ love persecuted churchHer children remained poor, but they were loved. This simple, widowed mother was asked one time which child she loved the best. That question would shock some of us, as we might wrestle within ourselves with guilt over the tension and frustration we feel toward some of our own kids. I mean, I could see wrestling with the question and having to ask myself, “Oh, no! Is there a chance I love one child more than another?” –I don’t, mind you, but my emotional weakness would cause me a little anxiety.

But the question did not cause this woman even the slightest angst. She was not flummoxed by it a bit. Her answer was simple and to the point. When asked which child she loved the most, she quickly and calmly replied, “Whichever one is hurt.” The child who is hurting is the one most in need of a mother’s love and, thus, the one to whom her love must be directed. It’s a simple, profoundly true concept.

I know it is not appropriate to take our own illustrations and project them upward, onto God. Yet, the truth of love and its direction toward the needy must correlate to some extent. It might be better to say it this way. The reason a mother (or father) knows instinctively to love the child in need is that we have a heavenly Father whose heart is toward the needy, the suffering, and, especially, the persecuted–those who suffer explicitly because they belong to Him.

When Christ’s martyr Stephen was stoned, Christ was standing there to receive him (Acts 7). When Christians are called on by governors and authorities to answer for their faith in Christ, they are instructed by Him not to prepare what to say because His very Spirit would speak through them in that hour:

they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. 13“It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. 14“So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; 15for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute. (Luke 21:12-15, NASB)

We could continue on–Christ identifies Himself as the object of persecution when He calls Saul to account (Acts 9). He takes it personally: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  And, Christ is pictured in Revelation as holding all time at bay until the full number of his saints are martyred, then the reckoning will follow, and his angels of vengeance will reap full justice on the earth (Revelation 6…). The principle seems sound to me. Christ is particularly present with his saints who are suffering on account of Him.

So, below, I have listed a few examples of Christians who may be the objects of Christ’s particular love and affections–where He may be particularly present in this hour of need. Let us, too, draw near to Him and offer prayers for these suffering saints since we ourselves are in the body.

From Back to JerusalemMuslims in Syria recently crucified two Christian teenagers for refusing to convert to Islam. The story was crosses persecution Christian syriareported on a Croatian Catholic website by Sister Raghida, former head nun at the Christian School in Damascus who witnessed the atrocity.  (This story is graphic. Villages were stormed and Christians killed mercilessly. Some were beheaded, and the killers “played soccer” with their heads).

Lela Gilbert reminds us of the plight of Asia Bibi: Nonetheless, since 2009, this falsely accused woman has been on death row in a filthy prison cell, wondering if and when her death sentence will enforced. She longs for husband and five children. Day and night, in squalid surroundings, she fights off her fears, endures physical illness and prays.

And from Nigeria: Muslim herdsmen armed with guns and machetes on Friday night (March 14) launched attacks on three villages in Kaduna state, killing more than 100 Christians and destroying homes, sources said. 

May the Lord indeed be present with His people in their darkest hours, as we help them through our prayers (see 2 Corinthians 1:5-11).

Should We Pray for the Persecuted?


It is a curious thing that the New Testament does not command us to pray for the persecuted church. Before asking for food, shelter, safety, deliverance, or even a copy of the Scriptures, most persecuted believers ask first for prayer. Praying for those suffering persecution is as natural to the Christian as praying for loved ones as they are heading into surgery. We really don’t have to be taught to do it. We just know that it’s right.

Christian persecution pray for the persecutedWe do need to be commanded to pray for our enemies, however. As Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount, we have already heard that we should love our neighbors and hate our enemies. What we need to hear by way of divine command is “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Isn’t this strange?

We are not commanded to pray for the persecuted in the Sermon on the Mount. We are told to pray for the persecutors! What is Jesus thinking? What could possibly be the reason for such a seemingly impossible command?

We might think the reason would be to pray for the conversion of the persecutor. That way, a double victory is won, both with a victory for the persecutor in moving from an anti-Christian rebel, headed for destruction, to becoming a saint with all the privileges of a child of God, including eternal life. The double victory portion would be found in the fact that the converted persecutor would stop persecuting—it’s a win-win. And a win-win would be good, right?

Maybe such an outcome would be terrific for all involved, but it is not the reason Jesus gives for praying for the persecutors. Why pray for the persecutors?  Jesus gives the reason in Matthew 5:45,

so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

The idea found in Matthew 5:45 is simply this: Reflect the glory of God with your life. God pours out love on us who are naturally unloving and unlovable. So, why would we refuse to offer it to others? Because we have the spirit of Christ, we, too, can reflect the glory of God by showing His love to our enemies. Show the world the grace God has bestowed upon you. We are to be like God, extending love aggressively in the face of hostility.

Now let’s step back to our original dilemma. We are commanded to do the difficult (almost impossible) task of praying for those who persecute us, but we are not commanded to pray for the persecuted—even though they are asking for us to pray for them. How do we make sense of this biblically? We turn to Paul and 2 Corinthians 1:8-11,

For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, Christians Praying for the Persecutedbeyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.

Notice, first, how desperate the situation was for Paul and his companions. Second, notice the role of prayers in Paul’s deliverance. And, third, notice the reason Paul thinks God will deliver him and his persecuted companions through the prayers of other saints.

Paul reached his physical and emotional limits. But God helped him and saved him through it all. The prayers of other saints were crucial in this process according to Paul. The situation was so bad that only God could provide deliverance. And God did so in accordance with the way the saints were praying. The reason God orchestrated the events of Paul’s severe persecution the way He did was so that the whole church could celebrate the goodness and power of God when God provided a miraculous deliverance in accordance with the prayers of the saints.

Today, when we pray for our brothers and sisters in need, we, too, become instruments through whom God is bringing deliverance to His people. Part of our reward is celebrating in the Thanksgiving of answered prayers offered to the Father on behalf of Christ’s people. We don’t have to be commanded to do what we know God wants us to do. We know more than God’s commands. We know God Himself. And we know how He works in and through His people.

Calvin Goes to China? A Look at How New Calvinism Is Spreading in China


Time magazine provoked evangelical paroxysms back in 2009 when the publication unveiled its list of “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” According to Time, New Calvinism was the number three idea at work reshaping America. (Don’t know what New Calvinism is? See here) Calvinism China New Calvinism

Five years on, New Calvinism is still going strong, so strong, in fact, that the New York Times has now taken notice of its growth. This New York Times article points to the rise of New Calvinism at evangelical conferences and in several denominations across the U.S., including Presbyterians and Baptists. The article points out that nearly one-third of Southern Baptist churches self-identify as “Calvinistic.”

The article points out also that the New Calvinist movement has more than a few detractors. Rather than engaging that debate, I have a different question to ponder. Is New Calvinism spreading beyond America and Europe? Specifically, are there Calvinists in the eastern world? Have Communists in China discovered predestination? Is Calvinism now spreading through the world’s most populated nation?

A review of recent literature demands an affirmative response: “Yes, there are Calvinists in China, and they seem to be spreading.”  Fredrick Fallman of Stockholm University has done a good bit of research on this question. He has a chapter titled “Calvin, Culture, and Christ,” in the book, Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspectives. In his chapter on Calvinism, Fallman makes a strong case for the New Calvinism in China to be the product of universities and networks of highly educated elites. Here is how Fallman says it:

There is a tendency among some of the urban, unregistered churches to adhere to reformed theology, inspired by what in North America is sometimes known as “New Calvinism.” The focus is more on Puritan teachings than on John Calvin himself. Such communities draw much interest from young urbanites, and they seem to attract these young people because of their solid stance on moral issues and their non-relative beliefs, contrasting with society at large. Reformed Christianity may also appeal to the subconscious Confucian thought patterns and beliefs that linger among Chinese elite intellectuals in general. As both Christian elders and public intellectuals, the young urban church leaders also assume the traditional role of the intellectual, feeling his responsibility to act and assist when the nation is in danger, this time from moral decline.

No doubt, many in the cities and in the university are well-educated and, most likely, exposed to Calvinism through books and conversations in academic settings.  Likewise, I have no doubt that the certitude provided by reformed theology offers much-needed antidotes to the less desirable aspects of the brand of Communism which has run its course through China in the last 5-plus decades. Nevertheless, from mere instincts and from personal experience, I have the feeling that something more is happening.

I, for one, will not be at all surprised to discover a much broader base of support for New Calvinism in China. While Calvinism is gaining traction among the educated and the elite, it may be appealing to more than the upper crust of Chinese citizens. My guess is that there are plenty of “Calvinists” in the lower classes and in the rural areas of China as well. Here are three reasons I make this assertion.

First, Christianity in China blossomed and bore the majority of its present fruit through intense persecution. Stories of faithful saints like Samuel Lamb, Allen Yuan, and Li Ying reverberate with strong chords of God’s sovereignty. I’m not arguing that those who suffered intense persecution were by definition part of the New Calvinist movement. Instead, I am simply saying (in accord with the book of Revelation, for instance) that intense persecution demands a sovereign Christ. Thus, when the biblical and doctrinal support for such high thoughts of Christ arrives in Calvinistic form, it resonates with many grassroots-level saints.

The Sovereign Lord of Revelation has eyes of flaming fire and will return mounted for war to bring justice to His suffering saints.  Chinese Christians have suffered long bouts of persecution. They are not interested in anemic, pseudo-Freudian portraits of Jesus. The “New Calvinists” offer a Jesus of worthwhile authority making claims of eternal dominion.

Second, the New Calvinism movement in America has had a strong missionary impulse from the beginning. Many would consider John Piper one of PiperMissions New Calvinism Chinathe “fathers” of the movement. His missionary zeal is legendary. His website mentions about 4 dozen languages around the world where his books have been translated. In addition, conferences and conventions within the movement have included pastors, laymen, missionaries, and teachers from around the world. Congregations in remote parts of Africa were livestreaming the recent Together for the Gospel (T4G) event in Louisville, KY. I know also that people living in the remote northwest portion of China were in attendance at the first T4G event eight years ago.

The endurance of Christianity is at least partially the result of those receiving truth sharing it unsparingly. Obviously, none of this proves anything. It is, to be sure, anecdotal. One could easily assert that those who attend such events or read such books would also be from the affluent, educated classes of China’s citizens. I’m simply guessing that some of them are not.

And even if those who have attended the conferences and have read the New Calvinism literature have all been from the affluent, elite strata of China society, they have undoubtedly not been silent. They have been leveraging their influence for the sake of good theology. Thus, I’m guessing their teaching is spreading.

Finally, Piper is not the only one publishing “New Calvinist” literature in China. Other publishers are legally publishing reformed literature in China. Again, this literature may first go to the educated in easy-to-reach urban centers. But it will not end there. Perhaps it already has spread beyond the urban areas and further into the heart of China. It may well be the case—as with Calvinism in America; and as with the house church movement in China—that the strong roots of fervent Christianity are already quite strong in Communist China. The New York Times caught up with New Calvinism 5 years behind Time. So, what  do you think will be the report on Calvinism coming out of China in 2019?  What do you hope is the report?

Why It Is Important to Identify with the Persecuted Church: 3 More Reasons


In my prior blog post, I noted that there are at least 5 reasons all Christians should identify with persecution. First, the New Testament says that all Christians will be persecuted, and the persecution could take several different forms, from the mild mocking and name-calling to the more severe imprisonment and execution. Second, Christians are united in one body. Thus, attempts to distinguish between those who are “really” persecuted and those who are not introduce artificial division in the body of Christ.

All Christians Face PersecutionThis leads to the third reason all Christians ought to identify with persecution: Unity in the body of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, there is a constant urging for Christians to live in unity. Jesus famously prayed for us all to be one (John 17:19-20ff.). In John 17:23, He asks the Father to perfect us in unity so the world might know the reality of His appearing.

Christians who have the Spirit of Christ have also a longing for unity within the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul manifested this reality to the church at Ephesus. In Ephesians 4, Paul urged the Ephesians to preserve the unity of the Spirit. He continued further to say that the work of the church is directed toward building up the body of Christ “until we all attain the unity of the faith.”

On this basis of unity within the body of Christ, the writer of Hebrews commands Christians to “Remember the [persecuted] prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves are also in the body” (13:3).  The connection between persecution and the unity of the body of Christ is unmistakable. It is as plain as it is well-pictured by the human body itself. If you have a leg injury, it impacts your entire body. Drop a 10 lb. weight on the little toe of your left foot, and your entire body will respond accordingly (even if not appropriately).

So it is supposed to work within the body of Christ. There is a unity of the body which insists that the persecuted be noticed—that they be “remembered” as though we were actually in the prison cell with them. We are commanded always to identify with suffering saints in unity within the body of Christ.

Fourth, Christ is present in the midst of the persecuted—and what Christian does not long to be where Christ is? Christ, of course, is always present with His people, but the New Testament emphasizes several occasions in which Christ distinctly promises to be in the very midst of His gathered people. Christ promises His presence when His people gather together to practice church discipline (Matthew 18:20). He is present when His people gather to worship (1Corinthians 14:25). He is present when His people are making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:20). He is present when His people minister to other Christians in need (Matthew 25:40, 45). And He is present when His people are suffering persecution.

Consider the conversion story of Saul. In Acts 9, Saul—breathing threats and seeking vengeance against followers of Christ—is suddenly confronted on the Damascus Road with the reality of the living Christ. When Christ appears to Saul, He asks him a curious question:

Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?

Notice, the Lord does not ask why Saul is persecuting the church or my people. Jesus asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting Me?”  Jaroslav Pelikan explains it this way,

“Saul—together with the long line of his descendants—may have supposed that he was attacking the miserable adherents of a wretched fringe movement (14:22); but here the ultimate target of the rage and the violence (28:31) identified himself as none less than ‘Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”

Christ is clearly one with His suffering saints. Our Lord undoubtedly cares for all humankind, but He must hold particular affection for His very own children who are harshly abused for the simple reason that they belong to Him. The martyred saints have no problem making the connection. In Revelation 6, martyred saints are pictured as being in the presence of Christ crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

And the answer they are given, apparently, is that the Lord will indeed avenge their blood on the heads of those who persecuted them, but He must first wait until the full number of martyrs is complete. One gets the sense from Revelation 6:11 that the reigns of history are at least partially held in reserve until an appointed persecution is complete. At which time, Christ will free His white horses to ride upon the clouds descending upon the earth to exact perfect justice against those who opposed Him by persecuting His body (Revelation 19). What Glory!

Finally, the fifth reason all Christians ought to identify with the persecuted is that the persecuted are blessed people! According to the New Testament, the kingdom belongs to the impoverished and the persecuted (see the first and eighth Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3, 10). Does it sound strange to call persecution a blessing?

It’s a strange and hard thought for my American Christian ears to hear, but it is true nonetheless that persecution is considered a blessing in the New Testament.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your China Christians persecuted persecution blessing matthew 5reward in heaven is great for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials (James 1:2).

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Failure to identify with the persecuted represents a failure to recognize the blessed life in Christ. Surely, more than a few health-and-wealth, prosperity prophets have hauled in tons of followers and loads of cash by promising their hearers a “blessed” life. We know how wrong such preaching is, but are we altogether right about what it means to be blessed on Jesus’s terms?

Identifying with persecution may help us realize what abundant life really is as promised by our Lord. Don’t all Christians long for the abundant life Jesus said He came to give? Somehow, that abundant life includes both persecution and blessing. May the Lord grant us faith to embrace and receive all that He has to offer us.

Persecution for Every Christian: Why it is important to identify with the persecuted church


I seem to have a recurring disagreement with fellow Christians. I don’t like disagreements. I try to avoid them, but, when it comes to the persecuted church, I keep having them.

All Christians Face Persecution The conversation typically goes something like this: We are engaged in talking about some current event related to Christian persecution. The brother or sister in Christ then says, “they have it so bad over there. It really costs them to be a Christian.” –Which of course is true.

Then I usually say, well, we are all persecuted if we follow Christ. We share the same kind of persecution—even if it is not to the same degree. That line—we share the same kind of persecution—usually provokes an almost hostile response, and I am not sure why (feel free to explain below). Rather than attempting to probe deeply into the spiritual psyche of those who revile my position, I think I’d rather lay out 5 reasons it is important to understand persecution as something which impacts all Christians–including American Christians.

First, the plain teaching of Jesus and the New Testament favors (a) calling all persecution by the same name, and (b) expects all Christians to suffer it. In other words, the New Testament promises that everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Granted, this little promise does not make its way into the “The Book of Bible Promises” available at your local Wal-Mart, but it is clearly stated in 2 Timothy 3:12:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.

Christians in the New Testament are promised persecution. Jesus explains the reason for this persecution in Matthew 5:10-12. Basically, the persecution happens because Christ is present with His people (“on account of me” in Matthew 5:11). Just as the world hated Christ then, the world will hate him (via his people) even now (see also John 15). Whether the persecution is imprisonment (as in Acts 5) or being falsely accused (Matthew 5) or being mocked (Acts 17) or being executed by the sword (Acts 12)—in each instance, there is Christian persecution—a hostile, retaliatory action against the presence of Christ. Both Jesus and the New Testament make this point clearly.

Second, those who wish to make a distinction between torture and name-calling are correct in so doing with regard to the severity of the crime. Who could doubt that it is worse to be lacerated with an electrical cable than to be laughed at during a family meal? Nevertheless, as was just pointed out above, the difference is in degree of persecution–not in whether or not persecution was suffered.

Many, hoping to maintain the distance between “real” persecution and the “light” afflictions we suffer in America, sadly end up injecting an artificial distance between Christians in America and Christians in the rest of the world. The priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 works against such a bifurcation within the body of Christ. It is our Lord’s desire for us to be one—even as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one.

In trying to maintain the distance between the suffering of American Christians and the suffering of brothers and sisters in Nigeria, for example, some leaders speak of persecution as though it is worthy of the name only if it is of a particularly fantastic variety: prison, torture, beatings, death.  Persecution ends up being a pertinent category only for “those” Christians over “there” in other parts of the world. This, it seems to me, artificially divides the body of Christ. Indeed, we are commanded in Hebrews 13:3 to remember the persecuted as though we are in prison with them since we ourselves are one in body with them. The New Testament calls for us to close the gap in the body of Christ by identifying in united fashion with the persecuted. We can’t do that if we separate ourselves into “those over there” who suffer persecution and “us over here” who do not. That is an artificial, unbiblical distinction.

… There are 3 more reasons to go… stay tuned

Will There Be a Church in Egypt?


Two articles recently published get to the heart of the matter of Christian persecution in Egypt. The first, published by Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute, offers a firsthand account of a visit he made to a Jewish synagogue in Egypt. What does a visit to a Jewish synagogue have to do with Christianity in Egypt? Quite a bit, actually.

Christian persecution egypt coptYou see, Marshall visited one of the last remaining Jews in Egypt. There will soon be no more Jews in Egypt. Here is how Marshall describes his visit:

In living memory there were nearly 100,000 Jews in Egypt. Just weeks ago there were 15 left in all the country: 12 in Cairo, three in Alexandria. All were aged, and only one was a man.

Another of the 15 has died so that there are now 14 Jews left. There are approximately 86 million people in Egypt, but only 14 Jews. There are nearly twice as many members of Egypt’s national soccer team as there are Jews in the country.

Marshall’s trip to the synagogue was to meet with the leader of Egypt’s Jews, Magda Haroun. Magda Haroun has no hope of a returning population of Jews to the country. Her efforts now are targeted upon the simple hope of establishing a museum of Jewish history. Conceding the fact that Jews will soon be absent from Egypt’s population, Magda hopes that at least Jews might live in Egypt’s history. As Marshall notes,

She is driven by the commitment and hope that people will not be able to forget that “there were once Jews in Egypt.”

Magda had occasion recently to meet Pope Tawadros, the head of the Coptic Church in Egypt. She had a simple, sober message for him: “Do not let your people leave. Do all that you can so that you do not become as we are…”

Of course, Pope Tawadros shares her desire to preserve a Christian witness in Egypt. But that is no small task. There is a second article recently published which offers a glimpse into the difficulty of preserving Christianity in Egypt.

Raymond Ibrahim at PJ Media chronicles a recent re-invigoration of an old practice: “milking Christians.” According to Ibrahim, Muslims in Egypt are purposefully threatening and extorting money and possessions from Christians—even those living in remote, desert monasteries. Ibrahim says,

In other words, Egypt’s Christians are increasingly being seen and treated, in the words of some early caliphs, as “milk camels” to be milked dry of their money and possessions. (Crucified Again, p. 200)

In addition to being “milked,” Christians are actually being attacked, too. Last summer, more than 40 church buildings were completely destroyed in a matter of hours. Over a three day period last August, about 150 church buildings were attacked, many of them destroyed.

Magda’s counsel to Pope Tawadros is more easily understood than executed. Christians feel isolated and alone in Egypt. Secular media sources—if they cover the plight of Christians at all—cover the atrocities under the obscure headline of “sectarian violence” continuing in the country. Referring to the persecution of Christians in Egypt as sectarian violence is like calling armed robbery a financial transaction. The violence works one way: Christians—like Jews before them—are being targeted for extinction in Egypt. In the last three years, probably 150,000 Christians have taken refuge out of Egypt.

If Christians are to remain in Egypt, then they will surely need the help of Christians from the U.S. and around the world. Undoubtedly, Christ has not abandoned His flock in Egypt. Has Christ not promised always to be present with His followers (Matthew 28:20)? Is there no God in Egypt? Yes, Jesus Christ is Lord in Egypt, and He will build His church there. Will we be a part of His work? Twice the Lord has called His son out of Egypt. There is no reason to think the Son will ever leave Egypt again. God’s Son has now been raised once for all as the sovereign Lord of Egypt and the earth.

May the Lord raise up His church from the devastated ruins of ancient Egypt, and may He grant us a heart to pray for and serve our suffering brothers and sisters there.

Simple Ways to Stay Informed About Christian Persecution


People often ask me how they can stay informed about the persecuted church. I am glad to offer the following resources for those interested in staying up to date about the persecution of Christians around the world.

Persecution Resources Updates news First, there are ministries dedicated to serving the persecuted church. Three of the more popular ministries are Voice of the Martyrs (www.persecution.com); Open Doors (www.opendoors.org); and Barnabas Fund (www.barnabasfund.org), the latter of which operates out of the United Kingdom.  These three organizations have long track records of ministry to the persecuted.

Second, there are research agencies dedicated (at least partially) to discovering the extent Christians are being persecuted around the world.  Among the largest and most respected of these is the Pew Research Center, particularly the Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, which publishes an annual report each January detailing religious hostilities around the world (www.pewforum.org).  In addition to the Pew Research Center’s work, other entities provide global documentation of Christian persecution:

  •          The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), chaired by Dr. Robert P. George, is a bipartisan commission which produces an annual report to the Congress of the United States detailing issues germane to religious freedom from around the world (www.uscirf.gov).
  •          WorldWatch Monitor is a news agency which focuses on the persecution of Christians around the world (www.worldwatchmonitor.org).
  •          Forum 18 is a Norwegian human rights organization which covers religious freedom all over the world, but focuses primary attention on the former Soviet countries (www.forum18.org). The name is derived from Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which promises freedom of religion.
  •          The Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom provides publications, Op-eds, and information related to religious freedom in the U.S. and around the world (http://crf.hudson.org/).
  •          China Aid is a human rights organization focused on religious liberty issues in China. Founder Bob Fu was instrumental in negotiating the escape and eventual release of the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng in 2012 (www.chinaaid.org).
  •          The Center for the Global Study of Christianity is a research institution which works diligently to uncover accurate demographic data “to the ends of the earth.” This center is an outgrowth of work begun by David Barrett and his World Christian Encyclopedia research. This center resides on the campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/Center-for-the-Study-of-Global-Christianity.cfm).

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission provides information about and raises awareness of religious liberty issues in the U.S. and around the world (www.erlc.com).

Third, Voice of the Martyrs operates a unique web-based ministry for contacting Christian prisoners around the world. The website (www.prisoneralert.com) not only gives updated information about the righteous suffering in prison, but it also offers the opportunity to write an encouraging letter to those brothers and sisters—in their native language! It is a wonderful tool to help Christians obey Hebrews 13:3, remembering those in prison as though in prison with them.

Who Really Cares About “The Least of These”? Matthew 25:31-46


What could be more obvious than the fact that Christians must take care of the outcast, the poor, and the prisoners?  Ministries of mercy like feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and clothing the scantily clad are services expected by Christ of His followers. As Matthew 25 makes plain, the righteous will engage in these ministries, while the wicked will proved to have neglected them in the end.

Covenant paradigm social justice care for poor persecuted persecution

New Testament Concentric Care

But obvious facts don’t always capture the complete story. So it is with Jesus’s instructions concerning “the least of these” in Matthew 25:31-46.  At the end of the narrative, Jesus casts out the wicked for having neglected the care of the naked, the strangers, and the thirsty, for He says “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” –A strong word indeed which demonstrates Jesus’s presence with the poor. But which poor, any and every poor person on the planet?

It seems to me the rest of the story is told in the positive version of Jesus’s instruction about caring for “the least of these.” Back in 25:40, Jesus praises the righteous for the ministries of mercy they have completed:

“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

The use of the term “my brothers” is not insignificant. Grant Osborne notes, “It is unlikely that unbelievers would be called ‘my brothers and sisters.’” Osborne notes further that Jesus calls his followers his brothers and sisters earlier in Matthew’s gospel (12:48-50).  What is the significance of “the least of these” being a reference to those in the covenant community? There are at least 3 significant consequences for reading the text this way.

First, it means the world will be judged for how it relates to Christ and Christians—particularly those in need. Jesus cares for, loves, and has committed himself to his followers. When the world rejects, despises, persecutes, and oppresses his sheep, He rightly assigns them to a proper judgment. Osborne sums up clearly this point concerning the thrust of Matthew 25:

“So Jesus’ message is that the world will be judged on the basis of how it treats those ‘little people’ whom God is sending to it.”

Second, it means Christians, too, will be judged not just for their ministries of mercy to the poor but for their concern explicitly for the persecuted poor. Christ, obviously, is concerned for His sheep. Why would Christians neglect them? The New Testament expects Christians to care for family first and then extend that familial love to the strangers and aliens among them. Too often we skip over the Christian family in our witness to evangelize the needy in the world. Is it not possible to accomplish the latter without neglecting the former? Jesus did not neglect his own in his extending mercy to the world. Neither should we.

