The well-known hymn puts it very simply ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus’, but that’s far easier sung than done in lots of places. Christian charity Open Doors for example has estimated that at least 360 million Christians experienced “high levels of persecution and discrimination” last year, a staggering increase of 20 million since 2021.
Bishop Philip Mounstephen, who led the government’s review into persecution in 2019 concurs. He says that things have undoubtedly got worse over the past five years, and he has pointed to Manipur in India as an example of where the persecution of Christians has escalated, with scores of Christians killed and hundreds of churches destroyed in the region.
Given all this I guess it should come as no surprise to find that the Vatican has granted approval to initiate the beatification process for 35 Christians who were martyred during the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, Odisha. ‘Beatification’, I believe, is the immediate step before sainthood, and I can understand why the church wants to honour those who have died for their faith in this way. I would honour them too and thank God for their courageous witness.
But I can’t help thinking that the church has failed to make it clear that the New Testament makes it clear that every single Christian is a ‘saint’. You can see this reflected in many passages and perhaps nowhere better than in these words ‘Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church’. (Other translations use the word ‘saints’ rather than ‘God’s people).
The apostle Paul is clearly referring to every single member of the church here and it is very noticeable that he does the same in most of his letters. He even does it when he writes to the church in Corinth where there were significant moral problems to say the least! In fact, the early church in general was full of problems. Christians argued and fell out; they needed to be reminded constantly that they had to abandon their old way of life and yet they were known as saints. In other words, sainthood is a God-given status not a spiritual achievement.
For with great privilege comes great responsibility. The Greek word that Paul used essentially meant ‘different’ or ‘distinctive’. It was used of temples for example. They were different because they were set apart for a specific purpose. In the same way Christians are set apart to serve God and that means they are called to live differently.
But that clearly brings challenges. I heard on the radio the other day that a prominent politician has suggested that people who seeks to undermine ‘British values’ should be viewed as an extremist. If true, I find that comment very disturbing, and it makes we wonder if we will ever get to the point where ‘standing up’ for Jesus will be considered ‘extremist’ in the UK given the increasingly secular nature of our culture.
That’s why I find myself agreeing with the commentator who suggested that if the government is considering amendments to the legislation on terrorism and extremism any changes must protect the freedom to share the Gospel and not end up censoring things that are simply controversial and unpopular.