The Three Wrong Responses Christians Make To Persecution And The One Right Response

Logo 071414How should churches respond when governments oppose and outlaw them and their message?

Many Pentecostal Christians in Eastern Europe responded to religiously repressive Marxist governments in three erroneous ways, while others found and embraced one productive and biblical path.

That is the contention of Gordon-Conwell Seminary Distinguished Professor of World Missions and European Studies Peter Kuzmic in his article entitled “Pentecostal Theology and Communist Europe” in Kay & Dyer’s 2001 European Pentecostalism (Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies). It’s worth a careful read since clearly the challenges–and the responses–were not limited to Soviet Europe but are instead quite relevant today.

Kuzmic notes that the first unproductive response of Eastern European churches to communist oppression was resignation:

The first defensive reaction of many minority Christian communities who have suddenly found themselves surrounded by a powerful enemy and ruled over by an atheistic system is to withdraw from the society, literally to ‘flee the world’ (340).

Kuzmic explains that this fleeing took two forms among Eastern European Christians: internal emigration (withdrawing from society) and external emigration (fleeing the country). Provocatively, he contends that each was equally problematic and that both arose out of the same sinful root: fear. “Both are caused by fear of engaging the new system which is conceived as evil” (340). Kuzmic shares that while external emigration might appear the more problematic course of action (in that some areas were left without a Christian witness), through internal emigration (staying put but withdrawing from society), the church was “by and large also lost for social impact and effective evangelism.” Adds Kuzmic, by opting for internal emigration the church

very often developed a sectarian ghetto mentality with a passive if not reactionary legalism and insulation that made them incapable of a Gospel-prescribed ‘salt and light’ influence on their society. They often developed their own pietistic subcultures with their own patterns of behavior, language, dress code, and even hymnology and modes of prayer.” (342)

Kuzmic continues with a second problematic response to government opposition: resistance. That is,

to react by fighting, taking a posture of active opposition to the government and its policies… The simple reasoning behind this crusader mentality was that the new system is ungodly and evil, inspired by the devil and should neither be obeyed nor tolerated, but rather actively opposed in the name of Christ (p. 343).

This, contends Kuzmic, was the response most likely to result in repression, “countless Christian martyrs” and “devastation of church property and institutions.” By assuming the role of the resistance, Christians became “ideological enemies in the service of the ‘imperialist nations’ and thus unpatriotic political traitors” (344). He adds, “[W]herever Christians were trapped into the assumption that their major task was to fight communism they handicapped themselves by becoming incapable of practicing forgiveness and being living (or dying) witnesses to their communist enemies” (344). Concludes Kuzmic, “It is always a betrayal of the Gospel when Christian faith is reduced, in reality or by perception, to a politico-ideological force” (344).

The third error Eastern European Christians committed in response to communist oppression, according to Kuzmic, was accommodation,

the temptation to conform or compromise, to tailor the message to the new situation and to accommodate to the prevailing ideology (344).

Think three-self church in China. And just as with the three-self church and the unregistered church in China, accommodation “often caused splits between those denominations that registered with the government and agreed to observe the letter of the law and those who rejected any compromises with the authorities and refused the observance of legal restrictions thus choosing to operate in a [sic] clandestine ways as ‘underground churches'” (344). For Christians willing to abide by the government’s restrictions, governments typically responded with “the three-designates policy: designated place, personnel, and areas” (346). This, says Kuzmic, always led to a compromise of the church’s role and message.

So if resignation, resistance, and accommodation represented the wrong theological moves of Eastern European Christians in response to communism, what was the correct response discovered by some churches? Kuzmic says it was the theology of the cross:

The words of Jesus–‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34)–had a deep experiential meaning for them. Their contextual reading of Scriptures convinced them that suffering was an essential mark of true discipleship (349).

Living according to a theology of the cross entailed total commitment to all the demands of Jesus, including the whole spectrum of ethical (personal and social) requirements that are inherent in the biblical kerygma.” (352). In short, it meant living the Christian life in response to the call of Christ, not in reaction to the government. This included accepting the consequences the government meted out, as a way of conveying that Christians are citizens of a different kingdom. This necessarily entailed suffering. The willingness to suffer without retaliation while continuing to love their enemies became the most attractive characteristic of authentic Christians under communism.

Kuzmic’s thoughts should challenge us to assess our own response to Christians experiencing persecution today. Perhaps because we are ambivalent toward suffering and persecution in our own lives, we may uncritically support Christians who respond to persecution according to one of the three theologically erroneous approaches rather than challenging and encouraging them to repent of such approaches and embrace the way of the cross. After all, who are we comfortable, affluent Western Christians to call persecuted believers (or anyone) to repentance? And if we encourage persecuted believers to take up their crosses, we risk needing to repent and to embrace the way of the cross ourselves.

