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The Persecuted Church

Monday, 7 April 2014  | Scott Buchanan

The church is the body of Christ. This central truth should help define Christian self-understanding, compelling us to look at those groups we call ‘churches’ not merely as many, but as one, inspiring us to seek how we can actively support our fellow ‘members’. This most certainly includes those Christians who, in addition to following Jesus with single-minded devotion, practice faith beneath the weight of persecution.

I recently heard about the experiences of such believers at a seminar held by Open Doors, an organisation supporting the persecuted church. The seminar focused on the state of the church in the Middle East and how Christians have fared in places like Iran, Syria and Iraq. Whether living under an authoritarian Islamist regime, or caught in the middle of a civil war, believers in that part of the world are taking the narrow road of cruciform faith. But it is not only there that Christians are suffering: Christians in Sri Lanka are being opposed by fundamentalist Buddhists; believers in Colombia have been targeted by criminal networks for resisting their advances; and the North Korean church is being crushed by a regime intent on suppressing every other voice. 

Examples could be multiplied. Unfortunately, I wonder whether the Western church responds to the struggles of the persecuted church with the sort of holy alacrity with which it should be possessed. Of course, I cannot make rash generalisations; certainly, there are multitudes of faithful Christians living in the West who aid persecuted brothers and sisters. Indeed, I have met a number of them; joining in prayer for, and support of, persecuted brethren. Still, a sense of disquiet remains that has been borne out by long experience within the church. Others have expressed concerns over this relative dearth of action by Christians who enjoy the benefits of spiritual practice beneath the soft glow of political liberty. Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and a committed Catholic, wrote on the First Things website that he was “at a loss” to explain the silence of (American) Christians about the sufferings of other believers. Perhaps my own experiences, then, aren’t so parochial. So, whilst I cannot castigate or criticise, I want to issue a loving call to Western Christians to reflect upon what it means to be a member—connected and in-grafted—of a body that is often hard-pressed by travail and persecution.

As I think about why there might be a “gap” between these parts of the church, a number of causes spring to mind (though I admit to a good deal of speculation). To begin, certain wings of the church have an individualistic conception of faith with a corresponding loss of corporate vision – the proper ground and context for Christian spirituality. The church as Christ’s body has given way, in many places, to ecclesiastical atomism. Less concerned with discipleship conducted within the family of faith, and more interested in a source of comfort or advice for their own daily life, many contemporary Christians may have lost sight of the whole. If this is true domestically, how much more might it be the case on an international plane? Christians in far flung lands, and from radically different cultures, may seem little more than ciphers, rather than as fellow members of a grand organism, pulsating with the life of Christ. More specifically, various strains of charismatic Christianity, with their over-realized eschatology, might implicitly screen out the present sufferings of persecuted believers, as such experiences do not fit into so triumphalist a narrative. Lastly, the irony of living in an information-saturated world is significant: having so much information at one’s fingertips can, I think, actually dilute the searing importance of the church’s hardships, lost as it is amongst a morass of other crises.

By way of solution, I can only speak about how I myself was transformed from someone who thought little about the persecuted church to someone who has developed a spiritual passion for suffering brothers and sisters—and that from simply reading Scripture. Poring over the New Testament, I have been repeatedly challenged by what I find there. Narratively and didactically, the New Testament points to the beauty of Christian oneness. Take that well-known passage, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, where Paul likens Christian unity to a body, cutting across our individualistic designs. Though composed of many parts, it forms one entity, shot through with, and held together by, the Spirit of Christ himself. This is not merely the case for believers who happen to reside in the same geographical location, or have the same tastes, or come from the same social class. No. its remit is absolute and universal and it embraces every member of God’s household. The church is so inescapably one that, like a body, the whole is wounded when one of its parts is damaged. That is why Paul can say, without a trace of exaggeration, that when “one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

The deep, abiding unity of the church was something the early Christians knew well. The opening chapters of Acts have shown me how Paul’s words can be radically practiced. I think of the believers sharing their possessions freely with one another (Acts 4:32-37) – how fitting, since the lines of bodily ownership are blurred within the seamless unity of the whole. If that was true of the church before the onset of persecution, how much truer should it be now, when parts of Christ’s body are suffering deeply? Jesus’ own words reflect the indistinguishable identity between himself and the believer: in commending those who supported the least of “these brothers and sisters”, he says that they were, in fact, tending to him (Matthew 25:40). Thus, in upholding persecuted Christians, we are upholding Christ himself; there is no difference. Devotion to Jesus cannot be separated from devotion to our fellow Christians, and the hardships of persecuted believers should rouse us out of our slumber.

These passages have taken a while to etch themselves into my soul. But having done so, they have compelled me to look again at my place within the church – not just the local community of which I am a part, but the church universal. More than a collection of individuals, we compose God’s redeemed community, his family. Our ties run far deeper than blood, genetics, or common values. By supporting the persecuted church, Western Christians not only show solidarity with the victims of injustice; we also manifest the indefatigable oneness of Christ’s body, heralding the coming of a new age, where all things will be reconciled to the Creator in glorious harmony.  



Robert Coles
April 8, 2014, 6:01PM
I recommend concerned believers get hold of:
"PERSECUTED The Global Assault On Christians"
by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, Nina Shea.

Christians are the world's most widely persecuted religious group today.
john yates
April 9, 2014, 10:14AM
Hi Scott, I fully agree with your "loving call" but don't think it is likey to reach the ears of the main offenders in this matter. (Who, amongst other things, are unlikely to be Ethos readers.) The simple truth is that the vast bulk of Western believers do not want their comfortable lifestyles disturbed by acknowledging the terrible plight of persecuted brothers and sisters. This is sin, needs to be named as such and repented of.
Scott Buchanan
April 10, 2014, 12:30PM
Hi Robert - a great recommendation! I shall have a hunt around for it. A Christian colleague of mine has recommended "God's Smuggler," by Brother Andrew (who started Open Doors). I'm also preparing to read "Tortured for Christ," by a Romanian pastor who suffered under Communist rule. It's significant that even secular media outlets (I think of "The Australian" especially) have begun to report on the persecution of
Christians globally.

Hi John - yes, it certainly is something to repent of. I know I need to! I tried to shy away from the dreaded "S" word in my essay, but I think you're correct: if we are not caring for the body (which can be as easy as covering it in prayer), then we are clearly disobeying the consistent teaching of the NT. Hopefully, a piece like this can eventually filter into the thinking of others. And I must say, I have been encouraged by the many Christians who ARE invested in supporting the persecuted church.
Ian Hore-Lacy
April 20, 2014, 9:51AM
Good article! Basically agree, and quite prepared to be disturbed by the situation, but what do we in the secure west actually DO about making a difference in Syria, North Korea, MENA? If the sense of 'holy alacrity' could be revved up, what then (beyond prayer and some band-aid giving)?
Scott Buchanan
April 22, 2014, 10:21AM
Hi Ian,

Yes, a good question. Whilst prayer might seem like the cliched "Sunday School" answer, I think it is imperative that this be our priority. I would never want to underestimate it's importance, given that we are invoking God's power in what are often desperate situations. And I would gently suggest that money given, though it can sometimes be a band-aid, can do substantive good. I've had the privilege of giving money to support evangelists or to provide bibles, or supply refuge for Christians under siege. Though small, they can have significant flow-on effects.

In the past, I've written about persecuted Christians to government. I think this can also be an important means of standing with other members of God's house, and could help effect wider change, particularly if churches are coming together in collective advocacy (something the article is meant to try and inspire). Groups such as Open Doors are channels for this kind of work.

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