MR #7: The Church: a “History-Making Force
After describing God’s sovereign work in the book of Revelation, Lesslie Newbigin made this incisive statement about the church: “The mission of the church is not merely an interpretation of history; it is . . . a history-making force. It is that through which God brings history to its goal, and only because this is so does it provide the place where the goal of history can be understood” (1989, 131, italics mine).
At first reading this statement seems presumptuous. One sees the weakness of the church and concludes that it is impossible for this anemic body to be a history-making force. While international businesses, national governments, and international agencies appear strong and permanent, the church looks weak and fallible. History has demonstrated, however, that, because of their intrinsic fallibility, these earthly organizations will all disappear, but the church, with divine impetus and empowerment, will continue throughout the ages. As stated in last month’s missiological reflection, the church continues to exist because she is God’s organization, instituted for his purposes. Although composed of humans, the church is much more than a human institution. (Van Rheenen, 2000).
Throughout history the church has thrived as a counter-cultural movement, surviving in weakness despite persecution by the dominant culture. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev “vowed he would achieve what his predecessors failed to achieve–the elimination of religious belief in the USSR.” Patrick Johnstone recorded this fact in Operation World and urged Christians to “pray that his failure may be abundantly demonstrated in the coming years!” (1986, 423). The church, according to Johnstone, survived as a minority despite discrimination in education and employment, attempts to convert Christian children to Communism at home and school, hospitalization based upon the charge that those with religious beliefs suffer from mental illness, legislation indicting Christians for “criminal activities”, and imprisonment in Siberian gulags (1986, 60). In January, 1989, the German official who had supervised the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 stated that he believed that the wall would stand for another one hundred years. Yet the fall of the wall separating East and West occurred that very same year, and the sounds of the fall reverberated politically and philosophically throughout the world. From a human perspective the wall was impenetrable! From a Christian perspective the melting of the iron curtain should not have come as a surprise. In numerous nations–India, China, Laos, Burma, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria–the church survives in weakness and in her weakness works as a history-making force.
How, then, does the church, despite her weakness, serve as a history-making force?
First, the church interprets the designs of God for the world. Imagine, for instance the paradigmic changes which occur when people of a culture come to Christ. I have seen the church among the Kipsigis of Kenya become the voice of God in their villages and cities. Christians speak with God’s voice in meetings about village problems and beyond the villages in civil courts. Their deeds of compassion for the poor depict the heart of God. Their unity of purpose to do God’s will is a testimony of God’s work in their lives.
New Christian rituals reflect a distinctively Christian perspective of reality in every crucial area of Kipsigis life. Christians bless their children as special creations of God instead of participating in traditional rituals to call ancestors into newborn infants. Young men are circumcised in ceremonies teaching them to become disciples of Christ rather than in traditional ceremonies guiding them to depend on traditional animistic rituals. Weddings become evangelistic events in which bride and groom receive the blessing from God rather than blessings of the ancestors. Funerals express the eternal hope of a home with God rather than rebirth in another human existence. Christian leaders of these ceremonies thus become meaning makers, interpreting reality for those not in the kingdom of God (Posterski, 1989, 31-48 ).
Second, the church challenges in word and deed the false allegiances of the world. The Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu repressively ruled Romania for three decades by eliminating all who questioned his authority through oppression, jail, and death. He and his family lived in luxury as his country sank into poverty. Because Ceausescu held to the Communist perspective that “religion was the opium of the people,” Christians were especially targeted by Ceausescu’s security forces. In response, many religious leaders, concluding that to compromise was better than repression and death, joined the Communist Party.
In 1987 Laszlo Tokes became the pastor of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Timisoara, a central town in Transylvania annexed by Romania at the end of World War I. Laszlo’s predecessor was well known as a government collaborator, even wearing the red star of Communism on his clerical robes. Working from within the bounds of the Romanian constitution, which “officially” granted freedom of worship, Laszlo began to preach and teach. To the astonishment of government authorities university students as well as the elderly were greatly attracted by the prophetic ministry of this vibrant young preacher. Within two years membership grew from forty to five thousand, and the growth was spiritual as well as numerical. Thousands committed their lives to God and were discipled.
The response of Ceausescu’s secret police was blatant and hostile. Members were personally threatened and were forced to run a gauntlet of security forces just to attend worship services on Sunday morning. “Merely attending church services became a sign of protest” (Colson 1992, 56). Meanwhile, Tokes was suspended from his ministry, was denied a ration book needed to purchase food and accessories, was personally attacked in his home, and then was scheduled to be exiled to a small village in the country. Tokes, however, refused to accept the eviction and called the members of his church to come at the appointed time–Dec. 15, 1989–to peacefully serve as witnesses.
On that fateful day a revolution began which swept a dictator from office. Members massed protectively around the church building forming a human shield to protect Tokes. Many sympathizers in the city, hearing what was occurring, joined the watch. Telephone calls to Christian believers throughout the city embellished the ranks of the protectors. The city’s mayor told Tokes that he could remain in the church if the people dispersed. But the people, no longer trusting the Communist leaders, rejected the offer. That evening the light from hundreds of candles pierced the darkness, and upon seeing this testimony of faith Tokes reflected, “I do not know where I will be tomorrow or the next day. I know only this moment. And I know that the Spirit of God Himself is with us” (Colson 1992, 59). During the afternoon of the second day, the cries of the crowd began to speak of liberty and freedom, even shouting “Down with Ceausescu! Down with Ceausescu!” What began as a protective watch for Tokes grew into a full-fledged demonstration as part of the crowd went to the city square to amplify their protest. Before dawn on December 17, the Ceausescu’s security forces suddenly broke through the people, entered the church building, beat Tokes, and took him away. Riots began first in the city center and then spread throughout the country. No longer were the people willing to acquiesce to military power to keep a dictator in place. By Christmas 1999, Ceausescu was gone, and Romania was free (Colson 1992, 51-61). Tokes summarized the role of Christians in the uprising, “We did what was dictated for us by our faith through our conscience” (Colson 1992, 63). The story of Laszlo Tokes demonstrates how godly faith can change a nation. A charismatic, godly prophet speaking a kingdom message to bring people back to his flock became the impetus for political revolution.
May we acknowledge the church to be a history-making force!
Colson, Charles. 1992. The Body: Being Light in Darkness. Dallas: Word Publishing.
Johnstone, Patrick. 1986. Operation World. Waynesboro, GA: STL Books.
Posterski, Donald C. 1989. Reinventing Evangelism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Van Rheenen. 2000. Doing “Missions” without the Local Church (Monthly Missiological Reflection #6).