View From the Wall

Why Believers Need to Understand Chinese Church History


In the book of Ecclesiastes it is written: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiates. 1:9)

History is like a mirror. For many things that are happening today, countless similar things have occurred repeatedly throughout history—and the church is no exception. If the church can draw lessons from history, then the church can better influence the world. If not, then the church will only be like Israel, ceaselessly wandering in the desert, to the point of being swayed by the world. For believers, familiarity with history makes it possible to understand scriptural truth more clearly, to better understand God’s will, and to better live out our faith. Chinese Christians generally do not understand Chinese church history, and so we often have no means to properly respond to changes in society.

Know the Past to Understand the Present

In recent years, the Chinese church has faced several difficulties, from the “controversy of cross removals” to the “sinicization of Christianity.” Faced with these sudden external pressures, Chinese believers have made some mistakes. Actually, if we look back on Chinese church history, it is not hard to discover that this is nothing new. Through an examination of this history, it should be possible to find appropriate ways to respond to these pressures. Two difficult incidents within Chinese church history are particularly significant for the church. The first was the consequences of the anti-Buddhist persecution of the Wuzong Emperor during the Tang Dynasty of the Nestorian church. The second was the Kangxi Emperor’s proscription of Catholic Christianity during the Qing Dynasty.

During the Tang Dynasty, the Nestorian church followed a strategy of appealing to elites, vigorously soliciting the good opinion of the imperial court and officials in order to attain the Emperor’s support. In terms of evangelism, they chose to follow a path of indigenization. A large number of their translations of Nestorian classics employed commonly used Buddhist terms in order to seek broad public acceptance. These methods were driven by necessity, but they also made it difficult to separate the doctrine that was being spread from Buddhism—to the degree that at the time of Emperor Wuzong’s anti-Buddhist persecution, the Nestorian church also disappeared from history.

During the reign of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty, the Catholic church had a major breakthrough in their missionary work. The Christian faith was accepted from the upper classes to the general public with a substantial increase in the size of the believing community; Luo Wenzao was even ordained as a bishop. At just this time when the mission work was so positive, internal disputes within the church led to the well-known “Rites Controversy.” The resulting one hundred year proscription of the church during the Qing dynasty caused irretrievable loss to the Chinese church.

Looking at these two periods of church history together, the Nestorian church made the mistake of excessive indigenization and thus lost its own identity, while the Catholic church made the error of excessive doctrinal nitpicking that resulted in forfeited opportunities to further evangelize. As today’s Chinese church faces its own set of difficulties, history tells us that we must not blindly indigenize, nor should we simply resist. On the contrary, we should actively unite, seek consensus, and find the essence of the missio dei for today’s Chinese Christian church; then, with one heart strive to complete that mission.

History Is Full of “Nutrients”

If these “nutrients” can be extracted from church history, then the church will be able to continue developing in a healthy manner. In the closing years of the Qing dynasty, Chinese church history encountered the heart-saddening church tragedy of 1900.[1] This tragedy, however, did not bring the Chinese church to a standstill; on the contrary, the appropriate response of Timothy Richard and many other missionaries had a positive effect on the later development of the church. At that time, they discerned that the cause of the persecution was the ignorance of the people as a result of the backward educational system. Accordingly, they actively promoted the establishment of schools, driving the reform of China’s educational system and helping China escape isolation and ignorance. I believe that was God’s intention for that time.

For believers, familiarity with church history can increase our faith in the Lord. Similarly, familiarity with history can also help us see more clearly God’s purposes in the present. Hardship has never been absent from the history of the church. The Lord Jesus, however, has promised: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

 Translated from Chinese by Andrew T. Kaiser.


  1. ^ Boxer Uprising of 1900.
Image credit: Through the Mirror by Lyle Vincent via Flickr. 
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Brother Liu

Brother Liu is pastor in an inland, second-tier Chinese city. His congregation is one of the first urban professional churches in that city.View Full Bio