Book Reviews

When a Celebrity Pastor Falls, Will There Be Apostates?

A Book Review

《叛教者》, (The Apostates, titled Renegades on Amazon), Wei Shi. In Chinese only. Dixie W Publishing Corporation, 2016, 378 pages. ISBN-10:1683720121, ISBN-13: 978-1683720126; paperback, $19.95 at Amazon.

Reviewed by Jeshurun Lin

The following is a summary of Jeshurun Lin’s review. The full review in Chinese is available at 当牧者跌落神坛,我会成为叛教者吗?

Shi Wei’s The Apostates uses the medium of a novel to describe a period of history in China’s churches in the latter half of the 20th century during Maoist campaigns. This novel describes the church experiencing an environment of instability and persecution. The protagonist, Li Yesheng, a pastor and author of sermons and spiritual books, faces morality issues; the impacts and results of his choices are tracked. The novel has four sections: The Apostates, The Sacrificial Victims, The Followers, and The Breakers of Bread.

The Apostates

The first section deals with Sister Xu Wenyin, a believer in the Lord in a local church in Shanghai. She completely gave herself to the Lord and because of her total dedication was nicknamed “holy woman.” However, when she discovers that pastor Li Yesheng is in a sexual relationship with her boyfriend’s older sister, she feels that everything she has pursued is only an illusion. In a flash, her faith completely collapses. Without hesitating, she stands up and becomes the first person to accuse Li Yesheng. That accusation causes the collapse of the church in the entire area and Sister Xu Wenyin becomes the first “apostate.”

The Sacrificial Victims

The second section is the heart of the book. It focuses on Li Yesheng’s four women co-workers, Li Rushi, Wang Muzhen, Zhao Xinjie, and Liao Wenjun, and their relationships. Li Yesheng eventually has sexual relationships with two of these women, and the novel delves into the consequences and outcomes of these relationships.

Li Rushi is a gifted, intelligent woman, strong and self-reliant, who has completely given herself over to Jesus. She works with Li Yesheng in his literary work and follows his lead. Through his publications, Li Yesheng’s influence has spread not only throughout China, but the whole world. However, of Li Yesheng’s three full-length books and 62 pamphlets, only two or three volumes were actually written by him; most were based on his sayings but written by Li Rushi. Without her, there would have been no Li Yesheng. Her motivation was not from personal feelings or selfish desires but completely from her love for God. These two partners, who together founded the historical, spiritual splendour of the Chinese church, will eventually become enemies.

When Li Rushi first discovers Li Yesheng is in a sexual relationship with Zhao Xinjie, she cannot comprehend how a godly servant like Brother Li can possibly experience lust. Then, when Li Rushi discovers that Li Yesheng has also defiled Liao Wenjun, she is shattered. She has no way of reconciling Li Yesheng’s spiritual teachings with his poor ethical standards; she must choose between the man and his teachings or her standards based on God’s truth. She cannot deny the glaringly obvious, but since she cannot separate God’s truth from Li Yesheng’s spiritual teachings, she ends up by denying God. The author then goes on to explore her thinking that caused her to give up her faith.

Wang Muzhen is also a co-worker. She, Li Rushi, and Li Yesheng are leaders in the local church. While Wang Muzhen is Li Yesheng’s right hand, she is also a very gifted preacher. When she realizes that God has chosen to use Li Yesheng to speak to the church, she retreats backstage. In submission to Li Yesheng, she leaves the pulpit and begins to serve the church’s children—even though she had led the church until Li Yesheng appeared on the scene.

Later, as this is during political campaigns, Wang Muzhen and Li Rushi are arrested together. After Wang Muzhen finds out about Li Yesheng’s personal troubles, she and Li Rushi together denounce Li Yesheng; both give up their faith. The author then examines the inner workings of these women that relate to their actions.

During Li Rushi’s 19 years in prison, she is unable to find freedom because she cannot forgive herself. She feels that she was conned by Li Yesheng and also deceived by God. She cannot accept her own sinfulness. Rather, she does nothing but accuse others in order to shorten her sentence.

Among the four women connected with Li Yesheng, after he is taken into custody and his morality issues are exposed, only Liao Wenjun does not fall away. She neither denounces nor condemns Li Yesheng. Li Yesheng’s wife, Zhang Huiwen, takes the same position as Liao Wenjun. She is clearly aware of the sins her husband has committed, but she accepts him in love and bears her shame in silence.

