In much of the world, following Jesus still means being a candidate for martyrdom.
Take this test. True or false: (1) The bloody butchering of Christians stopped with Constantine. (2) Instruments of torture and death—thumbscrews, stakes, hanging ropes—are but relics of medieval intolerance. (3) Persecution of Christians has almost ended (except, perhaps, under Communist regimes).
If you answered true to any of the above, you’re wrong.
Hard figures are not easy to come by, but evidence is mounting that martyrdom is a painfully contemporary reality. In many countries, Christians pay a dear price for believing. Especially during Lent, when we recall Jesus’ prediction that he would “suffer many things … and be killed,” we do well to remember the persecuted. They have something vital to teach us about following Christ.
Consider these facts:
• In this century, an average of 300,000 Christians has been martyred each year, according to David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia. Some claim Barrett’s number includes Christians killed for reasons other than faith, but even allowing for differences in the definition and the difficulties of reporting, the figure is remarkable. When Barrett’s documentation is released over the next couple of years, the impact could be stunning. Martyrdom, Barrett wants to show, is not an “outrageous exception, but a part of a surprisingly regular 2,000-year pattern where persecution and suffering are the normal lot of the body of Christ.”
• Because of increasing terrorism, says Jim Reap-some, editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly, “missionaries are finding themselves in increasingly dangerous conditions.” Many mission organizations have been training missionaries in contingency procedures for use in kidnapings or attacks. Reapsome believes that the history of the church confirms that missionaries are bona fide “candidates for martyrdom.”
The church needs to keep this panorama of suffering in view for two reasons.
First, martyrs and persecuted believers vividly remind us of God’s triumphal power in the midst of harrowing circumstances. Just as Abel “died, but through faith … is still speaking” (Heb. 11:4), the suffering church, ancient and modern, witnesses to certainties that run deeper than life itself.
When Anabaptists were sentenced to death in the sixteenth century, authorities tried to keep them from proclaiming to the townspeople the faith that led them to the stake. Sometimes local officials used “tongue screws”—gruesome instruments that bored through the tongue and immobilized the mouth with iron plates. But the martyrs’ witness could not be silenced. Their quiet testimony moved onlookers, as well as believers in centuries since. If modern martyred and persecuted believers like the late Chet Bitterman and Cuban exile Armando Valladares are not forgotten, they can likewise inspire faith and courage.
Second, we must support persecuted believers with prayer. Remembering believers submerged in a ditch of human excrement or shocked relentlessly with cattle prods may make praying less soothing, but weekly corporate prayer, as well as daily individual prayer, should embrace fellow believers living in hostile countries like Albania, Turkey, or China.
Thinking about the suffering church is not pleasant, but it can be a tonic for the complacency that ails us. If we determine not to forget our persecuted friends in the faith, their witness can again become a potent factor in the church’s faith and the gospel’s spread.
By Timothy K. Jones.
When the Christianity Today Institute panel on the power of the Holy Spirit (see p. 24) met in a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, all of us anticipated a battle royal. After all, the church has fought over the topic for three centuries, and never more energetically than in our own lifetime. And we deliberately chose the panel members to represent opposite sides on the most crucial issues.
There was no battle. Instead of the brash bull tipping over heirloom china that some had expected the leader of the signs-and-wonders movement to be, John Wimber proved to be a kindly, jovial grandfather, more eager to listen and learn than to argue. The burden of the traditional and logical Calvinist, Jim Packer, was to warn against an aloof deistic view of God and to stress that the God of the Bible is immediately and powerfully active in the world and in the believer’s soul. The neat but rigid categories of dispensationalist Charles Ryrie really don’t rule out supernatural miracles here and now.
In that atmosphere of surprise, long-held feelings of suspicion evaporated with amazing rapidity. And that was good.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing essentially bad about doctrinal disagreements or theological battles. Biblical Christianity is committed to the infinite importance of truth and to the moral necessity of persuasion and even confrontation.
But this was good. Not that we agreed on all points when we were finished, because we didn’t. We still disagreed. But now we disagreed over real differences and not over what we thought someone else was saying. Moreover, we realized the things we really do disagree about are not nearly so important to us as the things we thought we disagreed about.
The result of that meeting is that I have a different attitude toward my brother than I did before, because now I am convinced that he is going in the right direction—although he may slip on the ice and run the danger of breaking his leg. To the best of my knowledge, no one on that panel left the session without a greater appreciation of the other panel members and a deep gratitude to God, who is using them in their own way—mistaken though they may be at some point—to further his divine kingdom in this desperately needy world.
Even more important than this, each of us saw that we do not need to beat the air feverishly, seeking to combat doctrines that our brothers in fact do not hold. Energies and resources for the kingdom can thus be saved and employed in useful causes that advance the kingdom of God and bring great good to the human race.
And best of all, perhaps, this is the biblical way and, in fact, the only way for each of us to find the truth we all need. Most theological battles have been waged from a distance. And while face-to-face discussions are not always helpful (remember Luther and Zwingli’s impasse at Marburg), they are biblical. Now that we see more clearly what each of us really does believe, we can assist each other to see where we are departing from the teaching of Scripture, where we are misapplying its truths, and where these truths can be more accurately and effectively applied to the world of human needs.
The “body” of Christ is terribly important, and each member has much to contribute to the other. Of course, we knew this before the panel met, but now we know it experientially and practically. The experience makes us eager for more.
By Kenneth S. Kantzer.
Homosexual practice is a sin. That is not a pretty statement. In fact, in an age of Jell-O it has the cutting sharpness of a razor blade. But we feel that this is the witness of Scripture, and we want to be a people formed by God’s Word.
Without Scripture, a stand against homosexual expression could be dismissed as homophobic fear, or even oppression of a minority. And these are indeed the rallying cries of two Lutheran churches in San Francisco. On January 21, Saint Francis Lutheran Church and First United Lutheran Church ordained two lesbians and one gay man, despite warnings from denominational heads of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that there would be disciplinary action.
Currently a team is seeking to reconcile the churches with the denomination’s bylaws, which forbid the ordination of practicing homosexuals. One possible outcome is the expulsion of the churches from the denomination. A complicating factor is that the denomination is far from settled on the issue. There is a study in progress that is reassessing the church’s position, although that study is not due until 1993.
Grace For All
We do not urge disciplinary action because of a desire to return to the Old Testament practices (such as stoning homosexuals). At the Cross of Jesus Christ, all sinners (that is, all human beings) are now to be the recipients of love, mercy, and forgiveness. The church’s mission is to embrace the homosexual, just as it embraces all who struggle and are lost.
Nevertheless, the message sinners hear must be true to its source. And despite contemporary exegetical gymnastics, the scriptural verses dealing specifically with homosexuality plus the positive revelation of one man-one wife as the biblical ideal for sexual relations make it clear that homosexual practices are inconsistent with the pursuit of righteousness.
Therefore, confronted with the choice between what seems right according to the culture and what seems right according to Scripture, we urge the ELCA to emulate its forebear by standing firmly on the side of God’s Word and proclaiming, “Here we stand. We can do no other.”
By Michael G. Maudlin.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingHillsong Says It Is Moving ForwardNew revelations will require increased accountability, but pastor wants to look to the future.
- From the MagazineWhy Does Creation Groan?Scripture and science suggest that animal suffering fits into a divine artistic story.
- Editor's PickGen Z Christians Want Leaders to Keep It RealThat means dropping the façade and admitting their own struggles.