God at work

“I believe that the 21C will go down in Christian history as the century in which God knitted together an increasingly global Church, using chords of love forged in the flames of persecution, that the world might believe.”
Elizabeth Kendal

We are living in unprecedented times.

And I am not talking about persecution for, as anyone who reads history would know, none of the persecution we are witnessing today is unprecedented.

The pre-Christian Roman Empire was an idolatrous and highly promiscuous place in which Christianity’s monotheism and high moral ethic was profoundly counter-cultural. To test the loyalty of Christians, local authorities and even emperors would demand they participate in Roman rituals – particularly that they offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. Those who would not comply were viewed as dissidents / potential enemies of the state . . . and punished accordingly.

Punishments were not insignificant: In chapter 12 of his Apology Tertullian (circa. AD160-220) wrote: “You put Christians on crosses and stakes . . . you tear the sides of Christians with your claws [explain] . . . we lay our heads upon the block . . . we are cast to the wild beasts . . . we are burned in the flames . . . we are condemned to the mines . . . we are banished to the islands . . .”

The persecution escalated until in March 303, Emperor Diocletian mandated that all churches be demolished and scriptures burned. Christian elites lost their jobs, rank and status . . . and if they continued in their Christian ways, then they were to be imprisoned and tortured until they recanted and submitted . . . many/most were tortured to death.

In the Eastern Roman Empire [modern day Greece, Turkey, Syria the Holy Land and Egypt] where Diocletian ruled, martyrs proliferated as local officials sought to out-do each one another with regards to the creativity of their tortures.

In his Church History, Eusebius goes region by region, city by city, providing examples of these absolutely barbaric tortures –– it is page upon page of very confronting reading.

“This,” he writes, “went on not for a few days, but for some whole years. Sometimes ten or more, at times more twenty were put to death, or thirty or sixty or at other times a hundred men, women and children were condemned to be tortured to death in a single day.”

Eventually Diocletian tired of it all – and put an end to the macabre competition in torturing people to death. He graciously mandated a fixed punishment for uncompromising Christians: they would have an eye gouged out and a limb crippled. “It is impossible to report,” writes Eusebius, “the vast number of people who first had their right eye sliced out with a sword and cauterised with fire and the left foot rendered useless by branding irons applied to the joints.” Many more were condemned to mines . . . countless numbers were incarcerated everywhere.

In April AD 325, the Christian Emperor Constantine, having reunited the Roman Empire, convened the First Council of Nicaea. Believing “internal division in the Church of God is graver that any war or fierce battle” (Constantine’s words) he tasked the bishops with formulating a statement of faith around which the Church throughout the empire could unite.

Theodoret of Cyrus writes concerning the Council of Nicea: “Three hundred and eighteen bishops were assembled. . .[many of whom] were richly endowed with apostolical gifts; and many, like the holy apostles, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ . . . Paul, bishop of Neo-Caesarea . . . had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot irons, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.”

What an image! I want you to store that image in your mind (and in your heart) . . . an army of martyrs coming together in pursuit of Christian unity.


Christianity might have survived the intense persecutions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries – but it would struggle to survive the arrival of Islam.

During 1000 yrs of Islamic advance – from 633 (when the imperialistic jihads began) to 1683 (when the Ottoman Turks were finally defeated at the Gates of Vienna) – Islam managed to devour some three-quarters of the old Christian world.  In the early 1500s Erasmus lamented that the armies of Islam have “reduced our religion from a broad empire to a narrow strip”.

But fortunes reversed as Europe rose post-Reformation. By the middle of the 19thC, the Ottoman Empire (the Sick man of Europe) was appealing to Britain for military aid to fight off the Russians who had once again crossed the Danube into Ottoman territory in defence of persecuted Christians.

Britain agreed, on the condition that the Ottoman Sultan enact reforms extending rights and liberties to Caliphate’s Christian subjects. . .which he did. Muslims, however, resisted the reforms preferring to kill rather than accommodate infidels whom they believed were beneath them.

* Between 9-11 July 1860, Muslim pogroms in Damascus, Syria, claimed the lives of more than 25,000 Christians . . . in three days.
* In April 1875, Muslim pogroms in Batak, Bulgaria, saw some 7,000 Christians burned alive, beheaded and impaled, in what came to be known as the “Bulgarian Horrors”.
* Through 1895-96 Muslim pogroms in Turkish Armenia claimed as many as 250,000 Armenian lives: Christian men, women and children burned and butchered, thousand more either sold into slavery or forcibly converted – TWO decades before the Armenian Genocide.

