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I Understand
Volume 5.1 / Overlooked Mentors: What Can Persecuted Christians Teach Us About Leadership?


Overlooked Mentors: What Can Persecuted Christians Teach Us About Leadership?

Brent L. Kipfer
For one-fifth of the global church, leadership is exercised in contexts of persecution. Despite growing popular and scholarly interest in both persecution and leadership, there has been little dialogue between these fields or investigation into the experience of persecuted leaders. This article calls for intentional, sustained study of Christian leadership under persecution, considering the challenges of faithful witness to Jesus Christ under such conditions, biblical perspectives, the relevance of leadership theory, and benefits for the global church – including persecuted communities, missionaries and those who enjoy significant religious freedom. The leadership theory of Robert E. Quinn is one example of a promising research model tested in relation to the case of Meserete Kristos Church leadership in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.

1. Introduction

Christian leadership, in countless communities around the world, is forged in the heat of persecution.[1] Five hundred million followers of Jesus Christ in over sixty-five countries face significant restrictions on expressing their faith, including limits on worship gatherings, public identification as a Christian, evangelism and/or ownership of a Bible. While the nature and intensity of persecution varies widely between regions, cultures, and nations, many risk public humiliation, ostracism, beatings, prison, torture, and even death because of their allegiance to and witness for Jesus.[2] Like the writers and original audiences of the New Testament, they understand that leadership—as an expression of discipleship—is inherently costly. Even so, many who embrace this call from God lead others with exceptional purpose, integrity, love, and creativity. Most serve in obscurity but have much to teach the global church about faithful, sacrificial, and courageous Christian leadership. Unfortunately, their voices and experiences are absent in leadership studies and literature, both popular and academic.

This article explores the pressing need for research into the experience of persecuted leaders, considering a) the challenge of leadership while under persecution; b) the absence of cross-pollination between the fields of leadership and persecution studies; c) biblical perspectives; d) the relevance of current leadership theory, with attention to the work of Robert E. Quinn; e) the case of the Meserete Kristos Church during the persecution of the Derg regime in Ethiopia; and f) potential benefits for the global church, including persecuted communities, missionaries, and those who enjoy religious freedom.

2.  Impacts of Persecution on the Church and Its Leaders

Christians in Western democracies sometimes romanticize the effect of persecution on churches, assuming it inevitably leads to growth, citing Tertullian’s adage that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”[3] Churches often do report positive ministry outcomes in environments of persecution, such as the following: 

  • Personal spiritual growth, and heightened commitment to Christ; 
  • Exceptional corporate vitality as the church more deeply relies on the Holy Spirit;
  • Miraculous answers to prayer;
  • Revelation of God’s grace and power as believers show love to persecutors;
  • Interest and respect from people who would otherwise ignore Christianity as they see believers’ courage and witness to Christ;
  • Reduced nominalism among believers;
  • Expressions of love and care shared between suffering believers; and/or
  • Numerical growth.[4]

Even so, persecution is intended to undermine the advance of the gospel and the well-being of Christians. Such hostility inflicts both short-term and long-term harm on individuals and churches, sometimes resulting in the following:

  • Emotional, physical, and spiritual pain for victims of persecution;
  • Believers denying their faith to escape suffering;
  • Disempowering fear;
  • Reduced integrity for Christians who hide their faith or make moral compromises to survive;
  • Privatization of faith as believers avoid attention from persecutors;
  • Evangelism stifled by disciples’ discouragement and desire to avoid suffering, and potential converts’ fear of persecution;
  • A climate of mistrust between individuals and groups, making churches susceptible to division;
  • Local churches isolated from other congregations;
  • Churches becoming closed subcultures marked by legalism, defensiveness, and suspicion toward change;
  • Weakened confidence in the gospel due to anti-Christian propaganda;
  • The loss of effective witness to Christ if believers respond with violence, feeding into a spiral of religious conflict; and/or
  • The death of congregations or the end of Christian witness in a region.[5]

The need for committed, creative leadership is acute in contexts of persecution. At the same time, Christian leaders are often targeted for attack, as opponents of the gospel seek to weaken and eliminate their influence. While many remain faithful to Jesus Christ and those whom they serve, some:

  • Cease giving leadership due to apostasy, fear, exile, or death;
  • Are hindered by physical and emotional results of persecution, including injury, lack of sleep, debilitating fear, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • Compromise their faith and call, undermining their moral authority and followers’ trust;
  • Conform to persecutors’ demands, such as limiting preaching to “safe” topics;
  • Imitate dysfunctional leadership norms modeled by those who persecute them;
  • Experience insecurity and tension in their marriages and families due to pressures of persecution; and/or
  • Feel regret, guilt, and shame when their responses to persecution are not as loving and faith-filled as they would like them to be.[6]

Persecution does not, in and of itself, transform Christian leaders into super-saints or spiritual heroes. Even so, men and women who lead others in the mission of Jesus Christ – at potentially great personal cost – are profoundly shaped by the experience, and often exercise transformational influence in the lives of others.

3.  Persecution and Leadership: Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Learning

In the past thirty years, interest in both persecution and leadership—as popular topics and fields of interdisciplinary study—has grown dramatically. While the volume of institutional resources, research, and literature devoted to leadership vastly overwhelms that focused on persecution, each has captured the attention of broad audiences and academics, inside and outside the Christian church. They have remained, however, separate domains of inquiry, with little overlap or conversation between them.

3.1  Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom: Growing Interest

Christians have been writing about persecution since the formation of the New Testament. In the first centuries of the church, accounts of martyrs’ faithful witness to Christ encouraged believers to persevere. Much later, post-Reformation martyr histories tended to reinforce denominational identities and priorities, as well as inspiring radical commitment to Jesus. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, numerous biographies of persecuted believers, country-specific accounts of the suffering church, works of biblical and theological reflection, and statistical studies on the topic of persecution have been published.[7] Advocacy organizations like Open Doors International, Voice of the Martyrs, the Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and Aid to the Church in Need regularly publicize incidents of religious persecution. Within the past fifteen years, there has also been an upsurge in scholarly reflection on the persecution of Christians, with the launch of the International Journal for Religious Freedom and other publications exploring the topic in relation to mission, biblical studies, theology, demographics and statistics, practical support, healing of trauma, the function of research, and historical case study.[8]

Much of the focus has been, understandably, on mobilizing support for the persecuted: telling their stories, encouraging prayer for them, promoting the cause of religious freedom, and relieving suffering when possible. While there is recognition that persecuted followers of Jesus Christ have much to teach each other and Christians in freer, more comfortable settings,[9] most attention to their experience highlights their needs rather than their strengths and gifts.

3.2  The Bad Urach Call: A Challenge to the Global Church 

The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization has identified the importance of solidarity and partnership between Christians who are persecuted and those with religious freedom. Highlighting the need for strong leadership when churches are persecuted, a 2004 Occasional Paper urges the global church to prioritize:

  • Capacity building within and for the persecuted church, equipping believers and leaders for effective ministry, economic self-sufficiency, and Christian witness.
  • Networking and partnership between persecuted and non-persecuted believers, and between persecuted Christians in different countries to strengthen the body of Christ. Recommendations include encouraging suffering believers, giving the global church access to the spiritual insights and example of the persecuted, facilitating practical help, counseling, engaging in theological reflection, helping Christians prepare for increases or reductions in freedom, and learning from the experience of others.
  • Developing a theology of persecution, drawing on lessons learned from churches under persecution, especially regarding missiology.[10]

Building on this work, in preparation for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Cape Town 2010, scholars from eighteen countries gathered in Bad Urach, Germany, to develop “an evangelical theology of suffering, persecution and martyrdom for the global church in mission.”[11] While focused on theology, their Bad Urach Statement also fleshes out strategy for building capacity within and for the persecuted church, including:

  • Creating worldwide awareness of how certain parts of the church are functioning under varied types of restriction; 
  • Learning from churches suffering under repressive regimes how they remain steadfast in faith and in growth despite restrictions;
  • Encouraging local churches experiencing difficulties through prayer support and other practical forms of help;
  • Equipping local churches to convert times of trouble into occasions for testimony to Jesus Christ; and
  • Preparing churches to face possible adversity in years ahead by affirming the oneness of the body of Christ, cultivating a deeper measure of active global cooperation, and creating avenues of contact and communication directly or indirectly with churches suffering persecution.

            The Bad Urach Statement urges that biblical teaching on suffering, persecution, and martyrdom be integrated into theological education and leadership training, including theoretical reflection with practical application. Such knowledge is necessary not only for those facing severe persecution. Christians under less pressure, the writers argue, need to hear truths about God learned by persecuted Christians, whose spiritual insights “are vital to the transformation of the lives of the rest of the body of Christ.”[12]

3.3 Leadership under Persecution: Unexplored Territory

Despite growing interest in the persecuted church, leadership in this context has received scant attention. Biographies and other accounts of persecution tell stories of leaders and offer glimpses into their leadership, of course.[13] Still, there have been few attempts to explore the nature and challenge of leadership itself amid pressures of persecution. A notable exception is Nguyen Huu Cuong, whose dissertation credits the robust, courageous faith of pastors, lay leaders, and other believers for the thriving ministry of three persecuted Vietnamese churches. Cuong shows how leaders – relying on the Holy Spirit – practiced evangelism, freedom in Christ, and fervent prayer; made shrewd assessments of the political and cultural context; loved persecutors; and were ready to suffer for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. His case studies testify to remarkable leadership among persecuted yet joyful missional churches. Still, Cuong’s work is not a study of leadership per se.[14]

Similarly, other studies explore the experience of persecuted pastors without analyzing leadership dynamics or interacting with leadership theory. Kurt Nelson’s research identifies impacts of persecution on Cuban pastors and factors that enable them to persist under persecution.[15] Rachel Sing-Kiat Ting and Terri Watson analyze interviews with nine Chinese pastors imprisoned between 1949 and 1980 because of their evangelical activities, considering their suffering and losses, ways of responding and coping, and personal transformation as a result of their experiences.[16] These and other studies have yielded rich insight into dimensions of leadership experience in the persecuted church, yet many questions remain unexplored.

