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Prison Theology

I heard Bob Fu speak at the Voice of the Martyrs Conference in Frisco this summer.  He was so engaging and encouraging as were all of the speakers.  I thought the conference would depress me, but I left with a sense of joy at the faithfulness and hopefulness of the various churches around the world.  Even in the face of persecution, many of the testimonies were about God's provision of joy and peace.  There was also a sense of purpose.  Often when we hear about the persecuted church we feel helpless.  What can we possibly do to impact someone in prison half way around the world and under the authority of a powerful regime?  This conference provided specific actions that American believers can follow to help those who find themselves in difficulties because of their faith.  We will discuss this more as we near Paul's statements about his ministry in I Corinthians chapter 4. 

My family has been reading a book by Bob Fu entitled, God's Double Agent.  His biography gives an incredible account of his life as a child of an impoverished rural farmer in China to successful college student swept into the Tiananmen Square protests of the late 1980s to political enemy of the state to English teacher at the Communist School in Beijing to refugee and then becoming an advocate for persecuted peoples in China and around the world.  Somewhere in the middle of this wild swing of events, God intervened in his life.  I would prefer not reveal more than that as I would love it if many of our congregation would have the opportunity to read the book.  We have also reached out to Bob Fu to see if he would be available in 2015 to speak at Matthew Road.  Maybe that will work out for us. 

When Bob first becomes a believer he is speaking with a man who had been a believer for many years in China and had faced great persecution.  This Christian leader told Bob that at some point all Christian leaders in China have to experience "Prison Theology."  If a Christian is in leadership eventually their commitment to following Christ will run counter to the purposes of the government.  Many pastors are currently in prison in China.  Some have been in prison for many years because they were hosting house churches or giving out Bibles and Christian literature.  Bob's own story intersects with this inevitable reality.  He and his wife both go to prison for the faith. When released a few months later they are followed closely by government secret police.  His description of that time in prison is quite challenging. 

For many of us, "prison theology" is completely foreign to anything we have ever experienced.  I wonder if these types of trials would be too difficult for us.  I also wonder if these types of difficulties would actually purify us.  The discipleship of American believers is challenging for different reasons.  Here, the difficulty is the unbridled flow of sensory input which stokes sinful desires.  For us, we don't run the threat of arrest because we own a Bible or give Christian literature to a neighbor.  However, we are under a different kind of assault, the assault of a culture that drinks deeply from the comforts and pleasures afforded a nation of wealth and freedom.  Freedom is a great thing, especially for expressing our religious beliefs (or not expressing them or not having them at all).  Freedom of mind, body, speech, religion, etc. can ironically lead to bondage.  As I have read Bob Fu's biography I have been challenged to say "no" to myself more, not out of government compulsion but out of love for the One who bought my everlasting freedom.  There is a "prison theology" for American believers.  It is the theology we learn when we become imprisoned by our unbridled passions fulfilled in a culture that has very few boundaries.  Feel the bars of our physical passions.  Smell the smell of being surrounded by other prisoners also under the sway of the "needs" of the moment.  Feel the emptiness of eating and drinking only prison food of this culture.  The consumption of greed, lust, materialism, envy and jealousy provide such a meager sustenance as to leave the prisoner feeling constantly empty and malnourished.  There is a worse prison than the physical ones described by our suffering brothers and sisters from other parts of the world.  There is a greater freedom in those prisons than many of us will ever know. 


"It is for freedom that Christ set you free," is Paul's encouragement to the Galatian church.  May we live free even in this culture of great bondage.

Posted by Daniel Sweet with

The Good Confession

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The Good (Baptist) Confession

When the Protestant Reformation exploded across Europe, individuals began to question the veracity of church traditions. Martin Luther created questions about the traditional views of salvation through his claim that the Bible teaches salvation is “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.” This view assaulted generations’ old traditions that claimed salvation was from the church administered through the sacraments.

As Luther opened the debate concerning the essential truths of Christianity, many looked to the Scriptures to ascertain the orthodoxy of these traditions, including the sacrament of infant baptism. From Switzerland emerged a group known as the Anabaptists. The prefix “ana” – meaning re (or repeat) was given to the group as a term of derision – “re-baptizers.” They were the most persecuted group during the Counter Reformation. They were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike, because they believed that baptism should be applied only to individuals who have received Christ as their Savior and Lord.   We have much in common with these predecessors to Baptist life. The most famous Anabaptist was Menno Simons (Mennonites draw their lineage from him).

