As we consider the church in China today, we might ask the question: “What are the issues and characteristics that currently define it?” Certainly, the persecution narrative has been a dominant consideration. Second is the narrative of a church that is persevering yet experiencing revival. However, if we are honest, other realities must be addressed. The abuse of power and lack of pastoral ethics can be ranked among the top issues given the overall authoritarian political culture in which many churches are immersed. We also need to acknowledge that during the past two decades, churches in China have enjoyed relative freedom to grow and expand. With expansion, the use of power often becomes a problem. In this issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, we delve into these ongoing but often neglected realities. Even with tightened control from the government, the church’s greatest crisis does not come from the outside; it comes from the inside.
Territory (境界) is a new Chinese-language media ministry founded by a Christian couple who were formerly journalists in China. Since 2018, Territory has been publishing a series of articles (in Chinese) on pastoral power abuse on its WeChat public channel. Each article had a readership of 10,000 to 30,000 showing that this topic is certainly a felt need among Chinese believers. Below are a few examples of the articles.
- 被忽视的属灵虐待, “The Neglected Reality of Spiritual Abuse”
- 基督教“咪吐”峰会：直接原谅施虐者并非治愈的捷径,“Christian #MeToo Summit: When Forgiving Abusers Is Not Healing
- 假属灵权柄带来的危害，有谁知道？“Does Anyone Know the Harm of False Spiritual Authority?”
- 有毒的信仰体系是如何炼成的？“How Did a Toxic Spiritual System Form?”
- “宗教上瘾”：你所不知道的“有毒信仰,” “Addicted to Religion: A Toxic Faith You Don’t Know”
- 领袖的结局比开始更重要 ——看美国名牧海波斯退休前被指控,“How Leaders End Matters More Than Their Beginnings: Lessons to Learn from Bill Hybels”
Can Christian leaders be religious but become unethical? Very possibly. Both scripture itself and church history fully document such examples. Today’s news about power abuse in Western churches (sexual abuse of vulnerable women and minors being the worst) also testifies to the continuation of evil inside the church. However, when it comes to churches in China, which are often portrayed as having been persecuted and then experiencing revival, Western Christians’ perceptions can be romanticized into thinking that Chinese church leaders are holier than others. Unfortunately, that is not true.
With sustained numerical growth of the Christian population in China and with increased resources at the disposal of Christian leaders, the church inevitably faces the problem of how to resist the temptation of power abuse. It is the next reality in any growing Christian population. External persecution may scatter the church, but it is often internal power abuse that discredits the witness of the church.
Power structures exist in the church because local houses of God on this earth are also partly human institutions. In fact, it is especially in the church that a range of leadership gifts are endowed with overlapping layers of power: hierarchical power, theological power, emotional power, and spiritual power. Most Chinese church leaders, as first generation believers, have not had long-term mentors; often accountability and ethical boundaries in leadership do not come naturally.
Consider a few real life scenarios.
Case 1: A few Christian artists started a Bible study and invited a preacher to lead them. In a few years, when the church grew to a certain size and the group diversified to include other professions, the minister preached from the pulpit depreciating art as “secular and meaningless.” Evangelism was preached to be the only meaningful thing. The group of artists who helped found the church became marginalized and malnourished spiritually.
Case 2: A sister with hearing and walking disabilities struggled in attending the all-day Sunday service at her church. Her occasional absences led church leaders to visit her at home demanding that she conform to the church’s all-day worship routine. This brought more anxiety to her. With more visitations came more accusations from fellow believers that she was not a real Christian. When she responded to this claim, the pastor responded that the church has the right to tell who is a real believer.
Case 3: Wang (male) and Zhao (female) have been dating for three years. They went to the pastor for pre-marital counseling. The pastor asked if both of them were born-again. Wang was not certain about it. Towards the end of the counseling sessions, the pastor told Zhao that since he still did not observe signs in Wang of spiritual rebirth, the two of them should break up with one another.
Case 4: A married couple at church lost their 13-year-old son in a car accident. The church held a memorial service as a public witness to participating unbelievers about the Christian faith. The atmosphere was one of joyful triumph over death and celebration. The bereaved parents were not given time to grieve. Soon afterwards, church leaders encouraged the couple to give their lives as full-time missionaries sent out by the church.
These are four true stories from mainland Chinese churches. These ministers are well-trained, some with seminary degrees from overseas. They also labor diligently among the flock, trying to be faithful to their calling. However, none realized how their own misuse of pastoral power could bring spiritual trauma to these church members.
What are the common causes of power abuse within churches in mainland China? The power dynamics between leaders and members of the Chinese church are not well-discussed. The beginning of power abuse by church leaders can be very subtle. Usually it starts with conversations; however, dialogue between a church member and a minster, if the latter lacks sensitivity to his/her own sinfulness, has a different dynamic than a conversation between two peers. When a minister assumes a tone of authority rather than using a give-and-take dialogue, his/her advice may risk becoming domineering and even manipulative. It may strike the member that the minister was being honest and direct, but he/she may have abused their power.
In some cases, certain theological understandings may contribute to the pastoral practices. For example, some biblical counseling training has, at its core, an introspective pattern of spiritualizing all behavioral problems as due to one’s own sin. For example, church members who experience depression and other mental illnesses are told by their ministers (or sometimes ministers’ wives) to repent of their sinful self-centeredness.
Generally speaking, this need for pastoral ethics has a demographic root; being first-generation believers, these ministers themselves have never been cared for and mentored properly. They tend to adopt a narrow, “spiritualized” outlook on living the Christian life. So, it is easier to supply believers with a quick answer (“all is because of your sin”). Even if some ministers are sensitive to those members who make themselves vulnerable by sharing their problems, the scale of needs among congregants is simply overwhelming. Ministers are typically very overworked. Many find “it is your own rebellion against God” (that can’t be wrong) convenient advice for a wide range of problems among their congregants. That way they do not need to listen strenuously and walk alongside someone—which requires so much more work and does not always guarantee an encouraging outcome.
Gender ratio also shapes power dynamics within a local Chinese church. In mainland China, women make up the Protestant majority (60 to 80 percent). Before the 2000s, female leadership was the norm. However, with the introduction of male-dominated theology and the conversion of male members who became leaders, churches now tend to elevate male headship, teach a complementary relationship between the two genders, and discourage females from leading. In some churches, mothers with children under age six are encouraged to give up their careers and stay home with their children; women with professional careers are viewed as pursuing secular values. Women are taught to be submissive, not just to men in marriage, but to all male leaders in the church.
What are other common causes of power abuse within the Chinese church? Besides evident problems such as lack of transparency and accountability, there are a few less discussed cultural and theological causes.
- In China, where Christianity has been politically and legally marginalized, church leaders’ pastoral identity may be shaped by a sense of cultural inferiority but spiritual superiority; ministers’ own insecurities (theological deficiency or anxiety over their calling) may lead to over-spiritualized identities.
- For a long time, the need for ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) has been filled with rigid versions that elevate the visible, institutional church to an almost supreme level, adding power to leaders’ spiritual authority (local versions of the “infallibility of church presbyters”).
- Cultural collectivism breeds over-conformity to the leading, visionary pastor who is often elevated to be cognizant of God’s will.
- A sense of spiritual hierarchy may exist between church officers and ordinary members.
- Elevation of special grace over common grace may lead to a cognitive, separatist chasm about the world which breeds narrow over-spiritualizing.
On the other end of the causal spectrum lies the Chinese political culture which is highly infested with the worship of positional power. Immersed in this broader cultural current, positions of authority (pastors and elders) within the church can also be affected. On the way to a healthy pastoral identity, there are many hidden snares and traps. In a strange way, the humble sense of being called by God into ministry can sometimes morph into a spiritualized self-importance or realization of self-centered ambitions.
All of this is not difficult to understand—and the solution is easily identified too: Christian humility and authentic care for the other person. Nevertheless, in practice, these are difficult goals for church leaders to achieve. A typical story goes that a person in need was told by a pastor that he/she was less spiritual (or that his/her spirituality was defective). That individual’s spiritual dignity as a child of God had been devalued.
In response to these problems, what should be some ethical principles for church leaders?
- Ministers/leaders should respect the spiritual dignity of individual members because they are God’s image-bearers and beloved ones; at the same time, ministers/leaders should be reminded that their role is to walk alongside believers, not to lord over them.
- Ministers should notice the emotional and spiritual vulnerability of church members when they seek pastoral care; they should also be aware of the endowed power in their pastoral role.
- They should apply the Golden Rule: Do unto others what you desire for yourself. In fact, they should practice genuine Christian love for fellow believers as commanded by God in John 13:34.
- They need to embrace a deep conviction of God’s providence in the details of daily living, not a truncated view separating special grace and common grace.
How could foreign Christian workers mentor Chinese leaders towards ethical maturity? Westerners, who come and serve in China, need to know that there is always a power dynamic within a local church group. To gain a more sensitive understanding, one needs to humbly listen to all sides. One also needs to appreciate the vulnerability and trust of members when issues of concern are brought up. The most unfortunate case happens when a Western worker, poorly equipped in ethical understandings, comes and forms an alliance with local church leaders who practice poor ethical boundaries.
The examples of leadership scandals (such as Bill Hybels of Willow Creek church) teach us about the danger of a type of “Christian influential-ism,” the proposition of grandiose visions of seeking Christian influence in society. Church leaders want media spotlight on their ministry in order to magnify the influence of Christianity. Our modern mass media culture has shaped such desires. Often such visions are later proven to be illusions in reality. As theologian Jacques Ellul critiques in The Subversion of Christianity:
Christians and the church have wanted an alliance with everything that represents power in the world. In reality this rests on the conviction that thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit the powers of this world have been vanquished and set in service of the gospel, the church, and mission. … But what happens is the exact opposite. The church and mission are perpetrated by the power and completely turned aside from their truth by the corruption of power. When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, he says clearly what he intends to say.
As Christ-followers, we should not wince in challenging the evil of a society, but when it comes to the lack of integrity within the church, we also should not resort to double standards. Most important of all, our use of power should reflect Christ. Christian psychologist Diane Langberg gives a sobering summary about why the church should care about power abuse: “A good use of power always reflects Christ-likeness, while a misuse or abuse of power bears the name of Christ but not His likeness.”
Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin University, Dr. Ma and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: …View Full Bio