Leadership and the Chinese Church: Some Preliminary Considerations

A. Chinese traditions of leadership

1. Positive traditions

Yu, the great minister under the Prince, later Emperor, Shun. Noted for:

Untiring exertions on behalf of the people (as he tamed the rivers).

Putting the public welfare above his family (whom he never visited for 13 years, though he daily passed by his home).

Caution in counsel and decision-making.

Attention to detail and to the first signs of a problem.

Concentration; single-mindedness. “Hold fast to the center.”

Balance of concentration in moral effort and self-cultivation.

Other ancient ideals of the virtuous minister.

Gentle but firm.

Outspoken but respectful.

Straightforward but warm and mild.

Hard but just.

Strong but principled.

Humble & self-effacing; not seeming to seek position.


Knowledge of ancient classics.

Attention to ceremony and etiquette.


Loyal service.


Uncompromising criticism of unjust policies.

The power of moral example in politics.

Dedication to duty, not self, while in office.

Preparation of self for service.

Benevolent, paternalistic care for the people.

Later: Emperor was “father and mother” to the people.

Focus on moral character rather than on rules and laws.

Careful analysis of problems; proposal of long-term solutions.

Education for public service.

Filial piety: Respect and obedience towards elders.


Confucian classics

- Great Learning

“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, the first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge in the investigation of things.” 1.4

- The Doctrine of the Mean

“The sovereign may not neglect the cultivation of his own character. Wishing to cultivate his character, he may not neglect to serve his parents. In order to serve his parents, he may not neglect to acquire a knowledge of men. In order to know men, he may not dispense with a knowledge of Heaven. 20.7

“Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature. If they can fully develop their nature they can fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, then they can fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can assist the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.

2. “Negative” traditions

Absolute authority: The imperial model of leadership.

Unquestioning obedience expected and given.

One-way communication: Commands and exhortations from above.

Little or encouragement or praise of subordinates.

Virtually no acknowledgment of errors or mistakes.
(Some believe this derives from the assumption that leadership finds legitimacy in virtue, competence and success alone, not in the position itself as an ordinance of God. Thus, the “Mandate of Heaven” can be snatched from corrupt or incompetent leaders.)

Micro-management; lack of delegation of authority.
(Some believe this has at least two roots: Deep suspicion of all potential rivals, and a father-like care for the minutest details of the life of his family.)

Rule of men rather than laws.
(It began with the tradition of the virtuous leader, but was fed both by a lack of a belief in a transcendent God and an absolute revelation, as well as by the convenience of holding arbitrary power to exercise at will.)

The Doist (Taoist) counterpart to this, also quite influential, is the view that we must act “according to nature.” That justifies much unwise postponement, though often it also reduces unnecessary conflict.

Bondage to multiple obligations.
(“Filial piety” can degenerate into nepotism, not to mention corruption, based on the ubiquitous role of “relationships” in Chinese society to get favors.)

An orientation towards parents and authority figures.
(Virtue is seen as obedience to elders, etc., first and foremost.) This leads to:

A shallow view of marriage.
(Fed by a generally low view of women as equal companions, and a lack of conception of wives as partners and helpers, of marriage as a union of intimacy requiring constant attention.)

Obsession with “face.”
(If there is no transcendent God, then our “god” will be the opinions of others, especially if worth is measured by performance. That requires a constant attempt to look good. Looking bad can lead to loss of office, or worse. Thus, leaders cannot entertain any suggestions that they may be wrong.)

The “feminine” nature of Chinese culture.
(Lin Yu-tang pointed out that, in general, Chinese culture is more “feminine” than is Western culture. Thus, even men are more “wholistic.” That helps foster a very “subjective” view of oneself and one’s relationships that places a premium upon being liked, at least in ordinary situations. When true self-interest interferes, then the raw exercise of authority will over-rule this desire.)

The conviction that there is only one orthodoxy; all else is political heresy.

Intolerance of dissent, based on the previous two values and convictions.

The conviction, therefore, that all opposition is “disloyal,” not “loyal.”

Connection of privilege with power: Rank Has Its Privileges!

Top-down flow of power and privilege.
(Little horizontal sharing of these. Thus, constant competition among peers for the favor of the ruler/leader/boss.)

Avoidance of conflict.
(To preserve both one’s face and the face of others, and to avoid loss of power and privilege. Thus, lack of conflict resolution, with the consequence that resentment builds up until it explodes. Then, the view is that one cannot control one’s (righteous) anger, and is not responsible for what one says under those circumstances. This leads to irreconcilable divisions based on very hurtful words and loss of face.)

Fundamental materialism.
(Since man is basically a thinking animal, who needs mostly to be fed and clothed, life is about survival and success. Relational intimacy and love are not highly valued, especially by men.)

A tendency towards activism, with little reflection.
(Despite the reverence some give to the classics quoted above. Chiang Kai-shek was an exception, and he failed!)

Thus, an obsession with activity, driven by obligations, fear of loss of face and of failure, and a lack of a tradition of personal intimacy.

Thus, a tendency to look to the outward, rather than the inward; to quantity, rather than to quality.

Bottom line: Most men were first pampered, then harshly criticized, by their mothers; and neglected, or constantly exhorted and rebuked, by their fathers. They are, in Dr.Sam Ling’s words, “emotionally starved.” They have no model of affectionate caring for those underneath them. They have mostly seen abuse, not proper use, of authority. Furthermore, since they have neglected or poorly treated their wives, they have little satisfaction at home. This helps explains why they are so willing to find all fulfillment in “success” outside the home.

In recent decades, the above traditional “negative” baggage has been augmented by the breakdown of the nuclear family; divorce; and the rise of women to power, at least in the home. Thus, many men are weak and incompetent. They either submit to their women, or react by acting overly dominant.

B. Christian leadership traditions

1. Positive Chinese Christian traditions

All the traditional virtues we noted above, expressed in the amazing dedication, sacrifice, hard work, and suffering which we see in HC leaders and some TSPM leaders.

2. “Negative” Chinese Christian traditions

An emphasis upon activity as evidence of spirituality.

Legalism, which flows from the Chinese tradition of ethics as action.

A view of spirituality that identifies virtue in church, or religious, activity, rather than faithfulness at home or work.

Thus, a concentration upon itinerant evangelism to the neglect of building up the existing family and church and evangelism by transformed character in society. The really “spiritual” people are those who offer themselves for sacrificial service elsewhere.

A view of spirituality that undervalues this world and sees all value only in the next world (though it does not work out in the lives of ordinary church members).

An Arminian view of salvation that encourages shallow “conversions” based on manipulative evangelistic methods.

For further reading:

Bond, Michael Harris. Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Legge, James. The Chinese Classics, with a translation, critical and exegetical notes, prolegomena, and copious indexes. Volumes I & II. Taipei: Southern Materials Center, Inc.,1985.

Wills, John E., Jr. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.