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Independent Local Churches & Growing Persecution
Introductory argument against the need for ‘federation' by independent local churches in India , in face of renewed religious persecution, in order to present a forceful united voice to Government authorities.
The growing persecution of Christians across international boundaries in country after country is currently a major concern of both the local Christian communities and the whole global Christian profession. Rape, harassment, and martyrdom has raised its ugly head again in India where only a few years ago Australian missionary Graham Staines was incinerated alive with his two little sons by Hindu zealots in the state of Orissa. In the same Orissa State within the past year anti-Christian violence has flared up again with scores of Christian churches being torched and Christians slaughtered or forced to deny their faith!
What should be the attitude of Christians towards this on-going oppression? Why has it happened and what is the Christian response?
In the nature of assemblies seeking to follow New Testament principles, they stand essentially alone in their individual entities. They have no confederated voice or energy. They appear insignificant and irrelevant to both national and local authority where in any given location they are simply one small religious group – easily overlooked and marginalised!
The answer of some sincere brethren to this situation is that the status and presence of such congregations need to be elevated and then combined to make their voice heard by the powers that be. They need an authoritative corporate voice to be able to call for protection from actual physical attack, and financial support for legal representation in cases of unjust litigation against them. So the case for some kind of confederation is presented as an answer to this very real predicament. But while a ‘confederation' of isolated and independent local churches may appear to be the logical and human answer to the problem, is it the spiritual and biblical answer?
New Testament Pattern
It is significant that in the face of the severest persecution of the early Church age, represented historically by the early letters to the seven churches (Rev. 2 + 3), the churches are still seen in their individual entities as far as the Lord of the churches is concerned! No confederation of the churches is suggested by scripture anywhere, as a response to persecution. The ‘seven churches' were always that – seven individual lampstands on their own individual bases!
The fact of harassment, persecution and martyrdom is explicit and actual in Christian communities across continents and nations in our present day world. The apostle Peter forewarned the Christians of all ages not to think it strange should fiery trials beset them. “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you…but rejoice, inasmuch as you are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when His glory shall be revealed, you may be glad also with exceeding joy ” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Heavenly wisdom, instruction and strong consolation from the Bible await the believer who is counted worthy to suffer for Christ's sake. The Christian, illuminated by Holy Scripture, knows that the ‘secret power of lawlessness' (2 Thessalonians 2:7) has been working in opposition to God in the world from apostolic days, and part of that ‘mystery' is the bitter persecution levelled against the testimony of God through an alienated world system controlled by one malicious master-mind. John says of that wicked one, “And we know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power [control] of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19 ESV).
The Apostle Paul, elaborates even further when he writes to the church at Ephesus , “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ). So, the Biblical view about all those who persecute the disciples of Christ is that they are spiritually blinded and deceived by fallen, supernatural spirit powers. Against these the Christian engages in a spiritual warfare . He knows the deceived human (flesh and blood) channels of persecution are not the real foes in this warfare. The screaming mob, the threatening crowd, the beatings, the stones, the fire – all this is evidence of Satanic activity, and the human channels are viewed by a compassionate Christianity as subjects for prayer, tolerance, and pity. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Divine Answer: - Spiritual Powers of Heaven
So the answer to persecution is never seen in scripture as a show of corporate strength by the local churches. Christ did not need Peter's sword ( Mt. 26. 51-54) for protection when He had legions of angels poised to defend Him. And that is the Christian's recourse still today, not the arm of the flesh in confederated energy, but reliance upon the unseen but real spiritual powers of Heaven – come what may (compare Dan. 3. 16-18 and complete submission to the will of God in the circumstance whatever that may be)!
