Diversity and the Question of Definition
China’s reforming churches make up a relatively small, but surprisingly diverse, portion of China’s unregistered congregations. In one dimension, China’s reforming churches reflect the diversity found in the global Reformed community. Some bodies within China’s family and reforming churches carry a more Continental aspect,1 others a more Presbyterian aspect. Among the more Presbyterian-appearing bodies there are both American and Korean currents, and their confluence often creates choppy waters. There is also a vibrant Reformed Baptist community.
In another dimension, however, China’s reforming churches reflect a diversity that is peculiar to the Chinese context. To appreciate this diversity, one must appreciate something of the historical background and contemporary context of China’s reforming churches. There is at least one book devoted to this end: China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom.2
That book, however, devoted considerable attention to the development of Presbyterianism within a large swath of China’s reforming churches. This issue of the Quarterly has a somewhat wider scope and includes contributions by Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist Chinese pastors and emerging scholars.
All of this raises the rather fundamental question of definition: What are China’s reforming churches? For a church to make a meaningful claim to being Reformed—whether church is understood as a single congregation or a cluster of congregations operating as a connected body—at least two things should be evident. First, they should adhere to a Reformed confession of faith such as the Westminster Standards (most common among those rooted in the Presbyterian tradition) or Three Forms of Unity (most common among those rooted in the Continental Reformed tradition) or, for Baptists, the Second London Confession (1689), which was an adaptation of the Westminster Standards to Reformed Baptist convictions. These are not the only Reformed confessions, but they are the most common. Others, including newly produced Confessions for the Chinese context, may be regarded as Reformed if, in the main, they agree with these.
Second, the church that subscribes to such a Reformed standard must also embody that doctrine and the fundamental principles on which it rests in its life, ministry, and order. A Reformed church not only affirms that Jesus Christ is the only savior of sinners, that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, and that Scripture is the supreme source and only norm of faith and life, it exemplifies these commitments in its practice. Reformed churches, therefore, exhibit meaningful practices of ministerial training, ordination, and subscription; biblically regulated worship; formal processes of church membership and discipline; and the pursuit of personal holiness through the ordinary means of grace God has provided (word, prayer, and sacraments).
Reformed and Reforming
Many churches in China already exemplify these theological and practical commitments and can be considered Reformed in the same sense that many other churches throughout the world are Reformed. Many more churches in China, however, openly aspire to be Reformed but do not yet fully embrace Reformed doctrine or do not embody Reformed practices. These latter congregations are often very open about both their aspirations and their perceived shortcomings. They are, often in their own eyes and certainly in the eyes of outside observers, somewhere on the way to becoming Reformed but not yet there. Taken together, those who already appear to be Reformed and those aspiring to be Reformed are China’s reforming churches. Although they live and labor under profound pressures, their numbers continue to swell as more pastors and congregants discover the rich theological and pastoral resources the Reformed tradition offers.
Reformed theology is being taught, studied, debated, embraced, and applied to the Chinese scene. Reformed standards and Reformed systems of polity are being adopted and adapted to the particular circumstances of China’s house churches. Local congregations and even entire networks are being formed or reformed along Reformed lines—both Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist. New attention is being paid to worship, preaching, and ministerial development. The roots of Reformed Christianity are taking hold in the rich Chinese loess and continuing to bear fruit.
The Chinese appropriation of the Reformed tradition faces numerous difficulties beyond the common challenges of Christian life and ministry in China. The very popularity of the Reformed brand, especially among educated urbanites, has led some bodies to claim it for themselves without a deep and abiding commitment to Reformed theology. This shows in their remarkably un-Reformed teachings and practices.
Sometimes, this is the result of well-intended leaders who are themselves convinced of Reformed theology but have not yet fully persuaded their co-workers and congregants. It is also possible that some go along with claiming Reformed identity for the perceived marketing benefits as they try to tap new urban markets or clothe themselves with the perceived academic credibility often associated with the Reformed tradition. Other times, those who once seemed to be making significant progress in reforming their ministries and churches now seem to be stuck or even veering off course. That, unfortunately, is not unusual either to the Reformed tradition or Christian tradition more broadly.
