Tag Archives: persecution

The Gospel Knows No Frontiers

Last week I read through a book called Dispatches from the Front – Stories of Gospel Advance in the World’s Difficult Places. The book follows Tim Keesee as he travels the world, telling stories of the bold faith and sacrificial bravery that many of our brothers and sisters portray as they face challenges for being Christians.

The truth is that our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world – Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America often face persecution and challenges at the hands of their governments and/or neighbors. Thinking about the challenges they face can surely be discouraging yet we know that the gospel is moving rapidly in these “impossible” and “hard” places. Samuel Zwemer, an early 20th century missionary to Islamic countries and professor of missions at Princeton Seminary reminds of this fact, that no situation is impossible for the Lord:

The Kingdoms and the governments of this world have frontiers which must not be crossed, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier. It has never been kept within bounds. It is a message for the whole race, and the very fact that there are millions of souls who have never heard the message becomes the strongest of reasons why we must carry it to them. Every year we hear of further advance into these regions of the world by commerce, by travelers, by men of science. If they can open a way for themselves in spite of all these difficulties, shall the ambassadors of the cross shrink back? God can open doors. He is the “Great Opener.” He opens the lips of the dumb to song, the eyes of the blind to sight, and the prison house to the captive. He opens the doors of utterance and entrance of the gospel. He opens graves and gates, the windows of heaven and the bars of death. He holds all they keys of every situation. – Samuel Zwemer (The Unoccupied Mission Fields of Africa and Asia)

Do not be discouraged when you hear stories of other Christians facing opposition in these “closed” places – for opposition and suffering is the appointed means for the Gospel to reach these places. Don’t be discouraged for we know that the Gospel will flourish in these places one day because the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier….

The “10-40 Window” is one of the most difficult areas to reach for the gospel. But it can be done!
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Can the Church as We Know it Survive?

In a recent blogpost Neil Cole contrasts two (very different) Non-Western Churches:

When the communists took over the nation they arrested the church leaders (like Nee) and seized all church property. The indigenous expressions of simple churches meeting in homes not only survived…they thrived. The Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-Tung sought to eliminate all religion from society in China but instead mobilized the church and it grew from about 2 million Christians in 1949 to over 60 million. It is estimated today that there may be upwards of 80 million Christians in China.

Contrast this with the church of Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church was dependent upon three things: holy buildings, holy men in robes, and holy services performed by those men in those buildings. When the communists took over in Russia they seized all the buildings and arrested or compromised all the leaders of the church. The church was devastated.

He goes on to ask the question – which structure most reflects the way we do church in America? Are we dependent on buildings, holy men, and holy services performed by those men? Could we survive the arrest of our church leaders and seizure of church property? Are we more like the Chinese church or the Russian Orthodox Church?

Cathedral Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow

Without a doubt the American church is going to face ongoing persecution in the future. However it wouldn’t even take any real persecution to dismantle most churches, just a few legal changes (especially to tax law) could cause the church as we know it to implode, or more likely to become unsustainable.

The problem is that the western church concentrated all our people, resources and ideas into a few large groups. This is bad investment 101 – don’t put all your eggs into one basket. Much like the Russian Orthodox church, who put all of their energy and resources into holy buildings, holy men in robes, and holy services performed in those building the western church is liable to experience real devastation if (when) persecution or legal action is taken against the church as we know it.

In the future, most churches will not be able to sustain the model we are running on. This will, lead many churches into times of intense suffering and hardship. There are only two types of churches that will be able to survive those times. The only churches that will survive are the churches that are large enough to sustain themselves without all the tax benefits that the government offers to non-profits and religious institutions and those churches that are small enough not to need those benefits. When clergy stop getting tax benefits, many pastors in small churches will not be able to get by economically. When churches lose tax benefits on their properties, many churches will no longer be able to afford their mortgages. Either you will have to be large enough to generate enough capital to pay your mortgage or you will need to be small enough not to require funds to pay a mortage (i.e. because you don’t own any property). Either way tt’s a bleak future for the church as we know it.

The church will need to learn to survive without the government’s help. The church will need to learn to survive under government opposition. Non-Western churches have much to offer us in learning how to do both of those things.

