As the articles in this issue of ChinaSource demonstrate, theology in China can be a contentious topic. Probably none of our readers will agree fully with everything our various contributors have to say. While some may be offended by one or more of the positions taken, our intention in tackling this difficult subject was not to offend, but to stimulate constructive dialogue on the theological developments taking place within the Chinese church.
Theology by its very nature tends to divide, for it deals with how we in our finite human condition should understand and relate to the infinite God of the universe. When our understandings of who God is and what He requires of us differ, we tend to draw lines around what we deem correct and exclude those whose ideas do not fit within our preconceived framework. Ultimately theology addresses the question of who is in the family of God and who is not—who is our ally in the spiritual battle in which we are engaged and who is actually fighting for the other side. How easy it is, then, to become militant in our criticism of those with whom we do not agree.
While we may like to think that our theological positions are based firmly and soundly upon scripture, theology is never done in a vacuum. It is influenced by the cultural, social, political, and economic conditions in which the theologizing takes place. The church in China is thus the product of a miraculous work of God performed in the midst of complex human developments that have helped shaped the church.
With increased interaction between the church inside and the church—both Chinese and non-Chinese—outside China we have become participants, not just observers, in this process. Our passion for doctrinal purity and our zeal to serve may prompt us to want to jump in and “correct” what we perceive as the theological missteps of our Chinese brothers and sisters. Yet we must first consider the unique factors that have shaped the multi-faceted Chinese church of today: the prominent role of suffering in the lives of believers, an authoritarian political tradition that places religion in a subservient position to the state, a culture that emphasizes “ortho-praxy” over orthodoxy, China’s decades-long struggle to free itself from foreign manipulation, and the enduring role of the family as China’s primary social institution—just to name a few.
As we interact with these cultural dynamics—and listen to one another—we will truly become partners in building up the church. Most importantly, we must together seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we attempt to apply the unchanging truths of Scripture within a context characterized by relentless change. Perhaps then the things that once divided will bring us together in a more perfect understanding of God and of His plan for China.
Image credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio