Reformed theology has spread widely in mainland China during the last twenty or so years. During this time, many Reformed churches (in the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Continental Reformed traditions) have been established. Praise God for all those developments.
Such developments naturally raise the question of the relationship between church and state. Because of the special political situation in mainland China, people within Reformed churches formed a unified view regarding this relationship, which is the “separation of church and state.” This view holds that church and state are two different domains: one is spiritual, the other worldly; they cannot be combined. The administrative rights and responsibilities are different for each. Each has its own realm of responsibility.
This principle fits with the essence of the Westminster Confession of Faith as well as the essence of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. It has been adopted by all Reformed churches. However, in mainland China, each region has its own unique political environment regarding the practice of Christianity. Therefore, Reformed churches have differing views towards the application of this principle. They are summarized below.
The View of Submission
People who hold this view believe that God is sovereign over everything. The government is assigned by God, and its authority is from God (Romans 13:1). Being obedient to the government is equal to being obedient to God. Even though the church and state belong to two different domains, power will be abused because of the Fall. However, in order to be a witness of submission, Christians should not openly disobey the government. Instead, they should respect the authority of the government, even at the cost of their suffering. Therefore, when facing persecution, Christians either escape (relocate) or are martyred. “To this you were called, because Christ . . . leaving you an example, . . . you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
This view is more common among the more conservative Reformed Presbyterian churches, and some Reformed Baptist churches. Churches that hold this view rarely speak up when it comes to political activities; they also have fewer connections to other Reformed churches (especially those that hold a view different from their own). This lack of connections shows in a lack of cooperation with other churches in theological training and seminars as well as evangelistic endeavors. Nevertheless, these churches do put a lot of weight on theological training of their leadership, discipleship training, and church planting within their own organizations.
The View of Faithful Disobedience
People adhering to this view believe that God has set boundaries for the church and the state, and each should function within its own boundaries. The Bible has not given any branch of government the authority to run the church or to interfere with the faith of Christians.1 When the government oversteps its boundary and interferes with the church, the church has no obligation to obey the government. In this case, the government does not perform within the boundary set by God and thus loses its authority. Christians can disobey the government because of their faith since God’s law is greater than man’s law.
The majority of Reformed churches (including both Presbyterian churches and Baptist churches) do not hold this view, but those churches that do have great impact. Believers in those churches are ready to pay the cost for their faith. When the government’s laws and policies go against the Bible, they are the first to protest. They openly announce their opinions towards the government’s laws and principles and call for more churches to resist any of these that go against the Bible. They will often use the law to defend their right to practice their faith and also use the law to fight for the freedom of their faith.
The process is very difficult, but these Christians show great perseverance before the government. They proactively start Christian education ministries, teach the Christian faith to their children, and refuse to hand their children over to the public education system. All these actions are against the polices of the government, but these parents believe that God has given this obligation to them and to the church; both church and Christian parents have the right to do this.
The View of Progressivism
People following this view believe that the church is salt and light for this world (Matthew 5:13, 14), and that the church should display God’s kingdom on earth. Therefore, whether the government steps over the boundary to interfere with the church or not, as long as the government does not act righteously, justly, or fairly, the church is obligated to stand against it for the sake of justice. Since the establishment of government is for justice and peace, and because the Christian faith makes us love righteousness, the church should help the government move towards righteousness and justice.2
Only a small number of Reformed churches hold this view, and those churches are mainly Presbyterian churches. They are active in public affairs, caring for the disadvantaged, looking after orphans and widows, and working for charitable causes. For example, they launch anti-abortion ministries, care for people who are defending their rights, visit the families of those who are sentenced to prison because of their speaking out, and openly condemn unjust and unrighteous matters in society. They proactively shine as light for the Lord in all areas, and they always strive for excellence no matter the area whether it be finance, the arts, or any other.
The View of Separation
People who hold this view3 believe that we should give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Faith is faith; politics is politics. Faith should not interfere with politics, and politics should not interfere with faith. Each shall function within its own boundaries and shall have nothing to do with the other.
Churches holding this view are mainly house churches who later adopted Reformed theology, including a few of the Reformed Baptist churches. Under the influence of this view, believers in these churches actively evangelize outsiders. They do not care about political topics and have no passion for public affairs. They care about the return of Christ, spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth, establishing churches in all nations, and promoting cross-cultural evangelism. These believers are willing to donate money to evangelical ministries.
The views presented above are from my observations of mainland Reformed churches. While I have used different labels to summarize each view, I do not mean them in a negative way. These views are not independent of each other. Sometimes in a given church, more than one of the above views will be present. I have only described them here and do not offer any assessment. I have written this article so that readers will have a general idea of the situation and will understand the differences.
Translated by ChinaSource.
- Yi Wang, My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience, December 12, 2018, Christian Times https://christiantimes.org.hk/Common/Reader/News/ShowNews.jsp?Nid=156491&Pid=104&Version=0&Cid=2053&Charset=big5_hkscs (accessed December 6, 2021).
- Dengxing Jiang, “The Publicity of the House Church and the Relationship between the Chinese Church and State,” Church, January 2009 (the 15th volume).
- Editor’s note: All four views described by our author embrace the principle of separation of church and state. The view described here is a particular application of that principle.
Born into a Christian family, “Happy” served in full-time campus ministry after his university graduation. During his time in campus ministry, he also earned an MDiv. Upon his seminary graduation, he planted a church in a city in eastern China and has pastored that church since then. View Full Bio