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Into the Future

Ding’s Theology and China’s Church

Bishop Ding Guangxun’s Love Never Ends, which has become required reading in China’s Three Self seminaries and Bible schools, has created quite a stir both in China and among Christians outside of China. Western evangelical comments on Ding that I have read or heard, especially as regards his theology and promotion of “theological construction” in China’s seminaries, are mainly negative. While Western evangelicals have had difficulty with some of the liberal theological positions Ding has espoused over the years, I, as an evangelical, believe his recent book brings out some significant themes that deserve serious consideration by those who are concerned about the state of Christianity in China.

A Theological Time Warp

In his book, Ding speaks to a basic issue concerning the future of the Chinese Church: China’s church is theologically weak. It is stuck in a turn-of- the-century fundamentalist theology that is confused with evangelicalism. To understand the Chinese view of evangelicals we must recognize that in 1949 China’s church lapsed into a sort of theological time warp. Because China’s door closed to new theological ideas in 1949, the church’s theology remained as it was since the beginning of the century. Meanwhile, the church in other parts of the globe advanced in its thinking and theological method, and modern evangelicalism, as we in the West now understand it, came into being.

Christians in China, therefore, are not evangelical in the same sense that the West understands the evangelical church. Because fundamentalist thought was the dominant theological thought before 1949, Chinese Christians are more fundamentalist in their theological outlook. Conversely, when China’s church leaders think and speak about Western evangelicals, they equate evangelicals with fundamentalists. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that nearly all of China’s understanding of Western evangelicals comes from the negative reports Western evangelicals put out concerning China and the official church. China’s church leaders see this theological time warp as a major challenge that threatens the future of the Chinese church.

The church’s theological backwardness creates a number of serious problems, especially hermeneutical. Theological beliefs and church practices are created from a passage of Scripture without sound exegesis. Some leaders extract theocratic ideas from the Scripture concerning leadership, which leads to autocratic styles. Related to this is the severe lack of accountability and abuses of spiritual authority in the local church structures. In other instances, church leaders complain that sermons are made by “breaking down” a Chinese word in a Bible passage and attaching significance to insignificant words simply to impress the listeners. For example, a popular evangelistic message in China comes from the Chinese characters for the name of Jesus. Since there are two components, one meaning “two ears” and the other meaning “fish and rice,” the message proclaims that if you listen to Jesus with your ears, your stomach will be filled with fish and rice.

Unhealthy Teaching

The Chinese Church also has a very unhealthy teaching about stewardship. Consequently, the church is strapped financially and lags behind in many of its ministry undertakings and opportunities. In the Chinese Church, it is considered unspiritual to teach about tithing.

There are further and unfortunate applications of this theology in the present Chinese Church. For one, a good Christian should not be a good businessman. A successful businessman is not a practicing Christian. Moreover, a good pastor should be poor while an adequately paid pastor is thought of as not suffering for the Lord.

Another component of this turn-of-the-century theology is the church’s monastic stance towards social action. In the West, at the turn of the century and before 1949, there was a popular distaste for what was called the “social gospel.” At times, it struck a raw nerve in the church, which often resulted in the rejection of good works, even good works done in biblical Christian love.

While much of the Western church and missions community has embraced social action as a viable outreach over the last several decades, the church in China is stuck trying to separate the spirit from the mind and body. Their mindset has remained the same as it was prior to 1949, so much so that the Amity Foundation needed to look outside the church when it began its social work. As China evolves rapidly towards a 21st century economy, the Chinese Church finds itself in an embarrassing position of embracing an “anti-intellectual and separate-from-society” culture.

Ding’s Response

It is to this fundamentalist state of the church that Bishop Ding speaks. I believe he has three immediate concerns in mind.

First, cults threaten the existence of the church. That the TSPM is an organized, structured, unified, marching-in-unison body is a myth. There is much autonomy on the local level. For this reason, it is susceptible to cultic influences. The ominous presence of cults demand much greater theological rigor on the part of the Chinese Church.

Second, as China opens up even more, intellectuals flock to the church in increasing numbers. But the church is not ready for them. The background of the rural church and the training of the pastors, along with the spiritualistic and anti-intellectual bias, create an obstacle to embracing Christianity for many intellectuals.

Third, Ding sees the church’s continued resistance to social action as “bad timing.” For the last several decades, he has worked towards legitimizing the church in society. Indeed, he believes that the church can have a strategic role in the transformation of Chinese society if only it will embrace its social responsibility. If the church does not involve itself in society, it will remain at the lower end of the social and political totem pole. Thus, he wants a Christian label on good works done in China.

Consider, for example, the church’s potential to speak to this society educated in an atheistic environment. To it the doctrines of original sin, justification by faith, redemption and predestination are foreign. However, Chinese culture has historically valued high morals and good deeds. And the church can easily relate to that. Therefore, Ding says, “Given the state of the Church in our country, the starting point for contextualization seems to be the restoration of the ethical and moral content of Christianity.”[1]

Church and Society in Communist China

I believe Bishop Ding’s goal in writing his book is to shape the Chinese Church so it can speak and minister to the Chinese society under a communist regime. For over 50 years Ding’s emphasis has been on making the church Chinese. While Western evangelicals may not appreciate the anti-Western mission rhetoric and condone the process by which this transformation was achieved, the TSPM can, however, claim at least some success in this area and has become a viable and significant entity in China. Ding’s new book moves on a new plane: make the church thrive in a communist society.

As one who has been thinking about the relationship of Christianity and communism for over 20 years and who has tried to work through the issues on a daily basis with our own ministry in China, I am very excited about Bishop Ding’s perspective. Despite the difference in theological orientation, I subscribe to his presupposition: we must find ways to relate the Gospel to the present situation. I grew up in the 50s and 60s believing that the political regime in China would one day be changed; then China would be evangelized. Obviously I no longer hold that view. Twenty years ago I was called to ministry in China and resolved to find ways to work with the existing reality. After two decades of involvement and observation, I am glad to be able to say that it is possible to do so.

It is easy for Western evangelicals to get agitated about Ding’s different theological and political persuasions. Without downplaying these significant differences, I would nonetheless like to suggest it is possible to view Ding as a missiological pioneer, for he is indeed helping us chart new territory in the construction of the Christian church in communist China. His book has raised a valid issue regarding Christianity’s future in China. For 50 years, Ding’s idea of “selfhood” for the Chinese Church has not seated well with Western evangelicals, who have found themselves at odds with the TSPM. But will we again miss a divine opportunity as the Chinese Church enters a new era and a new missiological frontier?


  1. ^ Bishop Ding Guangxum, Love Never Ends, Yilin Press, April 2000, p. 334.
Image credit: the door of church by allen LI via Flickr. 
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Danny Yu

Dr. Danny Yu is president of Christian Leadership Exchange.View Full Bio