Changes in family structure are a reflection of changes in a social system, thoughts, and ideas. Before the 1919 radical, anti-traditional May Fourth Movement, the Chinese were greatly influenced by Confucian thought that sees the individual, family, and world as three inter-connected, orderly components of the cosmos. They used this understanding to guide their ethics, religious life (ancestor worship and heaven worship), and civil justice. It is the individual’s duty to take on responsibilities within the family; individual families are organic units of larger families, and this extends to the responsibilities of families in the world.
Since 1949, from economical and ideological standpoints, Communism has considered the structure of large families counter-revolutionary. Socialist reforms changed Chinese families into fragmented, individual units which were then integrated into the state apparatus. In the cities, families were a part of the workplace system; in the countryside, they belonged to production teams and communes. Familial influence over individuals was transformed into something that carried political flavor as household status would determine a series of individual matters such as schooling, employment, applications for various things, marriage, and so on.
Since the 1980s, families have gradually broken away from the slowly collapsing, workplace system and become independent societal and economical units. Family planning policy defined family as a household of three. Due to materialistic education over a long period of time and the wave of commercialization that followed, an economic foundation was often treated as the condition for marriage. Furthermore, familial ethics once again underwent changes. The Tiananmen Square protests led to a breakdown of Communistic ethics, along with an ideology that placed money above everything else, extreme individualism, and utilitarianism. All these continue to buffet Chinese families. One of the challenges the rising Chinese church faces is how to find a suitable theological foundation that provides teaching in family matters to combat these difficulties and new ideologies.
The Gospel and the Family
Around the year 2000, the number of people attending church in China greatly increased. Chinese churches, especially those in urban settings, began facing new challenges in multiple areas.
First, the majority of Chinese Christians are first-generation believers, many of whom grew up in atheistic families before being converted to Christ. As a result, adjusting the relationship between faith and one’s birth family, as well as establishing a Christian family as an adult are things that this new generation of Christians has never experienced. At the individual level, newly converted Christians face pressure from their families of origin, especially atheistic families. Some parents criticize their children for becoming Christians believing that being a Christian means they have become unfilial; their children have rebelled against Chinese tradition by having chosen a Western religion. At the church level, viewing the gospel as simply praying the sinner’s prayer for personal salvation is one-sided; there is also a need to provide a holistic worldview to help this new generation of Chinese Christians know how to analyze and properly solve issues that surround family ethics.
In China, the issues encountered by urban churches and the familial challenges appeared around the same time. After the first generation of Chinese Christians (1980s-’90s) stepped into marriage, marriage issues unavoidably became the topics the churches would face farther down the road. No wonder the most popular Christian books are usually on the topic of marriage—such as Tim Keller’s, The Meaning of Marriage, a best-seller on Amazon. With an increasing number of new generation Christians starting to raise children, Christian education has become a hot topic of discussion within Chinese churches. How to provide a sound, theological, Christian worldview of the family, and how to utilize the gospel to transform familial ethics defined by traditional, Chinese filial piety, are the two most critical needs in the theology of the family in China.
Second, there is a lack of systematic and accurate understanding about the doctrine of the church; therefore, the scarcity of appropriate guidance on managing the family and church relationship becomes obvious. Some churches hold the view that all Christians should be committed to the church. An extreme example of this view is the “Jesus Family,” a native Chinese religious denomination which promotes the practice of members having everything in common, inspired by the life of the apostles in the book of Acts. This view leads to the belief that like believers, families also belong to the church and are within its regulations; the church is a big family made up of all believers.
The other extreme exists in some of the new, urban churches. Many first-generation Christians in the cities became believers while they were attending college. The campus fellowships have been transformed into churches that then consist of many young singles. These churches seldom have the ability to provide guidance to their married members, nor do they have the ability to disciple families. A new phenomenon resulting from these types of churches is that they provide opportunities for members to meet and date others. However, many married believers stop attending church services after having children because of the lack of discipleship and practical theology on family living.
Between these two extremes, most churches are dealing with the issues caused by the tension between families and church. Churches need to know how to manage their relationship with families and how to utilize a suitable theology to teach and guide these newer Christians, who were born and raised in an atheistic environment, how to establish families according to the Christian faith.
The Family Founded on the Doctrine of the Trinity
This article attempts to point out a feasible, theological perspective to serve as the foundation for the Chinese church to respond to these challenges. It needs this theological foundation because the gospel is being treated the same as individuals’ proclamation of faith and baptism, because churches are persecuted, and because church leaders need more theological training in a fragmented religious environment. The perspectives built upon the doctrine of the Trinity and the image of God will help solve issues of church practice and will also help develop a contextualized, gospel-based Chinese theology.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not only the foundation of theology but also the foundation of the world; the three persons of the Triune God form the foundation of the world, society, and humanity. Individual people are a reflection of God’s image; in society, human relationships should also be based on the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. Seen from this perspective, God’s three-in-oneness and his unified nature provide a way for us to look at people and cultures. As Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck points out, according to the doctrine of the Trinity: “The unity among the world, humanity, ethics, justice, and beauty all depend upon the unity of the Triune God. If there is any denial to the three-in-oneness or ignorance in acknowledging such truth, cultures will open their door to polytheism.” In God’s creation, the whole, created universe reflects the nature of three persons in one God. Bavinck continues: “In the created reality, God’s perfect image is displayed in his communications with the Son, but not entirely so with the created beings. Though the Son and the created beings are interrelated…if there weren’t three persons in the Triune God, creation would have been impossible.”
This theological foundation enables the church to properly respond to the challenges the Chinese church currently faces. Humanity bears the image of God; therefore, in modern secular society it opposes abortion and relies on the gospel to transform relationships (especially that of “filial piety”) and marriages based on financial conditions. It also promotes consistent values by establishing a society based upon families rather than transforming families through societal developments and political trends. Bavinck has well said that husband, wife, and children are one body and soul spiritually—an extension of the image of God yet filled with diversity in the oneness. The authority of the father, the gentle kindness of the mother, and the obedience of the children are precisely the reflection of the characteristics of three persons in one Triune God. For this reason, Bavinck stated that this three-in-oneness of relationships and functions constituted the foundation of all of civilized society. He wrote:
This three-in-oneness of relationships and functions, of qualities and gifts, constitutes the foundation of all of civilized society…. These three characteristics and gifts are always needed in every society and in every civilization, in the church and in the state. Authority, love, and obedience are the pillars of all human society.
Based on the doctrine of the Trinity, the Chinese church can also rethink the relationship between church and family. Without a clear doctrine of the church, Chinese church leaders are confused about the differences between the visible church and the invisible church, and therefore appropriate limits defining the boundaries of each are lacking. From the Trinitarian perspective, God’s sovereignty should be manifested in all spheres of life including the family. However, there is a difference between family and the visible church; the family unit is not a part of the visible church structure, and therefore, the authority to manage family matters resides within the family, specifically with the responsible family members. If we abide by this principle, there will be no misunderstanding regarding the commonality of possessions and the possibility of church leaders overreaching and interfering with family matters—an extension of the interference with family matters under China’s planned economy.
On the other hand, families are not completely independent of the church. Faith is not only an individual matter, the church is concerned about marriages and raising children. It influences individual families by helping to sanctify believers in their spiritual walks. Even so, this does not mean that families must be subordinate to the regulations of the church. Ignoring this aspect in present-day China means that patriarchal church leadership is similar to what was known as the government’s public power. This leads to the abuse of authority.
The traditional order of a Chinese family is based on the authority of the father. After this was demolished in the socialist movement, the workplace system caused people to treat families as part of the economic society. However, if we stand on the foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity, the characteristic of love within the family and orderly fellowship will be renewed. Both will benefit the church and provide Christian ethics—a desperately needed resource so that Christian ethics will replace socialistic value ideology.
Translated by Hannah Renstrom.
Image credit: Chinese family by Erwyn van der Meer via Flickr.
LI Jin is a PhD student at Calvin Theological Seminary. Prior to seminary he was a PhD candidate in economic history at a Shanghai university. He writes on Christian thought for both public and Christian media outlets in mainland China and Hong Kong. LI and wife Mary Li Ma have coauthored articles, book chapters, and …View Full Bio