Third, it means that the presence of Christ abides in the midst of the persecuted church. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus first framed the kingdom people as the poor and the persecuted. The first Beatitude states that the kingdom belongs to the poor. The last Beatitude completes the thought, stating that the kingdom belongs to the persecuted. The poor, persecuted follower of Christ is the one with whom Christ—himself destitute and persecuted—identifies (cf. Matthew 5:1-12 and Beatitudes). The summary of the Beatitudes is a “Beatitude reprise” in which Jesus proclaims that those persecuted on account of Him are the blessed in the earth who ought to be rejoicing.

So the conclusion of the matter is that if we care for Christ at all, then we will care for the impoverished and persecuted church in whose midst He dwells in love.

What Is the New Tolerance (and why does it matter)?


D. A. Carson is a great blessing to the Christian church! He recently published another very important book titled The Intolerance of Tolerance.[1]

Carson Intolerance new tolerance  persecutionIn this significant work, Carson details the shift in meaning the word tolerance has undergone over the last century. Building from the work of S. D. Gaede, Carson distinguishes between the “Old tolerance” and “New tolerance.”  Understanding the New tolerance is simpler if one understands how it departs from the Old tolerance.

The primary distinction between New and Old tolerance is the foundation (or lack thereof) for determining what ought to be tolerated. No one is purely tolerant. Even if there were someone whose laissez-faire approach to life would convince him to tolerate such evils as child abuse, wife-beating, airport bombing, and terrorist beheading—chances are, that same person would almost certainly not tolerate such behavior against himself. It may be okay to tolerate stealing in the culture at large, but it surely is inappropriate to steal from me. What’s the old saying? There’s honor even among thieves.

No one is purely tolerant (thank God!).  Yet, tolerance as a theme permeates our culture. Carson shows how damaging the New tolerance definition is. As I said, the main distinction between the New tolerance and the Old tolerance is that the foundation of the Old tolerance appealed to truth obtained through reason and rationality.  The New tolerance is based solely on its opposition to intolerance. Listen to Carson,

…The old tolerance draws its limits on the basis of substantive arguments about truth, goodness, doing harm, and protecting society and its victims, while the new tolerance draws its limits on the basis of what it judges to be intolerant, which has become the supreme vice.”

If Carson is right (and I do believe he is), then the new tolerance is nothing short of a thought police force. Those in power have the force to enforce what is tolerable and what is not. Carson goes on to explain how the New tolerance operates as a “defeater belief.”[2]  The New tolerance assumes that Carson Intolerance new tolerance persecutionits definition of tolerance is good and right and, thus, superior to lesser beliefs about tolerance. If the New tolerance judges acceptance of gay marriage as the essence of tolerance, then any belief in opposition of gay marriage is automatically defeated as inferior. There is no appeal to truth and no reasoned argument necessary. The “superior” New tolerance by definition defeats the “inferior” (and thus intolerant) opposition.

The result is obviously a loss of harmony, a loss of community, a loss of dialog, and—ominously—a loss of the freedom to speak and even to think in ways contrary to the New tolerance. As Carson notes, the New tolerance tends to avoid serious engagement over difficult moral issues and simply excludes those moral opinions contrary to its own as non-virtuous and intolerant.

One need not think long about such an approach to see the danger lurking for Christians. The exclusivity of the way of Jesus Christ and the exacting nature of Christ’s commands for sexual purity will undoubtedly be expected to bow before the throne in allegiance to the New tolerance.

 

[1] D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

 

[2] Carson gives credit to Tim Keller for his use of the term defeater belief.

More Than 100 Christians Savagely Killed in Nigeria


Muslim gunmen raid three Christian villages in Kaduna state.

Daniel Anyip, vice chairman of Kaura Local Government Council, Kaduna. (Morning Star News)

MANCHOK, Nigeria (Morning Star News) – Muslim herdsmen armed with guns and machetes on Friday night (March 14) launched attacks on three villages in Kaduna state, killing more than 100 Christians and destroying homes, sources said.

Scores of the ethnic Fulani assailants simultaneously attacked the Christian villages of Ugwar Sankwai, Ungwar Gata and Chenshyi in the Kaura Local Government Area for about four hours, sources said. The Rev. Yakubu Gandu Nkut, chairman of the Zankan area chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), told Morning Star News that a pastor’s wife and her three children were among the dead.

“The unfortunate attack on our communities has led to killing of more than 100 Christians,” Nkut said. “The wife of one of our pastors, Mrs. Jummai Likita Riku, and her three children, from the ECWA [Evangelical Church Winning All] church, Ugwar Sankwai, were killed in the attack.”

ECWA and Anglican church buildings were burned down by the herdsmen in Ugwar Sankwai, Nkut said.

Daniel Anyip, vice chairman of the Kaura Local Government Council, confirmed the attacks and the death toll, telling reporters women and children were burned to death in homes the assailants set ablaze.

“There is no justification for this inhuman act,” Anyip said.

In Manchok, where several Christians have taken refuge, Nuhu Moses of Chenshyi village told reporters that the Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed about 50 Christians.

“The cattlemen who attacked my village were more than 40 – they were armed with guns and other weapons,” Moses told Morning Star News. “As I talk to you, there is no single house that has not been destroyed as the attackers set fire on our houses. As we made efforts to escape from being killed, our attackers shot at every one they saw. It was a miracle that I escaped alive.”

The Nigeria Police Force in Kaduna corroborated the attacks, saying more policemen had been deployed to the area to restore order; the first security personnel reportedly arrived at 4 a.m., about an hour after the attacks ended. Aminu Lawan, deputy superintendent of police, told Morning Star News by phone that police have begun investigating.

On Jan. 30, a band of armed Muslim Fulani herdsmen attacked the Christian village of Ungwar Kajit in the Manyi Akuru area of Kaduna, near Manchok, killing a family of seven and a man nearby, and injuring dozens of others.

Fulani herdsmen have long attacked settled Christian farmers in Plateau, Bauchi, Kaduna, Taraba and Adamawa states, but in the past year analysts have begun to see some ties between the assailants and Islamic extremist groups keen to exploit longstanding ethnic, property and religious conflicts.

Kaduna Gov. Mukhtar Yero described the March 14-15 attacks as “ungodly and barbaric.” He promised to order an investigation.

“This ugly situation is unacceptable, and we will step up efforts to improve surveillance and curtail future occurrence,” he said in a press statement. “We pray that God would expose the people that are causing this problem. We pray that God would touch their hearts to stop such dastardly acts or destroy their evil machinations.”

The Rt. Rev. George Dodo, chairman of the CAN in Kaduna state, called on the Nigerian government to put an end to systematic persecution of Christians in the state.

Christians make up 51.3 percent of Nigeria’s population of 158.2 million, while Muslims account for 45 percent. Those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World, so the percentages of Christians and Muslims may be less.

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© 2014 Morning Star News. Articles/photos may be reprinted with credit to Morning Star News.

How Have We Kissed the Son?


Psalm 2 famously states, “Kiss the son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way” (2:12, NKJV).  But there is more than one way to kiss the son.

Luke 22 tells the story of Jesus’s arrest. Jesus was handed over to his captors by a kiss from Judas Iscariot: “Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’”

The irony of such a kiss is captured by Michael Card in his song, “Why?”

What Kind of Kiss World Vision PersecutionWhy did it have to be a friend
Who chose to betray the Lord
Why did he use a kiss to show them
That’s not what a kiss is for

Only a friend can betray a friend
A stranger has nothing to gain
And only a friend comes close enough
To ever cause so much pain…

Card goes further in the song to explain that the world cannot offer a true kiss, just as the world cannot truly crown Christ as king. Christ’s demands of allegiance are too great. His love is too pure,

Because in this life that we live

For all who seek to love

A thorn is all the world has to give.

Christ offers himself in love. The world crowns his love with thorns. Judas Iscariot indeed did kiss the Son, yet he perished in the way. The kiss of Psalm 2 was never meant to be merely a kiss. A kiss of genuine affection and devotion was the one intended by the psalm.

A kiss of mere lip service is never enough, as though the action itself were all that was demanded. Spurgeon reminds us to be on guard “when the world puts on a loving face, for it will, if possible, betray me as it did my Master, with a kiss. Whenever a man is about to stab religion, he usually professes very great reverence for it.”

Our kiss must stand the trials of time. When pressure builds to affirm same sex marriage, will we still offer our affectionate embrace of God’s Son, or, as with World Vision, will we seek favor with donors or those wielding political clout? When we are called hateful bigots because we think homosexuality is sinful, will we still kiss the Son?  When we are ostracized, outcast, and persecuted, will our kiss endure?

We must kiss the son, but not like Judas.

Don’t Read This …Unless You’re Ready to Count the Cost of Discipleship


Since my friend Don Whitney posted a Tweet about this incident in Somalia, I have been unable to stop thinking about the sober reality of Christian faith. The world hated Jesus Christ when He ministered among men. And the world hates him still.

Persecution Cost of DiscipleshipThere is a robust theological heritage in Christianity which asserts that humans are sinful by nature. According to John 3, men love the darkness and hate the light. Paul says human beings actively suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1). And Moses, long before either Paul or John lived, said that our hearts are full of evil, continuously, even from our youth (Gn 8:21).

Somewhere along the line, Christians forgot the reality of the sinfulness of sin. I once preached a 35 week series on the sinfulness of sin. A visitor one day asked my wife politely, “Does he ever preach on topics other than sin?” I may have been guilty of overstating the case… maybe. But the situation with the persecuted church today makes me think I could never overstate the awfulness of sin.

The incident in Somalia is a sober reminder to us all of the fact that the world hated Jesus, and the world still hates those who love Him. Jesus is present with His people (Matthew 28; Acts 9; Hebrews 13). The presence of Jesus is odious to unbelieving nostrils. As Paul says, it is the aroma of death to death to some.

Sadly, a group of non-believing Muslims in Somalia sensed the presence of Jesus in the lives of two women, Sadia Ali Omar and Osman Mohamoud Moge. They were cousins. Omar had two daughters, ages 8 and 15. These two girls watched as the Muslim men brought their mother to the middle of town and there beheaded her.

Why were these women beheaded in the town square in Barawa? As with John the Baptist, so it was with these two women: They walked in the way of righteousness. The presence of Christ was with them, and that was unbearable to the Islamic militants of Barawa:

 “We know these two people are Christians who recently came back from Kenya – we want to wipe out any underground Christian living inside of mujahidin [jihadists’] area…”

The mere fact that these were Christians was enough of a crime to justify their being beheaded.  The incident was not about the global war on terror. It was not a political event. It was not about “Muslim-Christian” tensions. It was not extremism—well, it was, but that is really not the point.

The point is simple. As Jesus stated, “You will be hated by all on account of me” (Matthew 10:22).  If you are a believer in Christ, you will be hated. Most likely, neither you nor I will face the severe cruelty of a public beheading in front of our children. But we will be hated by some. Like Jesus, we will love others, but they will sometimes return that love with hate, slander, and persecution.

May our Lord God have mercy on these two girls and the rest of the family members grieving the loss of these two saints martyred in Somalia. Surely, Omar and Moge are absent in the body, but now present with the Lord. Perhaps they, too, are gathered around the Lord’s throne, crying, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

Who’s Gonna Fill Frank Wolf’s Shoes?


George Jones once asked through the lyrics of a country song, “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?” Released in 1985, the song pays homage to country music legends like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Patsy Cline. For a country music purist, the question is a pertinent one.

Empty shoes Frank Wolf PersecutionHowever, many upstarts have volunteered to fill the famous shoes of country music superstars. Indeed, there will be more legendary performances by future legendary singers. Fame (and fortune) will always draw a crowd.

Truly legendary character is much harder to replace. Take, for instance, the retirement of Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recently said of Representative Wolf, “No one fought harder for the persecuted church around the world.” Moore rightly termed Frank Wolf “a hero.”  Who in congress will replace Frank Wolf?

Sure, there will be plenty of suitors for the office of representative. The Washington Post reports,

The battleground district, which stretches from McLean to the Shenandoah Valley and whose seat has not been vacant for more than three decades, has attracted a host of potential contenders from both parties.

But filling an office is not the same as filling Wolf’s shoes. Just as a great many country music wannabes have sought to become famous for their abilities to entertain, so, too, there will be a host of hungry politicians seeking to increase their political influence through possessing congressional office. But who will fill his shoes?

Who will use the influence of his office to call attention to lowly, politically disconnected Christians suffering injustice around the world? Why bother speaking up for Christians? The media do not care about their plight. Some would say the current administration does not care about their welfare. And a cynical observer of church activities might even make the case that professing Christians themselves are unconcerned. Representative Wolf famously called out Christian leaders as a result of their silence on the issue.

Caring for the persecuted church is not in vogue. It isn’t sexy. It won’t win you very many friends. It might even get you castigated from some social circles of influence. So, again, why bother? It seems to me there is no politically motivated reason to bother. There is no popular reason to bother (as there is with lobbying for gay marriage, subsidizing green energy, or providing birth control and abortion funding through federal healthcare legislation).

Who indeed will care for the most severely mistreated minority on earth? I don’t know, but I am glad Representative Frank Wolf did. His office will be filled, his shoes?

It’s About to Get Real


The news story from North Korea this week is making its way around the blogosphere and through social media outposts, and I am very glad that folks are realizing more and more that Christians are the most persecuted group of people on planet earth. Thank you, Lori Stanley Roeleveld, for your recent post concerning the execution looming for 33 of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Christian Persecution RealThe Washington Times reported (3/6/14) that Kim Jong Un will execute 33 Christians soon because of their activities on behalf of the underground church in North Korea. On the one hand, it is further confirmation that there are believers in North Korea. On the other hand, of course, it is further confirmation that Christians in North Korea are in grave danger.

Sadly, not enough leaders around the world seem concerned about the persecution of Christians. As I noted months back, when leaders to speak out (see Angela Merkel story), they are mocked and ridiculed. Most leaders choose—as our current White House has done—to remain quiet in the face of atrocities committed against Christians in North Korea. –To be fair, the White House might be conducting a lot of business behind the scenes. We don’t know for sure that they are not; however, the message is clear that standing up for the rights of suffering Christians is not a high priority.

So Christians in North Korea continue to suffer in silence. In many ways, we are rightly shocked by this grotesque display of disregard for human life. In other ways, however, we must admit that this has been normal through human history. Eric Foley, a missions strategist working out of South Korea, makes two great points in response to the situation in North Korea.

First, he clarifies that the actions of North Korea are nothing new. This is no new “war against Christians,” Foley asserts. This is business as usual. The current plan to execute 33 Christians is merely a reflection of the everyday attitude the North Korean government holds against Christians.

This is simply the West being able to see what North Korean underground Christians have always known, which is that the Christian faith is not welcome in any form in North Korea.”

Second, Foley notes that the gospel is a life-or-death matter for North Korea’s Christians. As Foley says it,

There is no back door for the gospel into North Korea. The only way the gospel can advance is at great personal cost.”

What Foley is admitting is what Jesus taught His first followers:

18“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you… (John 15:18ff).

What’s new in all of this? Nothing, really. Jesus called those who would be His disciples to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him

Christian Persecution

Source: Reuters

(Luke 9:27).  Basic discipleship includes a willingness to die—like a grain of wheat—in order to produce a new harvest of gospel fruit. Jesus has never been confused about the cost of discipleship.

But we have lived in privileged conditions in the (formerly) Christian west. We have grown accustomed to protections which, in the future, we likely will not have. The times are changing, and the reality of persecution is looming more severe on our horizon, too. The concept of human rights is no longer rooted in the justice of the God of the Bible. So, what is real today in North Korea is what has been real throughout history. Nero burned Christians to light his garden at night. Bloody Mary burned hundreds who refused her catholic faith. And Kim Jung Un is scheduled to execute dozens in a futile attempt to eradicate Christ’s presence from North Korea.

The persecution of Christians in North Korea is real. And, if history is a reliable indicator, it’s about to get real for us, too.

Are Nigerian Christians Really Facing Persecution? Definitions.


In Nigeria, the situation is grim for Christians. In particular, Christians in the northern tier of Nigeria live in constant fear of bombings, execution, or torturous violence at the hands of Boko Haram, a militant Islamic terrorist organization.

Recently, President Goodluck Jonathan spoke against the violence but insisted that this violence was not Christian persecution, as Boko Haram kills Muslims, too. No doubt, the latter half of the statement is true, as the organization has admitted to killing Muslims on occasion. Their explanation sounds like the explanation often given when civilians are unexpectedly killed in battles. I think the term is “collateral damage.” (It is an awfully cold manner in which to describe any loss of human life.)

According to this report,

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has refuted his assertion. Its spokesman Sunday Oibe responded: “Our attention has been drawn to a purported claim by President Goodluck Jonathan that the Boko Haram insurgents in the north have killed more Muslims than Christians and that it is not a religious issue.

“The purported statement by Mr. President is highly disappointing considering the fact that Christians and their churches and businesses have been the major targets of the Boko Haram terror group.

“We want to believe that the President was misquoted… If it is true that Mr. President actually made this assertion, then we are highly disappointed and sad at this veiled attempt to distort the facts as it concerns the activities of the Boko Haram sect.

CAN goes on to explain why, in their opinion, the violence is Christian persecution. In short summary form, here is the explanation:

“We say this because there has never been any bomb that has been exploded in any mosque or targeted at any mosque in the entire activities of the Boko Haram sect in the north. The Boko Haram members even said that when a Muslim is killed, it is by mistake”.

Christian Persecution Definition WorldWatch Monitor, a responsible news agency reporting on persecution around the world, has made a good case in agreement with CAN that the violence in northern Nigeria is, indeed, persecution. Their credible report also demonstrates the difficulty that exists in persecution studies with regard to definitions and the intermingling of politics and religion. (We need definitions).

The paradigm proposed by WorldWatch Monitor is to distinguish between Insidious persecution—which includes discrimination, harassment, and less volatile forms of oppression; and Elevated persecution, which would describe more violent (and even lethal) forms of persecution. WorldWatch Monitor then asserts that Christians in Nigeria are facing Elevated forms of persecution on a regular basis.

