December 5, 2020

Is There a Church There?

Yeonpyeong Island (AFP/Getty Images)

By Chaplain Mike

Last week’s provocative bombing of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea made us all feel a little more insecure, even as we read words about beating swords into plowshares on the first Sunday of Advent. Those who welcome the Prince of Peace at this time of year should be on the front lines of praying for peace in this dangerous situation.

At the ministry Open Doors, whose mission is to serve persecuted Christians worldwide, they quote their founder Brother Andrew, who says one question believers should always ask when a crisis occurs somewhere in the world is: Is there a church there?”

Certainly we are concerned for all the people of North and South Korea. Certainly we are concerned for all their neighbors in the region, who must be deeply distressed at this turn of events. Certainly we are concerned for our own country and our policy and national interests in that part of the world. Certainly we have concern that is worldwide, knowing that the North Koreans possess nuclear weapons, and that they have the capacity to unleash apocalyptic-like destruction that would have disastrous consequences for generations.

In the middle of all those legitimate concerns, we must not forget that our family is there, in both South and North Korea. Open Doors reports:

Whereas South Korean Christians worship God freely in their churches, their approximately 400,000 North Korean brothers and sisters struggle for survival and are persecuted mercilessly. For eight straight years North Korea has held the No. 1 spot on Open Doors’ World Watch List of countries where it’s most oppressive for a Christian to live. Even the possession of a Bible can get an entire family killed or sent to a prison camp. Usually no one leaves the camps alive.

Many Christians can only worship God when their entire household is Christian. Singing and praying aloud are too dangerous. Telling your children about Christ is too risky. Parents tell their children Bible stories as if the stories were fairy tales. It’s the only way parents can share some of their faith. Meeting Christians outside your family is virtually impossible. Only on rare occasions can Christians worship or share together.

Between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are in labor camps because of their faith. In total there are hundreds of thousands of prisoners in political camps, prisons and re-education camps. In September many prisoners and people sentenced to labor camps were pardoned because of the Party Congress held that month. But the empty camps needed a new workforce. The People’s Safety Ministry arrested many others and created a fresh population for the camps.

In October the U.S. State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report. North Korea was again listed as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its severe violations of religious freedom, along with seven other nations. The report states:

The government deals harshly with all opponents, including those who engage in religious practices it deems unacceptable. Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports in previous years that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons were believed to be held in political prison camps in remote areas, some for religious reasons. Prison conditions were harsh, and refugees and defectors who had been in prison stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs were generally treated worse than other inmates.

In the harsh, repressive environment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (N. Korea), many of our brothers and sisters are getting the worst of it because their faith marks them as enemies of the state.

Massacre of the Innocents, Giotto

We would do well to remind ourselves of the dark side of this Advent and Christmas season we have now entered.

Jesus was born into a country ruled by a brutal foreign power. His people had returned from exile only to find themselves under the thumb of the occupying Roman authorities. In addition, pretender “kings” like Herod and other local governors cooperated with the invaders to guarantee their own personal safety and self-aggrandizement. The threat of a new ruler’s birth prompted Herod to slaughter innocent children in Bethlehem. Jesus’ own family fled and were forced to dwell as refugees in Egypt until the danger subsided. Within a generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome’s armies after the Jews rebelled in The Great Revolt and sparked the First Jewish-Roman War.

As you think about these things, take a few moments to read Jeremiah 31. Matthew quotes this verse from the prophet in Matthew 2, when he tells of Herod’s cruel decimation of Bethlehem’s male children:

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more. (Jer. 31:15)

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt

But don’t stop there. This verse has a context. All around this vivid description of suffering and sorrow you will find God’s loving promises:

I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built (v. 3-4)

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble (v. 8-9)

Their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again. (v. 12)

I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. (v. 13)

Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future, says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country. (v. 16-17)

With these words and promises of hope fresh in mind, let us pray for our brethren in North Korea, and in all parts of the world where injustice is the rule and persecution the accepted practice for the treatment of our faith family and neighbors.

Almighty God, heavenly Father…

Let our hope not be put to shame when we pray to you for all who suffer at this time.

…Go through bars and fences to those who are imprisoned for the sake of your name; strengthen them for a good witness, and let them not waver in the confession of Your name. Teach us through their example, and the example of so many holy martyrs, to be ever watchful of the confession of Your Son’s name. Let us not be put to shame when the evil foe lays his hand on us. But if it is Your will that we be persecuted for confessing Jesus as our Lord and only Savior, then support us in Your grace that we may withstand all trials, and grant us peaceful rest; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

• From The Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 1307


  1. Wonderfully written. It saddens me to hear so many of my conservative Christian brothers calling for war in order to destroy the Communist regime of North Korea. But, what they fail to understand is that many innocent civilians, including our lovely brothers and sisters in Christ will likely be killed in the mayhem of battle. Instead, we should be praying that God will tear down the wall of oppression and open its borders and give us a fresh new harvest where the Good News can penetrate both heart and soul of the Korean people. This can only be accomplished one way, not by bombs and missiles, but by the prayers that availeth much. Peace.

    • No, we understand the price of war quite well. Unfortunately, there may not be much choice. The thing that North Korea does best is kill. It killed innocents in an unprovoked military attack, and it will kill again. How many South Koreans (and possibly American soldiers stationed in South Korea) must die before we act? How many South Korean lives are worth a North Korean life?

      That being said, there are many other factors that play into this, so I personally don’t think that war is a good idea at this time.

  2. If you take that reasoning to its logical conclusion…Why bother haveing security at our Airports…Why fight Muslim extremist at all…Just allow Evil do what it will all over the world…As a matter of fact, take that reasoning a little further…Why have a police department…Criminals (Evil) should be allowed to run wild in our country to Beat, Rape and murder…

    • Ken, are you referring to Watchman’s initial comment? Because if so, I don’t believe your concerns follow logically from that. Watchman very rightly pointed out that war always involves the deaths of innocent civilians, whether intentional or not. In other words, one wrong does not justify another wrong. This is quite different from arguing for the sweeping pacifism you are concerned about. One can be unflinchingly anti-war without also being a pacifist.

      So many of us are caught in the mindset that civilian deaths are “unfortunate,” but excusable. In my mind, warfare is always wrong, because it always involves heavy civilian casualties. Furthermore, when one looks at how war actually plays out (ie, idealized visions of warfare aside), the grossest immorality and murder becomes the norm.

      Sorry if that sounds preachy, but I’m really worried that the Prince of Peace has been replaced with the Prince of Perpetual Warfare.

      • And let me also add that one can be an unflinching pacifist without arguing that a police force is unnecessary or that we should not try to combat terrorism.

  3. This is so close to our hearts right now. We just found out that we’ve been accepted to teach ESL at a university in South Korea. When we applied for the position this event had not yet happened. But this has not caused us to rethink our work in S. Korea, but we will certainly go there with a bit more vigilance about our surroundings.

    What amazes me is how the gospel spreads in these oppressive countries and the people remain strong in their faith. God works in spite of (and perhaps because of) the oppression.

    I think I’ve been too insulated from the difficulties Christians (and all people) in some other countries face. I’ve been too comfortable in my middle class Western life. May God open all our eyes to the world around us and give us a heart of compassion for all peoples.

    • Amy,

      Before you go, may I recommend a good book. It’s “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick. It’s about people who lived in North Korea and escaped to the South. Very good, and also shows some of the problems that they had in adapting to life in South Korea.

  4. Excellent post. I would be quite surprised if there wasn’t a church there. If not, then we can pray that one starts up soon!

  5. Somehow this verbiage does not sit well with me. It is the same when I visit churches and see information on the wall about persecuted Christians around the world. Yes, I am deeply concerned for them. But didn’t God create all people and truly loves them? Are only Christians being persecuted? It sounds the same to me as . . . “Are they any white people in there? We don’t want white people suffering” (the same could apply to other races if you one of them).

    There is a huge amount of suffering throughout the world. Women in some strict Muslim sects who are abused and have no rights (and they are not “the Church”) and deserve justice, not because of what they believe, but because they are created in God’s image. The same is true for Buddhist girls in Nepal sold into prostitution at age 10 or young boys in Sudan forced to become soldiers.

    I never ask if “one of us” are being hurt. I ask, are people being hurt. I don’t know if anyone else sees it that way.

    • I don’t get, “are there any white people there” Christians are all colors, they are Homo sapiens, and I pray for all of them. As for pacifism, read William Barclay’s, ” Ethics in a permissive Society” We must use force in a sinful world or we would all be like the north Koreans.

      • My point is dividing homo sapiens up along any definable line. Being White or Black has nothing to do with being Christian, I was just making a point of dividing people up. I agree with you, pray for the Homo Sapiens.

      • Vern,

        Instead of Barclay, I would recommend you read the Gospels and tell us where Jesus teaches us to use force in a sinful world. Isn’t the use of force a result of a sinful and fallen world? And, as you are aware, we are not of this world, right?

        You might also want to read Ephesians 6.



        • The Jews were protected by the Romans during Jesus’s time. Paul could make his journeys in relative peace because of the Roman presence. Rome started pursecuting Christians later when caesars were pronounced devine. If we were all Good Christians we wouldn’t need armies or police forces. Since evil exists in the world, I am glad for the protection of law abiding citizens and Christians. Go live in a more lawless country and see what it’s like.

        • I have read all that.I doubt you know who Barclay is. jesus used force to clean the temple. Was that a sin??

          • Jesus used force but He never killed anyone. Amazing how Christians who are pro-force/pro-military/pro-killing always seem to resort to the one instance where Jesus showed His righteous and justified anger to turn over a few tables and drive out a few animals. All throughout the Gospels Jesus talks about peace and rebuked Peter for using the sword. Remember, “turn the other cheek”?

            Using force in today’s terms usually implies killing, bombing, and decimating villages and towns. You really can’t attack a country like North Korea by overturning tables now can you? As Christians, we should do all in our power to encourage and promote peace, not encourage war. Jesus was a pacifist (yes, there’s that dirty word) and so should we.

            Barclay? Yes, I know who he is. But, I’m more concerned about what Scripture says, not some 20th century theologian.


    • My take is that, yes we are concerned for all, but there is an extra measure of concern for our family. This seems natural to me, as well as a reflection of a verse like Galatians 6:10.

      • You may be exactly right. I throw out food for thought but with no certainty.

        Taking Galatians in its historical context, Christians being the minority, suffering discrimination (social and business) as well as persecution . . . could it be saying, “especially the family because they are getting the brunt of the suffering right now?” In other words, the same could be applied to the Christian minorities in some Arab countries today. However, if you consider God has the life-giver, creator of all people in His image ( and the lover of men and women), then the concern for any discrimination, persecution, injustice should concern us the same. Some people groups are not less valuable than others . . . no matter who they are.

        Maybe I over-react to the fortification syndrome that sometimes comes into Christian thinking. It goes like this, we are the good guys, everyone else are the bad guys. God loves us most. We should build walls between us and them and avoid them (except to share the Gospel). We expect the worst from them, always thinking their motives are wrapped in conspiracies to take our babies. However, we look at ourselves in the most positive light and assign ourselves with the most positive of motives. “Yeah the TV evangelist was with her at the motel because they wanted private time to pray for the lost. Whom am I to judge or gossip about my dear brother.” Okay, I digressed once again.

        • Right on, jMJ!

        • If you look at the first century church, through reading the New Testament, you see that there was an emphasis on caring for fellow believers who were in need. Mostly, the need was there because of persecution. However, there were also examples of kindness to strangers because they were in need (I’m thinking of some of the miracles, such as the lame man begging at the temple who was healed through Peter and John).

          It’s not so much an either-or as a both-and. Do some people get off balance in this regard? Sure. It happens. But just because other people do it wrongly, it doesn’t mean we don’t try at all. We do what we can. We can’t fix it all — we’re unable and when we try we don’t leave room for God to act. But we do what we can. We offer it up to God, even with our mixed motives and misunderstandings, trusting that he knows our frame and remembers that we are dust.

        • JMJ, I am in full agreement with you that this can become unbalanced. Jesus’ point in the Good Samaritan is that anyone in need is my neighbor and that the question I should always ask is, “How can I BE a neighbor?” not “How do I DEFINE my neighbor?”

          On the other hand, I wrote a post about Matthew 25 earlier this year in which I argued that God will judge the nations on the basis of how they treat “the least of these my (Christ’s) brothers.” Without defending my interpretation again, if this is the case, then God does have a special concern for those in his family who represent him in this world.

        • wow, JMJ. Maybe that fortification thing comes into YOUR thinking, but it’s not a species with which I am familiar. In the case of Islam, that conspiracy is exactly what happens in Muslim-ruled lands. And who in the heck thinks that way about the evangelist at the motel?

          • “In the case of Islam, that conspiracy is exactly what happens in Muslim-ruled lands.”

            Huh, Kozak? There’s a vast Islamic conspiracy to “take our babies”? Not sure I’m following.

          • Kozak,

            When you have been hurt, badly by other Christians, claiming to be acting as Christians, you learn that many live in fortifications and woe to those who are on the outside.

            I’m glad that your experience has been different.

      • You could also look at it like this: where Christians are being persecuted specifically because of Jesus’ name, it deserves an extra measure of attention, not because they’re more valuable people, but because we’re looking specifically at events where the Kingdom of God is confronting the kingdoms of this world. It’s heart wrenching and (I hope this doesn’t sound sick) exciting at the same time. It’s like when your kid is up to bat at the little league game, only the stakes are a lot higher. With the persecuted church, we’re specifically given a vivid window into a people’s “taking up their cross” which is exactly what we’re told to expect by Jesus himself. I don’t think saying this is marginalizing the suffering of non-Christians.


  6. Mike, Thanks for this. Such a good, wise reminder. I met Bro. Andrew when I was in Israel on a visit in ’94.

  7. To answer that question specifically in regard to the shelling of the Korean island, yes, there was a church building there thast was damaged. Nobody happened to be in the building at the time, so while the physical structure was damaged, the Church remains intact.

  8. I suggest that you all read why Anabaptist Mennonites take the position of pacifism. We believe the words of Jesus that we are to love our enemies and do good to them. We are not to kill anyone at anytime for any reason.
    Ck this URL.|Ten+Truths+About+Enemies