Editor’s note: This post is the second of two which consider theological principles for meeting the challenges of the CCP’s attempts to control Chinese Christians and Chinese churches. Part one looks at the historical background that has led to the current situation.
The Nature of the Church
The church, by its very nature, is a global, trans-national community. It cannot be reduced to any single socio-economic class, ethnic group, or nationality; rather, it includes all people who are willing to repent and follow Jesus as Savior and Lord (Acts 2:38–39). Totalitarian governments often try to limit the church to a select group for their own purposes. Hitler’s regime in Germany tried to limit the church to ethnic Germans alone. Bonhoeffer and the confessing church saw through this: they saw that it was not a question of whether they should meet separately (i.e., from Jewish Christians), it was a question of whether they would truly be the church!
So also, in today’s China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempts to limit the church in China solely to Chinese nationals. Recent regulations severely restricting the role of foreigners in the life of the church are nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt to isolate Chinese believers from the larger body of Christ. The notion that the church in China should only have Chinese characteristics and exist exclusively for the Chinese, devoid of any external influence, is profoundly unbiblical (Ephesians 2:11-12).1 The attempt to isolate the Chinese church is actually part of the state’s larger goal of molding it into an image of its own creation. In China, the CCP has announced its intention to create a “Sinicized Christianity.” One aspect of the CCP’s new “Sinicization of Christianity” policy is the prohibition of children from attending services in the government-recognized (TSPM) churches. This attempt to limit further the church’s reach reveals the state’s true motivation.
Yet, as history has shown, the efforts of the CCP to “chain” the gospel will fail (2 Timothy 2:9). I will not soon forget a beautiful “house church” worship service in a forest of southwest China. An evangelist from the Miao tribe shared his testimony with a group of largely university-educated Han Chinese. He began by noting that the Miao are generally looked down upon by other groups in China, especially the dominant Han majority. He said that normally there would be no opportunity for him to speak to a group of largely Han, educated city-dwellers like the present group. However, he declared, “Our faith in Christ has changed all of that. In Christ, we are all one family.” In that setting, marked by the Spirit’s presence, this Miao brother felt at ease, a member of the family of God!
How will we respond to the demands of an increasingly repressive government that seeks to reshape the church into its own image? How will we react to attempts to divide us along socio-economic, racial, ideological, or nationalistic lines? Will we quietly acquiesce and accept a church that is not really whole?
The Message of the Church
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a political ideology or an agenda for social justice. It is the message of how we might be reconciled to God and to one another through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.2 At the heart of the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior of the world. There is only one Lord and one Savior (Acts 2:36; 4:12). This is a message that cannot be co-opted by any political movement or governmental body.
Yet totalitarian governments try to do this very thing. The Sinicization of Christianity, declares the CCP’s five-year plan, “must be guided by the core values of socialism.” Since atheism is a core value of the CCP’s version of socialism, there is a glaring contradiction here. Equally startling are the CCP’s attempts to minimize access to and the influence of the Bible. So, the official five-year plan flatly states, “Contents of the Bible that are compatible with the core values of socialism should be deeply researched in order to write books that are popular and easy to understand.” At the same time, in early 2018 the CCP banned major retailers from selling the Bible.3 It is evident that the CCP wants to co-opt the church and it knows that if it is to be successful in this task, it must alter its message. The message that centers on Jesus, the risen Lord, challenges the CCP’s ultimate authority.
Thankfully, the Chinese church has a rich heritage of ministers who have been willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the gospel. From Wang Mingdao (arrested in 1955) to Wang Yi (arrested in 2018), countless Chinese ministers have not succumbed to intimidation and pressure. They have remained firm in their call and mandate to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2), irrespective of the cost.
I pray that Christians in China, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, will exhibit similar courage in the face of opposition and the threat of persecution. May we too preach the word boldly (Acts 4:31). As one Chinese friend put it, “In the good times, we should be careful. But when we encounter persecution, we must be fearless.”
The Power of the Church
The power of the church is not found in worldly might or the power of this world (Ephesians 6:12; 2 Corinthians 10:4). As the Psalmist beautifully states, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7). The Chinese church has, in a remarkable way, exemplified this declaration of faith. In the 2018 Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith, Chinese believers declare, “We are willing and obligated under any circumstance to face all government persecution, misunderstanding, and violence with peace, patience, and compassion. For when churches refuse to obey evil laws, it does not stem from any political agenda; it does not stem from resentment or hostility; it stems only from the demands of the gospel and from a love for Chinese society.”4 This is the way of the crucified Savior. Is there anything more powerful?
The Mission of the Church
The mission of the church, described so beautifully in Acts 13:1-3, involves three elements: the worship of God (v. 2); the edification of the saints (i.e., prophets and teachers, v. 1); and the proclamation of the gospel to the lost (vv. 2-3). Totalitarian governments inevitably try to hinder the church from fulfilling this mission, particularly its mission to bear bold witness for Christ “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The single greatest difference between the “house churches” and the government-recognized churches of China is found right here. How do they respond to the CCP’s attempt to restrict their engagement in the mission of God?
The house churches, in the face of every conceivable barrier, have attempted to proclaim the gospel and plant churches, not only in every province, town, and village in China, but even beyond China’s borders in the regions beyond. This vision to bridge every conceivable barrier in order to take the gospel to the lost is what animates the “back to Jerusalem” movement, a movement dedicated to evangelizing the predominately Muslim nations that lie between China and Jerusalem.
By way of contrast, I have yet to see TSPM leaders at a high level openly talk about engaging in missions; that is, their responsibility to take the gospel to unreached people groups of other cultures and nations. I have heard, however, many stories of how TSPM pastors who are too active or aggressive in reaching out to other communities are reprimanded and punished. One friend’s vehicle was confiscated because he strayed beyond the state-established boundaries in order to reach the lost. Can a church that does not view missions (proclaiming the gospel to those culturally distant who are not Christians, especially those who have not heard) as a central part of its purpose really be considered the church? Does it have a future?
How will we respond when we find that our efforts to engage in cross-cultural missions are ridiculed and impeded by the state and related institutions? Will we have the courage to resist the lies of a secular society and the power of a secular state?
Both this post and the previous one 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.
- Jackson Wu. “‘Sinicized Christianity’ is Not Christianity.” Jackson Wu: Doing Theology, Thinking Mission. Patheos, March 20, 2019. Accessed October 12, 2022. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu/2019/03/20/sinicized-christianity-is-not-christianity/.
- For a thoughtful, evangelical perspective on the gospel and the church’s mission, see Brian J. Tabb, After Emmaus: How the Church Fulfills the Mission of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021). Tabb demonstrates that Jesus’ words in Luke 24:46-47 serve as an interpretative lens for understanding the Messiah and his mission in Luke-Acts.
- Both quotations in this paragraph come from the Jackson Wu article cited in the first note.
- “A Joint Statement of Pastors: A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” (2018), https://chinadeclaration.com/en/, accessed October 11, 2022.
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