Peoples of China

Cultural Continuity and Discontinuity in Chinese Church Leadership

Religion and Leaders in China: Ideology, Policy, Role, and Style

Traditional Chinese society was held together by the official Confucian-Daoist worldview. Man’s ideal is to live in harmony with nature, through aesthetic exercises such as poetry, art, calligraphy, music and etiquette; Daoist ideas and practices provide a mystical lifestyle for all Chinese who wish to escape from culture into nature. Coupled with this mystic quest for oneness with nature is the Confucian code of ethics, teaching the prince and leader to behave in a moral and pragmatic way, so that each man, woman and child knows his/her place in the family, in society and in the government bureaucracy. In the post-World War II decades, the “Harvard School” sinologists, from John K. Fairbank to H.G. Creel (Chicago), Derk Bodde (University of Pennsylvania) and Arthur F. Wright (Yale), have produced numerous works on this worldview. China, of course, is taken for granted as the center of the civilized universe (hua-xia, “the magnificent”; tian-xia, “under heaven”); everyone else, from the Japanese to the British, by definition is barbarian. Jonathan Chao has helped us to see that, according to the official view, religion is of three kinds: the official, sanctioned religion (Confucianism with the worship of heaven and ancestors co-opted, throughout most of traditional China); the unofficial, heterodox yet tolerated religions (Daoism and Buddhism); and the heterodox and banned religions (Buddhism in several waves of persecution, some subversive, rural-based millennial movements, and Christianity during the “Rites Controversy” of the 18th century). When Buddhism was tolerated, it enjoyed tax-exempt status; this was probably a primary motive for the four waves of persecution directed at the Buddhists. Buddhism, according to Arthur F. Wright in his masterful booklet, Buddhism in Chinese Society, managed to adapt to Confucian-Daoist ideas, vocabulary and artistic-literary idioms. Buddhism has mastered the art of indigenization/contextualization.

Beneath this facade of changeless harmony, structure and order is the rural reality where the landowning gentry rules supreme, in the absence of government interruption. The gentry collected taxes, provided for the education of the boys, and disaster relief (cf. Chang, Chinese Gentry). The heads of the clans were virtual rulers of the countryside; the magistrate was sent from the capital, usually from a different province. Religion was, according to C.K. Yang’s definitive Religion in Chinese Society, “diffused” and “functional”: it is not institutionalized (like Christianity, with its theology, pantheon, priesthood and times of worship), but diffused through society (from the kitchen to the sailor’s boats, the shopkeeper’s counter and the military and the imperial court). It serves various “functions” of daily life: from a child’s sickness (Daoist potions) to good behavior by children and posterity (ancestor worship), safety at sea, prosperity in the business (the money god), rain and sun for harvest, protection for the local village (the earth god) and victory in military exploits (Guan Di, the red-faced general with the sword). Clan leaders rule by fiat; women were held in their subordinate roles; children were to be seen, not heard. This “rural reality,” however, belies the intrigue and social change, especially in times of uncertainty, unemployment and natural disaster. Were women really voiceless? Or did they affect the opinions of the clan leader (and the emperor!) through intrigue? Why were women assigned equal landowning rights in the Taiping Rebellion (a pseudo- and quasi-Christian cult which overthrew southern China, 1840-1854)? Was this a reflection of rural aspirations? And how did unemployed Hung Xiu-quan manage to rally his fellow Guangxi peasants into a subversive movement? Does this remind us of previous subversive movements which overthrew the emperor? Rural realities are a far cry from imperial ideology; both are “faces” of traditional China.

Christianity and Christian Leaders in Chinese Society

Traditionally, Christianity was one of those religions which were both heterodox and banned in China. Later, with the signing of unequal treaties (1842-44, 1858-60), Christianity received special privileges, which led to much misunderstanding and resentment among officials and the landowning gentry. Protestant missionaries left their small towns, churches and Christian colleges and sailed for China. In their mission compounds and chapels, they preached the gospel and distributed Scriptures. They were much misunderstood by the local officials and gentry (cf. Sidney Forsythe, An American Missionary in China, 1895-1905), and themselves understood very little about the officialdom and gentry around them. Resentment turned to verbal violence: Confucian scholars wrote tracts and drew cartoons to ridicule the Christian faith during the Tongzhi Restoration, 1862-74 (cf. Paul A. Cohen, China and Christianity). Christianity was attacked from the point of view of Chinese cultureas Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism joined ranks in critiquing the foreign religion of the white man (cf. Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy, Book 1). After Chen Duxiu, editor of the most influential magazine read by China’s youth after 1911 (New Youth), converted to Marxism, he wrote an article to characterize Christianity as an agent of imperialism. In April 1922, nine months after the covert birth of the Chinese Communist Party, its youth division (Socialist Youth Corps) launched the Anti-Christian Movement in the name of the Anti-Christian Student Federation. Now Christianity is attacked not in the name of traditional Chinese culture, but in the name of Western, atheistic Marxism. Whether resented or attacked, Christianity remains misunderstood by most Chinese people.

What kind of Christian leaders emerged in modern China? At first, they were assistants to missionaries, such as Liang A-fa, who helped with the work of Robert Morrison. His tract, Good Words Exhorting the Age, turned out to be ammunition for Hong Xiuquan to launch the revolutionary Taiping Movement in the 1840s. Many of China’s first Protestant pastors were ostracized from their clans. Later, some lay Christians studied in Christian colleges (or were converted through and in them); some went on to study abroad, and took up leadership positions in both church and society. Mary Stone was the first Chinese woman to receive the M.D. degree in the United States; she returned to lead the Bethel Mission of China, comprising a nursing school, an orphanage, an evangelistic band and a Bible school (I grew up in the Bible school in Hong Kong). Jimmy Yen invented a system for teaching basic literacy to China’s masses. (Carol Hamrin and Stacey Bieler chronicle several of such outstanding lay social reformers in their recent work, Salt and Light Vol. 1.) Western-educated church leaders included Wang Mingdao who spent a brief period of time in Scotland assisting in Bible translation (around 1910); T.C. Chao who graduated from Vanderbilt University with a M.A. in Sociology (1912) and the Bachelor of Divinity (1913); Liu Ting-fang (T. T. Lew) who returned from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in 1920 to take up three teaching postsat Peking University, Peking Normal University and Yenching University. He was instrumental in putting together an examination system for China’s schools, as well as the compilation of the historic Hymns of Universal Praise (1936), a milestone in global hymnody.

Leadership Style: Traditional and Western/Modern

What kind of leadership patterns emerged among China’s Christian leaders? There were certainly strong parallels with the rural clan leader and landowner: autocratic rule, personal loyalty to clan leaders, shifting patterns of conflict among the clan leaders. There are also strong indications that the rural-subversive pattern of equality for women found a place among China’s 20th century church. Traditional patterns of communication often dominated church life: conflicts were not addressed directly but only indirectly through go-betweens; there was little awareness of “servant leadership” or “team leadership by elders.” Often congregations are patriarchally governed “big families,” or villages, where love, warmth, and family ties dominate. Spirituality is seen as divorced from the “mundane, secular” spheres of work and family; a pastor simply sacrifices his family for the sake of the ministry.

There are also indications that newer, Western, modern, and perhaps “evangelical” patterns of leadership have been imported to China and co-existed or mingled with the traditional. Whether missionaries operated a fundamentalist Bible school, or taught in the liberal Yenching University, they developed strong personal relationships, first with one another (as fellow Americans or Westerners), then with the students. I remember talking with a high official in Beijing around 1995, while she took me on a tour to find T. C. Chao’s old office and John Leighton Stuart’s old residence on the Peking University campus, and asking her: “What is your most significant memory of your student days at Yenching University?” Without hesitation, she named the warm personal relationships which the professors had with the students. Along similar lines, T. T. Lew, from the earliest issues of Life magazine (edited by him and others at the Yenching University Christian Fellowship, 1919-1937; later renamed Truth and Life), advocated a form of “participatory democracy” in Christian fellowship”discussion” was a most important way to learn, to share and to grow. The YMCA provided opportunities to learn teamwork. Seventy to eighty years later, English teachers from the West were to do the same thingfoster personal relationships with students, teach the techniques of inductive discussion and build a spirit of teamwork.

