As ChinaSource has recently noted, in the past year or so there has been increasing pressure on Christians in China and the Chinese church. The environment for Christianity is not what it has been; there is a “new normal.” Part of that “new normal” was evidenced by the shutdown of some prominent churches last year, including Zion Church in Beijing and Early Rain Church in Chengdu. Indeed, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the crackdown on Early Rain Church. At the time of this writing, Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain remains in prison and awaits trial.
In this article from Return to the Bible, Pastor Li Pumin reflects on this changing environment. He also gives suggestions for how Christians ought to respond in the face of trials.
After Gathering Places Are Broken Up
I have recently received letters from fellow members of the body of Christ in many different places, telling me that their church has been attacked. The specific situations in every province and every town might vary, but they all demand a stop to gatherings in their original locations. The results vary as well: in some cases, the landlord cannot take the pressure and ends the lease; in some cases, elders choose to cease Sunday worship out of fear; in some cases, the churches we build ourselves are torn down. There is a video of a good number of sisters weeping and praying at the site of the demolishment of their church. Some also choose to stubbornly persist, but “I don’t suppose we’ll last very long.” One sister said that the four house churches originally in her town have all been closed down. These situations are currently increasing, and it feels like a great and sweeping persecution is coming our way.
God does not permit an absence of trials, and they come today with beating drums.
Though the snow blankets the ground, the red plum blossoms are still bright. As persecution arrives, our love for the Lord deepens.
In the past we enjoyed a tranquil environment for a time of about thirty years. Not only could we organize largescale evangelistic meetings, build churches and schools, but we even had the leisure to entertain personality conflicts among our co-workers. The rural churches built church buildings. The pastors of urban churches all went abroad for study, for field research. And young people often organized various leisure activities. Some churches even owned very expensive cars.
All seemed to be catching up to the European and American churches, but the chronic illness of Europe and America was also appearing in churches across the mainland—that is, the infiltration of secularization and individualism. This caused a great decline in various areas such as prayer, evangelism, and suffering for the Lord. In the past when foreign pastors visited the mainland, there were none who were not deeply moved when joining a prayer meeting at dawn. But today, many of the visiting pastors reflect that, “the spiritual environment is far inferior to before.” This is to our loss and a tragedy.
By nature, we enjoy comfort. Our flesh does not want to be persecuted. However, God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Because of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and mercy, he has allowed some persecution and trials to come to us. This is for our long-term benefit. Just as the psalmist prayed:
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance. (Psalm 66:10-12).
Christians need a heart of gratitude, and should respond to the current situation with wisdom.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
The Bible says very clearly, that persecution and trials are permitted by God. If God did not permit it, not a hair would fall from our heads. And of course, neither would attacks against gathering places happen. If God permits it, then his goodwill must be in it. Therefore, let us neither find it strange nor panic, as if the Bible had never reminded us. I tell my church staff that although we had only recently moved to the current location, we must be mentally prepared to be attacked at any time. Our spiritual accounts emphasize the salvation of souls, and is not particularly concerned with economical gain or loss.
If we are attacked, and no longer have a large location for gathering, first, let us not complain to the heavens or those around us, and let us not hate the people in responsible government departments. For they know not what they do. Complaints and fear do not come from God. Only because God does not see us as infants, but as people who can weather storms, does he allow such things to happen. Furthermore, the apostles had already said long ago, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
In addition to the knowledge and attitude of giving thanks in all circumstances, we must also respond in a timely manner by relying on God’s word.
I. Pastors Respond Courageously, Protecting the Lord’s Sheep.
In the past, everyone enjoyed standing at the pulpit or teaching others through the internet, not knowing that all who are servants of God will be tried by fire. Many of the ancient prophets were martyred. To the preacher, it is their rightful lot to experience persecution and trials, it is a mark of their glorious calling. In peaceful times, the laborers tricked their way into God’s vineyard (church). But once persecution arrives, where preachers will be summoned to “conversations” or even to jail, when the church’s stipend naturally disappears, the laborers will flee. This is God’s wisdom, to help us see clearly through difficulties who is the faithful servant of God, and who is the laborer.
