Martyrdom precedes persecution, not the other way around

We must learn how the Bible tells stories of persecution and make sure our modern accounts reflect biblical theology.

Unfortunately, these days many accounts of Christian persecution are told like news stories designed to advance the narrative that Christians are increasingly in danger and in need of the prayers of other Christians and the protection of governments. The accounts make the persecutor the actor, the martyr the victim, and God the absentee deity who must be summoned back to the scene by our prayers in order to put an end to the violence.

Biblically, however, martyrdom is the cause of persecution, not the other way around. Martyrdom means making a witness: We witness to the character of God in the midst of those who remain slaves to sin and who are mobilized by the enemy to oppose the good news. Wherever a witness to the character of God is made, the enemy mobilizes his slaves to silence it. But the most vital part of the witness is yet to come: The character of God is fully revealed only on the Cross, where Christ willingly enters into suffering love rather than revile those who persecute him. Christ calls us, his witnesses, to follow him by taking up our own crosses: Thus, our witness to the character of God is complete when we voluntarily suffer in love rather than revile our own persecutors.

This biblical understanding should re-train what we pay attention to in martyrdom. What is important is the witness to the character of God, not the world’s predictable violent response to that witness. We don’t pray in order to summon God to the scene; instead, we give thanks because God has entered the scene, through the witness of the martyr.

So we pray Romans 8:17 for the persecuted: As they share in the sufferings of Christ as his co-heirs, may they be glorified with Christ. We pray 2 Corinthians 1:5 for the persecuted: As the sufferings of Christ overflow to them, so also may the comfort of Christ overflow to them. And instead of calling on governments to protect Christians as though we were an endangered species, we pray 2 Timothy 1:8: That God by his power may grant us to join the persecuted in suffering for the gospel.

That is what makes the stories of Asia Bibi, Pastor John Cao, Cha Deoksun, and the Iraq Bakery Christians so important. They are not victims of violence whose lives testify to the need for greater governmental protection of Christians. They are signs of Christ’s daily advance into the very heart of darkness to liberate captives. We praise God that he has never forgotten those trapped in sin. We imitate those who have responded to the call of Christ to take up their crosses and not revile those who hang us upon them. And our word to the nations is not “Protect us” but in the words of Early Rain Church Pastor Wang Yi, “You are engaging a battle against Christ that you cannot win.”

Jesus Christ is Lord. Our suffering is not the result of our weakness but rather of the merciful, unconquerable love of our Lord for sinners who know not what they do. 

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New Temptations for North Korean Christians

I recently did an interview with VOM Radio. The folks at Church in Chains  transcribed part of it. Much of this information I haven’t previously shared. Please receive it as guidance for your faithful year-end prayers on behalf of our North Korean brothers and sisters. As I note below, North Korean Christians are facing new, even more challenging temptations, no matter whether they live in Seoul, Pyongyang, Russia, or China.


Q. How have things changed for underground North Korean Christians?

A. There really hasn’t been any change for underground North Korean Christians or for most people in North Korea. The peace talks are not at all related to their daily situation. God has raised up a church in North Korea of about 100,000 believers; 30,000 of them are in concentration camps. Our responsibility is to be one body with that church. There is no political deal that can be made that entitles us biblically to sever ourselves from the body of Christ that God has raised up in North Korea.

Q. Has the peace process been affecting your work of VOM Korea?

A. In the 17 years since my wife and I founded VOM Korea this was by far the hardest year. Our situation has become so challenging in South Korea, because everything we do, as the South Korean government says, “fouls the air for peace”. We have always considered that everything that we do is unpolitical. But keep in mind that in 2014 the North Korean government responded to the UN annual report related to religious freedom by calling what missionaries do “acts of terror”. As the South Korean government tries to make peace with North Korea we become people who are associated with known terrorists. These are underground believers who, according to the North Korean government, are actively seeking to undermine the government in North Korea. So this year we faced active opposition to our work on a daily basis from not only North Korea, not only China, but from our own government in South Korea. The forecast is that things won’t get better, but will get harder.

Q. What is the greatest need of the church inside North Korea?

A. The first is to pray for the Lord to strengthen it in its current isolation. North Korean underground Christians are more isolated at this moment than they ever have been. The Chinese church for the most part has broken off relations with the North Korean church because of China’s own crackdown and the religious regulations that took effect in February.

Second, I don’t think we will see a change in the human rights situation. I think what we will see is a Chinese style move to capitalism and many in the West will breathe a sigh of relief and say: “Ah, wherever capitalism goes, the church is going to have an easier time.” Someone forgot to tell the Chinese Christians that because they are living in a world of hurt.

The challenge we see is North Korean Christians who were tortured for Christ inside of North Korea and who, when they come to South Korea, literally every single one of them, is struggling in their faith. When they have come into a situation of prosperity, they feel pressure to work, to make money for their family back in North Korea, they get caught up in the things of the world. Interestingly what they have said to me is: “When we were being beaten, we could withstand that because we had an inner strength. Now it’s the inner strength that is being attacked because we are feeling these temptations. Temptations to focus on money and saying that ‘I have to be the one to provide for my family and my relatives.’” All of these things are of course true, but Satan has a way to working those temptations up inside of us.

It’s an odd prayer request, but we are trying to help North Korean Christians to be prepared for facing economic prosperity. Unfortunately that is often held up as a God and they can participate in those things to the degree that they are loyal to the government. It is a bit of a “mark of the beast” action going on. South Korean Christians are giving economic opportunity that is being mediated to the North Korean people through the North Korean government. The North Korean government is saying that if you participate in the Juche ideology, you can have access to these things. This is a whole new set of challenges for North Korean believers.

Pray for North Korean Christians in their isolation, pray for them in their temptation. Pray for them in these “mark of the beast” moments, that they will remain faithful. They are still being beaten externally and I don’t see that changing any time soon. But pray that as a new set of temptations dawns on them, this will not overwhelm them.

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The True Sinicization of John Ross and the Counterfeit Sinicization of the Chinese Communist Party

Today the Chinese government is officially working to“Sinicize” Christianity. This kind of Sinicization is best defined as “the program of forced assimilation of religions to Chinese culture, which includes submission to the Chinese Communist Party.”[i]

But for more than a millennium before the Communist Party of China began their project, Western missionaries like John Ross had already been “Sinicizing” Christianity. At issue, of course, is what is meant by Sinicization. The future of Chinese Christianity and global Christianity (since China will soon be home to the largest number of Christians of any country in the world) will be shaped by which understanding and method of Sinicization the global church comes to accept.

The Christian faith is, by definition, always a contextualized faith. In the words of Yale Professor of Missions and World Christianity Lamin Sanneh, “Christianity could avoid translation only like water avoiding being wet.”[ii] There is not even an “original” Christian language, since most likely the founder—Jesus—spoke a different language than the one in which his words were originally recorded. All of the expressions of the Christian faith—the Bible, the prayers, the worship songs, the commandments—are always expressed in vernacular. When Jesus comes to us, he comes speaking our language.

As translators know, translation is never a mechanical process. Translation is theology. Even the decision to translate is theological. In our own Voice of the Martyrs Korea ministry to North Koreans, we use the North Korean dialect Bible. We prefer it to the much more established and widespread South Korean one because North Koreans listen with greater attention and respond with greater passion when Jesus sounds like them. John Ross chose popular over scholarly language for the same reason when he completed the first translation of the New Testament into Korean. When we work with the minority tribes in China, we use the Bible in their tribal language whenever it is available. Decisions like this are consistent with the Bible’s proclamation: The Word becomes flesh. And the word doesn’t just become any flesh, but becomes the most common and ordinary flesh available—our own. The Word speaks like a tax collector, a prostitute, a sinner. That is the only language we know, and Christ is gracious to speak it.

The Chinese government portrays their new program of Sinicization as a new and significant step in the transformation of Chinese Christianity. But the fact is, the only kind of Christianity China has ever known is Sinicized Christianity. There never was a “baseline” form of the Christian faith from which minor adaptations could have been made in order to have introduced Christianity to China in the first place. Even when Western Christianity was the dominant expression of the faith, there was not even such a thing as “Western Christianity” but rather only Western Christianities. Even within a seemingly monolithic expression of the faith like Roman Catholicism, Jesuits and Franciscans engaged in spreading very different conceptions of faith (and even within these orders there were significant differences regarding even the basics of the faith, e.g., whether Chinese Christians would be permitted to worship their ancestors).[iii] This does not even begin to consider the differences between Nestorianism and Catholicism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Protestantism and Pentecostalism, each of which presented Christ with a considerably different accent to the Chinese people.

If anything, missionaries were more likely to contribute to the Sinicization of Christianity than the Westernization of China. As Sanneh notes,

Often the outcome of vernacular translation was that the missionary lost the position of being the expert. But the significance of translation went beyond that. Armed with a written vernacular Scripture, converts to Christianity invariably called into question the legitimacy of all schemes of foreign domination—cultural,political and religious. Here was an acute paradox: the vernacular Scriptures and the wider cultural and linguistic enterprise on which translation rested provided the means and occasion for arousing a sense of national pride, yet it was the missionaries—foreign agents—who were the creators of that entire process. I am convinced that this paradox decisively undercuts the alleged connection often drawn between missions and colonialism. Colonial rule was irreparably damaged by the consequences of vernacular translation—and often by other activities of missionaries. [iv]

Eloquent testimony to that truth is found in John Ross’ Mission Methods in Manchuria. Ross’ recounting of his missionary philosophy and the methods used in his work reminds us that even at the height of the humiliation of China by Western powers, Christian missionaries were not humiliators bent on the forcible submission of Chinese converts to some purported superior Western wisdom. As Ross writes,

We should never legislate, or introduce measures which are binding, where the Chinese conscience is not trained to follow us. Under such circumstances legislation is worse than useless, for it adds deceit to neglect of the command. The Chinaman is intensely practical; and if he does not clearly see the necessity for or the duty of doing or leaving undone anything, he will not do or leave undone simply because we may think it right.