I am very thankful for the work of WorldWatch Monitor. They study the numbers seriously and avoid sensationalism in reporting Christian persecution. I do not wish to undermine anything they are doing, only to build further upon it.

In that spirit, I offer yet a further taxonomy of persecution study. Rather than violence being the beginning of the taxonomy, I suggest we make violence derivative of a more basic taxonomy. The first question when categorizing persecution by type is not whether it was violent vs. non-violent. Rather, the first question is whether the persecution is simplistic or systemic.

If it is simplistic, then it results from an individual or small group of friends, family, or colleagues acting in haste, committing an unplanned hostile response to agitation because of the presence of a Christian. If the persecution is systemic, then the hostility was planned and orchestrated at an institutional level—like the police, the military, the school system, the local government, or an organized militia like Boko Haram.

Whatever the “collateral damage” is in Nigeria, the reality is that Boko Haram is systemically opposed to Christianity and targets Christians for violence, execution, and church explosions. Like CAN, I suspect that Christians in Nigeria are victims of systemic persecution and need our prayers.

Simple Ways to Stay Informed about Christian Persecution


Not long ago, I posted a couple of articles concerning why Christian persecution is such a neglected topic both among Christians and non-Christians alike. I’m sure those articles had a negative tone about them because it is difficult to understand why so many people neglect such an important Christian priority. Yet, as Christians, our message and our lives are inherently oriented in the Resurrection of Christ toward the positive–always toward redemption! And I want this to be reflected in my thinking and my writing.

Prayer Persecuted Christian persecutionSo, I was graciously reminded yesterday of how the Lord is stirring His people to share His concern for His suffering church. Two young men came to my office to ask for help in leading a ministry of prayer for the persecuted church. They will be meeting on Thursday nights on the campus of California Baptist University to pray for persecuted Christians around the world. This movement is so refreshing and encouraging. Young Christians are aware of and concerned for the persecuted church.

And these young Christians are not alone. There are a number of good ministries working to serve the persecuted church and to raise awareness for those suffering on account of Christ.  Among those paying attention to Christian persecution, a few organizations stand out.  First, there are ministries dedicated to serving the persecuted church. Three of the more popular ministries are Voice of the Martyrs (www.persecution.com); Open Doors (www.opendoors.org); and Barnabas Fund (www.barnabasfund.org), the latter of which operates out of the United Kingdom.  These three organizations have long track records of ministry to the persecuted.

Second, there are research agencies dedicated (at least partially) to discovering the extent Christians are being persecuted around the world.  Among the largest and most respected of these is the Pew Research Center, particularly the Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, which publishes an annual report each January detailing religious hostilities around the world (www.pewforum.org).  In addition to the Pew Research Center’s work, other entities provide global documentation of Christian persecution:

  • The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), chaired by Dr. Robert P. George, is a bipartisan commission which produces an annual report to the Congress of the United States detailing issues germane to religious freedom around the world (www.uscirf.gov).
  • WorldWatch Monitor is a news agency which focuses on the persecution of Christians around the world (www.worldwatchmonitor.org).
  • Forum 18 is a Norwegian human rights organization which covers religious freedom all over the world, but focuses primary attention on the former Soviet countries (www.forum18.org). The name is derived from Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which promises freedom of religion.
  • The Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom provides publications, Op-eds, and information related to religious freedom in the U.S. and around the world (http://crf.hudson.org/).
  • China Aid is a human rights organization focused on religious liberty issues in China. Founder Bob Fu was instrumental in negotiating the escape and eventual release of the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng in 2012 (www.chinaaid.org).
  • The Center for the Global Study of Christianity is a research institution which works diligently to uncover accurate demographic data “to the ends of the earth.” This center is an outgrowth of work begun by David Barrett and his World Christian Encyclopedia research. This center resides on the campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/Center-for-the-Study-of-Global-Christianity.cfm).

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission provides information about and raises awareness of religious liberty issues in the U.S. and around the world (www.erlc.com).

We have more access to information about persecution than at any time in history. The internet is an amazing resource if we employ it for good. I am so thankful that many Christians and human rights organizations are employing this resource for the good of the suffering Bride of Christ. May the Lord prosper these ministries.

Will the U.S. House Help Christians Suffering Persecution?


Last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom met to offer a report to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs.  Commissioner Elliott Abrams offered a compelling plea for Congress to take up the cause of persecuted Christians around the world.

By following this link, you can view video testimonies from the hearing, as well as find full text versions of the transcripts of the events. I offer with deep gratitude the following excerpt from Commissioner Abrams’ report:

Christian persecution

Edward Royce
Chairman, U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs

 I commend this subcommittee highlighting the gravity of this persecution. Because of your efforts and those of others both within government and beyond, millions of Americans are aware of the egregious mistreatment of individual Christians such as Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian born American citizen imprisoned in Iran. Pastor Abedini was sentenced to eight years in prison for daring to live out the full dimensions of his faith under a theocratic dictatorship which seeks monopoly status in the public square for its own beliefs. USCIRF has highlighted his case and continues to urge our government to press the Iranian government to release him immediately.

Unfortunately, the Iranian government’s mistreatment of Pastor Abedini reflects the stark and disturbing reality for many Christians seeking to live out their beliefs in country after country across the globe. There are more than two billion Christians in the world — which is nearly one third of the world’s population, and in one-third of all nations, containing 75 percent of the world’s population, governments either perpetrate or permit serious violations of the religious freedom rights of their citizens. A recent report of a 6-year study from the Pew Research Center found that Christians were harassed in 151 countries, the largest number of any group surveyed, and in many of these countries the conditions for religious freedom are awful. In other words, given their large numbers and wide dispersion across countries, and given the poor status of religious freedom in many of these states, it is unfortunately no surprise that Christians so often fall victim to persecution. 

In addition to these factors, there are other elements that explain not just the fact of Christians being persecuted, but the reasons for their persecution. To a disproportionate extent, Christians in many of these nations signify the “other.” They often are members of ethnic or language minorities, or are viewed as linked to the West and Western interests. In many of these nations, Christianity also represents an alternative source of authority, thereby posing a direct threat both to tyrannical governments and extremist private actors.

In addition to these factors, there are other elements that explain not just the fact of Christians being persecuted, but the reasons for their persecution. To a disproportionate extent, Christians in many of these nations signify the “other.” They often are members of ethnic or language minorities, or are viewed as linked to the West and Western interests. In many of these nations, Christianity also represents an alternative source of authority, thereby posing a direct threat both to tyrannical governments and extremist private actors.

Again, the entire session with transcripts is available here. Please share this information with your friends and family.

 

Why Is It So Hard to Study Persecution?


If you want to find out about the extent persecution is affecting Christians around the world, you certainly can. There are a number of ministries and agencies tracking persecution around the world.  But the research varies dramatically from one source to the next. Accurate research on persecution is not easy to obtain for several reasons. First, those committing persecution are, obviously, not interested in reporting it, and those who suffer oftentimes have neither the means nor the time to report what has happened to them. Consider, for instance, this testimony from North Korea:

INTERVIEWEE 37: “…A person caught carrying the Bible is doomed.  When a person is caught [worshipping], he will be sent to kwanliso [prison camp]…and the whole family may disappear.”[1]

Disappearing people are notoriously difficult to count. So, the nature of the persecution dynamic agitates against accurate reporting.

Christian Persecution StudyAccurate research is also difficult to obtain because of a general confusion of categories. So, second, category confusion leads to skewed numbers relating to persecution statistics.  What counts as persecution, and what is political oppression? When the Muslim Sudanese government in the North attacks and razes Christian and animist villages in the South, is the government guilty of persecuting Christians?  True, hundreds of thousands of Christians were slaughtered in the Sudanese Civil War. However, thousands of animists and other non-Christians were killed at the same time. Their villages were targeted, too. In what category do the dead Christians of Sudan fit—victims of political oppression or victims of persecution?

There are many other such questions related to categories of suffering. What is legitimate criminal punishment and what is an abuse of the law for the purpose of persecuting an evangelist? Stories abound which describe successful evangelists being arrested and charged with gun smuggling, spying, or stealing—often evidence is planted in their homes or in their vehicles to substantiate the charges. Even more to the point, what happens when Christians actually defy the law and proselytize their neighbors or smuggle Bibles into forbidden places. When is the arrest an act of justice, and when is it systemic persecution?

The Apostle Peter warns against suffering as a criminal or an evildoer. Peter makes plain that Christ’s blessing is for those who suffer on account of Christ—not those who suffer for being criminals. Where exactly is that line drawn? One may be imprisoned, tortured, or killed for a principle or a cause, but that suffering may not necessarily be the suffering of a martyr. There are countless examples of people suffering and dying on principle (think about the Civil Rights movement, the pro-life movement, or the actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Such suffering may or may not have been the result of Christian persecution.  Clear-cut categories are definitely needed in order to guarantee accurate figures concerning the size and scope of the Christian persecution problem.

So, the numbers are affected by the lack of reporting and by the confusion of categories. Third, the numbers are also affected by the lack of attention in general toward persecution. Relatively speaking, very few outlets are paying attention to Christian persecution.  One need not be overly critical to notice the barrenness of reporting by secular media on behalf of Christians.  John Allen explains that there is “a reflexive hostility to institutional religion, especially Christianity, in some sectors of secular opinion. People conditioned by such views are inclined to see Christianity as the agent of repression, not its victim.”[2]  Secular media, it seems, have a hard time tracking what they don’t believe can exist.


 

[1] Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea, Persecuted, 54.

[2] John Allen, The Global War, 15.

Why Caring for the Persecuted Is a Christian Priority


So our friends and family back east—especially in Kentucky—are experiencing one of the toughest winters on record. Even now, there is snow on top of ice on top of snow. Out here in California, we are experiencing a drought, although we got a few sprinkles overnight (and snow in the mountains). And, so far, the drought has not caused a famine in the land.

Christian needs ministryImagine if it had. Imagine a drought so bad that it caused a famine in which food became scarce and lives were being lost (like the 2011 drought—and famine—suffered in the Horn of Africa, from which thousands died, and 90,000 kids are still in danger). In a situation like that, would a Christian be obligated to share food with others? If not obligated, then wouldn’t the Christian at least want to share food with others to keep them alive?

Feeding the poor is an on-going ministry need and a need which nearly everyone agrees ought to be met. What’s more basic than food and water, right? And Christians—where possible—are obligated to help secure these necessities for those in need.  But there is a Christian hierarchy for meeting physical needs. Consider the severe principle Paul lays down to Timothy:

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).

In its context, this verse is speaking of caring for widows in your own family. Don’t have the church (or the government!) provide for your widowed mother, grandmother, or aunt—take care of her yourself because you are her family. If you don’t take care of the need in your own family, then you don’t understand the faith.

This idea of taking care of family first is found throughout Scripture and throughout the New Testament. In fact, it is such a basic notion that to fail in this regard would be not just falling below the gospel standard of morality—but below even the standard recognized by the pagan culture. Everyone knows that family comes first.

Because family comes first, Paul actually views caring for poor and needy Christians as a priority over caring for poor and needy non-Christians. Does this sound strange? Harsh? It shouldn’t.  This principle is woven from the fabric of basic familial priority: Feed your family first. Paul says it this way in Galatians:

“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Returning to our hypothetical drought and famine, we can think of the matter this way. If we were living through a famine, we would naturally feed ourselves and our own families first. It would be neither heroic nor laudable to feed our neighbors’ kids, while allowing our own to starve. Each father must provide for his own.

In Galatians 6:10, Paul is not intending to drive a wedge between serving the needy church and serving the needy pagans. The command is “do good to all.” So, there is no diminishing of social justice, feeding the poor, or loving our neighbor. Yet, there would be something terribly dysfunctional if we were to concentrate our care on those outside the faith, while we left our own faith family to starve, suffer, and die.

The world will not be sure that you are Jesus followers if you simply love the poor and feed the needy.   Jesus made this point plainly for His disciples in John 13:35: “By this,” Jesus says, “all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” The need hierarchy of the New Testament demands that we take care of our brothers and sisters suffering on account of Christ. Loving one another will itself witness to the world that we are Christians.

As Tom Schreiner writes in his commentary on Galatians: “A hierarchy is established, so that a priority is assigned to those who are fellow believers.” Our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world are fellow believers. How do we make them our priority?

Why Are Christians Neglecting Persecution Studies?


More than five decades ago, Eberhard Bethge, a close friend and biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, lamented the manner in which Protestants neglected the study of martyrs. He offered two basic reasons for such neglect:

Protestants deplore the martyr worship present in part of the Catholic tradition. And Protestants are a bit squeamish emotionally when it comes to thinking about suffering on account of Christ.

Persecution Study NeglectedObviously, I have over-simplified Bethge’s two points. This post is not attempting to be technically precise concerning why the study of persecution and martyrdom is still neglected by Protestants.  Instead, my aim is simply to show that the problem pointed out by Bethge is still haunting us today.  Recently, John. L. Allen bemoaned the lack of persecution studies among Christians.

While Allen notes the easily explained absence of reporting on Christian persecution by secular outlets, he has a harder time explaining the absence of reporting by Christian sources.  Allen offers four possible reasons Christians aren’t tracking the suffering of brothers and sisters around the world. (1) Christians in America and in the West simply don’t identify with the persecuted church. How can an American Christian relate to someone like Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, who was beaten and burned to death because she was a Christian teacher in a Muslim school in Nigeria?  We have a very difficult time relating to what seems so fantastic and so unreal; thus we aren’t sure what to do with the information once we find it. More important, we don’t go looking for it in the first place.

(2) Another reason Christians are silent instead of investigating, reporting, and researching Christian persecution is that the topic itself is disconcerting. By nature, persecution challenges shallow faith and comfortable Christianity.  From my own experience as an advocate for the persecuted church over the past 15 years, I can affirm that many Christians—including pastors—are not comfortable hearing about persecution. While from a doctrinal perspective, we decry health-and-wealth, prosperity preaching, we, too often, actually prefer a Christian experience that is comfortable and safe for the whole family. Why confront a problem if it makes us so uncomfortable? It’s easier to leave the matter alone.

(3) Christian persecution is a neglected topic of study and research because it requires hard work and serious resources to investigate and ferret out the details of the incidents, and, often, incidents happen in places difficult to reach. Christian entities in the West tend to use their resources in other ways and cannot fathom expending exorbitant amounts of cash to study persecution on the islands of Indonesia or in the sub-Saharan countries of Africa. Christian resources are limited.

(4) Christians also suffer the malady of “good cause” fatigue. Because no one is talking much about persecution, it gets displaced by other, more celebrated Christian causes: evangelism, missions, unreached people groups, church planting, church growth, pro-life issues, and other political concerns. In short, persecution isn’t really on the American Christian radar as a church priority.

So, for all these reasons—and probably others which have not been mentioned—Christian persecution research is lacking. What other reasons might explain Christian neglect of persecution studies?

Do You Know Any Bad Prisons?


Persecution Prison Theology ChinaDo you know any bad prison stories? If you’ve ever seen The Shawshank Redemption, then you have heard of at least one bad prison. My guess is that you know of several others, too. Ever heard of Alcatraz, that eerie, isolated mass of prison rock sitting about a mile and a half offshore in San Francisco Bay?  And what about Abu Ghraib? Who hasn’t heard about the atrocious behavior of American soldiers in that Iraqi installation?

We seem to have a fascination with scary prison stories. Growing up in Louisiana, I would get shivers at talk of Angola—the largest maximum security penitentiary in the U.S.  Its history is strewn with stories of swamps and stabbings and serial corruption. It was the home of the dreaded “Gruesome Gertie,” an electric chair transported from parish to parish throughout Louisiana to carry out executions.

Prison stories typically capture our attention. But sometimes terrible prison stories never get told. Consider the small, desert country of Eritrea, located in the Horn of Africa, along the coastline of the Red Sea.  One of the worst human rights atrocities of our day is currently taking place in the Me’eter Prison there, with the full knowledge of the watching world. And you have likely never heard of it.

Me’eter Prison was opened in 2009, basically, to serve as “a concentration camp for Christians.”[1]  The atrocities described here have been documented by WikiLeaks since 2011.  Inmates are forced to live in cargo containers so crowded that the prisoners never have enough room to lie down. They have no protection from the searing heat during the day (often exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit) and no recourse from the cold at night. Arid desert climates can experience 50 degree temperature changes from day to night. Inmates may die from starvation, dehydration, heatstroke, cholera, diphtheria, or other infectious diseases.

The inmates who survive the deplorable conditions are subjected to other forms of torture and abuse. Stories abound of sexual abuse and physical beatings. Even the work and exercise prescribed are forms of torture—such as counting the grains of sand in a certain area during the noonday heat or squatting to move rocks from one side of your body to the other, repeated endlessly.

Eritrea , persecution

Source: CIA.GOV

French revolutionary Regis Debray argues that such abuse falls into the blind spot of western academics and media elites. The atrocities at Me’eter are documented in books, on WikiLeaks, via internet sources, and through activists like gospel singer Helen Berhane, herself an inmate at a prison in Eritrea from 2004-2006, because of her faith in Christ.  The information is available for those adequately concerned, but who is concerned about persecuted Christians?  Certainly not the UK Border Agency.  Helen Berhane was scheduled to speak to a Release International gathering in the UK on behalf of other persecuted Christians, but she was denied entry by the UK Border Agency.  Parliament passed unanimously Early Day Motion 1531 in support of Berhane (and condemning the Border Agency decision), but Berhane was not allowed entry to tell her story in person.  And Christians still languish in putrid prison conditions in Eritrea on account of Christ.  Who cares?

Fortunately, there are a growing number of Christ’s people who care. One group that has been active on behalf of suffering saints in Eritrea is Church in Chains, a ministry to the persecuted church operating out of Ireland.  Maybe you and I could find out more about Christians in prison and tell others about them. We could pray for suffering Christians and advocate on their behalf–for Christ’s sake.


