The Church Must Respond to Religious Persecution

The Church Must Respond to Religious Persecution November 4, 2013

On September 24, 2013, Congressman Frank Wolf exhorted the students and faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary to consider and respond to the plight of religious people around the world being persecuted for their faith, especially Christians. In a stunning statement, the Congressman, who has served his district since 1981, argued that the solutions required to stem these acts of violence and other forms of persecution will not come from Washington D.C., but from the pulpit. Therefore, he said, it is the responsibility of those who lead the Church to confront head-on the anemia of so-much of contemporary Christianity with a prophetic voice of truth grounded in the witness of Jesus Christ.

Congressman Wolf graciously gave me permission to publish the speech in its entirety:

Congressman Frank Wolf

Gordon Conwell Seminary

September 24, 2013

  • Thank you for the invitation to be with you today.  I especially want to thank your classmate, Andrew James, for helping facilitate this visit.  I have known Andrew for many years as his father pastors my church back in Virginia.
  • In preparing for my time with you I noted on Gordon Conwell’s web site that the seminary hosts students from 56 different countries—in many ways you reflect the Church—capital “C”—hailing from many nations, tribes and tongues.
  • I venture that those of you who are international students will likely return to your home countries as leaders, steeped in the knowledge of the Word and prepared for a life of service to Christ’s bride—the Church.
  • Given the diversity represented here, I venture that for some that service will come with a great cost as in many places around the globe oppression, discrimination and persecution are the order of the day—particularly for followers of Jesus.
  • I intend to spend the latter part of my remarks today focusing on the plight of the persecuted church globally, and the obligation of the church in the West to advocate for our besieged brothers and sisters around the world.  But before delving into that realm, I wanted to spend some time a bit closer to home.
  • While I serve in elective office, I am keenly aware that the problems facing our country today are not purely political, or even mostly political, and as such the solutions will not ultimately come from government.
  • That is not to say that political leadership is unimportant.  In fact Scripture tells us that “When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked are in power, they groan.”
  • I pray and would urge you to pray for those in positions of influence in our government that they might be men and women who act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
  • But I believe, even as one serving in government, that we do our nation a disservice if we assume that we can solve all of our problems politically.
  • For I would argue there is something far greater that is ailing our country, something that is profoundly moral in nature – something which necessitates a spiritual antidote, something which demands, in the words of Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, speaking of the American church he beheld in the 19th century, “pulpits aflame with righteousness.”
  • Today in America we bear witness to an insidious relativism that teaches that concepts of right and wrong are old-fashioned, antiquated and even judgmental.  Vices are elevated, virtues are mocked.  Faith is squeezed out of the public square.  Our culture is coarsened as a result.   These seemingly intangible realities have profound implications.
  • In fact the fastest growing religious affiliation in America today is, in the words of columnist Michael Gerson, the “nones” – as in “none of the above.”
  • This group comprises nearly 20 percent of the population and a third of adults under 30—otherwise known as the Millennials.
  • The Barna Group recently fleshed out this trend by examining those 18- to 29-year-olds who formerly identified themselves closely with faith and the church, but who have since begun to wrestle with that identity.  Their analysis found that between high school and turning 30, 43% of these previously engaged Millennials drop out of regular church attendance.
  • To put that in numerical terms it’s a staggering eight million twenty-somethings who have, for various reasons, given up on church or Christianity.
  • This is a sobering trend although perhaps a bit more complex than the numbers suggest.  To be sure, there is cause for concern but there is also cause for strategic vision, prayer and even hope.
  • I read with great interest a piece by Jim Daly with Focus on the Family who noted that the Millennial generation as a whole is often not hostile to Christianity, rather they are apathetic; they are weary of polarization and value civility, they have a strong desire to serve and those that do attend church tend to be attracted to churches that have an outward focus; they seek transparency, humility and integrity in leaders, and most have a positive, albeit often Biblically uninformed, view of Jesus.
  • Importantly, Daly also noted that Millennial Christians have little patience for diluted doctrine and listless teaching.
  • Arguably, it is Millennials themselves, including many of you, who are best positioned to reach their peers.  We do ourselves and Jesus a disservice if we seek to water down His life and message in the hopes of drawing others in.  An anemic version of Christianity, that is only modestly different than the culture of our day is not the answer.
  • To understand how the church must respond, we must first understand what is taking place in the broader culture.
  • There is much that could be said on this score, but given time limitations, I will focus on one component–namely the elevation of tolerance as the premier virtue.  Without question there are merits to tolerance—but when tolerance is demanded, when orthodox Christianity is deemed intolerant and when government and even society fails to extend tolerance to people of faith, we are headed down a perilous path.
  • Strikingly, this is the very road we find ourselves travelling.
  • Putting aside the politics of issues like marriage and healthcare, there are undeniable and frankly deeply troubling implications for the church given the present national trajectory.
  • While the current marriage debate has centered around the notion of same-sex unions, in reality there has been a decades’ long cultural assault on marriage such that what was once recognized almost universally as a God-ordained and created institution, the fundamental building block of any society and the nexus of procreation and child-rearing has now been called into question both in the larger culture and increasingly in the legal framework which governs this land.
  • Same-sex marriage aside, marriage is now widely viewed as a purely emotional bond.  With this as the starting point, we are left arguing the merits of one person’s love for another?
  • This evolution did not happen overnight.   The last several decades have been marked by the adoption of no fault divorce laws in every state, the normalization of cohabitation before marriage and the steep rise in single motherhood.
  • These trends are set against the backdrop of the ravages of pornography, abortion on demand, and the objectification of women in music, film and virtually every other form of media.
  • And yet in many respects the church, in the face of this decades’ long challenge to marriage, has struggled to find its voice adopting in some cases an ethos not unlike the broader culture of 20 years ago.  Of course there are exceptions but generally speaking rather than positing a radical alternative to the culture—we are in too many ways, simply culture-lite—precisely what Christian Millennials say they do NOT want.
  • Consider the following.  Last summer, I joined with former Congressman Tony Hall, a Democrat from Ohio in writing 50 leading protestant church leaders from around the country beseeching them to lend their voice to the public debate on marriage.
  • We wrote these leaders following the president’s announcement that he had changed his position on gay marriage. The letter read in part: “Talking heads and strategists in Washington are busy analyzing what constituencies have been mobilized, energized, secured or alienated by the timing of the president’s announcement.  But the implications of this shift are more far-reaching than November’s electoral outcome.”
  • “We believe the president’s position, which he sought to justify by citing Scripture, necessitates a response.  Not only a political response, but a reasoned, winsome, faithful interpretation of what Scripture actually has to say about God’s intent for the sacred institution of marriage.  As is befitting those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus, this apologetic for marriage must be seasoned with grace, kindness and love while also be grounded in truth.”
  • We concluded, “On this issue, as on so many others, the discussion among government leaders and opinion makers is simply a downstream manifestation of what is already happening in the broader culture, which is why your leadership is so important.”  This sentence encapsulates well Today’s topic for discussion.
  • To our great disappointment, we heard back from just 3 pastors.
  • I am a great admirer of Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Robbie George, himself a Catholic, who is fully engaged in this ongoing national conversation and is a prolific thinker and writer on these very topics.
  • In a First Things post this past summer he offered up, by his own description, “An Unlicensed Sermon.”  It is, I believe, a fitting clarion call to the church—especially to future leaders of the church such as yourselves.  George writes:
  • A little Sunday sermon from a guy with no license to preach: For those of us who are Christian—and I suspect the same is true of our friends of other religious traditions—it is tempting to embrace those doctrines and teachings of our faith that are acceptable to the “beautiful people,” to the trend setters and opinion shapers, to the powerful and influential, while going silent on, or even denying, those teachings that will mark us as standing in opposition to the values that are dominant in elite sectors of the culture.
  • We’re all-too-willing to be “tame” Christians. We want the comforts and consolation of religion, but we’d like to have them without risks or costs. We don’t want to jeopardize friendships, family relationships, professional and economic opportunities, prestige, social status, and the like. We don’t want people to think of us as retrograde or “out of touch with the times,” much less as intolerant or prejudiced. So we are tempted to pick and choose—to be “cafeteria Christians.”
