Speaker, writer, and teacher Karen Ellis was traveling in Eastern Europe just after the Iron Curtain fell when she first learned about the perseverance of Christians experiencing hostility. A new Christian at the time, she heard missionary Brother Andrew invite his listeners to support believers living in places that were hostile to Christianity.

Karen remembers “asking God to show me how I could be involved.” Today, that involvement looks like advocating for the persevering Church and helping to develop theology around the virtue of Christian perseverance.

Karen and her husband, Carl, both work at RTS. Karen is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity (CSBE) at RTS Atlanta and the Cannada Fellow for World Christianity. In addition to her roles at RTS, she is a Ph.D. candidate in Virtue Ethics at the Oxford Center for Missions Studies in Oxford, England.

M&L Managing Editor Kelly Berkompas spoke with Karen about her ongoing work and research, the CSBE, and how American Christians can learn from a fuller understanding of the global and historical Church.

For those who might not be familiar with the CSBE, can you briefly outline its history and purpose?

The CSBE exists to deepen Christian understanding of how God has moved, is moving, and has promised to move among the nations through the Church as a distinct and unique cultural minority.

The concept of a study center focused on the local and global connection began organically, in our living room, about seven years ago. We had a number of local and global ministry leaders who wanted to understand better how to connect Covenantal theology with their unique cultural contexts. Eventually, people’s jobs began sending them to come and visit. So many students came through that we decided to group them into cohorts to study together, encourage each other in the Word, and compare notes on creatively addressing the unique challenges they faced in their own communities.

These were sweet times with global and local leaders gathering around meals, a few household chores (to help ease our hosting burden), teaching, and discipleship. Soon, people began affectionately calling our house “Black L’Abri.” We kept praying over the next five years for a way to formalize what was happening in our home but no one really caught the vision except the students who just kept coming through.

Five years in, Dr. Guy Richard came to visit us and described his vision for a Center at RTS Atlanta that would focus on local and global concerns of the church, something that would reflect the unique ethnic makeup of the city of Atlanta. My husband and I looked at him sideways and told him this was already happening in our house. God in His infinite creativity has formalized our little ad hoc study center on the campus of RTS Atlanta. We are now watching it grow into something we pray will be a blessing to both our local communities and the larger global church.

I think that RTS Atlanta is courageously forward-thinking to target issues of perseverance, witness, opportunity and unity in today’s shifting cultural environment. We’re grateful to be supported by an institution that believes the whole counsel of Scripture is sufficient to sustain the people of God in our present and future, as it has in the past.

Seeing Christians of all ethnicities gather around God’s Word to seek solutions and strategies, at a time when the American Church’s reputation is one of fragmentation, tribalism, and polarization, has been not only encouraging for many of us, it has also been healing.

What has been one of the most exciting things for you to see at the CSBE since you started as director?

There’s been a lot that’s been encouraging, but it’s been especially encouraging to see God bring domestic, rural, and urban leaders together with minority missionaries and global mission leaders under one roof to learn from each other. Whether local or global, these are people who understand the reality of living Christianity “in the hard places,” places where the culture around them is hostile to the transformative gospel of Christ.

Some of these leaders are prospective or current students, some are guest lecturers, some are lay people who live nearby who come to audit seminary and CSBE courses. Seeing Christians of all ethnicities gather around God’s Word to seek solutions and strategies, at a time when the American Church’s reputation is one of fragmentation, tribalism, and polarization, has been not only encouraging for many of us, it has also been healing.

A large part of your work over the past years has been advocating for the global church. What does this advocacy look like? What motivated you to get involved?

I became involved because I saw similarities in the religious freedom violations of biblical Christians in the African American experience and those of biblical Christians overseas. The evil spirit of destruction of God’s people has been in play since Genesis 1–3, but so has God’s promise to keep a people for Himself.

For example, withholding, limiting, or redacting Bibles was seen in the African American Christian experience, a practice we also see in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and other places today. Secret meetings in the hush harbors or in slave quarters to worship the true and living God (and not pro-chattel-slavery’s perverted view) parallel the underground meetings we see today in North Korea, Iran, and China. Jim-Crow-like systemic dynamics can be seen among Pakistan’s Christians today, where equal citizenship and opportunity is denied— not because of their racial identity, but because of their faith identity. The terroristic assaults against churches through arson, bombing, and raiding by gun is disturbingly alive in America today and is also destroying Christians in Sri Lanka, Northern Nigeria, parts of India, Pakistan, and Egypt.

African Americans suffered as a people group, as our humanity, freedoms, and full citizenship were denied. Throughout the African American experience, from abolition through the civil rights movement, Christians and non-Christians knowingly and unknowingly used biblical principles to push America toward a more biblical moral order; any rights gains benefited all people who suffered civic injustice. More and more, these heroes are rightly being celebrated in our history books.

But there was also a subset of Christians who were targeted specifically because of their faith in Christ. Their rarely-told stories hold a dual awareness; first of the evil that targeted their race and fundamental imago Dei, but also of an evil that targeted the imago Christi that only Christians bear. These faithful were also concerned with legislative change and a more biblical moral order, but they prioritized the transformative, high-cost, cross-bearing, Gospel change that would crush the spirit of anti-Christ in their oppressors. They knew that Satan—not the slave master—was their ultimate enemy; they knew the racist was the one truly enslaved, spiritually speaking. Moreover, they hoped not in his destruction or domination, but that they would be genuinely converted and ushered into the greater kingdom—not merely into a more just vision of America.

It’s at this personal, historical, and spiritual crossroad that my interest in global religious freedom lies.

How does your advocacy work tie into what you are doing now at CSBE? 

The CSBE really is a crossroads of past, present, and future of this unique and distinct minority called the church. We want to help Christians expand their vision of the Body of Christ beyond our own limited American vision and understand how we fit into the larger global picture. The people that have gathered at the CSBE have unique giftings and unique extended relationships around the globe. This means that in our current climate where Christianity is hyper-politicized by the religious left and right, we have a unique opportunity to share knowledge of what it means to have an alternative witness that reflects an “other- political” reality that’s based on a different set of politics, a reality defined ultimately by the life, death, resurrection, and glorification of Christ.

We want to help Christians expand their vision of the Body of Christ beyond our own limited American vision and understand how we fit into the larger global picture.

As we see Christianity being co-opted by those who would redefine the people of God, or redefine biblical Christian values to accommodate a culture that’s hostile to gospel transformation, or by those who wish to bend Christianity into a cultural agenda, we have a gathering place to meet with those who know what it means to be “other- cultural” to be a distinctive and set apart people with a particular historical lineage and a historical future that’s ultimately based on transcendent, eternal categories—not temporal ones like nationalism or ethnocentrism.

How does your personal research impact your work in advocacy and at the CSBE?

My research is involved with Theological Ethics, particularly the virtue of Christian perseverance under hostility. I believe that all ethnicities have made significant contributions to carrying the kingdom ball forward to this current generation, that half of their stories haven’t been told but should be, and that the virtues which shaped their habits and priorities created communities that carried the story of the people of God forward to us. I hope that the CSBE will grow into a place where this kind of research can live and grow, and we can pass the kingdom ball forward to the next generation in a way that will serve them well in the world they inherit.

It’s popular today to focus mostly on the Church’s historical failures; at the CSBE we are mining history for her moments of perseverance and faithfulness. We’re committed to the covenantal story of God from every nation, tongue, and tribe; we’re curious how God moves through forgotten and overlooked believers in the hard places. Anyone who sees themselves more as a Christian in America than an American Christian will find the CSBE thought-provoking in the days to come.