View From the Wall

Public Theology in China

Some Preliminary Reflections

In the Chinese-speaking world, the Christian church is widely known as “基督教会” (pronounced as jidu jiaohui). It appears that “教会” (jiaohui) is the Chinese equivalent of “church” in English. However, these two words do not share the same meaning. In the Chinese language, jiaohui literarily means religious assembly while in the daily life of modern China it refers to a Christian assembly. The English word “church” originates from the Greek, kuriakos, meaning “of” or “belonging to a lord,” especially the Lord, Christ.

In the Greek version of the New Testament, it was mainly ekklesia that would be translated as “church” in English or jiaohui in Chinese. Basically, ekklesia means assembly. Its principal use in classical Greece was an assembly of city-state citizens. Apparently, the Chinese term jiaohui, or hui in particular, reflects more directly the Greek meaning of “assembly” than the English word “church.”

However, upon a closer look at the Chinese social and political context, one would see there is a significant difference between the Chinese hui and the Greek ekklesia. Historically, China did not have anything like the ancient Greek city-state assembly of citizens or its successive forms of civil governance in the West. Only within the last couple of centuries did the Chinese begin to learn from the West about free and democratic political order under the rule of the law.

Christianity with Chinese Characteristics

With different social and political backgrounds, Christian assemblies in China and the West, unsurprisingly, took on different characteristics. In today’s China, both the state-run Protestant church and its Catholic counterpart are part of the religious department of the centralized communist authorities. Their official names are, respectively, the Christian Three Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Chinese Catholic Bishops Council. In spite of these authorities, specific, local, official churches may have some freedom of self-governance. This might be due to the local government’s tolerance, the mutual acquiescence between the government and the official church, or the area’s being too far away from the authorities. All of this is under the one umbrella of the Chinese communist government’s policy known as the “United Front,” where the non-communist parties or organizations of various kinds are allowed to exist as long as they accept its paramount leadership.

The non-state-run church, commonly known as the house church, is a wide range of voluntary Christian organizations not officially sanctioned by the Chinese government. These have been called China’s largest non-governmental organizations. With the nationwide growth of private enterprises since the 1980s, the much unexpected rise of house churches, first in rural areas since the 1980s and then in urban areas since the 1990s, has contributed remarkably to the emergence of civil society in communist China. However, its impact on the larger Chinese society remains much less than the impact of the dominant Chinese culture on house churches or other non-governmental organizations.    

For house churches, the persistent lack of an officially sanctioned status under the rule of law makes it difficult for them to open up to the wider society. Of course some, like Shouwang Church in Beijing and Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, have become somewhat well known over recent years among Chinese Christians and in the international media for their open position towards the state as well as the general public. Meanwhile, they, and similar churches in China, have also become equally well known—or even better known—for government harassment in various forms. Historically, persecution by the authorities appears to have been unavoidable. While it may have been positive for purifying the church from corruption, it does not necessarily seem beneficial to the church’s further growth.  

The persistent lack of open government, in areas other than just certain economic sectors, makes it difficult for people in the church to be very different from the general population. It has been more than thirty years since the late 1970s when China’s communist government initiated its reform and opening up policy; nevertheless, the combination of traditional Chinese state-family or family-state rule and the totalitarian communist ideology of party-state continues to exert considerable influence. The worship of power seems to persist in permeating all walks of life. In society, it might be the worship of powerful people in government, business, entertainment, or education. Within the church, it might be that of influential ministers. Christians are influenced by, and must still live within, their society.  

Christ in China

Against this background, the Christian church in China is facing huge challenges—but this does not mean that the Head of the church is not in charge or that China is an exception. The Head of the church, Christ, is also “…the head over every power and authority….And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:10b, 15). As part of Christ’s body, the church in China is a witness to the biblical fact of God’s rule in this world; unlike the rulers of this world, “…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).

The church in China is part of God’s promise through Christ when he said he would always be with his followers when they would “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:19, 20). In this regard, the church in China is among “Christ’s ambassadors” by whom all people in China and the wider world can be reconciled to their Creator according to his promise, and live on as citizens of God’s everlasting kingdom that has been at hand but has not yet fully come. 