It is this meek submission in face of severe persecution even unto martyrdom that breaks the heart of the persecutor! It wasn't a forceful confederated group of churches that moved Saul of Tarsus! It was the sight of Stephen kneeling there amidst that hail of murderous stones (Acts 7. 59-60), and praying and crying with a loud voice, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” that broke his heart! It was those forgiving words that so tortured Saul day and night ever after, and brought him eventually to repentance and salvation. That an innocent man of such noble bearing, could in the very act of being ruthlessly murdered by such a hate-filled rabble, both intercede for them and pray for their forgiveness, stabbed knives into his conscience. So it is still today! There is a real sense in which meekness and non-resistance to evil is a greater moral persuader than vengeful retaliatory force or the power of church confederation could ever be! In the spiritual realm of Christian ethics, as taught and exemplified by our Lord Jesus Christ, it most certainly is.
Far better than a move to federation in face of persecution and discrimination, is the scriptural appeal to prayer and committal of our cause to God. In his First Epistle Peter writes of the example left to us by Christ, “Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously” (1 Peter 2:23).
This is the Christian's recourse in the face of persecution, harassment, injustice and terrorisation. Wrong is wrong and evil is evil. He does not condone the wickedness done to him because he refuses to resist it: he does what the disciples of John the Baptist did when Herod cruelly beheaded their defenceless and righteous leader; when they had buried his body, “they went and told Jesus” (Matthew 14:12). So our recourse still is, to “tell Jesus.” The Christian commits his cause to Him that judgeth righteously. God the righteous Judge will avenge His persecuted saints in due course in that, “day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God; who will render to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:5). The Christian way is to leave the outcome of injustice, slander, persecution and all evil done, to God, the Judge of all.
This is not to prejudice the Christian's right to appeal, and appeal legitimately, to his Civil and Constitutional rights vis-à-vis unlawful actions against him. Both Paul (Acts 22:25 -29), and the Lord Himself (John 18:23 ), drew attention to unlawful actions made against them. Paul also appealed to his citizenship rights under Roman law (Acts 25:10-12). That is not, however, in the same category as a humanly conceived plan to confederate the assemblies in order to gain official recognition of our plight!
Individual appeal to Constitutional rights is allowable, both as a deterrent to and safeguard against further unlawful harassment or hurt, and to emphasise the legal and moral guilt of the persecutor. Often our Indian believers have repeatedly stood their ground when publicly harassed by extremist groups seeking to intimidate them and force them to cease witnessing. They have courageously appealed to their legitimate, constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom to practise and propagate their faith; they have also sought the protection of the police whose duty it is to uphold the State Constitution and protect its citizens when their Constitutional rights are infringed. Often, however, they have been arrested by the very authority who ought to have protected them, on the ground that it was they, who, by their proclamation of the Gospel were offering a provocation and thus disturbing the peace! In such a case they have done their duty by the law, and from that moment are cast upon the Providence of God for justice and protection, and may go no further by way of retaliation.
Confederation in the long term
No matter how appealing the concept of confederation is in the short term, in the long term it would prove absolutely disastrous to the principle of autonomy or independence for the local assemblies. While giving local churches a more concentrated and seemingly stronger voice with the central government or local authorities, federation would have crossed the strict boundary of obedience to the scriptural pattern. It would be a move away from God's design for His churches in favour of the ideas of human expediency! Nothing could be more dangerous than challenging the wisdom of God in this critical matter!
Once a federation of local assemblies was established, no matter how reassuring the promises that it would not hinder the expression of local autonomy – in practice it most definitely would! An organisation would have displaced the organism! Man's institution would challenge the divine constitution! An inevitable centralisation of control and command would quickly be put in place. No doubt initially, it may be, very competent and even spiritually minded administrators would guide the new federation. However, it would not be long before strong-minded, unspiritual, and ruthless power-hungry men would begin to take over the churches of God, and control would pass into the hands of men who would silence all protest, and consolidate their power by despotic rule! History repeatedly teaches the bitter lesson of turning from the rock foundation of divine revelation to the shifting sands of human reasoning! The whole structure will sooner or later collapse - and great will be the fall of it!
Let our Indian local assemblies be duly warned, and refuse to shift from the principle of local church autonomy they have received as a legacy from their spiritual fathers. It has proved a blessing up to now – and will continue so to be as we honour God and submit to His holy and inspired Word. Amen and Amen!