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Not Ruling Over but Feeding the Sheep

Thoughts on the Boundaries of Authority and Power in the Chinese Church

The structure of power in the church is shaped and influenced by its social environment. In the works of the early church fathers, there is much discussion about pastoral ethics. Pastors are not merely shepherds with the responsibility of understanding and watching over the sheep; they are also responsible for governing the church. Congregations have the responsibility to submit to pastoral authority.

In premodern society, the office of pastor implied a paternalistic, patriarchal authority. The authority in the church, to some extent, had the same structure as the hierarchy in a feudal system. In other words, a person’s position and authority in church was equal to his identity and authority in society. Recently, in the American evangelical movement, the emphasis of the emerging church on spiritual fellowship and relationships on a small scale is still a reactionary response to the traditional, institutional, hierarchical church.

Although the Chinese church faces the same challenge of a modern environment as the Western church, the Chinese church manifests some unique traits. This process can be viewed as a movement opposite to that of the West. Unlike the Western church in its modern situation, the Chinese church is attempting to build a formal structure of authority and power from an informal structure of authority and power.

A great number of meeting places for house churches appeared in the 1980s. A main trait of these was that the congregations were small fellowships led by Christians who came from a legacy of faith and family predating 1949. Because of political oppression and restriction during the 1980s and 90s, faith was primarily spread by social networks among relatives and close friends, and these carried certain traits of the traditional, Chinese, mid- to small-church as well as of Jesus Family churches.

The organization of these gatherings was very similar to the current emerging church in the West. It was often a fellowship formed by family members and friendships. In these situations, the elders in the family naturally took up leadership roles in the church and guided the congregations’ lives by informal methods. From clothing and manners in church, to a believer’s work, to marriage choices, the opinions of these paternalistic leaders had great influence over believers.

Coming from such a background, the new generation of Chinese urban Christians are dissatisfied with the paternalistic style of the older generation of church leaders, to the point that conflicts arise in understanding and implementing church governance. Furthermore, as the number of Christians with formal theological training increases, people hope the institutional church will standardize church discipline and temper leaders with a paternalistic style.

Some leaders opposed institutionalizing the church and professionalizing pastoral ministry, even to the point of refusing ordination. Instead, they emphasize inner life as the source of authority. However, they are still unable to escape the possibility of the formation and abuse of paternalistic power.

Beginning in 2000, many urban churches began to unite in denominations, introduced membership systems, wrote church charters, ordained pastors, and so on. Throughout this process, paternalistic authority was challenged. There was conflict between the positions of these two church power structures, causing some church divisions. According to general observation, it was not reconciliation that eliminated conflict and transformed the power structure. Instead, the tension between the two has been eased because of the passing of the older generation of house church leaders as well as the emergence of new urban churches. However, this does not mean that churches who have begun institutionalizing have altogether avoided the temptation to abuse power.

Meanwhile, in Western Christianity, a type of orientalism exists—a romanticized understanding of the Chinese church. On the one hand, they believe that Chinese Christians face unfair political oppression and suppression, and so they are full of admiration for the spiritual stories and sincere testimonies of Chinese Christians. On the other hand, as the number of Chinese Christians has increased in recent years, the hope that China will become the next Christendom has arisen in Western media and missions.

We must acknowledge that there are many beautiful testimonies among Chinese Christians. However, we cannot ignore the actual conditions of the church, especially regarding the question of power. Indeed, since Christianity first arrived in China, the church has been conflicted over the question of the limits of power. During the Republican era, Christian leaders and intellectuals, such as Wei Zhuo-min (Francis Wei) and Zhao Zi-chen (T. C. Chao), wrote critical articles concerning church leaders abusing their own power and authority under the double reinforcement of Chinese culture and church hierarchy.[1]

Here we must acknowledge a commonly known fact: even in America—although there are external laws and various internal denominational governing committees—many cases of power abuse still occur in many churches and denominations with mature governing structures. One can imagine the condition of the Chinese church which lacks outward supervision and the restraint of applicable laws.

