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5 Theological Truths and Church-State Relations (1)

Lessons from China

From the series Church-State Relations in China’s New Era


In 2019 I was privileged to celebrate China’s National Day (October 1) in China. This important day, which that year commemorated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, was marked by impressive parades, huge beautifully choreographed performances, and powerful displays of military might. My perspective was a bit different from most there in China and from those in other countries. I watched the military parade, a display of awesome power, in the home of Chinese friends. Their two sons were required to watch the televised parade and they had to display proof of this fact in the form of photos sent to their teachers at the local elementary school. Virtually all of the television channels in China showed the parade and the subsequent massive and meticulously planned celebrations in Tiananmen Square. After watching the awe-inspiring parade, I walked with my friends from their small apartment to a place of worship.

The worship service began with prayer and praise. More than 30 Chinese believers had gathered, representing six different people groups. They sang with great emotion one of my favorite Chinese songs, “Zhi Dao Zhu Ye Su Zai Lai de Shi Hou (Until the Lord Jesus Comes Again).” A key line goes, “until the Lord Jesus returns, I will travel the road of service, I will bear my cross.” The song continues, “when I complete the journey of service, I will see the Lord’s glory, the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ…you are the Lord and Savior of all the earth.”

As we sang this song, I couldn’t help but compare the two vastly different scenes: the military parade and the scene of worship. The contrast might be made whether in China, the US, or any other country of the world. On the one hand, a dazzling display of human power and military hardware. On the other, a song extolling the power and glory of God, revealed in the love of the crucified and risen Lord. Both scenes, one might argue, issue a call for commitment. I am very thankful that the Lord enabled me to worship together with this dedicated group; for, as we sang songs of worship to Jesus, we declared that our primary allegiance is “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Revelation 5:13).

Although the contrast noted above might be made in any country, it must be said that it is particularly striking in today’s China. My worship experience on that special day in 2019 was simply one experience among many that, like the falling rock that becomes an avalanche, pointed to the inescapable truth: China’s government has reverted to the repressive policies of a bygone era. What six or seven years ago I imagined unthinkable has indeed come to pass: China has stumbled backward into an age that looks eerily like the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Although the trend might be traced to preceding years, the strengthening of the totalitarian impulse gained legal traction in 2018. The resulting wave of political repression and persecution of the church has swept forward since then unabated. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have only viewed a portion of this disturbing period of Chinese history as an eyewitness observer. In spite of this limitation, in the short space that follows I will seek to paint with broad brush strokes my personal observations.

Let me begin by pointing out the obvious. China has reverted rapidly toward a more repressive, totalitarian form of governance over the past five years. This trend undoubtedly has been accelerated by the pandemic, but the more recent expansion of governmental power and the resulting loss of personal, and especially religious, freedom appears to be more than a temporary phenomenon or a small blip on the political horizon. The hardening of totalitarianism—a totalitarianism that demands conformity to and acceptance of a state-sponsored ideology—suggests that Christians and particularly the house church movement in China are headed for exceptionally difficult days ahead. Since Christians in China have lived in a totalitarian state from Chairman Mao’s rise to power in 1949 to the present, the current situation is not entirely new. Nevertheless, the intensity of the desire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to control the totality of life in contemporary China and its resulting impact on the church in China, should not be minimized.

With this purpose in mind and on the basis of my experience in China over the past 30 years, I want to highlight five theological truths that will inevitably emerge as crucial battle ground issues for Christians living in the hostile, totalitarian environment of contemporary China. These truths will be challenged by the CCP, and probably with increasing intensity over the next few years, and the faithfulness or lack thereof of Christians living and serving in China will hinge on their response to these challenges.

The Head of the Church

Jesus Christ is the head of the church, not any government or human authority. The CCP has consistently sought to assert its authority over the church since the formation of the “new China” in 1949. I vividly remember a dialogue I had some years ago with a Chinese government official. When he asked, “Are you here to propagate religion?” I responded, “I am a Christian. If people ask about my faith or express interest, I will tell them about Jesus.” He shouted his response, “You will obey Chinese law.”

Here you have it: Who is in charge? Jesus or the state? Christians are ultimately accountable to a higher power (Acts 5:29). This is one of the reasons why state churches have had such a checkered past throughout the history of the church. The Barmen Declaration (1934) was a call to resist the theological claims of the Nazi state.1 More recently, Chinese “house church” leaders have issued their own kind of Barmen Declaration, called A Joint Statement by Pastors: A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith. The initial statement, released on August 30, 2018, was signed by 116 Chinese church leaders, including the main author of the statement, Early Rain Covenant Church (Chengdu, Sichuan) Pastor Wang Yi. By November 17, 2018 (the 11th edition), 458 prominent Chinese house church pastors, including one of my close friends, had signed the document.In this statement Chinese believers boldly declare, “we believe…that all true churches in China…must proclaim Christ as the sole head of the church.”

Pastor Wang Yi was arrested on December 9, 2018 and remains in a Chinese prison. Many others of those who signed this statement have been imprisoned and countless more interrogated and harassed by the Chinese police. But, as the statement declares, “Christian churches in China are eager and determined to walk the path of the cross of Christ and are more than willing to imitate the older generation of saints who suffered and were martyred for their faith.”2 Are we willing to do likewise?

Editor’s note: This post is the first of two which will consider theological principles for meeting the challenges of the CCP’s attempts to control Chinese Christians and Chinese churches. Part two will follow up with four more theological truths for Christians to examine as they face state attempts at external control.

Both this post and the follow up are an adaptation for ChinaSource of a longer article “Church-State Relations: Lessons from China” published in the August 2022 issue of Themelios, the digital journal of The Gospel Coalition. This version is published with permission.

Endnotes

  1. See “Barmen Declaration,” (1934), United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/beliefs_barmen-declaration/, accessed October 11, 2022.
  2. “A Joint Statement of Pastors: A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” (2018), https://chinadeclaration.com/en/, accessed October 11, 2022. 
Image credit: Aaron Burden@aaronburden via UnSplash

Luke Wesley

Luke Wesley (pseudonym) is a cross-cultural worker who has lived and served in China for most of the past three decades.View Full Bio


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