After the gathering place is broken up, God’s true servant will not cease serving out of fear or lack of a stipend. Instead, he will more diligently lead everyone in prayer, in Bible study, in visiting, and in evangelism. Of course, if small groups are not established ahead of time—if all members have not yet joined small groups, and small group leaders are not already trained—then the preacher will be very, very busy and have a difficult time. Therefore, we say that we need to prepare ahead of time.
II. Do Not Neglect to Meet Together, and Enhance Your Quiet Time.
The Spirit says, “[Do not neglect] to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). In reality, without persecution, our understanding of Sunday worship is not comprehensive enough. Only when we almost lose something do we learn to cherish it. If there are not already small groups, we must not cease to meet together, and must definitely not retreat to attend those so-called gatherings in religious organizations. That would not be pleasing to God. The entire book of Hebrews talks about similar problems. Let us not lose our original confidence.
The Bible tells us that even when two or three gather to pray, the Lord will be with us. Whatever happens, you will be able to find a couple of Christians beside you, and you can definitely worship together on the Lord’s Day. In the era of the early church, the Roman Empire’s persecution was cruel and long, and the church’s scale could not have been large. But everyone could still walk intimately with the Lord each day. We must not follow secular goals, seeking after large numbers, large venues, comfortable conditions. These days pastors will often arrange for new locations of congregational worship afterwards.
Since persecution and trials have arrived, then we must draw even closer to the Lord, and strengthen our personal quiet time. That is, we must practice fasting and praying for the church and the pastors, and read more of the Bible as possible, and also memorize more Scripture. Because once we end up suffering for the Lord, there will be no Bibles to read in there. However, when it comes the overall environment, it will of course be similar to forty or fifty years ago, and being inside will be much safer than being outside.
God’s name is Wonderful Counselor, and the Lord’s works are amazing. We trust and look to God.
III. We Must Pray for One Another, and Offer Timely Comfort and Help.
Last year, pastors of Shanghai churches gathered for a meeting. I proposed that if any of us were to be jailed for the gospel, the rest of us should take care of that person’s wife, children, and parents. This is our natural duty. This proposal was passed unanimously. Once a gathering place is attacked, at the very least the preacher will not have a stable income, at worst he might be in jail. The faith of brothers and sisters will be tried, and religious life will experience great difficulty. Shanghai once had a church that was so attacked that they had no choice but to gather out of doors for ten months. The winters in Jiangnan region are unusually damp and cold, and it was not easy for many older members to persevere gathering out of doors. Therefore, regardless of the region, we must start praying for one another now.
If we learn that a brother church is attacked, not only should we pray for them, but more importantly we should help in a timely manner. Recently, a nearby brother church was attacked, and had difficulty finding a temporary location. In a rush they came to me, and I immediately agreed to lend out our location. It’s not that I did not consider the possibility of being persecuted in turn, but I needed to choose what was pleasing to God. Praise God, our staff had the same view. We are one family in the Lord, and we bear each other’s troubles. Of course, we should steadfastly pray for others, even fasting in prayer.
However, prayer is far from enough. We need to offer timely help. Sometimes this means lending out our venue. Sometimes this means economic aid. Sometimes this means pulpit support. Sometimes this means visits and care. In all things we listen to the Spirit and follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
IV. The Gospel is God’s Power. Let Us Faithfully Follow Without Faltering.
This is a spiritual battle. We cannot only look at the gain or loss of our own church. Through oppression, Satan attempts to cause us to fear and compromise—that is, not holding to orthodoxy, and fearful of spreading the gospel and supporting missions. If we see our own grievances only, then we have fallen for the enemy’s trap. The fiercer the battle, the more passionately we should spread the gospel. Even if we are followed and oppressed, we must not sign our names as Judas Iscariot. Even though we will pay a price, what joy it is to experience the power of the gospel and the Lord’s amazing presence!
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)
Some churches have already been attacked, and brothers and sisters are experiencing testing. Some churches have not yet been attacked, and certain pastors comfort themselves by saying, “We have always been low key. We will be alright.” This is foolishness. This is lying to ourselves.
When facing oppression, when forced into separation, only then is the beginning of true following.
This is truly the narrow door, the hard road.
Disciples of Christ should be thankful, and more importantly, be faithful to the end.
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