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A Sociological or Theological Reading of Christianity?

The Case of the Chinese Church

Common sense would tell us that what stands at the core of Christianity is its theology, polity, and mission. But when we come to Christianity in China, it is Chinese Christianity’s social impact and its implications for issues such as human rights and China’s international relations, rather than its pastoral and theological developments and challenges, that have received disproportionately large attention in the Western press in the recent decades.

There are a variety of reasons behind this peculiar phenomenon, ranging from the geo-political concerns of the West to the unusually large role the state plays in affecting the fate of Christianity in the Chinese context. One of the key reasons that I would like to highlight here is the different methods and approaches with which we observe and interpret Christianity in China. In fact, this factor leads to a larger issue: how do we read Christianity in general?

Religion is a very complex social phenomenon that can be studied from multiple angles and perspectives. It is no wonder that the nature of religious studies is inter-disciplinary. However, this complex nature also poses many challenges. One of those challenges is that different disciplines can draw very different—even opposite—conclusions about the same aspect of the same religion. Even more difficulties arise when the scholars in one discipline begin to cross boundaries of other fields of study, and claim universal applicability for their conclusions.

A good example of this is how differently theologians and sociologists approach and evaluate the establishment of classical Christendom in the West.

Traditionally the church’s transition from a persecuted minority to the state religion is viewed as a great triumph by the church and its theologians. However, in recent decades, increasingly it is being considered a tragedy and betrayal of the vision of the early church. In theological circles, the notion of a “Christian society or nation” is very much doubted or even discredited, and the focus has shifted from number and size of the Christian population to their discipleship, from quantity to quality of the Christian community.

On the other hand, certain sociologists’ recently growing interest in early Christianity has led to some very positive assessments of the church’s transition from minority to establishment status. And this historical transfiguration of Christianity is presented almost as a classic case of how a religion can develop, gaining in size and power, to such a point that the social and cultural mainstream must take it into account, and even include it. Within sociological circles, the notion of “Christian society or nation” is still in use, and number and influence are still the focus of study and primary ground for evaluation.

We do not have to decide who is right and who is wrong. Actually both are right as long as they stay in their respective fields.

From a theological point of view, the center of Jesus’ teaching and the early church’s vision is a radical discipleship in tension with, or even in confrontation with, the world. But this teaching and vision is fundamentally lost in the Christendom paradigm that turns the church into a master in the world and mutes its prophetic voice. Then what we have is a spiritually weak, and socially collaborative church.

As Christendom collapses in the West, the church again finds itself marginalized, even exiled, in society and culture. An increasing number of church leaders are calling the church to recover the lost vision of the early church and return to the mode of witnessing as a faithful minority in a not-so-friendly world.

On the other hand, from a sociological point of view, this transfiguration of the church from a marginal group to a cultural and social mainstream did indeed occur, and produced immense cultural and social impact.

However, when sociologists begin to go beyond empirical and scientific studies of Christianity, and to draw theological conclusions using a sociological approach, then problem arises. From instance, some sociologists tend to present their studies of early Christianity in such a way that the establishment of Christendom or Christian dominance in society becomes something that can and should be replicated in our times especially in countries like China. And the church is encouraged to grow numerically and enhance its social and cultural influence, which is said to be the only future of Christianity in the world.

The problem with this understanding is at least three-fold.

First, it does not match the global, social reality well. As the once Christianized West is quickly entering the so-called post-Christian age, it is highly doubtful that  Christianity will be a dominant, sustainable, cultural and social force in the 21st century even in the majority world where churches have been on the rise.

Second, perhaps even more critical is that something that is true sociologically does not necessarily mean it is also true biblically or theologically. Something that is bound to happen sociologically does not mean it is worthy and legitimate theologically. A culturally powerful, and numerically large Christian majority in a society may not be good news for the church’s spiritual health and witness. This can be attested to by church history and empirical evidence.

Third, biblically and theologically speaking, a Christianized society is an untenable concept and an undesirable reality. However, sociologically and historically, Christianized society and nations did exist, and remain a sociological possibility and even an inevitability in certain contexts. Again, a sociological and historical reality does not mean it is theologically desirable and commendable. History has told us that a society dominated by a Christian majority is bound to be a nominal Christian society that only pays lip-service to gospel values or distorts them for its own advantage.

Of course when theologians go beyond their own fields, there is a problem, too. Some theologians may denounce Christendom so harshly that they completely ignore the historical inevitability of Christendom in the West and the constructive social and cultural consequences Christendom may bring to a society, which can and should be endorsed even from a biblical point of view. Having said this, I do not believe the theologians’ “offense” is too serious. After all, when they denounce Christendom and all the harm it brought to the church, they are largely speaking to their own circle, the church. But when some sociologists speak highly of Christian dominance in society, it seems they are predicting where the church is going, and suggesting what the church should do in the future. Theologically this could be very troubling and misleading.

The key is for us to draw a proper line between sociological reality and theological merit and truthfulness. If we fail to distinguish these, the consequences could be immediate and serious.

This is especially evident in contemporary interpretations of Christianity in China. In my view, an overwhelmingly sociological reading, not adequately balanced by theological considerations, has contributed to the tendency of the Western press—secular as well as Christian—to over-emphasize Chinese Christianity’s numerical growth and cultural, social, and even political impact at the expense of the church’s theological and pastoral trends. As a result, such issues as religious freedom and church-state relations dominate the discourse about the church in China, and are often mistaken to be the essential agenda in Chinese church life. Even more ominously, a “Christianized society” is advocated as the goal for the church in China.

To correct this unfortunate situation, one thing we can do as the interpreters of Christianity in China is to become fully mindful of the strengths and limitations of each discipline and perspective. A sense of humility is also needed in our reading of such a complex phenomenon like Christianity in contemporary China.

Finally, it is not an overstatement to say that any interpreter of Christianity should be theologically informed, no matter what his or her discipline is. After all, theology is one of the core businesses of Christianity.

Editor’s note: An updated version of this article is available at Christianity Today in English and Chinese, both simplified and traditional characters.

Image header: Chinese Church by Colin J via Flickr.
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Kevin Xiyi Yao

Kevin Xiyi Yao

An expert on the history of Christianity in China, Kevin Yao, ThD, is Associate Professor of World Christianity and Asian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.    View Full Bio

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