So, Christians in China are first of all citizens of God’s eternal kingdom, and then, for now, citizens of China, a long-standing but still temporary country like any other of this world. Western missionaries and their early Chinese followers were pioneers in helping introduce the Chinese people to both the citizenship of the heavenly country and that of modern China. However, much more needs to be done. The tension between these two citizenships is not very evident in either the history of Christianity in China or that of modern China.

For those who highlight heavenly citizenship, God’s redemption of those belonging to their Creator through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is conspicuous, but the redemptive life seems to be more about moral ethics in this world and fails to demonstrate the tension between eternity and temporality. As citizens of this world, they seem to have failed to live very much in the larger context of citizenship of the eternal world. The dynamic brought by Jesus Christ, who as both fully divine and fully human mediates between God and man, has not been as noticeable in the Chinese Christian world as in the West.

For example, it was Western missionaries who built almost all the first, modern institutions of higher learning in China. Their most influential ideas turned out to be about how to modernize China. Some who could not fully agree with such ideas left, establishing theological seminaries where the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection figured prominently. In a sense, the former helped shape the modernization drive in China since the late nineteenth century, and the latter helped shape the movement of the independent Chinese church and later the house church. The former was basically deprived of Christian eschatology which was replaced with the messianic promise virtually within this world. The latter stayed with biblical apocalypticism but seemed not to have much to say about its relevance in both the broader and more specific areas of life. In both, the relationship between the eternal and temporal worlds was much reduced.

Opening to the Triune God

With the insufficiency of maintaining the tension between the two worlds, the Trinitarian order revealed through God becoming flesh is lacking attention in the Chinese Christian world. Anyone made in the Creator’s image cannot live out his image without the Creator’s revelation and redemption. The three persons of one essence of the Trinity—both one, yet many—is quite unlike the common, human, governing order where either one or many will be preferred instead of both simultaneously. The Son of Heaven in traditional Chinese dynasties, rather than the Son of Man of the Scriptures, has cast a long shadow over the popular Chinese impression of authority. Even in contemporary China, the head of any institution tends to be a paramount figure which makes it difficult to develop checks and balances between that individual and other associates and colleagues. It is no surprise then, for the Chinese to be more familiar with the monopoly of power than with the sharing or separation of power. By contrast, the separation of power was clear in Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. This has also been true in Western church history. In addition, it has been relevant to the division of labor which is important for the potential full-blown growth of the different parts of the body of Christ.

The history of Christianity in China is long. The year 2015 marks the 1,380th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of Christian missionaries in the country, with Alopen, a Nestorian bishop, being the best known. Barely 20 years after his arrival, in A.D. 635, the Tang dynasty, perhaps the most powerful Chinese dynasty and known for its opening-up policy to the outside world, was founded. That was just a few decades after Augustine of Canterbury, “the Apostle of the English,” arrived in Britain in 597.

However, nearly fourteen centuries after the introduction of Christianity to China, its development seems to have remained in an early stage within the country. Part of the reason for this may lie in the fact that like China itself, the Christian church has not been able to be more fully connected with the outside world, especially with the Catholic or ecumenical church in the West. Resources for the continual growth of the church have been prone to be confined to just China or the larger Chinese-speaking world. Now with increasing opportunities for international contacts—at least for a while—and drawing closer to the end of this world, perhaps it is time for Chinese Christians, as members of Christ’s body in China, to more actively seek the rich nourishment of growth from what the triune God has been doing in all aspects of life—to live both as citizens of this world and in the larger context of citizenship of the eternal world.

Image courtesy of 鸿德堂 by Steven Yu, on Flickr.

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Promise Hsu

Promise Hsu is an independent journalist and scholar based in Beijing and a member of the American Political Science Association. His articles have appeared in both English and Chinese journals. He was a world affairs journalist at China Central Television's English news channel and a visiting scholar at Calvin Theological …View Full Bio