3.4.     Why Has This Field Been Neglected?

 Why has leadership under persecution received so little scholarly attention? At least three factors are likely at play:

  • Leadership studies have been heavily centered in North America. Although the world is awash in theory, teaching, and literature on leadership, the bulk of research and publishing reflects North American contexts, assumptions, and concerns, as H. H. Drake Williams, III, recently observed.[17]  Severe persecution of Christians mostly happens elsewhere.  
  • An underdeveloped awareness that persecuted Christian leaders have spiritual resources—uniquely shaped by their suffering—to contribute to the thriving of the global church. This overlooking of gifts is common both among Christians with religious freedom as well as the persecuted.[18]
  • Severe persecution creates practical barriers to studying leadership experience. Lack of religious, political, journalistic, and academic freedom hinders persecuted leaders from reflecting on and telling their storiesand makes it challenging for researchers to gain access to their experience without adding to their suffering. Leaders in persecuted churches typically survive through discretioneven secrecyand avoid leaving evidence for persecutors (or researchers!) to discover.

4. Biblical Perspectives: Martyriological Leadership 

The proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, overturns normal human assessments of leadership and persecutionentwining together themes integral to the narrative and theology of the Bible, the saving grace of God, and the vocation of those who are “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor 3:18) as they follow and give witness to the suffering yet triumphant Messiah.

God has woven a need for leadership into the fabric of creation, and already in the opening chapter of Genesis calls men and women to “rule” earth’s creatures. This delegation of responsibility displays what Timothy Laniak describes as God’s “preference for human agency” for accomplishing his purposes, anticipating a growing role for human leadership in the unfolding story.[19] At their best, human leaders are followers who faithfully respond to the creative, redemptive, sustaining initiative of God and influence others to do the same. Scripture, however, gives far more attention to leadership failures than successes, as Arthur Boers notes.[20] Sin pervades human experiences of leadership. Individuals and communities suffer when those called to lead seek personal comfort above their assigned mission, prioritize self over others, choose popularity over integrity, and “are wise in their own eyes.”[21]

It is common in both Old and New Testaments for people to be persecuted because of their allegiance and faithfulness to the living God.[22] Although persecution is a tragic expression of sin, God often uses it as a crucible for refining and revealing genuine faith, and a means for accomplishing his purposes.

The leadership of GodFather, Son and Holy Spiritis revealed to humanity most clearly and profoundly through the persecution of Jesus Christ, climaxing in his unjust (yet freely embraced) death and resurrection. God thus provides for the salvation of sinful human beings entrenched in their opposition toward him, using their very rebellion and violence as the ground for reconciling and restoring his broken creation. The cross of Jesus shows the extent to which God will sufferwith purpose, holiness, love and creativityto save sinners.

The suffering and death of Jesus is uniquely salvific. Salvation is in Christ alone. Still, Jesus tells his disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). By God’s grace, their experience of persecution enables the gospel to reach others and results in the growth of the kingdom of God. “A cross-centered gospel requires cross-carrying messengers,” Glenn Penner observed[23]

Faithful Christian leaders are necessarily at the forefront of the church’s God-ordained mission and often bear the brunt of persecution. Those who oppose the gospel typically adopt the strategy prophesied by Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Zech 13:7b; Matt 26:31). Because persecution is not exceptional but biblically normative for followers of Jesus, Christian leaders can expect some measure of mistreatment because of their vocation. This is not a matter for shame, but joy, as they participate in the sufferings of Christ and anticipate sharing his triumph in the consummation of the kingdom of God.

Biblical leadership needs to be understood in relation to the New Testament concept of martyria and its cognates, as Jack Niewold argues. Signifying the act of public, intentional proclamation of Jesus Christ to the world, martyria a) issues not only from those who physically walked with Jesus, but also others who later join the church; b) reflects personal testimony to the saving work of Christ; c) is intended to lead hearers to conversion; d) is public; and e) entails identification with and participation in the suffering and glory of Christ, although not necessarily death. [24] Niewold notes a shift in the use of the word martyria through the New Testament. While in early cases it refers to “a discrete act of witnessing,” it later portrays “a lifestyle of habitual witnessing (and suffering).” [25] Martyriological leadership, then, emerges from an unreserved commitment to give public witness to Jesus Christ, regardless of personal cost—and influences others to do the same.

Contemporary followers of Jesus who suffer for the sake of the gospel and lead others to pursue the purposes of God amid persecution have much in common with the first generations of Christian leaders. What could they teach the global church about faithful, cruciform, mission-focused leadership? Are we ready to listen to this “great cloud of witnesses” encouraging us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus,” who “for the joy set before him … endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1–2)?

5. Leadership Theory and Research

How might insights from leadership studies inform research into the realities of persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ? Both leadership and persecution are complex phenomena, always embedded in a multifaceted web of historical, cultural, political, environmental, and social dynamics. Current leadership theory and research overwhelmingly reflect democratic, entrepreneurial, and relatively secure contexts—quite unlike that of most persecuted churches. Researchers, then, cannot uncritically apply assumptions and methodologies from this literature to studies of their experience. Still, it is an expansive field, with scholars continuing to press into new spheres of interest, using both qualitative and quantitative methods. What insights and questions emerge from their work that could spur fresh learning from those who suffer for their faith in Jesus? Within each subfield of leadership studies—such as transformational, servant, team, adaptive, trait, followership and others—various models have potential to make valuable contributions.[26]

5.1. Robert E. Quinn’s Fundamental State of Leadership

For example, Robert E. Quinn emphasizes the personal cost of effective leadership.[27] To thrive in the rapidly shifting conditions of a complex world, he argues, organizations often need to undergo deep change that disrupts established patterns of behavior, entails risk and requires leaders to relinquish significant control. Individuals and groups, however, typically resist such transformation. Instead, by making self-survival their highest priority, people get stuck in patterns of behavior that diminish themselves and their organizations. Quinn observes that human beings are normally:

  • Comfort-centred. When something disrupts our comfort, we see it as a problem to be solved, which keeps us in a state of reactivity toward our circumstances.
  • Externally directed. We let outside pressures shape us. We do what we think is necessary to please others to get what we want.
  • Self-focused. We put our own interests ahead of others.
  • Internally closed. We ignore information or feedback that suggests we should make changes.

This impulse toward self-preservation reduces a person’s capacity to make positive changes and leads to increasing gaps in personal integrity. So, for example, one may publicly champion a corporate goal while really trying to get through each day with as little hassle as possible. The result is slow death—for the person and group. Quinn insists, however, that all people—regardless of position in an organization—are potential leaders with the capacity to transform the larger system of which they are a part. Genuine leadership, according to Quinn, is anchored in a fundamental decision (often triggered by a crisis) to fully commit to pursuing a purpose greater than one’s own survival. Only one who is ready to “go forth to die” has the moral authority to lead.[28] In moments of such unreserved commitment one may shift into a transformational mode of leadership in which one becomes more:

  • Purpose-centered. As we clarify the result we want to create, we become engaged, energetic, and focused on an unwavering, meaningful goal. 
  • Internally directed. We examine our own hypocrisy, close gaps between our deepest values and our behavior, and act with higher levels of integrity and confidence.
  • Other-focused. We place the good of others above our own, increasing trust and enriching connections in our relational networks.
  • Externally open. Knowing we have much to learn, we experiment, seek honest feedback, adapt, and function with greater awareness, competence, and creativity.

Quinn designates this “the Fundamental State of Leadership” – a temporary psychological orientation that positions one to lead self and others with extraordinary effectiveness. Although leadership cannot be reduced to a psychological state, his theory raises compelling questions about Christian leadership under persecution. As a frame for research into the historical experience of Ethiopian church leaders, Quinn’s theory generated rich primary data and helpful categories for interpretation and reflection.

5.2.   Case Study: The Meserete Kristos Church, 1974–1991

The Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) is an evangelical, charismatic, Anabaptist denomination in Ethiopia whose Amharic name means “Christ is the Foundation.” In 1974, a revolutionary government known as the Derg took power and led the country toward hardline communism. Amid the persecution of a regime bent on stamping out evangelical Christianity, MKC experienced profound transformation. Over the next seventeen years, the church grew from 800 to 34,000 baptized members, adopted a radically different ministry structure, called and equipped many new leaders, extended its geographic spread, became financially self-supporting, and cultivated a contagious spiritual vitality among its members.

Many factors contribute to the long-term impact of persecution on a church, including healthy leadership. In what ways did the leadership of the Meserete Kristos Church—given its remarkable flourishing under opposition—reflect the transformational qualities identified by Robert Quinn? Analysis of interviews and other first-person testimony revealed that persecution forced church leaders to clarify the priority of their devotion to Jesus and involvement in his mission.[29] Research participants acknowledged pain, struggle, failure, and disappointment in their experience. Still, ready to die for the sake of the gospel, their leadership was marked by the following:

  • Transformational commitment, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
  • Highly effective pursuit of purpose, focused on a personal desire to be faithful to Jesus Christ, passion for evangelism, strengthening the church, multiplying and equipping leaders, the expansion and growth of the kingdom of God, and seeking the glory of God.
  • Compelling integrity under external pressures, closely connected with personally and publicly identifying with Jesus, nurtured by spiritual disciplines, and commitment to lead by example. While testing leaders’ integrity and faith, persecution became a crucible for spiritual formation and character development.
  • Attractive love, dependent on the Holy Spirit, expressed in team relationships and work, support for others in the church, care for non-believing neighbors and love for persecutors.
  • Remarkable creativity, with leaders valuing wisdom as a gift from God, engaging in study, keen to understand their changing political, cultural, and social context, ready to receive feedback and correction, innovating in ministry, alert to their surroundings, astute in relation to authorities, eager to hear from God through the Bible and the Holy Spirit.[30]

MKC leaders do not view their leadership performance or the prospering of the church as a human accomplishment, but readily give credit and glory to God. During persecution, one congregational elder testified, the church “came to realize the faithfulness and the power of God. ... We understood that we couldn't really stand on … our own strength.” An evangelist explained, “When you have challenges from outside, you draw near to God: ‘God, help me. Deliver me.’" Another leader marveled how, “The power of the Holy Spirit led us. We don't know how we were led, but sometimes it was in a unique way … it was not our work. It was his work.” Church elder Teketel Chakiso rejoices in the result:

