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Liberalism and China’s Churches

Rise of Liberalism in China

At the outset of this article, I would like to clarify what is meant by the term “liberalism.” When Christians hear the term “liberalism,” they will likely think about a liberal theological position. Even outside the context of theology, for churches in America the term liberalism still has negative connotations as a worldview that opposes the church’s traditional stance on social and political issues such as same-sex marriage and legalized abortion. However, this kind of liberalism is not what this article is referring to. Instead, among intellectuals in China, the term “liberalism” is understood in the so-called “classical” sense and is often connected with free market, rule of law, and human rights.

Clearly, what classical liberalism advocates is entirely incompatible with Communist ideology.  The word “liberalism” has long been a sensitive term in China’s public dialogue, and it did not come to the surface until the 1990s. Since then, a large number of intellectuals, who care about the social and political issues of the day, have begun to call themselves, or have been called, liberals. While their core beliefs may not all be identical, these liberals do share some basic views regarding a market economy, upholding the legal system, advocating for and protecting human rights, demanding democratic elections, and pushing for China’s constitutional reform. Within the last twenty years, liberalism has become the leading ideological trend.

In those twenty years, China saw rapid economic and sharp urban population growth, while at the same time it also observed an increase in social problems and a breakdown in morality. Yet despite this backdrop and prolonged government suppression, urban churches (referenced in this article are the non-official house churches) experienced tremendous expansion. Many city-dwelling, liberal intellectuals began joining churches, changing their way of life.

Tension between Liberalism and Christian Perspectives

A person comes to Christ as a result of the sovereign election of God and is reborn through the Holy Spirit and the gospel. Yet Christianity undeniably possesses an attraction to the adherents of liberalism because there is an affinity between their worldviews. The gospel proclaims, and the existence of house churches bears witness, that there is a higher authority over the government and that a divine kingdom is approaching. In a country such as China, where free speech and free associations do not really exist, this is an astonishing message. Although the church presents these two freedoms in the spiritual sense, they can also be borne out in political freedom. China’s liberals are amazed by this connection. When they look back into church history, they discover the influence of Christianity in the formation of Western societies and political systems. No doubt this excites the liberals in China because they conclude that the proliferation of Christianity is beneficial, or even essential, to China’s constitutional reform. To say that quite a number of people join the church with this mindset would not be an overstatement.

Some oppose Christianity because it embodies Western ideology. In the same way, liberals in China connect contemporary democracy, particularly the United States’ Constitution, with Christian beliefs. After becoming Christians, Chinese liberals tend to make over-simplified statements as an apologetic argument for the positive impact of Christianity on modern society. To borrow the classic analysis of British historian Herbert Butterfield, this form of analysis is a so-called “Whig Interpretation of History.” The fact is, history is not the product of a single factor, but is determined through a series of complex and often unpredictable happenstances. Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, has undoubtedly influenced the birth of the modern world, but the modern world is really the result of many different forces coming together. These forces include not only the ideas and social structures brought on by the Reformation, but also many other anti-Christian thoughts and philosophies. Therefore, without careful discernment, these types of over-simplified apologetics can lead down the wrong path.

After the Reformation, classical liberalism was conceived by a group of Enlightenment thinkers as modern nations began to be established and the Enlightenment movement developed. Although these thinkers utilized various theological principles to form their ideas, many of those ideas were centered on man, not God, and far removed from traditional Christian beliefs. For example, Enlightenment thinking began with the supposition that there is no God who controls the universe. However, if this is true, what is the standard of morality and political order? Without a sovereign and righteous God, man’s pursuit of good instead becomes pursuit of power. Even if good and virtue are not completely repudiated, they are certainly shelved. Enlightenment thought responded to a particular time in history and did offer new solutions to the social and political challenges of that day. But from a Christian perspective, this man-centered, descending secularism is the complete opposite of the concept of reaching up toward God. It is here that the incompatibility between liberalism and Christianity appears.

Liberals Converted to Christ and China’s Churches

The tension between Christian thinking and classical liberalism confronts the liberal in China with an important question after converting to the faith: How should liberalism be assessed from the perspective of religion?  This question is not only a rethinking process at a personal level but is also a question that the entire church needs to respond to. 

Historically, churches in China have tended to withdraw from society. Pressure from the Communist government forces religious faith to become private and secretive. Most ministers not only do not discuss politics, they show little interest in any public dialogue. However, today a passionate group of intellectuals, who are concerned with social justice and the progression of China’s political system toward liberalism, has come into the church. They appeal to the church to be the voice of conscience, to be the shining city on the hill, and to bear witness for Christ in this tumultuous society. To China’s churches this plea is an undeniably great challenge and an inspiration. However, different churches have responded to this challenge in very different ways.

