Following Christ Together
Jesus promised us we would face persecution. Killings, discrimination, persecution come with the cross. When a Christian is beheaded, thrown in a cage, doused with gas and then set aflame, or when a family is rooted out, threatened with “convert, pay tax, be killed or leave,” Christians quickly come to their defense
Heroic Christian faith has left blood spattered across the pages of history. Today we are more sensitized by human rights legislation, by instant access to news, and by the ferocious means by which Christians are being assaulted, especially in the face of Islamic forms of terror.
We met in Albania, a country so recently led by a harsh and atheistic dictator who from 1967 to 1991 disallowed any religious meeting, worship, text or discussion. While some died for their faith, the main form of persecution was to deny participation in worship.
Driven by the excesses of Islamic jihad, Christians within global communions have begun to relate to each other as never before in our 2000-year history. The Global Christian Forum hosted our November 2015 event with members from Eastern Orthodox churches, Roman Catholics, the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Pentecostal Fellowship, and the World Council of Churches. The telling conference theme was, “Following Christ Together.”
While outside forces pressing against Christians was at the top of our considerations, we had other business to settle. Too many centuries have gone by without Christians sitting down together, admitting sins of omission and commission and settling our grievances, before we set about addressing contemporary attacks.
A telling comment in the final press release said it quietly, but for those who listen, it was an astounding admission: “We repent of having at times persecuted each other and other religious communities in history, and we ask forgiveness from each other and pray for new ways of following Christ together.”
David Wells of the World Pentecostal Fellowship confessed that too often Evangelicals did not understand or appreciate historical churches; their centuries- old stand for Christ, and their presence in countries in which their witness and pastoral ministry has been dominant.
Pope Francis had set in motion a confessing moment when in July he visited a Pentecostal church in southern Italy to offer an apology for the heavy-handed way his church had treated Christians of other communions. I was part of a small group meeting with him at the Vatican in June when he said this is what he planned to do. When we asked him why, he said simply, ”This has gone on too long without our saying what is right.”
It is true that in many countries where the Roman Catholic or an Orthodox Church is the majority, being part of the church has become synonymous with being a citizen of the country. Evangelicals, having arrived more recently, are at times marginalized and refused civic permission to buy land or to conduct weddings. When this was noted in a panel session, a response came quickly: yes, but when you Evangelicals come to a country where our church has been the holder of the faith for over 1,500 years, you act as if we know little to nothing about the Gospel and that our people are in need of your conversion.
Two stark realities face us as we wrestle with these newly evolving relationships: Christians who have paid the price for faithful witness understandably resent newly arrived Evangelicals. Yet, filled with enthusiasm for the power of the Spirit to renew and transform, Evangelicals too have the biblical mandate to spread the evangel. Especially in the old Soviet countries, following the collapse of that empire, Evangelicals rushed in, insensitively caught up in religious enthusiasm, and bypassed those who had suffered years of persecution.
There are many stories that could be told. Here is one that caught my attention during our days of meeting. A Mennonite pastor from a small African country was about to be arrested. Since the government recognized only three historic churches, they said any others had to close down. Those who didn’t comply were imprisoned. Warned in time, the pastor fled and is now in another country, studying and preparing for the day he can return. But, I asked, didn’t any leaders from other churches protest the imprisonment of the pastor? They had not, and he hasn’t seen his family in two years.
The issue isn’t about which churches fail to step in and help, for within any society, the majority tends to support the status quo. And a new boy on the block is ignored if not resented. The power and influence of our meeting in Albania, and the role of the Global Christian Forum, is to create space so we can look into each other’s eyes and speak of the concerns and failings in our relationships. To call issues between Christian communions persecution may be too strong. But discrimination it often is.
The theological culture of our meeting was deeply biblical, resting comfortably within an attachment to Jesus, his death and resurrection. As a colleague noted, “When you are dealing with persecution and martyrdom, liberal theology simply doesn’t find its place at this table. Who would choose to die for Jesus if you aren’t sure He is the Son of God or if you are uncertain of His resurrection?”
Facing persecution will be an ongoing reality for Christians globally. Archbishop Anastasios provided the anchor for us in facing the consequences of our witness:
“An inexhaustible source of the renewal of our spiritual life remains the increase of our love for Christ. That is the secret of the strength and of the endurance of Christians over the course of centuries. Let the apostolic experience as expressed by the Apostle Paul be our personal hymn.”
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or family, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life . . . nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
Today, take a moment to pray for Christians who in many countries are suffering various stages of persecution. Let’s open our hearts in love for those in need, asking the Spirit to bring strength and comfort even as we pray.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance