xiAs I was speaking with the pastor of my sending church this week, he told me about  another missionary from our church who was facing religious liberty challenges in her part of the harvest field, China. Many Christian workers from the West have had to make the hard decision whether to remain in their ministries there or make other plans due to increasing persecution.

Maybe you haven’t heard of the word “sinicize” (it was new to me.) According to reports, President Xi Jinping announced last spring his new five-year initiative to sinicize all religions, especially by forcing allegiance to Communism. Persecution of Christians, including imprisonment, is on the rise and house churches are being threatened.

But here’s the sentence that caught my eye in this article that details the situation: “Experts say the new wave of persecution comes as the country undergoes a religious revival.” The very definition of a paradox, but it has happened many times before.

The shell of Communism is crumbling and in its place we’re seeing huge numbers of people coming to Christ. Just as the first-century church blossomed during persecution, China is experiencing the same thing over the past several years. While religious liberty is being tightened and even rejected by the government there, the gospel is taking off.

The Bible encourages followers of Christ to get along with their civil governments and model cooperative citizenship as long as obedience to the Lord is the priority. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we’re commanded to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Peter wrote the same idea.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”  1 Peter 2:13-17

We should be grateful for the measure of religious freedom we have in America and should speak up for the God-given (not man-given) right to freely worship for all people and all faiths. We should pray for our brothers and sisters in China and elsewhere who are being denied these rights. But we should never get the idea that the gospel cannot go forward unless it is unshackled from government regulation. It will go where God ordains it to go, regardless of the godliness or godlessness of any given governmental system. He decides – not man, not Satan, not Xi Jinping – only God.

Keep in mind as you read this final verse that it quotes a brutal tyrant who ruled Babylon and had severely mistreated the nation of Israel. God dealt with Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and narcissism by sending him into a season of insanity and taking him off the throne. When he was finally restored, he was praising God and his words apply to China right now:

All the peoples of the earth
    are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
    with the powers of heaven
    and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
    or say to him: “What have you done?”   Daniel 4:35

I was reading this blog post today by Darin Smith (which I recommend to you) and agree with it completely. Except for one sentence. confused

In the penultimate sentence, the author says, “It is important to pray for governmental leaders because the circumstances they create either stop or advance the progress of the Gospel.”

Hmm…

Is it right to pray for religious freedom? Yes. Surely there is a benefit when laws do not restrict religious belief and expression. Is the Gospel dependent on religious freedom to flourish? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that leaders can create conditions that can “either stop or advance the progress of the Gospel.” No person or group of people have that kind of power

History proves this. Christianity grew in its earliest days under government systems that weren’t always favorable to the message. Sometimes, civil disobedience was even called for because of early restrictions:

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:27-32 

Current statistics prove this. According to the mission research organization Operation World, the Gospel is currently growing the fastest in Iran and Afghanistan. China is in the top five. Laws do not determine whether truth will spread. Faithful followers of Jesus who share their faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit, determine whether the Gospel spreads.

I applaud Darin’s great article to remind us to pray 1 Timothy 2 prayers for those in authority. He gives some great suggestions for the content of those prayers. But let’s not forget on whom the spread of the Gospel depends.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.Acts 1:8

Leave me a comment with your thoughts!

Matt Barnes is a pretty amazing guy. I’m honored to be his colleague in Capitol Commission’s effort to evangelize and disciple the political community of our nation. Matt is my prayer partner, fellow Cincinnati Reds’ fan, and overall blessing with his humility and vision.

The first few minutes one spends with Matt will show what kind of guy he is. Funny, caring and never full of himself, Matt is right where he should be – loving and ministering to the Indiana political arena. In this article, you’ll see what a fine reputation Matt has with leaders in Indianapolis. God is doing some remarkable things through his faithful ministry. 

Why not take minute right now to pray for the leaders of Indiana and your own state!

Pastor Tim Webster and the folks at Uniontown Bible Church in Union Bridge were the first church in Maryland to financially support us as missionaries to politicians with Capitol Commission.  What a great church they are with vision, authenticity and dedication under the strong leadership of godly elders. 