Did these patterns show up in the curricula of Bible schools and theological seminaries? Perhaps not so consciously, with the exception of Yenching University School of Religion. Traditional, autocratic patterns of leadership, along with women leadership as perhaps an anomaly, continue to dominate for many decades after 1949, especially among overseas Chinese congregations. At the same time, the classic Harvard Business School method of “management by objectives” began to show up in the meetings of boards of elders and deacons. Pastors are expected to be evaluated for their performance, sometimes even including the performance of their wives (although they are never to bring up the subject of compensation review, God forbid). I personally find it absolutely fascinating that most church leaderswhether pastors or elders/deaconsare mostly unconscious, at any split-second, whether they are using “traditional, autocratic” notions of leadership (respecting either the elder or the strong elder with great deference), or the Harvard “management by objectives” way of viewing the church (evaluating everything in terms of goals, objectives, schedules, physical plant, manpower resources and budget), or even a third way of looking at church life and ministry! Is this true of China? Certainly, the traditional and modern/postmodern are clashing in the Chinese congregation (cf. my book, The “Chinese” Way of Doing Things).

What has happened in the overseas Chinese churches should be expected to appear in China today and tomorrow.

Leaders and Leadership in the 21st Century: Also Old and New Comingled?

Who are tomorrow’s pastors and church leaders in China’s churches? If my experience with seminary students in/from China serves as any indication for the future, I suggest that a mingling of traditional and Western/modern leadership styles will persist. I have come to know four types of students in the past decade:

  1. The pastor-worker, 25 to 45 years old. These have imbibed much of the traditional, rural house church tradition; they are godly and work extremely hard, perhaps to the detriment of their health and family life (if married). Many are single. They are accustomed to the autocratic forms of leadership, yet are being exposed to Western, modern ways of doing things. They have a very difficult time participating in (even more difficult leading) an inductive Bible study discussion. Most know the Bible extremely well.
  2. The network leader, 35-55 years old. Some have a business background, perhaps with overseas travel experience; others simply rose through the ranks of the church. They oversee a couple dozen churches, plus one to two Bible schools. They carry a very heavy burden of responsibility and may not be able to escape from traditional modes of leadership, partly due to expectations from their subordinates.
  3. Humanist intellectuals, 40 years old. These were educated in China’s universities, having majored in literature, history or philosophy, or are graduates of Three Self seminaries. They have probing philosophical questions to ask in the seminary classroom and are often misunderstood (often simply ignored) by the majority of the student body (the pastor-workers). Many are migrating, both personally and theologically, from a more humanist (“Cultural Christian”) sensibility to the majority evangelical style of spirituality and ministry. (Cf. Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel, edited by Stacey Bieler and myself.)
  4. Postmodern youth, 19-22 years old. Some are children of Christian clans, others simply dedicated their lives to ministry and have had two to three years of “internship” in their home church. Some have received one to three years of college education, others are high school graduates. They are appearing everywhere, wherever there are theological education opportunities. This is the most interesting group to watch; I cannot make any generalizations about them at this moment other than to say that they were born after China had opened up to the West. Their parents are the “Cultural Revolution,” generation, so for them, the Cultural Revolution and the persecution stories were memories of their parents, not their own. They face a morally bankrupt China and a thoroughly postmodern society with pagan values. They are keen and eager and untested.

All four types are showing up in the seminary classroom.

How will tomorrow’s leaders shepherd China’s churches? I can only make some very tentative concluding remarks. A number of divergent influences are shaping pastors and leaders of China’s churches.

  1. The traditional, rural house church tradition, which is rapidly declining; however the aversion to doctrine and preference for “piety” still persist.
  2. An energetic, often “chrismastic” (though not necessarily so) spirituality imported from Taiwan and other overseas Chinese, partly seen from the songs used in worship.
  3. A milder, participatory form of church life imported from Western, especially American, Christians. Whether the influence will be deep and long-lasting remains to be seen. I am not very optimistic.
  4. The humanist quest for a comprehensive, biblical worldview is there, but these are few, lonely voices.
  5. A strongly secularized, paganized, evangelicalism similar to American evangelicalism (cf. research reports appearing at is emerging fast. Someone said, “China has lost her soul. Will the church in China also lose her soul, if she hasn’t lost it already?”

These factors combine in different ways and proportions in each church, in each network of ministries.

What remains to be done? Role-models of strong teaching, passionate love for Christ’s sheep, radically biblical and compassionate counselingthese are timeless, priceless and will never go out of style. This is the bottom-line as we pray for the transformation of Chinese culture and “leadership style.”

Image credit: Masked kites by Will Clayton, on Flickr

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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