It is right and good to honour outstanding Christian leaders and missionaries of the past, and to follow their example. However, they are a very small part of the story of Christianity.
Throughout the centuries since the time of the apostles, a vast number of unknown believers, led by the Holy Spirit, have kept the faith once delivered to the saints. They were true pilgrims and strangers who carried on living and believing the faith in times of freedom and in times of persecution, in times of poverty and in times of plenty. It is to these unknown humble saints that we owe the preservation of the faith to our day.
Some figures from the past who are renowned as great Christian teachers and leaders encouraged, aided and even commanded the persecution and execution of believers who did not accept their teaching and leadership. We are more apt to find the true Christians among the victims of this shameful era of history than among their persecutors. Indeed, my mind cannot comprehend how the persecutors could reconcile the teachings of Jesus Christ with their actions.
Jesus said: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23). The cross is not a fashion accessory, a badge that confers some distinction on us. The cross is a heavy, rough, ugly instrument of death. It is absolutely essential to our spiritual life. We cannot truly live until all our selfish pride and all our selfish aspirations are nailed to the cross and allowed to bleed to death. Paul said: I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me (Galatians 2:20).
It was self-denial and cross bearing that set people free in past generations to live for Christ, despite the ridicule, disapproval and persecution of the political and religious authorities. Their faith was contagious, the spread of their faith frightened the authorities who thought that union of religion and government was essential for social stability.
True Christians have never looked to governments to support their faith, nor have they ever been a threat to governments. When Christianity has spread as a leaven throughout a society, it has been a means of alleviating many social evils that otherwise undermined the stability of society. The great weakness of 19th and 20th century Christianity was to see this social effect as the main purpose of Christianity. That has undermined the true power of the gospel and many people lost the faith in trying to magnify its social effects.
In the 21st century we find ourselves in a setting highly reminiscent of the 1st century. Now is not a time to wring our hands and bemoan what has gone wrong. Now is the time to emulate the faith of the first Christians who “turned the world upside down.” I am convinced that can happen again if Christians could be set free of all the selfish desires and fears that hinder us from truly knowing Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection.
Are there people today who are willing to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus, no matter the cost?