Tim, Lara, Rebekah, Nathan and Mark Webster

On February 5, Pastor Tim’s wife, Lara, went home to heaven after her cancer diagnosis about a year ago.  Through her illness, she kept a blog letting us know of her battle and keeping us well-informed with prayer requests.  It was an honor to lift up this dear family during that time.  Her sweet spirit and care for her family was evident in her testimony of grace during difficult days.  She encouraged me to trust Jesus more.

You can see this family’s testimony for yourself here.

On Sunday, February 21 at 6:00 p.m. there will be a service celebrating Lara’s life at Westminster High School.  Would you pray for this church?  Pray for Tim and the kids – Rebekah, Nathan and Mark.  Pray in the weeks and months to come for their adjustment, for their faith, hope and love to deepen.

These words by the nineteenth-century pastor Octavius Winslow are a comfort:

It is solemnly true that there is a “time to die.” Ah! affecting thought- a “time to die!” A time when this mortal conflict will be over- when this heart will cease to feel, alike insensible to joy or sorrow- when this head will ache and these eyes will weep no more- best and holiest of all- a time “when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality,” and we shall “see Christ as He is, and be like Him.” If this be so, then, O Christian, why this anxious, trembling fear? Your time of death, with all its attendant circumstances, is in the Lord’s hand. All is appointed and arranged by Him who loves you, and who redeemed you- infinite goodness, wisdom, and faithfulness consulting your highest happiness in each circumstance of your departure. The final sickness cannot come, the “last enemy” cannot strike, until He bids it. All is in His hand. Then calmly, confidingly, leave life’s closing scene with Him. You cannot die away from Jesus. Whether your spirit wings its flight at home or abroad, amid strangers or friends, by a lingering process or by a sudden stroke, in brightness or in gloom, Jesus will be with you; and, upheld by His grace, and cheered with His presence, you shall triumphantly exclaim, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me: your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” bearing your dying testimony to the faithfulness of God, and the preciousness of His promises. My time to die is in Your hand, O Lord, and there I calmly leave it.

In my email Inbox this morning, I found two messages asking for prayer.  One was a forwarded note focused on 2 Chronicles 7:14, and one was marked “urgent” from a lawyer who will be standing before the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to defend traditional marriage.  While any call to prayer is encouraging to see, both of these emails caused me to stop and ask myself, “Before I pray, what exactly am I petitioning the Lord for?  What’s the goal of these prayers?”  You can infer from the writers what they would like to see happen, but is that the same thing as what God would want to happen?  After all, aren’t we all concerned that His will be done?

praying womanDeep questions for early in the day, I’ll admit, but worthy questions, I think.  I don’t claim to have the answers, either, but I’m trying to wrestle with the content of my prayers for America – are they biblical?  Are they motivated by the heart of God and His priorities?  Again more questions.  Sorry.

I just don’t want the prayer lives of followers of Christ in America to fall in the category of James 4:2, 3 – either failing to pray or praying with misguided motives.

Take the first message.  It quotes a well-known verse: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”  (2 Chronicles 7:14).  The rest of the note speaks of the “slippery slope” we’re on in America and our “corruption, greed, moral decay, and a steady move away from the things that made us great.”   It’s a call to pray, yes, and even gives some reasons why we should pray, but I see no specific WHAT here.  Forgiveness and healing are mentioned – a tremendous prayer based on this verse – but again, I still think we can do that with wrong motives and without a clear vision for what our role is beyond the prayer itself.

The second email has a more specific (and urgent) tone.  The Coucil in the District of Columbia recently voted to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and a Referendum has been presented to block that law.  The email is from the lawyer who will make the case for the proponents of the Referendum.  He says, “I am sure you understand how difficult it is to defend this kind of Referendum. It is a huge political and legal challenge.”  I can see the need for the prayer and for the blocking of the law, but I’m left wondering how many well-meaning Christians will consider that fight the end of their relationship with the D.C. Council? 

Do you think Paul ever prayed 2 Chronicles 7:14 for his society?  The passage is pointed to the people of God.  He lived in a corrupt, greedy world that was decaying morally.  Persecution of Christians was very present – much more brutal and violent than what we see in America.  He may have, but we don’t have to speculate on what Paul’s goal was when praying for his government:

1 First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men,  2 for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.    1 Timothy 2:1-4

praying manThis isn’t just a call to pray for leaders without specificity.  The motivation and results are clear.  Pray for leaders to get saved.  Pray for them to grow in knowing God and His will (“knowledge of the truth”).  How will that happen?  Well it needs to be part of the Church’s mission – we need to go to them, not with placards of protest but with spiritual care.  Speak the truth of God’s Word into thier lives with Bible studies and one-on-one meetings.  Pray for their hearts to be opened to the gospel.  For believing lawmakers, encourage them in their walk not to compromise God’s principles found in Scripture.

If that approach sounds passive or not militant enough, consider this: there is no more urgent message and it’s the mandate left to the Church by the Lord himself.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19, 20).  We decry where we are as a nation now, but where would we be if we had been doing this all along with our government officials in office or before they got to office?

Prayers for leaders are required of God’s people.  They are non-negotiable.  But they must be underpinned with a motivation to see God glorified, not just save our land for our children.  And the goal must not be just a change in laws, but in the hearts of lawmakers.

cyprus-mapMD county mapAn interesting thought strikes me as I read Acts 13:4-6.   

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus.  When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper.  When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos…  (Acts 13:4-6a)

Paul and Barnabas are just starting off on their first missionary journey, landing on the eastern side of the island of Cyprus in a town called Salamis.  They then work their way across the island, preaching the gospel, headed west eventually to reach the capital city of Paphos.  I’m reminded that each of the State Directors for Capitol Ministries is seeking to do the same thing.

In addition to developing ministry initially at the state level in our respective capitol communities, we also want to partner with churches throughout our states to reach leaders on the local level.  This would include elected officers in county commissions, city councils and school boards.  This kind of local outreach can only be done with the involvement of like-minded believers through the state who share the burden to see leaders encouraged by the Word of God.

Instead of Salamis to Paphos, I’m thinking of ways to make this happen from Ocean City to Oakland in the state of Maryland.  Maybe you have a thought on putting together a strategy in your area.  I’d love to hear it!

 

touching the worldThe Paphos Paradigm of ministering to government officials is found at the beginning of Acts 13, and immediately the emphasis on the local church is made.  Five men are listed who were teaching in the Antioch church when two of them (Saul and Barnabas) are singled out for a new task.  Two important things are evident:

1)  The Holy Spirit called Saul and Barnabas – “While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).  There was no strategy session, no committee meeting to express opinions and take a vote.  While this staff of teachers carried out their ministries of teaching and prophecy, the Spirit spoke and called out who He wanted to go on the missions trip.

The process of “the call to ministry” has long been a mysterious source of debate in the Church, but at the core of the issue is the working of the Holy Spirit – in the heart of the one called as well as in the church as a whole, who should observe, pray, affirm and commission the called one.  There’s something deeply inspiring about seeing someone who’s available to follow this spiritual leading and willingly submits themselves to the oversight and authority of the church who also seeks the Spirit’s leading.  This whole endeavor must be initiated and sustained by the Spirit of God.

2)  The church sent Saul and Barnabas – “Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:3).  The “they” in this verse was the Antioch church and it’s a pattern that we must follow today.  What a connection, an identification is in this verse.  The church is behind this effort because it is an extension of its ministry, just in a different location.  Saul and Barnabas aren’t leaving to independently set up their own autonomous work.  They are an extension of their church, still connected, supported and encouraged by them.  They will later return to Antioch to give a report of the trips and be accountable to the church’s leadership (Acts 14:26, 27).

Missions begins and ends with the local church; that’s the pattern in Acts.  Any ministry activity apart from the oversight of the church has no accountability or direction to prevent derailments like discouragement, lack of counsel or doctrinal error.  The partnership and support displayed between the First Church of Antioch and Saul and Barnabas is an indispensable example we must duplicate.

From there, the ministry on Cyprus took off, with the eventual opportunity to witness to the governor.  When Sergius Paulus came to faith in Acts 13:12, it was the result of the church carrying out the mandate to make disciples, not just two men on an independent gospel expedition.  Taking the good news to leaders and everyone else is a responsibility we all share in the church.

May we think of that the next time we see our representatives on TV or in the papers.  The onus is on us to care for them spiritually.