Persecution and Christian Apologetics

crown-of-thornsThe Dynamic Growth of the Church in China

by Bob (XIQIU) Fu

"She never broke when she was tortured with beatings and electrical shocks," wrote Nicholas Kristof, reporting from a remote region of China where police had arrested and brutally interrogated Ma Yuqin. "Even when she was close to death, she refused to disclose the names of members of her congregation or sign a statement renouncing her Christian faith" (New York Times, November 26, 2002).

The mental torture was even worse than the physical, according to Kristof. Throughout her ordeal, Ma Yuqin could hear the sounds of her son being tortured in the next room. Each could hear the screams of the other as they were asked over and over to betray their friends and their faith.

Ma and her family were asleep when police burst into her house one night in May, 2001, and arrested her, her son, and her daughter-in-law.Yu Zhongju, a young Christian woman who dropped by the house, was promptly arrested as well. The police left Ma's 5-year-old grandson behind—alone.

According to interviews with church members and statements smuggled out of prison, dozens of church members were arrested at the same time, beaten with clubs, jolted with cattle prods, and burned with cigarettes. "They used the electrical prods on me all over," Ma said, fighting back the tears again."They wanted to humiliate us."

When they fainted, the imprisoned Christians were revived with buckets of water. Interrogators stomped on the fingers of male prisoners and sexually abused young female prisoners. Yu Zhongju, the young woman who was arrested with Ma's family, was beaten to death while in custody.

For over half a century in China, this kind of treatment has been common for citizens whose only crime is worshiping God. In light of these circumstances, it is amazing that Christianity has not only survived in China but has grown. As Kristof wrote in the New York Times article, "One of the ironies of Christianity in China is that in the first half of the 20th century, thousands of missionaries proselytized freely and yet left a negligible imprint.Yet now, with foreign missionaries banned and the underground church persecuted, Christianity is flourishing in China with tens of millions of believers."

Indeed, in 1949 only 834,000 Chinese Protestants were communicant members. In 1982, an estimated 35 million Chinese were Christian. In 1987 the figure rose to 63 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics.Today, even the officially registered church under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the China Christian Council admits to over 15 million believers, though for every believer who worships in the TSPM churches many more worship in their homes or in the "house churches."

The heaviest concentration of Christian population is in the provinces of Henan in central China and Zhejiang in east Persecution and Christian Apologetics China, just south of Shanghai. On the average, 10 percent of the population in these provinces is Christian. In some villages nearly half of the inhabitants are Christians. Today, thanks to Chinese itinerant evangelists, the gospel has spread to every province, and church groups have sprung up and are engaged in local evangelism in areas once hostile to or ignorant of Christ's message.

How and why is the Chinese church growing so rapidly in the face of government-sanctioned, widespread, and systematic persecution of Christians? Do persecution and suffering play a role in church growth? How do persecuted Christians in China view their suffering?

Response to persecution is a living form of Christian apologetics.

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have been called upon to explain not only what we believe but why we believe it. The apostle Paul spoke of his ministry as "the defense and confirmation of the gospel." Peter said we need to "be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you." This activity of the church came to be known as apologetics.

Apologetics has been defined in traditional Western theology as a rational discipline of "the science and art of defending the faith." It is chiefly concerned with the question of the truth of Jesus Christ. In the days of the Greeks, a person summoned to court to face a charge would present an "apology" or a defense. For Christians, this might mean answering the question,"Why do you believe that Jesus is God?" or, a question often asked today, "Why do you think Christians possess the truth?"

Historically, dominant Western theologians have put excessive emphasis, I believe, on the rational side of apologetics. Today, to many Christians in the West, apologetics is little more than a set of rational propositions and arguments. But Christian apologetics can also take the form of living a life so clearly rooted in and nourished by Christ that our detractors cannot help but be affected by our faith. Peter gives us the golden biblical passage for Christian apologetics when he says,"But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:14, 15). Peter appears to consider persecution as a very natural setting for apologetics. He first warns us not to fear or be intimidated, but to sanctify the Lordship of Christ and to be ready to defend our faith.

This is precisely the response adopted by the Chinese house-church believers. The way they respond to their jailers and torturers demonstrates Christian apologetics in both a defensive and an offensive way. Their willingness to suffer (even die) as well as to love their torturers demonstrates both the reality of the Lordship of Christ and the gospel message of Christ's love, and as these persecuted Christians honor Christ in this way they offend every other belief system. Indeed, it is this offensive quality that has caused Christians to be persecuted in the first place.

The history of the church in China since 1949 has been one of persecution and suffering.Yet by going through different stages of persecution, the Chinese church has been transformed from a timid, foreign-influenced, institutional church into a bold, indigenous, institutionless church, from a dependent "mission church" to an independent "missionary church." It is a church that has followed in the footsteps of her Lord: from betrayal, trial, humiliation, and abandonment to suffering, death, and burial into resurrection and the gift of the Spirit of Pentecost.The historical shape of the suffering church in China resembles the face of the Jesus, Servant of the Lord, who suffered for her.

How, then, do Christians in China interpret the meaning of their persecution? In the 1950s persecution came upon them as a surprise for which they were utterly unprepared. Even during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966-69, many Christians were perplexed by the extreme nature of their suffering.They couldn't help but ask,"How long, Lord, do we have to suffer? Have you forsaken us in your wrath?"

Some, of course, had already come to understand the significance of their suffering during their imprisonment, but many did not come to understand its meaning until they were released from prison and restored to Christian fellowship during 1978-80. From the many interviews I have conducted with Christians inside China, especially those faithful servants of God who suffered long years of imprisonment, I have identified several perspectives on why they believe God has allowed the church in China to suffer persecution.

Persecution and suffering as God's cleansing agency

Most house-church leaders, even some pastors in the TSPM churches, believe that persecution is a tool that God has used to cleanse the Chinese church, separating the "wheat from the tares."

The institutional Protestant church founded by foreign missionaries in the mid-19th century was, until 1949, a fragmented, denominational church which reflected all the idiosyncrasies of Western individualism. Under the denominational structure, a divisive spirit was at work, which Chinese Christians found repellent.Through the destructive hands of the Three-Self movement, denominationalism was, for all practical purposes, eliminated.

The Chinese Protestant church before the "liberation" was by and large dependent upon foreign financial support, leadership, and even ideas. This was due in part to the fact that foreign missions encouraged Chinese ministry to be dependent on them, and maintained a tight control of operations by handpicking employees. When the Chinese church was cut off from Western churches and mission societies, she was obliged to learn to depend solely upon God. Suffering under persecution intensified the need to develop a total dependence upon God.

Prior to 1950 the Chinese church was dominated by professional clericalism.The institutional church was led by a group of full-time professional staff: missionaries, pastors, and evangelists.Very few lay people took part in ministry. The government-sanctioned expulsion, accusation, internment, and laicization of ministerial leadership resulted in the formation of a people's church, commonly known as "house churches," where "body ministry" received its full development.

Ultimately, persecution freed God's people from their earlier dependence on ministers and at the same time freed incarcerated ministers from their dependence on foreign missionaries. More than that, Chinese Christians learned to abandon their former attachment to status and to accept humiliation and disgrace as concomitant with ministry. One evangelist says that suffering allowed him to see that all his earlier ministerial accomplishments were nothing but "hay and stubble"; it afforded a new understanding that Christian ministry is not about following the traditions of men but about doing the work of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Chinese church used to include many "rice Christians," those who joined the church in order to benefit from free medicine, free education, free assistance for studying abroad, or relief in times of natural disasters.

A church of social convenience, it offered mercy without discipline, the gospel of cheap grace. But the tightening pressure of persecution in the 1950s quickly separated the wheat from the tares, the true disciples from the opportunists, and the Body of Christ became stronger for this cleansing.

Persecution and suffering as a training ground for Christian maturity

Those faithful Christians who remained in the church recognize another positive aspect of suffering, namely that God uses it to increase the genuineness of their faith, hope, and love, leading them to greater Christian maturity.

Christians in China are being severely tested in several areas. Many are being forced to choose between continuing to believe in Jesus—in which case their reward is acute physical and mental suffering, imprisonment, and sometimes even death—or recanting their faith under duress. During the early days of the Cultural Revolution, one Catholic faithful was buried up to his neck and given an alternative by a Red Guard:"If you continue to believe in your Jesus, I'll put a bullet into your head. If you stop believing in Jesus, I'll let you out.Which do you choose?" Reports tell us that he chose the former. In such a situation, the temptation is strong to confess Jesus in one's heart while denying him verbally, hoping that God will understand. But Jesus asks us to confess him publicly. Believers who survive such a test become more assured of their faith and treasure it more dearly.

Another agonizing choice—when put under the kind of excruciating pressure experienced during the Cultural Revolution's staged "people's court" proceedings, for example— is whether to speak the truth and face the consequences or to bear false witness against fellow believers and thus save one's own skin. Incarcerated Christians are sometimes offered lighter sentences or even food in order to encourage them to incriminate others.The choice is between love and suffering on the one hand and betrayal and eased suffering on the other.Some Christians have played the part of Judas, while others have come to understand the true cost of love.

Another trial comes in the temptation to abandon all hope. Christians who have spent 10 or more years in prison say that it would have been easier to die for Christ than to keep on hoping in situations of utter despair. Doubts about the reality and the faithfulness of God hound them:"Does God really care?" they ask themselves; "Does he see all that I am going through?";"Do I believe in a living God or am I suffering just for a set of ideas?" Only the indwelling testimony of the Holy Spirit can help them maintain their faith in a situation of apparent hopelessness.

Although the situation for Chinese Christians is not nearly as intolerable as it was during the Cultural Revolution, they are still forced to choose between loyalty to Christ and obedience to the government's demands in situations of conflict. As the TSPM implements the Communist Party's religious policy, some Christian leaders, in spite of their earlier suffering, are giving in and accepting the limited but legitimized ministry offered by the TSPM. Others are making a definitive choice to "obey God rather than man"—but then they are forbidden to preach the gospel freely.This is the test of Lordship:Whom will I obey—Christ or Caesar?

Christian maturity leads to obedience, just as obedience leads to spiritual maturity. But left to its own devices the human will follows its own promptings rather than those of the Holy Spirit.We asked one Chinese pastor who suffered 14 years of imprisonment what he had learned from the experience."I learned obedience through suffering" was his reply. Prison deprives humans of freedom, and thus is tantamount to a denial of the will. Christians in prison are forced to accept their helplessness and abandon themselves solely to the mercy of God. Such self-abandonment opens the way to a life of grace that flows from the love of God.

Persecution and suffering as a path to union with Christ
By sharing in Christ's suffering and bearing his disgrace (1 Pet. 4:12-13;Heb. 13:12-13), Chinese Christians have come to understand the meaning of union with Christ, a union that leads not only to suffering but also to resurrection.They experienced the power of that resurrection when, through the Holy Spirit, they overcame the power of sin in their lives, they overcame demonic power in exorcism, and they witnessed God delivering them from the Satanic power at work in their oppressors. Experiencing the power of the resurrection has enabled Chinese believers to experience more fully the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their lives: love, peace, joy, longsuffering, tenderness, kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, boldness, etc., so that their lives shine more brilliantly in the midst of gloom and human despair.

Persecution and suffering have enabled Chinese Christians to develop a clearer vision of God, an intense love for Christ, and a sure hope for the incorruptible inheritance which God has prepared for them in the heavenly places. Longing for an early union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the midst of endless suffering has produced in them an intense hope for the imminent return of Christ. Through their hope we are able to understand how Christians in the early church hoped for the rapid return of Christ.

Thus, in summary, many Christians in China interpret the last 50 years of prolonged suffering as a gift of God's profound grace to the Chinese church, cleansing her from impurities, testing the genuineness of their faith, maturing them, and leading them into a deeper experience of Christ.

What this means for the Body of Christ today

The government initially sentenced five of sister Ma's church members to death. Ma herself was released because she was so sick that the authorities feared she would die in prison, but her son, Long Feng, was sent to labor camp where the guards incited other convicts to beat him up.

