Part A | Part B | Part C | Part D



Part A

As we have seen in previous lessons, the most common way for the church to express its faith in western societies has been through the institutional pattern. Consequently, this is the only pattern with which many Christians are familiar. But this form can be easily eliminated by a repressive government and it is difficult to maintain in other hostile environments. Let us consider some of the options that might be open to you, if you and your fellow believers were living under the rule of those who were trying to repress Christianity.

  1. You might submit to the oppression, allow your church to cease to exist and your faith to die. Of course, no real Christian would plan to follow this option. But many have followed it by default, when the crisis came and they were unprepared. If we do not think through our position in Christ, and determine His leading in advance, we could end up in this category, in spite of good intentions.
  2. You and your church may decide to continue to operate as close to the old patterns as the authorities will permit, submitting to all of their demands. We call this a "Co-existing Church." We discussed in the last lesson the pattern of gradually tightening restrictions which are often used by repressive authorities. Yet a weak, feeble church is often allowed to exist. In the Soviet Union, the Orthodox church leader was selected by the Communist government, and he was not even a professing Christian before his appointment! Yet the church accepted his appointment! In China, one Catholic church and one Protestant church are allowed to remain open even throughout the Cultural Revolution, but very few Chinese dared to attend. North Vietnam provides another good example of a church that attempted to exist within the old patterns under a repressive government. The Evangelical church of Hanoi still stands, but it has no outreach. On the inside walls of the buildings are pictures of Ho Chi Minh. On the outside there is government propaganda. Attendance is small and consists primarily of old people. No young people are allowed to be trained for future ministry, as the government believes that the "need" for religion will die out with the older generation. The pastor claims that there are evangelistic meetings and baptisms, but no outsider has ever observed them. The Communists have used this one church for the past five decades to "prove" they permit religious freedom.
  3. Another pattern that you might consider, which Christians in some hostile environments have used, is that of the "Protest Church." This type of church attempts to openly resist the authorities. If the government orders that all meetings must secure prior permission, the Christians defy the order and hold "illegal" meetings. If the government seizes their building, they hold outdoor meetings. Many of the martyrs of the church in the 20th Century have come from this group. They have determined to resist the government and are willing to pay the price. We can be justly proud of Christians who have the courage to stand against such adversity. However, the "protest" pattern needs special conditions, such as the following:

a. If the governmental restrictions against Christianity are arbitrary and not essential to the long-range aims of the government, these protests may result in their being changed. But as we have noted earlier, in a Communist state, this is not the case. Resistance may delay the government, but Communism cannot tolerate Christianity in the long run (e.g., Ethiopia).

b. If a large percentage of the people are Christians, and protest becomes popular, the government may be forced to make some concessions (e.g., Poland).

c. If Christianity has existed in the country for many generations and is broadly understood, so that untrained laymen can be found to replace leaders removed by the government, the protests may continue for an extended period. (e.g., U.S.S.R.)

If you and your Christians friends should realize that continued expression of your faith in traditional patterns is impossible, you may choose to go "underground." By this, we mean that to continue to function as a biblical church, as explained in Lesson I, you cannot do it openly. Is the "underground" approach cowardly? Should Christians be willing "to take a stand" and be ready to face the persecution that will follow? Perhaps. But it may be that the Holy Spirit will lead different individuals to follow different patterns, even in the same country. We will consider some scripture in Part B, and to try to establish some biblical principles.

Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. Why do you think most Christians prefer to work with the co-existing church?

2. What are some disadvantages of the underground church?

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Part B

In Luke 9, the disciples complained to the Lord Jesus that some other men who were not of their group were ministering in Jesus’ name. The disciples had forbidden them to continue, but Jesus said, "Do not stop them...for whoever is not against you is for you." (Lk. 9:50). Peter found this a very hard lesson to learn. The Lord had to deal with him very specifically through a vision and a dramatic experience before he could say, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right." (Acts 10:9-48). The Apostle Paul enlarged on this idea in Romans 14. He summarized his teaching when he said, "Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?" (Rom. 14:4). "You then, why do you judge your brother? ... for we will all stand before God’s judgment seat." (Rom. 14:10). He even approved of the preaching of some who had a wrong motive, but were still preaching the Gospel! (Phil. 1:12-18). Scriptures clearly teach that divisions in the body should not come about due to different leaders, although they may lead in different ways (I Cor. 1:11-17). We should be very careful about rejecting someone simply because they do not serve the Lord in the same way we do. If we quietly go about the work the Lord has given us, we need not be overly concerned about how others feel led to serve Him.

