by Carlos Diaz
As levels of restrictions on Christians increased, God gave wisdom to continue being a strong witness. Three factors played a significant role.
News came to us that the opposing army was racing toward the city. The government forces were making a weak attempt to fend off the invading army. By nightfall, the government forces had snuck out under cover of darkness, leaving the city empty for the arrival of a new regime.
Two months later, this new regime was forcing religious restrictions on the community; these were based on a very strict fundamental interpretation of Islamic laws. Before the new governing religious leaders came into the city, girls were allowed to attend school and women could freely move around the city and participate in the workplace.
Now, young girls could no longer enter a classroom and women were restricted to their homes. Listening to music, watching television, or even having pictures of family members on the wall of a private home was prohibited. Along with these laws came greater restrictions on religious groups outside of Islam. For instance, no religious practice or expression of one’s faith other than that of Islam was allowed. For Christians, gathering and meeting for worship, let alone sharing our faith with others, was extremely dangerous.
For those of us who had been working and serving in the country prior to the new regime, life was difficult and limiting. Even more difficult was communicating the message of Christ to those around us. We knew that although life was difficult, we could continue to live our lives in Christ by quietly serving the physical needs of those around us.
However, we also knew that God had called us not only to live out our faith in quiet practice, but to communicate his message of salvation as well.
Our question now was: With these restrictions forced upon us and the risks involved, even imprisonment, how could we continue to communicate the gospel and teach and support those who had already put their faith in Christ?
We knew that if we were to stay and serve in that country, we had to consider three things. First, we needed to understand the restrictions and limitations placed on us by the government and society. Second, we needed to evaluate the risk involved in sharing the gospel and ask how much risk we were willing to take for ourselves personally, as well as for our team and the local believing community. Third, if we were going to remain and work in the country, we needed to develop a strategy within the restrictions we faced.
By determining the restrictions and risk, and developing an appropriate working strategy and approach, we were eventually able to remain in the country and have a productive ministry through the grace and power of God.
Determining Levels of Restriction and Risk
Within each country, and even within each region of a country, different restrictions and risk levels may exist. For example, in one region of a country, there may be little or no restriction, and a worker may be free to stand out in the open and share and teach others. However, in other regions the worker may face stricter restrictions in sharing the gospel openly. In each situation, the worker must determine the restrictions and risk and how he or she is going to minister to those in the community. Although my experience has been mostly within a Muslim context, similar opposition to the gospel can also be found in regions of other religious groups as well as political ideologists opposed to religious freedom.
As we began to develop our work and help other teams working in different regions, we developed a scale (which we call the R-scale) to determine the level of risk so that we can apply an appropriate approach for each level. R represents the level of restriction and risk that exist in various areas of ministry. The numbers 0-4 shows the level of restriction and risk, with 0 being no restriction or risk and 4 highly-restricted situations with the greatest risk. The R-scale is below.
Developing an Appropriate Approach
As defined by the R-scale, we see that not all areas of ministry are the same. Although a specific strategy or approach may be successful and accepted in one region, it may not be appropriate or possible in other areas. However, a ministry will not need to be stopped. By understanding and adapting to the specific level of risk in a region, one can develop ways to communicate and minister.
If we consider Levels 0–1, we see that a worker has no or very little restriction to consider. The strategy a worker or his or her team would employ could be one of working freely, exposing his or her ministry, and openly communicating the gospel message. Various strategies can be used in such open areas of ministry, from organizing open meetings to which the community can be invited to opening a center to meet the population’s physical needs while freely communicating the Christian faith. Materials such as tracts and media can be freely handed out, and open assemblies are under no threat.
While Levels 0-1 are free of restrictions to both the worker and those who believe and decide to follow Christ, Levels 2-4 differ greatly in that sharing the gospel and teaching those outside the Christian community is highly opposed and may even carry legal punishment and personal suffering. Those restrictions made by the society create great obstacles to both the worker and person open to the message. Yet if a worker is to continue to faithfully minister and make disciples, he or she will obviously have to employ a different approach.
During our first term, we moved into a country in Asia that would be what I consider an R-2. As foreigners, we had the freedom to meet in a church building and work with the local Christian community, but we were restricted by the local authorities, both religious and governmental, in sharing and ministering to those outside the Christian community.
