2 May 2022
One of the dangers in the way that Christian mission is sometimes presented in some Christian circles is that it tends towards a triumphalism that dangerously distorts this vital work of the Church. Some of these accounts sound very much like Disney fairy tales where the hero always emerges victorious, while the villains are always vanquished.
However, when we take a hard and truthful look at the (un-cosmesticised) history of Christian mission from its inception in the book of Acts to the present day, we will be confronted by a different and more complex picture.
To be sure, the history of Christian mission does testify to the triumph of God’s grace. But let us not forget that it also tells the stories of countless missionaries and ordinary Christians who have lost their lives because of the Gospel. The history of Christian mission is a bloodstained history. It is a history of suffering, sacrifice and martyrdom.
A number of theologians and missionaries have warned against religious triumphalism.
In his influential book Transforming Mission, the South African theologian David Bosch writes that “Mission is not a triumphalistic enterprise. It is by definition done in weakness”. In a similar vein, Leslie Newbigin, the bishop-theologian who served in India as a missionary for more than 40 years, urges the Church to learn from the New Testament “what it means to bear witness to the gospel from a position not of strength but of weakness”.
Not only must the Church understand that she is to fulfil her God-given mission in weakness, she must also be prepared to face persecution and suffering.
Christian witness and mission will always be met with opposition. It is for this reason that Jesus sent the Seventy and the Twelve with these ominous words: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Matt 10:16). (Read verses 17–42 for the full account of the persecution and opposition that the Church should expect.)
The apostle Paul certainly could not conceive of his apostolic ministry apart from opposition, suffering and even the prospect of death. In perhaps one of the most moving passages in his epistles, Paul alludes to the extreme hardships that he and others like him had to endure for the sake of the Gospel. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8–9).
As Victor Paul Furnish writes, “Paul regards suffering not just as an occasional experience of apostles but as the essential and continuing characteristic of apostolic service.” Hardship, suffering and the threat of death are therefore sine qua non of Paul’s ministry.
The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed more Christians martyred for their faith than all the previous nineteen centuries combined.
At least 45.4 million Christians were martyred during 1900–2000, more than all the centuries before combined (24 million). From 2000¬–10, one million Christians were killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Scholars have estimated that between 2011–25, about 150,000 Christians will die because of the Gospel every year.
Yet, as Ronald Boyd-McMillan has rightly observed, “The fuller story of the contemporary persecuted Church remains a tragically untold story.” But these are stories that need to be told and re-told, for they testify to the uncommon faith and courage of ordinary Christians for whom loyalty to Christ is more important than life itself.
These are stories about Christian discipleship. They have much to teach us about what it means to say that we are Christians, and about the heavy cost that comes with confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.
One of the most important theologians in early Latin Christianity, Tertullian (155–220), famously said that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. This epigram was certainly true in Tertullian’s day where the Church grew rapidly despite the opposition, hostility and persecution it faced.
It remains true in our day as well. Many scholars have observed that the Church is most vibrant in countries where persecution is intense. Persecution has resulted in the loss of many lives, but it has not prevailed against the work of God.
Many of our brothers and sisters across the globe bear witness to the risen Lord in humility and weakness, unfazed by persecution, suffering and even death. Their humble faith shows forth the glory of God and testifies to the triumph of his grace.