Let’s Be Honest about Denominationalism in China

When it comes to discussions on denominations or denominationalism in China, Christians easily get stuck on the basic questions: Are there now denominations among churches in China? Isn’t China on the post-denominational end of the continuum? Should there be denominations? If so, how should they work?

The first two are factual questions, and the last two are more theological or missiological. This issue of ChinaSource Quarterly seeks to address these ongoing questions but also to extend the discussion beyond what meets the eye on the China scene. (For example, many of these issues boil down to the problem of leadership.) With the exception of one, the contributors to this issue are all Chinese nationals who have lived the experiences of the phenomenon in China.

The word “denominate” means “to give a name to,” and denominations simply mean groupings by certain features. In today’s China, “networks” or “teams” are more often synonyms used by the Chinese in referring to their quasi-denominational groupings. When asked about their views on “denominations” and “denominationalism,” a typical answer among Christians in China today is that the former “reflects the richness of the body of Christ,” while the latter “grew out of human self-righteousness.” In comparison, most overseas Chinese churches take pride in identifying themselves as “nondenominational,” implying a largely negative conception of what “denominations” imply.

While a trend of quasi-denominational, self-acclaiming identities is emerging among preachers and members of the Chinese church, such as Pentecostal, Reformed, and Reformed Baptist, still more cling to the non-controversial “non-denominational” tag. Nevertheless, by claiming to be “non-denominational,” different people may imply different things. Sometimes it can become an excuse for a lower degree of commitment with one’s local church, or a gesture of criticism against more established identity groups. A Christian educator said to me that whenever he heard a preacher boasting of “supra-denominationalism,” he would become cautious; it sounded like the beginning of a new denomination to him. So just like in the West, denominationalism is not without controversies, one of which is church splitting over nonessential elements of the faith.

Jin Li’s article traces issues around denomination/denominationalism to their state of affairs in the missionary phase. He also explains how indigenous, quasi-denominational identities evolved in both rural and urban China. They were not linear processes. Like Christians in the West, believers in China tend to repeat the same problems along with this kind of development.

Jin Li’s “third way” of “inclusive communities” reminds me of Richard Mouw’s concept, “convicted civility.” As an advocate for inter-faith dialogues, Mouw encourages Christians to hold both conviction and respectful civility as integral, complementary features. It seems that this principle also applies to inter-group dynamics among Christians. Even with denominational leanings, one can still speak with passionate intensity and gentle respectfulness at the same time, for truth shall not lead us to divide. As the “called out” of God, the church carries a biblical figure of a “body” with many different members or parts. This image has both unity and diversity in it. The admission of diversity among Christians gives them the freedom to differ. The warning against sectarianism is indeed a timely one.

Jesse Sun presents a more sophisticated and in-depth historical case study comparing two Chinese leaders’ views on denominationalism before the 1940s. Two forms of anti-denominationalism grew out of vastly different concerns. One was out of “pragmatic cosmopolitanism,” and the other decisive localism. Christians in contemporary China can draw lessons from these differing views. First, leaders’ stances on denominationalism are often reactions to the status quo in the church and its immediate cultural environment. Second, reflections on not taking Western denominationalism for granted are part of the growing process in becoming a church of the Chinese people. Third, narrowly-defined, anti-denominationalism does not solve the problem.

Wei Zhou writes about how denominationalism becomes a realistic concern when churches find themselves in need of both theological and organizational resources to reorganize with continued growth. Some leaders resort to a trial and error method by “piecing together a system of governance.” This has been the predominant model among unregistered churches. Others try to identify with a denominational tradition, but church leaders and members are often “out of sync with each other.” Both practices create conflicts, sometimes even schism. Zhou emphasizes that the whole church should be involved in the theological education process in order to make a smoother transition to a sustained church order.

Absolutism of leaders’ theological positions led to leader worship and fanaticism. Admitting the cultural legitimacy of denominational presence does not mean that the forming of new denominations can always be seen as natural. In many instances, the branching of new denominations today is often due to church splits caused by internal conflicts. In his insightful article, Andrew Qie discusses how maturing in theology has led to the growing pains of labeling, the mechanical use of the formula “right doctrines equal godly living,” inter-group hostility, and the mutual passing of judgment. He points out that the practice of labeling is aggravated by the residual influence of Chinese political culture. Theological positions can be weaponized to divide the church. True humility before God and fellow believers is needed to avoid these dangers.

Two book reviews provide both Chinese and Western perspectives on Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China. Jun Wang’s review focuses on the external and internal challenges facing Christians in China. Richard Cook details the structure of this book and commends its attempt to “move beyond a one-dimensional picture of churches in China.”

In the Resource Corner, we include the collected works of Watchman Nee, a man who’s thought and experiments in indigenous church-planting still serve as valuable resources.

We hope this issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, “Denominationalism in China” will trigger more helpful discussions.

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Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin University, Dr. Ma and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: …View Full Bio