There are several external observances which we think important, but whose importance is not evident to the Chinese. When these are of serious consequence, the Chinese must be continually instructed till they perceive the duty. They should never be compelled to act in a certain way merely because it is the will of the foreigner. Coercion is unwise. True religion is ever voluntary and hearty. Whatever is opposed to this makes religion a bondage and a burden. Obedience to a purely arbitrary rule, whose living principle does not evoke a corresponding response in an enlightened conscience, is of no moral value. Nay, is it not true that “whatever is not of faith is sin”? Faith, to be worthy of the name, must be intelligent. It is worthy of the name only when the man is “fully convinced in his own mind.”[v]

 In reading Mission Methods in Manchuria, it becomes clear that Ross had no interest in Westernizing Chinese culture. His focus was not on Chinese culture at all. Instead, his focus was on ordinary Chinese men and women, whom he longed to see transformed in Christ. In this, he was probably more typical of missionaries of his time than extraordinary. In Sanneh’s words, missionaries “made field criteria rather than the values of empire-building their operative standard.”[vi] Missionaries may have ridden gun boats and trading vessels into foreign ports but did so as a matter of expediency, not patriotism.

This did not mean that national differences were inconsequential to Ross. He clearly neither sought nor expected the Chinese Church to become culturally homogeneous with the Western Church. In fact, as Sanneh notes, “Christian missions expanded and deepened pluralism—in language, social encounter and ethnic participation in the Christian movement. Missions helped to preserve languages that were threatened by a rising lingua franca.”[vii] It is ironic that the Communist Party of China undertakes the “Sinicization” of Christianity purportedly to cleanse Christianity of its Western cultural cast while simultaneously enforcing a nationalist Chinese cultural cast upon its minority populations. It is a level of national partisanship that Western missionaries of John Ross’ time would have found wholly inappropriate and ineffective.

In only one area did Ross believe it was important for Chinese converts to become more like the Western missionaries who taught them; namely, Christ-likeness. He writes herein, “[I]n everything affecting the moral character and conduct their mind will become more and more assimilated to ours the more thoroughly it becomes leavened by the spirit of the teachings of Jesus.”[viii] It is a sentiment that derives not from Western imperialism but from the nature of the Christian faith itself. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Thus, the measuring stick of the missionary is not whether their work results in greater Westernization or Sinicization but whether through it people of every nation, tribe, and tongue are saved.

Herein lies the difference between true Sinicization of Christianity advanced by John Ross, and its counterfeit advanced by the Communist Party of China. The true Sinicization seeks neither to advance nor to retard the goals of the Chinese government but instead seeks only to advance individual men and women on the road to Christ. The counterfeit Sinicization of Christianity seeks to domesticate Christianity, to make it one more road that leads to the same destination: The so-called Chinese Dream of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. But a domesticated Christianity cannot save individual men and women from sin, and a Christianity that cannot save individual men and women from sin is no Christianity at all.

Christians are called to submit to those in authority over them, but not to conflate the goals of those authorities with the purpose of Christ. It is true that Christians are often better citizens, but this is not because we are more mindful of politics but because we are less so. With minds leavened by the spirit of the teachings of Jesus, we become less focused on ourselves and more focused on loving our neighbors. It is neighbor-love, not nation-love, that makes us better citizens. John Ross’ Mission Methods in Manchuria shows us what that looks like in practice. It is a practice that varies little with time and is thus as challenging and relevant today as it was when it was written.


[i] AsiaNews.IT, “The fruits of sinicization: worshiping the ‘god’ Xi Jinping,” AsiaNews.IT. Accessed November 24, 2018 at‘god’-Xi-Jinping-45496.html.

[ii]Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p. 99.

[iii]Cf. David H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), especially Chapters 1 and 2.

[iv] Lamin Sanneh, “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex,” Religion Online. Accessed November 22, 2018 at

[v]John Ross, Missionary Methods in Manchuria (Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1908), p. 131.

[vi] Lamin Sanneh, “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex,” Religion Online. Accessed November 22, 2018 at

[vii] Ibid.

[viii]John Ross, Missionary Methods in Manchuria (Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1908), p. 131.

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