Freedom and Fear, Ramifications of Roman Law

Ramifications of Roman Law

When Nik Ripken heard that house churches in Turkey weren’t able to openly worship, he was perplexed. He asked a leader of a Muslim-background Christian community why they refused to do what the Bible instructed them to do. The leader’s response was a strong rebuke about Roman law:

You were born under common law. All of us, and Jesus himself, were born under Roman law. Common law says you were born with the right to everything, and Roman law says you’re born with the right to nothing. Nothing. It’s a blank slate, and it’s the role of government – be it as it may – to tell you what your rights are.

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How Roman Law Affects Christianity Today

Nik journeyed from modern-day İzmir (formerly Smyrna) to Selƈuk (formerly Ephesus), Turkey in the car with a local Christian leader. Here he had a powerful moment of insight into the effects of Roman law. Nik discovered that these old regulations still play a major role in daily life and control people’s spiritual practices.

The legal system in Turkey and China is heavily influenced by ancient Rome which has ultimately led to restrictions on religious freedom and opportunities for evangelization. “If I can choose my God to follow, just by inference, then I can choose everything else. That’s why they are terrorized by religion,” Nik explains. Arrest, imprisonment, and death are typical government responses. Freedom of choice is not commonly observed in societies governed by Roman law.

12 Tables of Roman Law

The twelve tables of Roman law have a lasting impact on the legal systems of many countries. They originated in the 5th century BCE and were the first written laws created by the Romans. Similar laws limit the spread of Christianity in the Middle East and Asia by restricting religious freedom and expression at the will of the state. Nik experienced this first-hand while living with persecuted believers overseas.

In the presence of security police, a Chinese lady delivered a powerful sermon about Jesus talking with the woman at the well (John 4). However, Nik noticed that she omitted the historical context of Jesus’ ministry: why, how, and what He was doing to build His followers. This female pastor later explained, “If I had included the context of this story, along with the content of the story, I would have been arrested and been in jail right now. In China, you can’t teach the context.”

Not in China, nor in Rome. Roman law covered a range of topics from family law to public safety regulations. Religious activity was strictly regulated by the patricians, the privileged class responsible for government. Even today, the influence of Roman law still reaches far and wide.

Patricians vs. Plebeians

The conflict between patricians and plebeians has existed since early Rome. This is due to the interplay of religion and social class that has been in existence for centuries. The patricians were the upper class of Roman citizens, while the plebeians made up the lower classes. Strict control of religion gave higher classes more power and influence than lower classes.

The patrician class had exclusive access to priesthood and religious knowledge that determined their place in society. As a result, they maintained control over political decisions which kept them in positions of privilege and authority. On the other hand, plebeians were excluded from religious knowledge and therefore political power.

Give to Caesar What is Caesar’s

When Christ said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he was committing an act of high treason. Under Roman law, it was a revolutionary declaration with fatal consequences.

“Jesus was saying there are things that don’t belong to Caesar,” Nik explains. “That was enough to trap him and have him killed.”

In Roman-occupied Judea at the time of Christ’s ministry, loyalty to Rome was paramount. To suggest that there should be a higher authority than Caesar was treason in the eyes of Rome. By saying “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, Christ was not only challenging Roman authority but also claiming a higher power for himself; one which ultimately superseded those of earthly rulers.

Plebeians Dreamed of Freedom

The ancient Roman plebeians were a class of citizens that had few rights and freedoms. They worked in the fields to provide food for the city, but their dreams of freedom went largely unheard by their oppressors – the patrician upper class. While they may have dreamt of liberation from oppressive conditions, could they ever have imagined achieving a lasting level of liberty?

Along with little freedom came widespread poverty and economic hardship among the plebeians. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, they continued to strive for a better life. This fight, known as the Conflict of the Orders, would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Republic in 27 BCE. Class warfare still occurs today in the persecuted nations.

Freedom in Christ

Christians around the world share a message of hope and freedom. Despite their oppressive circumstances, persecuted believers proclaim that God’s kingdom is a place of true liberation.

“You can never successfully persecute someone who sees that their freedom is grounded at the throne of Heaven,” Nik remarks.

The Bible speaks of God defeating oppression and lifting up those who feel weak so they can stand firm with Him on holy ground. This is why persecuted Christians focus on God’s throne as the source of ultimate freedom.

Biblical Christianity is Persecuted Christianity, Why are Christians Persecuted?

Why are Christians Persecuted?

Religious persecution can take many forms, from subtle discrimination to outright violence. The majority of those practicing their faith today live in environments of persecution. In this episode, Nik Ripken explores the historical and present-day experiences of believers to better understand why Christians are persecuted.

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Christianity in Russia

In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed new restrictions that limits where and how Christians share the gospel. He labeled these as anti-terrorism laws that protect Russia from religious extremism. However, many Christian activists have expressed their concern that the law is a way for the government to control public expression of faith.

Russia’s main religion is Orthodox Christianity. Russian Orthodoxy rejects the Protestant belief that Christ’s death on the cross was a substitutionary atonement for sin. According to Russian Orthodox doctrine, salvation comes through an ongoing process of repentance and participation in liturgical worship.

Putin’s laws forbid evangelism outside of churches and other designated protected places. It also prohibits missionary activities online and requires that all missionaries register with the government or face hefty fines and potential jail time. Additionally, any information shared by missionaries must be approved by authorities before it can be disseminated publicly. Nik expresses regret that it’s harder to get missionaries into Russia these days than during the communist regime of the Soviet Union.

Christianity in Asia

In East Asia, time spent as a believer in prison is considered equivalent to attaining degrees at a theological seminary. This phenomenon may be due to the lack of higher-level religious education available and strict laws on religious expression.

East Asian prisoners have become some of the most devoted followers of the Bible – even after their release from jail. A prisoner who spends years incarcerated in solitary confinement can come out with an intimate knowledge of Christianity that rivals any seminary graduate. Even without formal instruction, they gain great insight through prayer, contemplation, and intense study while serving their sentences.

Persecution is Normal in Biblical Christianity

Christians are persecuted because it is biblically normal for it to occur. Jesus himself said his followers would be like sheep among wolves – meaning they will always be subject to persecution.

The Bible speaks of how the people of God have experienced suffering since the beginning of time and this shouldn’t surprise anyone today. It is part of our spiritual heritage and should remind us that sometimes we must be willing to experience hardships in order to live out our faith authentically. It doesn’t mean that we should specifically seek out martyrdom, but that we don’t have to run from persecution when human nature takes its course.

Nik believes that if we accept this principle as true then it will help us understand why so many believers suffer greatly around the world due to their faith. As Joseph shows us in Genesis, it’s often part of God’s greater plan.

How Long was Joseph in Prison?

In the Book of Genesis, Joseph is betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. Most sources suggest that he was in prison between two and twelve years. The Bible makes it clear that Joseph was in prison for as long as God needed him to be.

He believed that God had a plan for him and therefore would give him the strength to withstand it. In the end, Joseph’s imprisonment saved both the Jews and the Egyptians.

Joseph’s imprisonment gave him the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. He predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. After this interpretation, Pharaoh appointed Joseph as his second-in-command. By storing up grain during the years of abundance and then selling it to the Egyptians during the years of famine, Joseph saved both nations from death by starvation. His confinement gave God ample opportunity to provide through the persecuted Joseph an incredible rescue mission for both countries.

Do we know when to leave Joseph in prison, or will we always try to get him out?

Defining Persecution

Defining Persecution

In this episode, Nik contrasts the narratives of different community leaders in order to define persecution. What’s the difference between true spiritual warfare and a false persecution complex?

Believers who are experiencing real persecution are to be known by their love for one another (John 13:35), he explains, not by their social stances or speaking prowess. Nik concludes that a defining characteristic of true persecution is that the believer is suffering for who Jesus is – and not for any other reason.

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Spiritual warfare

In persecution, everything a believer experiences is from sharing the gospel in difficult places. Matthew 13 explains that some people will experience the challenge of planting seeds on rocky ground.

A family, that Ruth and I remained very close to, was working with us in the Horn of Africa. They were doing it right, and they had reached four families for Christ among the people group that’s very dear to us – maybe some of the closest to our hearts – because we worked among them, and their famine and civil war, for seven years. We went through a lot of hard stuff with that people group. And four families said yes.

Upon the missionaries’ departure, however, their converts announced that they were reverting back to Islam. Despite their faithful work, Nik’s missionary friends felt burnout and despair.

They took them to the airport, and as they were getting ready to go through security in that airport, those four “Christian” families said to this couple, “We don’t believe you’ll ever come back… so we just want to let you know that we’re going back to the mosque. We’re going back to Islam where we belong.” And those were the last words that were said to them before they got on that airplane.

The disillusionment was real. Nik consoled them. This is the nature of the work, he said. In the heat of spiritual warfare, wherever seed is sown, some plants will be scorched. Some plants will wither in the face of adversity because they have no root.

