RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The e-mail arrived marked “urgent request.”
“We got word last night that ‘R’ and three other believers were held and beaten over an extended period of time,” reported the sender, a missionary who works with “R” and other Christians targeted for preaching the Gospel.
“The persecutors told R and the others to stop sharing the Word. As you can imagine, R and the other men are bruised, battered and wondering what to do next. This was not the first time R has been beaten.”
The message was sent from a tribal area in South Asia, but it could have come from any of hundreds of places where Christians suffer for their faith.
Multiple-choice question: If you were the missionary close to this particular situation, what would you do?
1. Assure R of your prayers and mobilize spiritual support.
2. Protect R and his co-workers from their persecutors.
3. Ask the national government to stop such abuses and guarantee religious freedom.
4. Remove the believers from danger and take them to a safe place.
Christian workers face such questions every day as they take the Gospel deeper into hostile areas and unreached peoples. There are no easy answers, no formulas that fit every situation.
As citizens of a nation founded on religious and political liberty, Americans often feel righteous anger when we hear about persecution. We want to ride to the rescue and disarm the persecutors — or whisk the suffering believers away to a place where they can worship in freedom.
In some cases, that’s the right response. In others, it might short-circuit God’s divine purposes.
These questions came to mind after the storm of outrage surrounding the recent case of a Muslim convert to Christ in Central Asia who was arrested and charged with apostasy –- an offense punishable by death under traditional Islamic law.
“I am not an apostate,” the convert boldly stated while in custody. “I am not an infidel or a fugitive. I am a Christian. If they want to sentence me to death, I accept that.”
Under intense pressure from international governments, judicial authorities released the man in late March. Facing near-certain death if he appeared in public, however, he quickly sought asylum in Italy.
The case beamed a bright light on the harsh realities confronting Muslims in many places who choose to follow Christ. That’s a good thing. The convert is alive. That’s also a good thing. But will the media frenzy that swirled around his case improve the situation of Christian converts in his country –- or elsewhere in the Muslim world? We’ll see.
“At the village level it’s usually a negative,” according to a Central Asia specialist at the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Their perception is that Western influence is trying to change their religion, not just their government. The average man in the village doesn’t see the difference. His nationality and his religion are too intertwined.”
The village level is usually where the Gospel spreads -– or gets squelched.
Sometimes it spreads when local leaders allow believers the freedom to preach. Sometimes it spreads quietly. Sometimes it spreads when people see believers willing to suffer for their faith.
On Easter this year, a mob attacked a church in northern India. They dragged two church planters outside and beat them savagely, tore their Bibles to pieces and threw stones at people attending the Easter service. The church’s flimsy roof collapsed under the weight of big stones tossed onto it. The attackers warned the church planters they would be killed if they were seen in the village again.
The church planters responded: “You can kill us, but as long as we are alive, we will continue to share the Gospel and worship the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The more anti-Christian campaigns intensify in Hindu- and Muslim-dominated regions of India, the faster the church grows there. The persecution, often abetted by local authorities, flies in the face of India’s claim to be a free society. But it’s not stopping the Gospel’s expansion.
“In some of these high-persecution environments, you have believers being pulled out for their own safety,” acknowledges Scott Holste, IMB associate vice president for research and strategy services. “Our concern is every time you gain a foothold into a people group, you basically eliminate it by pulling that person out. It’s going to be very difficult for them ever to go back.
“Maybe that person, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, feels like, ‘Even if I die, I’d rather stay here and continue to be a faithful witness.’”
The key is sensitivity to God and to the situation.
“One option is to pull out,” Holste says. “Second is to go underground. Or you can go public, even though it’s a high-persecution environment. Outsiders need to realize that all of these may be legitimate possibilities. The early believers got (the Apostle) Paul out of town when there were real threats against his life. There may be times that leaving is strategic, times for allowing the church to grow quietly underground -– and times to go ahead and assume a public face.”
Here’s what the missionary who wrote about R and his fellow believers requested:
“Ask God to heal these men and strengthen their faith, even in the midst of this physical persecution. R asked specifically for your prayers.”
Strategic, fervent prayer for faithful servants of God is always a right option.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice monthly in Baptist Press.