On Sunday, the Observer carried reports – long known within the Christian community – about China’s current crackdown on churches. Up until now, the Chinese government had an official policy that unregistered (or, underground) churches were illegal, but a practice of very much turning a blind eye except where other major issues (as they perceived them) arose. Things varied from province to province too, dependent on local police and other factors. On the whole, in the major cities, things were not so tough.
That, however, has changed. What were once grey areas have now become clearly black or white. The authorities are no longer content to unofficially live and let live but now demand total allegiance to Chairman Xi in word and deed. Those who do not comply are being shut down, imprisoned or, in some cases, “disappeared.” The Observer report:
As China experienced an explosion in the number of religious believers, the government has grown wary of Christianity and Islam in particular, with their overseas links. In Xinjiang, a surveillance and internment system has been built for Muslim minorities, notably the Uighurs. Xi has called for the country to guard against “infiltration” through religion and extremist ideology.
This is an ongoing topic of discussion in our home because, though one can’t say too much, suffice to say we have skin in the game.
This new policy is bound not to work. I could spiritualise this point and say something about the inability of man to shackle Christ and his gospel. That would be entirely true but, naturally, easy for those so inclined to reject. But the historical record – much harder to deny for it is demonstrable – shows that persecution has, almost always, been the catalyst for the biggest and fastest periods of growth for the Christian church throughout its history. The Early Church grew under severe persecution and those regimes that have followed suit have tended to see more, rather than less, growth.
The irony is that a policy designed to eradicate (or, impede) the church is likely to see it flourish while a policy that granted as much freedom to the church as it wants would be far more successful in stifling its growth. Compare, for example, the rate of growth in Western European nations to that in places like China, Iran and other oppressive regimes. In the West, where the church is about as free as it has ever been, apathy is rife and disinterest high. The growth of the church in America – despite much nominalism – is not altogether encouraging. China and Iran, by contrast, are seeing some of the fastest rates of converts jumping into the boat despite being countries vehemently opposed to religious freedom and particularly antagonistic to Christianity.
There are two relatively simple reasons for this. First, it does away with nominalism. Nobody is going to put up with threats and intimidation if they don’t really believe. If there are few cultural advantages to being part of the church – and some evident and apparent dangers – you are going to lose nominal believers. This aids growth because the witness of the church is much more effective. There is much less distinction required between ‘real’ believers and nominal adherents. Only those who genuinely believe, and are willing to bear the cost of belief, will remain. Not only does it help witness passively, it means the whole church are much more likely to be active in sharing their faith for they really believe it.
But the second reason is that those who see the church are caused to ask, why are these people willing to suffer in this way? What have they found that means they are prepared to put up with such intimidation, threats and physical harm? In the West, these things are not so readily evident because we do not meet under any great threat and our continuing to do so – while having some value as a witness to the world – does not carry nearly the same value as it does in an Iran or China.
But this raises another question. Will the Muslims being targeted in China see an increase in number too? Will they grow as a result of people looking on and seeing their willingness to suffer for their faith? Maybe, yes.
But the proof of the pudding will be in the response of their adherents. The Muslim mindset seeks honour. It is to fight and protect the honour of its god. But there isn’t much honour to be had when you are a downtrodden minority. The Christian response is not to fight but endure with meekness and patience. It is to dwell on what scripture says about these things and think about how the Lord may be using them for his glory. Whilst both may cause others to look on and ask why these people are willing to suffer for their faith, only credible answers will keep people coming back.
You see, you can find people who will suffer, maybe even die, for all sorts of nonsense. Folk can delude themselves into thinking anything is true and then suffer for those things. Suffering, of itself, is not particularly proof of anything except maybe the resolve of those suffering. What makes suffering of any value is whether, as it is endured meekly and with patience, the answers given are credible.
When the Apostles suffered, they knew they would be killed for continuing to preach the resurrection of Christ. If they knew that Christ had not been raised – if they had fabricated the evidence – it is highly unlikely they would happily suffer and die as they did. You may find people willing to die for stuff that isn’t true, but you won’t find many people willing to die for stuff that they know they have made up. Their suffering carries weight.
But beyond that, when people are caused to look on and ask what would cause somebody to die for their beliefs, the answer has to be credible. The Apostles could point to fulfilled prophecies concerning Christ, to c.40 authors over 1500 years who all tell the same story despite most of them not knowing each other. Then, of course, there is resurrection itself for which they were willing to die showing, if nothing else, they hadn’t fabricated the story themselves. Archaeology and history do much more to support the Biblical account, and the claims of the apostles, than not.
The point is this: it is not enough merely to suffer. Anybody may suffer for their beliefs. The point is that when people are caused to look at the reason why people are willing to suffer this way, there must be something credible behind it. Does the evidence of what they claim to believe stack up? Does the manner in which they endure suffering suggest their beliefs are cogent? Does their response to suffering support, or deny, the claims of their belief?
The history of the Christian church is one that speaks of suffering and persecution leading to rapid growth. China may wish to crackdown on religion and assert there is no higher authority than Xi Jinping but in so pursuing this attempt to sinicize religion, he stands a very good chance of helping it to grow greater, and faster, than any amount of freedom could possibly achieve.
Let us remember to pray for for our brothers and sisters in China.