I spent a year teaching English in Shanghai in the mid-1990s. Even back then I recall how friends from the “underground church” in the People’s Republic of China had experienced much persecution. At the time I was certain that in a decade or two, with the flattening of the world and greater international exchange, life for Christians in China would vastly improve.
Fast forward to December 2018. Social media were abuzz with reports and prayer requests for Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, a central region province in the People’s Republic of China. The church’s pastor, Wang Yi, was arrested, along with his wife, the elders, deacons, and dozens of members. Many members and leaders were unaccounted for after a massive effort by police and other authorities raided and detained Christians over the course of several days. On the eve of his impending arrest by police, Pastor Yi penned this powerful message for his parishioners.
For the watching world, including believers who share the same faith with our brothers and sisters in China, we have much to learn from them. Here are five lessons we can learn through their sacrifices.
1. Gospel obedience may sometimes mean civil disobedience.
Power does not reside in the changing of a government. While some may long to see Christians occupying political offices in order to make the People’s Republic of China a Christian nation, Chinese Christians are making Declarations of Faithful Disobedience: “Changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.” With the ultimate goal of obtaining dual citizenship (one on earth, and one in heaven), we are often caught in the tension between the City of God and the City of Man—both admired for our good deeds and also persecuted for our uncompromising faith. We should not put our faith in a “Christian” government, with the expectation of easing our suffering. Sometimes citizens of heaven will be required to disobey their earthly governments and rules of law where they are contrary to Scripture.
2. Know that trouble will come.
Imagine preparing for Sunday worship as a member of the Early Rain Church the day the church’s pastor, leaders, and their families were arrested and charged with various crimes. The church was raided and the building shut down; doors were locked and boarded. You heard rumors that police would be waiting to arrest anyone who showed up to a worship service. Despite all of that, members showed up. They worshiped outdoors since the church facility was shut down; many were promptly arrested, as rumored. Our brothers and sisters embraced the reality of suffering. As the Lord warned his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble . . .” (John 16:33). Since the earliest days of the Christian church, “trouble” has been part of the story. As recorded in Acts and other historical accounts, the church has often grown in the presence, not the absence, of suffering and persecution.
3. Understand what persecution really means.
The threat of religious nonprofits losing tax exemption keeps some North American Christians up at night. But I would not call this persecution. It may be right to be angry about the hostility Christians face in a secularizing North American context, but this anger is categorically different from the persecution our Chinese brothers and sisters, and some other Christians in the majority world, are experiencing.
4. Always be prepared to give an answer.
When persecution comes, we should be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Pet. 3:15). When members of Early Rain Church were being interrogated and charged for inciting subversion against the state, they were asked what ideological positions they were spreading. I heard that one Christian under interrogation responded by sharing part of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort in life and death? Answer: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Dear Christian, even if we are never under police interrogation, may we always be prepared to bear powerful witness to the truth of the gospel.
Even if we are never under police interrogation, may we always be prepared to bear powerful witness to the truth of the gospel.
5. Maintain a heart of gratitude.
The suffering church in China is not alone; there are persecuted Christians all over the world from whom we should learn. Last summer I visited an immigrant Korean-language church in Houston and heard the prayers of a 90-year-old pastor. He prayed a prayer of thanksgiving in Korean for God’s faithfulness, beginning from the days of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s and 1940s. He then thanked the Lord for opportunities to worship during the Korean civil war of the 1950s. He thanked God for his faithfulness in the midst of immigration stresses that come from not knowing the English language or American culture, yet still being able to worship the Lord freely. By the end of the prayer, I was bawling. I wondered if I even knew the same God as this brother. Such a heart of gratitude is something we can all learn and benefit from.
The church of Jesus Christ continues to suffer in places like China, North Korea, and many other nations around the world. We have much to learn from these brothers and sisters who maintain their faith in the face of persecution. Let us continue to pray for and learn from them. Let us count the costs of following Jesus, and let us follow him anyway.