None of what we are witnessing in Middle East or even across much of the Muslim world today is unprecedented . . . none of it; anyone who thinks otherwise, or who doesn’t understand what is happening today, just needs to read some history.

Read the works of Bat Yeor, in particular her seminal work, “The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam”. Read Andrew Bostom’s “The Legacy of Jihad”. Read Dario Fernandez-Morera’s “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise”. Read Philip Jenkins’ “The Lost Christianity” (2008). Read about how Islam spread through aggressive imperialistic jihad waged by the Armies of Islam. Read about the rules and conditions under which the subjugated Jewish and Christian remnants (i.e. those not killed or enslaved) were forced to live – as dhimmis – subjugated, humiliated and persecuted as second-class citizens. Read about the pogroms and massacres that resulted whenever Christians forgot their place, protested their plight, or whenever reforms were sought.

Philip Jenkins maintains that the only reason Christianity came to be seen as European, is because that is the only place it survived! Everywhere else, Christianity had either been erased, or reduced to a subjugated, persecuted remnant.

Then in the early 20thC, just as Islam was being subdued, Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in a coup. This heralded the rise of Atheistic Communism, which subsequently took whole nations captive, decapitating and decimating the Church in Russia and throughout the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Albania; then throughout China, Nth Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – and more . .  killing up to 100 million in 100 years.

SO – while the persecution I might be facing might be unprecedented in my lifetime and even in my country – it is certainly not unprecedented.

You might think I have spent a lot of time making this point – but it is really important. For if you believe today’s persecution is unprecedented, you will obsess about the persecution while missing the bigger picture.

We ARE living in unprecedented times – but it is NOT the persecution that is unprecedented.

What IS unprecedented, in our day, is the Church’s ability to respond.

Never before in the history of the Church, has the Church been in the position that we are in today, where, thanks to today’s globalised networks and information systems, satellites and digital communication technologies – the Church can now know about respond to a crisis – even on the other side of the world, even as it is unfolding, sometimes even before it unfolds – for the saving of many lives. This is new – this is absolutely unprecedented.

Patrick Johnstone, in “The Church is Bigger than you Think”, writes about the 200-year harvest since 1792.

He talks of four waves of Protestant mission expansion.

First Wave (1792 to1865): the era of denomination mission to the continental coastlands (port cities); the era of Carey, Judson . . .

Second Wave (1865 to 1910): the era of interdenominational mission to continental heartlands – the rise of various “inland missions”.

Third Wave (1910 to 1966): the era of evangelical missions to the countries of the world, “a slow slog of laying the foundations for growth, of seeing churches planted and of training indigenous leadership”; which laid the foundation for the . . .

Fourth Wave (1966 – “present” / published 1998): the era of Global missions to the peoples of the world – an era in which the focus shifted from nations to peoples (tribes and tongues), a shift facilitated by the proliferation of indigenous missionaries and indigenous missionary-sending organisations.

As a result, Christianity has become a truly global faith! In 1960, a bit over 70% of the Church was white, Western, middle class. Today, around 80% of the Church is coloured, non-Western and poor. . . not because the Western Church has collapsed, but because of the phenomenal growth in Christianity in the non-Western world. The result has been the creation of a truly global Christianity – something unique amongst the world’s religions.

I do believe a fifth wave of mission expansion has begun, and it can be seen in the Wind that God is Blowing through the House of Islam, a work of the Holy Spirit that is resulting in unprecedented numbers of Muslims coming to Christ.

But that is not what I wish to talk to you about today.

The divine work I wish to draw to your attention to is a new and unprecedented work of God within this increasingly global Church – a work of the Spirit to knit us together as ONE … not through administration and organisational linkages, but through the hearts of believers as they come to love and care for one another, not just in theory, but in practice.

For nearly 20 years now [2017], I have been encouraging churches to pray for the persecuted citing the exhortation found in Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (love). And for 20yrs now, when people (mostly pastors) have express the concern that they don’t think they/congregations can bear any more burdens – I have assured them that when you take on and bear the burdens of the suffering persecuted church, you do not compound your own burdens – you displace them! For the best part of 20yrs – I have felt like I’ve been banging my head on a brick wall. But you know what – I honestly believe the situation has begun to change.

