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Being on Guard against “Spiritualized Political Correctness” in the Church


What are the behavioral norms for Christians? The Ten Commandments and Jesus’ teachings are the guides for Christian behavior. The church should encourage believers to live out their faith as testimony, but we need to be on guard against the following phenomenon: turning living faith into dogma that leads to the development of rigid, spiritualized, political correctness in the church.

A Case Study

A church in an eastern Chinese city runs a church school, and many believers send their children to school there. However, due to various considerations, such as transitioning to a different educational system after high school graduation, or concerns that the church school was not well enough developed, some parents chose to send their children to public schools. Therefore with the pastoral staff at the church continuously elaborating on the ideologically-opposed nature of the public schools, many believers questioned the faith of parents who sent their children to public schools. Then church leaders began to preach that sending children to public schools was idolatry. Several years later, a kind of spiritualized political correctness formed in the church implying that children of Christians must attend church school, otherwise they were unspiritual.

This kind of political correctness in the area of education continued to spread in this church.

Following are some outcomes of this spiritualized political correctness.

  1. Those who work as teachers in public schools need to bravely resist the schools’ ideology. Something must be wrong with the faith of Christian teachers who have not had a confrontation over faith in schools run by the atheist government.
  2. A wife should stay at home to support her husband and instruct her children. She should not be employed outside the home because this is the duty of the wife and the order God has ordained.
  3. Christians should have many children; this is not only the teaching of scripture but also a means to enlarge God’s kingdom.
  4. Since Christians are sojourners in this world, they should not buy a home as renting is seen as a more spiritual lifestyle.

When these seemingly spiritual teachings are continuously reinforced in the church, they become psychological shackles for many people. Although all teachers working in public schools face tension with their faith, the degree of tension is not the same for everyone. For those teaching subjects such as mathematics or science, the conflict between work and faith has not been that great. While supporting her husband and instructing her children at home is seen as work for the wife, for many families this is simply a domestic arrangement. When the husband’s income is not adequate to support the family, it is necessary for the wife to work outside the home. Making decisions about the number of children to have is a matter of family planning for Christians, not a matter for church planning. According to the logic of the teaching of the church mentioned above, the greater the number of children, the greater the spirituality. Does that mean there is something wrong with the faith of parents who do not have many children? To buy or to rent an apartment is an individual economic decision for the Christian, not an expression of one’s faith.

Spiritualized political correctness is a strong form of legalism. Once it is shrouded by an appearance of spirituality, believers have a hard time detecting it. Although believers may have a deep sense that their conscience is being controlled (i.e. manipulated), they are unable to identify why they feel this way. If this continues for long, the following may happen: teachers at public schools, young mothers trying to make ends meet, parents with only one child, and families who have purchased a home will face much peer pressure at church. Conversely, mothers who quit their jobs, parents with many children, and church members who rent their home may easily develop spiritual pride.  

These seemingly spiritual teachings are a form of interference by the church in the private life of families and individuals. This results in churches and pastors thinking for believers. Over time, the ability of believers to think for themselves steadily deteriorates. In the end, spiritualized political correctness may easily take the place of believers thinking independently.

The Causes of Spiritualized Political Correctness

The current situation of the church in China, both internally and externally, has provided the soil for the growth of spiritual political correctness.

Long-term Marginalization of the Church

First, society’s rejection of the church and long-term marginalization has caused the church to lose its tolerance. There is quite a bit of tension between Chinese society and Christianity, causing church life to be full of stress and anxiety. As a result, some churches leave Christians relatively little personal space. In churches in China, especially house churches, church leaders provide believers not only with answers to spiritual matters but frequently with answers to political, social, economic, and educational matters as well.

There is a great deal of resemblance to fundamentalist churches in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. Because of its rejection by mainstream society and its shrinking influence, the fundamentalist movement became legalistic, rigid, and combative. The sense of tension with the outside world and the overly fearful attitude toward the secularization of faith led churches to provide standards of behavior for all aspects of life. Not only were alcohol and dancing prohibited, even seeing movies was not allowed.