Fortunately, this story had a happy ending. The next day, the four Islamic families announced they were coming back – not for the mission board but for Christ.

As we seek to define persecution, we look at the causes of a believer’s suffering.

Understanding persecution

In contrast, Nik describes a different group that believed they were being persecuted. This other group begged Nik to study them.

[These two groups thought] that they were the real Christians because they were the ones that had suffered the most. They had been beaten, they had lost their church property, they had gone to jails and prisons… they had been killed. The more I watched them… the more disturbed I got.

He observed them for a week or so. Then Nik admonished them for being “some of the most obnoxious Christians [he] had ever met.” They had a tendency to harass people unlike themselves, speaking about their beliefs with a sense of superiority.

Persecution of any kind is an unfortunate reality for many. Just because someone is being persecuted doesn’t mean it is for the right reasons.

It’s essential to examine the root cause of persecution and its legitimacy before drawing conclusions. While some may be persecuted due to Christian beliefs, others may be targeted simply because they are unkind in some way.

The art of spiritual warfare

“In actions and in words, you’ve got to make Jesus the center of the conversation,” Nik explains. “But even before you get to Jesus and the Old Testament setting, they’ve got to know you love them.” It may be after your death that people fully understand what you’ve done for them.

This is Church to Us

The Church as the Body of Christ

This train was headed to Siberia, a place of exile, desperation, and dread. On board the train were the wife and children of the highest ranking pastor in Eastern Europe. The KGB had arrested this pastor and taken him to a torture facility. The family had no understanding of where they were headed or what cruel fate awaited them at their destination.

Were it not for the intervention of the church as the body of Christ, this family would have been abandoned in a shack with no hope for rescue or reprieve.

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Soviet Train to Nowhere

The kids were crying and confused. They had just seen their father arrested and taken away by the Soviet Union KGB to be tortured for his profession of faith. Their mother could only tell her kids to trust in God because she had no other answers.

A stranger approached this family and asked if this was the pastor’s family, referring to the pastor by name.

Hesitantly, she responded, “Yes, I’m his wife, and these are his children. They’re taking us away somewhere. I don’t know where they’re taking us. And we’re afraid.”

The man replied:

Well, you don’t know me. I’m from a church near the last place the train stopped. Last night, we were praying, and the Holy Spirit told us you were going to be on this train… and told us your husband’s name… and told us to take up an offering, and I was to bring it and to give it to you.

Then he gave her the cash.

Role of the Church

According to Nik, church is where we depend “spiritually, physically, emotionally, [and] psychologically” on one another. The local church – not her own – had collected their possessions, energy, and time to provide for this family in need.

The man added:

Here’s enough money for the next six months. Not only that, I’m going to stay on this train, and I’m going to watch where they dump you…. We’ll find a place for you to live. I will be back in a few months, with more money and more people, and we’re going to take care of you.

The arrested pastor’s church would later take over the duties of caring for this family. For now, it was not two divided churches but one unified body of believers that worked together to find ways to support this persecuted family.

Unity in the Body of Christ

“We are one church, [and we must] carry each other when we cannot carry ourselves any longer,” Nik explains.

The body of Christ is so much more than money. Fellowship includes being lifted up, cared for, and prayed for by those who have devoted their time and energy to loving others. Foreign charity can be a great help to those in need, but it should never replace the invaluable human connection of the body of Christ. This connection brings healing, hope, and peace that cannot be matched with any amount of money.

No matter where we are in our spiritual journey – whether just beginning to explore Christianity or deepening our relationship with God – it is essential to have the physical presence of people around us who share our faith. These people become a support system as we grow spiritually and can provide us with vital encouragement in difficult times. The local church helps keep us accountable when it comes to serving others in a meaningful way that not only meets physical needs but spiritual ones as well.

The Believers Share Their Possessions

Months later, this pastor’s family again found themselves in a dire situation in the middle of Siberia. With temperatures dipping to 30 below zero and neither firewood nor food remaining in their one-room house, the kids of the tortured pastor wondered if they would soon die. The family had no way to contact anyone, and they didn’t know if help was coming. Their mother again told her children to trust God.

The next morning, the family heard a loud knock on the door. When they opened it, there stood a deacon from 20 miles away with boxes of fruit, vegetables, and other food that the church had collected for this family.

Despite the freezing weather and fierce Siberian wolves, the deacon had felt that delaying this trip meant the family would die. But he summarized his obligation to the body of Christ: “You have to go. You don’t have to come back.”

The deacon made the overnight trip not expecting to survive the return.

What's Your Verse? What's Your Song?

Memorizing Scripture and Worship Songs

These four characteristics are the hallmarks of a healthy church thriving under persecution, Nik suggests.

Number one is how they know Jesus… number two is the unbelievable, supernatural, intimate prayer. Number three is being able to recreate large portions of the Bible from memory… number four is committing large portions of their indigenous music to memory.

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Memorizing the Bible

Throughout his travels, Nik Ripken has found that persecuted believers have a common practice. They memorize full books of scripture and large portions of their indigenous music with less than 10% error.

Nik tells us his experience with a Soviet Union congregation who had never held a Bible. Yet they were able to recite the full books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with fewer than 6 omissions.

This may seem like an incredible feat to Western Christians. Literate Christians often believe they have to carry the Bible with them in order to recall scripture accurately. However, Nik reminds us that this way of thinking is offensive to many believers in the world who see this as a sign of not knowing the book.

The Oral Gospel Tradition

The people who lived during the early decades of Christian history didn’t rely on a written Bible. Although some scrolls existed, believers shared the Old Testament primarily in oral form. Publishers did not write down The New Testament until 55 A.D. This means people first shared the stories that we have today orally among family members and congregations, from generation to generation.

The Bible is the most influential book in the world. It contains the truth that people need to hear.

On one hand, the oral form of sharing the gospel allows for rapid transmission. “You don’t have to smuggle the Bible into closed countries if you are the container for it,” Nik explains. On the other hand, the literate form of the Bible preserves the truth so that generations can pass it down accurately. Both forms are valuable for different reasons.

Scripture Memorization in Moscow

Three pastors led over a thousand house churches scattered around Moscow. They took 600 young adults, unmarried from 18 to 30 years old, and brought them to Moscow for seven days. These pastors didn’t have a planned program other than to share the Word of God with these people. They met for about a week.

After the event, all three pastors were arrested and sent to a Soviet prison for three years. “All of them said they would do it again,” Nik remarks. This is the way people memorized and shared scripture in the Soviet Union.

Although Nik disagrees with the idea of limiting the Word of God to a few trained clergy, he’s impressed with how well their congregations knew the scripture. In the Soviet Union, literacy wasn’t the issue. Believers could read and write, but only their pastors could hold a Bible.

Nik went to one of these charismatic groups in the Soviet Union and asked how many of the congregation had touched a Bible. Not a single person said yes. Almost all the members of the congregation had seen someone preach from it, but they had never read from it themselves. When asked to recite the first four books of the New Testament, however, they were able to recite it with just 6 errors.

Unfortunately, persecution seems to create the hostile environment that leads people to know the Bible so thoroughly. Just 15 years later, Nik revisited this congregation after the fall of the Soviet Union.

He found that their spiritual temperature had changed with the new democracy. “It’s so hard to be obedient to God in freedom when someone’s not trying to take your faith away from you,” Nik begins. “Fifteen years after the Soviet Union fell… they could not reproduce the books of the Bible [by memory].”

Memorizing Scripture in China

When Nik observed a group of 150 Chinese believers tearing the Bible apart, he was horrified. He had never seen anything like it before. He didn’t know what to make of it. Nik had always been taught that the Bible was sacred. He couldn’t understand why these people were tearing it apart.

After talking to some of the people, Nik found out that they were distributing the pages of those books to pastors who hadn’t yet taught those words to their own congregations by memory.

International Worship Songs

In recent years, there has been a trend of churches in the West forcing their music and worship style on international believers. Nik adds that this does not work and is actually counterproductive. Western music is often unfamiliar and uncomfortable for international believers, who are then less likely to sing along and participate in worship.

This practice can also be a barrier to people coming to faith, as they may feel unwelcome in a church that is not using music that is familiar to them. Forcing Western music on international believers only dilutes the power of their native words and disconnects them from their heritage:

In South Africa, they’d only known other types of missionaries. Whenever we showed up, they would stop their dancing, and they would stop their clapping, and their drums, and their finger music. They used to play some of it with their toes. The worship was so vibrant and so filled with joy. We’d show up, and they’d start singing something that was our heart song – from America – and worship would just die. And it got to be where we would say to them, with a smile on our face, if you’re going to sing our songs rather than your songs, I don’t think we’ll come again because our presence is killing your worship. And they just loved that.

According to Nik Ripken, the DNA of the resurrection thrives when believers take the Word of God and absorb it to create worship music in their own indigenous styles. We see this in African worship songs, Arabic worship music, and Chinese praise and worship songs.

These international believers can take their newly created songs to any village, town, or city, and all the local people would recognize it as their style of singing and the words that come from their culture. The idioms come from their culture, and they don’t see it as a Westerner’s – or worse, a white man’s – music.

Is Music Haram in Islam?

In Islam, music is generally forbidden (“haram”) with very few exceptions. Their prohibition of music, musical instruments, and singing comes from their interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, a collection of traditions and practices that Muslims generally follow.

In his Tafsir al-Sa’di (Interpretation of the Qu’ran), Islamic scholar Abdul-Rahman al-Sa’di writes that “singing and musical instruments are from Shaytan” (Satan). Music is seen as a distraction from prayer and worship and a potential source of corruption.

Nik adds that the Islamic teenagers (12-13 y.o.) have absorbed modern MTV music with sexual and aggressive overtones. They don’t understand the severity of the hate speech in these songs. As a result, Islamic teens end up weaving serious swear words into their own conversations.

If this is all they know, Nik suggests, it’s no wonder that music is forbidden in Islam.

How do you teach two billion Muslims to sing?

Zebra Meat

How Do You Pray for Zebra Meat?

Surrounded by 30 Muslim children struggling with hunger at the top of the Shebelle River in Imi, Ethiopia, Nik Ripken opened a case of military MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat). To his shock, all of the prepackaged meals were made of pork, unsuitable for feeding a group of Muslims. He regretted not checking them before this moment. How do you pray in a time like this?

In this episode, Nik wrestles with the efficacy of prayer.

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How do you pray?

“Dr. Nik, you can’t feed them this. But Dr. Nik, you cannot not feed them this, because they’re going to die,” commented the guard and the driver.

Nik thought for a moment. He remembered hearing stories of how Ethiopians loved zebra meat. Nik suggested, “What if I lay my hands on this last box that’s all pork and I pray to my God in Jesus’ name that he changes it all to zebra meat?”

The guard and the driver replied, “That’s what you must do.”

And so I bowed my head, I laid my hands on that box of food, and I prayed over those starving children, I prayed over this situation, I prayed on how they were going to die if we didn’t do something at that time and buy some days to where somebody else could get there. I just prayed my heart out, and said God, you’ve got to change this pork into zebra meat, and you’ve got to do it in Jesus’ name, and I said Amen. When I looked up, they were taking their bayonets, cutting open those MREs, and distributing them to all of those starving children around them – anybody who made it up that bank.

But when Nik Ripken prayed for divine intervention, he wasn’t sure that it would work.

Every Muslim… 100% of those Muslims believed that my God turned that pork into zebra meat that was kosher for them to eat. Why is it that the only person who doubted that miracle was the person who prayed that prayer?

Despite feeling unsure about whether his prayer would be answered, Nik knew that if God chose to intervene then there was still hope for the children in front of him.

Why Muslims don’t eat pork

For Muslims, the prohibition against eating pork is not a cultural or dietary restriction, but rather a religious obligation. Their Quran expressly prohibits the consumption of pork out of a shared belief that it is unclean. Those who intentionally choose to eat pork are considered to be in violation of Islamic law and are subject to punishment.

Nevertheless, Muslims believe that if they eat pork without intending to, they’re not responsible for the mistake. In other words, their Quran says that “there is no sin on [them]” (al-Ahzab 33:5).

Does God answer all prayers?

According to Psalm 139:4, God knows our prayers before we speak them. 1 John 5:14–15 explains that if we ask anything of God according to his will, he hears us. 1 Peter 3:12 tells us that God is attentive to prayer. Rest assured that all prayers are heard.

Yet the question remains… are all prayers answered in the affirmative?

No, not all prayers are answered in the affirmative. Just because somebody prays for something does not mean that they will automatically get what they want. In 1 Chronicles 28, David desired to build a temple but later said that God declined his request. Instead, David’s son Solomon would be the one to build this temple. Sometimes people may not get what they prayed for because it is not in their best interest or because God has other plans.

Does prayer work?

What really happened that day when Nik prayed for the food to be changed from pork to zebra meat?

First, we can have full confidence that God heard his prayer.

Second, because the children eating the MREs would not have recognized the taste of pork, it’s hard to be sure whether God answered it in the affirmative or negative.