Nevertheless, we still enjoyed the freedom to open Christian bookstores, broadcast Christian radio and television programs, and talk openly with those outside the Christian faith. Our freedom to meet in public and practice our faith openly was a testimony of our faith in Christ to those around us, and the freedom to sit, discuss, and answer questions openly about our faith offered great opportunities and opened many hearts.
Later, my family and team members entered a different area of ministry in an area I would define as R-3. While living under greater restrictions, we still benefited from some freedom to express our faith and gather for worship, but there was no longer a national Christian presence. We were not allowed to communicate through media or literature, and openly sharing our faith could cause immediate expulsion from the country.
A year after moving into this area of ministry, the country fell to R-4. At that time, we were not even allowed to express our personal faith openly, and sharing our faith would bring imprisonment and even death. We were forced to look for ways in which we could continue to work under such restriction and even danger. How could we continue to proclaim and teach those in our community?
As we prayed and sought God for wisdom, we began to see and learn various ways in which we could sensitively and wisely continue to share with those around us. We found we were still free to communicate when we were asked specific questions concerning our faith. Peter instructed the persecuted believers to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks.” He continued, “But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). No matter what situation or place we were in, we always felt free to answer questions concerning our beliefs and explaining why we believed. Although not everyone received our answers, we were still able to give an answer.
We also began to explore how to share our faith in contextualized forms that made the message of Christ clear while not directly speaking against the majority religion. One of these was using the parables Jesus used to communicate truth about God and his kingdom. In our place of ministry, where the population was of an oral tradition, storytelling and proverbs were widely accepted and commonly used. We began to retell selected parables, using vocabulary and forms, especially religious forms that were acceptable to the audience and communicated specific truths about salvation and the Kingdom of God.
One of our favorites was the Pharisee and tax collector found in Luke 18:9-14. As we shared these stories, the Holy Spirit began to open many hearts. Jesus said, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9). We also used other forms such as popular poetry and proverbs to express truth and local folklore to share principles of the Kingdom of God. At times, we would also use their religious books, but with much care and only as a bridge to move to biblical truths.
There are many other forms and methods that can be applied in working in such restricted areas, whether that risk is religious or political. These are but a few examples of some of the practical methods we learned to use to continue to share God’s message. We must remember that as ambassadors of Christ, he will give us the wisdom to know how to speak and what methods to use in fulfilling his Great Commission.
As we seek God and continue to obey his Great Commission, the Lord will lead us and give us the wisdom to share his great news. We do not need to become paralyzed, stop, or limit our work because of restrictions placed on us by worldly authorities who are opposed to the will of God.
However, it is imperative that we become well aware of those restrictions and the levels of risk that exist in the area in which we are serving. Once we understand them, we can develop and apply those appropriate methods to be a witness for Christ. Whether we have open access to sharing the truth or many restrictions, we can continue to share God’s message in love and wisdom.
Levels and Definitions of Restriction and Risk
R-0: Existing religious and political freedom, possible secular state where Christians are allowed to meet freely and propagate and teach their message openly without any opposition. Freedom for individuals to choose which faith to follow without any negative repercussions from government or society.
R-1: Existing religious and political freedom where Christians are allowed to meet freely and propagate and teach their message openly to all. However, while government authority has no laws banning religious freedom or conversion, social and religious opposition exists, and both those propagating and those renouncing their former faith may face great opposition.
R-2: Existing religious and political freedom where Christians are allowed to meet freely and propagate and teach their message openly. However, this is only for those within their own religious group. Proselytizing to a non-Christian with the intention of conversion is illegal, and both those propagating and those renouncing their former faith will face opposition and legal action by either government or religious authority.
R-3: Religious and political freedom is limited and although Christians are allowed to gather and worship, significant restrictions are placed on them by the major faith and government. Christians are considered a lower class, and are denied privileges that the majority community enjoys. Propagating or teaching the Christian message to non-Christians is strictly prohibited by the government and religious authority, and conversion is strictly illegal. The apostate can face imprisonment or the death penalty.
R-4: Religious and political freedoms do not exist. The citizens of this country or area are all considered to be of the majority religion. Anyone propagating another religion will face great opposition and danger, both by the government and religious authority, and conversion is strictly illegal. The apostate can face imprisonment or the death penalty.
Carlos Diaz (pseudonym) is an area leader in Central Asia for TEAM. He has been working with Muslims for twenty-five years. He is also involved in lecturing at theological institutes throughout Latin America as well as coaching teams working in hard-to-access areas around the world.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 90-95. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.