The Greatest Threat to the Chinese Church

Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that church history – like history in general – has a tendency to repeat itself.

The Early Church, after a marvelous start, fell under the influence of Stoic ethics, Greek philosophy, Roman models of government, and popular religion. Likewise, in America, Christians seem to “go with the flow” of the individualism, consumerism, hedonism, narcissism, racism (of all sorts), and nationalism that characterize the population as a whole.

In other words, Christians in every age and place tend to allow the surrounding culture to replace the Bible as supreme authority in their lives, even if they continue to affirm their belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture.

The Chinese church, alas, appears to be no exception. Though we can only thank God for the courage, commitment, and costly service of countless Chinese believers who have, by God’s grace, built the largest single-language-and-culture Christian community in the world, sober reflection must also recognize some areas of serious concern. The main one has to be the ways in which culture has shaped Chinese Christianity.

One of the principal streams of Chinese culture is Confucianism in its many forms and expressions. After reading several chapters on the interplay between Confucianism and Christianity in Christianity and Chinese Culture edited by Miikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang (reviewed at Global China Center), I am even more convinced of its pervasive presence not only in Chinese society but in the Chinese church. Allow me to explain.

Most observers agree that Chinese Confucianism has a few central emphases. These include: a focus on this world, despite a concept of Heaven (more on this in a moment); a consuming drive for moral improvement, even perfection; confidence that we can change ourselves to become better people; and a strong sense that the main purpose of any belief system is to make us into better citizens and thus benefit society. For some, the essence of Confucianism is filial piety.

You will at once spot striking similarities with Christianity, which also affirms the importance of this world as created by God; insists upon personal holiness; believes in a heavenly Being who enforces moral standards; exhorts to grow in holiness and righteousness; commands that we honor our parents and obey those in authority; and possesses an impressive history of producing good citizens who transform society.

I personally affirm all these values, which is why I wrote The Perfect Man: A Comparison of Confucius and Jesus, and Hope Deferred: Studies of Christianity and American Culture, both of which were translated into Chinese.[1] I fully believe that Christians should seek to imitate Christ and to work for the betterment of their society. Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin, with Mrs. Stacey Bieler, have edited the highly-acclaimed three-volume series, Salt & Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China with the same conviction; one volume has been translated into Chinese.[2]

On the other hand, we must be careful not to confuse the fruit of morality with its root, or the now with the not-yet. In other words, while we strive for personal holiness, we must not forget the only source of personal change; and while we work for social reform, we must not lose sight of our real hope.

The Gospel, as Paul so clearly stated it, consists in the magnificent truth that Christ died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Romans 4:25). Our deepest problem is sin, that corruption that infects every department of our being, alienates us from a holy God, separates us from others, and makes the ideal society impossible in this age.

To solve that problem, our gracious God has sent his only Son to become the God-man, Jesus Christ, who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, thus reconciling us to God; unites us to himself; gives the Holy Spirit to all who truly repent and trust in him alone; creates that new society called the church; and gradually transforms both individuals and congregations, who then serve as “salt and light” in the community, bearing witness to the goodness of God and holding out the previous truth that Christ will return again to make everything new. That Gospel includes the announcement of acquittal for all believers and final condemnation to eternal punishment for all who refuse to repent and trust in Christ.

Even now, believers struggle with sin, and can approach God confidently in prayer not because of their good works, but on the basis of the finished work of Christ for their redemption. No one is good enough to stand in God’s presence unless they are clothed in the righteousness which comes by faith. Nor can we change ourselves; we must call upon God to transform us by the Holy Spirit. And, despite our best efforts, we shall never build the kingdom of God on earth; that must await the return of the King.

Enter “Christian” Confucianism – or Confucian “Christianity”

In all too many Chinese churches, the Gospel, as I have summarized it above, though believed, is not clearly preached or lived. Here’s what I mean:

Though the vast majority of Chinese Christians and preachers believe some form of the Gospel, the emphasis in Chinese churches falls upon human efforts to improve themselves and their society. I have heard hundreds of sermons over the past thirty years; almost never has the preacher focused on the grace of God in Christ, except in purely evangelistic messages, where some elements of it do appear. Almost always, it’s all about what we must do to please God. The Confucian “Heaven” has been replaced by a “Christian” God who exacts total obedience and enforces moral standards, rather like a stern father.

Does the text come from the Gospels? Then Jesus is our perfect example. The Epistles are rarely preached, but when they are, you hear how we must behave, not how faith joins us to the Fountain of transforming Life. The Old Testament provides stories that are used as good and bad examples for personal conduct. And so on. I have even heard sermons on the Passover and the Day of Atonement that did not even mention Christ and his saving work for us! The preachers were all “evangelicals” who say that they believe in Jesus as Savior, but who preach what can only be called “Christianized” Confucianism.

In a word, moralism; legalism, if you will. What we must do, not what God has done, is doing, will do, for us, in us, through us.

Recently, to correct a previous Pietistic imbalance, some Chinese Christians have recovered the biblical emphasis upon the social implications of Christian faith, and have sought to encourage each other to make an impact on society. The danger here, of course, is that Christianity becomes a tool for improving the nation – just the function that both traditional Confucianism and China’s Communist rulers believe religion should perform.

As you would expect, the result is legalism in the Christian community. Preachers and leaders don’t admit that they have faults (or at least not very often). Others follow suit, and hide their true condition from each other, struggling to present a spiritual façade and joining the common crusade to become better people. Success stories form the highlight of personal testimony; failure is quietly ignored.

Christians are constantly exhorted to attend Sunday worship and various meetings; to give generously; to serve sacrificially; to share the Gospel with their neighbors. In some churches, they are even occasionally reminded of biblical teachings on the family and work – though this is also rare. Mostly, children are told to obey their parents; rarely are parents taught how to bring up their offspring.

In most Chinese churches, at least the core people are very, very busy, very, very tired, and very, very lonely. But they soldier on, believing that they will in this way please the God whom they love and desperately want to please. Leadership tends to be concentrated in one person, or an oligarchy, and everyone else is expected to do what they are told by those in authority.

In the traditional Chinese home, the father was a distant perfectionist who expected obedience and superior performance in school. That has changed in today’s China, with the one-child policy producing “little emperors” doted on by parents and grandparents. In either case, the combination of love and discipline, grace and truth is absent.

This man-centered focus can be traced back to a universal reliance on works to establish our righteousness, the sort of trust in the “flesh” that so upset Paul and which inevitably produces the legalism and self-righteousness that provoked Jesus’ strongest condemnations.

The problem for Chinese is that this natural human concentration upon pleasing others - including God – and making ourselves look good by doing good works is backed up by centuries of Confucian teaching. When they become Christians, it’s hard for them to escape this works-centered mindset. The sad consequence is a Christianity that looks at lot like “baptized” Confucianism.

The challenge

The challenge for all who long to see a truly biblical church arise among Chinese is so to present the Gospel as to major on God – his character, his commands, and his compassion for us in Christ. On the one hand, we need a depth perception of sin (to use Richard Lovelace’s words) that strips away our mask and drives us to despair before a holy God every day. On the other, we must hear the life-giving words of God’s grace to us in Christ, and we need this every day.

Away with the idea that even the best Christians are already whole and holy! Banish the dream of perfection – individual or corporate – in this age! Seek to please God, yes, but as beloved children of a forgiving Father who sent his only Son to die for our sins and bring us into intimate communion with himself by the Holy Spirit, received daily by faith. Strive to imitate Jesus, by all means, but only in the power of the Spirit and the hope of a righteousness that awaits the return of Christ for its completion. Work as salt and light in society, but not to please non-believers; our goal is that they should “glorify [our] Father who is in heaven.”

And by all means, we should preach the really Good News of salvation by God’s grace, given to us in Jesus Christ, received by faith, leading to eternal life for all who truly repent and trust in him.

Only in this way can Christians have real joy and peace, genuine love and undying hope, and a powerful, transforming witness in this very needy world.

G. Wright Doyle


1. The Perfect Man (孔子與耶穌--論語V.S.聖經約翰福音); Hope Deferred: 遲延的盼望—基督教與美國的關係. Available from AFC Bookstore: Jesus: The Complete Man is available in English; an English version of the study of Christianity in America is in preparation. 

2 《光与盐》Salt and Light