That’s the reason why ten years ago Mrs. Foley and I sold what we had, gave it away, and followed Jesus in creating Seoul USA to serve especially the underground church of North Korea.
It’s a longer story, of course, but the most germane part of it for our discussion here about the Work of Mercy of ransoming captives is that Mrs. Foley and I saw, again and again, South Korean churches, missionaries, and NGOs setting the evangelism and discipleship agenda for North Korea and sharing it with the world.
They didn’t mean anything bad or presumptuous by it at all, of course. Many South Koreans at that time weren’t even sure there were any underground North Korean Christians left. And, historically, up until the end of the Korean War, there had only ever been one group of Koreans and thus one Korean church. So certainly it was understandable that South Korean churches and missionaries would take the approach of evangelizing North Korea as them reaching their own flesh.
What prompted Mrs. Foley and I, and later (one untimely born?) our brother DH, to form an organization devoted to serving as a platform for the North Korean underground church to reach North Korea and the world was that we kept running into North Korean Christians who had deep connections inside North Korea, frankly better ideas about how to evangelize and disciple their own country, and distinct differences–not divisions, but differences–between North and South Korea that they were uniquely in a position to address. Things like the sharp divergence in dialect, life experience, and current circumstances that had yawned into a vast chasm in less than 50 years.
Well, that and the very fascinating recognition that Pyongyang and the northern region of Korea, not Seoul and the southern region, had historically been the cradle of Christianity–and the heart of the resistance to both the Japanese policy of forced worship at the Shinto shrines and the North Korean state policy of forced worship of the Kim family. In other words, the DNA of North Korean Christians is distinct and pretty special. North Korea lags behind South Korea in nearly every way, but not, it turns out, in Christian discipleship. There are more South Korean Christians, but they are not better.
The North Korean Christians we met were deeply dedicated–and seriously untrained. They had vision but not strategy, lots of trauma but not a lot of tactics to accomplish the word God gave for them to do among their own people.
And even if they hadn’t had these things, they were still the Church of North Korea, after all–the called-out ones God had raised up as a witness to himself in the darkest corner of the earth. Why supplant (or, worse, ignore) them? Why undertake activities that rendered them irrelevant and invisible? Why do things that could potentially harm them in service to some ostensibly greater good of reaching their nation for Christ at their peril? What purpose would God have for them if he put them there–and by “there” I don’t simply mean inside of North Korea. I mean everywhere North Koreans are found, across Asia and around the world.
Are North Koreans latecomers to the South Korean church, or are they their own church–a surprisingly prior church, that is, one that precedes the South Korean church explosion?
Well, that was the question ten years ago, and it remains the question today. We founded Seoul USA on the conviction that the North Korean underground church, by the grace and design of God, is his vessel for reaching North Korea and that the global church is called to serve her in this work, as each part of the church is called to serve and to look to the interest of the other.
We are more persuaded than ever today that this strategy was and is the right one, for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this present post. And we are likewise persuaded that this discussion has deep bearing on the question of ransoming the captives not only for us but for every church population around the world, since I can say with equal parts confidence and grief that some of the greatest difficulties faced by not only the church in North Korea but also the church in persecuted countries around the world has been the global church’s well-meaning but misdirected tendency to supplant, rather than serve, local churches in circumstances of persecution and captivity.
It all begins with compassion wrongly rooted and resources wrongly reckoned. Churches with worldly resources–political and social freedom, for example, and material wealth–look at churches without worldly resources and say, “They need our help!” The implied perspective is that we are in the advantageous situation and they the disadvantaged one. The implied goal is to make them more like us by sharing more of what we have with them.
But that overlooks what must have been a very surprising and unpopular message Jesus sent to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-22 (ESV):
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
What if worldly wealth really has no spiritual coinage? What if, in other words, the persecuted church doesn’t need our worldly wealth and freedom? What if God is not trying to make them more like us but rather make us more like them? What if your worldly wealth cannot ransom captives and only your spiritual wealth can? Would your “check” clear? Or would it bounce?
The persecuted church desperately needs us to grow spiritually, not materially. It needs our spiritual service far more than it needs our material support. God supplies all our needs in Christ Jesus, Paul says, not from the bank accounts of rich Christians. Paul is surprisingly nonchalant about whether Christians send him money or no. He knows that God will always supply in the way God wants to supply, for purposes which often escape our knowledge and understanding. What interests Paul–and God–is how our giving grows us so that our spiritual wealth increases even as our material wealth passes away along with the world that gave it birth and staunchly insists on its value.
So how does this apply to ransoming captives?
Seoul USA is a running bet, now ten years in, that transferring material wealth from the prosperous church to the persecuted church is not God’s highest goal for the relationship between these two parts of the body of Christ. Instead, he intends the arrow to go both ways; that is, for the spiritual wealth of the body of Christ to flow freely between all parts. In this way, one important consequence will be that the prosperous church will learn to put its faith less and less in its material wealth and worldly freedoms and more in the God who functions equally well in the presence or absence of the same.
Let me make it more stark:
Whether we transfer money to ransom captives from prison or show up ourselves (typically in the form of global NGOs) to do the deed, we overlook–at our own spiritual peril and her physical peril (due to ongoing kidnappings and even steeper ransoms)–the church that God already established in a locale to bear his name and accomplish his purpose.
What needs to be transferred instead from us to her is spiritual wealth. Do we have any to send?
At Seoul USA, our rule of thumb is never to transfer more material wealth than spiritual wealth to the North Korean underground church. Yes, we transfer funds. But they are matching funds–meaning, everyone is giving financially, materially impoverished North Koreans included. But financial giving is secondary–tertiary, even–to spiritual giving. And what we have found in ten years is that we are able to share with the North Korean underground church three things that have made a far greater impact on her ability to ransom her captives than any money we’ve sent or any personal presence we’ve provided:
- The wealth of Scripture. We’ve found that though North Korean Christians have clung faithfully and tenaciously to the core truths of the faith in the midst of searing and nearly unparalleled sustained persecution, they value our service in helping them unpack the truths of the Word of God and to support them in applying them in their unique circumstance. We don’t take their place as the church in North Korea. We train them for the role God has given–to them, not us.
- The insights of the faithful church throughout history. Turns out Christians have been ransoming captives for two thousand years. Sometimes they got it wrong, of course, but sometimes they got it right–where right means not that everyone gets out alive but that God is glorified and his name is esteemed even by unbelievers. So we help the North Korean church draw on the riches of Christian history which have been largely unknown to her due to her isolation from the outside world.
- The insights of other persecuted Christians. Believers in more than 50 countries are persecuted for their faith. Most of them, under the power of the Holy Spirit, ransom their captives without material wealth. Sharing with the North Korean church how they do this is far more valuable to her than us stepping in to pay the bill–and ratchet up the next charge exponentially.
We do all of these functions through our Underground University program. We do this and other ransoming programs with our brothers and sisters in the Voice of the Martyrs family. What our programs have in common is the rock-solid conviction that the global church should always serve, never supplant, the local church–including in the work of ransoming captives. We serve persecuted Christians financially, yes, but not in ways that create dependence or foster the illusion–for us or for them–that material wealth is the coin of the spiritual realm.
And the primary service we provide is prayer. But as we’ll note in the next post, our final one wrapping up this month-long focus on ransoming the captives, is not prayer for the persecuted church but rather prayer with the persecuted church–prayer that recognizes that when we ransom captives, our petition is always to God, not to the purported captors who are the most deeply bound captives of all.