The Communists tried to eradicate Christianity from Ethiopian soil. They closed the churches and took all their property. They imprisoned our leaders. Still, amazingly, they could not blockade God's love that flowed into the heart of the believers. The Spirit of God was burning with a fire for evangelism, convincing and empowering true believers to witness to Christ in words and actions.[31]

5.3 Diverse Research Contexts and Tools

Quinn’s leadership model is especially appropriate for learning from thriving communities. Like all theoretical lenses, it leaves some dimensions of reality out-of-focus while bringing clarity to others. What might we learn if researchers, drawing from the breadth of perspectives in leadership studies, sought to learn from the vastly different experiences of persecuted Christian leaders around the world?

Persecution not only occurs in diverse cultural and political contexts but varies widely: a) in nature, intensity and severity; b) according to its ideological driver (such as radical Islam, communism, religious nationalism or secularism); and c) depending on the locus of opposition within a society (such as government, family, culture, religious authorities, and/or corrupt individuals).[32] To better understand leadership under persecution, the global church will require scholarly contributions from multiple disciplines including anthropology, history, theology, missiology, political science, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.[33]

6. Leadership Mentors for the Global Church

Writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul emphasizes the cost of bearing witness to a crucified Messiah: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Although messengers of Jesus are among the “foolish,” “weak,” “lowly,” and “despised” things of the world—sometimes hungry, thirsty, brutally treated, slandered and persecuted—they paradoxically reveal the resurrection promises and power of their Lord.[34] While followers of Jesus ought never seek out suffering, many in the global church nevertheless need to rediscover and reclaim the intimate connection between persecution and gospel witness.[35] Reflecting on how God’s purposes can be advanced through the church’s painful experiences of persecution, one Meserete Kristos Church leader explained that:

Persecution is a means by which God reveals himself to the ones who are persecuted and the ones who need his salvation. He guides his children in a way that they would glorify him. Sometimes he works in mysterious ways. When God dispossesses his children of their belongings, he would fill them with his love and strength: dispossess, fill with love and strength. So, God dispossessed MKC and he filled us with love and strength to do the ministry that he has called us to do. That’s what God did. He put us to zero level: nothing that we can glory in. Our bank account was frozen. All buildings were taken, and possessions confiscated. We were cornered, like Pharaoh following the Israelites and they were facing the Red Sea. They didn’t have any choice but to run away. And they couldn’t do that because the Egyptians had chariots and warriors. So, they had only one choice: look up.

As the church is partaker of the divine nature, so also it is a partaker of Christ's suffering (1 Peter 4:13). When persecution comes upon the church, [it has the] … privilege of being partakers of Christ's suffering. So, during persecution God is going to do a new thing. Sometimes it is hard to understand. He can use unexpected ways, means and people.

There are rich, largely untapped, spiritual resources embedded in the testimonies of brothers and sisters in Christ who pursue the purposes of God with passion, integrity, love, and creativity amid great personal suffering. Even stories of failure and weakness may reveal essential truth about the mission of Jesus in our time. How might the global church be strengthened by giving intentional, sustained attention to Christian leadership under persecution?

6.1 Encouraging and Equipping Persecuted Christian Leaders

More than one-fifth of the world’s professing Christians live in contexts that highly restrict their expressions of faith.[36] Leaders among them often struggle with considerable pain, trauma, fear, temptation, and isolation. While leadership literature and training developed in settings of religious freedom offer valuable perspectives, there is a wealth of biblically grounded, relevant wisdom anchored in the experience of persecuted leaders themselves.

How might insights from house church leaders in China encourage Vietnamese believers? What helpful knowledge could Pakistani pastors offer suffering disciples of Jesus in Nigeria? Are there ministry strategies that work well in hostile communities in Myanmar that might also bear fruit in Sri Lanka?

Although conditions of persecution, culture, economics, and politics vary considerably across the global church, persecuted leaders could surely learn much from each other’s experiences.[37] Specific methods for protecting, structuring, and strengthening the church, for equipping leaders or evangelism may be bound to local context, of course. Even so, models of faithful, courageous, transformational leadership will often transcend barriers to inspire and instruct others in vastly different circumstances.

6.2 Preparation for Missionaries

Christian missionaries are often confronted with discrimination, harassment, and persecution against themselves and local believers with whom they partner. How can they be better equipped to face opposition in ways that advance the gospel and glorify God? Various scholars have called for more intentional preparation and training for this, including helping missionaries a) cultivate a robust biblical theology of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom; b) understand the risks and realities of persecution in their ministry context; c) willingly embrace the personal cost of participating in the mission of Jesus; d) practice spiritual disciplines that will enable them to draw on God’s resources when they are under pressure; e) embrace their identity in Christ; f) benefit from the example and testimonies of other persecuted Christians; and g) become aware of practical options for responding to persecution in their context.[38] Better comprehending how persecution affects leadership dynamics may enrich their capacity to function when faced with opposition and support local Christian leaders in their call to be faithful shepherds and gospel witnesses. 

6.3 Challenge for Comfortable Christians

In general, followers of Jesus in secular Western, post-Christendom societies benefit from legal protection of private religious practice, while facing increasing restrictions on public expressions of faith. Some have found it challenging to cope with the loss of historic privileges given to Christianity, even mislabeling some of these changes as “persecution.” At the same time, others are complacent about religious freedom, concerned only about the right to gather for worship, as cultural forces undermine the legitimacy of faith-based perspectives in the public sphere and pressures opposing gospel witness intensify. Although incidents of ridicule and discrimination against Christians in Western democracies are relatively minor compared to the severe persecution suffered by many of their brothers and sisters, all believers face social and cultural pressures to compromise their allegiance and witness to Jesus Christ.[39]

The “Bad Urach Statement” identifies a challenge to relatively comfortable Christians in the experience of the persecuted:

Persecuted Christians have learned truths about God that Christians under less pressure need to hear in order to experience the fullness of God. The spiritual insights of the persecuted are vital to the transformation of the lives of the rest of the body of Christ. One of these essential insights is that we will all be—if witnessing for Christ—in some sense persecuted. There is a grander, greater narrative of God’s action underneath the stories of individual pain, suffering, deliverance, and endurance.[40]

Among other gifts, our persecuted brothers and sisters may offer us transformational perspectives on Christian leadership—spurring us toward greater faithfulness to our crucified and risen Saviour. Are we ready to receive their modeling and mentoring?

[1] Charles L. Tieszen, “Redefining Persecution,” in Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom (GMS; Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012), 47, defines the religious persecution of Christians as “any unjust action of varying levels of hostility perpetrated primarily on the basis of religion and directed at Christians, resulting in varying levels of harm as it is considered from the victim’s perspective.” While accepting this relatively broad definition, this article focuses on leadership under more severe forms of persecution. 

[2] Todd M. Johnson, “Persecution in the Context of Religious and Christian Demography, 1970–2020,” in Christianity and Freedom: Volume 2, Contemporary Perspectives (ed. Allen D. Hertzke and Timothy Samuel Shah; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 13–57, calculates that 500 million Christians in 46 countries face persecution, as defined by the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which includes arbitrary prohibitions on, restrictions of, or punishment for 1) assembling for peaceful religious activities such as worship, preaching, and prayer; 2) speaking freely about one’s religious beliefs; 3) changing one’s religious beliefs and affiliation; 4) possession and distribution of religious literature, including Bibles; 5) raising one’s children in the religious teaching and practices of one’s choice; 6) arbitrary registration requirements; 7) any of the following acts if committed on account of an individual’s religious belief or practice: detention, interrogation, imposition of an onerous financial penalty, forced labor, forced mass resettlement, imprisonment, forced religious conversion, beating, torture, mutilation, rape, enslavement, murder, and execution. Open Doors, “World Watch List 2018: The 50 countries where it’s most dangerous to follow Jesus,” https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/, accessed April 8, 2018, reports that 215 million Christians in 65 countries experience high levels of persecution.

[3] Vernon Jay Sterk, “The Dynamics of Persecution” (Ph.D. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1992), xiii-xiv.

[4] Nguyen Huu Cuong, “The Growth of Certain Protestant Churches in Saigon under the Vietnamese Communist Government from 1975” (D.Min. diss., San Francisco Theological Seminary, 1995), 92–162, 184; John Moldovan, “Lessons from Ministry in the Context of Violence in Eastern Europe” in Missions in Contexts of Violence (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008), 351–52; Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea, eds., Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 5; Kurt Nelson, “Finishing Well: Encouraging Pastors to Persevere under Persecution” (D.Min. diss., Columbia International University, 2008), 93–95, 120–21, 127–28; Sterk, “Dynamics of Persecution,” 199–201, 236–37.

[5] Cuong, “The Growth of Certain Protestant Churches,” 1–4, 39–42, 45–46, 157; Mark Galli, “Is Persecution Good for the Church? Sometimes It Isn't,” Christianity Today 41, no. 6 (1997); John Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 3–34, 97–172, 207–25; Beram Kumar, “Reflections on Mission in the Context of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom,” and Paul Estabrooks, “Preparing Both Church and Missionaries: Global North” in Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom (GMS; Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012), 15–21, 351–56; Moldovan, “Lessons from Ministry,” 351; Marshall et al., Persecuted, 5–6; Marsh Moyle, The Effects of Persecution on Church and Mission in Central and Eastern Europe (Hinckley, UK: CityGate, 1989), 4–9, 12; Nelson, “Finishing Well,” 134–35; Janet Keller Richards, Unlocking our Inheritance: Spiritual Keys to Recovering the Treasures of Anabaptism (Morgantown, PA: Masthof Press, 2005), 109–18; Sterk, “Dynamics of Persecution,” 69, 187–95. 

[6] Cuong, “The Growth of Certain Protestant Churches,” 1, 17, 25–28, 86–87, 157; Ivo Lesbaupin, Blessed Are the Persecuted: Christian Life in the Roman Empire, A.D. 64313 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 15; Moldovan, “Lessons from Ministry,” 348–51; Moyle, Effects of Persecution, 9–10; Nelson, “Finishing Well,” 1–4, 11, 41–42, 83–84; 119–25.

