Lead Article

Denominationalism or Nondenominationalism?

Is There a Third Way?

Churches in China have evolved from small-scale home gatherings in the 1980s to the current diverse range of organizational forms. There has been much discussion within the church about denominations. In the modern history of Chinese Christianity, the concept of denomination is not something entirely new.

Legacy of Denominationalism

As early as the 1920s, denominations from the West not only set up churches and mission organizations, but they also divided up regions for particular services. Although early cooperation between church and independent missions reached a collaborative agreement on respecting others’ sacraments and traditions, they introduced to China (and Asia) a mosaic make-up of denominationalism which often impressed new believers more with external differences than internal similarities on the faith continuum. So from her baby steps, Chinese Christianity had to learn a nuanced dance informed by denominational characteristics. In addition to how to be new followers of Christ, they also had to learn how to be Methodists, Presbyterians, or Baptists. Western and Chinese Christians had heated debates about how denominations should collaborate together and resolve conflicts. These discussions have shaped the relationship between Western churches and China’s indigenous churches.

Chinese theologian T. C. Chao, known as “the foremost interpreter of Christian faith to Oriental minds,” said in 1935 that “denominations will ultimately die out, in spite of human efforts to conserve them.”[1] In Chao’s time of western mission expansion in China, the charge that denominationalism more or less diverted the attention of Chinese converts from the basic elements of Christianity is largely legitimate.

In the West, the lasting presence of a rich spectrum of Protestant denominations is due to the fact that the gospel has interacted with a variety of cultures in different historical contexts. For example, historically, some countries had an established religion, and those that separate from the establishment later formed distinct denominations or sects. In general, Western denominations followed two trajectories: mainline denominations pushed by nation-states (such as Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglican), and sects formed after spontaneous populist movements (such as radical Anabaptists and Wesleyans). The case in China is more like the latter.

Resisting the downside of western denominationalism, indigenous churches (such as Watchman Nee’s non-denominational Local Church) placed much emphasis on indigenization or sinicization. (Even today, the understanding that denominationalism is not what God originally intended the church to be, and would eventually die out, still captures many Chinese Christians.) Regrettably, even these efforts, countering the trend of denominationalism, eventually gave rise to new denominations.

After the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, most churches were dominated by a Party-controlled system and theology, which distinguished itself as a new church governance model. Do denominational imprints left by western churches on churches in mainland China still persist today? A worship theology scholar told me that during her recent visits to China’s different Three-self churches, she could easily tell the lineage of each church (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.) from the architecture and liturgy practiced there.[2] Some very old hymns, ways of chanting, and other liturgical elements are still being practiced in these state-sanctioned churches. Admittedly, such ritualistic marks of denominationalism were a result of western import. But according to another long-term communicant member in Shanghai’s Three-self church, these are only ritualistic vestiges of the old traditions that were effectively abolished in the 1950s. “Without mission-sending societies or seminaries supported by traditional denominations, how do we even speak of ‘denominations’?”[3] He even refused to call the Three-self system a “denomination” because it was “forcefully reorganized” by a political party.

Contemporary Indigenous Denominations as Tuandui 团队

Since the 1990s, in rural areas such as Henan and Anhui provinces where Party control has been weak, home-gathering churches have grown into large-scale networks of mission teams. Such social networking has been, in fact, an institutionalized denominational form with vertical hierarchies to coordinate offerings, dispatch preachers, standardize sermons, and allocate members between evangelistic teams and local churches. These rural mission networks have been closed groups, and their communication with the outside has been limited. Some even had acute conflicts with regard to church-planting and the mobility of believers.

From the 1980s to around 2000, because of their secrecy, closed stance, and political persecution, some evangelistic teams even strayed away to form emerging cults such as Eastern Lightning. Other groups migrated to the cities as the speed of urbanization increased. They formed organizations that preserved the key teachings and denominational features in their urban mission. However, because the word “denomination” has negative connotations in the Chinese language, hinting at cliquishness or partisanship, these groups often identify themselves with the name of a place or “China Evangelical” (zhonghua fuyin 中华福音). They commonly referred to themselves as “teams” (tuandui 团队).

During the past three decades, as churches in China have grown, there has been increasing diversity within them. Such diversification is a natural process when Christian groups claim the faith as their own and form collective identities. It is true that more and more churches started by calling themselves “independent,” broadly “evangelical,” or “non-denominational.” But over time, each church would always accumulate cultural elements that distinguished them from others. Numerical growth demands more bureaucratic complexity through leadership structures or church-planting which then forms quasi-denominational and bureaucratic features. Especially in urban churches, more educated leaders increasingly developed clear characteristics for their group in comparison to others. Such distinctiveness may be theological or organizational. Faced with growing pastoral needs and questions about how to do church liturgy together, leaders of urban, unregistered churches are seeking resources to support or update their practices. Thus today sacramental and liturgical theologies are much in need.

The broader themes of spiritual pursuits in Chinese churches have undergone changes in response to the larger political and cultural forces. Before the 1990s, piety was the primary theme—knowing Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. Then from the late 1990s to mid 2000s, theology became a more prominent theme—what does the Christian faith mean? Chinese Christians are seeking deeper understanding about their newfound biblical faith. Since the late 2000s until now, quasi-denominational identities have come to the forefront—what does it mean to be one certain type of church? Although the Christian faith often provides a solid anchor for individual identities, such a faith is not nurtured in a social vacuum, and churches as organisms provide realistic collective identities for believers to live out in the world.

The realistic concerns of new converts in China often transition from “What does it mean to be a Christian?” to “What does it mean to be a church?” According to many preachers of urban churches that I interviewed, in the mid to late 1990s, there was a strong “wind” of cult activities that pulled leaders and members out of local churches. This forced churches to sharpen their apologetics. Many began to think and ask deeper questions about what makes a church.

A great number of new converts, a few years after getting a Christian identity, begin to wonder further about what kind of Christian they are becoming. Individual trajectories may be guided by various styles of mentorship and theology. Increasing social mobility enables them to interact with Christians from other groups. Internet resources and Christian books on church history familiarize them with more layers of ecclesiastical reality. Higher levels of education enable them to ask harder questions about the church. For a Chinese Christian who was converted first by a preacher with Baptist leanings, then nurtured in the faith in a Pentecostal group, and later felt strengthened by listening to reformed sermons by evangelists such as Stephen Tong, his or her identity has drawn from a diverse, and even conflicting, range of sources. Ten years after conversion, this person may want to switch to a church that is more in alignment with his or her current theological persuasions.

There are also returnees who come to faith in other countries bringing with them denominational backgrounds and find it hard to commit to a group in the Chinese reality. So the denominational question may pose a very real difficulty for Chinese converts to answer with clarity.

Congregational studies scholars agree that the longer one stays in a denomination, the stronger one’s denominational identity grows. This also explains why churches in China have now formed quasi-denominational identities—urban church groups have had two decades of relative freedom to develop their leadership hierarchy, theology, liturgy, and sacramental practices. These past two decades of growth and expansion also accompanied a pattern of ecclesiastical fragmentation—church groups are disconnected from each other even within one locality. What is lacking now is an ecumenical awareness of respect for each other’s differences. For example, sacraments and other liturgical elements are main areas of disputes. The way leaders “do church” has been passed on to new converts, creating new liturgical norms. For example, some urban professional churches are taught by elderly spiritual leaders to use the term “breaking bread” instead of “communion,” because the former was the biblical and correct way to say it during a communion service.  

When we position ourselves as the orthodox group with the best interpretations of the Bible, we ought to be alerted that such statements easily introduce spiritual pride. So as Christians, we ought to watch our use of language in portraying “them” and “us,” along with the misuse of polemics, propaganda, or the aggrandizement of differences in hair-splitting ways. This is when theologies and doctrines tend to evolve into exclusive ideologies. For example, a few months ago there was a debate among Reformed leaders on whether or not to sing only Psalms in Sunday worship services. One can appreciate a growing seriousness about the importance of Sunday worship liturgy, compared to the “everything-goes” free style of worship in some unregistered churches. However, once claims are pushed too far (such as the exclusive use of the Psalms), walls are erected that distinguish “us” and “them.”

Churches as Inclusive Communities

Churches as evangelistic communities ought to open themselves up to the outside. A recent relevant discussion in the West is the relationship between emerging churches and traditional establishment churches. The former advocates for more communal involvement and downplays denominational characteristics. But in reality, these emerging churches often lack depth in their teachings. The same applies in the Chinese context. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ view of the church as God’s new language is a good metaphor for the role of the church in today’s world.[4] The church in itself is a set of ethics, and it is also a community that receives strangers. The inclusiveness of the church and a pure gospel message are not mutually substitutable parts. On the contrary, the gospel itself is inclusive, able to receive all sinners who choose to follow Jesus Christ, love God and love others. This challenges the closed stance of institutional churches. Opening up in the gospel means practicing the ethics of the gospel, which also challenges the emphasis on personal piety and repentance in traditional Chinese churches. Such openness or inclusiveness also guards churches from internal corruption or forming personality cults.

Churches ought to be catholic and unifying. Although the catholicity of churches has been a politically correct slogan, in reality, such an ecumenism is less than ideal. In fact, openness and catholicity are two things that are interrelated and inseparable.  Openness indicates the church’s embrace of the gospel, and catholicity first of all requires churches to know each other through dialogue. Many times, Chinese Christians hold on to caricature stereotypes about their own denominations and others’ denominations: reformed people have correct doctrines but they lack lively spirituality; Pentecostals emphasize spiritual gifts but lack understanding of truth; traditional house churches stress piety but neglect hermeneutics, and so on. Because of isolation from and lack of dialogue with each other, churches in China are far from living out their unifying witness. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost nullified human segregations due to ethnic or linguistic barriers. This teaches us to become unifying channels of God’s grace.

Like our self-identity as human beings, our loyal attachment or identification with a certain church denomination is understandable. Nevertheless, our love for Christ and his church, which grows out of authentic piety, can subtly be transferred to love for a certain denomination. When such attachment begins to overdo itself and becomes a hidden allegiance, the temptation of sectarianism (zongpai zhuyi) sets in.

Sectarianism is the exclusive attitude of declaring that a certain group is the true church. This is not something new. Regrettably, sectarianism is an ever-present reality, and churches in China are no exception. Sectarians are often blindly prejudiced against certain groups and take no pleasure in connecting with those who worship God in ways different than they do. In response to this, exposure to a variety of church settings can reduce a sense of self-correctness in identifying with only one denomination. With a humble attitude and deep trust in God’s own works, one begins to see beyond their own denomination and appreciate different practices.


  1. ^ T. C. Chao, “Christian Unity,” in The Chinese Recorder, vol. 66, no. 4, April 1935, 212-19.
  2. ^ Interview with EB, March 12, 2018.
  3. ^ Interview with G, March 10, 2018.
  4. ^ Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader. Duke University Press, 2001.
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LI Jin

LI Jin

LI Jin is a PhD student at Calvin Theological Seminary. Prior to seminary he was a PhD candidate in economic history at a Shanghai university. He writes on Christian thought for both public and Christian media outlets in mainland China and Hong Kong. LI Jin and  wife Mary Li Ma have coauthored articles, book …View Full Bio