Fluidity and Reformed Identity
The fluidity involved in the continuing inflow and outflow of China’s reforming churches highlights three observations about life and ministry in China’s reforming churches and Reformed identity more broadly. First, significant damage is sometimes done to Reformed (and Christian) identity by those who continue to claim to be Reformed (and may espouse certain points of Reformed teaching) while acting in ways that contradict Reformed principles. Certainly, Reformed Christians must not throw a brother and sister in Christ under a bus just to spare themselves the consequences of an embarrassing association. Yet, to be Reformed is to be something in particular and to belong to a particular tradition and global community that is bounded by a set of clearly articulated beliefs and practices.
Those beliefs and practices are, Reformed Christians believe, taught clearly in Scripture. This conviction emboldens the Reformed to codify these points of biblical teaching in written confessions and to require their church officers to subscribe to these confessional standards. The work of clarifying and maintaining those boundaries for the honor of Christ and welfare of his people never ends in this world. As the following articles show, it is being pursued by China’s reforming churches today.
Second, the fluidity of China’s reforming churches highlights the long-term need for ministerial standards and discipline. This, too, is an ongoing project among leaders of China’s reforming churches. This need is particularly acute under the current demand for more trained workers. Theological education, mentoring and training programs, and meaningful processes for examining, trying, and ordaining those God has called to pastoral office continue to be matters of urgent attention. So is the renewed debate over the role of women in ministry and turning to gifted women to meet the pressing need for workers—a widespread phenomenon in China but notably less common in China’s reforming churches.
Third, the relatively small outflow from China’s reforming churches contrasts sharply with the continuing inflow as more students prepare for the ministry at Reformed institutions, more churches are planted on Reformed principles, and more existing churches are being successfully reformed. In many ways China’s reforming churches are doing well to just hold fast—and this is all that some are able to manage at this time. And yet, they are finding ways to carry on the work of the ministry, educate their children in the faith, evangelize their neighbors, and negotiate the ever-fraught relationship between church and state.
Harried and challenged on many fronts, Reformed church leaders have found creative ways to minister and are refining their theology by digging deeper in the face of an array of current challenges. In some cases, church leaders have capped the number of people admitted to worship because the numbers of people wanting to come were too great for the present security environment. In other cases, they have multiplied meeting places to accommodate smaller gatherings which, it turns out, facilitates deeper fellowship, and creates more room for numerical growth. That growth has been challenged by COVID mitigation measures, but those measures resulted in a deluge of recorded sermons and worship services posted online and more time for ministers and lay folk to study Reformed theology.
The articles that follow focus on different aspects of the life and work of China’s reforming churches today. Much has changed since China’s Reforming Churches was released in 2014; seven years is like a lifetime in China’s fast-changing culture. In the first focus article, Happy surveys current Reformed perspectives on the relationship between church and state in China, noting a diversity of views that are debated and, we might add, put into practice in sometimes overlapping and complex ways. In the second focus article, Gudao considers how developments of the last five years have impacted life and ministry among China’s reforming churches, paying particular attention to worship. In the third, Gao Zhen is joined by his wife, Dong Mei, as they consider the many challenges to Christian discipleship in contemporary Chinese culture, and the ways China’s reforming churches are responding to them. The final focus article is an updated report on the state of Reformed theological education in China. Finally, Tony Wang reviews Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, a four volume system of Reformed theology that, recently translated, is finding new life among China’s reforming churches.
I will leave with you an Easter egg. In the pages that follow, a Reformed pastor laments in passing that the retreat of some house churches from more open worship practices means that people will no longer wander in off the street because they will no longer be able to hear the congregation singing. It is a striking lament. The idea that house churches in China worship so openly that people passing by can hear them singing, and that strangers off the street are welcome to wander in to worship, may surprise readers just tuning in. But more striking yet is that this actually happens in China with enough regularity to be on this pastor’s radar as a lamentable loss to their outreach efforts (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:24–25).
Such is the way of ministry among those who thank God for how he is using the new restrictions to keep them humble, holy, and focused on the work at hand. I trust you will find the articles that follow both informative and encouraging. I also hope you will see how much we all have in common and how much we have to learn from our brothers and sisters in China—perhaps now more than ever.
- The Continental Reformed tradition refers to the Reformed churches on the continent of Europe and includes the Swiss, French, German, and Dutch Reformed churches. This strand of the Reformed tradition is intimately related to but somewhat distinct from the Presbyterian strand rooted in Scotland.
- Bruce P. Baugus, ed., China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014).
Image credit: 5u5, on the walk to school via Flickr.
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