[7] Christof Sauer, International Bibliography on Religious Freedom and Persecution, English (Bonn: International Institute for Religious Freedom, 2004); Thomas Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians Concerns Us All: Towards a Theology of Martyrdom (Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2008), 24–25, 40–42; Carl A. Volz, Pastoral Life and Practice in the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990), 145–48.

[8] Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, Faith That Endures: The Essential Guide to the Persecuted Church (Grand Rapids: Revell, 2006); Eitel, Missions in Contexts of Violence; Allen D. Hertzke and Timothy Samuel Shah, eds., Christianity and Freedom: Volume 2, Contemporary Perspectives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Harold D. Hunter and Cecil M. Robeck, eds., The Suffering Body: Responding to the Persecution of Christians (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2006); Hans Aage Gravaas et al., eds., Freedom of Belief and Christian Mission (RECS 28; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015); Daniel Philpott and Timothy Samuel Shah, eds., Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christians Respond to Persecution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Christof Sauer and Richard Howell, eds., Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom: Theological Reflections (RFS 2; Johannesburg: AcadSA Publishing, 2010); Taylor et al., Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom (GMS; Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012).

[9] Noteworthy efforts to share lessons from persecuted Christians for Western audiences include Boyd-MacMillan, Faith That Endures, 301–41; Paul Estabrooks and Jim Cunningham, Standing Strong through the Storm (Santa Ana: Open Doors International, 2004); Nik Ripken and Gregg Lewis, The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2015); The Voice of the Martyrs, I am N: Inspiring Stories of Christians Facing Islamic Extremists (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2016).

[10] Patrick Sookhdeo, The Persecuted Church, Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 32 (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2005). Other recommendations address advocacy, legal issues, prayer, and practical assistance.

[11] Christof Sauer, ed., “Bad Urach Statement: Towards an Evangelical Theology of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom for the Global Church in Mission,” in Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom: Theological Reflections (RFS 2; Johannesburg: AcadSA Publishing, 2010), 31. The Bad Urach Consultation was organized by the International Institute for Religious Freedom, sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission, Theological Commission and Mission Commission, and the Lausanne Theological Working Group.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] See Ken Anderson, Bold as a Lamb: Pastor Samuel Lamb and the Underground Church of China (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: 1991); Barnabas Mam and Kitty Murray, Church Behind the Wire: A Story of Faith in the Killing Fields (Chicago: Moody, 2012); Greg Musselman and Trevor Lund, Closer to the Fire: Lessons from the Persecuted Church (Bartlesville, OK: Genesis, 2012); Oscar Romero, A Shepherd’s Diary (trans. Irene B. Hodgson; Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1993); Herbert Schossberg, Called to Suffer, Called to Triumph (Portland: Multnomah, 1990); Liao Yiwu, God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (trans. Wenguang Huang; New York: Harper One, 2011); Brother Yun and Paul Hattaway, The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun (Grand Rapids: Monarch, 2002).

[14] Cuong, “The Growth of Certain Protestant Churches.”

[15] Nelson, “Finishing Well.”

[16] Rachel Sing-Kiat Ting and Terri Watson, “Is Suffering Good? An Explorative Study on the Religious Persecution among Chinese Pastors,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 35, no. 3 (2007): 202–10. Additionally, three doctoral theses on leadership development in persecuted Chinese house churches are less concerned with describing and understanding local experience than testing leadership formation strategies: Esther X. Yang, “A Call to Lead: A Study on Communicating the Core Values of the China Ministry to the Leadership of the Full Life Christian Fellowship in China” (D.Min. diss., Ashland Theological Seminary, 2002); Jong Keol Yoo, “Training Chinese House Church Leaders: Factors Influencing Leadership Development Strategies” (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005); Kai-Yum Cheung-Teng, “An Analysis of the Current Needs of House Churches in China to Improve the Effectiveness of Leadership Development” (D.Min. diss., Trinity International University, 2006).

[17] H. H. Drake Williams, III, “A Perspective on Christian Leadership Theory: Supporting More Voices from Europe, Africa, and Asia for a Change,” Journal of Global Christianity 4, no. 1 (2018): 4–9. Robert J. House et al., eds., Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004), 56; also note the North American character of most leadership theory and research, a reality confirmed by Alan Bryman, “Qualitative Research on leadership: A Critical but Appreciative Review,” The Leadership Quarterly 15, no. 6 (2004): 729–69.

[18] Ripken and Lewis, Insanity of God, 160–61, for example, recall an attempt to convince a group of persecuted leaders to share their stories with the global church. The audience expressed confusion, explaining that they saw persecution as commonplace – “like the sun coming up in the east” – and hardly worthy of mention.

[19] Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 22.

[20] Arthur Boers, Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 35.

[21] See Isaiah 3:1–26; 5:21; Jeremiah 23:1–40; Ezekiel 34:1–31.

