For seven years we did outreach to Muslim refugees in our city in the US. At one stage, two of my Iranian friends were interested in pursuing membership at our church. One of them, *Saul, had come to faith in Iran and had even spent time in prison for being a house church leader-in-training. The other, *Reza, was a new believer, having come to faith after a couple years in the US. The process of pursuing church membership with them – in our diverse but still majority-American Baptist church – was a rocky one. Interview after interview was canceled by these Iranian brothers. Yes, there were theological questions that we needed to work through, and those discussions sometimes got pretty intense (I’m not angry, I’m just Iranian!), but there were also some hidden cultural roadblocks that also emerged. Turns out it was not just our doctrine that was causing concern, but some of our systems and forms.
“Hey brother, can you help me understand why Saul keeps canceling his membership interview?” I asked.
“Well, you know how we grew up in a police state, right?” My friend Reza responded.
“This upbringing has affected us in some deep ways,” Reza continued.
“Well, we are (especially Saul) having a hard time with the idea of a membership interview. We don’t like interviews. They make us really anxious.”
I furrowed my brow, “Why exactly do interviews make you anxious?”
Reza looked at me like I should have known the answer to that question. “An interview is what the secret police does to you. They call you in to an interview. Then you get tortured. Then you go to jail. We have baggage with that term and with that kind of meeting. It happened to my dad a number of times. It happened to Saul. Does that make sense?”
I nodded, processing this new info. “So if we call it something else…”
Reza jumped in, “Call it anything else! Just for Iranians, don’t call it an interview (said with a shiver). Set it up in a different kind of way also… Do you think that would be possible?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ll have to ask the elders, but I think we could find something else that could work. Would you guys be comfortable if we asked the same kinds of questions, but in the context of a meal in a home?”
“Yes!” said Reza, “That would be perfect. And there’s one other thing… Saul and I won’t sign our names on the membership covenant.”
Again the look that implied I should be smart enough to figure this one out. “The secret police always make you sign a confession statement, even if you didn’t do what they accuse you of. We Iranians tend to be allergic to signing things. We’ve learned our signature can often be used against us.”
“But, brother, we’re not in Iran anymore. The government here doesn’t care if your signature is on a membership list. And what else could be done to seal your commitment other than signing? I’m not sure there’s an alternative. Membership requires that you promise to be committed in a serious way to this spiritual family.”
“We’ll more readily raise our right hand and swear orally. That feels safer to us. We really don’t like signing things. I know it might not make sense to you…”
“Well, OK, I can ask the elders about these tweaks to the process and let you know. Honestly, I never thought about these things being an issue or a roadblock in you guys becoming members.”
“I appreciate it, brother Workman.”
I took these unique questions about the membership process to the elders of the church. After discussing it, they indeed decided that these forms (a meal and orally swearing) could serve as acceptable substitutes for the normal interview and covenant signing. I was really encouraged by this outcome. While I wouldn’t have had these categories clear at that time, what the elders had done was to hold onto their biblical principles of church membership, while giving some wiggle room in the cultural expressions of that process. It might seem like a small thing, but a vibrant, growing church has to lean heavily on agreed upon and steady processes. Changing them can be costly, and can’t always fit with the practical needs of a busy church body. And yet sometimes tweaking things like church processes so that they’re less culturally difficult can make a big difference in practically loving believers from other cultures. It may not seem glamorous, but it can feel an awful lot like honor and kindness if you are on the receiving end.
Reza met us half-way. He surprised me by signing the covenant after we in turn had set up a membership meal. Saul never made it through the process. He wasn’t able to overcome his skepticism toward healthy church accountability nor the pride that he carried at having gone to prison for Jesus. Persecution, in his case, ended up planting poisonous self-righteousness in his heart. These things and the distractions of life in America gradually pulled him out of fellowship with us. But Reza shared his testimony publicly and joyfully went under the water, events which would lead to the salvation of one the pastors’ sons. “Reza tried all these religions like Islam, Communism, and Hinduism and found them all empty, eventually finding the truth in Jesus. So what am I waiting for?”
Reza’s baptism would also lead to his father cutting off his rent money. So once again, the church made a timely exception and allowed him to move into the intern house. He went on to lead others to faith, include a man who is now a deacon at that same church.
For churches who are reaching out cross-culturally to immigrants, refugees, or international students, don’t be surprised if your expressions of biblical principles cause some roadblocks, not to mention the offense caused by the gospel itself. But make sure you keep in mind the crucial difference between principles and expressions. We can’t change our principles – but expressions? There’s often more room for adjusting these than we might expect, accustomed as we are to the way things are done around here. Even when changing certain expressions is costly, it may be one very important way in which you can serve those coming to faith from other cultures.
And with the current crises facing the Western Church, any movement toward more skillfully serving and welcoming in those from other cultures is movement in the right direction.
Instead of a revitalization of Mesopotamian and Iranian Christianity, the devastation of the fanatical Muslim Tamerlane (ruled 1370-1405) greatly intensified the destruction wrought by Ghazan and Oljaitu. After the loss of their churches and monasteries, the surviving Nestorians sought refuge in the remote mountains of Kurdistan (in northern Iraq) and Hakkari (in south-eastern Turkey), for only in the shadows of rugged mountains can a persecuted spirit live on in freedom. And so the one-time ‘Christian sea’ of Mesopotamia and Iran was transformed into a small, inaccessible island, surrounded by the wide ocean of Islam.
Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 6
If you are looking for ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, always look to the mountains. Groups survive there that tend to disappear down on the plains. They are a sort of time capsule, preserving ways of life that most have assumed are long gone.
*Frank and *Patty were refugees from a neighboring country, but from the same people group we were focusing on. Already being political and social refugees, they added one more reason for their government to arrest them when they became followers of Jesus. We were initially cautious, waiting to see if their faith was genuine, but over time they proved to be some of the most faithful in our fledgling church plant – genuine pillars of consistency and faith.
Frank was a renaissance man, just as skilled in discussing ancient history books as he was in electrical and construction work. He was also hilarious, always ready for wordplay and practical jokes. Patty was barely literate, but a hard worker, hospitable, with a fiery temper and loyal spirit. Together with their daughter, they seemed to be a genuine household conversation, all three of them showing evidence of new life in the same season, and all three undergoing baptism together in weather so cold we joked God was preparing them to someday be missionaries to Siberia. You know it’s bad when those baptized shriek from the shock of the frigid water as they go under! But they came up alright, and after they stopped shivering, went on to laugh about their baptism waters of icy death.
Like many believers in our context, their faith for a season was demonstrated in front of their neighbors as an open secret. They showed that they were now followers of Jesus without yet stating it explicitly. To some extant, until something is verbalized in Central Asia, it is not yet acknowledged as fully real and threatening. Believers tend to witness in this way to their families for a while, talking about Jesus, reading their Bibles openly, and attending meetings with other believers. But when the direct questions come, “Have you left Islam and become a Christian?!” – that’s when the honor-shame persecution mechanisms kick in. Once it is spoken of in the bazaar, it has become reality, whether it is true or not.
One night, their neighbor took his gun and decided it was time for the truth to come out. He and his wife aggressively confronted Frank and Patty outside their house. They demanded to know if they had truly become apostates. Patty calmly and openly confessed that yes, they had indeed become true Christians and believers in Jesus. The neighbor and his wife proceeded to get even more aggressive, shouting and threatening and beginning to lay their hands on Frank and Patty.
The neighbor waved his gun in one hand and gripped Frank’s throat in the other, yelling into his face. Frank and his daughter kept their eyes on Patty, knowing that there was great danger in her fiery nature exploding on these neighbors. It had always been her personality to fight back even in response to small provocations, which here could lead to a dangerous escalation… and possibly to their deaths. So they desperately prayed. In their retelling of the situation, here’s what they said:
“We knew that she would start yelling and fighting back, but to our amazement, she was totally calm in the face of being attacked. We thought, ‘Patty has died and who is this new woman who takes this abuse so calmly?'” Frank said as his daughter laughed.
“It’s true!” his daughter chimed in. “Mom had never acted like that before!”
Patti was smiling, but you could see in her eyes that she was also deeply impacted by her experience that night.
“I have never experienced such a peace as Jesus gave me that night. It was totally different from anything I had known. I normally would have fought back! My family knows this. But instead I was so calm…” Patty said.
“It was a miracle,” their daughter said, smiling at her mom.
Frank, never one to miss the opportunity to joke around, said, “And we had just studied about persecution from Matthew 10 in the church meeting a few days before!” Rolling his eyes back and grabbing his neck with his hand, shaking his head to model what his neighbor had done, he couldn’t help but laugh.
“I just keep thinking as his hand was on my neck like this, ‘Now what was that second point of the sermon? It would sure come in handy right about now! I know it was about something important in the face of persecution…'”
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, all of us couldn’t help but laugh together. What had happened was a miracle, or rather, the evidence of a miracle. The new birth had radically changed this family. Patti was calm in the face of an attack. Frank was making jokes about the death threats. Yes, they had had to flee afterward and had lost their housing – and also Frank’s job, tied as it was to the property their housing was on. Yet there they were, full of joy and laughing to the point of tears.
Sure, we often have to laugh about things like this in Central Asia as a way to cope with life in a region so full of tragedy. Haha, remember that time when you almost got blown up? But there was something else going on that evening. It was as if God’s face was shining on our friends. They had lost so much (again), yet they were full of joy, belly-laughing in the genuine blessedness that can sometimes be experienced by the persecuted.
The promises of Matthew were coming true.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10–12 ESV)
When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:19–20 ESV)
Many of us have simplistic understandings of persecution in the beginning. We latch onto radical ideas like “persecution purifies the church” and “the blood of the martyrs is seed” and perhaps we even long for persecution to come to our own churches so that we can experience these things. The reality is woefully more complicated.
The scriptures call persecution blessing when it is for Jesus and the gospel’s sake (Matt 5:10). But they also command us to pray for peaceful, quiet lives, free from persecution (1 Tim 2:2). They hold up examples of how God worked mightily through persecution (Acts 11:19), and tell us that it is inevitable for the godly (1 Tim 3:12), then they offer us warnings which reflect the first century believers who were getting persecuted because of their own sin, not because of Jesus (1 Pet 2:20). Even then it was complicated. The presence of persecution is not the fix-all some think it is. It actually makes the normal life and mission of the church very difficult, and sometimes impossible.
Here’s why I ask that you pray that God end persecution in places like Central Asia and that you also pray that if he doesn’t, he will grant the strength for believers to endure faithfully.
When we look at the history of the Church, we see a mixed result in contexts of persecution. Sometimes the church thrives and spreads like wildfire. Other times it is exterminated. Persecution led to the ascendancy of Christianity in the Roman empire. But next door in the Parthian/Sassanian/Islamic empires, it led to its eventual death. While we have examples like the house church movement in China, we also have examples like the Anabaptists of the Protestant Reformation. While some who fled west ended up surviving, those who fled east were never able to find refuge and were entirely killed off. Or what of the almost immediate extinction of Christianity in North Africa after the rise of Islam? Ever heard of the ancient church of Socotra? It existed for hundreds of years before finally disappearing. How do we make sense of these histories alongside of the heroic stories of Christian witness under Roman paganism or under communism? If we read church history we inescapably find that sometimes God allows persecution to be a spur for revival, but other times God allows it to be that which kills off an entire movement.
I started to get a taste for the complexities of persecution when it started happening to my own Middle Eastern/Central Asian friends. For a number of years I worked with refugees in the US. I was thrilled to find out that many of the Iranian refugees being resettled in my city were religious asylum-seekers. I had heard tales of the underground movement to Christ taking place in Iran. These refugee claimed to have left Islam, experienced persecution, and to have become Christians. The UN had now granted them a new life in the West. But my experiences with most of these Iranians were very disheartening. In the beginning they showed some desire to study the Bible and join a church, but the vast majority stopped showing interest after they figured out that the government wasn’t watching them and making sure they were attending church and staying true to their claim of being Christians. Once they realized it was not advantageous to be a Christian in America, they quickly abandoned their faith and lost themselves in materialism, drug use, or homosexuality. One close friend still possessed the blindfold put on him when he was imprisoned for being a leader-in-training in an Iranian house church. But this experience made him feel superior to other Christians and he balked at the idea of submitting himself to the accountability of a Christian community. So many Iranians quickly abandoned their faith after arriving in the West that the Iranian community passed around comics about it on social media. It was becoming well-known that (alongside a few who were genuine in their faith) a vast multitude was using Jesus to get a visa and then abandoning him as soon as they could.
My friends who came to faith after arriving in the US and I began to develop a serious skepticism towards refugees who showed up as formerly-Muslim Christian refugees. So many of them ended up falling away, consumed by the temptations and freedoms of the West. I started to learn that there were many ungodly reasons that people would identify with Jesus, even in contexts of persecution. Some identified as Christians out of a hatred of Islam, not out of a love for Jesus. Some did it as a way to stick it to their oppressive government or to display their attraction to Western culture. Some did it for promises of a salary and tickets to attend Christian conferences. Again, many did it simply as the ticket to a better life.
