What is the condition of the global church in places where persecution is commonplace? What are the countries where this persecution is the worst? What are some of the stories of the heroic followers of Jesus that in the past and are currently enduring persecution for their faith? We’ll answer these question and more with our guest, Johnnie Moore, a former member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and author of the New Book of Christian Martyrs. Join Scott for this insightful discussion on the real heroes of the Christian faith.

Johnnie Moore is a former Commissioner of the United States Commissional on International Religious Freedom and is currently President of the Congress of Christian Leaders. He is the author of eight books, including most recent, an updated version of the classis Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, entitled, The New Book of Christian Martyrs.

Episode Transcript

Scott: What's the condition of the global church in places where persecution is commonplace today? What are the countries where this persecution is the worst? And what are some of the stories of the heroic followers of Jesus, both in the past and today, who are currently enduring persecution for their faith? We'll answer these questions and more with our guest, Mr. Johnnie Moore, a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and most recently author of “The New Book of Christian Martyrs.” I'm your host Scott Ray, and this is Think Biblically from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Johnnie, welcome. Great to have you with us, and so appreciate your heart for the persecuted church and the work you've done on your new book, “The New Book of Christian Martyrs.”

Johnnie: Thanks, Scott. It's always a blessing to be on Biola's campus, and there's no more important topic to discuss on than this one.

Scott: So why are you so passionate about this subject of the persecuted church?

Johnnie: The persecuted church changed my own life. I mean, I grew up in the deep south in the United States. I had Christian parents and a church that we were at every time the doors were open. I had all kinds of Bible verses memorized because I grew up in Christian culture. But I felt like I had never seen so many things in the New Testament. And as soon as I was an adult, I started traveling all around the world. I started meeting persecuted Christians and the lights came on.

Scott: So I know you've been involved with both traveling today, meeting folks who are in some really difficult places to maintain the name of Christ. But you've also been a scholar of some of the early Christian martyrs who were, in some cases, just spectacularly persecuted for their faith. Tell us one of the stories of those martyrs that is most moving and impactful to you.

Johnnie: It's really hard to pick one.


Scott: I'll give you a little slack and let you do two.

Johnnie: Okay, I'll do an old one, I'll do a new one. So the old one is the story of Perpetua. Everyone admires Saint Augustine, but I sometimes ask people, "Well, who did Saint Augustine admire?" Well, he admired this 22-year-old woman who was the daughter of a nobleman who came to Christ and despite pleas from her affluent, respected family, she was not going to change her religion. In fact, she's arguing with her father, and there's a vase. This is one on the table here as we're talking, and she looks down at a vase and she says, "Father, can that vase be called by another name?" He says, no. “So how can I change my name? I'm a Christian” and she died in a spectacular way. We have her eyewitness account in her own journal, and then we have other eyewitnesses describing it. And it shows the strength of these early Christians, and the most famous Christian that Augustine admired wasn't a man, it was a woman, and it was a young woman who was very, very committed to the faith. And in modern history, I said I'd give two, but now I have to pick one. I will pick Karen Watson. So Karen Watson--

Scott: Tell us that story.

Johnnie: She was not a martyr that faced an ultimatum, changed sheer beliefs or died. There are a lot of these stories of ultimatum. She was a martyr who just was serving Christ in Iraq in the middle of the war and helping the poor and her car was gunned down and she was killed. But she had left a letter behind with her pastors to only open in the event of her death. And we have the letter, it's in the book, and it just shows that these heroes of our faith, they're not super Christians. They're regular Christians like the rest of us who actually believed the Bible.

Scott: - So let's tell us a little bit more about this woman, Perpetua. What did Augustine admire so much about her? It sounds like kind of an unusual story that she died so young because a lot of the martyrs that we hear about lived to sort of grizzled old age and then were executed, but this was different.

Johnnie: It was very different, and in fact, Augustine did four sermons about her, and maybe part of it was they were from the same area, they were from Carthage, you know, there was sort of somehow a local connection, you know, to the story, but she was still nursing a newborn child in prison. And she writes in her diary about the darkness of the prison and the way the soldiers treated her and she was in prison with others. And she wrote about another young woman in prison with her who had a baby in the prison and dealing with this newborn, you know, in the middle of all of this. And they put her in the arena finally. And a few days before they put her in the arena, maybe it was the day before, I don't quite remember, she had a dream. In the dream, she believes God revealed to her that she was not fighting against wild beasts. She was fighting against the devil, and she would stand. And one of the ways she stood is an animal gores her, a wild boar, she stands up, and she fixes her disheveled hair.

Scott: Amazing.

Johnnie: So why did she do that, Scott? Because in the culture at the time, if your hair was down and you were a woman, It was a sign of mourning. And that 22-year-old Christian daughter of a nobleman wanted to be ready to enter heaven, and she wanted to show all of those bloodthirsty people in that arena that they could take her life, but they couldn't take her dignity, and she was going to follow Jesus, even if it meant her last breath.

Scott: Yeah, it sounds like she recognized that there was nothing actually to be mourning about.

Johnnie: Not at all. And it's no surprise that in four sermons, she was Augustine's sermon illustration. It's an incredibly, incredibly impactful story. And it used to be that every educated Christian in the world knew this story. I hardly talk to anyone that knows it now.

Scott: I think there's, you know, I know one of the most well-known martyrs that I learned about in church history as a seminary student years ago, longer ago than I'd like to admit. But I don't think we know as much about today is Polycarp. Now we have one of our faculty here, Ken Berding is a Polycarp scholar, so knows the story well. And so a lot of our undergrads have heard about that, but I suspect that a lot of our listeners have not. Tell us the story of how Polycarp faced his end before being called home.

Johnnie: First of all, I'm not surprised that one of the world's experts on Polycarp is at Biola.

I mean, one of our great, great Christian schools in Christian history. And it's a powerful story. I mean, in fact, you know, we had martyrs before Polycarp, but Polycarp represents basically the first sort of, in martyrology, I can never properly pronounce the word, but he stands alone as the first sort of like cohesive story outside of the New Testament that was told through centuries. But he wasn't the first martyr. In fact, another famous Christian, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, knew Polycarp, who was the bishop of Smyrna, when Polycarp was younger. So when Polycarp was in his 40s, Ignatius writes him a letter as he's heading off to Rome to his own death. I'm not sure if he knew at that time he was going to die or not, but the letter's incredible. You can read the letter, he's telling Polycarp to stand firm, and I have to imagine that Polycarp remembered that letter from his 40s as an 86-year-old man when the Romans came to his city. They hid him in a farm. The people loved him. He was a revered figure, he was a humanitarian leader, he was the type of guy that when you walk down Main Street, everybody wanted to say hello. So they didn't want to lose him, they hid him in a farm, and then some informants told the police where he was, they moved him to another farm. And then Polycarp says, "I'm not doing this again." And he prepares a feast for the police–

Scott: No way. Amazing.

Johnnie: When they arrive. And he hosted them, and then they carted him off to the Coliseum in that area. It's a wild story. You know, as he walks into the Coliseum, the account goes that a voice from heaven said, "Be strong, Polycarp, play the man." You know, that's what the text says historically. And they tried to set him on fire. The fire didn't burn him, so then they stabbed him with a dagger. And the account goes that a sweet fragrance, the moment the dagger hit his body, filled the entire arena. And for many, many centuries, people remember the words of Paul to the church of Corinth, the aroma of Christ, that's death to some and life to others. And Polycarp seems to have embodied that in life and death.

Scott: That's quite a story.

Johnnie: And there are more parts. I mean, he says, "86 years have I served him. He's never forsaken me. How can I forsake him?" And these are just like a couple stories. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of stories. We have to tell them to people.

Scott: Yeah, and I think we're long overdue, I think, too, especially in an age today where persecution in other parts of the world is an unprecedented, things that we've never seen before in a delevel of depravity, I think as you've described it, that we haven't seen before. So I'll commend to our listeners your book, “The New Book of Christian Martyrs.” We'll have a link to it at the bottom of the podcast announcement. So I wanna be sure that our listeners have an opportunity to read a little bit more about some of these incredibly moving stories. So let's move in more into the present today. If you had to summarize the state of the persecuted church around the world today, how would you do that?

Johnnie: - It reminds me of “A Tale of Two Cities,” “It was the best of times and it's the worst of times.” It's the best of times in that the church is growing all around the world at rapid, rapid pace. The church father Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is at the seat of the church." And that's true. These stories, it's like every time they kill one of us, it just makes the gospel louder and the church grows and grows and grows. It is the worst of time though. I mean, we've had more martyrs in the last century than in the previous 19 centuries combined.

Scott: - Say that again.

Johnnie: - More martyrs in the last century than in the previous 19 centuries combined. And a lot of that in the last half of the last century, We're seeing whole nations try to shut down Christianity. We're seeing terrorism. People think about ISIS a lot, and I was right on the front lines of helping people from ISIS. I wrote a book called “Defying ISIS.” But when ISIS was at its height, and everyone was paying attention to that, more Christians were killed in a couple of states in Nigeria than ISIS killed in that entire year. I mean, this is happening all around the world, whether it's Islamist terrorists or certain ideologies. We are living in a time of immense Christian persecution, including martyrdom.