At the end of his interview,Kristof wrote,"I had assumed that Ms. Ma, like all the other church members I interviewed, would not want her name published. 'No,' she said firmly, 'use my name. I'm not afraid. The police are afraid of foreign pressure, but I'm not afraid of them.'" The police do indeed fear foreign pressure, but what they fear far more is Christianity itself. What can they do in the face of a Savior so powerful that his followers will suffer torture and death rather than betray their Lord? Pitted against such a faith, the dominant forces of this world are rendered impotent.

Dr. Jonathan Chao, an internationally renowned Chinese church historian, told me a story some years ago, while he was director of the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong. An American Bible school student came to his Center for a month-long summer internship. But before leaving America, this student told a friend about all that Christians in China were suffering. His friend responded,"If God loves the Chinese church so much, why does he allow her to suffer such persecution?" The youth had no answer at the time. While in Hong Kong he made several trips into China during which he fellowshipped with house-church leaders who had survived much suffering and were now zealous evangelists. "I am going to return my friend's question," the young man told Dr. Chao. "If God loves the American church so much, why doesn't he allow us to suffer persecution so that our churches might be purified, our faith strengthened, and our relationship with Christ deepened to serve him wholeheartedly?"While this response may seem a bit oversimplified from a Christian apologetic perspective, and certainly persecution and suffering are not to be sought out, his statement does recognize and reveal a poignant relationship between persecution and Christian apologetics.

Douglas Groothuis, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, has written an article called "Six Enemies of Apologetic Engagement" in which he focuses on the weaknesses of Western evangelicalism. One of the enemies he identifies is cowardice. He states:

In our pluralistic culture, a "live and let live" attitude is the norm, and a capitulation to social pressure haunts evangelicalism
and drains its convictions.Too many evangelicals are more concerned about being "nice" and "tolerant" than being biblical or faithful to the exclusive gospel found in their Bibles. Not enough evangelicals are willing to= present and defend their faith in challenging situations, whether at school, at work, or in other public settings. The temptation is to privatize faith, to insulate and isolate it from public life entirely.Yes, we are Christians (in our hearts), but we have difficulty engaging anyone with what we believe and why we believe it.This is nothing less than cowardice and a betrayal of what we say we believe.

Consider Paul's inspired request for prayer and his admonition to us:"Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Col. 4:2-6).

We may experience rejection, but Jesus said that when we are persecuted for his name's sake we are "blessed."
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matt. 5:11-12).The apostle Peter echoes his Master: "If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you" (1 Pet. 4:14).

On the other hand, when the Holy Spirit blesses our efforts, people will respond with interest and even saving faith (Rom. 1:16). We must never forget that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, and that he has commissioned us to declare and defend his gospel (Matt.28:18-20).

In their response to cruel interrogators and torturers, the Chinese house-church Christians have been engaging in what I consider an action-based, living form of Christian apologetics. An enduring, death-defying faith makes an impact that cannot be ignored.After all, if the core of Christianity is, as Paul says, the gospel of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection, what better way to defend this faith than to accept suffering willingly, to show tenderness and love to one's torturers, and to face death without fear?

They might know nothing of Plato or Aristotle, of Reformed or Wesleyan theology, of evidentialism or presuppositionalism, but in their response to suffering and persecution the Chinese Christians have been actively demonstrating one great Truth: They know the living Christ.This form of apologetics in action has left interrogators trembling, has inspired their fellow unbelieving prisoners to seek Christ's strength, has prompted their relatives and neighbors to wonder who this Jesus, supposedly a "foreign devil," might be.Time and again those who witness such a faith throw up their hands in amazement, bow their heads in humility, and ask the same question asked of Peter and Paul in a Roman prison 2000 years ago:"Brother, what shall I do to be saved?"

One individual after another, one family after another, one village after another, one city after another, one prison cell after another, one by one, they start kneeling down, confessing the name of Jesus. Christianity is living truth, and it should be preached and defended as such.

Born and raised in mainland China, Bob (Xiqiu) Fu was a housechurch pastor in Beijing and English lecturer at the Beijing Party School of the Chinese Communist Party before being arrested, along with his wife, as an "illegal evangelist" in 1996.They escaped to Hong Kong after their release and moved to the United States in 1997. Today Fu is president of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit China Aid Association ( and the China analyst for Voice of the Martyrs USA (



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