Satan is always seeking to destroy the church, but his strategy updates with the times.
Back when Voice of the Martyrs founder Rev. Richard Wurmbrand spent 14 years in a Romanian prison under Cold War Communists for practicing his Christian faith, the persecutors were easy to identify: They were the ones who were trying to kill the Christians and crush the church.
Today the opponents of Christianity are harder to identify. In places like China and North Korea, they present themselves not as opponents of the faith but rather as its most principled and enlightened proponents.
What the governments (and government-sponsored theologians) in these countries oppose, they say, is not Christianity but rather the captivity of Christianity to Western imperialism. They contend that when citizens in their countries get involved with Westernized Christianity, they become belligerent toward indigenous religions and ideologies, refusing to cooperate with their own government’s efforts to promote good citizenship, religious co-existence, and a better future for all. They become, in other words, bad citizens. In this way of thinking, in order for Christianity to become a positive social force in China and North Korea, the state must ensure that Christianity stops behaving like a foreign import and instead develops as a domestic product. Christianity must “de-Westernize” and—in the terminology favored by the Chinese government and its state-sponsored theologians—”Sinicize”.
This kind of talk finds a sympathetic ear among the general global public these days. The “Sinicization” of Christianity seem like a courageous cultural “me-too” movement, where Chinese Christians can finally reject the unwanted centuries-old advances of the white male Western theologians and churches whose money and power have long silenced Chinese voices and Chinese ways of encountering and worshiping the Christian God.
The idea that the main problem with Christianity is Christians is hardly new. Even the idea that Christianity in places like China and North Korea must find its voice through liberation from its Western imperialist roots has a long history. Rev. Wurmbrand ended up in prison in part because he was the lone voice of dissent in a “Congress of the Cults” where Romanian Christian leaders heaped praise on the new communist government as saviors of a long-captive church.
What is new, however, is the evangelical church in the rest of the world heaping praise on this strategy as well.
Upon reflection, it is not hard to understand the attraction of evangelicals to working through these state-sponsored churches in places like North Korea and China. Partnering with underground Christians is dangerous, illegal, unpopular, politically problematic, impractical, and necessarily small scale. In contrast, partnering with government-sanctioned churches potentially yields a positive public witness for Christianity. To know us, the hope goes, is to love us. Evangelicals reason that by engaging in religious tourism, speaking at state-sponsored churches and events, and funding serious amounts of humanitarian aid—all things that communist governments love—goodwill will be fostered and the official door will open wider for more Christian involvement. Such a missions strategy, the thinking goes, could ultimately end up reaching exponentially more people for Christ in places like North Korea than the underground church ever could.
But there is a fundamental flaw with such a strategy: Any time a state cuts its Christian citizens off from the church around the world and the church throughout history, the inevitable result is imperialist Christianity. No one should know that better than Christians in the West. Western imperialist Christianity flourished during the Hundred Years War, when Western Christians themselves were divided into national churches.
But the problem is not an inherently Western one, nor even a white male Western one. The root of the word “imperialism” is the Latin imperium, which means “to rule”. Any time Christianity is conscripted in support of a government’s rule—any government’s rule—it becomes merely a means of advancing a worldly imperium. But, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is precisely what makes governments nervous—communist governments today, and Western governments in previous centuries. The one holy catholic and apostolic church is not created by lump sums, i.e., the Chinese church plus the North Korean church plus the Western church. As Paul takes great pains to note in addressing the Christians in each of his letters, there are only Christians in China, North Korea, and the West—not Chinese Christians, North Korean Christians, and Western Christians. Christians are united not first with their nations, and then next with a national church which is somehow then united with churches of other times and places. Instead, Christians in every time and place are directly united in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that transcends time and geography. They have one Lord, Jesus, and one country, heaven.
In a sense, this is what makes evangelical Christians nervous as well. Evangelicalism emphasizes personal faith so strongly that it matters little to most evangelicals whether a Christian is in China or of China, so long as that Christian has a personal relationship with Jesus. That is sufficient ticket to heaven in today’s evangelical parlance. But as Jesus himself noted, no one can serve two imperiums without hating one and loving the other. Heavenly citizenship contrasts with earthly citizenship—whether Chinese, North Korean, or Western—at least as much as it overlaps. The fact that modern evangelicals struggle to articulate how shows just how cut off we ourselves are from the church across time and geography.
All of this brings us back to Rev. Wurmbrand in his cell at Jilava Prison. In the end, it was not his personal convictions and relationship with God that kept him connected to Christ. He was quick to point out that under the right circumstances any prisoner will forget the Lord’s Prayer, every Bible verse, and even one’s own name and nationality. What kept him—and us—connected is membership in the one body of Christ. This membership, it turns out, cannot be cut off by either nations or the churches eager to do business with and through them, because it is guaranteed by the Christ who will not let anyone snatch us out of his hand.
And it turns out that what is true of individual believers is also true of the church: The Apostle Paul was persuaded that neither principalities nor powers—the stuff that countries and their governments are made of—could separate us from the body of Christ. That means that any effort to separate Christians from each other—for example, luring evangelical Christians around the world into partnership with monocultural, ahistorical state-sanctioned churches in North Korea and China, instead of drawing North Korean and Chinese Christians into the one, holy. Catholic, and apostolic church that crosses all bounds of geography and time—will ultimately be exposed not as an exciting new chapter in world missions but as another futile effort by Satan to destroy the church of God.