Martin Cho was born in the United States to parents from South Korea, and as such, his whole life has been a cross-cultural experience. His first experience with Iranians was in 1993, and he felt a strong call to serve among Iranians ever since. His ministry focuses on providing training and theological education for Iranian church leaders. Martin has a M.Div., a master’s in the Persian language, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies.
The Iranian Church and Persecution
In 1993, I had my first experience with the Iranian church. I was a university student in America, and I spent the summer in a country that neighbors Iran with a Christian team that was ministering to Iranian refugees. While there, I met a group of Iranian pastors who had come for a Bible training conference. I did not speak Persian then, and I was not familiar with Persian names, but I remembered one name, just because it was so easy: Pastor Haik. Much later I learned that Pastor Haik was a bishop in the Assemblies of God Church in Iran and was chair of the Council of Protestant Ministers of Iran. He was a well-respected leader doing incredible ministry, and it was a great honor for me to meet him and the others.
After that summer, I returned to my university campus in America. The following winter, one Sunday my local pastor announced that the church was having a special time of prayer for the persecuted church. Specifically, he wanted to pray for Iran, because a well-known pastor there had just been found stabbed to death, martyred for his faith. His name was Pastor Haik.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
I couldn’t believe it! As I sat in the pew of that suburban American church, thousands of miles away an Iranian pastor that I had just met had given his life for Christ. From my first experience with the Iranian church, I learned that it is characterized by persecution.
The churches in Iran and in China share many similarities. Both are fast-growing; there is incredible openness to the gospel in Iran and underground house churches are constantly forming, just as in China. The church in Iran is “non-Western.” The Iranian church is highly influenced by the church in the West and benefits from Western ministries and teaching, but it is in desperate need of its own culturally relevant expressions of Christianity and contextual theology, just as is the case in China.
The similarity that I would like to focus on is that the church in Iran is under persecution, just as is the church in China. Furthermore, I believe a theology of persecution developed by the Chinese church could greatly benefit the church in Iran.
The Need for a Theology of Persecution
The church of Iran learns a lot from the Western church through Internet ministries, satellite TV programing, translated books, and theological education programs. But what do Western theologians have to say about persecution? The West has an overabundance of Bible experts, but with little modern experience under persecution, persecution is not prioritized. Take a look at any seminary curriculum in the United States. You will find an abundance of excellent courses on the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of the Church, but could you find even a single course on the doctrine of persecution?
With this lack of theological attention on persecution, one would think this theme is not covered in the Bible, but the opposite is true. In the very first human family, one brother murdered another brother just for being more righteous and devoted to God. That was just the beginning of the biblical history of persecution!
Joseph was falsely accused and imprisoned for doing what was right. Joseph’s descendants were persecuted under slavery in Egypt. David was threatened and chased down by King Saul for being God’s anointed. Many of the prophets were threatened, arrested, beaten, and some were killed – simply for speaking the truth of God’s word. Exiles such as Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, were sentenced to be executed, with the sentence even carried out (albeit unsuccessfully), simply for remaining faithful to God. In the New Testament, Jesus came to earth with the explicit goal of dying under persecution. Jesus promised all those who would follow him: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
That promise was fulfilled as the early church grew and expanded under severe persecution. Many of the epistles were written to teach the church how to respond under persecution. Finally, the book of Revelation was written as an encouragement to the church under severe persecution. Christians at that time were being arrested and killed so rapidly that they thought they had lost the battle. They needed to see the true battle taking place in the spiritual realms to understand that the war had already been won in Christ. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s word shows examples of, teaches in the context of, encourages against, and redeems through, persecution. Yet the topic is virtually nonexistent in theological discussions in the West, because it is simply not their experience.
This brief biblical theology of persecution shows that a dialogue between Chinese and Iranian Christians could benefit not only Chinese and Iranians, but Western Christians as well. Like all churches, the Western church has particular strengths in its biblical perspective, but it also has weaknesses. Western Christians have been effective sharing their perspective of the gospel and the Bible with the rest of the world. But just as they have shared, so they need to receive. The gospel is more multi-faceted and complex than any one culture can grasp. If Christians in the West do not learn from their brothers and sisters in Asia and the Middle East, they will miss entire sections of biblical truth and facets of the gospel.
Intercultural theological dialogue between all corners of world Christianity – Chinese and Iranian Christians, or Chinese and African Christians, or Iranian and Latin American Christians – is vitally important for the global Christian community, including the West.
The Need for Dialogue between the Chinese and Iranian Church
While persecution is not the common experience in the West, it is the experience of the church in China. Imprisonment is perhaps as common an experience for pastors in China as internships are for pastors in the West. The Chinese church has grown and flourished under persecution, developing vast networks of house churches, leadership structures, and theological education programs. The church in Iran has also grown under severe persecution, but they still have much to learn in organization and maturity of the church. The theology of persecution which developed out of the experience and biblical perspective of Chinese brothers and sisters could be a great blessing for the church in Iran.
How might such a theological exchange take place? This essay is itself an example of how far removed these two worlds are. It took a Korean-American man serving among Iranians and an American woman serving among Chinese to meet at an academic conference, conversing in English, in order to make this essay happen. Meetings like this will not happen every day.
Perhaps, for now, there is a necessary role for mediators who are neither Iranian nor Chinese to open the lines of communication. China Partnership is a platform which allows Chinese pastors to converse with their non-Chinese brothers and sisters. My hope is that, as Chinese brothers and sisters continue to write on the theology of persecution, I may be able to have these reflections published in Persian. As Iranians respond, we will do the same thing in the reverse direction. Perhaps one day this intercultural theological dialogue could lead to networking and relationships, and there would no longer be a need for mediators like us. Until that day, I am happy to play my part.
A Sample of an Iranian Theology of Persecution
As a sample of things to come, I want to share an Iranian perspective on persecution. Pastor Haik gave his life for the sake of another believer, Pastor Mehdi Dibaj. Dibaj had been in prison for ten years, convicted for having converted to Christianity. Finally, he was sentenced to be executed. At that point, Pastor Haik mounted an international campaign to share this human rights violation with Christians around the world so that they would put pressure on the Iranian government to release Pastor Dibaj. Amazingly, the campaign worked, and Dibaj was released. But soon after Dibaj’s release, Haik was kidnapped and killed.
At the memorial gathering after Haik’s funeral, Mehdi Dibaj said this: “When Jesus was crucified on that Friday, there was one person who knew whom Christ died for. It was Barabbas. If there’s one person in the church of Iran who knows that Haik died in his place, it’s me. I hope that this would be our prayer tonight: ‘Lord, as you died for me, from this moment on, I live every moment for you, and I’m ready to die for you.’” Dibaj not only preached those words, he lived them out, as six months later, he also was kidnapped and killed for his faith.
The churches in Iran and in China know that the theology of persecution is not theoretical or conceptual: it is lived experience. These churches are in a unique position to theologize out of that experience. Dibaj’s own experience inspired his theological perspective on sacrifice. Through his life and his words, we learn that persecution is suffering, but it is not useless suffering: it is suffering in sacrifice for others. Through the suffering of the persecuted, others are set free to grow in their faith, to “live every moment” for Christ, even to be “ready to die” for Christ. That is the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to so motivate our lives. We partake in that power every time Christians, whether in China, Iran, or elsewhere, are persecuted.
How can you connect with the suffering and persecution of Christians around the world?