The Church-State Conflict: 20 Ways Persecution Is God’s Way to Shepherd Us

Wang Yi is the pastor of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. Over the weekend, news broke of Wang Yi’s arrest, the mass detention of his church leaders and congregants, the separation of their families, and destruction of both church and personal property. This article was originally published on Wang Yi’s personal blog in November 2017 and is a fitting read for the events of the weekend. Please earnestly pray for your brothers and sisters in Chengdu, especially those who have not yet been located.

To my brothers and sisters who are called to live “self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12b): may peace be with you.

When Paul talked about marriage, his personal opinion was it is better to be single than married. However, he was not speaking of the meaning of marriage in regard to creation and redemption. Paul did not deny the value of marriage or having children; instead, he urged believers to “remain as you are,” “for this world in its present form is passing away.” Those who are married should remain married, not seeking divorce. Those who are single should also remain single, not seeking marriage. This is all for one purpose: so that God’s people would not be concerned about themselves, their wives, their children, or the things of the world, but instead would be concerned about the Lord’s affairs and how they can please the Lord (1 Cor. 7:26-32). 

When we talk about the conflict between faith and the world, this verse expresses the belief that everything should be seen from the viewpoint that “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Moreover, all things must be discussed with great eagerness to be “anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32b).

Without this strong eschatological awareness of the fleeting nature of the world and the conflict between the world and faith, anything you think is meaningless. Without this awareness, anything you say is wrong. 

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Someone shared with me his concern that because the church’s posture during this period of church-state tension is that of preparing for war, daily pastoral care will be undermined. I told this believer that it is usually through preparation and drills for war that soldiers accomplish their daily training. The more urgent the situation is, the more effective the training becomes. For the church, without spiritual warfare, there is no daily shepherding. On one hand, fighting itself is the Lord’s way of shepherding his disciples; on the other hand, the purpose of shepherding is to prepare for the fight.

I have seen many Chinese churches die in spirit as a result of their lack of preparation. During times of persecution, thousands in the Lord’s church may be killed by the devil; but after persecution, millions are killed. 

So, the following are twenty thoughts I want to share with you on our topic today – what spiritual benefit does the current church-state conflict bring to the church and to Christians? How is this conflict God’s way to shepherd us?

1. The possibility of persecution is a test to see if, out of our fear of death, we choose to become slaves. Have our hearts truly been set free by the gospel, and will they remain honorable under any system and in any environment?

2. Our fears show us the deep-rooted servility living our hearts. The church-state conflict is a test revealing the slavish residue living in our bodies.

3. Persecution shows the power of the sword has another important value for the church. God made the cross to serve as the boundary marker between the church and the world. The cross is the means he uses to show the world the gospel’s great power. His intent is that now, through the church, his manifold wisdom can be made known to rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.

4. The church-state conflict can help us determine whether the obedience we display as we live in Chinese society flows from a slavish submission to authority, or out of a God-loving perseverance; this conflict helps us see whether we are yielding to powerful authority, or are showing courage as sheep among wolves. No matter what our reaction, once fear has spread, any reaction based on fear is not one driven by love.

5. This is the difference: obedience flowing from love will enable us to respect a humble government workerwhoacts legally, leading us to show him great respect as if he were a king. At the same time, when we face the unrighteous deeds of our national leader, we will also be brave enough to regard him as a tyrant.

6. The church-state conflict is also a test to see if we are cowardly and bullying at heart, obeying the powerful but despising the humble. This sort of obedience is not biblical obedience, but is the mark of the lowly.

7. Only when you are able to obey those who are more humble than you is your obedience to those who are more powerful in line with the Bible. In the same way, it is only when you are able to despise the unrighteousness of the most powerful that your rebuke to the humble flows out of humility.

8. The church-state conflict has vividly revealed this difference in the sharpest manner, a way that cannot be covered or disguised.

9. This conflict also tests if we have experienced dignity and liberty because of Christ. This is what the Bible describes as a faith and obedience that acknowledges “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Rom. 13:1). This type of obedience makes for a conservative temperament, knowing both the time to obey and the time to resist. The liberty of Christ leads to an obedience and a resistance which both flow from the same submission to the divine order. 

