At a time when some American Christians feel persecuted by a perceived “war on Christmas,” it can be instructional and revelatory to consider the persecution faced by Christians in other countries. In China, for example, 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church were recently arrested, including senior pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong, as part of the Chinese government’s ongoing crackdown on independent churches.
In a prescient move, Pastor Wang wrote a “Declaration of Faithful Disobedience” that was to be published if he was detained for more than 48 hours. In it, he criticizes the government’s actions, explains the reasons for his disobedience, and discusses his hopes for China’s spiritual future. It is, quite simply, very powerful, inspiring, and convicting — especially if you might think Christianity is under widespread attack here in the States.
I’ve excerpted a few choice portions below (emphasis mine), but really, it would do you well to read the whole letter.
As a pastor of a Christian church, I have my own understanding and views, based on the Bible, about what righteous order and good government is. At the same time, I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist régime, at the wickedness of their depriving people of the freedoms of religion and of conscience. But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.
I accept and respect the fact that this Communist régime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily. As the Lord’s servant John Calvin said, wicked rulers are the judgment of God on a wicked people, the goal being to urge God’s people to repent and turn again toward Him. For this reason, I am joyfully willing to submit myself to their enforcement of the law as though submitting to the discipline and training of the Lord.
At the same time, I believe that this Communist régime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God. My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.
For the mission of the church is only to be the church and not to become a part of any secular institution. From a negative perspective, the church must separate itself from the world and keep itself from being institutionalized by the world. From a positive perspective, all acts of the church are attempts to prove to the world the real existence of another world. The Bible teaches us that, in all matters relating to the gospel and human conscience, we must obey God and not men. For this reason, spiritual disobedience and bodily suffering are both ways we testify to another eternal world and to another glorious King.
If God decides to use the persecution of this Communist régime against the church to help more Chinese people to despair of their futures, to lead them through a wilderness of spiritual disillusionment and through this to make them know Jesus, if through this he continues disciplining and building up his church, then I am joyfully willing to submit to God’s plans, for his plans are always benevolent and good.
If I am imprisoned for a long or short period of time, if I can help reduce the authorities’ fear of my faith and of my Savior, I am very joyfully willing to help them in this way. But I know that only when I renounce all the wickedness of this persecution against the church and use peaceful means to disobey, will I truly be able to help the souls of the authorities and law enforcement. 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.
If this régime is one day overthrown by God, it will be for no other reason than God’s righteous punishment and revenge for this evil. For on earth, there has only ever been a thousand-year church. There has never been a thousand-year government. There is only eternal faith. There is no eternal power.
Those who lock me up will one day be locked up by angels. Those who interrogate me will finally be questioned and judged by Christ. When I think of this, the Lord fills me with a natural compassion and grief toward those who are attempting to and actively imprisoning me. Pray that the Lord would use me, that he would grant me patience and wisdom, that I might take the gospel to them.
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.
Those last three paragraphs are particularly powerful. As Matt G. Metcalf tweeted, “My heart burned while reading it.” God bless and keep Pastor Wang Yi, his family, and his church. May their witness spread throughout China, and to the ends of the Earth.
I’ve had two additional thoughts while reflecting on Wang’s letter. First, as a person who lives in a country where there has long been a cozy relationship between Christianity and the government, Wang’s words are convicting. I consider living in America to be a great blessing, and one that I’m rightfully thankful for. But I sometimes wonder: to what extent has my being an American, with all of the freedoms and benefits that come with that earthly citizenship, weakened and softened my faith? Furthermore, to what extent has that aforementioned cozy relationship weakened and softened the American Church’s ability to be a prophetic voice for peace, justice, and mercy, both within its borders and to the rest of the world?
When I ask myself those questions, I admit that I’m troubled, and if I’m completely honest, a bit envious. I don’t want to lionize or glorify persecution nor do I want my family and friends to experience persecution for our religious beliefs. At the same time, however, when you read statements by those who are persecuted, like Wang Yi, their moral and spiritual clarity is undeniable and even enviable — and that clarity is no doubt due to the refinement of their faith that occurs a result of their suffering.
As the Bible puts it, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6 – 7).
Second, it’s interesting to read Pastor Wang’s thoughts concerning civil disobedience in light of movements here in America that use Christian beliefs to defend their efforts to bring about social and political change regarding various issues (e.g., systemic racism, the death penalty, abortion). He seems to dismiss that sort of thinking in statements like these:
- “Changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.”
- “[M]y personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is [not] in any sense ‘fighting for rights’ or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China.”
- “The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.”
I’m not writing this to criticize Wang’s perspective. Even if he’s not seeking social or political change, he certainly calls out the Chinese government’s persecution for what it is (“a greatly wicked, unlawful action”). Nor do I want to criticize those here in the States who believe that living an authentically Christian life requires them to be an advocate for social change. After all, many of the greatest moral advancements in our country’s history — e.g., the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement — had deeply Christian roots.
But maybe it’s simply worth noting that the Church’s witness and progress can’t look the same for every tongue and tribe, nor should it. What works in a post-Christian American society to advance the Gospel won’t work in a totalitarian Chinese state, and vice versa. At the very least, this should encourage Christians, regardless of their location and earthly citizenship, to be aware of how their brothers and sisters elsewhere struggle, and to pray for them.
One more thing: The Church in China is growing at a rapid rate. Some even believe that China will become the world’s most Christian nation by 2030. Some of this growth will be the result of government-sanctioned churches. But many Chinese Christians belong to underground “house churches” which aren’t registered with the government and, as a result, are denied many freedoms and face persecution because the Communist government sees them as a threat to its power.
All that is to say that in a few years, America’s Church will probably be eclipsed by China’s, and Christianity may no longer be seen as a “Western” religion. Which may be the best thing for the global Church, freeing it from the West’s imperialist and colonialist baggage, and opening up whole avenues for its continued growth. As Brian C. Stiller says in the aforelinked Christianity Today article, “When Jesus said He would build His Church, He surely had China in mind.”
American Christians could learn much from our Chinese brothers and sisters. We live in an age where so many American Christians are concerned about political power (hence the staunch Christian support for Trump and the Republican Party). It’s almost as if they believe the Church is doomed unless it’s acknowledged and validated by earthly authorities. The Chinese Church is proof that the Gospel can exist and even thrive when Christians have little-to-no access to the halls of power and instead, focus on the essentials (e.g., worship, community).