I live and work in a Muslim nation where, up until recently, Christians and other non-Muslim faith groups have enjoyed favor and relative freedom. The government has provided property for Christians to build meeting halls. Many churches have been openly renting commercial spaces in hotels and warehouses since about 2010 without any government interference or retribution.
And Bibles can be carried openly throughout the country, even though evangelizing Muslims is illegal. Laws have been adopted requiring citizens to refrain from any public speech defaming Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.
But things have just changed.
In recent months, government officials have tightened their interpretation of current laws to regulate gatherings of non-Muslims. Their stated reason is that they want to prevent possible terror groups from forming. Churches whose leaders have not acquired properly recognized ministry licenses are now being found in violation of the law. Churches may no longer meet in hotels or in any other venue outside of the official government-designated church compounds. Violators will potentially face massive fines, imprisonment, deportation, or some mixture of punitive measures.
All faith groups in our country would undoubtedly give unanimous support to the government’s efforts to guard against the formation of potential terror groups. However, these new measures have certainly stymied most church-planting efforts, at least for now. Once freely worshiping in public spaces, with visionary plans to plant additional churches across our international city of millions, churches are huddling up to comply with the latest rulings.
Some churches, determined to comply with what is being called “inconvenience,” not “persecution,” have already ceased their meetings and have merged with other congregations who meet legally on one of the two legal church compounds. Still, other churches continue to meet wherever they can find space, willing to pay whatever cost is demanded for their “unlawful” assembly.
Persecution or Inconvenience?
The question facing Christians in our city is whether these new constraints are, in fact, persecution that justifies civil disobedience, regardless of the cost. Should we draw back from church planting outside of the church compounds in full compliance with governmental restrictions? Furthermore, should we continue with our full effort to execute the Great Commission despite the limited freedom to do so? The Bible is not silent on this question.
It seems clear from both Old and New Testaments that it is proper and godly for Christians to comply with the authorities placed over us by God (Neh. 2:1–8; Rom. 13:1–7). It is also abundantly clear from Scripture that Christians can righteously disobey governing authorities when their laws oppose God’s Word and ways (Dan. 3:8–18; Acts 4:13–20).
“It is abundantly clear from Scripture that Christians can righteously disobey governing authorities when their laws oppose God’s Word and ways.”
The challenge left for us is to prayerfully determine when international constraints actually become persecution. When should obedience to the governing authorities “instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1 ESV) give way to civil disobedience that says, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20 ESV) and “we will not serve your gods” (Dan. 3:18 ESV)?
The Great Commission
Followers of Jesus in every generation must begin their deliberations with the Great Commission. In all Scripture passages where that Commission appears or is hinted at (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46–49; John 20:21; Acts 1:7–8), Christ’s expectation is that his people will faithfully deliver the gospel to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Scripture gives us no wiggle room for compromise on that objective. It’s the founding purpose of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Anything that hinders or delays accomplishing that objective must be relegated to secondary importance.
Failure to Scatter
Obeying God’s commands demands our compliance and allegiance. God was not pleased when the descendants of Noah huddled together in the land of Shinar to build a tower to reach into heaven. They were refusing to populate “abundantly in the earth and multiply in it” as Noah and his sons had been commanded to do in Genesis 9:7 (NKJV). They did not want to be “scattered abroad from there over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4 NKJV). So “the Lord scattered them” (see Gen. 11:1–8 NKJV).
In similar fashion, the Lord scattered the early church huddled up in Jerusalem through persecution. He did so to propel their fulfillment of his command to carry the good news as his witnesses beyond the city into Judea and Samaria, and eventually to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; 8:1).
The final words in the book of Acts describe Paul “teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31 ESV). This is no accident. God wrote the book. Whether Paul was a Roman prisoner sharing the gospel with his guards, or a Roman citizen traveling across the Empire making disciples and planting churches, nothing hindered his faithfulness to his God-given assignment. Enduring imprisonments, beatings, dangers, countless journeys, labors, and hardships, Paul did not allow his circumstances to hinder the proclamation of the gospel or the establishment of churches.
Peter, writing to Christians scattered across the Roman Empire, acknowledged their “various trials” and exhorted them to submit to every human institution of authority, but also to “act as free men” (1 Pet. 1:6; 2:13,16). Both of these men paid for their obedience to God as martyrs. They taught and modeled submission to human authorities, yet neither of them ever allowed that submission to usurp their faithfulness to the Great Commission. Neither should we.
Our Highest Allegiance
Absolutely, we ought to comply as law-abiding citizens in the nations where we serve. But if that hinders the advance of the gospel’s availability to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation? Never! Like the believers in Hebrews 11, our highest allegiance is to God and God alone. If disobeying international constraints leads to the persecution of faithful Christians, so be it. There is no room for compromise when the proclamation of the gospel is at stake.
Gene Lee pastored SBC churches in the US for thirty-three years. Now, he and his wife are self-supported professionals serving as mobilized Christians in the Middle East.