© 2019 Robert Osburn
Worldwide, Christians are the single most persecuted religious group worldwide. This fact was confirmed by a Pew Center report issued just last week that focused on government restrictions and social hostility against religious groups.
China is one of the places where government restrictions have been increasing for the past five years at least. What I have noticed about US Christians is that we tend to idealize, or paint an unrealistic picture of the persecuted church in places like China. We think that external opposition cements unity within the church. That’s not always the case, and persecuted churches are sometimes far from rosy.
But why do we persist in idealizing them? Why do painful torture, social ostracism, long imprisonments, and, sometimes, often-cruel death lead to rhetorical exaggerations like those behind this story on the number of Christians executed each year for their faith?
As Calvin University scholar Li Ma discovered during a decade’s worth of interviews in China, the Chinese church is very complex story but we Western Christians tend to distill their story into a single narrative of “persecution.” In doing so, we overlook a lot of messy details that sound like some of our ugly church fights, sexual scandals involving church leaders, “he said/she said,” and general tawdriness unbefitting the Bride of Christ.
As Ma carefully and exhaustively documents in her case study of a famous Chinese church, Religious Entrepreneurism in China’s Urban House Churches (2019), the church’s pastoral leadership, especially pre-eminent leader Yi Wang, is embroiled in all of these sad realities that afflict American churches. Persecution glamor loses almost all of its sheen in this scholarly work that details petty infighting among pastors, Yi Wang’s aggressive posturing that pokes fingers in the eyes of Chinese political leadership, a horrific church trial, open pirating of copyrighted Christian texts, complex enmities, and all within the Christian community in one corner of China.
But, lest I throw stones, let me briefly tell the personal story of a once-ideal American church that fell prey to a few of the same dynamics.
46 years ago, while in seminary, I became involved as a lay leader in what was at the time one of America’s most innovative evangelical churches. There was, indisputably, a wonderful work of God in that church, but when encouraged (in Spring 1978) to write the story of our church’s great successes, the lead pastor hesitated, thinking it too early to tell a story that could sour someday.
His prescience was justified. About three years later the church experienced a wrenching split that would come to be known as “Black Sunday.” Little more than three more years later, the associate pastor who had emerged “victorious” in 1981 went on to commit a foul crime (for which he has since fully repented) that led directly to more than a decade as a prisoner in one of his state’s most well-known prisons. (Ironically, the Chinese pastor at the heart of Li Ma’s story is detained by Chinese authorities as I write.)
Besides the realization that all of us in Body of Christ find ourselves occasionally enrolled in the School of Humility by such church scandals, we still need an answer to the question posed at the beginning of the article: Why idealize persecuted churches?
I think there are several factors. First, we want stories of valiance and heroism that avert our gaze upon the sinfulness of our heroes. As humans, we are desperate for heroes, even more so when we read important works like Li Ma’s. For example, I love to tell the grand story of William Wilberforce’s heroism, especially his valiant fight against slavery and the slave trade. He isa hero, but he had feet of clay. Not only was he almost reckless with money (usually erring on the side of generosity), but he was, well…the only word is addicted to opium (there were no other known ways of controlling physical pain at that time). As much as we want to exalt our heroes, the only one completely devoid of our tragic sinfulness is Jesus Christ.
I think a second reason that we idealize the persecuted church, for example in China, is that we like our stories to be simple and straightforward. Author Ma could have been more generous toward journalist June Cheng when Ma writes that “internal power struggles did not interest” Cheng, a journalist for World magazine. Cheng was trying to tell a complex story for an American audience enamored by simplicity. Rather, human beings’ “leftover beauty” (Edith Schaeffer’s term for God's image imprinted on all of us who are also tragically sinful) means the stories of the persecuted church are inevitably more complex than a reporter can ever unpack. Paul’s letters to churches, and not least the Book of Acts, reveal tremendous complexity in church life.
A third reason that we idealize the persecuted church, whether in China or elsewhere, is that most of us would like to imagine a better church reality than what many of us experience stateside. Those of us in the sometimes scandalous, occasionally glorious Western church often realize that, for all the secular opposition we sometimes face in our universities, for example, we live a rather predictable, all-too-often complacent church existence. The drowsy sermon, the church members with personality problems, the bruising fight over the color of the church carpet, the songs we sing….There has to be a better example of church elsewhere on the globe!
Utilizing concepts developed in the world of sociology, Dr. Ma has carefully pulled back the covers, sometimes in excruciating detail, on a painful church experience in a place where churches should be refined because of persecution.
There never was a perfect church. There never will be.
Better than idealize Chinese Christians, let us pray for one another and, with at least a portion of Li Ma’s rigor, let us face honestly the good and the bad in our churches. I suspect that the sunshine that results will genuinely help renew our churches. We have Dr. Ma to thank for an outstanding work of scholarship that fosters realism instead of idealism while leaving intact the glory of Jesus Christ, the church’s Bridegroom.