A reflection upon Wenzhou Christianity as described in by Nanlai Cao. A full book review can be found at Global China Center. Although this volume reflects what appears to be a mostly secular, even Marxist, perspective, it also seems to provide a reasonably accurate picture of the new urban unregistered churches in Wenzhou. As such, it deserves careful thought. On the one hand, we can be greatly encouraged by what God is doing in and through his people in Wenzhou.
Businessmen are becoming Christians in large numbers. Their newfound faith has made a profound change in every department of their lives. New birth has given them both the motives and the power to exercise strict self control, including restraint of their sexual drive. Marriages are improving, and children are being instructed in the faith. With a new sense of right and wrong, Christian entrepreneurs are cleaning up their business practices. More than that, they view doing business well as a way to glorify God, and thus reject the old sacred-secular dualism that has plagued the Chinese church since missionaries brought a largely Pietistic gospel to China in the 19th century.
Rather than keeping all their wealth to themselves, successful businessmen are pouring funds into church buildings, Christian education, and extensive evangelism. They reach out to their peers as well as to migrant workers on the margins of society. Eager for more biblical knowledge, the men enroll in theological training programs and attend short-term classes, while their women seek to know God more intimately through prayer meetings and spiritual enrichment gatherings.
Meanwhile, they are taking the gospel all over China and all over the world, especially Europe, as the Bible follows Wenzhou’s famous businessmen.
To the degree that Cai is painting a true portrait, on the other hand, certain features of this movement must cause us great concern.
Perhaps the “boss Christians” in Wenzhou are taking their cues from the powerful bishops of church history, the “senior pastor” of today’s congregations, or the celebrities that lead mega-churches and dominate Christian television, but can this kind of rule be found in passages about church organization in the Bible? Do we not see, rather, a congregation governed by a group of men who are called upon to serve the people with humility?
Where in the New Testament do we find such a connection between wealth, power, and religion? One thinks of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the temple of Artemis in Ephesus! Does the entire epistle of James not speak directly to the dangers of distinctions based on class and money? Why did Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor” and “Woe to those who are rich!”? Significantly absent from Cai’s description are references to following the way of the Cross as the mark of true discipleship.
Of course, Wenzhou Christians have centuries of “Cathedral Christianity” as a model for their huge church buildings, but where in the New Testament are believers told to construct large edifices to attract people to Christ? The “edifice” referred to is the Body of Christ, and “building” refers to the result of the exercise of spiritual gifts as believers speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12, 1 Peter 2, etc.). In fact, there is no evidence that Christians regularly met for worship, teaching, and mutual edification in designated church buildings after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed; on the contrary, the norm was clearly a gathering in a home (see “A Theology for House Churches”).
The emphasis upon success, size, and sophistication seems far removed from the New Testament description of the way Jesus and the apostles lived and the lifestyle they sought to pass on to others. Was the gospel to be commended by big buildings filled with big numbers of people and presided over by big bosses commanding big budgets and making a big impression on the world? Somehow, I got the impression that Jesus wanted his followers to serve as salt and light, declaring by their transformed lives and clear message that they were children of a heavenly Father. Prayer, proclamation of the gospel, and the performance of good deeds, including mutual love, seem to be the main ingredients for church growth in the early days, even if that model was rejected by the fourth century A.D.
Furthermore, even if one believes (as I do) that the Bible mandates gender-specific roles in the home and the church, nowhere can we find the sort of “male- Christianity” and “female-Christianity” which seems to exist in Wenzhou, with men developing a “rational” spirituality and women yearning for “emotional” experiences with God and each other. Everywhere in the Bible, both men and women are expected to seek and serve God with heart, soul, mind and strength with a faith that builds on truth and flows into love. Head and heart, word and worship, proclamation and prayer – these are not split in biblical spirituality; separating them by gender only reinforces stereotypes that fail to bring out the best in both sexes.
While we rejoice to see “redemption and lift” as a result of faith in Christ in Wenzhou, where do we find Jesus or the Apostles touting the practical benefits of repentance and trust in Jesus? Though I certainly believe that following the principles of Scripture will often result in better health and greater happiness (see The Lords’ Healing Words), that is definitely not the main emphasis of the New Testament, which everywhere calls us to seek God’s kingdom, spiritual blessings, and eternal life.
Alas, the fundamental pragmatism of Chinese culture, the materialistic nature of Chinese folk religion, and the perversions of the “health-and-wealth” message imported from the West seem to exercise too much influence in the lives of Christians in Wenzhou.
But perhaps we should ask, How different are they from most evangelical Christians in the West? Are we setting our Chinese brothers and sisters an example of self-denial, spiritual yearning, and walking in the footsteps of Jesus towards Golgotha? Constructing China’s Jerusalem poses some challenging questions to us.