Acquainted with Grief: Wang Mingdao’s Stand for the Persecuted Church in China

G. Wright Doyle Ph.D. Review of: Acquainted with Grief: Wang Mingdao’s Stand for the Persecuted Church in China, by Thomas Alan Harvey. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Book House Company, 2002.

As an older Christian in Beijing told a Western reporter, “Understand these two men, and you will understand Chinese Christianity.” “Which two?”, “Wang Mingdao and K.H. Ting!”

Thomas Harvey traces the conflict of these two men, and the movements they represent, from the first days of the communist victory in 1949 to the beginning of the 21st century. Though Ting (later head of the Three Self Patriotic Movement – “TSPM”) clearly won the first round, Wang Mingdao emerges as spiritual victor at the end of the story.

“Wang Mingdao’s resistance, persecution, suffering, and perseverance have come to symbolize the faith of tens of millions who now worship outside state-approved churches,” writes the author in his introduction to this finely-nuanced study of the issues involved.

The book does not seek to serve as a full biography of Wang, but it does introduce us to his refusal to submit his church to government control. It “explains and analyzes that resistance and the conflict it bred between Wang and the government,” and “examines Wang’s biblical and theological defense of his stand as well as the arguments leveled against it.”

Why such a study today? Because the conflict still rages. Most of China’s Christians worship in churches which have not submitted to the demand to register with the government. The TSPM still leads the government persecution of those believers, while Ting labors to expunge all vestiges of Evangelical theology from TSPM seminaries. In other words, though Wang died in 1991, Ting struggles with his legacy to this day, and Wang’s spiritual heirs continue their courageous resistance.

Meanwhile, Christians in the West disagree. Liberals in mainline churches support the TSPM; many Evangelicals applaud the house church leaders who insist upon ecclesiastical independence.

Theological Issues

Harvey’s principal contribution – and it is a major one – resides in the careful delineation of the theological issues at stake in Wang’s resistance to the pressures to join the TSPM. As were Jesus and the early Christians, Wang was charged with anti-government attitudes and actions. Specifically, his refusal to participate in the communist-controlled TSPM was labeled as “unpatriotic,” “counter-revolutionary,” and therefore “criminal.”

In his early years, Wang had already castigated many Chinese and foreign church leaders for their “modernist” or “liberal” theology. He compared their views with the Bible, and found them lacking, even heretical. Other leaders were criticized for lack of spiritual life or venality in the service of Westerners, seeing church service as merely a secure job. This practice of sharp denunciation naturally aroused the ire of those whom he exposed, and created enemies who would one day rejoice to see him fall. More conservative, evangelical, or “fundamentalist” Christians saw Wang as a courageous prophet contending for the truth.

After the Japanese occupied Beijing, they soon required all churches to join an association created, and then controlled, by the foreign force. They used the pretence of ridding the church of all “imperialist” – meaning Western – control. Since Wang’s congregation had from the beginning eschewed all formal connections with foreign Christian organizations, he simply ignored the Japanese summons.

Others feared for his safety and thought the church might be closed down, but the leaders supported Wang’s defiant stand. For some unknown reason, the Japanese did not press the matter, and the church remained open during the war.

Thus, when the communists took power and created the TSPM, Wang responded as he had before, confident that he would be able to preserve the freedom of his church. But, as Harvey shows in detail, the new government required absolute and total obedience. Anyone who “split” the nation, as they claimed Wang did by insisting that Christians differed from non-believers, opposed the building of a new and just society.

More than that, since “righteousness” was now defined by both communists and “Christian” leaders as fully participating in the United Front, in which the TSPM joined with other groups to pursue the polices of the new government, anyone who stood aloof from the TSPM was declaring himself “unrighteous.”

The logic is simple: “Political essence not only precedes religious essence; it defines it. Thus, duty to the nation defines duty to God.” Wang’s stance was thus “a betrayal not only of country, but of Christ and the church.” Wang would not accept this re-definition of the nature and duty of Christ’s church. He noted the liberal theology of leaders of TSPM and the idolatrous nature of totalitarian government, and insisted that Christ alone must rule his church.

When Ting replied that he and other TSPM leaders also believe in God the Father, Wang was not satisfied. In Harvey’s words:

Wang’s demand that the Father can only be known through the Son and the Son only through a proper understanding of Scripture in accord with sound doctrine illuminated the theological divide in interesting ways. The demand that Jesus Christ and sound doctrine defined the nature of the church created problems for those who sought to establish the church on secular philosophical, social, or political foundations. The appeal of Ting’s amorphous First Person of the Trinity lay in the fact that it gave tremendous freedom to fashion Christianity according to a secular ideological framework. Wang’s emphasis that the Father could only be known through the Son, not through creation, sundered that union.

In response to Ting’s objection that Wang’s insistence upon making distinctions between believers and non-believers “split” the nation and the church, Wang replied that he was only making an observation of obvious facts. Furthermore, “The fact that his opponents used manipulation, coercion, and threat to force him and other Christians to deny this truth only revealed his opponents’ true nature.”

Lest we think these issues irrelevant today, we should consider: “Bishop” Ting still determines the theology of the TSPM; in recent years, he has conducted a purge of all Evangelical teachers from TSPM seminaries; and the State still requires all Christian congregations either to register with the government or to join the TSPM. Has anything really changed?

Yes, and no.

Wang went to prison for his refusal to join the TSPM, and almost all non-TSPM congregations were closed down. Today, thousands of these groups exist and meet, in defiance of government threats. So, more real freedom exists.

On the other hand, leaders from house churches which do not join the TSPM or register with the government face fines, imprisonment, beating, and occasional death, and the chief instigators of this persecution, working through the police, are the TSPM and the Religious Affairs Bureau. Though the suffering is not universal, as during the Cultural Revolution, it is widespread, and has official sanction from the highest levels of the government, which still seeks to control religion.

Two recent books, David Aikman’s Jesus In Beijing and Paul Hattaway’s The Heavenly Man, document in detail the ongoing attempts to suppress Christians who refuse to bow to Caesar and his servants in the official TSPM.

Though we cannot deny that the vast majority of those who attend TSPM churches are sincere believers and seekers, and that many of the TSPM pastors hold to the truths that Wang Mingdao believed, we cannot ignore the continuing complicity of the TSPM in the same kind of brutal suppression that sent Wang to prison for more than twenty years.

Wang’s legacy

Harvey concludes his book with frank and challenging suggestions for a sane policy of religious freedom for the PRC; one hopes they take his advice! He reminds us that Wang Mingdao’s legacy lives on in the lives of millions who steadfastly follow in his steps of courageous testimony to Christ.

On the other hand, by including in an appendix the heart-rending “confession” which Wang made after his first imprisonment, Harvey implicitly highlights Paul’s warning, “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.” If an “iron man” like Wang could falter out of fear (though he later recovered), what of lesser leaders? Are there lessons in Wang’s autobiography, A Stone Made Smooth, which might illuminate his first failure and prepare us to withstand under pressure, as he did the second time? Before his showdown with Ting and the TSPM, he admits candidly that his resistance to the Japanese went against the natural fearful disposition of his personality. Clearly, only Christ can give strength in the day of trial.