10. Therefore, persecution tests if you are truly gospel-rooted in your theological conservatism. When a God-obeying, theologically conservative individual obeys the government, evil is not fueled, but rather restricted.  When a God-obeying, theologically conservative individual resists, the moral order of society is not disrupted, but consolidated.

11. For this reason, when Christians obey the government, pro-democracy advocates who change society in a positive way might criticize us as loyalists who help the government maintain social stability. But when Christians choose to obey God over men in church-state conflicts, we are accused again, this time by pragmatists, of inciting subversion against the state.

12. This is also a test to see if we place value on the evaluations of the world or the praise of Christ. The church-state conflict, as compared to any other type of conflict, more fully reveals the confrontation and distinctions between the church and the world. As a result of this clash, the social relationships of Christians will be exposed and re-evaluated by the world. One of the most significant benefits of church-state conflict is that any Christian who faces it cannot continue as a silent disciple.

13. Therefore, every church-state conflict throughout history is a moment in which God’s kingdom moves forward. It requires believers to stop living like they are on vacation and to return to their posts. When Paul says “remain as you are,” he is referring to the lifestyle of “readiness” which Christians are to display in the world. Conflict between the church and the state puts an end to any false state of peace, and instead reveals the universal truth of continual, ongoing spiritual warfare. In this war, the real hindrance is not the world or the government, but the power of sin and fear in a Christian’s life.

14. Every church-state conflict is a moment for God to cleanse his church. As the house church forefathers said: “Freedom is for wide distribution; tension is for selection.”Through persecution, the Lord expels false believers from the church, exposes false teachers, and preachers who are not called to teach lose their opportunity to take advantage of the church.

15. Test yourself to see if you are crazy for the gospel. When you are threatened with death for the gospel, you find out for whom you really live. When faced with the risk of job loss, you know for whom you really work. When you may lose fortune and position for the sake of the gospel, you find out whether you are crazy for money or crazy for the gospel.

16. Therefore, one great benefit of this church-state conflict is realizing how much we overestimate our spiritual lives. This miscalculation is where almost all the problems in our daily lives come from. If Christ had not been arrested, Peter would not have known he could not make it, and the disciples would not have admitted their disbelief. Believers who live at ease usually misunderstand their piety. Only when the absolute temperature drops do we feel the cold and truly long for light.

17. The news about persecution as well as the persecution itself gives us a real opportunity toshare with churches being persecuted, murdered, imprisoned, and humiliated in North Korea, the Middle East, and throughout the world. It keeps us from arrogantly despising missionaries who are martyred for the Lord and prevents us from holding at arm’s length those who are zealous for God. The experience of sorrow helps us weep more intensely with those who weep, and the danger of bondage binds us more tightly with those in bondage.

18. The church-state conflict is also the best antidote for individualism or the prosperity gospel. Through conflict, God shows that faith itself is a relationship between two kingdoms, not of a solitary spiritual life. Church-state conflict reveals the power of community. For instance, 100 Christians together are more dangerous than 20 together; a group of Christians with pastors, elders, by-laws and election is more dangerous than a loosely bound group of Christians without any influence. Through this danger, God shows us the value of community. The focus of Christ’s kingdom is not ourselves, but the community; what earthly political powers fear most is not divided Christians, but a holy community governed by God.

19. Therefore, the greatest benefit of the church-state conflict is our union with a Christ who himself was judged. Caesar’s focus was not whether you believed in Jesus (as they often said, “We do not care if you believe in Jesus,”) but whether you believe Jesus is “the king.” Persecution forces us to answer the world the same way we answer the Lord: “Yes. He is the king.” In this way, we allow the police to tear their clothes and say, “What else can we say? They are inciting subversion of state power.”

20. That is because church-state conflict is determined by the nature of the gospel. Church-state conflict means the cross; and the cross means conflict between the church and the state. In the U.S., this may be presented in two extreme ways: mass shootings in churches, or the verdicts of the Supreme Court. In China, it is shown through secret police, imprisonment, bans, border control, threatening those landlords who rent space to churches, as well as controlling thought and speech. The cross is the border between the world and the church. To walk from the world to the church you must pass by the cross; in the same way, that is how you return from the other side. 

Brother Wang Yi, 
who wishes with you to “consider everything a loss and see suffering as trivial.”
Nov. 9, 2017

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Further Reading

Witness In Persecution: Heart Struggle
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How I Prayed For Instruction
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God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
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