The Invisible Church

News reporting is – of necessity – very selective. Some stories are covered at length and in detail, some are accorded a brief mention, others never make it to mainstream media reports. All kinds of factors colour what is served up to readers, listeners and viewers: remoteness, sensation-value, public perceptions of interest or significance, racial, religious and cultural biases, even the simple availability of a reporter to cover a story. It is fascinating to compare the news stories covered by British news media with those from other countries, even in their English-language services. British news consumers are totally in the dark about large tracts of the globe, and are probably little concerned that that is the case. The same probably holds true in most nations.

Many stories never see the light of day. Among them are generally accounts of the pressures faced by the Christian Church in various parts of the world. Perhaps because of a pursuit of ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality’, perhaps because of ignorance, perhaps because of the increasing marginalization of Christianity in the public arena, the hardships endured by many of our brothers and sisters are largely unknown outside a fairly small circle.

Iraq is constantly in the news at present. It appears that, despite continued terrorist outrages, sometimes on a considerable scale, the underlying situation is improving. But not for everyone. As Christians close to the situation will tell you, the predicament of Christians in Iraq is increasingly desperate. In Mosul in the north fanatical terrorists who control the streets are now targeting Christians. Recently twenty Christians were murdered and six homes torched. Unsurprisingly Christians are fleeing the area, leaving everything behind them. One ray of light is that the church in Kirkuk continues to meet and is able to operate a school and a clinic. In contrast, the congregation in Baghdad, which used to number about 1200, is now down to 60 or fewer. Some children’s ministry continues, but the difficulties are great. In Basra fewer than 10 elderly people now meet and all the young have left.

All this in a country where, before the war, Christians enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than in most of the neighbouring countries. The reasons for this were mainly political, but none the less the cause of the gospel was advancing. Now western forces may be – to some degree – in charge, but the church is declining rapidly. Many have fled to safer locations, others would go if they could. It would be hard to blame them.

We could multiply examples from different parts of the world. For many the cost of Christian commitment is high and in some places any Christian activity is covert. In theology we speak of the ‘invisible church’ when we refer to the whole body of true believers, whose composition is known only to the Lord. Not all are happy with the terminology – surely true believers are inevitably visible? In at least one sense, however, there is certainly an ‘invisible’ church – the church unnoticed or ignored by the media, too often unknown even to fellow believers. Success-oriented western churches have little idea what to make of believers struggling for their very existence in harsh and hostile environments, even when they do become aware of their existence. The invisible church is made up of our brothers and sisters in the Lord, for whom we are to pray and whose pain we are to feel (Hebrews 13:3). We should seek to be as well informed about their situation and needs as possible, for prayer and practical support. There is no ‘invisible’ church as far as the Lord is concerned. There should not be for his people either.

Heaven on Earth

‘But our citizenship is in heaven’, Paul writes in Philippians 3:20. There are days, aren’t there, when you feel that as a Christian you really don’t belong in this present world? Our attitudes, our values, our standards of conduct, our entire outlook, seem more and more out of tune with the society we are living in. To many around us we are well-nigh incomprehensible. In the public arena Christians often seem to be fighting a rearguard action for the preservation of such expressions of Christian standards as remain in national laws and institutions. Occasional victories are offset by the sense that the tide is running strongly against us. So far only a few voices suggest that Christianity is actually dangerous and that to teach it to children is abusive, but respect for Christianity, especially when it is depicted as ‘fundamentalist’, is fast ebbing away.

We can sympathise with the Philippians. They did not even have the remnants of a Christian consensus in society to offer some support. They were set down in the midst of a thoroughly pagan city where even the Jewish community was so small that it could not muster enough men to establish a synagogue. All in the congregation were first-generation believers, with no Christian background or experience to provide guidance for godly living in an ungodly world.

They were in effect a colony of heaven, established on earth. To Philippians that was an easy concept to grasp: Philippi had been re-founded in 42AD as a Roman colony for the settlement of discharged veterans from the army that had defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins. Citizens had the same rights as those in Roman cities in Italy. They were a colony of Rome situated in Macedonia.

The Christian colony was in effect a piece of heaven on earth – not in the sense that it was a perfect community with no problems, but in the sense that its citizens derived their life from a heavenly source and owed supreme allegiance to a heavenly King. At times they might be regarded with suspicion by the Roman authorities who were usually paranoid about sedition. Had the city authorities not, a few years earlier, thrown the Christian evangelists Paul and Silas into prison, in the days when the congregation was being established?

Christians then and now serve another King, one whom they know will return to judge the world and complete the salvation of his people. As Paul refers to heaven, that thought of the returning Lord, and the hope which Christians have in him, comes to the forefront of the apostle’s mind. As he says, from heaven ‘we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself’ (Philippians 3:20-21). To be a citizen of heaven is to have a sure hope of glory and victory when Christ returns.

Heavenly citizenship, however, could also be misunderstood to suggest despair regarding the present world, passivity and withdrawal from engagement with society, things of which Christians have often, and sometimes justifiably, been accused. Paul will have none of that. The colony of heaven is placed by the Lord on earth, in a particular geographical, historical and cultural context. The saints Paul addresses are ‘in Christ Jesus … at Philippi’ (1:1). They are not evacuated to heaven. Even the great apostle must stay for the present (1:24-26). So must we. There is work to be done. The Lord leaves his people on earth for a purpose. Although they live ‘in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation’ (2:15), they are to ‘shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life’ (2:15-16). The Lord himself spoke of his disciples as ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14), with the responsibility to let the light shine. We must live in a manner which brings glory to the King whom we serve and the country to which we belong, faithful in proclaiming by life and word the message of salvation and hope which our perishing society desperately needs. Citizens of heaven cannot seek a quiet corner where they can live out their days in as much ease as possible. The Lord has commissioned his Church to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). The light must shine and the Lord’s redeemed will be brought into the Kingdom in preparation for the King’s return.