16 Oct Persecuted Disciples and a Persecuted Church

Sitting by a window early one morning, I watched the storm rage outside as the cafeteria filled up with fellow workers in God’s kingdom. As these persecuted disciples collected their breakfast and gathered at tables around me, I heard joyful conversation happening in English, French, Arabic and Berber as well as languages I couldn’t recognize at all. In the distance I could see a lighthouse, a beacon of hope in the midst of a storm.

Listening to the chatter and watching the storm outside, I thought of Acts 27-28, the story of Paul’s shipwreck while on his way to prison in Rome. The storm had lasted for days, hope had been lost and the ship carrying Paul was smashed against the rocks on the island of Malta. God spared all aboard. As they sought refuge on that island, Paul was bitten by a snake while carrying firewood yet remained unharmed. Amazed by this and other miracles they witnessed, the local people knew God had visited them and Jesus was glorified.

As I pondered how challenging it is to see Christ’s kingdom established in the hard places, I marveled at the rejoicing of God’s people, knowing what they go through. I considered how unsafe it might be to go outside into that natural storm, yet that is exactly what the disciples around me that morning did every day. They live in the storm. They face down the wind, the rocks and the waves of religious and political animosity, risking very personal loss. But, like that lighthouse in the distance, they stand and keep shining. They are the hope in the darkness and God brings people into his kingdom through them.

The wind is still strong. The waves are still huge. The rocks are seemingly unbreakable. But that morning I listened to disciples of Jesus Christ, His church in that impenetrable region of our world, as they fellowshipped together, giving glory to God and passionately working to see His kingdom come, His will be done, on their part of His earth, as it is in His heaven.

Let us not be afraid of the wind and the waves. Let us join with these disciples and run with them to meet the storm with all our strength and all the resources God has given us to serve His cause. As we do, Christ will build His church.

At what point in our thinking do persecuted disciples of Jesus become the Persecuted Church? While it may seem an odd question, it is an important question.

Over time, our perception of what makes up the Christian community tends to drift to the corporate gathering most of us participate in weekly and call church. We imagine the church defined by disciples gathered in religious assembly, so we bundle this subject into a corporate concept instead of seeing those oppressed as individual souls persecuted by others simply because they have chosen to follow Jesus. Imagine the one individual living far from us and who seldom gathers with others of like faith as being the persecuted church. This, despite the truth that they are believers in Jesus, just as we are. So, it may help us to focus on persecuted disciples in order to truly grasp the persecuted church.

It is important to grasp that the persecution of Christ’s followers beginning in Acts 5 was not connected to the assembling of the church. The oppression was related to the external demonstrations of the kingdom of God lived out by those believers. Much of the early disciples assembling was, in fact, declaration conducted in public. The perceived community offense was their witness to Christ and not to the presence of church buildings, or what might have been going on behind closed doors when they gathered. And, in studying His words related to this, Jesus warned that persecution would result because of public activities and personal connectedness to Himself.[1]

I recently attended a regional gathering where reports on the state of the church in North African countries were being shared. Of 400 participants, over 100 were Muslim background believers. For security reasons, no media recording of any kind was permitted, allowing the reports to be candid for those in the room. These disciples were following Jesus within their Muslim cultures, and in so doing regularly faced very challenging experiences simply because they chose Christ and let it become known.

In listening to reports from five different countries, I could see both the development of the church over time as well as the scale of persecution accompanying that development.

Only two or three believers were present from country ‘A’. They were the only ones successful in gaining a visa to travel. One of these delegates attended in tribal regalia, looking like he had walked right out of the pages of National Geographic. The report they shared focused on the personal persecution experienced at the hands of neighbours and authorities. Being dragged from their home or tent, beaten, warned to recant and follow Islam seemed the theme of their update. Listening to them was like reading Acts 7 and 8.

Celebration accompanied the report from country ‘B’ because it was the first time ever at this event (in 20 years) that those providing the report were themselves citizens of the country.[2] And yet, the enthusiasm was muted because not one of those reporting themselves actually lived in-country…they were trying to make an impact through online methods…it was still too dangerous for them to live as Christians in the place they were born.

Country ‘C’ celebrated a wave of new evangelism success. We heard that the small number of believers in the country had likely doubled in the last decade, progress being led by new, energetic believers who were unified; collaborating to see Jesus exalted in ways their cultures could embrace. At the end of their stories they shared an ethnic worship song one had written. The lyrics called on God to ‘not forget or abandon them in their need, to stay with them and comfort them.’

Country ‘D’ had a different feel with reports of the church summoning strength to challenge national culture, even defending in court their right to exist as a Christian community, facing official and community opposition, remaining firm in Godly trust, yet still not able to gather officially without fear of personal harm.

The church in country ‘E’ has known strength for some years now. They reported on a few dozen regular assemblies and hosting a camp gathering attended by hundreds, yet also spoke of officials forcing landlords to kick them out of rented facilities, making it challenging to sustain growth.

It was no burden to pray for each of these brothers and sisters with passion and deep concern. We marvelled at God’s sustaining grace and called on Him to grant boldness, yet to guard Christ’s church. Each report felt so intimate, so tied to the very lives of those sharing the stories. The forms of persecution they faced did not center on a nebulous corporate concept. It directly impacted their own lives and those of their families….it was extremely personal.

[1] Matthew 5:10-12; John 15:20

[2] Every previous year the report had been provided by expatriates trying to reach this nation.

By Gord D.

Gord serves as Director of Development & Networking for RAN Network. He loves to mobilize and coach personnel called to serve among the least-reached peoples of the world.

 

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