THE STATE OF THE PERSECUTED CHURCH
ABSTRACT: At the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes, “Remember my chains.” Thousands of Christians around the world today could write the same words. Some are locked behind bars; others are threatened with intimidation, discrimination, and violence. Yet as persecution grows in many parts of the world, so too does the gospel. From North Africa to North Korea, from Central Asia to Central Africa, Christ is building his church — and very often, he is doing so not despite persecution, but precisely by means of it.
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. (Colossians 4:18)
Did Paul’s shackles clank as he penned this postscript? His letter to the Colossians lifts us to the heavens with soaring sentences portraying the beauty and power of Jesus and his magnificent gospel:
“He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)
“By him all things were created.” (Colossians 1:16)
“He is the beginning.” (Colossians 1:18)
“He is the head of the body, the church.” (Colossians 1:18)
“This mystery . . . is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)
“Christ . . . is your life.” (Colossians 3:4)
At the end of this letter, though, Paul brings us back down to earth, reminding his readers that he was in chains. This is not a prayer request so much as more gospel truth — the iron-hard reality that the advance of the gospel will meet with opposition. Persecution does not stop its progress; rather, it is part of it. That’s been clear from the beginning.
Jesus’s words to his disciples still speak today: “Behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). I’ve looked into the faces of these lambs. Sometimes their faces are scarred from knife attacks. Sometimes they are filled with wide-eyed fear, like the Christian schoolgirls I met in Pakistan who had just survived a night of terror as their homes and churches were looted and burned by a Muslim mob.
I remember the bruised, swollen face of an Iranian brother named Mohammad, living in a refugee camp in Greece. When Mohammad openly professed Christ as his only Savior, he was badly beaten and kicked out of the camp. The pastor who was discipling Mohammad told him not to return to the refugee camp, and said he’d find a safe place for him. Mohammad refused, saying, “If I am afraid to go back and face my people as a Christian, what would that say about my Lord?” So, Mohammad returned — as a lamb among wolves and as a lamb like the Lamb of God. Jesus with saving purpose went to the cross as a Lamb to the slaughter, and so Mohammad (newborn Christian as he was) could return and stand with the marks of his beating, knowing that “a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matthew 10:24–25).
Jesus’s sobering send-off is a good place to start when considering the persecuted church today. Across a wide swath of the world — from North Africa to North Korea, from Central Asia to Central Africa — “the persecuted church” is simply “the church.” These believers — like first-century Christians in a twenty-first-century world — live, serve, and witness in the face of hostility, and remind us of our roots. And if the opening decades are any indication of things to come, this century promises to exceed the persecution of Christians of the last bloody century.
Six years ago, I wrote an open letter to the freshly self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State. I pointed out to Mr. al-Baghdadi that, as the successor to the prophet Muhammad, his role was ultimately doomed — in fact, he was already losing his grip on his subjects:
I think it’s best that you know that you will not succeed. You and your Caliphate are destined for failure. Of course, all empires, caliphates, and reigns of terror eventually come to an end, but something else is happening — another kind of failure in your command over the Islamic world. It’s that Jesus Christ is building his church . . . by gathering worshipers to himself from every tribe and language and people and nation — and that includes many, many among your subjects. From North Africa to Indonesia — and at many points in between — I’ve spoken with a number of formerly committed Muslims who are now joyful Christians.
That’s why I said you can’t win. The gospel will continue to be heard in more and more places in your realm because our King will continue to send his servants there. These are men and women who are willing to die, but not like the suicide bombers that you use so often. The King’s servants are not bringing death; they are bringing life. As they go, they will risk everything, driven not by hate, as your servants are, but by the love Jesus demonstrated by dying for us.1
Five years later, al-Baghdadi died in an escape attempt as U.S. special forces closed in. He killed himself with a suicide vest and, true to form, was a killer from start to finish, murdering two of his children in the blast.
During the caliph’s brief reign of terror in Iraq and Syria, thousands of Christians were killed (some by crucifixion), and thousands more were raped and sold into slavery. The Islamic State’s territorial control collapsed, and their leader died, but two realities are ongoing. First, jihad (“holy war”) continues. Second, multitudes of Muslims will escape the prison house of Islam through the shackle-breaking power of the gospel.
That jihad will continue is more than a statistical probability — it is an Islamic certainty. The eminent Bernard Lewis wrote,
Jihad is sometimes presented as the Muslim equivalent of the Crusade, and the two are seen as more or less equivalent. . . . Yet in the long struggle between Islam and Christendom, the Crusade was late, limited, and of relatively brief duration. Jihad is present from the beginning of Islamic history — in scripture, in the life of the Prophet, and in the actions of his companions and immediate successors. It has continued throughout Islamic history and retains its appeal to the present day.2
And so, the al-Qaeda and ISIS wannabes will continue to seek opportunity to kill — as they did in the Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt in 2017, in the spectacularly bloody Easter bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, and recently in Mali with the murder of Swiss missionary Beatrice Stockli. Since 2015, over eleven thousand Nigerian Christians have been killed and two thousand churches destroyed by the Islamic terror group Boko Haram and Fulani militants. While statistics can be abstract and numbing, the eyewitness accounts from survivors are not. Here’s one from central Nigeria:
Four [Christian] farming villages in the Ropp district, Plateau State, were attacked on 18–19 May 2015. . . . Armed militants killed 21 people. . . . “They were trained terrorists with guns. They killed those who couldn’t run — the aged, the children, and the blind. A pastor was their first casualty. They surrounded him. They killed him and then they rejoiced, shouting ‘Allah u Akbar’ and ‘we have got a hero.’”3
But even in the face of such atrocities, something else is happening. Muslims are believing on Jesus Christ, the Son of God. What I wrote to the caliph is still true:
Several of your erstwhile subjects told me that Islamic terror in the name of Allah was what broke their faith in the only religion they had ever known. Having rejected Islam in their heart, when they heard the gospel, they believed! They told me that the September 11th attack — what your mentor (the late Osama bin Laden) did — first opened their hearts to the love and grace that is in Jesus alone. And so, Osama bin Laden and his kind have been unwitting agents in the gospel’s advance.
The kingdom of darkness is being shaken by the boldness of Muslim-background believers — like a pastor I was with recently in the Middle East. Ten years ago, Mohammad planted a church in a Hezbollah stronghold. Outside the church, which is within the shadow of a mosque, the streets are lined with posters honoring the local suicide bombers. But inside, the church is lined with people eager to hear of life in Christ. Threats and prison bars have not silenced this brother, who himself was once bound in the chains of Islam but was delivered by Christ, who sets captives free and raises the dead. It’s hard to threaten a man who will now live forever. Mohammad’s ministry (even his name!) reminds me of the amazing and unlikely reach of the gospel even into the very heart of the Islamic world.
Jihad is, of course, the most extreme form of the violent persecution of Christians in the Muslim world. But for most Christians living in Muslim-majority countries, besides family and communal pressures, persecution comes more in the form of barriers to employment and education, and sometimes a lack of full legal standing. This makes Christians easy prey for assault, rape, and charges of blasphemy, which often carries with it years in prison — if the victim isn’t killed by a mob before then.
Christian persecution is not, of course, limited to the Muslim world. As my friend Lord David Alton once observed, “Of the world’s six billion [now 7.8 billion] inhabitants, more than half live in countries where being a Christian could cost you your life.”4 That’s certainly true in North Korea, with its well-earned reputation as the worst persecutor of Christians. Reliable numbers about this notorious regime are hard to come by, but it is estimated that there are 200,000–400,000 Christians in North Korea, with tens of thousands of them imprisoned in labor camps, where many will die under horrific conditions.
Yet less in the headlines than Kim Jong Un’s spectacular evil is the growing persecution in a country known as “the world’s largest democracy.” In India, the radical Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Modi have led India from number 31 to number 10 on Open Doors’ Annual Country Watch List of the top persecutors of Christians.5 India is now positioned between Syria and Iran. This rapid descent represents more violence against Christians, the beating and murder of pastors, and church burnings, all in a system where Christians (especially those who won’t pay bribes) have little recourse with the police or the courts.