We might have known more about what the children ate if Nik had eaten some of the MREs himself. As the only non-Muslim in the group, Nik might have recognized the difference in taste between pork and some other meat. He might have been able to compare the taste of the last case of MREs with the ones he had in the weeks prior. However, with more than 30 starving children in front of him, eating some of these emergency rations would have resulted in less food for them. This seems objectionable in itself.

The efficacy of prayer

So was it pork or zebra meat? If Nik had eaten some of the MREs after praying, he might have relayed to us that this was indeed zebra meat, thereby strengthening his testimony. In contrast, if it tasted just like salted pork, he may have had to face the cognitive dissonance of having fed pork to a full group of Muslims.

To know what would have happened? No. Nobody is ever told that.

But we do know that the group of children felt Dr. Nik’s love and care for them, and they were fully convinced he had their best interests at heart. The children saw that he was willing to intercede with God on their behalf. In this way, they were able to stave off hunger another day.

In retrospect, Nik’s deepest desire was that the children in front of him were fed that day. We see that came true, just as the psalmist said it would (Psalm 37:4).

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How You Can Support Nik Ripken Through AmazonSmile

Buying something on Amazon in the next few months? You can choose to support Nik Ripken Ministries by connecting your account just once through this AmazonSmile link: After you select Nik Ripken Ministries as your charity of choice, 0.5% of your next eligible purchase price will be donated to support our work. This costs you nothing, and it’s an easy way to support a cause that you care about.

The West… and the Rest

When most people in the West think about Christianity, they likely don’t think about the persecuted. Christianity is often thought of as a religion of privilege in the West, but that couldn’t be further from the truth for followers living in other parts of the world. There are countless believers living in places where they experience high levels of persecution. We say countless because not only are they many in number, but also it is often unsafe to give actual counts of how many there are and which communities they’re living in. Public knowledge of their existence often places their very lives at increased risk.

The persecuted face difficulties that most of us can’t even imagine.

In addition, we’re headed into a holiday season where the commercialization of Christmas has led to a growing trend of people becoming more and more confused about the meaning of the holiday. Is it a time to celebrate the birth of Christ or a time to buy presents for our loved ones? Should we be contributing to missions or spending our money on treats and technology?

Consumerism is often seen as a dirty word, associated with greed, wastefulness, and selfishness.

Confusion can lead to inaction.

But managing God’s money doesn’t need to be confusing, and it’s not necessarily one or the other.

Participating in consumerism is actually a privilege. It’s a sign that you have enough money to buy things beyond the basics of food, shelter, and clothing. And it doesn’t mean you can’t also support missions. In fact, many Christians see supporting missionaries as part of our calling to share the gospel with the world.

How can you support Nik Ripken Ministries?

You can donate directly to Nik Ripken Ministries, or you can participate in AmazonSmile. AmazonSmile allows you to select Nik Ripken Ministries as the charity of your choice to receive donations from eligible purchases. Whichever method you choose, you’ll help us raise awareness of the truths and practices we have learned from believers in persecution.

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Your Pastor Is Dead

Your Pastor is Dead: A Witness to the Crucifixion and Resurrection

Today, in many parts of the world, to be a follower of Jesus can cost you your life. Just as Jesus was crucified by the Romans for his actions and beliefs, so too are Christian leaders killed by Muslims in many Islamic countries.

Nik explains, “In Islam… the Soviet Union… East Asia…. very few leaders of the faith die of natural causes.”

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What does it mean to witness in Christianity?

When we talk about witnessing, we are talking about sharing our faith in Jesus Christ with others. This can be done in a number of ways, such as through one-on-one conversations, testifying to what God has done in our lives, or living out our faith by our actions. Ultimately, the goal is to lead others to a personal relationship with Christ.

In the Islamic community, the cost of witnessing is death. This is because Islam teaches that there is only one god, Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet. To become a Christian is to renounce Islam and its teachings. This puts Christians at odds with the majority of the Islamic community, which leads to persecution, torture, and death for anyone willing to challenge it.

The Illusion of Safety

When Pastor Haik was invited to speak at a meeting with other faith leaders, his 10-minute testimony turned into a 2-hour indictment. For two hours, Haik spoke about the crimes and corruption he witnessed firsthand in the Islamic world.

Haik gave such detailed information that it was easy to identify the security policemen he was talking about. His passionate response left the other faith leaders speechless. It was clear that Haik had found his calling to expose the truth and fight for Christianity in the Persian-speaking world.

The leaders to his left and right started tugging at his clothing, suggesting he was saying too much.