However we aren’t there yet. We aren’t facing those difficulties yet, and it may be many years before we get to that point. However, its my own personal belief, that the church needs to prepare itself for that day. One of the best ways to get ready for that time is to emphasize the importance of what some have called “cell communities” or “small groups” or “community groups.” These small communities seem to be the essential building block of the church in the non-west. We have much to learn from our non-western brothers and sisters. They are clued in to the many strength of these sorts of communities.

According to Scott Sunquist (Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary) these communities are the “strongest organizational unit in world history” – here are the reasons why this is so:

  1. It is a remorseless self-multiplier.
  2. It is exceptionally difficult to destroy.
  3. It can preserve its intensify of local life while vast organizations quickly wither when they are weakened at the center.
  4. It can defy the power of governments.
  5. It is the appropriate lever for praying open any status quo.

It really sounds to me as though “cell communities” (simple churches, small groups, community groups, missional communities, call it what you will) are going to be vital to the future of the church in the west, especially in the US. If this is true – are we preparing for the future?

Book Review – The Suffering and Victorious Christ by Richard Mouw and Douglas Sweeney

Richard Mouw and Douglas Sweeney, The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology, Baker, 2013, 108pp.

The Suffering and Victorious Christ

As evangelical Christians become more and more aware of the fact that Christian theology is not simply a western endeavor we will begin to so see more and more interaction between American Evangelical theology and Non-Western theology, in other words we will begin to see that our American theology is also a contextualized theology. As we slowly being to realize American theology is also a contextualized theology we will come to see that there is no such thing as “American Theology.” Who do we mean by “American?” Do we mean Latino-Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans? What about people like me, who are mixed, with parents from different cultures and continents? How will traditional Anglo-American theology, specifically Christology address these segments of the Christian church? Douglas Sweeney and Richard Mouw provide us with an example of how that might go….

The Suffering and Victorious Christ was birthed  out of a Christology conference held in Japan in 2010. During the conference it became clearer that

“Western militarism led Americans to highlight God and Jesus’ Christ’s power, stringent holiness, and victory over sin far above their passion condescension to our weakness, and identification with human suffering” (2)

On the other hand Asian theologies have consistently emphasized the suffering and brokenness of Christ. Mouw and Sweeny say that they are “not convinced that violence, triumphalism, and denial of the suffering of God are essential to the Reformation traditions.” With that they engage in a project of digging through their respective traditions (Reformed and Lutheran) for a more compassionate Christology. At the forefront of their minds is a missional concern, people need to hear that God identifies with them in their suffering, they don’t only need to hear about God’s wrath against sin….

Mouw and Sweeney mine their traditions for Christological gold, through the study of hymns, sermons, and personal narratives as well as more traditional theological resources, they show that the Reformed and Lutheran tradition can serve as a basis for a Christus dolor, not simply a Christus Victor. They set up their purpose in light of contextual theology. On page 9, they say that their question is

“How can we articulate a more compassionate and globally relevant Christology in terms that are faithful to and consistent with the Reformation traditions we claim, but are also disciplined by the concerns and expersience of our Asian and non-European brothers and sisters?”

Overview

In order to answer this question they begin by dealing with resources from their own theological heritages. Mouw begins by examining the Reformed theologian, John Williamson Nevin, a central figure in Mercersburg theology. Sweeney then devotes a chapter to Lutheran theologian Franz Pieper, who predicates suffering of God himself by talking about the suffering of God in Christ. This chapter is followed by a brief interlude on Roman Catholic theology and incarnational presence. After this interlude Mouw adds another chapter on Reformed theology and the suffering of Christ. Hodge, Berkhof, and Faber are the central foci of this chapter. Mouw argues that the seeds of a compassionate Christology were there, but what is needed is an emphasis on a compassionate Christology. Mouw and Sweeney then devote a chapter to a less traditional theological resource, narratives and hymns. They examine African American slave experiences of suffering and the role of Christ’s suffering in their making sense of their situation. They point out that the slaves believed that Christ, and Christ alone understood their suffering. They believed that he suffered with them and like them. The Christus dolor is a Christ that suffering slaves could identify with. They conclude with some words of warning, stating that the exploitation of Christus dolor can be just as dangerous as the exploitation of Christus victor. We need scriptural guidance to form our Christology. In their conclusion they offer some words of encouragement for those who seek to form more global and compassionate Christologies.

