Lessons in Love from the Persecuted Church

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BY ANNA STEPANEK COX

Dr. Maggie Bailey, PLNU vice provost for program development and accreditation, has never been one to fear danger or sit on the sidelines of life. Bailey served in the U.S. Senate as a military appropriations liaison for the Navy, working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon as an admiral’s aide under presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Bailey was involved in “Operation Homecoming” during the Vietnam War, stationed in Pearl Harbor. As a naval logistics officer in Gulf War I, she was stationed in Japan and worked with massive cargo ships carrying equipment and supplies to the war zone. As an economic development expert in the private and nonprofit sectors, she has toured dozens of marginalized communities in emerging nations, brushing shoulders with Sandinista rebels on coffee plantations in Nicaragua and visiting the hungry inhabitants still living in the ruins of Soviet high-rises in Armenia.

Turning toward higher education, Bailey parlayed her business and economics expertise into directing PLNU’s graduate programs and launching the Center for International Development.

Bailey is a powerhouse of grit, faith, intelligence, discipline, and hard work—but nothing in her training or experience prepared her for what she has seen within the persecuted church in the last 10 years.

For more than a decade, Bailey has served on the board of directors of Open Doors USA, one of 24 global divisions comprising Open Doors International, the largest outreach to persecuted Christians in the world, founded in 1955 by Brother Andrew (author of God’s Smuggler). Through her work with Open Doors and as a business economist, Bailey has traveled widely within the underground church in many closed nations.

“We have lost many as martyrs for the faith,” Bailey explained, noting that she has heard many firsthand stories of families and faith communities ravaged by murder, rape, beatings, poverty, and imprisonment. Children go hungry. Healthcare is withheld. Education is impossible. Bibles, evangelism, and worship gatherings are illegal or closely monitored. Often the persecution is more subtle but painfully chronic and insidious: ongoing bribery, lack of employment, physical threats. According to Open Doors, 2014 was the worst year in history for persecutions of Christians worldwide.

wwl-map-2015

Although Bailey has witnessed the unspeakable suffering of the persecuted and their loved ones—a reality for no less than 75 percent of the global Body of Christ—Bailey has come to understand one of the most significant truths of the Gospel.

“Brother Andrew once said to me, ‘Love them into the Kingdom,’” Bailey explained. “It doesn’t matter how terrible the persecution. The commandment of God is to love thy enemy.”

This profound lesson was made plain to Bailey when she looked down the barrel of a Russian machine gun. While ministering among the underground churches in Eastern Europe, she was held at gunpoint for three hours, surrounded by a crowd that could offer no help. In the midst of her ordeal, unable and unwilling to defend herself, Bailey experienced God. He didn’t provide a means of escape but manifested Himself instead.

“The manifest Presence of God came over me and suddenly I thought, ‘I love this man,’” Bailey explained. “God gave me His love for my assailant, and He gave me His words to say. God empowered me to treat the young man like he was my son. It was amazing. Eventually the man just gave up.”

Bailey’s experience of a divine impartation of God’s love for her enemy embodies the glorious lesson of the persecuted church, a revelation Christians in closed nations hope to impart to the American church.

“The persecuted church has taught me that they don’t want us to pray for the elimination of persecution,” Bailey explained, “but to pray for their strength in persecution. As an American, though, I think, ‘Just eradicate persecution! Talk to global leaders! Go to the United Nations!’ But that’s not what builds the church. What builds the church is God’s love, not politics. Over and over and over again, we have watched Christians come out of these very dark parts of the world for a short period of time, only to return to their country—and certain persecution. They return because they ask, ‘Who will be the loving presence of Jesus Christ if I leave?’”

PLNU alumnus Nate Spoelman (05), a founding partner at investment firm JoNa Capital, also serves on the financial committee and board of directors of Open Doors USA.

Concurring with Bailey, Spoelman said, “My eyes have been opened to a world of persecution that I didn’t know existed. I’ve heard firsthand stories of Christians and their families being tortured, raped, and murdered—and hear the same prayer request time and time again: ‘Pray that I will represent Christ well in my persecution!’ If it were me, I’d be asking for the persecution to stop or for rescue. They desire to stay to be a witness for Christ. I’ve learned from their examples to have a heart for my ‘enemies.’”

SCANDALOUS l o v e

As Christians, we are called to support and pray for those who are suffering. According to Psalm 82:3, we are to “See to it that those who are … beaten down are treated fairly.” Hebrews 13:3 says, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

Dr. Robert Gailey, director of PLNU’s Center for International Development, challenges us to pray not only for our fellow Christians who are suffering, but for all victims of violence.