But Pastor Haik refused. “I am in a safe place for the first time in years, and I’m just going to get these things off my heart,” he explained.

Betrayed with a Kiss

Two weeks later, Ruth informed Nik Ripken that Pastor Haik had disappeared.

“We found out, later on, that one of the persons in that room had turned Haik in to the government, to the security police. The guy who called and formed the meeting did not screen the donor properly.”

A policeman explained:

They’ve killed your pastor. They killed Pastor Haik. They’ve tortured him for weeks upon weeks, and I was able to watch when they took his body out in the wilderness, and I’ve marked the spot so I can take you to the place where they buried him so that you can bring Pastor Haik home.

Another pastor received this phone call while standing in the waters of baptism. After receiving this news, he looked out to 35 new converts. “Your pastor is dead.” He asked if these Muslim-background believers were ready for their personal crucifixion and resurrection ahead.

All said yes, knowing the gravity of their statement.

Crucifixion and Resurrection

Nik Ripken explains that crucifixion and resurrection is still very much present in the Islamic community. Christian leaders are killed for their actions and beliefs, and the dividing line they have crossed is witnessing to others:

These people, if they are silent in their faith and they keep Christ to themselves, they can die of old age. They can keep their jobs, they can keep their children, [and] they won’t go to jail. As leaders, they can avoid prison and torture and beatings. They can avoid being tortured to death and buried in a field where nobody knows where they are, except that policeman.

But Nik reminds us that there will be a day of judgment.

“You can die in your sleep at an old age, but I fear for you when you stand before God.”

The Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

The Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

I must admit that I struggle with setting aside 1 day of prayer for the church and believers in persecution. I’m well aware that many people pray for the persecuted church regularly; many daily. There remains a concern that setting aside A DAY to pray for believers in hard places might lend itself to a lessened focus the rest of the year? I wonder if my concern is that we often pray for our brothers and sisters and persecution rather than praying with our brothers and sisters in persecution?

My insightful wife often says, “There’s no such thing as a free church and a persecuted church. There is just the church; always persecuted and always free. If we are one body then, when one part of the body suffers, the entire body feels the pain. Hundreds of times we’ve sat with believers in persecution. Many of these “interviews” would last 4 to 6 hours. Some interviews were so significant that they lasted multiple days. Such was the time spent with a believing brother in Eastern Europe. In addition to knowing persecution in the context of his country, he was well-versed concerning persecution in the context of all of communism. Though locked behind the Iron Curtain, he understood faith and communism within global realities. I learned more from him in just a few days than from most seminary classes. At the end of our days together he surprised me when he said. “ I took great joy that I was being persecuted in my country so that you would be more free to share Jesus in Kentucky.”

I laid down my pen, turned off my recorder, closed my notebook, and said to him. “No! You cannot lay that on me. That’s a debt I can never repay.” He said, looking at me sadly, “Nik, that’s the debt of the cross.  Don’t you steal my joy! I took great joy that I was holding Satan hostage in his own backyard so that you would be more free to share Christ in your country. Never have we really felt so free as when our faith was costing us something.

My relationship with believers and persecution changed in an instant. Possibly, most of us understand the connection we have with believers in persecution as we lift them up to the Father through prayer. One believer in Eastern Europe reminded me, “the debt that we can never repay the Church in the West is the debt of prayer offered up for us during those 70 years of Communism.” Oh the wonderful truth of being able to carry someone when they can no longer carry themselves!

A debt of prayer. I love the sound of that.

Yet, ultimately, is focused prayer how we identify with them?

They are persecuted for two reasons. One, they have given their lives to Jesus, modeled on Revelation 2:10, being “…faithful unto death.” Secondly, they refused to keep Jesus to themselves. With boldness and sensitivity, they share Christ’s love with family members, friends, colleagues at work, at school, and in the marketplace of life. Therefore, the way that we most identify with our brothers and sisters in chains on this day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is when we give our lives to Christ. We too refuse to keep Jesus to ourselves. With boldness and sensitivity, we share Christ’s love with family members, friends, colleagues at work, at school, and in the marketplace of life. Thus it is that we identify with our brothers and sisters in chains.

Yet a hard truth remains. If I give my life to Christ but keep His love to myself; ignoring witness in the marketplace, among family members, and from friends – this leads to the harshest of truths.

Not only do I fail to identify with my brothers and sisters in persecution, I identify with the ones who chained them – the persecutors. For there is no greater persecution on earth than to deny another access to eternal life through the love of Jesus Christ.

