In recent weeks, over 100 members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, have been imprisoned. Among them is Pastor Wang Yi, one of China’s foremost Protestant pastors and Christian leaders. Foreseeing this possibility, Pastor Yi drafted a letter, “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” leaving it in the keeping of his church to be released in the event that his imprisonment lasted more than 48 hours.
It has, and the letter, released December 12, is drawing international attention for putting a stake in the ground for the sake of gospel witness amidst fierce, intensifying persecution.
Speaking of his faith-motivated civil disobedience, Yi writes:
“My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws. But this does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense ‘fighting for rights’ or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is the disruption of man’s sinful nature by this faithful disobedience and the testimony it bears for the cross of Christ. As a pastor, my disobedience is one part of the gospel commission. Christ’s great commission requires of us great disobedience. The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.”
The letter is well worth our prayerful reflection and meditation. His exhortations are like the salve and refined gold our Lord counseled the lukewarm Laodiceans to buy to heal their terminal complacency. Pastor Yi is as much a statement to American evangelicalism as he is a witness to the Communist Party in China.
The lessons we can learn from this faithful brother are too numerous for this post. Instead, I’d like to focus on one point of application: how Christians approach culture.
When my son was in Little League, his coach’s simple, often-repeated instructions on pitching technique became etched on my memory: point, step, and throw. Though this regimented approach produces some rather rigid pitches, it instills at least one important lesson with that extends beyond baseball: you hit what you aim at.
In the church, however, we’ve forgotten this principle.
We evangelicals are experts at tying ourselves in knots over how to relate to culture. We work ourselves into fits wrestling down the happy medium between isolation and immersion, monasticism and moral crusading, Anabaptist aloofness and Constantinian conquest. We know there’s a sweet spot between ignoring our suffering neighbors along the proverbial road to Jericho, heads in the clouds and noses stuffed in our Bibles, and the opposite error of burning heretics at the stake.
On one hand, we are called pilgrims passing through a fallen world into eternity. On the other, we are called to preach the gospel, disciple the nations, and be the very hands and feet of King Jesus as he subdues the world under his saving power—which requires us to in some sense belong here. Our heavenly citizenship requires us to maintain a knife’s-edge balance between being in and not of the world. And of course, this very balancing act itself can become an intellectual exercise that keeps us from engaging our surroundings.
One attempt to synthesize the Christian’s dual callings is put forward by sociologist James Davison Hunter, who coined the term “faithful presence” in his 2010 work To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Hunter draws this ethic from Jeremiah 29:7, in which the Jewish exiles are told to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
The fact that Christians are called to maintain a faithful presence in a hostile world is a helpful insight, true on its face. We are salt and light, called to carry out lives of ordinary obedience before God in the midst of a watching world. When we’re faithful in the small things, God does the rest.
But as with baseball, we still have to aim our pitch. Knowing not to throw the ball up into the stands nor roll it to the batter isn’t the same eyeing the target. Point, step, and throw.
Our notion of presence can quickly become passive. If we forget that Christ is putting his enemies under his feet (Psalm 110:1), saving all his elect (2 Peter 3:9), working all things together for good (Romans 8:28), and orchestrating history towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the consummation of his kingdom (Revelation 11:15), our individuals lives, families, and churches will lack aim. We may accumulate some saved souls along the way, like moss on the proverbial stone, but we won’t know where the Rock is rolling.
Faithful presence is more than just showing up. Tasteless salt and concealed light are useless (Matthew 5:13-15). To the extent that it faithfully preaches the gospel, the church is present in the world in the same way yeast permeates dough (Matthew 13:33). The dough cannot remain unchanged.
This begs the question, returning to Jeremiah 29: how precisely do we seek the welfare of the city? What is the point of our faithful, permeating presence?
In China, as in any nation whose leaders oppose the gospel, it’s evident that unbelievers grasp the subversive nature of the gospel before most well-meaning Christians do. For them, “Jesus is Lord” carries the clear subtext, “Caesar isn’t.” Hence the current attempt on the government’s part to Sinicize everything—including religion.
For Pastor Yi, living amidst such a hostile context, faithful presence means faithful disobedience. We are to aim even our own sufferings at the target of testifying to the kingdom of God. And I would argue that Yi’s application of Jeremiah 29:7 is identical to that of another biblical figure: Daniel.
Blessing the City Means Knees Will Bow
Like Yi, Daniel was present, but not passive. We know Daniel was a fastidious student of Scripture, familiar with Jeremiah’s prophecies of the exile (see Daniel 9:2). Surely he was familiar with the prophet’s counsel to the deported Jews to put down roots in pagan Babylon, trusting that God would bless them, lead them out, and bless Babylon in the process. Daniel’s life, thus, is a chronicle of faithful presence—whether it landed him in public office or the lions’ den.
But the point of Daniel isn’t just one man’s faithfulness. We can’t miss what God did through Daniel in Babylon.
Knees started to bow. The tyrannical, bloodthirsty King Nebuchadnezzar himself—whose name literally means “may Nebo protect the crown”—was forced to acknowledge the supremacy of Yahweh on multiple occasions. Chastised for his hubris, Nebuchadnezzar finally confessed:
“At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’… Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Daniel 4:34-35, 37)
Daniel’s faithfulness bore fruit. He knew how to aim. True, Israel never annexed Babylon into the theocracy. That wasn’t the point. But what did happen was a response to faithful witness: worship.
“For he (Jesus) must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).
Seeking the blessing of the city means knees will bow.
In China, someday every knee will eventually bow in conversion or in judgment. The same is true for the West. The question is whether we are prepared to wait and suffer for the long-term results of such faithful presence.
It has been said that Christianity advances through victories cleverly disguised as defeats. Among such apparent defeats are the imprisonment of Daniel, the arrest of Pastor Yi, and the cross of Christ.
This is not a cause for blind, humanistic triumphalism. We must reject both blind triumphalism and isolationist defeatism, acknowledging that the victory belongs to Christ, and he will attain it with or without us. Indeed, he already has. His universal, cosmic authority authorizes us to aim high, step, and throw. And since crowns always follow crosses, we can stop tying ourselves in knots debating how to engage culture. Instead, we can be faithfully, disobediently present—and God will do the rest.
Including making every knee bow.