Paul reminded Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). This verse isn’t just for Christians living in Libya or Afghanistan. We often think of persecution in terms of torture or martyrdom, but persecution comes in many forms. Persecution is purposeful suffering for the sake of Christ and for his glory. Suffering for the sake of the gospel may come suddenly and violently, but it often begins with simple intimidation and shunning by family and colleagues. For some Christians, this is where it stops because it silences them — and silencing them is the whole point. If shaming and intimidation work, then no violence is needed. If that doesn’t silence a Christian, then more substantive opposition may follow. This in no way implies that a Christian who is laughed at or who loses a job promotion because of his faith is suffering in the same way as a believer who has been beaten or jailed for his faith. It does mean, though, that following Christ will cost us — whatever our context.
The freedoms and legal protections we enjoy in the West are a blessed anomaly from much of the rest of the world — and from much of the history of the church. Intimidation has always been the first shot across the bow, starting when the council (and recent crucifiers) in Jerusalem took Peter and John “and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Peter and John could have sized up the threat and shrugged, “Okay.” Instead, these Spirit-filled sent ones said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). Sometimes intimidation comes quickly, sometimes subtly, but in time it will come to those who in the humility and boldness of the gospel say, “I am not ashamed of the One who bore my shame on the cross.” So, be prepared — not to build higher, thicker walls, but to give “a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
With discrimination and intimidation on the rise in our Western context, there are some parallels and shared experiences that grow our courage as we see what is being modeled by believers in even more vulnerable circumstances. For example, in recent years, all of my Chinese Christian friends who held professorships in universities in China have lost their jobs in the Communists’ sweeping purge of academia. This is not unlike the situation in state universities in America, where a professor can be openly anything and celebrated for it — except openly and faithfully a Christian. There are exceptions, of course, but there is a growing cancel culture against Christians. With the rising storm against a biblically bound Christian witness over here, perhaps our suffering brothers and sisters over there won’t seem so far away. They have much to teach us, for they refocus our shortsightedness to see the unsurpassed worth and glory of Christ.
By grace, we are part of something that is so much bigger than what we can see. This is the glorious reality that Peter magnifies in his first epistle, which was written to persecuted, beaten-down believers. Like lambs among wolves, they felt isolated and exposed. They had no strength in numbers, no place to hide. These brothers and sisters — like many Christians in similar circumstances today — must have felt so small and vulnerable. So, beneath the hail of threats and insults, Peter’s cross-centered words gave them fresh confidence to refocus their tear-stained vision on their great Savior and the great family they were now a part of forever. As it turned out, there was indeed strength in these numbers.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)
Because of our geographic sprawl and our linguistic and cultural differences, it is easy for believers to forget that this big, scattered, seemingly dysfunctional church is one blood-bought family. In mercy, God has made us his people. By grace, our righteous, risen King accounts us as “a holy nation.” Ours is a nation, a kingdom, without borders, and peopled with men and women from every tribe and tongue. The pioneer missionary Samuel Zwemer well described this borderless kingdom when he wrote, “The kingdoms and governments of this world have frontiers that must not be crossed. The gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier. It never has been kept within bounds.”6
So, when we speak of the persecuted church, we are speaking of our family. To call a Christian sister and brother is not a nicety — it’s an expression of love and honor that is deeper than blood, stronger than death. As I’ve walked point with these brothers and sisters in little house churches meeting in the shadow of a mosque or in a thatched hut or in the charred ruins of their church buildings, they all have reminded me of how the resurrection fuels our confident hope and courageous witness. And they have been stunning examples to me of the surprising reach of the gospel.
First, in their courageous suffering, they remind us of our death-defying hope. In China, for example, the courage of Christians is legendary — and it’s been so since the first gospel pioneers pushed into the interior. As Hudson Taylor said to his band, “China is not to be won for Christ by quiet, ease-loving men and women.”7 Chinese Christians today are worthy heirs of these trailblazers. This is especially evident as the church experiences heightened persecution under the dictator Xi Jinping, who sees himself as the second coming of Mao. Under Xi, online Christian resources have been blocked, church buildings destroyed, and pastors and church members arrested. In December 2018, pastor Wang Yi, a prominent leader in the house-church movement, was arrested along with his wife and one hundred church members — and he has not been heard from since.
Pastor Wang, aware that a crackdown was coming, wrote a letter to be released in the event of his arrest. Here is an excerpt from that letter, words that could have been penned by Peter or Paul:
I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. . . . Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family — the authorities are capable of doing all of these things. However, no one in this world can force me to renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life; and no one can raise me from the dead.
