If you knew you would be arrested for going to church, how many weeks in a row would you attend? Would you return after you had spent a week in a “re-education center”? If the pastors and staff of your church had been jailed indefinitely, would you be willing to step up and serve your congregation in their place? These questions come not from first-century Rome, nor twentieth-century Germany, but from the past two months in China. On December 9, 2018, over 100 deacons, elders, pastors, and staff of Early Rain church in Chengdu, China, were taken from their homes by the police between 10p.m. and midnight. Most were simply apprehended by officers, but a few were beaten and literally dragged from their homes, and a few others had their homes ransacked. Over the course of the week, most of the church members were released. When they returned the next Sunday to worship, sixty more were re-arrested. This included a group who had gathered publicly in the park to worship (in December, which is not warm in Chengdu). More than twenty continue to be detained, with charges ranging from “provoking trouble” to “illegal business” to the most serious charges, brought against the pastor and his wife, “inciting to subvert state power.” The church property, some rented and some privately owned by church members, has been seized by the government and converted into a police station. (Perhaps we should write a letter to President Lincoln?) “Due process” functions very differently in that country, and it could be months or years before a trial of any sort occurs. Church members, who have been released, and members of other churches are constantly being watched and instructed on what not to do (like attend church or leave the city).
Before we formulate a response, perhaps we should consider a few neglected promises found in Scripture: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt 5:11), and “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Have we ever considered the possibility that the treatment Jesus and his apostles received by their societies and their human governments might be normative? While the apostle Paul teaches us to seek to live at peace with everyone, the New Testament concludes with an apocalyptic document describing the ongoing battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. When we live as faithful citizens of God’s kingdom, we will cause all who have pledged loyalty to the systems and institutions of this world to feel threatened. Many of those will respond with attack through subtle or not-so-subtle means.
Perhaps our response can be guided by letting our national partners teach us. We began our partnership with this pastor and one other nearly fifteen years ago through the China Partnership. What began with Western missionaries supported by U.S. churches has evolved and grown into a national movement with its own indigenous leadership and direction. The imprisoned pastor knew this day might come, so he prepared his church with a Biblical explanation of his position (to continue to meet publicly, despite government opposition) and instructions to his congregation. Members of Early Rain have preached and worshipped openly in prison, given pre-marital counseling to a jail officer, and kindly but firmly witnessed to those interrogating them. They recognize the plight of the police officers: they, too, are under surveillance and must follow orders or face severe punishment. Because of this perspective, church members have shown them compassion and spiritual mercy. Perhaps they, better than most of us, grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
So how do we respond? Let us pray that God would give them boldness in their witness, strength and wisdom in their circumstances, and an immediate release from prison. Let us also look to them as an inspiration to be both bold in our witness and merciful to those who oppress us. Perhaps we could also learn, particularly in light of our conference theme this year, to rejoice in our sufferings. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).