Remembering the Global Church
I distinctly remember an incident that happened in my Worship class over 30 years ago. I was teaching in an evangelical and Reformed seminary. The seminary stressed the importance of the Bible as the Word of God, and an appreciation of the Westminster Standards and the Reformed tradition. If my memory serves me correctly, I was, on that cold, winter day (unheated classrooms) in the late 1980s, teaching the Genevan order of worship used by Calvin.
Remembering the Genevan order of worship on a cold day was a double negative, the classroom itself was cold, and thinking of Geneva did not help much. The only bright spot, if I may say so, was the freedom of worship that we enjoyed in India during those years. It is true that three states in India by that time had banned conversions by passing independent state laws and Acts aimed specifically at curbing proselytization. However, the rest of India was relatively peaceful for all minorities, Christians included. There was a certain security that all minorities could identify with… But let me continue with the story I began telling.
There in that small room with my students, while I was going through the Genevan order of worship item by item, expanding on their importance, one student raised his hand to ask a question. He was from a land-locked country to the North East of India, where Christians were being persecuted. In fact, his wife had left him when he became a Christian. I thought, that is interesting, I really like to know what he thinks about the Genevan liturgy. He told the class bluntly, “This order of worship will not suit our congregation.” For a moment I was taken aback, but quickly recovered and asked him what he meant. He said, “Sir, you see, when I lead my congregation in worship, we constantly have to watch out for anyone who might be coming to arrest us!” We cannot sing loudly or even read the Bible or pray freely. Then I realized that I had heard of the oppression of Christians in that country, but like most of us I did not internalize it. To me, neither that country, nor the experience of those few persecuted Christians, were near enough to evoke empathy, sympathy yes, but not empathy. Thank God, things have changed there now and Christians today enjoy a greater freedom to worship freely in churches. I had the joy of teaching about sixty enthusiastic pastors from that country about five years ago. It is amazing to see how God works out His eternal purposes in time through His people - who are faithful to Him, and seek Him, His Kingdom, and His glory. “Our God is a living God Who reigns in heaven and earth…” Yes, God reigns.
Fast forward to the twenty first century. I had said earlier when I was teaching in the 1980s only three states in India had introduced anti-conversion laws, the first in 1967, next in 1968, and 1978. In 1999, after a little over 20 years of dormancy, India and the world were rudely awakened by the shocking news of the gruesome murders of Australian missionary doctor Graham Staines and his two teenage sons. These terrifying murders happened in the state of Orissa (Odisha), which passed India’s first anti-conversion bill in 1967. What was Staines’ crime? Caring for lepers who needed help. Though medical research has debunked traditional superstitions about leprosy, lepers are still considered as outcastes of society. Staines worked among these people reaching out to them in the name of Jesus with medicines, teaching them life-skills, and finding them livelihood. The murders happened during one of Staines’ periodical visits to leprosy colonies to minister to these people. It was while he and his sons were asleep at night in their jeep that a violent mob, raising anti-Christian slogans, surrounded his vehicle and despite his cries to spare his children, brutally attacked them and set fire to their vehicle. The mindless murders of Staines and his sons were committed on false assumptions that he was alluring people to convert them to Christianity. The forgiveness extended by Mrs. Gladys Staines and her daughter to the accused and their testimony and commitment to the gospel spoke volumes of the love of Jesus Christ.
The Staines murders of 1999 seemed the perfect springboard for what was to happen in the new century. From 2000 it seems that there has been a revival of anti-conversion rhetoric and several states caught the ‘anti-conversion fever’. Each of these introduced their own versions of legislation ironically called “Freedom of Religion Act”.
Today over 10 states in India have passed such laws. What do these laws mean to anyone who wants to follow Jesus Christ and take baptism? Some common requirements are:
- The person has to produce an affidavit to say that he is taking this step because of his own convictions and not because of any allurements;
- This intimation of intention to take baptism has to be given one month in advance;
- In case it is found that the person is converting for some kind of gain, he or she would have to suffer the consequences including fines and imprisonment;
- Any pastors engaged in baptizing converts without following mandated protocols would suffer imprisonment for several years.
Religion is a sensitive subject in India and these bills are a reflection of the attempts to protect an ancient religion.
One of the holiest states of India is Uttarakhand, which is called Dev Bhoomi (The Land of the Gods). This is probably because of its importance to Hinduism for various reasons: it is home to a glacier that begins as a trickle of water and that eventually becomes the holy Ganges River; Haridwar, one of the holiest bathing sites for Hindus is situated in the State. This town is visited yearly by millions of Hindus from all over the world; nearby is Rishikesh which boasts of many Ashrams (communities living together for spiritual nurture) on the banks of the Ganges and its vicinity. This little place drew significant attention when the Beatles stayed at one of the Ashrams during their search for spiritual peace in Eastern religions. Similarly, many celebrities have been attracted to Rishikesh and other such holy places in India in their search for peace.
In 2018 Uttarakhand successfully passed the “Freedom of Religion Bill” in its State Assembly. This step prevents all efforts of Christian believers to share the gospel in any form: preaching, tract-distribution, personal evangelism, etc. Last year Christian worshippers—men, women, and children—were rudely interrupted during Sunday worship by a mob of religious vigilantes who accused them of illegal conversion. The matter is still being investigated and Christian forums are speaking out against these unwarranted intrusions into what is rightly guaranteed to citizens in the Indian Constitution to practice and propagate their faith.
What we have discussed above brings up many issues. Things have changed from the time of the worship class mentioned above. For me, this persecution is no longer in some distant country: it is my country. Friends in the US may understand by analogy what I mean: For a long time the bad people were out there somewhere far away in the Middle East… Then 9/11 happened.
When I was in the US briefly for my studies in the 1990s I was trying to gather a few people in the church where we worshiped, to pray every week for various missional needs. Except for a few faithful friends, no one else was interested. After 9/11, I heard that the Church was keeping its doors open for anyone to pray! Does God have to wake us up so abruptly to remind us to do things that should be our desire to do? Prayer is a privilege given to Christians to identify with the Body of Christ spread globally.
Pray for the church in India. How can we preach the gospel under the present circumstances? Can we? We can and we should. When we cease from doing this we cease from being Christians.
Sociology scholar Rodney Stark analyzed early church growth and concluded what led to mass conversions was not the open preaching of the gospel – impossible and outlawed in the pagan Roman Empire. It was, if fact, a combination of acts of love and kindness: reaching out in times of plagues (think COVID19), speaking the gospel to loved ones through familial networks, etc… God used such things in the first centuries and these are things He will use today.
Today I have to be alert to what is going on around because it concerns the Church, the Shepherds, and the Flock. Whether it is the current invasion of Ukraine, where thousands of fellow believers and their pastors are facing the onslaught of the enemy, or the persecution of Christians in some remote part of the world, we ought to reach out in empathy to the extent that is possible and pray for the Church.
How can we be involved? These are only a few suggestions:
- Be informed, read watch, listen to what is going on;
- Try to sift the truth from falsehood. Do not jump to conclusions immediately – ask questions, verify facts;
- Get together with one or two like-minded friends for a time of prayer daily, weekly, or fortnightly;
- If possible, keep in touch with people “on the frontlines” whose lives are in jeopardy and pray for them;
- Do not ever, post anything on the internet with names, places, institutions, etc., that might trigger an adverse reaction.
May the Lord raise up faithful friends to stand together in prayer.
A few resources worth checking out:
- A good presentation of the Staines incident is available as a movie “The Least of These”.
Dr. Matthew Ebenezer is a Member of the WRF Board of Directors. He is an ordained teaching elder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of India (RPCI). He has served on the Board of the WRF since 2006. Matthew began teaching at Presbyterian Theological Seminary (PTS), Dehra Dun, India in 1982. Between 2004 and 2014 he was engaged in other ministry opportunities that included serving as Country Director for Mission to the World (MTW) in his native Sri Lanka, overseeing Tsunami rehabilitation; Director for Theological Education for MTW’s church planting work in India, and Adjunct Professor of Church History and Practical Theology at the New Theological College, Dehra Dun. He is now Interim Principal of PTS (from August 2014). In addition to his administrative duties, Matthew teaches Church History and Practical Theology at PTS.