Like Stephen facing a screaming mob bent on stoning him, Wang Yi’s hope was steadied by the presence of his resurrected Lord.
Second, my brothers and sisters there and here have reminded me of the radical rescue work of the gospel. God still saves the least likely, the insolent opponent. He still transforms persecutors like Paul so that the depths of his grace, the heights of his mercy, and the breadth of his love are on display all the more.
Over the years, I’ve met a number of modern-day Pauls. Their conversions stir up both wonder and anger, and their salvation is a work of God from start to finish, for there is nothing more powerful or permanent than a life transformed and driven by the gospel. Here’s the story of one such life in a Muslim-majority country in Central Asia. Anvar, in his own words, tells what happened after his first-ever encounter with Christians, when he and his fellow policemen raided a house-church meeting:
We were told they were Masihi (Christians), people who were converted from Islam to Christianity. The group of people were arrested because they had a meeting without legal permission. It was outrageous to me to see how they betrayed the faith of our fathers. I participated in interrogating those people. They answered all our questions but refused to write anything down. We put pressure on them, threatened them, but nothing helped. It was very interesting they always finished the conversation with what God had done in their lives. We were very nervous because they were very calm and always talked about sin and about the love of God. You may know the theme of sin is the most unpleasant thing to talk about. That day I went home unhappy with myself and the whole world. Their case was given to the court, and they were sentenced — some were fined, and two people were imprisoned for 15 days. Deep in my heart, I knew they were not spies. I saw in their eyes they had a deep faith in their God. At that time I didn’t yet know that those people prayed for me. I kept trying to arrest those people, but I felt so bad in my heart. My relationship with my wife got worse. We were about to divorce. I lived life on a powder keg.
One day when I came to my mom’s house, I saw her Bible. I saw the same book in a Christian’s home who was sentenced. I was shocked my mom had that book. She said she read that book for about a year and believed in Christ. I started telling her that it was a very dangerous book and tried to convince her not to be a Christian and frighten her that because of her faith I might be fired from work. My mom was crying and said she prayed for me to come to Christ. I was shocked and started shouting at her. Seven days later I got into a car accident. I was drunk and crashed into a tree. I knew I should have died, but God was merciful to me. After that, I started reading the Bible. Now I pray and fellowship with other brothers, but most of all I thank God for saving me and being merciful to me.
Paul’s powerful postscript, “Remember my chains” (Colossians 4:18), is an appeal that could be made by persecuted Christians around the world today. Some are actually in prison. Others have the scars of their cross-bearing upon them. Others are in prison of another kind, where walls of intimidation, discrimination, and violent threats surround their families, churches, and livelihoods. Each would say to the brothers and sisters of their forever family, “Remember my chains.” But they would also remind us to look beyond the pain and chains and prison wall of fear to see unsurpassed joy and unending life.
This truth is beautifully summarized in a song I was taught many years ago by Christians in a borderland region in Southeast Asia where gospel opposition was hard on the heels of gospel advance. The lines drawn from Philippians 3 still thrill me and drive me to add my voice to this great cloud of witnesses worldwide:
I want to know Christ and the power of his rising,
Share in his sacrifice, conform to his death.
As I pour out my life to be filled with his Spirit,
Joy follows suffering, and life follows death.
- Tim Keesee, “A Letter to the Caliph,” Desiring God, July 28, 2014. ↩
- Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: Random House, 2003), 37. ↩
- Baroness Caroline Cox, “An Insurgency of Terror: The Crisis Facing Christians in Nigeria,” Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, November 2016. ↩
- David Alton and Michele Lombardo, Passion and Pain: The Suffering Church Today (Addlestone, UK: Jubilee Campaign, 2003), 1–2. ↩
- “World Watch List,” Open Doors. ↩
- Samuel Zwemer, The Unoccupied Mission Fields of Africa and Asia (London: Marshall Brothers, 1911), 90. ↩
- A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, vol. 5, Refiner’s Fire (London: Hodder & Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1984), 57. ↩
Tim Keesee is the founder and executive director of Frontline Missions International. He has traveled to more than ninety countries, reporting on the church. He is the executive producer of Dispatches from the Front and author of A Company of Heroes.