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The Roots of Bishop K.H. Ting’s Theology

The 1930s up to the Cultural Revolution

The last year has seen the promotion by Bishop K. H. Ting (Ding Guangxin), former head of both the China Christian Council (CCC) and the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), of a campaign for “theological construction” that is “compatible with socialism.” Pastors and seminary students in many places across China have been encouraged to attend meetings to study Ting’s Select Works that was first published in 1998. Ting has strongly attacked evangelicals (whom he admits are the overwhelming majority in the Chinese Protestant church). In the preface to a new book, Love Never Ends, published in September 2000, he has also attacked the centrality of justification by faith, the reliability and inerrancy of the Bible and the necessity for faith in Christ, downplaying the difference between faith and unbelief.[1]  

Nanjing Seminary, the most prestigious in the country, has been purged of evangelicals, first, in 1999 when three students were dismissed ostensibly for refusing to sing Communist Party anthems in the seminary chapel: three prominent graduates then resigned in protest. In 2000, various members of the faculty were removed or sidelined. The most prominent was a promising young evangelical theological teacher, Ji Tai, who was dismissed last June.[2] This politicized campaign for “theological construction” can therefore not be dismissed as a gentlemanly theological debate. It has already seriously impacted people’s lives. Ting’s theology and actions have aroused strong opposition from evangelicals in China and serious concern overseas.

It is helpful, therefore, to understand the background to Bishop Ting’s long career and his developing theology. Although retired from his posts as head of the TSPM and CCC, Bishop Ting clearly retains a significant influence and appears bent on making a permanent mark on Chinese theology.

 Bishop Ting was born in Shanghai on September 20, 1915. This was only four years after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty by Sun Yat-sen but already China was sliding into the chaos and misery of the Warlord era. His father was a banker, and both parents were Christians. Ting’s maternal grandfather had been an Anglican minister. The boy was sent to St John’s University in Shanghai, which was run by the American Episcopal Church, to study engineering, but later changed to theology at the urging of his mother who prayed that her son, too, would become an Anglican minister.

During the thirties Ting first came into contact with Wu Yaozong, who later became the first leader of the Three Self movement. By his own account, Ting was greatly impressed by Wu’s radical theology that encouraged him to sideline his Greek textbooks and the evangelical “Thirty-Nine Articles” of the Church of England in favor of the “question of national salvation.” Wu told him that “only after the social system in China underwent a basic change would objective conditions emerge to make personal transformation possible.” Thus, from his youth, Ting appears to have chosen a theology of political liberation in preference to the evangelical gospel that stresses personal transformation through faith in Christ.

Wu was influential in the YMCA in Shanghai and between 1938-1943 Ting was active as Student Secretary of the Shanghai “Y.” This was during the difficult years of the Japanese occupation. Ting encouraged young Christians and non-Christians to meet together to discuss social and political questions, and hold Bible studies.

In 1979 Ting related to a visiting Canadian, Dr Gardner, his “conversion experience” from orthodox Christian faith to a political social gospel: “There was one type of Christian belief which we felt to be irrelevant and we, or many of us gave it up. The type which said that all the trouble in China was due to something wrong in the hearts of human beings and therefore the first thing that Christians wanted to do was to change people’s hearts…. We moved to a Christian faith which has something to say about the transformation of the social system.”[3]

In 1942 Ting was ordained as a priest in the Sheng Gong Hui (Anglican Church of China). In the same year he married Kuo Siu May from Wuhan who had studied at St Mary’s Hall, an Anglican high school in Shanghai and at Beijing (then Yenching) University. For the next three years he served as pastor of the International Church in Shanghai. However, in 1946 he moved to Canada to become the Missions Secretary of the Student Christian Movement. After a year, they moved to New York where Ting completed a Master’s Degree at Union Theological Seminary, then, as now, a bastion of “progressive” theology.

In China the savage civil war between Communists and Nationalists was fast reaching a decisive conclusion. In May 1949, Ting went to Prague to attend the Stalinist-dominated World Peace Council where he again met Wu Yaozong. Wu, Ting later said, talked to him at length about the role of the church in the new Communist society and the important place of the Communist Party’s “United Front” policy. Wu also told him that there would have to be “extensive and intensive education” about the new religious policy among all religious believers, the general public and Party cadres.[4]

In 1950 the Korean War broke out. Ting and his family returned to Geneva where they had been living previously, for a further year. Despite the warnings of some Western friends, they flew to Hong Kong and arrived back in Shanghai in late August 1951. In February 1952 Ting published his first theological article in Tianfeng, the mouthpiece of the TSPM. In this he drew a political meaning from God’s question to Adam in the Garden of Eden after the fall: “Adam, where are you?” (Genesis 3:6-13). According to Ting, this was a call for political participation by Chinese Christians in the Communist Party’s mass political campaigns that caused immense suffering in the fifties and sixties. “Today we are surrounded on all sides by the high tide of the (Party’s) ‘Three Antis Campaign.’ If we Christians confess and repent before God and before the People our own heavy burden will be cast aside. Then we can throw ourselves bravely into this movement of the entire People.” Ting stated enthusiastically that the church had failed, but the Party had succeeded under the banner of Mao. “In the era when darkness ruled (i.e. pre-1949) not a few Christians shone like ‘candles in a dark room.’ But today when ‘The east is red and the sun rises’ (a clear reference to Chairman Mao taken from the popular Communist anthem) we have no cause for self-congratulation. In the radiance of the People’s high morality our (Christian) ‘bright lamps’ are lusterless. Faced with the manifestation of their high morals and their vast movement opposing every kind of crime we are like Adam, having no way of escaping God’s searching question: ‘Where are you?’”

Ting also extolled revolutionary Marxist heroes: “Today in farms, in factories and in armed resistance on the front-line (against the UN forces in Korea) ordinary people are producing extraordinary results every moment. Nourished by patriotism ‘they out of weakness were made strong and waxed valiant in fight’ (Hebrews 11:34). They were those of whom the world was not worthy (v. 38). Inspired by the great spirit of the new democratic nation they have simply become a new kind of people in the world.” Although the rhetoric has been downplayed since, this train of thought in which Communist heroes set an example for the church is one which can be found in many of Ting’s essays down to the present.

From the middle fifties to the middle sixties Ting often visited Wu Yaozong who had by then become the leading figure in the nascent TSPM. Ting was one of the youngest of a core of generally theologically-liberal church leaders who rallied to the Party under Wu’s leadership.[5]

In April 1952, he published a further article in Tianfeng comparing the death of Christ to the deaths of revolutionary martyrs: “Whether in German concentration camps, Turkish prisons, villages in old China or on Golgotha’s cross ‘those of whom the world was not worthy all having obtained a good report through faith received not the promise….’ The distant prospect which they viewed from afar by faith has become a reality which we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands in today’s new world. Today those who have a new consciousness and new courage march forward in the mainstream of history, causing all the forces of darkness to reel back in panic.”

To facilitate the dismantling of the denominational structures, the TSPM held a meeting in Shanghai in August 1952 at which it was decided to close down eleven theological colleges and amalgamate them into the existing Nanjing Jinling Theological Seminary. The TSPM chose the board of directors and Ting was appointed the new principal. Thus began his long association with Jinling that has lasted (with a break during the Cultural Revolution) for over 45 years until the present day.

In the fifties, the students were expected to spend at least two days per week in political studies. In early 1953, Ting reportedly told them that full academic freedom prevailed but it was not “freedom to pervert the scriptures, spread rumors, oppose those fighting for right, or to uphold imperialism.”[6] In 1955, although still only aged 40, Ting was consecrated as a bishop of the Anglican Church for the diocese of Zhejiang near Shanghai. It should be noted that by that time the Anglican church, as all other church denominations, was virtually defunct as an independent organization.

In 1955 Ting crossed swords with the redoubtable Wang Mingdao, leader of China’s independent evangelicals. In a pamphlet, “We, Because of Faith,” published in June of that year, Wang attacked the liberal theology of both Wu Yaozong and Ting, quoting their writings extensively to prove his point that there could be no compromise with a liberal theology which denied the basic tenets of the gospel. A series of articles was then published in Tianfeng as part of an orchestrated national campaign to defame Wang Mingdao. In mid-August, Ting published a long article attacking Wang in Tianfeng entitled “A Stern Warning to Wang Mingdao.” One week earlier, on the night of August 7, Wang and his wife had already been arrested and disappeared into prison and labor camp for a total of 23 years.

In 1956, a brief relaxation in repression occurred during the famous “Hundred Flowers” Campaign, when Mao at first encouraged people, especially intellectuals, to criticize the Party. Many Christians responded, complaining of discrimination, that children of believers were sometimes expelled from school, that atheistic propaganda was full of abuse against Christianity and so on. A provincial Chairman of the TSPM even opposed the control of religious affairs by the government and said openly that the RAB was bureaucratic and had “restricted religious affairs.”

Ting delivered a lecture to his students in June 1957 just as the “Hundred Flowers” campaign was being phased out. He challenged the Communist stereotyped classification of all ideology and religion as either materialistic or idealistic and attacked the Marxist view that Christianity is an opiate. Despite these forthright criticisms, Ding surprisingly emerged unscathed when Mao unleashed the “Anti-Rightist” campaign soon after.[7] Most other Christians were not so fortunate.

From the middle-fifties an ominous twilight had fallen across the church in China. Church membership, with some exceptions, dwindled. Many young people, brought up in Christian families, joined the Party. There seemed little future for the church. In 1966, the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution erupted closing down the last few churches. Pastors and religious leaders were beaten, imprisoned and sent to labor camps or to work in factories or in the countryside.

However, Bishop Ting again escaped surprisingly unscathed from the Cultural Revolution. According to his own account, the Nanjing Seminary was closed down and became the headquarters of the Red Guards in that city. Ting was given exceptional preferential treatment in that he was permitted during the latter period of the Cultural Revolution to receive foreign visitors in Nanjing. He was allowed to speak to them as a quasi-government spokesman justifying Maoist policies that had obliterated the institutional church. In an interview with E. H. Johnson in March 1973, Ting stated that the Red Guards in 1966 entered his home and church and took books, the cross, and the candlesticks but in a few months it was agreed that religion was to be respected and the books and religious objects were returned. He further told Johnson that ordained professional ministers and church buildings were considered “non-essential” to Christian ministry, (both, of course, had been ruthlessly banned since 1966 at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution.)

On October 22, 1976, Ting met with Eugene Stockwell at the Nanjing Seminary soon after the death of Mao and the downfall of the leftist “Gang of Four.” Ting stated bluntly that “missionaries were tools of imperialist aggression.” He also stated that: “with the new position and esteem of labor, many of our ministers wanted to identify themselves with the people around them in mental and manual labor. They feel they do not want to be fulltime ministers.” He also stressed how “there is a constant decrease in the number of Christians…. With the imperialist background it is understandable that the number of believers would decline.” Because of this “it is unthinkable to maintain a five-year (theological) course for students to educate them in an ivory tower to be a new elite. Christians will not support them anyway.” When asked by Stockwell whether he would agree that Christianity would die out in China Ting stated: “I would not be surprised if that would be the case.”

In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping was beginning to rise to power and “leftist” influence was well on the wane, Ting met with Howard Hyman in Nanjing. He told Hyman that “Chinese Christians today are not eager to hold meetings in church buildings…. The theological and liturgical concepts of building those churches was entirely Western.” Ting also opposed the idea of evangelism of the vast Chinese population: “As far as I can see very few Chinese Christians today think that he or she has a call to evangelize China…. It would not be fruitful, to say the least, for us to talk too much about evangelism, because we would be promoting a Western commodity.”[8]

Ting admitted to his visitors during the seventies that small numbers of Christians in Nanjing were meeting in homes, but the above comments show clearly that as late as the late seventies he saw no real future for Christianity. His comments read strangely in view of the subsequent massive growth of the gospel over the past two decades and of the vast building program of churches and seminaries across China which he himself headed in the eighties and nineties.

(Editor’s note: The remainder of Bishop Ding’s life and thought will be covered in a later issue of ChinaSource.)


  1. ^ “Zhongguo Jidujiao Shengjingguan Xueshu Yantao Hui Lunwenji” (“Essays from the Conference on Views of the Bible of the Chinese Christian Church”), TSPM/CCC, Sept 2000, pp.1-4. 
  2. ^ The statements and letters of the students, graduates and Ji Tai have been widely circulated in Chinese on the Internet. See also South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 28 June 1999. 
  3. ^ China and Ourselves, May 1980, Interview of Bishop Ting by Dr. Gardner in Canada. 
  4. ^ No Longer Strangers: Selected Writing of K.H. Ting, p.155. 
  5. ^ No Longer Strangers, p.10. 
  6. ^ Religion in Communist China, R. Bush, pp.87-88. 
  7. ^ The Church in Communist China, Francis P. Jones, p.139. 
  8. ^ New China magazine, Summer 1979.


Bush, Richard C. Religion in Communist China. Nashville & New York: Abingdon Press, 1970.

“Ding Guangxun’s Earliest Statements in Tianfeng.” Research Paper, Christian Communications Ltd, Hong Kong, March 1983.

Ding Guangxun Wenji, Select Works of Ding Guangxun. Nanjing: Yilin Publishers, 1999.

Jones, Francis P. The Church in Communist China. New York: Friendship Press, 1962.

Tianfeng, August 15 1955.

Wang Mingdao, Wushi Nian Lai (These Fifty Years), Bellman House, Hong Kong, 1967.

Whitehead, R. L. ed. No Longer Strangers: Selected Writings of K.H. Ting. New York: Orbis, 1989.

Wickeri, Philip L. Seeking the Common Ground. New York: Orbis, 1988.

Image credit: many aerial roots of banyan tree by Tetsuya Odaka via Flickr.
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Tony Lambert

Tony Lambert is the director for research, Chinese ministries, for OMF International and the author of China's Christian Millions, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church and the recently published Pray for China! A 30 Day Prayer Guide.View Full Bio