The Followers

The third part of the novel tells the stories of the faithful witnesses in the local church—their perseverance to the end, even unto death. Not only do they not deny God, they also do not abandon their spiritual leader. During this “meat grinder” era, when no one was really safe from accusation, how were believers able to protect themselves and stand spiritually firm? The novel relates the stories of three people: Zhang Maoliang, Yu Huaen and Huang Yuzhi.

Zhang Enrong is angry when his son, Zhang Maoliang, rises to denounce Li Yesheng. As he is dying, he says, “The Lord knows.” This saying establishes a tradition in the local church: to not debate and to leave it to the Lord’s sovereignty. However, for the younger generation this makes no sense. They want an explanation, an answer.

Brother Yu Huaen has the strongest spiritual life of anyone in the local church. When he faces the judgement of the camp chief, he is calmer than anyone else. He does not tremble or fall apart because he has already trembled before the holy gaze of God and fallen apart before him countless times—and every time he has received God’s forgiveness. When he is martyred, his son cannot keep from castigating Li Yesheng saying he caused his father’s death. However, his mother says to him, “Your father never hated anyone; it is unfitting for you, his son, to hate anyone.”

Huang Yuzhi is not only earnest and straightforward, he is also filled with love and mercy for his brothers. He loves Li Yesheng and questions him about his repentance; he accepts him because he sees his repentance and return to God. On the other hand, he sees the wrong ways the church has gone about resolving the problem of Li Yesheng. In prison, Huang Yuzhi has a moment of weakness where he considers suicide. But in that moment, he experiences God’s mercy. His execution comes when he turns to a weak brother who ran away and extends to him mercy and acceptance. In that era, even the closest of intimates would act in self-preservation by completely denying their relationships.

With the life of each person in the novel exposed during that period of China’s history, one discovers that Shi Wei is expounding an important tenet of spiritual life stated by Calvin in his The Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Know God; know yourself.” During that era, it seems that only those who had come to recognize their own weaknesses and depravity under the light of God were able to truly stand firm. The recognition of one’s own lack of devoutness and holiness allowed one to trust in God in the time of testing and live out his mercy.

People who understand a little of the history of the Chinese church will know that this novel is using Brother Ni Tuosheng (better known in the West as Watchman Nee) and the founding of the Little Flock church(also called the Local Church) as its original material. In this novel, the author points out the Little Flock’s worship of its spiritual leader, Brother Ni Tuosheng, which finally led the entire church astray. In present-day Little Flock churches, many still believe that Brother Ni had a special revelation from God and that he was morally perfect. Over a decade ago, Dr Liang Jialin (now the principal of Jiandao Seminary) investigated the personal moral problems of Brother Ni Tuosheng, and based on eyewitness material, he reached the verdict that it was certain Brother Ni had committed sexual sin. The result was a great deal of “righteous anger” from the members of Little Flock. They subjected Dr Liang to verbal abuse that culminated in character assassination and questioned his salvation.

We need to respect our leaders and study the traditions of previous generations. However, to deify church leaders, to put them on a pedestal, is no different than idol worship. It is far from biblical teaching and is dangerous. While the church leader has some responsibility when this happens, the primary responsibility falls upon the brothers and sisters of the church.

The Breakers of Bread

In this final section, the imprisoned Li Yesheng conducts a soul-searching self-reflection regarding the problems in the church. He concludes that the tragedies of these individuals were not his fault. “They are the Lord’s disciples,” he says. “The Lord struck them; the Lord bound them up…. The Lord chose to break them into pieces for the sake of his election, just as he has broken me; this was of his determining and of his love. I am no more than a stick God has chosen to pick up and wield.”

This recognition comes to Li Yesheng only when he thinks upon his service. Will people who read this novel understand the cry of the author? If we had been thrown into the “meat grinder” era, would we also have become apostate?

However, Shi Wei does not let us stop there. The gospel accounts do not stop with the night before Jesus’ passion—Judas selling out the Lord, the disciples scattering, and Peter denying the Lord three times. Instead, the gospels take us through the cross to Easter morning. In the midst of human weakness and depravity, Jesus’ body is torn and his blood spilt. His blood flows for the sins of many. His body is torn to feed us to fullness.

At the conclusion of the novel, through Li Yesheng’s self-examination in prison, we perceive God’s fathomless love for those who love him. This love is greater than we human beings can imagine—greater than words can relate. Conversely, this love flows from the bitter suffering and shame of the cross. This is the glory of God!

Original article at: 当牧者跌落神坛,我会成为叛教者吗?
Translated and summarized by ChinaSource. Used with permission.

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Jeshurun Lin

Jeshurun Lin pastors a church in Beijing. View Full Bio