Peoples of China

Church Structure in China

Proposed Questions for Exploration


Many of us have the opportunity to interact with church leaders in China, especially in the cities. As they grow and mature in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, questions about the church inevitably emerge. At some point, they will face issues concerning church structure. This is an urgent and vital need; how they respond will deeply affect the long term growth of the church. It is exciting because the church is maturing. It is also agonizing because conflict, crisis and splits happen all too often.

How may we guide church leaders in a helpful way and at the same time remain faithful to the Word of God? How may church leaders explore church structure to the edification of the body of Christ in China? What questions would we propose to urban church leaders to help guide their thinking?

Can we assume that these church leaders have a decent knowledge of what the New Testament says about the church? Probably yes. Can we assume that they have a decent knowledge of the major developments in church history and the major types of church structure which have emerged in the church? Perhaps not always.

So how can we help them gain and/or apply this knowledge? How should we frame the questions? Here is a tentative list to consider, which includes factors of personal growth and those affecting the unity of the Body.

  1. The discussion, or often the struggle, about church structure is part of the personal growth and development of the church leader. We may gently probe, or encourage the individual leader to reflect on what has been the path he/she has travelled since conversion. What major lessons has he/she learned about the Christian lifeabout trust and surrender before God, deeper study of Scripture, about humility, boldness and integrity, about the purpose of the church, about outreach, unity and spiritual warfare? What has he/she personally learned, perhaps through struggle, pain, conflict, and crisis in the church? Enumerate these lessons. Writing them down will help a great deal. Take one month to do this.
  2. Not only has the individual church leader been growing under the Holy Spirit's guidance, so has the church, especially the leadership team. What have been the major lessons the Lord has been teaching the congregation (or fellowship/network of congregations)about trust and surrender, deeper study of Scripture, about the purpose of the church, about worship and outreach, about caring and counselling, about humility, mutual respect and deference, unity and spiritual warfare? What lessons has the Lord been teaching them, especially through struggle, pain, conflict and crisis? Enumerate these lessons as a group discussion process. The leadership team should be encouraged to take one to two months to do so as a leadership team. Conclude this period with a season of prayer, thanksgiving and confession.
  3. At this juncture, the leadership team must assess: How ready and willing is the leadership team (as well as the congregation) to pray for the Lord's teaching, to probe Scripture and to proceed to make decisions about church structure based on truths revealed in Scripture? This may require a process of learning and debate, disagreement and even parting of ways before the unity of consensus emerges. Before this process begins, more confession of sin and reconciliation may need to take place, by the grace of God, in the meekness of the Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit. Is the group willing to pay this price, for the sake of obedience to the Word of God?
  4. Is the congregation/network willing and ready to invest the quality time needed to investigate what Scripture says, what the group needs to learn/adopt, how the leadership needs to change/adapt? Perhaps this is a two to three year process, beginning at the point when the leadership is willing and ready to proceed (assuming that self-evaluation, confession and reconciliation have already taken place). This beginning point may be a good half-year to a year away.
  5. Assuming that the leadership is willing and ready to invest quality time in the question of church structure, certain questions of attitude, perception and misconception need to be tackled, to clear the way to proceed. Here are a few:
    • How ready are we to face the felt need for centralized, strong, dominant leadership, deeply rooted in Chinese culture? Am I a person who tends to dominate or feel the urge/need to dominate the group? How ready am I to listen to divergent opinions or criticisms? Are we willing to face this squarely, and repent of any tendency to dominate, or to look to a dominant figure? Are we willing to ask the Holy Spirit to grant us the humility to listen, to receive criticism, to work through divergent opinions? Domination by one person is not the Scriptural norm and not the effective way to proceed in the 21st century urban church.
    • How willing are we to admit that we often use the excuse: "This is a post-denominational world; denominations are a Western cultural invention," to hide our hesitation and laziness to really investigate what Scripture says, what our situation requires and how we should be obedient to the Lord and his Word?
    • How willing are we to learn to distinguish between historical models of church structure (i.e., specific denominations), and the different ways in which New Testament church leadership may be construed and applied?
    • How much do we really understand about those people, groups and traditions that have mentored us, each one of the leadership group, as we came to know the Lord and grow in our service to him? How have these colored our perceptions, our likes and dislikes? For example, if our primary mentors have been nondenominational "mission" organizations, we may be predisposed to either a negative view of the organized church or a hesitation to organize the church according to Scripture.
  6. Assuming that we are willing to tackle these questions of attitude, perception and misconception, the following may form the core of a Bible study process for the leadership.
    • In Acts chapters 13-14, as Barnabas and Paul travelled, what did they do as they planted churches (14:23)? What were leaders, whom Barnabas and Paul appointed, called? What names were used for leaders of the church? Cf. Titus 1:5-9.
    • In Matthew 18:15-18, 26:26-29, 28:18-20 and I Corinthians 11:17-34, what are the specific things the Lord Jesus commanded the church to do corporately, as a body? (Note: This list does not include the Lord's commands to individual disciples.) It is a matter of obedience that the church submits to the Lord's ordinances (commands).
    • In Acts 20:20-31, when Paul gathered the leaders of the church in Ephesus, what did he instruct and exhort them to do?
    • In I Timothy 3:1-7, what can we learn about the qualifications for serving as an elder/overseer?
    • In I Timothy 5:17, how should we treat those who lead (rule) the church? Can we see Paul making a distinction for a sub-set (specific class) of elders? What do this specific sub-set (class) of leaders devote themselves to do? Can we see that Ephesians 4:11-6 refers to these leaders?
    • Does the book of Acts support the method of using the modern method of "one person, one vote" to select elders/leaders? What do we think of the traditional method in some Chinese churches, where the existing leadership interacts (fellowships) with certain potential new leaders, then upon mutual agreement, the leaders propose their names before the congregation; the congregation then devotes a period of time (3-6 months) to pray over the matter. Then, if no major objection emerges, these proposed names are treated as confirmed for leadership? Are there strengths and weaknesses in each method? Are we willing to choose one or the other method, recognizing its inherent limitations? Our congregation (fellowship/network) must proceedso we must choose between these methods. Are there other alternatives?
    • What does "mutual subjection/submission to the brethren" mean in church structure? What can we learn from Acts 15, about how Barnabas and Paul live out submission, accountability and team leadership? Did they appoint one-man teams (Acts 14:23)? How willing are we to implement a model which expresses this mutual submission?
    • If the congregation remains independent (i.e., not a member of a fellowship/network of congregations), are we willing to consider inviting experienced, respected leaders/pastors/elders from outside our congregation, to serve as advisors, to mentor the leaders/elders whom we shall appoint, to resolve issues of conflict and to guide important decisions which we will make (e.g. major purchases, appointment of leadership, plans for leadership training, budget and finance-related decisions)?
  7. At each step of the study, prayer and decision-making process, how willing are we to pause, reflect and see if there is cause for repentance? How often do we check if pride or other fleshly attitudes get in the way of unity and consensus? How will we resolve conflict as we proceed in this study and decision-making process?

Much grace, prayer and humility is needed as the church faces the issue of structure. Inevitably, different models will emerge. May the Spirit protect the church in China as she grows!

Image credit: Urban Life, Beijing, China by Nick Piggott, on Flickr

Samuel Ling

Samuel Ling, Ph.D. is a theologian and observer of theological and cultural trends that affect the Chinese church. He is president of China Horizon. View Full Bio