Lead Article

Is the Chinese Church Chinese Enough?

The Search for a More Chinese Theology


A recent visitor to the Mu’en Three Self church of Shanghai confided, “Gosh, I didn’t expect it to be so Western—not after hearing them say they were an indigenous church.” A choir in red robes, clergy in white, hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and a sermon out of a book of Campbell Morgan, all combined to give the impression to the visitor he had stepped back in time. He said, “It reminded me of London in the 1930s, when I used to go to Westminster Chapel.”

The experience is little different among many house churches. Favorite reading fare is Streams in the Desert and My Utmost for His Highest—two sturdy pillars of evangelical devotion. Much of their theology is drenched in Dispensationalism and garnished with Creationism and Inerrancy—all theological exports from Europe and North America. Their style of preaching is old-hat evangelical, full of task lists about how to earn the blessing of God—holiness teaching with a Chinese accent.

But is that all there is to the Chinese church? Is it really just a Western church underneath, with its theology, hymnology, and ecclesiology borrowed from abroad? Is there a Chinese theology?  Has Christianity taken a truly indigenous form in China today? Is the Chinese church Chinese enough?

These concerns have recently coalesced around the issue of theology, which is seen as foundational to everything else. And the language of crisis is beginning to be used. Long time leader of the TSPM, Bishop K. H. Ting (Ding Guangxin) declared at the recent 50th anniversary of the Three Self that “the crucial and most important step for successful church administration is the development of a genuine Chinese [Theology].” [part of article missing] . . . Never Ends, are being foisted upon many of China’s 18 seminaries as a model for bringing this new theology about. But Ting is not alone. According to the Rev. Baoping Kan, Vice President of Beijing Theological Seminary, “Our present day theology is too Western, too outdated, and if we do not develop a better Chinese theology, then the church will be irrelevant to the massive social changes sweeping China today.”

The house churches are more sanguine, though that may be more due to the fact that very little theological reflection goes on at all. Yet among the younger, better educated house church leaders of the cities there is a growing unease. Said a Xian based Bible teacher who had studied theology abroad, “Older converts were equipped to deal with Communism and resisted heroically; but today the converts must cope with Consumerism, and they do not know how. We must have a better theology or our faith will not connect to this disturbing, bewildering society we find ourselves in.”

What is the nature of this theological crisis in China’s church today? We assess this first in the official Three Self church, and secondly among the house churches, where the problems take a different form.

The Search for a Chinese Theology in the Three Self

That there is a search is shown by the frequency of writing on the topic in the official Three Self theology magazine, Tianfeng, and in the Amity News Service, particularly over the past three years. The arguments for a new theology can be examined in four areas of crisis: historical, intellectual, social and ecclesiological.

Historical crisis

The argument from Ting et al is that the problem began when Western missionaries insisted on planting Christianity in such a way that new converts had to repudiate Confucian culture to become Christians, with the result that to be more Christian, one has to be less Chinese. Baoping Kan, writing in Word and World in 1997 complains that the Western missionaries brought the most extreme form of Calvinism (TULIP), with the result that “Chinese Christians cannot remain an integral part of their own society.” Thus there is a culture vs Christian divide that needs to be dismantled—the legacy of the colonial missionary.

Intellectual crisis

The problem here is that very few have the time to actually do any theology thinking in present day China. Kan in the same article reckons a genuine Chinese theology was getting underway in the fifties with thinkers like T. C. Chao and Y. T. Wu, but their project was derailed during the Cultural Revolution. The eighties and nineties have seen churches reopening at such a rapid rate that it is all the Three Self can do to train young pastors for all the new congregations. The pastoral crisis has overshadowed the theological crisis. Even in the seminaries—the normal place for theological reflection—the candidates are too young, and too poorly educated, to attempt theological reflection. As the Vice President of Wuhan Seminary confided with a smile, “All we can do is turn out preaching machines, for that’s what our graduates have to do.”

And if few have the time, still fewer have the inclination. Writes Mr. Ji Tai, former associate dean of studies at Nanjing Theological Seminary, “...there exists in the church a prevalent thinking that ‘to despise rationality is equivalent to richness in one’s spiritual life.’” Some Three Self lecturers complain that the fundamentalist nature of the old theology has resulted in an anti-intellectualism among China’s Christians.

Social crisis

“China is developing. The Chinese church is growing. Under the surface, however, these two significant movements are not integrated.” So wrote Baoping Kan in 1997. He explains further in May 2000, “Chinese society is full of new problems, massive corruption, drugs, unemployment, and it needs ethical guidance, but because the church is so fundamentalist in its theology, it takes no interest in the social system, and therefore gives no lead.” It is the essential pietism of the old theology that galls these new theologians, since it refuses to engage with the world at large, and Christianity is perceived as something you do privately, but has no relevance to the public sphere. Thus China’s social crisis goes unaddressed by the very people that could help the most—the Christians.

Ecclesiastical crisis

According to Bishop Ting et al, a new theology is needed to “safeguard Christian unity.” Writes Kan, “One of the reasons people are attracted to heretical groups is that so often the theology taught in their own churches is antiquated.” Predictably, heresies are said to be mainly the product of outsiders interfering with the church, but the need for a coherent theology is to ensure that the higher echelons of the Three Self give clear guidelines on what kind of church each congregation should be. At the moment there is no such guidance, and local groups must decide by themselves. It is this vacuum of leadership that worries Three Self leadership, fearing that it will surely lead to that great Western evil—denominationalism. Thus, they need a new cutting edge theology around which to build the new 21st century church, lest each congregation or province goes its own merry way and there is a loss of unity and uniformity.

One can see the stakes are high. For these thinkers, a new theology is urgently needed for China to have a church capable of combating heresy and staying unified, and reaching out to Chinese society and staying relevant. Galloping growth is not enough. Says Rev. Kan, “People are running to Christianity now because it is so self-confident, full of certainties, but this sureness is not well based, and will wither, and then where will they be?”

Only a brief critique of the above argument can be attempted here. While all agree that more theological reflection is needed (who wouldn’t?), many object to the model of theological reflection Ting and his circle insist upon. Obviously any theology seeks a correlation between word and context, but the fear is that Ting’s wish is to begin from context, rather than from revelation. Following the context-driven theologians such as Hick, Kaufman and Tillich represents a form of liberal accommodation to the culture that distresses many more conservative thinkers in China, especially when the likes of T. C. Chao and Y. T. Wu are quoted so approvingly. Chao, for example, believed that the Confucian belief in the innate ability of humans to be good refuted the Calvinist view that humans would always fail to attain God’s love through their own efforts. And Wu began to recast the faith in the light of Marxist-Maoist teachings in the fifties. When Ting talks of “making theology compatible with socialism,” alarm bells are rung in the minds of evangelicals, including some not quite so conservative ones. The concern is that the new theology called for is not new in the least, but is rather a dated and warmedover Social Gospel theology, which fails to understand that not all evangelical theology is fundamentalist in tone or nature. As a student at Nanjing Theological Seminary said after hearing Ting preach that Christ was not physically resurrected because modern science made such a notion absurd, “His views reflect the narrow theological experience of his own liberal education rather than the theological diversity of Evangelicalism.”

Another objection to the new theology recommended is that it smacks of elitism. If the culture is the new starting point for theology, which culture are you talking about? Is it the culture of intellectuals, of Confucianism and of Socialism? Or is it the ancient culture of the land, spirit worship, ancestor worship and spells? In most cases the new theology envisaged would deal with modernity, science and ethics—issues of the city—but perhaps the really important engagement with folk culture is being neglected—issues of the village!

A third objection has to do with the sheer vagueness of it all. Said a lecturer in a northern Chinese seminary, “They keep telling us the old theology is bad, but they don’t really tell us what the new theology is.” It is true that most of the writing thus far from the new theologians majors on critique rather than construction, though in their defense it might be said that one has to be done before the other. But critics surely have a point. Ji Tai in an article entitled “Is there a Chinese Theology?” spends three pages saying what is wrong with the old theology, then finishes up thus:  “We need to probe deeply, using our reasoning and developing our own theories systematically. This is the kind of theology that the Chinese church needs. Together we try to learn God’s will for our age and time. The Chinese church needs theology. The construction of Chinese theology needs the participation of everyone of us.”

Beneath these bromides very few specifics are offered, though as we shall shortly see, it may be that Ji Tai’s heart was not in it. The clichés hide the fact that although everyone is bidden to do the new theology, very few actually seem to be producing it.

A final objection is to do with trust. The fact is that Ting and those he handpicks to spread his message are always suspect in the eyes of most of China’s Christians, and that includes Three Self lecturers, many of whom resent recent injunctions to study Ting’s thought. It is a mistrust that goes all the way back to the 1950’s, and constantly resurfaces in ways that baffle Western observers. When Ting visited Fuller Seminary in November 1994 he was challenged by Chinese students to explain why he had written vituperative articles in the fifties against Wang Ming Dao, the independent churchman who refused to join the Three Self. He merely smiled and said, “Well, it wasn’t that bad, and anyway, those were the times”—a defense that incensed the students, and some of the more knowing faculty. Said Dr. Tan Che Bin, “He called Wang Mingdao a lackey of Japanese imperialism, which was a charge that meant the death penalty then, so it’s very inadequate to brush it all off as a little bit of youthful exuberance.” Most of China’s Christians wait for Ting to repent more fully of past actions before any of his statements will be studied seriously.

Recent controversies seem to indicate there is a political agenda behind the theological wrangling.  Three students were forced to leave Nanjing Theological Seminary in May 1999 for refusing to sing Communist Party songs at a chapel ceremony. Three more graduate students resigned in protest a month later, and last year, Ji Tai, handpicked by Ting in 1995 to head up a theological research institute, was unceremoniously sacked from Nanjing Seminary. In an open letter dated July 2000, Ji Tai claimed it was because he did not share Ting’s ultramodernist perspective. After seeing a speech of Ting’s he wrote, “He attacked the very heart of the Christian faith—justification by faith. He suggested we should promote morality and not preach about faith and unbelief.” One has to wonder whether this campaign is really about theology at all, or whether the theological controversy is the smokescreen for a more sophisticated reassertion of government control over the Three Self.

All in all, there are probably two theological battles being fought within the Three Self. Some, like Ji Tai, do want to rescue evangelical theology from the dead hand of Fundamentalism. But that is an entirely different project to Ting’s, which seeks a more radical replacement of Fundamentalism with an ultra-modernist theology. The headlines are being dominated by the latter project, especially because of the strong-arm tactics. But the more important project may be the former— that of rehabilitating the evangelical faith to give the church a greater cutting edge in a chaotic society.

The Search for a Chinese Theology in the House Churches

Theological concerns of a different nature are exercising some younger leaders of the house churches, especially that handful who have managed to study abroad. Their concerns center not around what model of theology is required—they operate quite contentedly within an evangelical framework— but around how to make the faith more relevant in the face of three major challenges, which are extremely recent.

Generational Challenges

Many of the new urban generation of Christians in the house churches are largely ignorant of the testimonies of the older generation. Heroes of the faith such as Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, and John Sung are sometimes better known outside China than inside it. According to a Bible teacher in Xian, “...this is the huge question now... it’s to teach young Christians the spiritual story and tradition of the older generation, but we have to make this story relevant.”  This story has to be applied to the different circumstances of the younger generation. He elaborated, “We can’t just give the testimonies of the old men.  The young don’t know what to make of them. The older teachers harp on themes about suffering, but the young don’t face so much suffering... they face different challenges, like money issues, consumerism, marriage questions and dealing with stress, so we have to translate the spiritual lessons of the older generation and make them relevant to the present day—that requires theology.”

Matters are not helped by the fact that many of these older heroes of the faith have produced little by way of writing, so the danger is they die off without their stories being preserved and becoming the basis of theological reflection.

Social challenges

The house churches are not as isolated from the needs of Chinese society as their detractors maintain, but as a pastor in Lanzhou discovered, “It’s one thing helping a single drug addict, befriending them and supporting them; it’s quite another to try to stop the causes of drug abuse in the city.” To do the latter requires organization, planning, and a whole new level of negotiating with authorities and outside foundations. This led the church into huge fights over whether it was right theologically to engage with government, and over whether they should form a medical company to help AIDS sufferers that the government ignored. Thus some house churches —who see that the social problems of China cannot be solved by mere individual acts of kindness—need a whole new theological basis for engagement at this more political level.

Again, this is something the Western evangelical movement has had to undergo also. I well remember the sharp intake of breath among British evangelicals in 1984 when the well-known Anglican churchman John Stott, wrote Issues Facing Christians Today. He revealed that it was only since the early seventies that the case for social engagement had begun on the part of evangelicals who, until then, tended to see direct evangelism as the main means of combating society’s ills. Stott did manage to change that mindset, but someone has to do it for the Chinese house church. Needless to say, that someone will have to be Chinese.

Sociological challenges

“Lord, save us from going the way of Taiwan,” prayed the young house church leader in Wenzhou, Zheijiang. He was not making a political statement, but expressing a fear that the revival might dissipate in China today as it did in Taiwan in the 1930’s. He explains, “There was a great revival there among the hill people, but it disappeared when the younger generation left the hills and went into the cities. They didn’t take it with them. The city killed it off.”

His fears are well founded, though some dismiss them as “lack of faith.” China’s huge revival—from a standing start of around one to two million in the seventies to over 60 million now— has taken place primarily in rural areas; however, this rural population is now migrating to the towns in what must constitute the largest social dislocation in industrial history. China was 15% urbanized in 1980. Now it is 35% urbanized and that is likely to rise another 5% in the next decade. There is no telling how many of the 150 million current migrants from village to towns are Christians, but there must be many. How will their faith fare in the new cauldron of the urban morass? Will they find fellowship? Will they spread the revival to the towns (as many are praying) or will the towns—like in Taiwan—act like a sea that cools down the erupting lava of revival?

This too is a theological question. Many village Christians have to be prepared for all the new challenges to their faith, and deepened as disciples before they move away from a culture that has nourished them spiritually. As an evangelist from Henan said, “When you leave Henan for Shanghai, it’s like leaving the community of Israel for the Canaanite wilderness.”

Curiously it is the house churches that might be better equipped to meet their theological goals rather than the official church. This is by virtue of the house churches being a lot more Chinese. Professor Daniel Overmyer once listed five key characteristics of Chinese folk religion to an audience in Hong Kong: (1) marked by an emphasis on spirit beings; (2) lay-led; (3) full of spontaneous noise; (4) lively; and (5) usually focused around a meal. House churches—especially in the countryside—exhibit all these characteristics. Of course, a case can be made with some truth that Christianity is merely the veneer over the existing folk religion, but it is still a fact that house church Christianity appears much more indigenous in form than its official counterpart.

One thing is clear. The Chinese church has a lot more thinking to do—about being more Chinese!

Image credit: Nanjing Theological Seminary by Timothy Merrill via Flickr.

Alex Buchan

Alex Buchan is the Asia Bureau Chief of Compass Direct and has been writing on the Chinese church since 1987. View Full Bio