Those living in freedom can be lulled into lethargy. The church in the free world is losing its passion for evangelism and for participation in the public square in conversation with society. It has either lost confidence or conviction to proclaim the faith publically, or it has withdrawn into its shell and agreed with those who think that faith is primarily an individual activity that has no relationship to public life.
William Wilberforce, the great advocate against slavery in Britain, noted that some people say that faith is a private matter and should not be spoken about in public, that it in fact has no place in the public sphere (Real Christianity, 21). No doubt his opponents were using this argument in an attempt to defuse his powerful apologetic against slavery in the British Empire. If he did not raise a public voice, things would have continued as they were. It was his faith that compelled and propelled him into the public square to wrestle with one of the greatest social evils of the nineteenth century (and that still exists today in variety of forms).
Lesslie Newbigin, missionary theologian, warns the Western church not to succumb to the Enlightenment idea that faith is purely a private matter and has no place in the public arena. True evangelism, he said, means that the good news is true news, and therefore it is appropriate to speak of it in the public square. Western societies may wish to bracket faith out of public life and relegate it to private opinion, and those who resist this relegation realize that even in a free society it could be costly for a Christian to speak publicly about their faith. A pluralist culture that views truth as relative cannot tolerate the claim of universal truth that should be believed by everyone.
Christians have the right to witness to their faith and also the obligation to speak out for those who are oppressed because of their faith in Jesus Christ and to press for religious rights and freedoms that are accepted, at least in theory, in most modern nations. Religious rights are given to us by God and Christ has also given us the mandate to witness. Governments need to recognize this. However, governmental, social custom, and family or clan expectations may try to restrict Christian evangelism, which can lead to persecution. When we seek to obey Christ’s mandate, we may place ourselves in jeopardy with our family, culture, or nation. That is the cost many Christians pay.
Wang Ming Dao of China faced opposition and restrictions as he battled against numerous obstacles to continue to preach the gospel. In a book on his life by Thomas Alan Harvey, Harvey comments on the Chinese government’s attempt to suppress Christians and to keep them from sharing their faith. It became clear that whenever the gospel was preached it would meet opposition. At the same time, people were accepting the gospel and were willing to accept the consequences of becoming a Christian. So, the church in China has experienced unprecedented growth and vitality as it seeks to be faithful in a sometimes hostile and restrictive situation.
In a sense, Chinese Christians are free to express their faith. They have the personal freedom in Christ and his blessing as they witness. But, it will be costly to do so. Free world Christians are politically free but are restricted by their perception that their culture disapproves of their witness. It is a strange irony but a real one. It is apparent that free world Christians must break free from their cultural restraints and utilize their freedom to witness to Christ in their context. The question is, are they willing to pay the price?
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.