Assessment

In one sense this is an act of constructive Christology, yet in another sense it is a report of what different traditions have to say regarding a particular subject. Given that it is partially a constructive project and a report, its difficult to asses this book. For instance, I have qualms with some parts of Lutheran Christology, but this is not the place to address those issues. Others will have issues with Reformed Christology, but again this is not the sort of critique that the book invites. The type of critique that this book invites is regarding whether or not the project that Mouw and Sweeney are engaged in is possible in principle and whether or not it is a worthwhile project. Some will surely respond that theology ought not be contextual. Theology is objective so speaking about contextual theology brings the subject into subjectivity. However I don’t think that is the case. Mouw and Sweeney rightly point out that “diverse circumstances…require different emphases in the way they configure theology, they can – and should – nonetheless expresses as hared theology that unites them in the body of Christ. (91)” So there is certainly room for manifold theologies that have a different emphasis, yet talk about the same thing, because they are talking about Christ. So to those that say that contextual theology is in principle misdirected, I simply say “you are wrong.” Regarding the second question, whether or not Mouw and Sweeney are engaged in a worthwhile project, we must answer that they are. The fact is that we Americans have often ignored the suffering Christ and instead have chosen to focus only on the victorious Christ…

The other day I was preaching on Matthew 5:10, I was preaching about persecution and how Christ identifies with us in our suffering and in our persecution. At the end of the sermon a college student who was visiting from another church came up to me to thank me for preaching on God’s suffering. He said that he has never heard a sermon about that. We simply don’t like to talk about suffering in church.

For some reason we Americans don’t like to think about God suffering, maybe its because we think comfort is a mark of godliness.

Nevertheless it is a fact that the God-Man (however you want to cash that out, either in a Reformed fashion or a Lutheran fashion) suffered for us and in our place. Christ was a man of sorrows, well acquainted with pain. And if we choose not to address that part of Christ’s person and work we are missing a central part of the gospel.

Themes in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: Imitation

The imitation of Christ has always been an important emphasis within Christianity. Augustine believed that the whole point of the Christian life was to imitate Christ. Francis of Assisi also felt strongly about imitating Christ, in fact he modeled his entire ministry around the way Christ did ministry.  Francis advocated for a life of poverty and itinerant preaching, imitating Christ’s work in the Gospels. However the most prominent and well known advocate for the imitation of Christ is Thomas a Kempis. He wrote the classic devotional book The Imitation of Christ. This book is truly a modern classic. It is one of the most widely read Christian books apart from the Bible and it helped to spark the Devotio Moderna movement (along with Geert Groote). This book advocates for a spiritual imitation of Christ. Paul in his letter to the Philippians also advocates for a sort of imitation. But the imitation Paul advocates for is less spiritual and more tangible/physical.

 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Notice what Paul says in verse 10. He desires to know Christ and share in his sufferings…becoming like him in his death. Paul desires to share in Christ’s sufferings! He desires to become like Christ in his death and resurrection. I’m not going to comment on that too much today. I just want to let you sit with that and soak it in.

Is this a desire that you can say is yours as well?

I know it certainly isn’t for me. I know that I personally like the first part of verse 10. The part about knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection, but the second part not so much! I don’t want to share in his sufferings and I don’t want to become like him in his death. I’m just being honest with you.

But right now you might be saying, “well that is just for Paul. Paul isn’t saying that we have to have this same desire.” If that’s what you are thinking right now check out 3:17

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

Not only are we to imitate Christ, we are to imitate Paul and the example of those who have gone before us and followed Christ faithfully. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t unreflective following. This doesn’t mean you need to become like Francis of Assisi or like Brother Yun. Don’t blindly copy and paste someone else’s ministry/life onto your own. However

You should be looking to their lives, seeing how they are being Christ like, whether in “power” or in “suffering,” then imitate that!

Take that example that was set before you and use it to spur you on into knowing “him and the power of his resurrection that you may share his sufferings becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible you might attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. Who are you looking to as an example of Christ-likeness? I.e. Who are you “imitating?”
  2. What specifically is Christ-like about that person?
  3. Who are you being an example of Christ-likeness to? How are you doing that?
  4. What is the missional impact of a community imitating Christ together before the world?