[22] For biblical theologies of persecution, see Scott Cunningham, ‘Through Many Tribulations’: The Theology of Persecution in LukeActs (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997); Glenn M. Penner, In the Shadow of the Cross: A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Books, 2004; Sauer, “Bad Urach Statement”; Schirrmacher, Persecution of Christians; Josef Ton, Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven (Wheaton: The Romanian Missionary Society, 1997); Taylor et al., Sorrow and Blood.

[23] Penner, In the Shadow of the Cross, 260.

[24] Jack W. Niewold, “Beyond Servant Leadership,” Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership 1, no. 2 (2007): 118–34, Jack W. Niewold, “Incarnational Leadership: Towards a Distinctly Christian Theory of Leadership” (Ph.D. diss., Regent University, 2006), 219–46.

[25] Niewold, “Beyond Servant Leadership,” 128.

[26] Peter G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, 8th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2018), offers a comprehensive historical and contemporary overview of leadership studies.

[27] Robert E. Quinn is professor emeritus at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. His leadership theory can be described as authentic transformational, conversant with complexity science, and situated within the emergent discipline of positive organizational scholarship. Robert E. Quinn, Building the Bridge as You Walk on It: A Guide for Leading Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004); Robert E. Quinn, “Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review 83, no. 7/8 (2005): 74–83; Ryan W. Quinn and Robert E. Quinn, Lift: The Fundamental State of Leadership, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015), introduce his theory of “The Fundamental State of Leadership.”

[28] Robert E. Quinn, Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Results (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 179. Authentically Christian leadership does not, of course, spring from self-defined purpose or confidence in human potential but responds to the call of Jesus Christ. It is a relational process, offered in the Spirit of Jesus under his authority, influencing others to pursue a goal aligned with God's priorities and mission. Although there is not space here for a thorough theological analysis of Quinn's theory, note how it (in part) echoes the summons of Jesus for his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Matt 16:24–25; Mark 8:34–35; Luke 9:23–24; John 12:24–26).

[29] Interviews with 24 MKC leaders were conducted March–May 2014, using a semi-structured format with open-ended questions inviting reflection on leadership experience under persecution in Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991.

[30] For a detailed summary of this research, see Brent L. Kipfer, “Thriving under Persecution: Meserete Kristos Church Leadership during the Ethiopian Revolution (1974-1991),” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91 (July 2017): 297–369.

[31] Gemechu Gebre Telila, “History of the Meserete Kristos Church at Wonji Gefersa, Ethiopia, during the Derg, 1974–1991: ‘God Works for Good’” (M.A. thesis, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 2002), 72.

[32] Boyd-MacMillan, Faith That Endures, 65–81, 123–42.

[33] Christof Sauer and Thomas Schirrmacher, “The Place and Function of Academics,” in Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom (GMS; Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012), 461–66, more broadly call for academic study of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom, identifying these and other disciplines as relevant.

[34] 1 Cor 1:18, 26–28; 4:11–13.

[35] Jan A. B. Jongeneel, “Do Christian Witness and Mission Provoke Persecution,” in Freedom of Belief and Chrsitian Mission (ed. Hans Aage Gravaas et al.; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 430–43; Tite Tiénou, “The Missionary Witness of the Persecuted and the Martyrs,” in Freedom of Belief and Christian Mission (ed. Hans Aage Gravaas et al.; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 444–51.

[36] Johnson, “Persecution in the Context of Religious and Christian Demography.”

[37] Some MKC leaders were encouraged by written accounts of persecuted Christians steadfast in their commitment to Christ. In 1979, a three-week visit to the Soviet Union allowed a delegation of six MKC leaders to learn about the functioning of underground churches, evangelism in a communist system, and strategies for adapting to the challenges of atheism from Russian church leaders. 

[38] See Wolfgang Häde, “Preparing for Intentional Discrimination, Harassment, and Persecution” in Spirituality in Mission: Embracing the Lifelong Journey (GMS; Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2017): 287–94; contributions by Antonia van der Meer, Rob Brynjolfson, Stephen Panya Baba, Paul Estabrooks, Paulo Moreira Filho, S. Kent Parks, Laura Mae Gardner, Dave Thompson, Voice of the Martyrs Canada, National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, Global Connections, and the Religious Liberty Partnership in Taylor et al., Sorrow and Blood, 325-411; Sauer, “Bad Urach Statement,” 99.

[39] J. Keith Bateman, “Symposium on Persecution: Don't Call It Persecution When It's Not,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 49, no. 1 (2013): 54–62; Iain T. Benson, “The Attack on Western Religions by Western Law: Re-framing Pluralism, Liberalism and Diversity,” International Journal of Religious Freedom 6, no. 1/2 (2013): 111–25; Lars Dahle, “Western Europe—Marginalization of Christians through Secularisation?” in Freedom of Belief and Christian Mission (ed. Hans Aage Gravaas et al.; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 382–94; Janet Epp Buckingham, “The Modern Secular West: Making Room for God” in Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom (GMS; Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012), 221–28; Paul Marshall, “Patterns and Purposes of Contemporary Anti-Christian Persecution” in Christianity and Freedom: Volume 2, Contemporary Perspectives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 58–86; Roger Trigg, “Religious Freedom in a Secular Society,” International Journal of Religious Freedom 5, no. 1 (2012): 45–57.

[40] Sauer, “Bad Urach Statement,” 30.


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