“This is our greater witness as Christians: to pray for those who are persecuted for their faith, no matter their faith, and then to pray for those who are oppressed by violence in general,” he said.

In other words, we as Christians are called to stand by the Jews being persecuted in France, the Zoroastrians suffering in Iran, and the Rohingyas under attack in Burma. We’re to stand by and pray for anyone who is suffering from violence and injustice.

We also read in Scripture that Christ calls us to pray not only for those who are treated unfairly, but He also calls us higher, into the unspeakable and inhuman, into that which is anathema to our human nature and against all reason. This is the scandalous love of God: we are commanded by God to bless and pray for our torturers. That is God’s Word—unmistakable, unrelenting, unimaginable, and impossible. We can obey, however, because as He commands us to love, He gives us the grace to love, just as Bailey was given the grace to see her assailant as her son. This is the sublime love of God, who—being tortured—prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is the divine love of God in Stephen as he was being martyred: “Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (Acts 7:60). And this is the scandalous love flowing through the apostle James as he was about to be martyred: historians report that James’
accuser was so moved that he repented, “professed himself a Christian,” and asked to be beheaded together with James.

EMULATING j e s u s

Dr. David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, has come to understand this radical command of God, specifically, how contrary it is to human nature to love our enemies.

“It’s very counterintuitive to pray for our persecutors,” he said. “The world doesn’t understand this point of view of Christians praying for jihadists and Islamic rebels in Syria and Iraq. Instead of praying for the persecuted church to be rescued, those who are being persecuted ask us to pray that they might stand in the face of persecution and love their attackers.”

Curry travels frequently throughout the 60 nations on Open Doors’ World Watch List (WWL), which ranks the top 50 nations for persecution of Christians around the world. Curry has observed the growing persecution of Christians firsthand, and their
increasing resolve to love.

“I was just in Egypt, surrounded by Muslims burning 100 houses a day,” he explained. “The Christians were reaching out in love to serve the Muslims, the very people who were trying to hurt them. The Christians were caring for the injured Muslims.
They don’t feel that it’s ‘us against them’ but ‘us trying to emulate Jesus.’”

Steve Haas, vice president and chief catalyst for World Vision, helped launch the organization Prayer for the Persecuted Church and the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church in the late 1990s, involving more than 100,000 churches across America. Haas reported that he has also had “many conversations on the brutal front lines of the persecuted church.” The prayer request that he, too, hears most often is, “Will you pray for us to remain strong and also pray for those who are persecuting us, that they may come to know Jesus Christ?”

Haas explained that this specific prayer is the “easiest and the best” action we can take to emulate Jesus and to share in the sufferings of the persecuted church.

“It’s not for the prayer team, evangelist team, or missions group,” he said. “Every Christian is called to pray for those being persecuted and their persecutors. The Big Boss has mandated it. The apostle Paul, as Saul, no doubt received prayer because he was persecuting Christians, and God changed his heart.”

DIVINE t r a n s f o r m a t i o n

Of course it’s not possible to be filled with love for one’s potential murderer, as Bailey experienced, unless we ourselves have experienced the overwhelming grace of God.

“Are we praying for leaders in Iran, Somalia, or Afghanistan?” Haas asked. “I personally find it unfathomable to pray for those committing atrocities unless I realize what I’ve been forgiven of—how I was absolutely broken and lost, but how Christ saved me. I’ve received grace and now must extend grace. I’m not saying this is easy prayer—but God can transform our hearts.”

God is transforming the hearts of Muslims oppressing Christians the world-over because of this unfathomable love demonstrated by the Christians being persecuted. Curry explained that an “amazing number” of Muslims are coming to Jesus because they see a response from Christians they haven’t seen before “that they don’t understand.”

Nigerian evangelical leader Samuel Kunhiyop, general secretary of the five-million-member Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), reports in a recent Christianity Today article that many Muslims are finding Christ—and many are meeting Him
supernaturally. “One came from far north … The Lord Jesus appeared to him and said, ‘I want you to follow
me.’ He couldn’t resist it.”

Former Muslims understand that gaining Christ means potentially losing their lives, or, at the very least, never seeing their families again. Recently in Syria, a church of 300 Christians, many former Muslims, was forced to flee. The northern Nigerian Sunni terrorist group Boko Haram (translated “Western education is sin”) has killed at least as many as ISIS has killed in Iraq—with more than 10,000 murdered by each group in the last year, a majority being Christians. Iraq’s previously one million Christians now number fewer than 10,000. More than 650,000 Christians and other groups of oppressed people have fled northern Nigeria.

Amidst the murder of fellow Christians and the decimation of villages and churches, Pastor Kunhiyop asked, “Do we need to love Boko Haram members? Do we need to care for them because they want to kill us? Yes.” Kunhiyop says the Nigerian church is growing stronger, but he doesn’t pray for converts. He prays that Christians grow in maturity and love their enemies:
“This is what is expected of them as Christians.”

Steve Ridgway, former interim CEO of Open Doors, told the story of a woman in her early 30s, a member of the underground church in the Middle East, who came into this deep maturity of the faith. His close friend, Ellison, who met the woman during a ministry trip, reported the story to him. On the website for his ministry, Northwest Network Foundation, Ridgway explained:

When this woman became a follower of
Jesus she was brutally beaten, raped, and falsely 
accused of criminal acts. She told Ellison that 
when she returned to her country, she would 
stand trial for those crimes and then be sentenced 
to one year in prison. She would be allowed one 
month of freedom before she would serve out 
her sentence. The time off was granted in hopes 
that she would leave the country and destroy the 
impact of the church’s witness in her country. 
She declared to Ellison that she would not leave, 
but remain and serve her year in prison—to 
be a witness for Christ, continuing to suffer 
persecution for the sake of the lost. A young man 
across the table from her then spoke up. He said 
that when she finished her time in prison, he 
would marry her. In his culture, it is shameful to 
even associate with a woman who has been raped.

Ridgway considered the remarkable choice of the woman and her brother in Christ: “Why would she return to this place of ‘shame’? Why would this young man marry a woman who is ‘shameful’? It is because God’s love is transforming. To not go to prison, and to not embrace the shameful, would be, in fact, shameful. Jesus wrecks our lives in wonderful ways because He
destroys sin and shame and makes us new creations.”

BRUTAL t r u t h

Open Doors defines Christian persecution as “any hostility experienced from the world as a result of one’s identification as a Christian.” This hostility can include “verbal harassment to hostile feelings, attitudes and actions … beatings, physical torture,
confinement, isolation, rape, severe punishment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and even death.”

Open Doors cites the Pew Research Center’s study, reporting that more than 75 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians), and that, according to the U.S. Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors.

Every month, more than 300 Christians are killed for their faith and more than 200 Christian churches and properties are destroyed. Nearly 800 Christians are beaten, abducted, raped, or arrested every month.

North Korea is reported to have the worst persecutions, described as “absolutely inhumane” by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights, with nearly 30,000 people imprisoned for their faith under unimaginably difficult conditions. Last year, the COI on Human Rights published a 400-page report documenting testimonies from more than 300 witnesses from North Korea’s prison system, “reeducation” and internment camps that have been brutalizing prisoners for years—outdistancing Russia’s gulags and Germany’s concentration camps, with tortures as extreme, if not worse. Open Doors’ WWL has ranked North Korea first on its list for nations with the worst Christian persecution for the last 13 years.

BEYOND o u r s e l v e s

In the midst of these horrors, Christians persevere—through love. Nik Ripkin, author of The Insanity of God and The Insanity of Obedience, has served the persecuted church with his family in more than 72 nations for 30 years. Ripkin, revered by many as a
pioneer missionary to closed nations, has witnessed many Christians dying for their faith while filled with the love of God. Ripkin has set out to collect hundreds of stories about families that willingly serve as witnesses in nations where their lives are at risk.

The following story that Ripkin relates is reported as true, but it almost rings of legend and myth because of its otherworldly character:

The house church leader explained that the
Holy Spirit woke him up in the middle of the night
and told him to gather the fruits, vegetables, and
meat that the house church had stored up to care
for people in need. The Holy Spirit told the man
to take this load of food, by horse and sled, to a
pastor’s family that had been left to die in a one-
room hut in the frozen tundra.
The man reminded the Holy Spirit that it was
30 degrees below zero outside, and there was no
way he would survive the trip. The man reminded
the Holy Spirit that the wolves would probably
eat his horse and then eat him. Then the words of
the Holy Spirit rang in his ears: You don’t have to
come back; you simply have to go.

“We must grow up,” Curry explained. “Christ calls us beyond ourselves to care for the stranger and the foreigner, not to look after ourselves. When people met the first disciples, what did they say? Look how they love one another! They loved everyone, forgave everyone. This love was so radical that thousands were added in one day.”

The church in Iran, in fact, is the fastest growing house church movement in the world, according to Curry, followed by the house church movements in Syria and Egypt. “What do they have in common?” he asked. “Suffering.”

“Persecuted Christians have learned to stay true, not to orthodoxy, but to Jesus,” Curry explained. “They need to pull together in unity—so what divided them simply isn’t dividing them anymore. We, too, must begin to focus on the essentials of who Jesus is and what He did on the cross—and live His words. Persecution is increasing, and it’s going to wake up a sleeping church in the West.”

Ridgway summed up the difference: “What is the norm for the American Christian? We wake up and think, ‘Today I go to work. Today I go to school. Today I go shopping.’ What is the norm for 75 percent of the Body of Christ? ‘Today, my home is taken. Today, I lose my family. Today, I go to prison.’ That is their norm.”

DIVINE i n t i m a c y

Christians in the persecuted church don’t pray for suffering or have martyr complexes, but they do realize the profound gift of coming to a place of radical dependence upon Christ—to fall in love with Jesus and desire nothing and no one else, not even one’s own life. Having placed their very lives at the foot of the Cross, they walk in a level of abandonment and intimacy that few of us in the West understand. And they understand that we don’t understand—and pray for us. In fact, an unspoken code of ethics in the underground church is: “Don’t trust a Christian who hasn’t been to prison.”

Ridgway, like Bailey, was threatened for his faith while visiting a nation where persecution runs rampant. While waiting to meet a Muslim leader in a mosque, a group of men started screaming at him, demanding that he renounce Jesus, as two soldiers
raised their guns at him.

“Something compelled me,” Ridgway explained. “I told the leader that I loved him and gave him a big hug. The soldiers lowered their guns and the leader calmed down and grabbed my face. He kissed me everywhere.”

What is this “something” that compelled Bailey and Ridgway to love their persecutors, even as they faced execution for their faith?

What is it that compelled the young woman to return to her country, to embrace prison and persecution, for the sake of the lost?

How could the house church leader gather his load of food and travel through the frozen tundra to a pastor’s family that had been left to die—knowing he himself would die in his obedience?

This something is Jesus. The person who, “for the joy set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2), gave His flesh and blood so we may live. This is the divine insanity of love Himself, love that has abandoned itself for the sake of the beloved.

And this is the love that Jesus gives us so we may give it away: “because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” (Romans 5:5).

PLNU alumnus Charles Hardison, M.D. (83), is a living example of someone demonstrating the more excellent way of love. Hardison is a medical missionary who has served with his wife and children in Central Asia for 10 years. The Lord recently directed Hardison and his family to relocate to a country in the Middle East where Christians are experiencing serious persecution. They have been living in El Cajon, Calif., for a season as they prepare to serve in a nation hostile to Christianity.

“Our hope is the same as when we started our missions career—to display God’s love,” Hardison explained. “We hope that display is evident in our family as we interact in the neighborhoods, in my work in teaching and demonstrating medicine, in reaching out to unreached groups, and in encouraging the local church. One thing is for sure, when you are moving in step with the Holy Spirit in this regard, there is no fear. Fear has no place in love.”

JOY u n s p e a k a b l e

Fearlessly living a life abandoned to love is the daily journey and challenge for Bailey. She is retiring next year and may curtail her overseas travel, but her prayer will remain unchanged: “Here I am, Lord. Send me!” She is grateful for the lessons she has learned from the persecuted church and seeks to continue to abide in His fullness of joy.

“The one mark of the persecuted church I see over and over again is a deep joy,” Bailey explained. “It doesn’t make sense—but it does tell me that God is present. In His Presence, I am filled with joy—joy unspeakable and filled with glory. We in the West are
so busy that we miss that deep, abiding joy of being in His Presence. When you have nothing else but your testimony, what comes through so clearly is the joy of intimacy with Christ.”

Once Bailey traveled for several days in a closed nation, high in the Himalayas. In midday, in the middle of nowhere, she and her traveling companions spread out a blanket in a clearing by the side of the road, seemingly to have a picnic. Within minutes, 50 to 60 people began to pour out from the surrounding trees and bushes. Word had spread. Someone had called a prayer meeting.

“The joy was indescribable,” Bailey said. “We sang praises, prayed, and heard testimonies for hours. This is the joy of living and serving in total obedience. There is no greater joy.”

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