What is the Underground Church? (Introduction to Preparing for the Underground Church, Part V)

(Part V of VII of Pastor Foley’s introductory essay to Rev. Richard Wurmbrand’s Preparing for the Underground Church. To order a print or electronic copy of the bilingual Korean/English edition of Preparing for the Underground Church, including Pastor Foley’s introductory essay and a foreword by Voice of the Martyrs historian Merv Knight, visit Amazon or click here to visit the bookstore page on our website. For Part I of Pastor Foley’s introductory essay , click here.) 

Our picture of the underground church owes more to imagination than reality. As a result we can’t imagine preparing to join it. When we hear the phrase “underground church” we imagine a ragtag band in hiding, moving about furtively in darkness to evade detection by a mighty power capable of destroying it. We envision people sneaking out of their homes to attend worship services in the forest, or whispering hymns and reading the Bible by candlelight under blankets in their homes.

These images are not total fabrications. But neither is the underground church defined by its ragtaggedness, its furtiveness, or its proximity to destruction. The underground church does not owe its existence to persecution at all. Persecution only reveals the underground church; it cannot create it.

The underground church is the indissoluble structure of Christ’s work that is revealed when the public church can no longer sustain itself, either due to devastating attack or collapse from within. It is revealed under such circumstances, but it is created when Christians jointly submit to the Lord’s summons, “Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.”[1] Thus, it is the underground church not because it is in hiding but because, like a seed planted in the ground, it is that part of the church which has already died to the world. Because it has already died to the world, it is impervious to the world’s attacks. It is able to remain standing when the rain comes down, the streams rise, and the winds blow and beat against that house.[2]

This accounts for the difference in the way the public church and the underground church respond to persecution. The public church responds to it like a public organization. In the face of attack it protects its interests, its assets, its rights, its way of life, and its beliefs. It acts out of a very real sense of fear of losing these things. That fear becomes palpable in the battles the public church wages against those who threaten it: court cases, protests and demonstrations, and attempts at public persuasion and education. Anger and desperation bubble to its surface, wounding the public church’s Christian witness to the whole society. It wins some skirmishes, loses others, each one strengthening public opposition against it. Eventually it begins to turn on itself, with whole segments—prominent churches, theologians, and denominations—justifying compromise with its enemies and loudly denouncing the segments which refuse to do the same. Ultimately these defectors become persecutors as well. Meanwhile, the rest of the church spends itself—financially, physically, spiritually—as it desperately seeks to save its own life. Its theology and practice become distorted by defending itself and its practices, drawing Christianity carelessly around itself like a blanket in the process so that the faith serves the church. This is the progression that is already underway especially in America as the public church continues to stagger under the blitzkrieg onslaught and infiltration of the sexual revolution that caught it unaware.

But this is not the way of underground church, which is characterized by its disciplined love of Christ and its theology of suffering love. The underground church is the church of one love, and that love is not itself. Because it has already died, it does not seek to defend or preserve itself. Instead, it is free to serve only the Lord. It remains solely focused on hearing and doing the whole word of God, stewarding the theological heritage that has been entrusted to it—its “hope”—so that nothing is added to it and nothing in it is neglected. It is not caught unaware by the opposition of the world because it has taken to heart the Lord’s admonition, “In this world you will have trouble.” It does not operate out of fear because it has taken to hear the Lord’s consolation, “But take heart! For I have overcome the world.”[3] It abides by the Lord’s command to put down its sword, so it does not take up the world’s “swords”—its  courts, its media, its politics—but instead is armed with only the blood of the lamb and the word of its testimony.[4] When reviled, it reviles not; when cursed, it curses not; when persecuted it blesses; when murdered, it forgives. It does not entrust itself to the world because it knows what is in the world’s heart. It does not hide. It carries out its work in full awareness of the opposition of the world, and it strategizes accordingly. It always serves, even its enemies, but always as unto the Lord, i.e., it does not serve the world by becoming like it. It joyfully pays the price for not compromising with the world, considering it all joy when it suffers because it has been counted worthy to suffer for the name.[5] It is always prepared to give the reason for the hope that it has, when the world calls it to account. But it does so “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”[6]

In short, the underground church does not “engage” the sexual revolution and its incursions at all. It simply continues to be the church. It does not draw Christianity around itself as if the faith were its servant. It remains awed and honored by the catholicity of the faith and thus refuses to become the church of one issue. It knows that what is required is not to die defending the faith but to die practicing it. That death may happen in an instant through a bloody martyrdom, or it may happen daily, through dying to self and to the world, which are also martyrdoms it has been taught to esteem.

If the underground church is most often portrayed in history as without buildings, legal sanction, or earthly resources that is only because it has learned to “throw off”—not its capitalist overlords or oppressive morality or purportedly outdated sexual ethics, but rather “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” so that it may

run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.[7]

The underground church is that part of the church which has learned that it is not called to defend buildings, denominations, assets, ways of life, or its own interests. To prepare for the underground church, then, does not mean to prepare to fight against the sexual revolution but rather to prepare not to. It means to prepare for the removal, the collapse, the challenging of the Christ-inspired public church sculptures that sit atop the underground church but which ultimately are not constitutive of it. To prepare for the underground church means to prepare to be fully Christian in the full glare of day when every vestige of honor has been stripped from us by the world and there is nothing to clothe our nakedness but the Lord’s own glory.

[1] John 12:24, KJV.

[2] Matthew 7:25.

[3] John 16:33, NIV.

[4] Rev 12:11.

[5] James 1:2; Acts 5:41.

[6] 1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV.

[7] Hebrews 12:1-2.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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2 Responses to What is the Underground Church? (Introduction to Preparing for the Underground Church, Part V)

  1. tseongyosa says:

    Maybe it can be thought of like a sign.
    Signs can be made attractive, and their purpose is to point to an actual location or establishment.
    However, if you get rid of the sign, you really are not doing any damage to the actual establishment.
    We shouldn’t confuse the sign with the actual establishment.
    In the same way, we cannot look at church buildings and confuse them with the actual Church.
    And when the world destroys our church buildings, we don’t need to be sad because they really are doing no damage to the real Church, the body of Christ, which death cannot touch.

  2. Pingback: No Church schism; no being unequally yoked! – Jesus' Holy Nation B.C.- A.D.

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