The UN was and is on to this dynamic. Their interviewers (most of them pagan) devise many kinds of methods to try to discern whether someone has truly become a Christian or not. But lacking spiritual eyes themselves, they are inept at recognizing the new birth. Instead, they rely heavily on signed baptism certificates, which has created an underground industry of sorts, where “seekers” approach churches or missionaries in the Middle East in pursuit of the coveted piece of paper. Some churches issue these freely, deciding that it’s not worth the effort to walk with someone until they can truly vouch for their faith. Others, like me and my coworkers, refuse to issue these certificates on principle, much to the consternation of local believers who, because of the UN requirement, believe we’re somehow denying them something integral to Christianity.
The presence of historic ethnic Christians in our part of the world also complicates the picture. The historic churches of the East lost the gospel a long time ago and have fallen into a system of religious patrilineage. This means you automatically inherit the faith of your father; you really have no other option. “I’m a Honda, you’re a Toyota, we can’t change that,” is how one ethnic Christian responded to one of my friends who had come to faith out of Islam. Ethnic Christians in the Middle East and Central Asia believe they are Christians because of their blood and because of their infant baptism. They cannot tell you what the gospel is. The overwhelming majority do not know that they must be born again and believe the gospel for themselves. This message has been buried under centuries of tradition, religiosity, and syncretism. If any do come to faith and begin to read the Bible for themselves, they are persecuted by their own community, just as might happen to a Muslim coming to faith. When the term “Christian” is used in our part of the world, it means a certain ethnicity, not a faith that transcends ethnicity. Therefore, missionaries had to come up with a tragic new term: CBBs, Christian-Background Believers.
Unfortunately, evangelical organizations that serve the persecuted and mobilize prayer do not deal with this distinction publicly at all. I’ll read reports written by evangelical Westerners about thousands of Christians experiencing persecution in a certain parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, when the reality is the number of true Christians is in the hundreds, if that. Where are they finding these thousands of supposed Christians? There are no “Christian villages,” unless they are referring to the ethnic Christian villages where they run off those who become born again for going against the traditions of their fathers. Is it tragic that ethnic minority Christians are experiencing persecution? Absolutely. But if you don’t tell your audience that they’re not actually believers, that many actually despise evangelicals, they will fail to pray as they should – that God would be merciful and save them out of their dead Christianity, alongside of ending the persecution. Many who have been killed and proclaimed martyrs by these evangelical organizations sadly never knew Jesus. They trusted in their father’s blood instead of Christ’s. This is worthy of great lament.
When our friends from a Muslim background believe, they often experience moderate persecution. By this I mean they lose jobs, get kicked out of their homes, and lose marriage prospects. Occasionally they experience severe persecution and are physically beaten, experience house arrest, or credible death threats. We know of two or three among our people group that have died for their faith. But even in the midst of these tragic things, those experiencing persecution are often brand new in their faith, and it becomes awfully hard to discern whether their father beat them because of Jesus or because they were simply disrespectful punks in taking their dad’s car to church when he told them not to. Many experience persecution because of brave, but reckless attacks against Islam. If they would focus on Jesus and the gospel more and stop talking so much about Mohammad’s child bride, their relatives might not get so angry and violent. Diving into the real causes of persecution and whether or not someone is inflating their story is woefully difficult – not to mention hurtful to those whose claims are legitimate. But what else is to be done? So many have been played by those who knew how to spin a good tale.
We want to err on the side of mercy, but if Westerners are too quick to intervene they can actually make it worse, facilitating a “believer drain” that prevents the local church from being able to take root. Once persecution escalates, a missionary or pastor find themselves in a minefield of less than ideal options. Each case can become all-consuming and difficult decisions must be made about if/when to intervene, when to wait and pray, how to provide emergency housing, whether to facilitate a way out of the country (which entails visas, tickets, housing, food) – and all of this when other local believers are divided and skeptical about the situation themselves. In a place without a network of local churches, a need exists to develop a persecution infrastructure that can respond when first-generation believers lose their housing, their jobs, or are in physical danger. But the logistics, money, and time needed to pull something like this off is daunting. So proactive persecution response tends to get put on the back burner until the next crisis, when the missionary is faced once again with the bad choice of doing nothing or harboring a new believer secretly in their own home.
While some local believers are set free from their fear by experiencing public persecution, others buckle, compromise, and even apostatize. One young man whose baptism I attended immediately recanted his faith after his father found out, threatened him with death, and then bribed him with the cash value of their house to return to Islam. They then both proceeded to hold his younger brother, a genuine believer, at knife-point while threatening his life. Another promising leader-in-training experienced brutal persecution from his coworkers and tribe, and managed to make it through with his faith intact, but the experience caused him to abandon the small church he had committed to help lead. Out of fear, many local believers have committed to never gather with other locals for worship, but only with foreigners – thus making church planting impossible.