[1] Quote and following Me’eter description from John L. Allen, The Global War, 1-4.

Jesus Christ’s Invincible Church Growth Strategy


Books abound on church growth strategy. There are books to grow your church from the inside out. Other books teach church growth from the outside in. One book wants you to grow your church by learning from unchurched Americans. Another book says Christians just need to become contagious (in a good way, of course).

Christ church prevail persecutionEach of these books has the right heartbeat: Christian churches ought to grow and bear good fruit. Jesus Himself said,

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples, John 15:8.

That churches ought to grow is not as difficult a question to answer as is the question, how are churches to grow.  That question begets much opinion with copious emotion.  The vast array of such opinions and emotions has generated wave after wave of church growth movements. Pastors and laypeople alike may, at times, feel swept away by the waves of change mandated in the latest church growth stratagem. How can we grow the church?

In response, I offer this reminder of a simple, helpful, strong, and encouraging message embedded in the Scriptures, one which is also being demonstrated in real-time through the persecuted church.  The lesson?  Jesus Christ will build His church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against her.  Consider the scenario unfolded in Acts 8.

A very bad thing happened in Acts 8. A great persecution struck the church. Christians had to flee Jerusalem (in the same way they are having to flee the Middle East today).  The ones who thought they might stay and maintain some form of normalcy in Jerusalem were dragged off to prison (Acts 8:3). It was all bad. All their dreams of family comfort were shattered as a crystal glass shatters on a granite counter—instantly broken into scattered pieces.

And what of the decimation to the Jerusalem church? After whom would the persecutors go? Persecutors typically attack the leaders first. So, the great persecution unleashed in Jerusalem decimated the church, chasing even some of her leaders far away and out of reach. And yet, the bad news had a divinely-empowered good result. As Acts 8:4 reports, “those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.”  And the people in the places they went to ended up rejoicing. The bad the persecutors were producing ended with the good news of the gospel spreading.

In a similar way, a very bad thing happened in China in 1949.  Communism took over in China, and, among other changes, the Christian Church China PersecutionCommunist government expelled all missionaries from the land. And that wasn’t all:  The Communist government immediately began putting in prison Christians who could not swear first allegiance to the Communist party.  The blood-bath was immense through the 1960’s, as government officials announced “the death of God.” The situation was very bad indeed.  But God was not dead. He was as alive as His Word.

Without foreign missionary aid, without government help or support, without any serious infra-structure or property or resources in the country, the Christians of China did not die. The church grew.

When Communism took over, there were 870,000 Christians in China. Today, after a 60 year assault on the Christian church, there are an estimated 90 million Christians in China. There may in fact be more Christians than there are Communist party members! That growth happened—as it happened in Acts 8—through the promise from Christ that He would build His church–that His word would continue to increase and go forth empowered by the Spirit to the ends of the earth.

The point for us to remember is simply that Jesus is the one building his church, and the work cannot fail. Indeed, Paul tells us that the work we do in the name of the Lord will never be done in vain (1 Cor 15).  So, by faith, preach the Word. Strategize. Seek to fulfill the Great Commission mandate, but, even when persecution and unexpected setbacks come, take courage:  Jesus Christ has not lost control of heaven or earth, and He will build His church.  That’s a strategy with a 100% durable success.

What Is Prison Theology?


Recently, I watched an interview Marvin Olasky conducted with Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid. There were many good points to take away from the interview. The most immediate impact for me, however, was Fu’s use of the term Prison Theology.

Prison Christian Persecution China Have you heard of that?  I first heard about prison theology when I read Back to Jerusalem, a book detailing the house church missionary movement spreading from China to the Middle East. I now assign that book for my students in Pastoral Ministry to read, partly because of its mention of prison theology.  Prison Theology developed out of the persecution of Christian leaders in China, but I suspect something like it has been around since at least the time Paul and Silas prayed at sang in the jail at Philippi. Christians have befriended many jail cells over the centuries.

From the time of Communism’s takeover in China to the present, Christians there have learned increasingly to take their faith and practice underground. The Communist government was (and still is) hostile to Christ. Christians have been routinely targeted for arrest.  In the interview with Fu, he notes that even now the majority of house church pastors in China have served time in prison as a result of their faith in Christ. China, in fact, has more pastors in prison than any country in the world.

As a result of this systemic persecution of Christians by the Communist government, Christian leaders realized that pastors, Persecution Prison Theology Chinaevangelists, and missionaries would likely end up arrested and put behind bars. Therefore, in thinking through what students needed to learn in seminary to prepare for ministry, Chinese Christian leaders determined that “prison theology” was of utmost importance. What topics are discussed in “Prison Theology”? How to get out of handcuffs; how to jump from a second floor window to escape capture; how to bless those who persecute you; and how to suffer without retaliation—to name just a few.  More important than even these practical lessons, however, is the need to learn to rest in the presence of Christ.

Richard Wurmbrand, the founder of Voice of the Martyrs ministry, tells of his own prison theology. When he was in solitary confinement, he forgot all his Bible verses. He forgot even the alphabet: he could not remember how to write the letter “d” when he was released. Nevertheless, Christ remained present with Him and was Wurmbrand’s source of comfort, strength, and rest. The best prison theology, it turns out, is the one which ends with resting in a sovereign Christ.

While Christians must never diminish the ultimacy of Scripture, doctrine, and preaching, we must also bear in mind that the darkness hates the light. The more we seek to bring the light to bear in a dark and fallen world, the more we might think about developing our own prison theology.

Is Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty Suffering Christian Persecution?


Ian Bayne, a GOP candidate running for election in Illinois’s 11th District, sent an email to his supporters recently claiming that Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson is taking a stand against religious persecution in the same way that Rosa Parks took a seat against racial persecution in December of 1955. I have been trying to decide whether I believe Phil Robertson is suffering persecution on account of his identity in Christ.

Persecution USA I must admit that though I am a Christian, I am not much of a fan of Duck Dynasty.  I live in California now, but Louisiana is my home state. My mother, in fact, lives in the same city which the Robertsons call home.  Yet, I have tried to watch Duck Dynasty, and I just don’t enjoy it.  Swamp People—I love that show!  I identify with those folks. They remind me of my friends and relatives. They represent a little bit of the life I lived growing up in Louisiana. I do not as easily identify with the Robertsons.

But that doesn’t really matter because the issue is not whether I like or dislike the Robertsons. The question is whether or not Phil is suffering on account of the righteousness of Christ.  If he is, then I owe him my prayers, support, and honor on account of Christ.  If not, well, then I owe him nothing and will simply be able to explain to folks why his case is not Christian persecution.

Before being able to answer the question, I think we must first be able to define persecution.  I wrote recently about the need for definitions when it comes to important biblical concepts like persecution. Phil Robertson’s case reaffirms why it’s so important for Christians to understand persecution. Phil’s case, I fear, is only the beginning.

I work from a definition of persecution derived from Jesus’s teaching in Matthew’s gospel.  From Matthew 5, I conclude:Christian persecution definition

Persecution is a retaliatory action against the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ which is represented or proclaimed by the followers of Jesus Christ. 

Christ promises always to be present with His people. Christ’s people, from the beginning of our faith, learn the goodness of obeying Jesus. By our obedient actions and, further, by our speaking of Christ and His works, we Christians become targets for persecution. As we obey and proclaim, we necessarily display the righteousness of Christ.  Many people today will be every bit as hostile against Christ and His teaching as they were against the first followers of our Lord 2,000 years ago.

Just as the world hated, mocked, and abandoned Jesus then, so, now, people will hate, mock, and forsake Jesus (and His followers).

The question, then, in Phil Robertson’s case is simply this: Is his suffering related to the righteousness of Christ? Is his suffering on account of Christ?

On the one hand, some of Phil’s statements were crude and definitely not representative of Christ. Christians are taught to avoid coarse talk (Eph 5:4). Phil’s language—by admission of his own family in their public statement—was a bit raw. Christians can’t be offensive and then claim, when called out for their offense, that they are suffering persecution.  Persecution can only be a blessing if it occurs on account of Christ (and His righteousness). The Apostle Peter instructed Christians to make sure their suffering happens on account of doing what is right, not suffering for doing wrong (1 Peter 3:17). Phil could be suffering the consequences of wrong or foolish behavior.

And yet, as Denny Burk pointed out, the network was not offended by the language Roberston used. Clearly, A & E was offended by Robertson’s “personal beliefs.” Most assuredly, the personal beliefs in question were those related to the sinfulness of homosexuality. Robertson—however crudely—spoke the truth from the Scriptures. He rightly affirmed from the Scriptures his belief that homosexuality is a sin.  More than merely personal beliefs, Robertson’s statement reflects biblical truth. The truth which Robertson believes now has him off the air. He is suffering the loss of a television show on account of biblical truth, and that kind of suffering, in my opinion, is Christian persecution.

As always, others are free to disagree and offer their own reasons for their disagreement. But I think I side with Ian Bayne. Phil Robertson is suffering persecution.