Now let us consider various ways people in the Bible reacted to oppressive authorities:

1. Samuel. When the Lord had told him to anoint the future king, Samuel was afraid. So the Lord showed him how to cover what he was doing without telling a lie! (I Sam. 16:1-5).

2. Elijah. On one occasion, he boldly defied the king (I Kings 17:1). On another he was led of the Lord to run and hide. (I Kings 17:3).

3. Esther. In this beautiful Old Testament account Esther became the queen, and did not even reveal to her husband, the King, that she was Jewish. But at the proper time she rendered very important service to her people, even risking her life.

4. Daniel. In book of Daniel, he and his three friends boldly faced death in defying the king, but God protected them. (Daniel 3 & 6).

5. Jesus. In John's Gospel account, Jesus avoided the Jewish rulers, and even hid Himself one occasion. (Jn. 11:54; 8:59).

6. Peter and John. The authorities ordered them not to preach, but they refused to obey. (Acts 4:18-20).

7. Paul. He was especially flexible in the face of opposition. Sometimes he fled (Acts 9:23-31), sometimes he went to prison (Acts 14:19-20), sometimes he called upon God for miracles (Acts 13:10-11). But in all cases he allowed the Holy Spirit to show him what to do. He was guided by this principle, "I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some." (I Cor. 9:22).

8. The early church. Throughout the book of Acts we see individual churches expressing their faith in a variety of patterns. It is important to realize, however, that when a church or individual follows the leading of the Lord, it does not guarantee deliverance. In the book of Hebrews (chapter 11) we see some faithful saints delivered, and some allowed to suffer. The key seems to be obedience and flexibility under the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The extreme flexibility of the church and individual Christians in these biblical examples is evident in their responses to persecution. Compare the church at Jerusalem and the church at Antioch, for example. The church at Jerusalem was made up primarily of Jewish converts. They continued to express their faith in the traditional Jewish ways, in so far as these traditions did not nullify the Gospel. The church at Antioch was made up of Gentile converts who did not have the background of Jewish traditions. Their fellowship grew up with a less ritualistic style. A conference was called in Jerusalem to determine whether the Antioch church should be required to follow the Jewish traditions. After a lengthy discussion it was decided that Gentile Christians should be free to express their faith as the Lord led, with a few small limitations, while the Jerusalem church continued in its Jewish traditions (Acts 15:1-35; 21:17-26). Keep in mind that the church of New Testament times was a church in a hostile environment. The Roman government encouraged persecution throughout the whole western world. Yet Christianity triumphed and outlived its persecutors! Please consider again the various options in Part C.

Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. In the examples given, what were the limits of flexibility? [Refer to Acts 15:29].

2. What are some man made "limits of flexibility" you have seen in practice?

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Part C

Those that seek to operate as a "Co-existing Church" may become merely a propaganda tool of the government, but the known leaders often have little choice. They must cooperate with the government, or they will be imprisoned. The civil authorities will be the ones to decide if this type of church will be allowed to exist. You can be certain that if its existence is tolerated, the reason is that it is serving some purpose the authorities desire. The authorities will infiltrate this type of church at all levels, and use it as they see fit. The church finds itself in the position of attempting to please the government and remain true the teaching of scripture in its public witness. Those who attempt to co-exist are usually held suspect by both the government and the other Christian groups. It is a very difficult position for true Christians, but it may be that they can serve a real purpose through their public witness. We should uphold the co-existing church in prayer, asking the Lord to keep their witness clear and to prevent them from being a hindrance to other Christians.

The "Protest Church" can have a beautiful witness, as long as it survives. Review the three conditions that make this option possible. In many Asian and middle eastern countries these conditions do not exist. In some countries a protest church movement survived only very briefly following the takeover of the country by anti-Christian forces. In North Korea, for example, although there was a strong Christian minority before World War II, it is very difficult to identify any Christian movement there at the present time. It is possible that there is an underground church, but no protest church exits any longer.

In Myanmar [formerly known as Burma], the Christian movement was a strong minority, and it has continued to function. In fact, all three options of Christian Church mentioned above can be found in that country today. But it claims to be a Socialist, not a Communist, state. General Ne Win's government was not committed to the complete eradication of religion, as were the traditional Communists. Christians are under heavy pressure in Myanmar, however, and many leaders have been arrested because the government claims the Christians are partners with those forces fighting against its authority.

In Nepal, the situation is quite different. The state religion is Hinduism. Christianity is theoretically permitted, but Christians are not supposed to make converts of Hindus. Christians there have protested this restriction for years and attempted to find ways around it.

