The lament has been heard from many that the government of Viet Nam is moving to “put an end to house churches.” This has been a common reaction to “Decree 92” (or ND92) which the Viet Nam government passed last November and implemented in January of this year. We reposted a Morning Star News article about this in recent days which you can read that identifies some of these concerns. Others are asking if this is “Two steps back?” or decrying that Viet Nam is modeling their religious policy after “draconian” China-style restrictions. We’ve included a few of those additional links at the end of this post as well as a link to ND92 itself if you are interested in reading more. Every article that I have seen from a Christian viewpoint (as well as those from a Catholic or Buddhist viewpoint) is showing a fearful almost fatalistic reaction. I am instead expectant and praising God for what I believe has the potential to spur Vietnamese Believers forward in building His Kingdom in Viet Nam. There are three truths here. First, ND92 is more restrictive and most certainly allows for heavier handed opposition to Christianity. Second, as Christians we have an obligation to submit to the authorities over us up until the point in which doing so contravenes the will of God. Third, change is needed in the form of a new passion for churches that plant churches that will multiply throughout the 85 million plus lost people of Viet Nam. The implementation of ND92 may in fact provide the impetus for such a change and if so is a welcome prompt.
You will be hated by all nations because of Me
The links below do a good job of detailing ND92 and its implications. In summary however, ND92 has the stated purpose of “clarifying” earlier decrees regarding religion (starting from ND22 in 2005) but in so doing gives a much heavier regulation on religious activity. Some key examples of this tightening control include:
- A new designation of “religious meetings” for less formal religious events that now also requires a specific and difficult permission process before such a meeting can be held. Such informal events likewise require an approved location.
- A prescribed 20 year wait for a full level of permission or registration for “religious activity” which is the next level up from that of “religious meetings”. This translates into a 20 year wait for the legal recognition of a church.
- A pretty tight restriction on religious events to be held only within the four walls of the approved religious meeting location.
- A broad and vague definition of acceptable rationale for denying official permission for a religious meeting or religious activity.
While God in His sovereignty may choose to relieve the suffering of Believers at times, from Scripture we also know that this is not necessarily the norm. On the contrary, we are told to expect suffering and persecution.
In fact, all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 2 Timothy 3:12 (HCSB)
Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. Matthew 24:9 (HCSB)
So where does this leave the Believers of Viet Nam in relation to ND92? Right where the Holy Spirit via Paul told us we would be – persecuted. While the specifics of this government decree may be new or even unexpected by some, the reality of persecution should certainly not surprise us. The key lies in what form our response to such persecution will take. One of the most common responses to persecution found in the book of Acts is that of boldness on the part of Believers. If we are prepared to expect that persecution will come, and will wholly place our faith in the power and providence of Jesus Christ then we certainly should respond with that same measure of boldness.
And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that Your slaves may speak Your message with complete boldness. Acts 4:29(HCSB)
Submit to the governing authorities
The requirement to submit to governing authorities however is clearly laid out in Romans 13 as well as other passages.
Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. Romans 13:1 (HCSB)
Clearly as Believers we must take serious our responsibility to submit. Christ told us that we should give to Caesar (representative of governmental authority) that which belonged to him. Ephesians 5 and 6 give an extensive directive on the role of submission in the Christians life. Our walk as Christians should be so commendable that others be unable to find fault in us. The Christians in Viet Nam should be living such exemplary lives that the government sees in them only something to be desired as citizens. This does not mean however that there is no line which cannot be crossed allowing for disobeying the government. There exists a watershed of authority in the Christian’s life. Obedience is owed to governmental authorities but only up until the line at which the government calls the Believer to go against the command and will of God. Numerous examples in Scripture highlight this principle from the midwives in Egypt, Rahab and many from the Apostles and the early church. When faced with the Jerusalem authorities forbidding Peter and the Apostles from openly evangelizing, their response was clear,
But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29(HCSB)
The Body and the Head
All this leads to the fact that the Believers of Viet Nam must give appropriate emphasis to the authority, nature and mission of the church. The church is no less than the Body of Christ. This truth is repeatedly given to us in Scripture. “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son . . . .” just as He sent Jesus Christ to the earth as the Author of our Salvation – so He still sends His Son into the world today. Every time a local church is formed, it is the Body of Christ, it is the physical presence of Christ in our world today. The local church, the Body of Christ in its context has the same mission as that of Jesus Himself – to serve, not to be served and to reconcile men and women to God. Each Believer individually is a member of that Body and has a function and a purpose in it. Many may serve the church but there is only one Head of the church – Christ Jesus our Lord.
