Scot made a rather sobering comment on one of his posts last week – Douthat, Bass and Christianity’s Culture Wars:
Here’s an interesting one: a pastor called me the other day, we got into a conversation about “gospel” and what churches are preaching, discipleship came up, and he said, “Who preaches the cost of discipleship anymore? I talk to pastors constantly and not one of them can preach that message without getting in trouble.”
What evangelicalism mostly preaches is the soterian gospel. Some repackage into a robust theology but most don’t.
There is a call to salvation and a call for an admission that we cannot handle the trials of life without God (although the trials are things like fiscal responsibility, ethical business practice, marital fidelity, steady employment, and raising children), but little discipleship and no call for sacrificial commitment. This doesn’t speak to all corners of the evangelical church, but there is definitely a stream where this is the primary message. We believe that God exists and that he created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. We believe that God wants people to be good. But we also appear to believe that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. And, of course, we believe that people who “accept Jesus as personal savior” go to heaven when they die and thus secure permanent personal happiness.
At times it seems that every aspect of the bible story is about personal happiness for those of us living today, from the failures and triumphs of the Old Testament heroes, to the death of Christ, to the writings of Paul. The applications are legion … one fear that the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego helps us conquer is the fear of marital and financial stress (a point in a sermon I heard not too long ago). Well, no, those kinds of problems aren’t really on the radar here, and trying to make the connection does violence to the story. Shadrach, Meshach and Abenego loved the Lord their God with all their being, and were willing to be put to death rather than bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold. A profound point when one considers that Israel and Judah were handed over to captivity and exile for their failure to remain true to God and his commands, for sacrificing to the Ba’als and raising Asherah poles. Nor is the point that God will always come to the rescue and save us from death if we stay true to his name. After all, did James, Peter, and Paul suffer from a lack of faith when they were executed for the name of Christ?
Jesus said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:34-35, see also Mt 10:37-38, Mt 16:24-27, Lk 9:23-26)
What is the cost of discipleship?
What does this mean for Christians today?
I recently finished reading God Is Red by Liao Yiwu is a Chinese dissident, critical of the communist regime. In his travels around China he interviewed a number of Chinese Christians, many of whom were persecuted quite severely for their faith. He is not a Christian, but these stories interested him. He starts with a doctor who left the halls of academe to serve the poor, but from here he moves to relate the accounts of several others who suffered after the communist victory and in the cultural revolution, including several who were executed. Many of the interviewees were in their 70’s to 90’s. In their youth missionaries were active and civil war rocked the land. In middle age the church was deemed a threat to the country. In old age things were beginning to loosen up in China. And they persevered. But not all did.
The images are quite stark, inspiring and terrifying. I’ll look only briefly at two examples here.
In the first Liao interviewed the son of a Beijing pastor Yuan Xianchen, imprisoned for 21 years and 8 months. He tried to interview the pastor himself, but was thwarted in the attempt. According to Yuan Fusheng his father was a devout Christian who believed that the church should remain separate from the state. He was not antigovernment or anti-communism, but he had to do God’s will, and that was not under the control of the government. At first things were relatively calm but in 1955 things changed. “In 1955 more than a thousand churches in China were burned down. Tens of thousands of Christians were arrested. Several thousand were executed on charges of belonging to a cult.” (p. 163) Christians struggled with what to do, some pastors signed confessions and regretted them, some recanted permanently. Remaining faithful was not an easy reflex action.
Liao: Couldn’t your father make some concessions for the sake of his family? There was no justification for your father to put his family through such suffering.
Yuan: He had thought carefully about such questions. He had also taken counsel from many friends. But the biggest misfortune for a Christian does not lie in the calamity that befalls him in this world. It is the betrayal of God for the sake of secular things on earth. (p. 167)
Liao ends with a note that “the Reverend Yuan Xianchen passed away in 2005 at the age of ninety-two. He had six children, all of whom are pious Christians.” (p. 179)
The second story I’ll highlight is that of Wang Zhiming.
Above the Great West Door to Westminster Abbey in central London stand ten statues recognizing Christian martyrs of the twentieth century from around the globe. One of those statues is of Wang Zhiming, who lived and preached in Wuding County in China’s Yunnan province and served the ethnic Miao. Arrested in 1969 for his religious work, he was executed in 1973. He was sixty-six years old. (p. 97)
Liao interviewed one of Wang Zhiming’s sons. In 1951 the government closed the churches, confiscated church property and sent Wang Zhiming, a newly ordained minister, home. Wang’s son was 11 years old. Like Yuan Xianchen, Wang Zhiming was not antigovernment. He even met Chairman Mao as part of a delegation from Yunnan in the 1950’s. But he could not renounce his faith, or fail to practice it.
The government sealed and confiscated the church property in Sapushan and ordered my father to return home and farm under the supervision of the revolutionary peasants. Since he was one of the few literate people in the region, they made him the village accountant. He obeyed because the Bible says you should submit your body to the rulers, but he never stopped his daily prayers. Sometimes, Christians in other villages would gather at our house late at night. The tense political environment made everyone nervous. All prayer activities went underground. (p. 104)
In 1966 the Cultural Revolution started. The revolutionary masses swarmed into our courtyard, ransacked our house, and beat everyone. They tied us together and paraded us from village to village. My father was forced to wear a big dunce cap with the words “Spy and Lackey of the Imperialists.” At public condemnation meetings attended by over ten thousand people, we were the targets of angry fists. The spit was almost enough to drown us. No matter how much we suffered, father never stopped praying. It went on like that for three years, until the revolutionary rebels began fighting one another and no longer had time to bother us. The daily harassment ended. My father found some former Christians, and they would gather inside mountain caves at midnight for prayer sessions. They didn’t have a copy of the Bible, but they believed it was in their hearts. (p. 105)
Liao recounts the son’s story of his father’s execution, a poignant tale, again involving crowds and taunts before the sentence was carried out. Two of Wang’s sons went to prison a third committed suicide rather than take the abuse. The Chinese government eventually reversed the verdict against Wang, once the Cultural Revolution was over, and against his son as well. The son recalls how in 1996 the church held a memorial service for his father – “the choir alone numbered two thousand.” (p. 115) The number of Christians in the county was under 3000 in the 1960’s and had grown to about thirty thousand by ca. 2005. The son concludes…”In our society today, people’s minds are entangled and chaotic. They need the words of the gospel now more than at any other time.” (p. 116)
This is humbling. The cost of discipleship for most of us will not include torture, beatings or execution. But the stories above, and others around the world, make something of a mockery of the idea that the gospel is about health, financial self-control, personal happiness, and life fulfillment. I found the stories in God is Red inspiring – and humbling. Inspiring in the way these men and women stood for the gospel, and humbling in the knowledge of my reaction to rather petty demands on me.
What makes the gospel worth dying for?
What should this mean for the gospel we preach today?
If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.