Scott: What do you think accounts for this sort of, it sounds like, exponential increase in the level of persecution with the global church?

Johnnie: Well, it's different things in different circumstances. I mean, to certain authoritarian environments, you know, a Christian has—God is the ultimate person in charge, and that's a threat to the system.

Scott: - The state is not God.

Johnnie: - The state is not God, and you can't shut down these people, and so you try to, you do everything that you can, and yet the church keeps growing. We are living in a digital age where terrorists are able to find each other that previously were largely isolated, and they are finding each other, and they are hunting Christians. It's also the product of great revivals, you know, in a country like Iran. I guess people don't think of Iran having a lot of Christians. Iran probably had in the last 15 years, the fastest growing church in all of that part of the world, little house churches. And so the church grows, it threatens the system. And Christians are really, really committed. And so they just refuse to recant. They'd rather die.

Scott: - It's easy, I think, in some of those authoritarian regimes to see how the gospel is inherently a political statement that Jesus is Lord, the authoritarian ruler is not, the state is not. And I think that's, I think you're right, that's very threatening to those who are in power.

Johnnie: - Yeah, and it's actually, that was the early Christian challenge. I mean, the Roman authority had an imperial cult. You bowed down to it, Caesar was Lord, And here are all these Christians running around saying, "Jesus is Lord." And yet there's this amazing thing that happens. Maybe my favorite verse in all of Paul's writings. I think it's verse 22 of Philippians 4, where Paul says, "I send you greetings from all the believers in Rome, from the believers in Rome,” comma, “including those in Caesar's household." And here's the amazing thing. In all of these persecuted places around the world, God has his people. And I think we will one day be surprised to know the Christian believers in the heart of some of these places. God's always doing his work.

Scott: It's pretty wild stuff. I remember at the end of the book of Acts, where Paul's under house arrest in Rome for two years, I think some people often forget that he had a regiment of four Roman centurions guarding him that changed every four hours, and with a with every four hour different captive audience for the gospel. And those people went out to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. And I think, I actually think that by the end of the book of Acts, the promise made in Acts 1a that the gospel will be preached to the ends of the earth, actually was well on the way to being fulfilled, largely through what you described as insiders the Roman Empire who came to faith while they were guarding Paul and then went out to the farthest reaches of the empire.

Johnnie: I totally believe that. And one of my favorite things about the book of Acts is his peculiar problem with the book, which is it doesn't end like the rest of the books. I think it's the point. It was all just getting started.

Scott: Yes. Well, from what you've observed, where would you say, what country belongs at the top of of the list as the worst persecutor of Christians today?

Johnnie: It's probably North Korea.

Scott: Still.

Johnnie: Still. You know, a lot of people think that terrorists are the primary persecutors of Christians, but actually it's still authoritarian, communist types of ideologies, largely, that they're the principal persecutors of Christians. So there are a handful of infamous countries that still remain in that top category. The church just keeps growing though. In fact, I believe those countries, I don't know if it'll be a generation or two or three, they'll be majority Christian countries. Remember this conversation, pick it up a generation or two from now, if history is any indication, eventually there'll be Christian countries.

Scott: So let me sort of, the other side of that coin is that, you know, sometimes you have countries that were formerly well known for persecuting the church, that over time have become more tolerant and more pluralistic. Are there some of those countries today that were, say, maybe in the top 10 that no longer are there today?

Johnnie: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of progress. I mean, the, and I should make this point, like we celebrate martyrs and we recognize that this is a part of the Christian experience to be persecuted, and yet the Bible also calls us to be advocates for justice. So Paul also writes to the church in Thessalonica, "Pray that we'll be delivered from wicked and from evil people," right? So he wants us fighting to protect the persecuted church while we're recognizing that we're going to have to count the cost and it's part of the Christian story, and that work towards justice is having implications around the world. So, you know, there are a lot of incredible, momentous things happening in the advance of international religious freedom. You know, I was in Abu Dhabi not long ago for the opening of the first new purpose-built synagogue in a century in the Arabian Gulf, right? And you know, this is, it's not Christian, it's Jewish, it's a Jewish synagogue, but it is an indication of the change of religious freedom. I've written now for the last couple of years, an Easter and Christmas editorial in the Arab News, where I tell the story of Jesus in the most important paper in Saudi Arabia, which is the most important paper in the Middle East. And so it is, there's a lot of work left to do, but at the same token, there's a lot to be encouraged about. We have to work on it every day.