First, the outward political environment has caused the Chinese church to face a dilemma of power and rights. Currently, the Chinese church does not enjoy the right to register legally without consequences. Not only do unregistered churches face oppression, they may be driven from meeting places at any time by the government and are unable to enjoy the rights of a legal entity. For example, they cannot buy property as a church. This situation has caused a vacuum of legal power, that is, church finance and church property are for the most part private, often registered in the name of church leaders. In practice, this relies on a person’s character and the oversight of close acquaintances. At the same time, the church leader’s power is strengthened and is easily abused with respect to finances. In my field observation, there is no lack of examples of church finances being misappropriated by church leaders or their children. For believers, when they face abuse of church power or are harmed themselves, they are unable to obtain legal help and protection because of the lack of applicable laws. Sometimes, churches promote spiritual authority to an extreme, isolating the congregation’s reasonable requests beyond the oversight of secular law and so intensify the abuse of power.

Second, the church’s inner institutionalization may not be able to limit power. Recently, many urban churches have learned to import membership systems and denominational governance from Western churches. They are becoming more regular in terms of church finance and discipline. However, this has not completely overcome the power of the traditional, paternalistic system. On the contrary, in terms of institutionalization, it has even strengthened some previously informal abuses of power.

In some churches that have implemented a membership system, the charter is unfair when it comes to the responsibilities and rights of the members. It demands that members attend Sunday services a specific number of times, tithe a certain amount, submit to church authority, and other requirements. However, it lacks protection for members who reasonably question the church’s abuse of power. When members question the pastor’s abuse of power or the content of sermons, they are often labeled as “insubordinate.” With regards to theological knowledge, the average member is not equal to the increasingly professionalized pastor of the church. Therefore, members are unable to make appeals based on theology or the church system on an equal footing. Rather, they must choose between leaving the church or submitting to the pastor’s decision.

Some theological confusion also intensified this trend. For example, the theme of the May 2018 issue of the online Chinese Christian journal ChurchChina is “I Believe in the Church.” A few articles in this issue sparked great controversy on the Internet.[2] Critics believed that this was a sign of strengthening religious authority in China—replacing the global church with the local church, overly emphasizing commitment and submission to the church, mistakenly viewing the church as the goal of general history, believing “today every local church is an eschatological presence of the heavenly common humanity; today every visible church is the New Jerusalem clothed with a historic coat, a scaffolding of the heavenly human city.”[3]

A Christian scholar once criticized this, saying, “In the process of overemphasizing the church’s power, people have neglected to ask, within these seemingly theological, politically correct slogans, where the limits of church power are. They have also forgotten that people who wield such power are also sinners.”[4] In reality, the church’s power to interfere in believers’ marriages, work, and family is often a topic of criticism and controversy. For example, some older Christian women have been disciplined by the church for marrying non-Christians without having received any counseling or guidance. There have been incidents where pastors demanded the bride and groom confess their sin during their wedding and similar abuses.

Currently, the Chinese church has not sufficiently clarified the relationship between the universal church and the local church, nor has it defined the difference between the church in theological underpinnings and the church in practice. Especially in the current external environment of governmental pressure, Chinese Christians still face the question of how to handle well the boundaries between a pastor’s authority and office in the application of power in a specific church.

Power is not a physical object. On the contrary, it is reflected in relationships and is manifest in the extent to which a person can decide the actions and decisions of others. Neither the traditional paternalistic system of the past nor the institutional church of the West has provided the Chinese church with a method of solving power abuse once and for all. Contemporary Chinese Christians need to consider these issues with a heart of love and humility.

Translation is by ChinaSource.


  1. ^ [1]For details, see Francis Wei (Wei Zhuomin), “Making Christianity Live in China,” collected in Works of Wei Zhuomin, Vol. 11 (Wuhan: Central China Normal University Publishing House, 2016), pp29-30. T. C. Chao, “Christianity and the National Crisis,” The Collected English Writings of Tsy Chen Chao (Works of T.C. Chao, Vol.5), (Beijing: Religion Culture Publishing House, 2009), pp.399-403.
  2. ^ Yi Le, “Church as the Goal of History,”ChurchChina, May, 2018.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Interview with L.
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LI Jin

LI Jin

LI Jin is a PhD student at Calvin Theological Seminary. Prior to seminary he was a PhD candidate in economic history at a Shanghai university. He writes on Christian thought for both public and Christian media outlets in mainland China and Hong Kong. LI Jin and  wife Mary Li Ma have coauthored articles, book …View Full Bio