The strongest response comes from the newer urban churches. In general, the leaders of these churches are young and not bound by flawed traditions. In some cases, they themselves were liberal intellectuals before coming to Christ. These churches commonly respond in one of two ways. The first is to continue to build themselves up in the faith, seeking answers for social and political ills in an in-depth theology. On certain topics their response may be similar to that of a proponent of liberalism but is definitely gospel-oriented in essence. A second way is to use theology to justify classical liberalism, replacing the gospel message with social and political concerns. What these churches preach will eventually become a social gospel, lacking any call to salvation and repentance.

Many churches that choose to be passive in their response to social and political issues are influenced by a more fundamentalist perspective that “ignorance is virtue.” Such churches may also vigorously avoid any social or political discussions on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the separation of church and state. These churches may not fully understand liberal theology but tend to view the newly converted intellectuals and liberals as theologically liberal, rather than as classically liberal in the sense of social advocacy.

There is a third group of churches that chooses to be passive. These churches may not be ignorant or have an erroneous fundamentalist theology but rather are burdened by much trepidation. Because China does not allow true religious freedom, these churches adopt a policy of withdrawal in order to survive. They stay away from social interactions and focus instead on order and stability within the church. Such churches feel uneasy whenever their members mention social issues because they do not want potential problems to disrupt their listless, but calm, church life. Newly converted advocates of liberalism are considered disruptive and often “exhorted” to leave their ideological inclinations at the door.

Advocates of liberalism are obviously as “happy as a fish in water” when they step into the first type of churches. If they can be discipled to commit to the ministries of the gospel in these churches and be transformed in their thinking, their impact on society will no longer be the result of human effort but the fruit of the Spirit. Having said that, these churches need to be very mindful that their primary focus should always be the preaching of the gospel—not participation in public affairs. Churches respond to civic issues with the truth of the gospel and guide the society “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b).

Advocates of liberalism will quickly be disappointed by the latter two types of churches due to the wide gap between their expectations and reality. Not only do these churches already face a not insignificant number of problems, the faulty expectations of the newly converted advocates widen the gap even further. If not handled delicately, the chasm is likely to result in a clash. However, if handled with care, this can be an opportunity to bring the advocates into a deeper level of faith and to stimulate the church to know how to react to public debates with biblical answers.  


Anti-Liberals’ Attitude toward Christianity


With reference to liberalism, China’s urban churches ought not to overlook another group of people: individuals who possess advanced degrees from universities in Europe or the United States and are involved in research in humanism or social science. These intellectuals see the crisis that many Western nations face and therefore oppose China’s movement toward Westernization. They consider Christianity, and in particular Protestantism, as the root cause of this crisis of modernism. Since liberalism is viewed as being a part of modernism, such intellectuals oppose both it and Christianity.


Because these intellectuals believe that Christianity brought forth modernism, which is then equated with liberalism, total rejection of all three is their only option. However, this way of thinking is only another example of the “Whig Interpretation of History.” Even if modernism can be seen as a good thing, and even if its origin is related to Christianity, it is most certainly not Christianity’s primary, intended objective. One ought not to conflate Christianity and liberalism. However, when advocates of liberalism enter churches, this misperception that the two terms are synonymous will only grow.


Liu Xiao Feng, who gained fame for introducing Christianity to China’s intellectuals, has recently been gravitating toward Western Classicism and away from Christianity. Liu’s shift took place while he was simultaneously being very critical of liberalism. In light of the fact that Christianity rose to prominence at the end of the ancient Classical period, and the fact that classical liberalism came out of the Protestant Reformation, how a person understands liberalism will influence his or her view of Christianity. 

While some look to Western liberalism for a different way of thinking, others wish to discover new ideas in traditional Chinese philosophy. Examining Christianity from the standpoint of cultural comparison, such individuals want to establish the subjectivity and superiority of the Chinese culture. They study Christianity, but are definitely not Christians and may even be pleased with their non-believer status. One such scholar of Christian studies, who actively participates in festivities honoring Confucius, stated in an interview: “Most Christianity scholars in China in the 1990s were not believers of the religion, which I think very healthy. Western scholars may consider this rather strange, seeing how serious we study the religion and have mostly positive assessment of it. Yet we do not believe in it. But I think this is precisely the superiority of the Chinese culture.” This quotation shows that such scholars do not genuinely listen to Christian doctrine—its teachings and theology—but rather only look at its usefulness for their own cause.

For these reasons, having a deeper understanding of liberalism will greatly benefit churches in China in caring for their flocks and defending the faith. To have a greater understanding of a movement or philosophy, one must examine its history. In response to the development of liberalism, Christian scholars have responded with a wealth of literature. Churches in China must use these literary resources to better handle liberalism with caution and care. Similarly, in order for Western literature to influence the East, translation and publication of such resources are of highest priority. As the churches in China make good use of these resources, they will be better equipped to inform and guide their churches.

Translation is by Alice Loh and Erick Loh.
Image courtesy of  Cross by Peiyu Liu, on Flickr

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Wei Zhou

Wei Zhou is the founder of First Fruits Reading Society and the author of various articles and a recent book, Thirty Concepts that Relate to Eternity. View Full Bio