And He put everything under His feet and appointed Him as head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of the One who fills all things in every way. Ephesians 1:22-23 (HCSB)
The church then, the local Body of Christ, made up of individual Believers, committed together with Christ as their Head must fulfill their mission in Viet Nam. Each local Body must follow the basic functions of the New Testament church – glorifying God in worship; knit together in fellowship and commitment to one another as baptized Believers; teaching and studying the Word of God; serving the needs of those around them and giving themselves away in missions and evangelism. Performing these functions is mandated to Believers as the local Body of Christ with or without the permission of ecclesiastical or governmental authorities. The commitment to and passion for these functions, to be the local Body of Christ, is greatly needed to reach the peoples of Viet Nam today.
Communist China and Cuba – a model for Viet Nam?
There is a worthwhile comparison here to the situation in Viet Nam to that of two other correspondingly Communist countries – that of China and Cuba. The exponential growth of the church, specifically the underground or illegal house church, in China over the last several decades is well known and frequently documented. This great movement of God in China has not come however in the absence of persecution and opposition but rather in the face of this to a significant degree. While China has allowed for open, government controlled churches, the Believers there have not been content to spread the Gospel only when they have permission or to be the Body of Christ only with the stamp of government approval. And so they meet in homes and storefronts and restaurants and public parks in the cities and in the countryside – illegally. Because the government of China was so restrictive in what they allowed for religious expression the Believers were faced with a clear Acts 5:29 choice – God or man. It’s interesting that in the responses to ND92 some Vietnamese church leaders have decried the fact that the government was taking a cue from China in revising their regulations. In fact there seems to be some truth to that accusation with evidence of meetings between the two country’s leadership where religious regulation was discussed. But given such boldness of Believers and rapid multiplication of the church in China why should we have any dismay that the same environment might be forthcoming in Viet Nam?
Communist Cuba provides another appropriate comparison given the common ideological stance and common opposition to religion. While not as well known as China, the church planting movement within Cuba over the past few years is likewise a great testimony to God at work in our world. Urbanek’s Cuba’s Great Awakening: Church Planting Movement in Cuba is an excellent piece to understand in part the mighty wave of God’s Spirit in that island nation. When Communism arose in Cuba and a stated opposition to religion was announced, the initial tactic of the government was to forbid any new church buildings as well as forbid the rennovation or expansion of existing church buildings. Over time as the number of Believers grew and as existing facilities fell into disrepair, they began to meet in homes. Initially at least the opposition to the resulting house churches in Cuba came not as much from the government as from the traditional mainstream denominations.
The pattern in both China and Cuba then seems to be that in the face of significant and unyielding opposition to the church – the church multiplied. Over the past decade or so in Viet Nam however, there has not been this same level of opposition. To be sure there has been opposition but the government regulations have been less than precise, even ambiguous – and their enforcement inconsistent. Many Believers and churches in Viet Nam then have been optimistic about the future. They trusted that things were going to get better. They believed that more religious freedom was on the horizon. They patiently waited on their attempts at registering new churches. Basically, they have seen the door as open just a crack, the light was streaming in and it has occupied their attention. Instead of responding with boldness, many have responded to this crack in the door with timidity. One church awaiting legal recognition recently underwent basic evangelism training. A number of the members began to be excited about the prospects of reaching more people with the Gospel. In the midst of that excitement however, the leaders of the church were contacted for a periodic check-up on their application for legal status. The local authorities reminded the leaders that there could be no unfavorable incidents related to the church or their application would be denied. Following that meeting, the leadership of the church decided to discontinue any further evangelism training for fear that the increased activity could be a negative factor in their dealings with the government. Sadly that incident is not an isolated anecdote but rather a frequent occurrence. Perhaps, with the clarification and increased pressure brought on by ND92, the Believers in Viet Nam will no longer see a crack in the door but rather a closed door. If the response to that closed door is the same as we have seen in China and Cuba – that’s a good thing.
Please pray with us for the peoples of Viet Nam:
- Pray for boldness and a total reliance on God as the Believers in Viet Nam lead others to Christ, train them as obedient disciples and lead them in being the local Body of Christ in their context.
- Pray for God to raise up new laborers from within the harvest field itself who will in turn reach other Vietnamese with the Gospel.
- Pray for the existing traditional churches within Viet Nam to be more active in not only allowing but actually promoting the planting of house churches that might multiply throughout the millions of lost in Viet Nam.
Additional Reading related to ND92: