In 2014, I wrote “A Report on the State of Reformed Theological Education in China” for an edited volume of papers entitled China’s Reforming Churches.1 A little later, in January of 2016, I was invited to be a panelist on the topic of “Christian Theological Education” at Acton Institute’s China seminar. In both cases I tried to offer a sober-minded assessment of the need, challenges, and opportunities for theological education in China. I was, in both reports, optimistic about the ability of China’s reforming churches to provide a theologically educated and well-trained ministry. It is time to revisit this assessment in light of developments over the intervening years—developments that make 2014 feel like a world ago in China.
Readers of ChinaSource Quarterly are aware of many of the changes impacting life and ministry in China over the last several years. The incredibly rapid rate of cultural change China has been experiencing for decades has been complicated by, among other things, new regulations of religious affairs, tightening enforcement regimes, shifting economic and diplomatic prospects, and COVID-19 response measures. Some view these developments as if China is reverting to an older form of life that many had thought (and hoped) was a relic of the past. Perhaps a better view is that China is charting a new and unprecedented course, both like and unlike the former ways, that is making the work of the ministry more precarious and prospects for the future increasingly uncertain.
Since my last report in 2016, a hub of activity within one influential network of China’s reforming churches—Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu and its associated ministries which included a vibrant seminary—was shut down by authorities. More than 100 ministry leaders were detained and Wang Yi, the church’s high-profile pastor and a former activist lawyer, has since been sentenced to nine years imprisonment, and punished in other ways, for “inciting subversion.” These facts have been widely reported in the West and, for a time, turned an unwanted light on the wider Reformed community in China.
Early Rain and Wang Yi, as a couple of articles in this issue of the Quarterly suggest, are outliers in the Reformed community in regard to both their high public profile and activist posture. It would be a mistake, therefore, to regard this case as generally representative of either the wider Reformed community in China or of the treatment of that community by civil authorities. That said, the tide of religious repression in China has turned, and a once rising civil society is now, at least for a time, retreating. This has impacted the current state and future prospects of Reformed theological education across China.
China’s Many Seminaries
The theological education of ministers and other kinds of church workers in China often occurs in seminaries. What counts as a seminary in China and how these seminaries educate their students varies widely. While I do not know of any credible count as to how many there may be—back in 2006 David Aikman guessed hundreds2—it seems certain that there are many more seminaries in China than in North America.
Among China’s many seminaries, however, relatively few are confessionally Reformed and devoted to serving China’s reforming churches. Yet, the demand for Reformed theological education in China remains very strong. This is partly because Reformed Christianity continues to grow rapidly in China and because Reformed Christians tend to value (and deliver) high-quality education. It may also be because options to pursue Reformed theological education are few and it is nearly impossible for students to travel abroad right now. In the main, Reformed seminaries in China continue to maintain relatively high academic standards, highly qualified instructors, and robust mentoring programs in the intense, communal, and spiritually vibrant format that is characteristic of Chinese seminaries more broadly.
The Chinese context requires creativity and flexibility on many levels, especially on the delivery of this education. However, what China’s churches need most from the schools and programs that serve them (besides a comprehensive orthodox education in biblical and theological studies), are stability, simplicity, and continuity over time. Administrators must be creative and pioneering in order to maintain stable programs of reliably rigorous theological education in the face of challenging and sometimes unpredictable circumstances.
The cultural flux of urban China, where most Reformed churches and seminaries are found, extends into the house churches where ecclesiological disorder still abounds. Under these conditions, house churches are vulnerable to the excesses of unchecked church leaders, doctrinal errors, splintering, the elevation of preferences or pragmatism over principles, and a host of other problems that undermine healthy discipline, consistent witness, and vibrant ministry. These are problems that Reformed theological education can help alleviate but that also represent clear challenges to stable church-seminary relations and seminary development and governance. To address some of these issues, Reformed seminaries have, among other measures, worked diligently at developing viable models of governance, cultivated close relationships to stable networks of Reformed house churches, and developed an accrediting body to provide meaningful and mutual accountability.
The business of providing theological education in China remains delicate for those serving the house churches—all the more so given the considerable tightening that has occurred over the last five or six years. Seminaries and similar programs of theological education have seldom enjoyed the same measure of tolerance as local congregations and are, for a variety of reasons, particularly precarious. Schools, by their very nature, are nodes of relational connections and influence in larger (formal and informal) networks. Limiting class size, dividing student housing, scattering meeting places, and other obvious, if inconvenient, steps can help and are standard practices. Foreign involvement, including foreign funding, faculty, and participation in governance, also invites closer scrutiny. The work is more difficult now than it was five years ago and yet programs of Reformed theological education not only continue to operate but even manage to expand and multiply.
Like many of their peer institutions in other theological traditions, Reformed seminaries tend to go about their work quietly. As I have written elsewhere, “This is not an attempt to hide—most assume officials are aware of who they are and what they are doing—so much as it is a way of showing respect for authorities” as they seek to live peacefully with others.3 Knowledge of their existence spreads by word of mouth and this limits potential student access to these programs. Access continues to be limited by relatively significant financial and opportunity costs, such as the difficulty of travel and taking time off work for many students, and also by the necessary caps on student enrollment many Reformed seminaries have adopted.
A generational challenge for China’s reforming churches is the need for local faculty and resources. Resources include both Reformed Chinese scholarship and library holdings. Currently, Reformed seminaries rely heavily on a supply of instructors and books from outside of China delivered to students via translation (and, since COVID, a variety of teleconference platforms), to supplement local resources (see the book review in this issue of the Quarterly). What is needed are dedicated and specially trained Chinese faculty members producing Reformed resources in Chinese for China’s reforming churches and the wider Christian community. There are encouraging developments on this front—some Reformed Chinese students are receiving advanced degrees and returning home, eager to write and teach; others, already returned, are making important contributions in the classroom and through mentoring programs in local churches—but the need is deep and wide and will take a generation or longer, it seems, to meet.
Theological Education and Reformation
The development of local Reformed theological faculties is vital for the long-term health of China’s reforming churches. Certainly, there are a number of practical advantages such as increasing operational efficiency and reducing expenses and risks associated with relying on guest instructors. It would also facilitate greater faculty accountability to the local church, more direct faculty participation in mentoring programs, and the development of these schools into fully self-governed, self-propagating, and self-supporting institutions.
The most basic theological need for the future of China’s reforming churches, however, remains the indigenization and contextualization of the Reformed tradition itself. This is already happening on multiple levels. Reformed theology is being taught, preached, believed, and confessed both in congregations and classrooms across the country. Existing house churches are being reformed or new ones are being organized according to Reformed convictions about covenant theology, salvation, church government, worship, sacraments, and the like. The Reformation continues today in China.
Yet, a basic principle of Reformed Christianity is to be Reformed and always reforming. This does not mean that Reformed theology is constantly evolving, but rather that we must be constantly repenting and pressing deeper into our knowledge of God as he has revealed himself to us in Scripture. To facilitate the ongoing and ever-deepening need for personal and church reformation, China’s reforming churches need Reformed faculties who embody Reformed theology and also think, speak, and write—as well as eat, sleep, and breathe—in Chinese. Only then will there be a Chinese Reformed tradition to take its place alongside the Swiss, French, German, Dutch, Scottish, American, Brazilian, and others in this international theological tradition.
The rise of Chinese Reformed Theology is not just something China’s reforming churches need, but something the global Reformed community needs. There continues to be a stream of Chinese scholars serving in China’s reforming churches, but there is, to my knowledge, no fully Chinese Reformed faculty at any of China’s Reformed seminaries. Despite the rise of some prominent Reformed voices, there is not yet a steady stream of Reformed scholarship in Chinese for the benefit of China’s reforming churches, the wider Christian community in China, and the world.
The context of Reformed theological education in China is certainly more challenging than it was in 2014 or 2016, but I remain optimistic about the ability of China’s reforming churches to provide a theologically educated and well-trained ministry and even to cultivate a Chinese Reformed theological tradition. The former is already happening and continues in the face of many challenges; the latter appears to be on the cusp of major advances, though this remains a generational project. Whatever the future may bring, however, the Reformed tradition is taking hold and spreading throughout China today. Her programs of Reformed education are humming away as Reformed educators keep teaching, the number of China’s reforming churches keeps growing, and the extent and depth of reforms keep advancing.
- Bruce P. Baugus, ed., China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014): 269–287.
- David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, rev. ed. (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2006), p. 140.
- Baugus, China’s Reforming Churches, p. 278.
Image credit: Alex BergerFollow, The Mountain Path via Flickr.
Bruce P. Baugus
Bruce P. Baugus is associate professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, editor of China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) and author of The Roots of Reformed Moral Theology: The Historical Background of an Ecclesial Tradition …View Full Bio