On Wednesday night, about 10 of us met at New Life to pray for the church in Chengdu, China, and all I could think of was what a privilege it was to be able to meet in our sanctuary freely and without fear of reprisal. That is not the case for all Christians in the world.
As has been widely reported (even in the New York Times), the Chinese authorities began a severe crackdown this past weekend on the church in the city of Chengdu, arresting dozens of people, shutting down the seminary (where I taught in July of this year and in November 2016) and Christian school, and sending people to education centers. As of Friday morning, some have been released, but others — including Wang Yi, the pastor of flagship church Early Rain — are still in custody. The pastor has been charged with “incitement to subvert state power,” which could receive a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Often American Christians have made the presumptuous mistake of thinking that believers in other nations are simply pupils to our teachers, but here is a case when we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in Chengdu. May God encourage our faith and resolve to honor Christ through the following anecdotes:
One of my former students has asked us to pray for the believers in Chengdu especially this Sunday, because those who do choose to go to church might be arrested, and they know it. But, she added, “we can’t stop worshipping!” These saints will go to church anyway. What a stunning example to American Christians who can be so fickle in their Sunday morning worship attendance. Earlier this week, many Christians met in small group fellowships throughout Chengdu— some were left alone, while others were visited by “government people” who told them to stop meeting.
One woman, whose husband is an elder at Early Rain and was among those arrested, wrote a letter to her husband the night after he was taken into custody. She wrote this:
"More than anything, my heart is joyful and at peace. At night, tears flow by themselves. But it’s not grief. It’s hard to say exactly what it is. I just spent a long time thinking about it, and I’m still thinking to myself, 'Why are you crying?' I finally asked myself, 'Aren’t you willing to experience this tiny little bit of pain for the Lord?' My conclusion was, 'I’m willing.' I’m very willing, because I know that this slight, momentary affliction is not worth comparing to that eternal glory that is to come."
As of Friday morning, the husband is still listed as in “criminal detention."
In some cases, police have been trying to force members of Early Rain to sign pledges that they would only worship at places that conform with Chinese law. That would essentially mean a promise not to worship at a Gospel-believing church. One member did write a pledge, and this is what it said: “I promise to only worship God at Christian meeting places that conform to the teachings of Scripture. I will never go to a meeting place that does not conform to the teachings of Scripture.”
A report from Early Rain yesterday mentioned that 10 police officers visited the home of one of Early Rain's church planters. Surveillance cameras have now been installed outside the door of his home and outside the door of the church. Another church planter was taken from his church along with his wife Wednesday night. Yet another church planter was told that if he continues to meet with his church, he will be detained. After such disturbing news was detailed, a prayer was offered:
"Lord, we can only give you the glory. This is a group of children you bore through the cross. They are joyfully willing to pay the price for their faith. They are willing to lay down their lives, not for themselves but for your Kingdom, to love souls and to hold fast to the calling to which you have called them."
As many as 50 people were being detained at “Xinjin Legal Education Center,” all being prepared to be deported back to their hometowns, and told not to come back to Chengdu. A report from Early Rain said these prisoners have been granted freedom of movement and have received “standard food and shelter,” for which we are thankful. While in custody, they were able to negotiate with their captors to have their Bibles returned to them, and by God’s grace were successful in this effort. Since then, they have been worshiping every morning and evening while in custody and are “very joyful." “The detention center has become a preaching grounds for the Lord’s gospel and a place for his people to worship. Glory to the Lord! May the Lord be glorified!"
Before being arrested, Pastor Wang Yi wrote a statement called “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience," to be distributed in the event of his indefinite detention. This statement has now been widely shared by social media, and should be read by every serious follower of Jesus. In the statement, Pastor Yi writes:
"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.”
These reports are inspiring, humbling and immensely glorifying to God. One can see how hardship inspires faith, and how persecution can grow the church. And although social media has been the occasion for some regrettable interactions here in the States, we can be thankful that through social media, we have been able to stay updated on the amazing work of God’s Spirit among his people on the other side of the world.
Perhaps these events will cause us to reexamine our hearts before God, as well as our willingness to submit to Christ’s lordship in every circumstance of our brief lives on this earth. I don’t know about you, but these reports make my own personal complaints seem pretty small, my devotion to Christ seem rather weak, and my readiness for persecution uncertain.
It could be that God will never require us to endure such hardship as is occurring in Chengdu at the moment. In fact, most Christians don’t face persecution of this magnitude. But if God does call us to this experience, never forget that it is always an honor to suffer dishonor for the name of Christ, who suffered so willingly and lovingly for us.