What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?
So went the question my fellow elder asked. We were having a discussion about our Iranian contingent and the best way to help them. There are always some who are more or less pleased with the amount of help offered. Elders are frequently criticised for either helping too much and spending far too much time with our Iranian brothers and sisters or, conversely, for not helping enough and failing to help them adequately.
Inevitably, during these sorts of conversations (we’ve had more than a few of them during my stint as pastor) somebody asks why we don’t do X or why we said Y. Occasionally, when the Home Office refuse somebody’s appeal, fingers are pointed. Either you didn’t do enough, what you did wasn’t good enough or the Home Office decision is specifically your fault. There is often an undercurrent that wonders why the Home Office would refuse the appeal if your statement was so positive. Of course, the Home Office couldn’t possibly have another agenda, like trying to defend their original decision and trying to maintain their targets and quotas. Surely, if we cared, we would say what is necessary rather than, as we repeatedly point out we are bound to do, what is demonstrably true.
So, we come to the question: what is the worst that would happen? My dear friend asked, is the worst that could happen that one of our Iranian brothers’ case fails, they get deported, they share the gospel back in Iran and then they get arrested, tried and executed? ‘Yes, of course!’ comes the inevitably reply.
‘Wrong!’ said my friend. The worst thing that could happen is that our friends are using the church to get their leave to remain, their case is successful, they live a long and happy life until they’re 90 and die of natural causes in their sleep. All without knowing Christ. To invert a trivial phrase and apply it to reality: the world hath no fury like a holy God spurned.
That, I went on to explain, is why our main concern is not our Iranian brother and sister’s asylum application. Our main concern is to see the lost who would perish in Hell for eternity forgiven and made secure in Christ. Our first priority is the souls of those who come through the doors of the church.
We will go to court for anyone whom we can affirm as a genuine believer and will plead their case to the best of our ability. But we will never affirm as a believer – whether in the form of a witness statement, going to court, receiving baptism or coming into membership of the church – someone whom we are unsure is a believer. We do a grave disservice to any asylum seeker if we affirm them as believers when they are not. Any person we comfort in sin and rejection of Christ – no matter how successful before a tribunal judge – has received no favour from us.
If we comfort people in their unbelief that way, what will we say when we stand before the Lord and they ask us why we didn’t tell them they weren’t a believer? Will we look on, as they are ushered to Hell, and say, ‘we thought you’d be upset we wouldn’t go to court for you and say you are a Christian.’ It’s like giving a drug addict the lethal overdose of heroin they are asking for because we are more concerned that they might be upset with us not giving it to them. Except, worse than that, our action has eternal consequences. It is a greater mercy to realise you are not right with God (and to know how to put it right) than it is to receive your right to remain in the UK.
Don’t get me wrong. We care deeply about the material wellbeing of our brothers and sisters seeking asylum. We don’t want them to be deported. We recognise the terrible failings of the system and process. We long for them to receive their right to stay here and we will do all that we can to help them in that regard. Whilst there are depressingly more people trying to screw the system than we might like to believe, the vast majority of people seeking asylum are in genuine danger and need our help. And such as we can give it, that is what we will do.
But regardless of the relative merits of each of their cases, there is a need that all asylum seekers share. It is a need we all share. That is the need to have their sin forgiven in Jesus Christ. That need is far greater than any asylum claim because its consequences last a darn sight longer than any refugee status. And we do nothing to help that if we tell people, even to the point of going to court to give testimony on their behalf to this effect, that they are genuinely believers when we have credible reason to doubt it is true.
It is for this reason that we find it important to have robust membership criteria. Not so we can catch people out – there is nothing we long for more than welcoming people into membership of the church as believing brethren. But so that we can have a relative degree of certainty that those with us are truly saved. Not only that, but so that those in membership can have a relative degree of certainty that they are truly saved. Equally, so that those who aren’t in membership can honestly ask themselves, am I truly saved and what is it that causes me (and the church) to doubt the possibility?
You tell me, what is the worst that could happen? Similarly, what is the greater mercy? To receive asylum in the UK or to find your eternal asylum in Christ?