The concept of The Suffering Church is not a new one. Usually it is related to the persecution of Christians around the world. Even though “suffering” is such a broad and even abstract term, many are now referring to the Suffering Church in a new way. God’s people have been under other types of oppression, related to war, natural disasters, political instability, and not merely persecution. As I will discuss further, we must be aware of the challenges that our brothers and sisters face and keep them constantly in our prayers.
1. BECAUSE THERE IS ONLY ONE CHURCH
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
“As it is, there are many parts,[e] yet one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:20)
Most of us do not grasp the depth of what it truly means to be one universal church of Christ. The Apostle’s Creed proclaims: “I believe in… the holy catholic (or universal) church.” This concept is inclusive of all true Christians, in any place and at any time. This means that our faith is so powerfully connected that it literally transcends space and time. We recite these phrases, we sing songs which mention it, but this concept is almost impossible to conceive of with the human mind.
Can you imagine if your pastor was arrested for preaching the Gospel? Or if his family was threatened or physically harmed due to his beliefs or religious teachings? Can you imagine if your church, maybe the church where you grew up, was burnt down by radicals? Rage, sadness and fear are some of the feelings that come to my mind.
Well, if the church is one, then I should feel the same for the Pakistani pastor who had to hide his family in a cave, then leave the country after being accused of blasphemy against Islam. I should be able to feel his anguish, having to wait an excruciating two years before he was able to rescue his family and embrace his children.
I should feel the same agony and heartbreak for the churches burnt to ashes in Orissa, India, or in the distant Maluku Islands of Indonesia.
If we are one church family, I should feel as desperate as I would be if this was against my own family, as if it was me, myself facing these torments.
If we are one body, we should feel the torment, grief, distress, suffering and tribulation of all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we begin to grapple with the theological truth regarding the universality of God’s church, we are forced to consider the everyday, practical implications. The only conclusion is to engage our hearts and minds and bodies on behalf of those suffering souls. There is simply no other conclusion a Christian brother or sister can arrive at- it is no longer possible to ignore the misery which surrounds us. God is calling us to act on behalf of our church family around the world.
2. BECAUSE THERE IS RECIPROCAL DISCIPLESHIP
I have spent time with quite a few persecuted brothers, especially in China and in the Middle East. As a missionary, I always went with the intention to help. I was able to offer training, initiating development projects along with many other kinds of services. However, as I heard from countless others who served in similar areas, I definitely received more than anything I was offering.
The suffering church teaches us resilience and perseverance. It is not easy for them, and they do not pretend like it is. But they look at Christ and wholeheartedly trust that God has a plan that involves their suffering. Paul says:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
God did use those poor and needy Christians, survivors carrying the affliction of injustice, who were persecuted for their faith. God used the most reviled, and despised in their societies, to bring me to my knees, to teach and educate me. This was true discipleship.
Pastors who must exist secretly in these anti-Christian regimes are forced to protect and encourage their flocks under the toughest storms and they usually do not have the benefit of, or access to, what we would consider proper education or theological training.
I spent time with a former Muslim pastor from Sudan, who became a close, personal friend. Although this man did not have 10% of my theological knowledge, I did not possess even 10% of the quality of his walk with the Lord.
3. IT IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR GOSPEL PREACHING AND CHURCH GROWTH
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” (Colossians 4:2-4)
Richard Wumbrand, the founder of the Voice of the Martyrs, spent many years in prison, as did Paul the Apostle. He suffered a multitude of atrocities, as described in his book Tortured for Christ. In the midst of his torture and hardships, he was able to discern precious opportunities to share his faith. As he describes in his memoir:
We were happy preaching. They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy
This is exactly what happened in the book of Acts. As the church was persecuted in Jerusalem, it encouraged and inspired preachers and church planters in diverse, new places in the region. Throughout their suffering, opportunities would arise to minister to others.
“And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:1, 4)
It is undeniable that persecution not only drives the church into action, but also generates genuine opportunities to reach out and witness to non-believers. Many have been drawn to the Lord because of how the suffering church handles this oppression and yet manages to overcome.
Over the last three years, the church in Iran has experienced an estimated annual growth of 19.6 percent. Local church leaders report that many young people have been seeking Jesus, most of them disappointed with the violent behaviors which characterize the Islamic faith in the area.
In Europe, the refugee crisis is boiling over, bringing serious political tensions and cultural divisions to a head. Radical Islamization is a real and pervasive problem emerging on an epic, global scale. However, there is also an emerging counter-current of a resurgence for Christianity and the values it embodies. Christians who have been persecuted in their original countries are also flooding the European nations, revitalizing the passion for Jesus and Christian church-planting. Currently, these brothers now preach the Gospel in a way they were not permitted to in their own native countries. Arab Christians have also been particularly instrumental in sharing the Gospel in Brazil and other developing nations where Islam is gaining momentum.
As stated before, we should not feel disheartened when we hear how our Christian brothers and sisters suffer because of their faith. We should also not feel ashamed or embarrassed about the relative freedom of religion that God has granted us in the west.
What is imperative to consider, however, is how we can use our position to better serve others that share our deep sense of faith. As Christians, we have a moral imperative to use our resources and blessings to bless those who do not have the ability to share in our freedoms. We must identify how to effectively assist our Christian brethren and how to mobilize the church on a global scale, “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Mario Freitas is a missiologist and served as a missionary in China. He is the founder of MORE INTERNATIONAL, an organization that serves the suffering church with community development initiatives.