There is, without a doubt, real growth occurring within Christian media of the number of people who believe they have been called by God to this field of raising awareness of / reporting on / being voice for the suffering and persecuted Church. There is, without a doubt, a growing willingness within Christian media to publish on this subject, more broadcasters willing to talk about it. For a long time, that was not the case; Christian media only wanted good news, evidence of endless march of the Church triumphant! Change is in the air.

There is, without a doubt, a growing awareness in the Church of the reality and problem of persecution, so that the issue of persecution is gradually becoming less of a fringe Human Rights issue, and more a central Body of Christ issue.

I believe that as the Church responds to the issue of persecution – through speaking out, through the generous, sacrificial provision of aid and services, and through committed, faithful intercessory prayer – three effects will become evident.

A serious and passionate response from the Church will: 

1) enable the saving of many lives, even the preservation and restoration of whole Christian communities.

2) facilitate the sanctification of the Church, so the Church becomes in practice what the Church is in theory/reality i.e. the Body of Christ.

3) present the watching world with a vision of sacrificial Christian love, reflecting the image and sacrificial love of Christ, that the world might believe.

This is precisely what Jesus prayed for in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night when he would be betrayed . . . 20 “I do not ask for these only [ref to disciples], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly oneso that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 

I believe that our redeeming God – who redeems even suffering itself – is doing exactly this in our day: He is knitting us together that the world may believe.

I want to read to you from a letter written by suspended and persecuted Russian Orthodox priest Father Gleb Yakunin and layman Lev Regelson. It was written in 1975 as an Open Letter to the 5th WCC Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya; and was published in the Assembly Newsletter: Target.

In their letter, Yakunin and Regelson implore the WCC to speak out on behalf of “Christians who are victims of persecution anywhere in the world.”

“. . . As convinced as we are that only at the foot of the Cross of Golgotha a passion of love may be born that can truly overcome the strife between individual denominations and their alienations and prepare Christian hearts for genuine unity.”

They lament that “Christians are not united even on the opinion concerning the significance of bearing the Cross in the modern world” . . . . and express their desire that “confession of the Cross in the original sense of the Gospel – as trials and tribulations for the sake of Christ’s Name – become the basis for Christian unity.”

They further lament that “religious persecution [had] failed to take its due place – although it ought to become the central theme of Christian ecumenism . . .”

They close their letter with these deeply moving, powerful words:

“It is now our most imperative task, to restore in the whole Christian community all over the world this spirit of the first Christians who revered the confessors of faith: such a respect must be the most important ecumenical act and then the hearts’ warmth could melt away any denominational alienation!”

As it turned out WCC was not ready for such a message – nor was it up to the task.

However, I believe that today, as the refining fire spreads, the Church is being made ready, and it is up to the task . . . because today, thanks primarily to global communication technologies, persecuted believers can circumvent the organisations that ignore and betray them. Similarly, individual believers and local congregations can circumvent those who should but don’t keep them informed – and they can seek out information for themselves – to which they can respond directly and immediately.

Remember that image of the first Council of Nicaea: an army of martyrs standing together in pursuit of Christian unity …

Philip Jenkins writes, in the “Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity”, (p190) “It is quite possible to imagine a future Christendom … defined less by ideological harmony than by its unity against a common enemy” (the “persecutor”).

I believe that the 21C will go down in Christian history as the Century in which God knitted together a global Church using chords of love forged in the flames of persecution.

This is why I am SO passionate about this subject – and about being a voice for the suffering persecuted Church. This is why I plead with pastors, editors and publishers, “Do not be afraid of this subject”. This is why I exhort those who are struggling in this field, to persevere and to be encouraged; for God is at work, using your work, to do more that you may have imagined.

by Elizabeth Kendal

[This is Part One of Elizabeth Kendal’s keynote address entitled “Being a Voice for the Persecuted Church,” delivered at the Crisis Publishing Initiative conference — a gathering a Christian journalists, writers and publishers, convened by Magazine Training International, held in Sopron, Hungary, October 2017. Part Two can be found here.]

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

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  1. […] [This is Part Two of Elizabeth Kendal’s keynote address entitled “Being a Voice for the Persecuted Church,” delivered at the Crisis Publishing Initiative conference — a gathering a Christian journalists, writers and publishers, convened by Magazine Training International, held in Sopron, Hungary, October 2017. Part One can be found here.] […]

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