On this day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church let’s be sure to write ourselves into the right side of the equation. Prayer is not something that allows one to stand at a distance. Prayer joins hearts and actions together. Today I get to decide. I get to decide whether I identify with my brothers and sisters in persecution or to identify with their persecutors.

I pray I make the right choice.

The Insanity of God: Dmitri’s Story

Dmitri, the pastor of a small house church in the former Soviet Union, is one of the most powerful examples of faith in The Insanity of God book and movie. One night, communist officials burst into his home during worship and arrested him. They sent him to prison for 17 years, more than 600 miles from his family. He was the only believer among 1,500 hardened criminals.

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Dmitri’s Story: 17 Years of Persecution

Despite the horrific conditions of the prison, Dmitri continued to share his faith and continue his worship practices. He even led some of his fellow prisoners to Christ. When the Soviet officials finally released him from prison, Dmitri continued to lead his family in their faith journey. Dmitri’s story is an amazing testimony to the power of God’s love and grace.

“What’s tough is that Dmitri’s faith is normal, biblical Christianity,” Nik reflects. “[This is] how Timothy must have felt sitting at the feet of the Apostle Paul.”

Dmitri explained to Nik that he learned from his father and grandfather the two practices that allowed him to practice his faith in a Soviet Union prison.

Writing on the Wall

Dmitri’s first practice gave him hope:

Every morning, when I got out of bed, if I could find a small piece of paper… a piece of charcoal, a pen… I would write every verse of the Bible. If there was enough, I’d write down a story from the Bible, a scriptural song… I would put that on one of those wet concrete pillars, and it would stick there.

Dmitri recalls that other prisoners did the same but it was usually a secular message, the name of their girlfriend, or someone they were cursing out:

When the guards came in and saw the content, they would take that piece of paper and tear it into shreds, and then they would smack me and throw me around, and go out. Every morning… I would recall the Word of God… and write the Word of God and put it on that wet concrete pillar.

The prison guards punished Dmitri as the other prisoners watched.

Praising God in Prison

His second practice was a controversial one. Dmitri would stand at the bars of his prison. Every morning, as the sun rose, he would stand and raise his hands in praise as high as he could reach up in the air. “He would sing his heart songs to Jesus,” Nik explains.

Nik describes the prisoners’ disgusted response as they threw human waste, food, and garbage at Dmitri. They laughed and cursed him, rattling metal cups on their cages trying to drown him out. Eventually, these 1500 prisoners learned Dmitri’s worship song and used it to save him from the execution line.

My Wife’s Dead

The prison guards tortured him with an illusion of men raping his wife and carrying her out dead. After seeing this, Dmitri was ready to give up. “My wife’s dead. I don’t know where my boys are. God… I can’t do this anymore.” He offered to sign whatever they wanted to write.

The Soviet Union officials urged Dmitri to sign a confession that they prepared: first, that he was not a follower of Jesus Christ and second, that he was paid by Western governments to overthrow the Soviet Union.

Overnight, God renewed Dmitri’s spirit. He heard the voices of his wife, his brother, and his three sons as they prayed for him. In this way, he knew that his family was alive and had remained faithful to God.

The next morning, Dmitri told the jailers that he would sign nothing. “And he threw the jailers out of his cell.” The other prisoners witnessed this and honored Dmitri in the exercise yard.

Who Are You?

Eventually, Dmitri’s guards began to despair. “We’ve tried everything, and nothing stops you from singing those stupid songs.”

The communist officials explained their intent to execute him. “In 15 minutes, you’re going to be tied to that post. In 20 minutes, you’re going to be shot dead. We’re done with you.”

Then, the jailers dragged him out of the prison cell towards the execution yard.

As they reached the door of the execution yard,

1500 hardened criminals stood at attention outside of their cells. With their arms raised in praise facing the East, they began to sing those heart songs that they heard the man sing all of those years…. And the guards, in sheer terror, let go of Dmitri and jumped away from him. They asked, “Who are you?”

Dmitri responded, “I am the Son of the Living God, and Jesus is His name.”

The Rest of the Story

Recently, Dmitri’s son revealed the rest of the story. “Nik, don’t go. You need to know something. I’m now the chaplain of the prison that held my daddy for 17 years.”

Dmitri’s son chose to continue his father’s legacy at the very prison that held him.

Impressed, Nik urges believers to stay in the story as Dmitri’s family did. Regardless of internal conflict or hurt feelings, staying in the story allows Christ followers to see the full effect of their faithfulness.