Scott: But I say that's pretty, that's some very encouraging progress in places that we were, we would consider pretty tough nuts to crack. Yeah. I mean, you know, in Saudi Arabia, for instance, the religious police used to barge into private home gatherings and these sorts of things. The religious police lost the arrest powers. They're no longer allowed to do this. They basically let people do what they do in their houses. You know, people in a country like Saudi Arabia, everybody knows, the government knows everything going on in the country, and they don't bother the Christians anymore. There's still no church in the whole country, and we have to, you know, keep our work. But we should not embrace cynicism. We should, as the great missionary statesman said, which he probably got from someone else, we pray like everything depends upon God, and we work like everything depends upon us, and that includes working to advance religious freedom and giving credit where credit is due sometimes.

Scott: - But you mentioned there is a tension here because the early church flourished under Roman persecution. And you've seen that, I mean, we've seen that movie over and over again in other parts of the world. And you said the church is flourishing today in the global south where the vast majority of this takes place. But yet we also consider religious freedom to be the first freedom, the most fundamental freedom, or the bedrock for all the other freedoms that we've enjoyed. How do you navigate that tension?

Johnnie: I think one of the brilliant things about America is the first clause of the first sentence of our first amendment is about religious freedom. In my experience, I call religious freedom the first freedom because there are lots of other human rights, but it isn't always the case if some of those other human rights exist that religious freedom is protected. But show me a single country in the world where there's religious freedom and you don't have those other rights. It's the first and fundamental freedom. We believe it's freedom given to us by God. And in the United States, it's given by God, but it's constitutionally protected. And by the way, when we fight for religious freedom, we fight for religious freedom for everyone, including other Christians to disagree with us on religious grounds, including Jews and Muslims and Hindus and everyone else. We don't believe in religious freedom at all unless we believe in religious freedom for all.

Scott: Now that's actually a somewhat controversial notion. We tend to focus on religious freedom for our team, but not for the other teams. And I think that's a little tough to swallow, I think for some people to advocate for religious freedom for Muslims. I think less so for Jews because the church has had such a terrible history of anti-Semitism, but advocating for other groups. On what basis do you suggest that everybody needs to be included in that?

Johnnie: Well, look, the early church gives us a lot of indications about how Christianity interacted with other cultures. As a kid, I used to think that Paul was the least likely person to change the world, right? Because he was kind of a terrorist, he was killing people, or trying to get permission to kill people, standing there holding the robe of Stephen, Stephen was stoned. But I came to believe in my own seminary education that Paul was the most likely to change the world. I mean, he was born in Tarsus, which was at the time the center of Greek culture in the world. He was trained by Gamaliel, who's the top rabbinic scholar in the world. He was a Roman citizen. We don't know how this Jewish family in Tarsus got Roman citizenship. The best thing I read was Paul was a tent maker, so maybe his parents were also tent makers and they made tents for some Roman garrison or something. I don't know how it worked out. But, when Paul goes to Athens, his Greek culture shows up. He quotes their poets, Acts 16 or 18 says. When he's about to die in Jerusalem, he appeals to his Roman citizenship, gets him out of town, gets him out of Dodge. He later uses the Roman citizenship to appeal to Caesar, the right of every Roman. He preached the gospel to Roman officials using the legal system in order to do it. And of course, his rabbinic training is evident in his Christian theology. And so I think when you look to the early church, and we're getting used to being majority Christians in the United States at a time where that may be changing, but most Christians in history have been minority communities, and they didn't have the luxury of not knowing their neighbors. It doesn't mean you're shy about your faith. It's not about the mushy middle. It's not about syncretism at all. In fact, I say I don't do interfaith work around the world. Sometimes I do multi-faith work. I come together with other religious communities not to agree on anything. I mean, I, theologically, I'm a Christian. I believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Nobody gets to the Father, but by Him. But, you know, we can work alongside each other to reduce poverty or to protect religious freedom or to, you know, help people in need. And that's a very Christian thing to do. Um, you don't know what you believe unless you know why people disagree with you. I think that's one of the lessons we get from Paul.

Scott: So let me go into the political arena just for a moment. What is the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and what does that work involve?

