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'Suffering is often the crucible for deep faith'

Hearing from Christians in the Middle East leaves Helen Paynter with questions about the strength of our own calling and identity in Christ


The Church in Disorienting TimLast month I was privileged to attend the Middle East Consultation, a gathered conversation between Arab and other Christian leaders from the Middle East and North Africa region, also attended by Christian leaders from the West. It is held annually at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut.

The theme of the MEC on this occasion was ‘The Church in Disorienting Times - Leading Prophetically through Adversity’, and dealt with many of the pressing issues that the church in this region is dealing with. It was a privilege to be able to listen in on conversations on such topics as: the merits of a theology of martyrdom (proposed by church leaders from Egypt) versus a theology of non-violent resistance (emerging from the Palestinian church); the persecuted church as victim or hero; the difference between being a (numerical) minority and minoritisation (which involves subjugation and marginalisation).

Of course, conversations in refreshment breaks were equally valuable – I was able to speak at length with leaders serving in the extraordinarily challenging contexts of Syria and (North) Sudan, for example.

The second day brought one of the greatest challenges to me, focussing on the issue of emigration from the region. As a British Christian with no experience of persecution or war, I would hesitate to pronounce on the subject, but I was humbled to hear input from Lebanese and Syrian church leaders.

Elie Haddad, a Lebanese minister and theologian, told of his own story of voluntary migration to Canada, ‘We left simply because we were presented with a better option’, but of how he later felt convicted by God to return to the region, against the migration trend. For him, it boiled down to a question of being where he is called by God to be.

But discerning this calling needs humility and maturity. He cautioned against over-dependence on open and closed doors as a means of identifying the will of God. If an open door is God’s will, he is intentionally emptying the region of its Christian leadership.

‘It is the leaders who have access to open doors, much more than the rest of their community. Should this always translate into leaders leaving because they encounter open doors, while their congregations stay shepherd-less because they face closed doors?’

These ideas were picked up by the next speaker, a pastor from Syria (I have withheld his name), who appropriated the words of Paul for himself: ‘I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me’. Soon after delivering his paper, he returned to his home and pastorate in Aleppo.

Another valuable input on this subject is offered in a blog by one of the Consultation organisers, Martin Accad. In this thoughtful contribution, he develops a ‘theology of staying’, rooted in both a mature confidence in God (not for personal safety but a trust in his lordship); and a fundamental belief in the equal value of human life. ‘What good is it for a person to gain the whole world and yet lose his very self?’

I found the humble obedience of these men both admirable and challenging. Above all, their sense of call was tangibly rooted in an understanding of their identity in Christ. As another contributor said, speaking of one of the situations of persecution in the region: ‘When identity is well-established, I can dialogue with anyone. When identity is weak, everything is a threat.’

If I didn’t know it before, I witnessed at first hand that suffering is often the crucible for deep faith. I am tempted to ask myself – and us, the UK church – whether we have as much conviction in our own calling and identity.

A couple of provocative questions to finish:

  • Is God really calling most experienced Christian leaders to large, thriving, suburban churches?

  • In terms of our public engagement with a largely indifferent, but occasionally hostile society: Where do we choose a sense of threat over dialogue because of a lack of security in our identity?


Related: How Can the Church Be Prophetic in Today’s Disorienting Times? Highlights from the Middle East Consultation 2017

The Revd Dr Helen Paynter is Research Fellow and Co-ordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College 

Baptist Times, 10/07/2017
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