The China Christian Council runs all the Three Self Patriotic Movement Churches in China. These are Government recognised and approved churches. The Council reports to the Communist Government and controls the life of the Churches, the training and appointment of ministers, and keeps track of the members. There are millions of Christians in China who are obedient to the Council of Churches. They quietly go about their worship. No-one under 18 is allowed in their services. There are no Sunday Schools or youth clubs, no evangelism, no preaching on themes such as salvation, heaven or the second coming of Christ. Ministers are given preaching themes and must make no social comment.
Other Christians in China feel they have freedom in Christ beyond these restrictions. So they do not obey the councils of the church. The church leaders tell them they must obey or else suffer the full penalties of the law. They still refuse to obey what they see are wrong commands of the councils of the church. They acknowledge the leaders are Christian, are in positions of power and are approved by the Government. Yet they will not obey. So they are forced underground. They cannot openly worship. They cannot meet in a church building. If discovered, the pastors are imprisoned. Their members have their electricity cut off, their access to education stopped, and their employment ended. To defy the Councils of the Church has painful penalties. But they still defy the Government, the police in their green uniforms, and the church Councils. One such leader, Peter Xu, was sentenced last November to ten years jail for what the authorities described as disturbing the peace.
One of his pastors told me his home church has grown phenomenally over several provinces with hundreds of young pastors leading thousands of home churches with a combined membership of over three million believers. They pray for their leader in conflict with the council of the church. Some of these house churches, or home churches as they prefer to call them, meet under ground. In the province of Shaanxi, north west of Shanghai there are thousands of houses built into hillside caves. Many of these caves were occupied by the Communist Army after the Long March. Mao Zedong lived in one of these caves in 1936 and 1937. It is now preserved as a museum. The caves are carved into rooms, the ceilings and walls are plastered and painted. The front door is surrounded by large windows made of translucent paper rather than glass.
Many secret caves have been enlarged to take house church meetings. Their entrances are known only to the baptised. In the village of Yan'an, a Christian leader Ten Su, if he is convinced that you are a genuine Christian who will not betray them, will take you into a cave house. Then a curtain is drawn back, and you enter on hands and knees through a small hole in the wall. After ten metres of darkness you emerge into several large caves lit by electric light. Against one wall are hundreds of boxes of lead type for every Chinese character in the alphabet. In another room a printing press churns out thousands of pages of Bible study notes and hymns. They are printing the studies for hundreds of thousands of Christians in their area. It is a privilege to stand there. You promise yourself that nothing you will say will ever betray them. Even my telling you this story has been disguised.
Should Christians have to hide from Church councils? In China, official church leaders compromised themselves by accepting community standards. Underground Christians do not allow the community to control their obedience to Christ. Even in our country church councils can adopt the standards and morals of the non-Christian community. Then the believer may be in conflict with the church council. Even the early church faced this.
1. THE COMPROMISING CHURCH COUNCIL.
The Apostles, led by Peter and John were joined in Jerusalem by James the brother of Jesus. He had seen Jesus after the resurrection and believed. With his training as a priest, James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Christianity remained Jewish; not just in its origins, but in its understanding, practises and culture. But up in what we call Turkey, a brilliant man was converting people of his own country. Paul was the Apostle to the non-Jews or Gentiles. They were not compromised by Jewish culture. But he heard that in Jerusalem there were Christians who were making non-Jews adopt Jewish customs before they could become Christian. Gentile men converts had to be circumcised like Jewish boys. So Paul headed for Jerusalem taking a Gentile believer, Titus a Greek.
Paul later wrote to the people back home Gal 2:1-2 "Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 2 I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain."
2. CONFRONTING THE COMPROMISING CHURCH COUNCIL.
It was a daring Paul and a brave Titus who confronted the distinguished leaders of the Church. They had been with Jesus for three years. They had witnessed the risen Christ. They had courageously faced the Sanhedrin and proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. They had endured beatings and imprisonment for their faith. They were proud to be Jews who knew the Messiah. Some immediately urged Titus to be circumcised. These Christians Paul called: "false brothers". Paul prevailed. Gal 2:3-5 "Yet Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you."
