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Denominationalism in China: Pre or Post?


While many would applaud the church’s “post-denominational” character as evidence of the unity of the church in China, others today are asking whether a return to denominations is not only inevitable but should, in fact, be welcomed.

The church in China is often referred to as being “post-denominational.” After 1949 foreign denominational bodies were cut and church structures, apart from the Party-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement, ceased to function. The churches that emerged following the intense persecution during the Cultural Revolution may have borne the marks, in terms of doctrinal emphasis or worship style, of past denominational affiliations, but, for all intents and purposes, denominations were a thing of the past.

While many would applaud the church’s “post-denominational” character as evidence of the unity of the church in China, others today are asking whether a return to denominations is not only inevitable but should, in fact, be welcomed.

Urban unregistered church leaders in particular have been exploring the biblical basis for denominational structures as well as their ability to address challenges the church currently faces. Factors behind this exploration include:

  • a growing clarity regarding internal problems in the church and a desire to address these,
  • questions of how leaders should be chosen and how leadership should be structured,
  • the need to clearly define theological positions in order to maintain doctrinal integrity,
  • and the need for a means for churches in China to relate to one another and to the international church.

One urban church leader commented that, without denominations, churches are "captive" to individual leaders, subject to individual whims, indifferent to others' concerns, vulnerable to heresies, and have a narrow understanding of God's kingdom.[1]

Unregistered church leaders also see the move toward embracing denominations as enhancing the legitimacy of the church, which would both make it harder for government or official church critics to attack them for being unorganized and would increase the church’s attractiveness to an increasingly sophisticated and demanding urban population.

Nevertheless, adopting foreign denominational structures carries with it not only the stigma of Western influence but also the difficulty of reconciling denominational requirements with some of the unique characteristics of China’s church. A Shanghai pastor summed up the tension arising within the urban church as it wrestles with the question of denominational identity:

In the process of establishing denominations, external liturgy is the easiest thing to imitate and internal culture is the hardest to assimilate since it comes from the unique provision and leading of God to a particular denomination in her history. Because of this, older traditional churches in China are often critical of new, younger, urban churches in their constitutionalization processes to establish denominations. It is very easy to import a denominational book of governance or church constitution or doctrinal catechism. Forming a proper governance model or church membership system is not a hard thing to do.

Though the establishment of a denomination seems like surface work, yet in its essence, it is work to establish Christ’s Church. Therefore, in this significant process of constitutionalization, how can churches that intend to establish denominations not only inherit precious historic traditions, but also receive “new wine” in the gospel of Jesus Christ?[2]

 

[1] Gao Zheng, China’s Reforming Churches conference, Washington, DC, January 4, 2013.

[2] Wang Jianguo, “New Wine and Old Skin, Part I: Current Context of the Chinese Church,” China Partnership (www.chinapartnership.org), October 13, 2014.

Image Credit: Joann Pittman 

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio