Listening to the news about Iraq brought a different response from me than before. I had just finished reading The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins and my response was—“They’re still at it.” In a phrase attributed to Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again!” The book is about how the great churches of the Middle East in the first few centuries of Christianity essentially collapsed, and many totally disappeared after decades of invasions, persecution, coercion to convert to Islam, and massacres. Churches, clergy, institutions, libraries, whole villages destroyed. Those that still exist (and have survived under the most severe difficulties) periodically face severe pressures unknown to us in the West.
Much of the world thinks of Christianity as Western. The Western church became predominant by default—it was the last one standing after the collapse of the great churches of the Middle East. The attempt to decimate the church and to push it into extinction is not a new tactic—Satan has been raging a long time and periodically we get a glimpse of the ugliness of his evil. He doesn’t appear to be losing interest in destroying God’s people.
Jenkins writes that the ancient church in Iraq had reached a high level of development by AD 800, one that the Latin Church in the West would not reach until the 1300s. Cities like Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk, as well as Tikrit—the hometown of Saddam Hussain—were important Christian centers even into the Middle Ages. Eventually they were, in essence, beaten down, some to death, by invaders and Islam. Present-day radical Muslims want to finish the job but wish to carry on their program of eradication around the world, including and especially in the West.
We have misunderstood the passage in Matthew 16:18 where it says that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. The church will ultimately prevail but in certain locales, it is being beaten out of existence. We need to embrace this fact and deal with it realistically and with maturity. We need to be careful of false “triumphalism,” which is what we easily fall prey to when we don’t have the whole picture. While Christianity is seeing great success in some places, it is being systematically decimated in others. VOM and others like us are not always appreciated for bringing up this fact. Many Christians wish to ignore it with the hope that it will go away. Bad news—it will not go away until Jesus comes again. Most likely it will get worse.
In the meantime, what we don’t want to see can hurt us. It is already hurting us. Presently it is hurting others far more than us in the West, and to ignore this robs us of the opportunity to pray for and encourage those who are going through persecution at this very moment. To shun those who are suffering for Christ is to shun Christ himself. That is certainly not the wise way to deal with the problem.
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.
Disclosure: VOM is part of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on the link in this post and purchase the book from Amazon, VOM will receive a very small percentage of your purchase as a referral fee.