Another Anabaptist (my favorite Anabaptist from church history) is Michael Sattler. In the midst of the Reformation, Sattler left his post at a monastery in the Black Forest in Germany. Fluent in Latin, and possibly a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, Sattler began to study the Scriptures. Finding much of the Reformation theology consistent with the Bible, he went in search of likeminded theologians. Arrested in Zurich in November of 1525 at the bequest of Zwingli (founder of the Reformed Church Movement), Sattler was eventually released and banished from Zwingli’s environs. He travelled to Schaffhusen where he affirmed Anabaptist doctrine and was baptized.

In 1526 Sattler began an itinerant preaching ministry, traveling to Germany, forming several house churches and writing several tracts designed to instruct new converts in the faith. On January 5, 1527, Felix Manz (a prominent Anabaptist leader) was executed by drowning in Zurich Switzerland at the hands of Reformed Church leaders. In addition to the natural fear that ran through the Anabaptist community, this event created a vacuum of leadership. Sattler stepped in to stabilize the churches. He crafted seven articles that constituted the basic principles of faith and ultimately became known as the Schleitheim Confession – a vital Anabaptist statement of faith. During the meeting to affirm this doctrinal confession, authorities from nearby Rottenburg, Germany discovered the gathering and immediately arrested all involved. Sattler and his wife along with a number of other men and women were taken to the tower of Binsdorf. From prison, Sattler wrote to his congregation at Horb. “Beloved companions in the Lord; the grace and mercy of God, our Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord and the power of their Spirit, be with you, brothers and sisters, beloved of God.” In the final paragraphs of this powerful and touching letter he told his fellow believers, “And let no man take away from you the foundation which is laid by the letter of the holy Scriptures, and sealed with the blood of Christ…the brethren have doubtless informed you that some of us are in prison…at one time they threatened us with the gallows; at another with fire and sword. In this extremity, I surrendered myself, entirely to the Lord’s will, and prepared myself, together with all my brethren and my wife, to die for His testimony’s sake…hence I deemed it necessary to animate you with this exhortation, to follow us in the contest of God, that you may console yourselves with it, and not faint under the chastening of the Lord…for the Lord will probably call me to Him, so take warning. I wait for my God. God be with you all. Amen.”

The trial before 24 judges began on May 17. The Roman Catholic Church sent the wrong individuals for the trial, as most of them were trained in the arts and not theology. These untrained men were ill-equipped to handle this self-studied theologian and pastor. With great composure, Sattler answered the seven charges by refuting some charges as incorrectly representing his position and also embracing other charges by defending the Anabaptist position. In each case, he carefully and diligently appealed to Scripture, which he quoted extensively.   Much as Stephen, his composure only incited his condemners even more, such that they threatened to kill him on the spot. His response, “Let the will of God be done.”

Under the jurisdiction of Ferdinand, the Catholic king of Austria, the penalty for Anabaptists was determined to be “a third baptism” or death by drowning. Sattler had so graciously and gently confounded his accusers that rage swept the group. The execution order was so severe I am hesitant to record the details. “Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.” This they did to him. However, the first step in the process was not as successful as the evil hordes would wish. For in the process of removing his tongue (a common sentencing for heretics – for the authorities viewed them as sinning with their tongues), they failed to silence this great man of faith. From the town square to the place of execution he prayed with great composure for his executioners. At the place of the fire, Sattler proceeded to call the people and the 24 judges who ordered his execution to repent and trust in Christ and be converted. His final prayer, “Almighty, Eternal God, You are the way and the truth: because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with Your help to this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood. Father, I commend my spirit into Your hands.” On May 20, 1527, Michael Sattler joined a long lineage of Christian martyrs going all the way back to Stephen in Acts 7. He gave the good testimony, following the example of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. One eyewitness said, “All this I saw myself. May God grant us also to testify of Him so bravely and patiently.” Eight days later, Sattler’s wife, despite herculean efforts to procure a recantment from the same group who killed her husband, was drowned near the spot where her husband was burned.

The impact of Sattler and his wife’s brave confession in the face of such evil is still felt even to this day. There are many examples from church history to model our lives after. One contemporary of Sattler writes, his “character lies clearly before us. He was not a highly educated divine and not an intellectual; but his entire life was noble and pure, true and unadulterated.”

Paul tells Timothy in I Timothy 6:13-16, “13I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, 14that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which He will bring about at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.”


May we keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.


(Article based in part on the outstanding historical summary by William Estep, The Anabaptist Story Eerdmans Publishing, 1996)

Posted by Daniel Sweet with