Monday, April 03, 2006

Reality Check

Over the weekend I read a couple of articles that really challenged me and made me think. I'm not sure why these articles had such an impact on me; I've read several accounts of persecution before that were just as brutal as these. Perhaps all of the attention I have been giving to the various issues related to the IMB and the interaction I have had with some of our international missionaries have attuned my heart more closely toward what is happening with the church overseas. Regardless of the underlying reasons, these two articles (actually they are way too brief to be articles) really spoke to me. I have summarized them in the following two paragraphs.

In late January, Alliance Church pastor Timothy Ariao and his wife Delia Juebas were ambushed and killed while traveling to a church gathering in the South Cotabato province of the Philippines. This was the most recent in a series of attacks against Christians in that country over the past several years.

Last October, three teenage Christian girls were beheaded by Islamic extremists in the Central Sulawesi province of Indonesia. In a display of Christlike love, the parents of the girls have publicly declared their forgiveness of those who murdered the girls. Their pastor has said that the deaths of these teenage martyrs were not in vain because they have brought unity to the Christian churches in the area and encouraged believers to be strong in the faith.

Sadly, such stories are not rare. In many parts of the world being a follower of Jesus is not merely inconvenient or uncomfortable---it is DANGEROUS. Things that we as American Christians do as a matter of routine---drive to a church service or simply go somewhere in public---put many of our brothers and sisters around the world in harm's way. The danger is by no means limited to native Christians in other countries. Many missionaries who are serving Christ overseas face similar dangers, as news reports in recent years have reminded us. In the past five years eight Southern Baptist missionaries have been killed in the Philippines, Yemen, and Iraq. I have no idea how many missionaries from other denominations have also given their lives for the gospel. In many parts of the world, spiritual warfare is manifested in physical acts of violence against believers.

Here in America it is quite safe and even comfortable to be a Christian. Our idea of persecution is to be made fun of or caricaturized by the media and Hollywood. Sure, this is unpleasant, but it is far from dangerous. And in America there are some perks to being a Christian. If you want to run for public office, it can be beneficial to refer to yourself as a Christian. That would be the death knell for your campaign (or your life) in many countries. If you own a business, you can attract some additional customers if you publicize it as a Christian-owned business. All in all, we have it pretty good as American Christians. Perhaps we have it too good.

Our comfort and prosperity have given us a distorted idea of what it means to be a Christian. American Christianity is largely characterized by individualism and consumerism. We take care of ourselves. If we don't get what we want, we change churches or abandon the church altogether. Our idea of sacrificing for the gospel is to slip an extra ten or twenty in the plate when special offerings for missions are collected. Our attitudes and our actions reveal that we see ourselves not as Christians who happen to be American, but as Americans who happen to be Christian.

I believe that one of the results of comfortable Christianity has been an increased tendency to separate ourselves from other believers for just about any reason. Sometimes we divide because of relatively minor doctrinal differences, such as the nature of the end times or whether women can teach men. [NOTE: I definitely believe there ARE core doctrines that must serve as lines of distinction between us and others. I am not referring to divisions made on the basis of these doctrines, but over what we often call non-essentials.] More often we separate because of differences in tradition or personal preference. Possibly the main reason we break away from other believers is because of personal disputes that are never resolved. Why do we separate over matters such as these? Part of the reason is that we really don't believe we need each other. We feel like we can get along just fine without certain other believers. We think that we can just fellowship with and cooperate with those who believe exactly (or almost exactly) as we believe and still do what God has called us to do. This is certainly not unique to the American church, but it is quite prevalent here.

But what if it weren't so comfortable or acceptable to be a Christian? What if we suffered severe persecution or economic deprivation because of our faith? Would we be so willing to disassociate ourselves from other believers? Somehow I don't think so. I believe that if we lived in a country where being a Christian placed our lives in danger that we would be far more willing to fellowship with and cooperate with fellow believers who have a different understanding of the end times or the proper role of women in ministry or whether the practice of tongues is legitimate. We would count it a privilege to worship with other Christians who sing a style of music we do not particularly care for. We would strive for reconciliation with a brother or sister when one of us offended or was offended by the other instead of turning away from him or her. Our common hardships and struggles would make it more likely that we would realize that we need each other. We would be more apt to recognize that despite our differences we are all in this together, serving the same Lord. We would be much closer to living out the unity that Jesus prayed for His followers to have.

I'm not a prophet, but I believe that if we do not make a sincere effort to pursue this unity among ALL of us as believers then the Lord may take steps to push us in that direction. It wouldn't be the first time He did something like that. In Acts 1 Jesus told His disciples to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Well, they did really well on the Jerusalem part, and maybe on the Judea part, but they hadn't made any movement toward Samaria, let alone the rest of the world. So what happened? Persecution came to the Jerusalem church. This persecution drove many of the believers out of Jerusalem and Judea into Samaria and other regions, where they shared the gospel and established churches. Who's to say that the Lord won't allow us to taste persecution to make us come together? As the Indonesian pastor in the article said, the killing of those three Christian girls brought unity to the chruches in the area. I pray that it won't take something so drastic to bring us together.

1 comment:

Kevin Bussey said...

I think you are right about individualism. I hope that is changing.