According to my observations, this kind of spiritualized political correctness becomes a source of pressure for many Christians from the middle class since their lives are relatively closely connected with mainstream society. At the same time, Christians who exist at the margins of society, on the whole, do not reject this kind of simple and rigid teaching because the sense of disconnect between their lives and society is already relatively strong. Theologian Richard Niebuhr, in his classic work The Social Sources of Denominationalism, analyzed the relationship between the social class of Christians and their respective theological positions. He discovered that some positions of faith adopted by Christians were an outcome of their social circumstances, but Christians often assumed that these positions originated in scripture.[1]

Low-cost Maintenance of Faith 

Second, spiritualized political correctness is a way to maintain faith at a low cost. However, we need also to note that spiritualized political correctness is not something that church authority can create and shape on its own. Spiritualized political correctness is a kind of understanding of faith that simplifies it and makes it mechanical. Believers are occupied by the minutiae of everyday life and may be unable or unwilling to make a serious effort to read scripture or reflect on their faith, so the answers provided by spiritualized political correctness become like fast food, the easiest to digest and fill the belly. Such simplistic and rigid spiritual answers will not satisfy believers who are thoughtful and alert. For believers to seriously study scripture and understand the interaction between Christianity and historical society takes time and a gradual accumulation of understanding.

Over recent decades, the number of Christians in China has grown very quickly, such that many have not been in the faith for a long time. For these Christians, their faith is new, but their worldview and mode of thinking remain old. Thus, it has been unavoidable that Chinese society’s long-standing, ideological mode of thinking has been brought into the church. For many Christians who are unwilling to spend the time and effort to seriously reflect on their faith, this kind of rigid teaching gives them a low-cost way to achieve an understanding of their faith.

A Need for Certainty

Third, authoritarian society and modern risk society[2] incline believers to find rigid, absolute theoretical formulations (doctrines) appealing. In recent years, the books of an extremely conservative Reformed pastor have become very popular in Christian circles in China. His theories on family worship, devotion, and marriage have attracted the following of many. During the church’s worship service where he pastors, men wear suits and women wear long skirts and hats. The service is very long with the sermon running up to an hour and a half, and even very young children must sit and listen through the entire duration. However, the scandals of his earlier church split and divorce have given him a bad reputation in the United States, and his seminary is not very influential there. But when his books reached countries with an authoritarian culture, such as South Korea, Brazil, and China, the Christians there found his books very appealing.

I have discovered that, although the theological vision in this pastor’s preaching and books is very narrow, he has nonetheless provided some relatively unambiguous answers for people such as what men should do, what women should do, what the order of the family should be, and what Christians should do in order to be faithful in modern society. These rigid, yet straightforward, views attract people who live in the midst of modern ambiguities. Moreover, the discipline that the authoritarian culture placed on people in the past has made it easy for these believers to accept relatively inflexible, theoretical formulations (doctrines). What is regrettable, however, is that while rigid theories certainly give people a “right” answer, faith and life are living things. Over time, such teaching can easily turn into a legalistic faith and end up as spiritualized political correctness.

Spiritualized political correctness is comparable to standardized parts on an assembly line. While it is simple and easy to handle and quickly achieves the effect of shaping believers’ thoughts and behavior, over time such spiritualized political correctness harms faith and the church, and prepares the ground for the abuse of power by pastors. Its potential to cause harm is worth our serious attention.

Notes

  1. ^ Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Meridian Books, 1922), p. 62.
  2. ^ “Risk society” is apparently a term coined and defined separately by sociologists Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck and associated with analyses of modern society; see Wikipedia entry on the term: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_society

Sam Ren

Sam Ren holds a PhD in religious studies from Renmin University in Beijing. He now resides in the United States.  View Full Bio