“They will deliver you up to suffer and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. Then many will fall away, betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. Because lawlessness will increase, the love of many will grow cold, but the one who endures to the end will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Jesus, Matthew 24:9-14)
Whence we have come. The messianic Jewish movement, later called Christianity, was born in a dusty backwater of the Roman Empire. While the faith spread to other provinces through synagogues, it shared in Judaism’s legal status. However, when it broke out into Gentile populations, the movement became illegal and suffered three centuries of sporadic and regional opposition. Followers were fed to beasts for refusing to worship the emperor as god. 1000s were imprisoned and butchered, and their hand-copied Bibles were publicly burned. Nevertheless, messianic faith spread widely and prospered with neither a clergy class nor sacred sites. Only when legalized and made socially respectable did the movement begin its decline that would bring about a fossilized institution with a powerless “Christian” religion. Even so, the movement has always had within it a faithful remnant that resisted the apostasy.
It is certainly a pattern, if not a law, that the messianic movement grows fastest and farthest when persecuted. In England, “Bloody” Queen Mary had some 382 “dissenters” burned in public. In the mid-1940s and 50s, Communist regimes sought to exterminate Christianity by outlawing public and private worship, arresting and sometimes executing pastors and evangelists, banning publication and distribution of the Holy Bible. Thus, church planters in those countries had to break the law in order to obey their Lord Messiah, incurring the wrath of hostile and ignorant officials. Unnumbered 1000s were jailed and executed for daring to believe in Jesus. To this day, dominant religions and ideologies often suppress Jesus’ followers.
Where we are now. At the present moment in world history, Christ-obedient, Bible-oriented Christianity remains the fastest growing faith movement on earth, if not the most powerful. Every geopolitical country now has a Christian movement, even if no chapels, bible schools or vernacular Bible translation. However, this growth is happening at a cost. That cost is growing in the West, too, where public displays of Christian and biblical themes have become illegal and Christian organizations are systematically being excluded from participation in public, government and scientific forums.
Hate-filled atheists publicly ridicule the Bible, journalistic media promote godless evolutionary dogma, moviemakers glorify eastern mystical beliefs, homosexuals taut disgusting practices in schools, infanticide of the unborn runs into the millions, scholars present Jesus as a deluded, first-century rabbi, Canada bans portions of the Bible, and California universities deny admission to high-achieving, home-schooled students who hold biblical beliefs. Within a decade, some public officials predict, churches and religion-based schools will lose their tax-exempt status, and Christian clergy, already despised, will be subject to arrest for “corrupting” youth.
Whither we are going. Messianic Christian faith in the East and the West, the North and the South, must prepare now for legal, social, religious, governmental and financial opposition. Jesus ordered his followers, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” We who love Jesus more than our lives, who seek to obey his commandments above and before all else, may soon be plunged into indescribable confusion, if we are caught asleep.
Deprived of all privilege, respect and legal protection, followers who take seriously their Bible, their faith and their relationship with Jesus, may soon have no chapel in which to sit comfortably, no cleric preaching monologues to hear passively, no admission to government schools, no jobs without signing away our convictions, and no loudly-amplified worship music. Believers should not be surprised when denied jobs and education, their children seized by the state or recruited by antichristian religions, legally powerless to protect them or to defend themselves.
What to do?
Learn from our brothers and sisters in North Africa, the Middle East, across Asia and Eastern Europe. Their lessons are simple enough for a child to grasp, and the financial price remains nil.
Commit to love and obey Jesus Christ. He is more than the object and centre of our faith. He is our very life, both our loving Saviour and our sovereign King. Too many Christians have replaced such loving obedience with abstract ideas, popular psychology, frivolous emotionalism, institutional structures and rugged individualism.
Reaffirm biblical faith. Abstract theology, fascinating as it is, generally fails to inspire faith, motivate godly living, or provide spiritual power. Rationalistic beliefs about creation, God, baptism, communion, prayer and the life to come, must give way to trusting the Bible as literally true, spiritually powerful and entirely reliable in all that it teaches. We must become devoted to knowing the Bible and to obeying the New Testament, relying on the Holy Spirit to enable us.
Worship in spirit and truth. We must continually seek a balance between big worship “services” and little worship gatherings in which seekers and believers can practice community by serving one another in love with their ministry gifts. Pray one for another to lay hold of Jesus’ strength to overcome personal and social evil, while undertaking endless ways to serve families and communities.
Learn, obey and teach the Word of God. Let the New Testament serve as the believers’ authoritative guidebook that they may freely follow in ways that they and their God-given leaders agree.
Accept persecution with joy. Jesus promised that our joy would prove greater than the persecution, opposition and ridicule that unbelievers and other religions may heap upon us. Whilst we should never seek to be persecuted or abused, when it does happen, let the Spirit of Grace rest upon us. Many others will abandon their unbelief and hatred for Christ because of our godly reaction to injustice.
Plant and multiply little churches. Keep on making disciples of all who are willing, baptizing them, teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments in love, and forming them into little communities that worship Jesus, love one another, and serve their neighbours. Intentionally seek ways to help such little communities to start new ones, in turn.
Train leaders by coaching them. The hugely expensive Christian educational institutions cannot produce enough Christian workers. Unfortunately, many schools have abandoned biblical faith for rationalism while majoring in abstract ideas. Happily, the New Testament teaches a method of mentoring new leaders that can and must keep up with a rapid multiplication of new, little churches.
Saturate society with believers. Do so continually and quietly, planting new little churches in every social group and inside every institution. A clear New Testament promise for effectiveness in evangelism is found in 1 Corinthians 14:24 & 25, which urges us to worship in gatherings that are small enough for all to participate actively, where visiting unbelievers will be convinced of their need for Messiah. The greatest ingathering of new believers in the history of the West is about to begin. It is already underway in the East and the South.
Summary of Guidelines to Work Underground
Relating to government—maintain security and secrecy.
Avoid writing in codes unless you really know what you’re doing.
Don’t give out an unsafe address or leave a paper trail.
Don’t attend house churches if you’re a foreigner.
Keep identities secret.
Work where local officials do not control or observe your movements.
In church life—small is beautiful.
Develop small group worship style.
Take initiative to establish contacts to evangelize (distrust ‘seekers’ who seek you out.)
For leadership training—coaching.
Use the 2 Timothy 2:2 dynamic.
Use curriculum that lends itself to mentoring and reproducing.
Organization—keep a low profile.
Avoid large networks.
Social life—prove ‘believable’
Have a real tentmaking vocation (not a phony cover).
Avoid making enemies of any kind.
Be prepared to live under a cloud of distrust.
Lonely people seek someone to talk to; secret police love to offer the sympathetic ear.
Bond with the people and local culture.
Economic life—fit into the local economic system.
If you have a business, let it make money.
Small businesses (low capital, low tech, labor intensive) and development work provide good tentmaking vocations. Large businesses give opportunity for evangelism but seldom for reproductive, indigenous church planting.
Either the business or the development project must be of a kind that lets you or your coworkers mingle with the common people.
For a business, let trained and experienced business people oversee the business.
Let trained and experienced cross-cultural church planters oversee church planting.
Work together in loving harmony, as seen in 1 Cor. 12-13.