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The Influence of Denominations on Church Organizational Structure in China

 In recent years, as the Chinese church has grown, more urban churches have begun promoting church organization and structure. This has not always been the case. For a long time, continued government persecution drove the church underground and cut off connections between denominations. In addition, many churches grew out of student fellowships and interdenominational mission organizations that downplayed “denomination” and “structure.” As a result, traditional Chinese churches today, likewise, downplay the denominational backgrounds of their theologies and default to an almost patriarchal system of governance.

As far as the purpose of church organizational structure is concerned, many churches today need to return to a proper theology of the church. They need to build biblical churches with standard church governance that can properly shepherd believers. Though “denomination” and “structure” are apparently two different things, the need for structure does not seem to immediately imply a need for a denomination. However, denominations are invariably distinguished by two things: a specific theological stance and a structure for church governance. Any conversation about church organizational structure must take denominations into account, and every church that is establishing church structure—even those that declare no denominational affiliation—must consider the presence and practices of denominations.

There are two archetypes for how a church might respond to denominationalism. One church might embrace it wholeheartedly, in which case their denomination’s stance on governance will provide a clear way forward as they create their church structure. Or, a church might reject it wholesale, in which case their way forward will be halting and hesitant. In either case, a church will need to face the challenges of their chosen response.

Those churches that reject denominations often have not moved beyond basic doctrines and have very simple theological foundations. Denominations, meanwhile, differ on all sorts of nuanced theological questions and positions. Faced with complex, theological debates about topics beyond the core of Christian doctrine that they have never even thought about, these churches have trouble clarifying their own stances let alone choosing between the many denominational stances. In the end, these theological questions and positions are shelved through a simple rejection of denomination in connection with a lack of clear knowledge of their own identity. That is, they do not know whom to identify with because they do not know who they are.

When a church rejects a denomination on theological grounds, then it cannot directly adopt that denomination’s system of governance. Instead, that church has to piece together a system of governance from looking at various models and from trial and error. Such a makeshift structure may not have the soundest theological foundation. Even if the resulting model of governance has some biblical principles, it is not connected to any larger tradition. It runs the risk of being a form without substance, appearing to be a good structure while missing the heart of church governance.

Furthermore, by committing to trial and error, the church all but guarantees that they will experience frequent conflict and confusion as they try to clarify their own standards. Not infrequently, this can lead to one leader simply taking over and steering the ship as he pleases. I know of a church where the pastor preached something that contradicted the church’s statement of faith. When the congregation questioned him about it, his reply was that his views on that particular issue had changed, and there was no need to worry—the statement of faith would be revised accordingly. Some in the congregation, who took faith and church governance very seriously, were appalled and actually left the church because of this.

Church governance and organization are not limited to simply creating a structure. All members of the church must be in unity about the underlying theology and a common vision as a church, and out of that comes the unity of a deeply connected, spiritual community. Individually speaking, we cannot expect everyone to have the same position on every doctrine. As humans, we are limited, and people’s doctrinal differences do not change the fact that every person is a brother or sister in Christ. But corporately speaking, it is difficult to maintain a congregation where people hold many different theological positions. It may look like a rich, diverse, and inclusive fellowship, but it will not go very far. Different stances inevitably lead to different visions and ways of doing things, and those differences will inevitably be manifest in church structure. Churches that reject denominationalism may have some success making a system of church governance effective to some degree, but they will have a hard time achieving its real purpose.

What challenges do churches face that embrace denominationalism? One is that many churches join a denomination with no denominational background and no process for determining the church’s theology and governance. In choosing a denomination and church structure, it is easy for the church to default to the leaders’ positions with the decision heavily influenced by the leaders’ own theological preferences. Whichever denomination they identify with becomes the one whose theology and governance the church adopts.

However, church members and church leaders are often out of sync with each other when it comes to identifying with a denomination. Some members who know little about denominations may not care which one they join, while others, like the churches mentioned above, may see denominations as a sign of narrow-mindedness and reject them. Ironically, it is easy for this rejection of denominations in itself to become a sort of “denominational” stance. These church members, along with those who disagree with the leaders over the denominational stance, end up becoming active opponents of church organizational structure. They may protest, “Why do the leaders get to decide our church structure based on their personal denominational preferences?”

This touches on the more fundamental problem of establishing order and leadership in a church—a problem that is especially difficult to solve if people do not trust and support each other. If the leaders are weak, the process of establishing church structure comes to a standstill. If the leaders are strong, some members will be discontent and there will be conflict, even schism.

All of this means that the timing for starting a model of organizational structure is crucial. If people, whether supporters or opponents, do not have a sufficient understanding of denominations, then neither their support nor their opposition will have much substance or meaning. It is important that the whole church be involved, and that the whole church arrive at a common understanding of theology and governance as they study and discuss it together. This must be done before the church begins establishing an organizational structure. To put it another way, a common understanding among all church members is a prerequisite for establishing an organizational structure. Only in this way can they avoid simply reverting to the leaders’ personal leanings, and instead let the whole church initiate, guide, and drive the process.

Translated from Chinese by ChinaSource.

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Wei Zhou

Wei Zhou is the founder of First Fruits Reading Society and the author of various articles and a recent book, Thirty Concepts that Relate to Eternity. View Full Bio