RICHMOND, Va. – Biblical obedience to God is insane. That’s the conclusion of Nik Ripken, based on his 15 years of research and hundreds of interviews with persecuted believers around the world.
In Ripken’s latest book, he asks:
Why else would a man like Dmitri,* imprisoned for leading an illegal house church in communist Russia, insist on singing a praise song to Jesus every morning for 17 years, even as prison guards beat him and fellow inmates ridiculed him?
Why else would overseas Christian workers in a Muslim country closed to a gospel witness gather to share Christian communion after a Muslim extremist shot four colleagues, killing three of them?
Why else would a man like Ripken move his family from the safety and comfort of a small Kentucky town to settle in Africa where they encountered sickness and death and witnessed unspeakable suffering among their neighbors and friends?
Insanity is the only plausible explanation by the world’s standards, Ripken states in The Insanity of Obedience. But for Ripken and other believers choosing to stay in difficult places to share the gospel, their belief in the power and love of Christ enables them to persevere.
A personal journey
Ripken’s first book, The Insanity of God, recounts his personal journey to relieve human suffering in war-torn Somalia, the appalling sorrow he experienced and his struggles with a God who would allow His followers to endure such pain on His behalf.
Biblical obedience to God is insane, says Nik Ripken, who served with his wife Ruth in Somalia. Ripken bases his statement on 15 years of research and hundreds of interviews with persecuted believers around the world. Ripkin is the author of The Insanity of God and his latest book, The Insanity of Obedience.
The Insanity of God raises challenging questions for evangelical believers living in the relative comforts of the West: What is the cost of obedience? How can Christians in the U.S. come alongside persecuted believers and ignite churches in America to be serious about fulfilling the Great Commission?
Ripken answers these questions in his latest book. Drawing from his years of experience as an international Christian worker, he seeks to develop practical applications for Western churches.
Ripken challenges how American Christians commonly define persecution in what he calls a “post-Pentecost” era in America – an environment in which the gospel has been preached widely, churches are present and Christian literature and education are easily accessible.
“Persecution, it seems, is rare in a post-Pentecost setting,” Ripken writes. “Often pastors say to us, ‘Persecution is coming to the church in America.’ When asked to explain … the response often revolves around conservative evangelical stances on homosexuality and abortion … But the U.S. church’s stance opposing these activities and lifestyles is the same as conservative Islam!”
In what Ripken calls a “pre-Pentecost” or “Old Testament” environment, persecution is perceived differently. Approximately 9,000 people groups representing nearly 4 billion people live in settings where there are few believers and few, if any, churches. In some of these places, the gospel message has not been shared because there is no believer present to share it. In other places hostile to the spread of the gospel, believers who share their faith do so at risk to their and their families’ safety.
Ripken suggests that churches in the West do not face significant persecution as they become less and less a threat to a spiritually lost world. However, in pre-Pentecost settings, religious persecution comes not from taking a stand on social and cultural issues but from making Jesus known to those who have little or no opportunity to hear about Him otherwise, he says.
In these very different settings, discipleship approaches also differ, Ripken notes.
Churches living in persecution use a “New Testament house church style” of discipleship out of the necessity of believers bonding in small groups to endure persecution together, Ripken explains. They learn together and teach each other, modeling locally what being a believer in Christ means.
As non-believers see followers of Jesus meeting human needs and alleviating suffering, the love of Christ becomes tangible, drawing those outside the group to learn more, Ripken explains.
Ripken contrasts this approach with some Western-based discipleship programs that are essentially “information transfer.”
“Discipleship in settings of persecution is based on relationship,” Ripken writes. “New believers are asked how they are treating their wife and children … about their use of money and their time on the Internet. In the Western world, a believer can go to a denominational college and get multiple seminary degrees and never be asked these kinds of questions! Discipleship is about building character, not simply transferring information.”
The scariest challenge
Learning discipleship methods from believers experiencing persecution may be a radical concept for evangelical believers comfortable with a highly programmatic style of church, Ripken acknowledges. But discipleship needs to be personal and bring about significant life changes in believers, he says.
True discipleship, coming alongside each other, is messy, inconvenient and rarely goes according to plan, he says, but it is necessary to life transformation and being obedient to God.
“Lost people must not be merely the focus of Western workers,” Ripken writes. “Instead, lost people must become their family.”
To build healthy, growing Christians and churches, evangelical believers must open their homes, their lives, their families and their hearts to those who don’t know Christ and those who don’t live according to conservative evangelical principles, Ripken says.
Obedience that influences
Dmitri learned this lesson in a Russian jail cell, Ripken shares. Every morning for 17 years, he stood at attention by his bed, faced the East, lifted his hands to heaven and sang a praise song to Jesus. He was beaten by his captors and ridiculed by fellow inmates, who often threw food and human waste into his cell in attempts to stop his singing.
Then, one day, after finding a piece of paper on which Dmitri had written every Scripture reference, Bible verse, story and song he could recall, his jailers beat him severely and threatened him with execution. As they dragged him from his cell down the center corridor toward the courtyard, Dmitri heard a strange sound. The 1,500 hardened criminals who had ridiculed him for nearly two decades stood at attention by their beds. They faced the East, raised their arms and began to sing the song they had heard Dmitri sing to Jesus every morning.
“Who are you?” a guard demands to Dmitri.
“I am a son of the Living God, and Jesus is His name!” Dmitri replies.
They returned Dmitri to his cell. Some time later, he was released and told Ripken his story.
That’s the kind of influence for which Christians should strive, Ripken says. But, it only comes through “insane” obedience to God’s commands.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tess Rivers is an IMB writer. Both of Ripken’s books, “The Insanity of God” and “The Insanity of Obedience” are available at imbresources.org.)