Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Signs of a Suffering Church: The Garments of Persecution

Guest Commentary by Rev. Dr. Wilfred A. Bellamy

We are not being alarmist, or conspiracy theoreticians, when we look at the tapestry of history, spread over time, and recognize again the signs of coming persecution for the Church of Jesus Christ. Because the persecution itself is not already upon us we may decide not to consider it, or reckon with it, but that doesn't mean that the tide of persecution is not gradually advancing. By ignoring the evidence there is a strong possibility that we will find ourselves unready and ill-prepared if persecution does come our way.

Persecution has historically worn a number of garments. It has appeared in the form of a required religious conformity, or in the persuasions of a political system that denied non-conformity. There have been times when economic stringency made being a Christian a daily struggle, to care for home and family, and to suffer discrimination. Many are the countries in which the sound of marching boots on a hard surface have been the precursor to suffering and imprisonment as the people of God have been called upon to stand firm in the truths they hold dear. The Church has had its martyrs throughout the ages and in several countries is having them even as we write.

The signs of a suffering Church are all around us. The News is replete with stories of myriad locations in which Christians are paying the ultimate price for their faith, while one type of marauder or another decimates their homes, or villages, and bombs their cities. This is not imagination. There is no fiction in the narrative. This is true. There are more Christians being persecuted for their faith, with the approval of the law, today, than ever occurred previously in the history of the world.

So why should we expect not to be included? Are we religiously protected? Do we imagine that the culture of tolerance and diversity that pervades American society will somehow protect us? Or can we anticipate that our own failure to be tolerant could lead to our persecution? Are we politically protected? A government of the people, and by the people, and for the people, must surely serve as a guardian to the freedoms of the people. Yet already our democratic neighbor to the North has discovered that a preaching Pastor will be prosecuted, under the law, if he broaches certain unapproved topics in his sermon. While further afield the defense of the Christian faith is interpreted as an offense to an alternate religion and that is not acceptable.

The soft under-belly of the Church is economic. She is seriously vulnerable where giving to the Church is tied to a tax benefit, and the local church itself is tax exempt, and Ministers of Religion have other certain tax advantages. Do we hope or imagine that this situation can continue unhindered for generations to come? Recent American history would deny that possibility. Already close scrutiny is being given to the economics of Christian organizations, and that will doubtless continue until a workable resolution is found ... one that can be implemented without too much of a national outcry. The squeeze to the family in the pew and to the organized church, will produce widespread economic hardship, forcing smaller congregations to close their doors.

This writer recalls a conversation with a Nigerian Pastor, some fifty years ago, in which the gentleman was startlingly prophetic when he stated that he believed that the primary task of a Minister in his country was to prepare the Church for persecution. This has been proven true in West Africa and is also true in many other countries of the world. Will it prove true in America? The signs are all around us. We must learn from history. We who stand week by week before the people of God who listens faithfully to our prepared messages from the Lord, must begin now, if we have not already done so, to prepare our people for persecution. We must so ground them in the truths of the Word of God, that by His grace, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, when they are called upon to stand, they will do so with indomitable courage and fortitude for Christ and His Gospel.

--Wilfred A. Bellamy, Ph.D. is the preaching supply pastor of Thomson Presbyterian Church in Thomson GA, an ordained minister, a former missionary to Nigeria, and the former Coordinator of the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.