A Response to “The Church in China,” edited by Christopher Hancock, The International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, Volume 15, Number 4, December 2015, 259–377.
The articles and reviews in this special edition of a major international journal prompt me to make some reflections on various topics that may be of interest to those who are engaged in ministry among the Chinese. These reflections pertain equally to the books reviewed in this issue of the journal.
Following the order of the material in my review posted on the Global China Center website, here are my thoughts:
As Christopher Hancock says in his editor’s introduction, Christianity in China is so complex, even chaotic, that we must consider it from a variety of perspectives. No single narrative, such as “the persecuted church,” or “the mature church needing no foreign input,” will be accurate. While there is much for which to thank God, there is also much requiring our prayers and even, perhaps, our input. We have a great deal to learn from the zeal, courage, and suffering of our Chinese brothers and sisters, as well as, perhaps, some things to share with them.
The history of apostasy among Roman Catholics facing persecution in the eighteenth century reminds us that unless people are presented with “the whole counsel of God,” beginning with the nature of God himself, the depth and awful consequences of our sin, the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and the radical demands Jesus lays upon his followers, “conversions” will be shallow at best. Believing in Jesus in order to obtain some earthly benefits will turn to apostasy when hard times come.
Paulos Huang is right in his choice of three challenges facing Chinese Christians today.
Religion and Politics: Christians must make it clear that the gospel is not tied to any particular system of politics or government; Christianity is not inextricably bound up with Western culture; and Christians are under no obligation to render unqualified support to any government, though they must submit as far as conscience allows.
Christianity and Chinese Culture: Christians must not allow the gospel to be accommodated to Chinese culture. They must, however, address the relationship of Christianity to Confucianism (especially), (but also to) Daoism, and traditional Chinese religion; they must prepare to be criticized and opposed.
Christianity and Chinese Society: Chinese Christians need to show how their faith can mitigate some of the worst effects of unbridled capitalism; they can point people without a moral compass to God’s benevolent and absolute standards; and they must find a way respectfully to oppose the rise of Christian nationalism, including in the Church.
While Christians rightly must engage in practical efforts to ameliorate the sufferings of common citizens and advocate justice, they must not use these as a way to justify themselves before God or before their neighbors. Motive is everything: We must serve out of our love for God and others, not to gain approval for ourselves. Further, they must expect to be opposed by a government that is jealous for its status as the only “savior” of society. Finally, they must remember that the unique contribution of the faith is the presentation of a message of salvation from the penalty, power, and presence of sin, as lived out in a believing community, not the transformation of society in this age.
Christians must avoid “a narrow evangelical faith” and beware of the “appearance of heterodox sects,” while at the same time resisting the temptation to “accommodate” Christianity to Chinese cultural traditions or integrate the Bible with any alien thought system. Recent attempts to do “Sino-Christian theology” have all too often started from non-biblical premises and employed non-biblical categories, rather than using the Bible first to critique and then to speak to Chinese culture. This is a real danger even among evangelicals.
The article on Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phonecian woman reflects both the mistreatment which women in China have suffered for millennia and the distorting power of any extra-biblical hermeneutical framework, in this case feminism. Once again, the lesson is clear: We must be aware of our presuppositions when we approach the Bible and when we seek to apply it.
The Critique of Indigenous Theology by Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng) has much to offer our generation. Now, perhaps even more than when he wrote it, theological liberals and evangelicals alike are repeating the errors of the past by trying to forge a synthesis between Christianity and other religions and philosophies. Chang not only traces the history of this ancient error and gives examples from twentieth-century Chinese Protestants, but also offers principles for a truly indigenous Chinese theology. For a translation, see Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng), edited and translated by G. Wright Doyle (with a translation of Chang’s Critique of Humanism by Samuel Ling).
Paul Wang’s article on “Reformed Theology in China” points out several challenges facing Calvinist Christians. To me, one of the gravest is the historically divisive and socially disruptive effects of “political” Calvinism (as distinct from “theological” Calvinism, with which I am sympathetic). Reformed Christians may legitimately point out the social, economic, and political implications of biblical teaching, but they must not – in my opinion – make these an essential part of the gospel. As I try to show in Christianity in America: Triumph and Tragedy, when Christians try to be “salt and light” in the world, they make great contributions, but when they seek to be “Savior and Lord,” they bring conflict and chaos. The review of a book by Wang Yi, a prominent Calvinist house church leader and political dissident, reminds us of this danger.
One last comment: Several authors referred to the ongoing and virulent campaign of the Chinese government to link Christianity to Western imperialism in the past and in the present, and noted that this is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the gospel in China today. Precisely for this reason, my colleagues and I are working hard to tell the true story of Protestant Christianity in China since 1807. We want to acknowledge mistakes that were made while demonstrating that the vast majority of both missionaries and Chinese Christians wanted nothing but to introduce the Chinese to the truth and love of God as revealed in Christ, not to overthrow any regime. The Biographical Dictionary of Christianity, the Studies in Chinese Christianity series issued by Pickwick Publications, and the articles and reviews on the Global China Center website are all animated by this desire.
G. Wright Doyle