The Church Council in Jerusalem agreed on this matter so hurtful to many new believers away from the capital city. Paul saw the bigger issue. It was not just a matter of circumcision. It entailed their obedience to the Gospel. All that had to be done was to trust and obey Jesus Christ: trusting in Him for salvation and obeying His commands. What caused this conflict between the members of the church council and Christians in local churches? 4 "This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus." These are powerful accusations. The people causing the problem were those Paul said "infiltrated our ranks." He deliberately uses a military term indicating secrecy and division. Yet they were on the councils of the church! Little wonder there was soon to be conflict.
3. IT TAKES COURAGE TO CONFRONT COMPROMISERS.
Paul was not impressed by the status Peter, John and James assumed as leaders of the church. They might think they were important, sitting in Jerusalem issuing written communiques to the churches following the Council of Jerusalem. But Paul was not impressed. Gal 2:6-10 "As for those who seemed to be important, whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance." Paul needed nothing from those in leadership. "Those men added nothing to my message. 7 On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. 8 For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles."
Paul spoke to the leaders privately, but he was not taken in by their self-importance. He describes them as "those who seemed to be important". He described the three senior leaders 9 James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars,.." Paul refers to the church leaders in an interesting way: "those who seemed to be leaders", "those who seemed to be important", "those reputed to be pillars..". Paul was not impressed with their reputation. "Whatever they were makes no difference to me." He respects them as Apostles, but has little regard for them when they compromised their faith.
The church leaders were troubled by Paul, yet they tried to keep the peace. 9 "They gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews."
They recognised God was working in Paul, so they shook hands with him, and sent him off with a reminder of some acts of social justice 10 "All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do." But Paul did not leave it there. For soon after, he felt compelled to publicly rebuke Peter. Gal 2:11-14 "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?"
The church leaders would not have liked that! Paul said they "were clearly in the wrong". Paul described Peter's behaviour as "hypocrisy" - without integrity, agreeing with the truth of the Gospel one moment and succumbing to local culture the next. Paul called Peter to a clear standard of commitment the Gospel of Christ and to obey His commands. To Peter's credit, that is exactly what he did. The result? The whole church turned from being captives to their cultural mores, and started growing as it took the Gospel to every person regardless of what the rest of society thought. To be Christian was to accept the way and will of Jesus Christ and not to live as others about them. It took a lot of humility for Peter, James and John to agree with Paul.
Others may have thrown the book at Paul, set up committees of investigation and sat for hours discussing how they could preserve their status in the eyes believers. But Peter, James and John accepted the fact they were in the wrong, and gave to Paul and Titus the "right hand of fellowship."
I wish it ended there. But it didn't. Typically the leaders took the issue back to the Church Council of Jerusalem. They created a whole lot of additional regulations, sent out a letter to the elders of every congregation Acts 15:12-35 and deputed a committee to explain it to congregations. The churches rejoiced head office accepted salvation by faith alone. However the members were required to keep Jewish dietary laws, and to avoid sexual immorality.
This issue is important today. Many members feel the councils of the church do not hear them. Members see church leaders caught in the social culture and moral standards of our times. Private discussion is important, but if necessary so is public confrontation. Church Councils are composed of committed and sincere people. But they may be sincerely wrong! How can you know if you or they are right? By doing what Paul did: submitting his views and arguments under the authority of the word of Jesus Christ. Christ is the living Word to whom we hold total obedience. We have the written word and nothing in the written word conflicts with His will, but rather it reveals it to us. There must be complete submission to Jesus Christ. This means obeying what is in the scriptures and not being seduced by the standards of society. That is the very choice the Chinese Christians are making. Ours must be the same choice and the same courage.
REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:
ONLY ONE WAY J R W Stott IVP 1976
THE EXPOSITORS BIBLE COMMENTARY F E Gaebelein Ed, Vol 10 Zondervan 1997
THE INTERPRETERS BIBLE Vol 10 R T Stamm Abingdon 1953
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