  • But if we are serious about our faith, we will understand that a true Christian is never a “tame” Christian. A true Christian will stand up and speak out for what is good and true, what is right and just, both in season and out of season. He or she will not go silent, even when bearing witness is unpopular—even when it is personally or professionally risky. He or she will know that there truly is a “cost of discipleship,” and will be prepared, with God’s help and by His grace, to pay that cost—whatever it turns out to be. A faithful Christian will be ever mindful of the words of Christ himself, “If anyone would be my disciple, then let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
  • Increasingly, I am of the mind, that Christians—lay leaders and pastors alike—but especially those in position of authority are going to face situations that are not simply culturally unpopular, but conceivably situations which force us to choose between God and Caesar, between our conscience and the law.
  • Cardinal Francis George, former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the current Archbishop of Chicago in 2010 predicted, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
  • Is this alarmist?  Unnecessarily dramatic?  I pray so, but the evidence before us at least demands an examination of the prospect.
  • In June of this year, Cardinal George wrote, “this tendency for the government to claim for itself authority over all areas of human experience flows from the secularization of our culture. If God cannot be part of public life, then the state itself plays God.”
  • Breakpoint, a legacy of the late Chuck Colson, recently aired a piece titled, “Too High a Price for Citizenship,” which featured the Elane Photography v. Willock case out of the New Mexico Supreme Court which ruled Aug. 22 that Elane could not refuse to photograph a same-sex wedding.
  • John Stonestreet who authored the Breakpoint piece pointed out that more troubling than the court’s actual ruling was the “the reasoning it employed to justify its decision.  Every appeal to religious freedom was swept aside as if the phrase ‘free exercise’ did not appear anywhere in the Constitution.  In ‘vindicating’ the right of one minority—same-sex couples—the court rendered null the rights of another, namely people of faith who adhere to traditional teachings about sexuality.”
  • In short, the court, or the state, played God.
  • It is in this context that the church, more than ever, must be a prophetic voice.
  • At other critical junctures in human history, Christian leaders of great consequence often reserved their most severe criticism for their fellow believers—not out of a spirit of harshness but rather love and a desire for the church to fulfill its calling.
  • The Reverend Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is addressed to his fellow clergymen.  In it he explains with great eloquence and relevance for today the difference between a just law and an unjust law, writing: “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
  • “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.”
  • King continues, admonishing the church, “I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church…When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
  • What a stirring indictment from a man of the cloth, writing to fellow clergymen, as he languishes behind bars.
  • Are we, in 2013, more cautious than courageous?
  • Are we, in 2013, willing to risk imprisonment in the face of unjust laws?
  • These are profound questions of conscience which every man, and woman, must answer for themselves.
  • King concludes, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love…
  • “There was a time when…the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators’…By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.”
  • “Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silence–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”
  • “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
  • Several weeks ago, thousands gathered in Washington to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.   King gave his life for the cause of justice and freedom—but ultimately his dream was realized.
  • Just like Esther of old and countless others whose names we do not know, I know God raises up prophets as the times demand and I pray that similar voices would emerge for the twenty-first century.
  • I also pray that as the cost becomes greater to follow Jesus in post-Christian America, we might find people being drawn to faith through the authentic witness displayed in a disciple’s obedience.
  • Which brings me to the church overseas—notably the persecuted church.
  • Several years ago, around the time of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, a story ran on a local radio station which featured several Tiananmen survivors—a sort of “Where are they Now?” piece.
  • One of the featured individuals was a gentleman who at one point was number seventeen on Chinese government’s most wanted list of Tiananmen protestors.  He eventually sought asylum in the U.S. and now pastors a large Chinese-American church near my Congressional district.  His sermons are recorded and “put online for converts inside China to download.”  Pastor Boli described his job as letting “the love of Jesus Christ melt the hatred in China.”
  • Upon hearing his remarkable story, I invited him in for a meeting.
  • As is often the case when Congress is in session, a series of votes was called right as we began to meet, requiring that I walk over to the Capitol with my meeting in tow.
  • On this particular day, we happened upon some visiting Chinese tourists at the foot of the Capitol stairs.  This couple was visiting their son in the U.S. who was himself a seminary student.
  • While we shared no common language it was immediately apparent that they recognized Pastor Boli.  They regularly watched this pastor’s teaching online.  They were overjoyed to meet him.
  • I later asked this Chinese-American pastor if he felt it was more difficult to be a Christian in the U.S. or in China.  He answered unequivocally, and counter-intuitively, that it was more difficult in America.
  • Perhaps not difficult in the ways we would think.  There are certainly tangible threats to religious freedom in the U.S. which I’ve just described but no one is being arrested for going to an unregistered church.  No one is being beaten for administering Holy Communion.
  • But this pastor’s answer certainly was thought-provoking and caused me to question whether the lure toward “tame Christianity” of the sort Robbie George described was in some ways more insidious and threatening than the actual promise of physical persecution.
  • In fact persecution is as old as the church.  Most historians believe that the disciple Stephen was stoned to death just one year after Jesus’ death on the cross.
  • Of course these horrific tales of persecution are not simply relegated to the ancient history books.  Author Allen Hertzke notes that the suffering church constitutes nearly a third of the total Christian population.
  • Looking to the Middle East there is often societal and communal violence and repression against religious communities which specifically targets religious minorities including Christians.
  • These realities have been exasperated by the so-called Arab Spring—a Spring which has devolved into Winter for many of the most vulnerable in these societies—foremost among them the ancient Christian communities.
  • In February I travelled to the Middle East—specifically to Lebanon and Egypt.
  • One of the main purposes of the trip was to spend time with the Syrian Christian community—a community with ancient roots dating back to the 1st century.  We read in the Bible about Paul on the road to Damascus.
  • I wanted to hear firsthand from Syrian Christians about their concerns and to put this issue in the larger context of an imper­iled Christian community in the broader Middle East, specifically in Egypt and Iraq.
  • Coptic Christians and other minorities in Egypt are increasingly marginalized with the ascen­dancy of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Of course recent events in Egypt seem to indicate a rejection, in part, of the Brotherhood’s approach.  But the situation is fluid and recent news reports indicate that Islamists are taking advantage of the unrest to target Coptic Christians.
  • The issues I’ve just outlined must be viewed not simply as today’s news but rather through the lens of history. A phrase not often heard outside the majority Muslim world is “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday peo­ple.” The “Saturday people” are, of course, the Jewish people.
  • Except for Israel, their once vibrant communities in countries through­out the region are now decimated.   In 1948 the Jewish population of Iraq was roughly 150,000; today no more than 4 re­main…some reports indicate there may actually be just one Jewish person left in Iraq.
  • In Egypt, the Jewish population was once as many as 80,000; now roughly 20 remain.  It appears a similar fate may await the ancient Christian community in these same lands. With the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Cop­tic Christians, numbering roughly 8 – 10 million, are leaving in droves in the face of increased repression, persecution and violence.
  • Similarly, Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from as many as 1.4 million in 2003 to roughly 500,000 today. Churches have been targeted, believers kid­napped for ransom and families threatened with vio­lence if they stay.
  • Over the span of a few decades, the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, has virtually been emp­tied of its Jewish community.
  • In my conversations with Syrian Chris­tian refugees, Lebanese Christians and Coptic Chris­tians in Egypt, a resounding theme emerged: a similar fate may await the “Sunday People.”
  • While it remains to be seen whether the historic exo­dus of Christians from the region will prove to be as dramatic as what has already happened to the Jewish community, it is without question devastating, as it threatens to erase Christianity from its very roots.
  • Consider Iraq. With the exception of Israel, the Bible contains more references to the cities, regions and nations of ancient Iraq than any other coun­try. The patriarch Abraham came from a city in Iraq called Ur. Isaac’s bride, Rebekah, came from north­west Iraq. Jacob spent 20 years in Iraq, and his sons (the 12 tribes of Israel) were born in northwest Iraq. A remarkable spiritual revival as told in the book of Jonah occurred in Nineveh. The events of the book of Esther took place in Iraq as did the account of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
  • In Egypt, some 2,000 years ago, Mary, Joseph and Jesus sought refuge in this land from the murderous aims of King Herod. Egypt’s Coptic community trac­es its origins to the apostle Mark.
  • If the Middle East is effectively emptied of the Christian faith, this will have grave geopolitical and I would argue spiritual implications.
  • But rather than being met with urgency, vision or creativity, our government’s response has been anemic and at times outright baffling especially to the communities most impacted by the changing Middle East landscape.
  • This coupled with virtual silence on the part of the CHURCH in the West—and these vulnerable faith communities which are part of the fabric of the historic Middle East, are left feeling abandoned and alone during their hour of greatest need.
  • While the situation is grim in the Middle East—it is hardly an anomaly.  The church is under assault elsewhere in the world.
  • Like many repressive regimes throughout history, the Chinese government maintains a brutal system of labor camps.  Common criminal languish behind bars with Nobel laureates who dare to question the regime’s authority and people of faith.
  • A February 2013 Christianity Today piece reported that “China’s Christians felt a noticeable rise in persecution in 2012 as the Communist government began the first of a three-phase plan to eradicate unregistered house churches, a new report says.”
  • The article continued, “At least 132 incidents of persecution affecting 4,919 Christians—442 of whom were clergy—were reported in the country last year, according to China Aid’s annual report.”
  • Currently every one of the approximately 25 underground bishops of the Catholic Church is either in jail, under house arrest, under strict surveillance, or in hiding, according to the Cardinal Kung Foundation.
  • Protestant house church pastors are routinely intimidated, imprisoned and tortured.
  • The government is an equal opportunity persecutor of people of faith.  Over the last two years, over 100 peace-loving Tibetans have set themselves aflame in desperation at the abuses suffered by their people.  Uyghur Muslims are unable to freely associate and have been subject to forced confessions and persecution.
  • In North Korea, arguably the darkest corner of the globe today, there is a remnant of Christianity that survives and some argue is even growing in the face of horrific persecution including torture, multi-generational imprisonment and death.
  • Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Melanie Kirkpatrick, a former deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page, and author of “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” explained that despite this repression, “something is happening that many characterize as nothing short of a miracle: Christianity appears to be growing in North Korea.”
  • She further reported that, “The regime has stepped up the campaign against Christians in recent years. It trains police and soldiers about the dangers of religion and sends agents posing as refugees into China to infiltrate churches. Sometimes the agents even set up fake prayer meetings to catch worshipers…”
  • The government of Vietnam, which our own State Department describes as an “authoritarian state ruled by a single party,” continues to suppress political dissent and severely limit freedom of expression, association, and public assembly. Religious activists are subject to arbitrary arrest.
  • In its recently released report, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that, “The government of Vietnam continues to expand control over all religious activities, severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority.”
  • Iranian-American Pastor Saaed Abedini languishes in jail in Iran, more than 900 Nigerian Christians were killed last year, a Pakistani Christian teen – falsely accused of blasphemy – was recently forced to flee the country or face communal violence.  The list goes on.
  • Jesus of Nazareth had much to say about the persecuted, the oppressed and the imprisoned.  But is the church in the West today burdened by the great injustice of religious persecution?
  • Not because we are driven by guilt, but because we are motivated by our faith.  Not because of some of tired sense of obligation but because a vibrant Biblical mandate.
  • Returning to the theme of today’s talk, I am increasingly convinced that the discussion (or lack thereof) among government leaders and opinion makers on this issue of religious persecution, is simply a downstream manifestation of what is happening in the broader culture, and specifically in the faith community domestically.
  • If the church in the West has failed to prioritize the plight of the church globally, can we reasonably expect government leaders do so?
  • In closing, as you continue your studies and prepare for a life of ministry which for some will involve the important work of shepherding the flock, I urge you to be clear-eyed about the times in which we live; to be thoughtful about the challenges and prayerful about your response and to never be satisfied with a tame Christianity, no matter the cost.



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