Johnnie: You know, it's funny, every once in a while in our incredibly divided politically obsessed country, members of Congress managed to do something bipartisan and the US Commission for International Religious Freedom is a great example of it. So over 20 years ago, a bill was passed which created an ambassador at large for international religious freedom and the USCIRF commission, U-S-C-I-R-F dot gov. They're nine commissioners, half of them appointed by Democrats, half by Republicans. It depends on a few factors as to whether it's majority Republican appointee or Democrat appointee. You don't have to be a Republican or Democrat to be appointed. It's just that the Republican and the Democrat that have responsibility to appoint people choose people to be on the commission. And it is an amazing bipartisan force. In the most divided time in American history, I was appointed twice, I'm sitting around the table with people totally, totally different than me, and yet we got prisoners of conscience out of jail. We held countries accountable for religious freedom. We encouraged countries that were moving in the right direction, and there were no Democrats or Republicans around that table. And this is the beauty of the United States. The commission exists for one purpose, to hold the United States government, whoever's in charge, accountable for its commitment to religious freedom and foreign policy. So it's a watchdog to the State Department, the White House, doesn't matter who's in it.

Scott: So it sounds like it's premised on the notion that the US government really does have influence on some of the countries who are some of the worst persecutors of the church. Is that true?

Johnnie: Yes, it's totally true. I mean, a lot of people, there's a lot of talk about the United States in decline and all these things. Maybe it's true in this area here, this area there if you're with nuance, but the United States still has, by an order of magnitude, the largest economy, the most powerful military, we're blessed with these amazing natural resources, we have all the food that we need, we have one of like, I think three countries in the world that have a replacement population, all of these things. The United States is quite strong, it's the technological heart of the world, we're just seeing it again with AI. And when the US prioritizes something, friends and adversaries alike still have to pay attention. And as citizens, that's a stewardship that we have to be responsible for. It doesn't mean you have to be a pundit to get involved in partisan politics, but it's something we should celebrate as Americans still perfecting our union.

Scott: - And regardless of which side of the political aisle that you're on.

Johnnie: - Yeah, I mean, I don't understand this time that we're living in that you have to check your political affiliations before you do anything at all. I'm not looking for excuses not to collaborate with people who are different than me. I'm looking for opportunities to do it. I think it's a very, very Christian thing to do.

Scott: - Johnnie, one final question here. We hear a lot about the church in the US praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Can you help our listeners be a little bit more specific about how they can pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters.

Johnnie: I struggled with that personally. When I first got into this, I didn't know what to pray. I just felt so overwhelmed. And I also went to help these people and I was finding I was the one being wrecked. Like I said, they were helping me. Like, so what do I do for you? And I don't know, an Iraqi Bishop gave me a word of advice. He said, "Here's what you should pray for. Pray that God provides for us. Pray that God protects us. Pray that God gives us the ability to persevere. Provides, protects, and perseverance. Pray that God provides for us, that he protects us, and he allows us to persevere.” And he said, "That's all you need to pray." So I think that's a good guide as to how to pray, but I would take it to another level, pick a country and pray for that country. You know, my good friend who just went home to be with the Lord, George of Arwa, I founded Operation Mobilization. He was a, anyone who knew George knew he was a quixotic type of, maybe not the best synonym, but he was a mad scientist. I mean, you know, he's a force of nature. And George was famous for beginning every sermon, every opportunity. He would hold this gigantic globe up and he would just pick a couple of unreached countries and he would pray for those countries. I think that's what we should do too. Go to USCIRF, look at the tier one, tier two. So go to, you know, other organizations, Christian ones, obviously. And pick a country and pray for that country. Just pray for a country every couple of days. And by the way, when you're praying, guarantee they’re believers there. Unless it's a very unreached place, a language we don't have the gospel, most of those very persecuted places, the church is there. So pray that they persevere, pray that God provides for their needs, and that God protects them every day.

Scott: Johnnie, that is such helpful advice. Thank you for being real specific about that. I think that's something our listeners can grab hold of and pray now with purpose for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. I want to commend to our listeners your book, “The New Book of Christian Martyrs.” It's terrific work. It's a contemporary update of the old sort of “Foxe's Book of Martyrs,” which focused on more the early church, but that was, you know, that's several hundred years ago that that came out. So thank you for your work on that, updating that. It's been a great service to the church. And thank you for this time here today. This is super helpful guidance. I hope our listeners are encouraged by this. Yes, our brothers and sisters around the world in some of these really tough places need our prayers. Now you know a little bit more specifically about how to pray for them and to take one specific country and devote your prayers there. So thanks so much for being with us. It's been terrific.

Johnnie: Thanks for having me.

Scott: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including at our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our friend, Johnnie Moore, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.