China today is undergoing an unprecedented total transformation. She is a contradiction in terms: a communist dictatorship overseeing a capitalist economy. A socialist society only 25 years ago, today she is facing the rise of a new postmodern generation of young people. She also faces some fundamental options. What will be the core values of her worldview as she steps into the 21st century? Which ideas will guide her future?
From a Christian perspective, there seem to be four alternatives for China to choose from:
- an angry, anti-foreign nationalism,
- a resurgence of folk and native religions,
- the pursuit of money and pleasure or
- the Christian worldview.
There is ample evidence for the first three. The influence of the Christian worldview is dependent on the sovereign grace of God and a strong presence of Christians in China, both mainland Chinese and Christians from overseas who live out the power of the kingdom as salt and light. As this is worked out in day-by-day living, differing parts of the church will have different roles. There are some things the non-Chinese church can do which the overseas Chinese church cannot do. The overseas Chinese church can do certain things that the non-Chinese church is unable to do.
Today, the church needs to commission and groom a new generation of middle-management “China experts” with China experience. These individuals must learn the language (an absolute must which is frequently neglected today), they should have a firm foundation placed by seminary training which believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, they must have much experience among the Chinese and perhaps a doctoral degree in Chinese history or intercultural studies. Such individuals do not grow on trees. We have to groom them.
However, as we groom these individuals, we must be certain that they hold to a strong, unqualified confidence in the Bible, the inerrant Word of God, and a high view of God, Scripture and the cross. More than anything else, what China needs in the 21st century is a clear message of the sound, complete gospel—not a watered-down version.
Timothy Richard, the colorful 19th century Welsh missionary to China, had a very enlightened view of missions. As a student in Haverfordshire in England, he wanted his seminary to offer Asian languages and history as preparation for missionary work. Through direct involvement in disaster relief in the 1870s, he saw that education was China’s greatest need. He dialogued with Confucian and Buddhist scholars and sincerely befriended them. He introduced science, history and other branches of Western learning to China’s brightest minds. In 1895, he hired Liang Qichao to be his secretary. Liang was a leader in the 1890s who belonged to the younger generation of radical scholars who called upon the Emperor to institute a constitutional monarchy. Richard translated dozens of books and booklets into Chinese including a 19th century history of Europe. He had a wonderful vision of God’s providence and his call to provide for his fellowmen.
As Richard was busy translating books into Chinese and encouraging the radical reformers of China in the 1890s, Abraham Kuyper, Holland’s prime minister and founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, addressed Princeton University. Kuyper, a theologian in his own right, reminded the church in America never to forget that the primary battle in history will always be an antithesis between truth and error, God-centered culture and man-centered culture. Richard and his fellow reformer-missionaries, some of the most brilliant minds whom the church in England and America sent to China, became Universalists by the 1910s. They no longer believed in the exclusive claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Richard’s grand vision proclaimed:
I don’t believe the Mohammedans are unchristian in their worship of one true God instead of idols. I don’t believe that the high moral teaching of any religion is devilish and unchristian. Christianity has the power of assimilating all that is good in other religions. We come here to counteract their false teachings and to fill up what is wanting just as Christ came not to destroy but to fulfill.
Richard did not sail from Britain as a liberal or Universalist. He was a zealous evangelical, burning with the fire of revival. What happened? What led to this downward spiral of doctrinal belief and vigilance? Was it the fact that he was enamored with Buddhism? No, I think not. He changed because he was enamored with the sleeping, but awakening, giant—China. Interacting with her most brilliant minds, her scholars, and intellectuals, he was not alert enough to realize his own need to keep his doctrinal vigilance.
Richard had a vision of China opening up—a vision that we see being fulfilled today in the year 2000. Thousands of English teachers and students are learning from Western English teachers in China’s universities. “Cultural Christians” and other “Scholars in Mainland China Studying Christianity” are eager for an in-depth understanding of what the Christian faith can do for China. Yet, the slide toward universalism is a real possibility—now, even as it was back then. As we serve in China, we cannot afford to offer her people a diluted version of the Word of God. There are non-negotiables we must adhere to.
- We must proclaim a God who is “infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth,” not a God who is so open and vulnerable to our fragile existence that our surprises are God’s surprises too.
- Broken hearts and lives need a strong Savior not just a sympathetic friend who will walk with them. We must make the claim that Scripture is the divine proclamation of God, not just a document which witnesses to and records an existential encounter that allows it to become the Word of God. (The latter is a view currently very popular among American and Chinese evangelical theologians.)
- We must proclaim the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ as propitiation for the sins of men and women, not just as therapy for broken lives. The gospel has therapeutic powers and fruits—but therapy is not the gospel!
- We must not forget that God has revealed himself through (a) the things which were created, and (b) his work in human hearts. This is general revelation. Man’s culture, art, philosophy and religion are not general revelation; they are man’s responses to God’s revelation and are subject to error and idol-building. God may work through man’s culture and graciously provide man with redemptive analogies that help him to bridge the gap in his understanding of God; however, these are not part of God’s general revelation.
- We must affirm that the church’s mission in China is threefold: (a) evangelization (the conversion of men, women and children; (b) the maturing of the church (a better terminology in my view than indigenization or contextualization); and (c) ultimately, the church transforming the society and culture around her, and becoming a missionary-sending church. The work of English teachers and other professionals in China contribute in a very valuable way to all three aspects of the goal. But we must not do one at the expense of another.
Today we are sending English teachers, language students, medical professionals and businessmen to China in the name of Christ. We, too, are enamored by the awakening giant—except this time, the giant has awakened. China is willing to receive English teachers for her universities and schools; she is open to religious study programs at universities; she accepts business people from the West; she allows medical professionals to provide teaching and assistance. As Christians, we need to proceed in reaching China in a spirit of friendship, servanthood and dignity. We should endeavor to be a blessing and friend to China without jeopardizing the safety of the church of Jesus Christ in that land. There are many avenues of involvement for us in this great country and many ways in which we can offer to serve China. But as we serve, we must not—we cannot afford to offer China a watered-down version of the Word of God.