RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Recent headlines from the persecution front:
— “Officials deny mistreatment of jailed pastor” (China).
— “Elections increase violence against Christians” (India).
— “Churches destroyed, pastors murdered” (Indonesia).
— “Muslim extremists attack churches, evangelist” (Nigeria).
That’s just a sample of 24 stories in the June edition of Compass Direct, an independent news service that covers the persecution of Christians worldwide. The 24, in turn, represent only a sample of hundreds of incidents of harassment and abuse of believers each month. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more worldwide go unreported.
What do such reports tell us? Among other things, they confirm that persecution of Christian believers by governments, hostile religious groups and extremists is a fact. It is also widespread, often systematic — and increasing, despite a greater awareness of it among churches and media outlets in countries where freedom is the rule.
That wouldn’t surprise the Apostle Peter.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you,” he wrote to the early churches. “[B]ut to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing…. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 1:12-14).
Yet we are still surprised, at least in the United States, to hear about Christians who suffer arrest, physical abuse and even death. Despite living in an increasingly pagan culture, few American believers experience anything worse than ridicule for their beliefs. We also continue to enjoy the traditions of religious freedom, personal liberty and government protection of our individual rights.
Sometimes, those traditions cloud our perspective on Christians who suffer. Our first impulse is to rescue them, protect them, remove them from harm’s way — or compel the societies that persecute them to observe our own principles of liberty and freedom of conscience.
That impulse is right and proper in some cases. Religious and secular human rights groups do heroic work in many places to bring the plight of neglected, suffering believers to world attention.
But we can’t rescue all of them — nor should we.
Much of the modern Christian world assumed that the church in China — the object of so much labor by missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries — had shrunk and perhaps died under communism after Western missionaries were driven out of the country in 1949.
To be sure, the Chinese church suffered deeply, particularly during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when the ultra-radical Red Guards attempted to eradicate religion altogether. But Chinese believers endured, learned to depend on God alone, grew strong under pressure — and multiplied.
They numbered in the hundreds of thousands before the communist era. Now they number in the tens of millions — with thousands more coming to faith each day.
Some Chinese house church leaders actually dread the day persecution ceases. They fear their strong, faithful congregations will become flabby and complacent — like so many in the West.
God continues to use the opponents of the Gospel to extend the Gospel, just as He did in Peter’s day. In the Muslim, Hindu and communist worlds, endurance amid persecution is one of the most common elements of the church-planting movements that are multiplying believers and congregations exponentially.
Even under the most brutal ancient empires, God used rulers like Cyrus to advance His purpose for His children. “It seems that no matter the temporary judgment on a nation, God’s overall plan of salvation goes forward,” missiologist Justin Long writes. “It is a lesson we would do well to hear in America.”
That is especially important as Southern Baptists and other evangelicals take the Gospel deeper and deeper into the world of unreached peoples. Suffering is more common there — primarily for local believers, but also for missionaries who serve them. Mission workers should not seek persecution; that’s a morbid and foolhardy approach to evangelism. But they should not be surprised if it comes.
“One of the most misunderstood aspects of missions today is persecution and personal suffering,” Mark Snowden, a communication strategist for the International Mission Board, observes. “Many Southern Baptists believe that God would never call them to a place they would consider to be dangerous…. Rarely are the persecutors (perceived enemies) prayed for as Christ instructs.”
If we truly want to serve our suffering brothers and sisters, it’s time to embrace a biblical — and not necessarily American — view of persecution.
Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. His column appears in Baptist Press twice each month.