The failure to hold persecuted believers accountable is costlier still, however. If we continue to export to persecuted Christians our own ambivalence toward suffering–that is, if we fund projects that encourage resignation, resistance, or accommodation in the face of persecution–we will further foster expressions of the Christian faith that are biblically insufficient and that compromise the witness of Christ exactly where and when it is needed most.

So as you consider your financial and prayer support to various projects of aid for persecuted believers, ask yourself: Does this project encourage resignation, resistance, accommodation, or the theology of the cross? And as I make this gift, am I embodying the theology of the cross in my own Christian walk? If not, how can I do so?

Your commitment to take up your own cross daily may be the most significant help and encouragement that you can offer to Christians facing persecution who must make that same choice daily as well.

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Who Do You Become When You Get Success And Power? What Jesus And Some North Koreans Can Teach Us

WLO_reigningThis past weekend, I met with about 30 North Korean defectors who had been in South Korea for less than a year.  They were all different ages and had varying levels of education and experience in the workplace.  But almost all of the North Koreans I talked with were very humble and willing to learn whatever I had to teach them.

This makes a lot of sense, considering their difficult lives in North Korea and harrowing thousand-mile journeys to make it South Korea.  And when they arrive in South Korea, they realize how much they need to learn and how much they are dependent on others in order to be successful in a modern society.

But generally speaking, after North Koreans live in South Korea a little while, their attitudes begin to change.  They get a sizable financial package from the government and churches pay them good money to attend their services.  The humble and teachable attitude they once exhibited begins to fade away.

I don’t think North Koreans are any better or any worse than the rest of us. I fear that I would react in a similar way.  As sinful human beings, the more things we get, the more we think we actually deserve them.  As pride and arrogance bubble up in our lives, the less grateful we become.

The disciples (and a certain mother of the sons of Zebedee) also reacted in a similar way.  The disciples had undoubtedly seen many miracles and had participated with Jesus in many of them.  They saw their master had not only fed the five thousand, (Matthew 14:13-21) but had even been transfigured so that his face literally shone like the sun (Matthew 17).  It was only (sinfully) natural that this certain mother would want to guarantee her sons’ place of importance in the Kingdom of God.  And it was only sinfully natural that the other disciples would become upset . . . because they wanted to be important in the Kingdom of God as well!

That’s why the attitude that we see Jesus portray in John 13 is simply amazing.  Verses 3 & 4 say,

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.

What a contrast to how we often react when we get power and money!  Jesus responds to the knowledge of his power and his destination by washing the grimy, smelly feet of each of his disciples.  Truthfully, I would have responded by making the disciples wash my own feet, but Jesus took on the role of a servant by choosing an act of service that would normally be done by someone of a much lower social status.  It’s obvious by the response of Peter in verse 8 that Peter is appalled by the thought of Jesus washing his feet!

And this wasn’t an isolated incident – this was an example was how Jesus lived his whole earthly life and ultimately how Jesus died!

The apostle Paul understood this struggle as well, because he encouraged the Philippian church to have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.  Or as Robertson’s Word Pictures says it, “Keep on thinking this in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”

We should not take our present humility for granted. It will not last.  Success, money, and power have a way of drawing our focus away from Jesus.  We need to keep looking into the life and mind of Christ to ensure that no matter what life situation we find ourselves in, especially the good ones, we respond with humility and a willingness to serve.

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Missionaries Should Always Tell The Truth, And Nine Other Straightforward Agreements We Should Be Able To Make In North Korea Missions

Logo 071414What is the lesson for Christian missionaries operating on this side of Kenneth Bae’s release? If we think the lesson is, “from now on we need to be even more covert about our Christian identity and work,” we will be back in the very uncomfortable classroom again all too soon.

The case North Korea is building against Christian missionaries is simple:

Christians say they are doing one thing when in reality they are doing another. Therefore, nothing Christians say or do should be trusted.

In a piece from last week entitled After Bae release, Christian groups tread carefully in North Korea, Bill Rigby and Sohee Kim interviewed several missionaries on the conclusions they are drawing about their work in light of Kenneth Bae’s release. Without impugning the reporting of Rigby and Kim, I would note that I have been through enough interviews in life that I would caution against drawing conclusions about any of the missionaries or organizations cited based simply on their quotes in the article. Answering interview questions is hard. I often finish an interview and only then realize what I wish I would have said. And I have sometimes felt a reporter highlighted a less important statement I made while leaving out a more important one. And sometimes I think I have made the context clear to a reporter, when in fact I have not.

So with all of these caveats in mind, I would say that I am not troubled as much by what is said by missionaries in the article as by what is not being said publicly frequently enough. What follows here is what I think needs to be said, and agreed to, by all of us simply as self-evident truths of the Christian life from which we as missionaries are not exempted by vocation.

I hasten to note that I do not write these in opposition to Kenneth, or any missionary. To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. I write these things because to me they are the fundamentals of Christian mission and ought to be relatively straightforward and noncontroversial things on which we can and should agree moving forward, in light of what we hopefully have learned. To the degree that we move forward without embracing these things, the wrong kind of trouble crouches at our door, and it will master us.

  1. We should tell the truth. The founder of the Voice of the Martyrs movement, Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, said that we should never lie. He explained that this does not mean that we have to shout from the rooftops to everyone, telling them everything we are doing. But it does mean that our yes must be yes and our no most be no.
  2. We should not undertake any ministry strategy that is predicated on deception. If a ministry strategy requires that we misrepresent ourselves or our purpose, it is not a ministry strategy in which we should engage.
  3.  We should never underestimate what God can do with our transparency and weakness. If telling the truth about what we are doing seems crazy and deadly, chances are we are on the right track.
  4. Not even the most noble missionary end justifies an ignoble missionary means. If we engage in deception, we should expect that not only will the North Korean government seek to expose us, the Lord Jesus will, too.
  5. We must model right Christian conduct at all times. If we engage in deception in order to make disciples, we will raise up disciples who engage in deception. They will have learned it from us, and it would be better that a millstone be tied around our necks than that we would teach others to deceive in the name of the Lord Jesus. 
  6. We should work as hard at the “innocent as doves” part as we do the “shrewd as serpents” part. Even among our enemies–especially among our enemies–we should have a reputation for acting honorably in all things. We should be so known for our honesty that our enemies consider it a weakness through which they can seek to entrap us. We should not confound the North Korean authorities with the creativity of our concealments but instead with the honesty of our professions.
  7. If we decide to do business as missions as a strategy, we should do our business as unto the Lord, as our reasonable worship. We should first become excellent–truly, excellent–at running our widget business in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, before we open up a widget business at the ends of the earth. Our God is the God who rewards faithfulness in a little with a lot. He desires to entrust his hardware stores at the ends of the earth to those who have proven to be the best hardware store owners in Jerusalem, not those who need on the job training in the newest location he is opening.
  8. We must put into practice the words of the venerable Sammy Davis, Jr.: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. The Urban Dictionary defines this wise proverb thusly: “A ‘hip’ expression of the 1960’s-70’s that advises you not to do something risky unless you are willing and able to accept the full weight of the consequences.” One even greater than Sammy Davis, Jr. once said, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him.” So before we do missionary work that could get us imprisoned, we must train for imprisonment. A good way to begin is to cast aside the sin that so easily besets us.
  9. We should not focus on making governments happy or satisfied, and we should accept the punishments they mete out as part of the consequences of being ambassadors for a very unpopular kingdom. When God’s word conflicts with the words of governments, we are to say to those in authority, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Our examplars are Peter and John, who, when they were judged for a good deed done for a helpless man, considered it joy to suffer shame for the name of the Lord Jesus. The public shaming was as essential to their ambassadorship as the good deed.
  10. We should testify to kings, yes, but not enter into business agreements with them.

One of the missionaries in the Rigby/Kim article is quoted as saying, “We have to come up with a strategy to avoid another case like Kenneth Bae’s.” Myself, I come more and more to the conclusion that the problem with our strategies is that they are already too clever by half. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus actually lays out the strategy he intends us to use. It is disarmingly simple, straightforward, and transparent. I think it is not that Jesus’ strategy has been tried and found wanting with regard to North Korea mission but rather that it has not yet been tried completely and fully implemented.

For this reason, I suggest that the appropriate way forward for us on this side of Kenneth Bae’s release is, paradoxically, not more strategy but less. We must make sure that strategy never becomes a means of avoiding taking up our cross daily. Eliminating carelessness and minimizing risk, yes. Discussions about faithfulness to the Scriptures, yes. But seeking out strategies that shear off the name of Christ in the hope of making things safer for us and others, very dangerous indeed.

After all, if you carry a cross daily in public, it will be impossible to avoid being noticed.

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