Persecution is woefully complicated. And yet God uses persecution for the advance of his church. Does this mean I should pray for more persecution? No, just as I shouldn’t pray for more physical suffering because God uses that for my sanctification. Should we pray for “stronger backs to endure” as Brother Yun says? Yes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for the persecution to stop as well. It’s a both/and, a fiery furnace type of prayer where we call on God for deliverance because he is able, and we proclaim that he will sustain us even ifnot.
We must never let persecution stop the spread of the gospel, and this requires a dogged commitment to be faithful unto death. Persecution can be a form of blessing, which purifies our faith. Yet seasons of peace are also a blessing, one which the Bible commands us to seek, where the church has time to do the deep work of discipleship, leadership development, and the sending of missionaries. The blood of the martyrs is seed, but let’s not make that formulaic. The seed will inevitably sprout, but that might or might not happen in this age; It will with all certainty happen in the age to come.
In the meantime, pray for the persecuted Church. And pray for those of us who are trying to plant churches in contexts of persecution. We are not sufficient for these things. Yet we pray to a Lord who is. He alone can untangle the heart-breaking complexities of persecution and weave them into glory.
I’ve heard it said that the Protestant Reformation was a battle of Augustine vs. Augustine. It’s sad to read how he strengthened the precedent of the government using force to enforce the state-sanctioned faith. This would bear terrible fruit a millennium later – and give birth to the movements that would proclaim biblical freedom of conscience.
Augustine aligns himself with the civil arm to persecute the Donatists and bring them forcibly within the walls of Catholicism. He subsequently writes the first Catholic justification for state persecution of those in error: error has no rights; to disbelieve in forced conversions is to deny the power of God; and God must whip the son he receives – “per molestias erudito” (“true education begins with physical abuse”). This from the man who condemned the “punishments and cruel threats” of his childhood classroom. Augustine, the last great man of Roman antiquity, is going over the edge. The doctrine he has enunciated will echo down the ages in the cruelest infamies, executed with the highest justification. Augustine, the father of many firsts, is also father of the Inquisition.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 64-65
This ancient Irish prayer was written either by Patrick or by one of his early Irish disciples. Notice how Trinitarian this prayer is. Notice how Christ-centered it is. Notice also how holistic it is – there is no sense in which the spiritual realm and the physical creation are against one another. Both belong to God and are on the side of the Christian. Notice the clues that show how real the persecution and danger still were when this prayer was written. The author reminds himself that he is not alone, but that he stands in a long and honorable line of spiritual beings and faithful believers. He constantly reminds himself that the true reward that matters is that which comes on the last day. As he preaches God’s word, he calls on all the power of God to protect him from enemies within and enemies without, among whom were the still-dangerous Celtic druids. The author doesn’t pretend their power isn’t real, but contends that the power of God is greater. Ultimately, the author trusts in the presence of Christ in the midst of the many dangers he faces. This is the kind of prayer we need to be writing in today’s contexts of persecution.
I arise today; Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity; Through a belief in the threeness; Through confession of the oneness; Of the Creator of Creation.
I arise today; Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism; Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial; Through the strength of his resurrection and his ascension; Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.
I arise today; Through the strength of the love of Cherubim; The obedience of angels; In the service of archangels; In hope of resurrection to meet with reward; In prayers of patriarch; In predictions of prophets; In preaching of apostles; In faith of confessors; In innocence of holy virgins; In deeds of righteous men.
I arise today; Through the strength of heaven: Light of sun; Radiance of moon; Splendor of fire; Speed of lightning; Swiftness of wind; Depth of Sea; Stability of earth; Firmness of rock.
I arise today; Through God’s strength to pilot me; God’s might to uphold me; God’s wisdom to guide me; God’s eye to look before me; God’s ear to hear me; God’s word to speak for me; God’s hand to guard me; God’s way to lie before me; God’s shield to protect me; God’s host to save us; From snares of devils; From temptation of vices; From everyone who shall wish me ill; Afar and near; Alone and in multitude.
I summon today all these powers between me and those evils; Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul; Against incantations of false prophets; Against black laws of pagandom; Against false laws of heretics; Against craft of idolatry; Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards; Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.
Christ to shield me today; Against poison, against burning; Against drowning, against wounding; So that there may come to me abundance of reward. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me; Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ on my right, Christ on my left; Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise; Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me; Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me; Christ in the eye that sees me; Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today; Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity; Through belief in the threeness; Through confession of the oneness; Of the Creator of Creation.
Patrick or one of his spiritual descendants; Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 116-119