The "Underground Church" may seem less glamorous, but it has able to continue in some heavily restricted countries for many years. Known leaders, whether clergy or layman, were not able to follow this option, but small groups are rarely noticed by the authorities. Often "house churches," "cell groups" or "family churches" can remain underground for an extended period of time, and even regroup once they are discovered. These small fellowships, usually 2 to 8 adults, can arrange brief meetings to encourage one another and carry on the functions of the church. The Christians in China can teach us many beautiful lessons about this kind of Christian life. They have learned to encourage one another with a simple nod as they meet in the fields, or in a quiet gathering as they "sing" the words of a song soundlessly together. They can sometimes identify one another simply by their love and concern for others. They pray that their lives will radiate such peace that troubled friends and neighbors will seek them out and they will have the opportunity to share Christ.

Of course, the "underground" Christians must also be ready to face persecution if they are discovered. But their quiet lives of faith will have well equipped them for that possibility. If the underground churches really make a clean break with the institutional style meetings, they will be very difficult for the authorities to destroy. Groups must be kept small, and as the Holy Spirit leads others to join a church, it should be divided. It is best for groups to be in a small geographical area. If the group is discovered it may be punished for holding an illegal meeting, but the authorities may not realize it as a church, and the members can simply scatter and begin small meetings again in other places. In China, many Christians who worship the Lord in underground fellowships do not want to even know the names of other Christians outside their own group. They feel that they cannot be pressured to reveal things they do not know. On the other hand, some Chinese Christian groups like to gather informally in public places on holidays, just for the encouragement. They do nothing that would identify them as Christians or single out their group. They just enjoy seeing many people that they know are secret Christians.

The most serious limitation of the "Underground Church," however, is the fact that in a society where most born again believers are "underground," very few of the populous will ever come face to face with the claims of Christ! While even underground Christians must be open to the Lord’s leading to share Christ selectively, it becomes the special responsibility of Christians in the free world to see that every possible means, such as international Christian radio, in used to take the gospel across the borders to the masses of every closed and restricted country.

Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. Of the three options given (co-existing church, protest church, underground church), well known Christian leaders can really only participate in two. Why?

2. Review the three conditions that are necessary for the protest church to be able to exist. Do either point two or point three apply to your home area?

3. What could you be doing now to be prepared to function as an underground church in the future?

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Part D

While the leaders of the Co-existing Church and the Protesting Church are constantly watched, the lay witnesses of the Underground Church have more freedom to move about, and often other small cells spring up from their cautious witness. We must remind ourselves, however, that all three of these options may be valid expressions of Christian faith. One group should not allow itself to turn against the others simply because they are expressing their faith in different manner. Sometimes the Lord leads a group to change its approach. A Protest Church may be so persecuted that its lay members quietly become an underground fellowship, or an underground group may be exposed to the authorities and it must become a protest church. And there may be other options being followed in restricted countries of which we are not even aware. The Holy Spirit is not limited. He may lead you and your fellowship into a different form or into a combination of these forms. Some Co-existing Churches quietly encourage cell groups and house churches among their members.

These combinations are found in many countries. Once we are aware that the Holy Spirit may be leading some Christians to co-exist, some to protest, and some to go underground, it will be easier to love and respect all Christians. Too often the attacks of one Christian group upon another have become good propaganda material for the repressive authorities. Of course, there can be no fellowship with those who deny Christ or pervert the gospel, but if a professing believer breaks under persecution and denies the Lord, other believers should try to be understanding. They must note the failure, and be very cautious in future contacts with that person. But no public attack or display of righteous indignation is needed. If love and respect can be maintained between all Christians, the possibilities for mutual assistance are greatly increased. One big benefit will be simply the encouragement of knowing that your church fellowship is not standing alone.

One of the tricks that the Communists liked to use against Christians was to try turn them against each other and break down their fellowship. In China in the years before the Cultural Revolution when there were still some open Christians, it became standard policy that two known Christians would not be allowed to work together. In Vietnam, the churches that have been allowed to remain open are widely scattered and it was very difficult for Christians to get together. Inter-church retreats and rallies were forbidden. The Communists realized that the less Christians were allowed to fellowship, the more likely they would begin to doubt that others were staying true to the Lord, and their own faith would be weakened. According to Jesus teaching, Christians are to be known for their love for one another (Jn. 13:35). If we are faithful to this principle, the enemy will not be able to turn us against one another, and our church will survive victoriously!

Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. Why is it important to realize that other Christians may react to oppression in other ways than we do, and both of us be right?

2. Discuss this guideline used by a Christian group in China, "Love all brothers in Christ. Trust only those you know have stood the testing."

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