About eighteen months ago, an elder from our church and I were privileged to travel from Atlanta and teach at an incredible seminary in China. In recent weeks, this seminary has been targeted and persecuted. Some of those young, brave student-warriors we taught have been recently and regularly arrested. Churches, schools, and seminaries have been ordered to close by a government that wishes to forbid worship of any rival king. Does this sound like the familiar Advent narrative in Matthew?
During that 2017 visit, we were able to move freely in Chengdu in southwestern China as I taught on “Calvin for Today” and spoke at the first graduation of an infant seminary there. The sixty students were as impressive as at any Western graduate school. The opulence and wealth of the city (itself twice as large as New York) was also stunning. The opportunities for the gospel are even greater. We were blessed to have meals and fellowship with some of the top leaders of the Reformed churches in China, which now has many presbyteries.
Following on that, in 2018 we partnered with Ligonier to establish “The R.C. Sproul Lectures in Theology” at that seminary, with an excellent series of lectures on Reformed worship in August 2018, and had planned to hold lectures on expository preaching and pastoral ministry from leading experts in future years.
And we all realize that doors that swing open . . . may also close quickly. Following recent decrees, churches in China have been harassed, threatened, oppressed, and persecuted. But as in the first Advent, they still look intently to the one and only King. To be sure, they are subject to the governing authorities (see this recent phenomenal statement from a senior pastor in Chengdu), and they know that God must protect them when evil decrees are issued.
Shall we fail to pray for this new church, which—with its over one hundred million believers—may have become the largest, if not most committed, communion in our time? And should it be any surprise that powers of evil would like to abort this movement and its sons, lest they rival an earthly throne?
I am so very thankful for the spiritually mature and brave responses from leaders in the Chinese church. Their words hearken back to those of first-century Christians who faced state-sanctioned persecution with courage. Like the saints of the past, they know that Jesus reigns. One statement in particular from August 2015 should be valued as highly as those from Barmen or Birmingham:
No governments or social institutions have the power to manage or judge a person’s conscience, faith, and religion. Worldly power is limited to managing and protecting a person’s outer body, properties, and public goods and orders. In any definition, the Christian faith is not the affairs of any national government. No government agencies or its associates have the rights to interfere, monitor, or direct the Church’s doctrines, officers, or any Gospel-related ministries. Also it cannot take away or limit the Church’s rights to preaching and sacraments.
These words sound as if they were taken right out of the Protestant Reformation. It’s no wonder, for these Christians are cherishing the contributions of Reformed Christianity. Yes, this is a courageous church that is more grown-up, far less narcissistic, more realistic, and more committed than much of Western Christianity.
At Advent, we recall another wicked king who ordered wholesale murder as his flimsy reign was threatened. Again today, we see the true church being protected while under the cross. Should we not pray for these friends and martyrs? Why not join together at Advent and use one of the most potent means of grace that our Lord Himself ordained to intercede for these churches, pastors, and elders? May each of our churches join in prayer this Advent, and may God protect and bless these saints as He humbles us to admire many who are our superiors.
Dr. David W. Hall is senior pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Ga. He is author of The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding.