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Bishop K. H. Ting (1915-2012)


Bishop K. H. Ting, the most influential leader of the State-controlled Protestant church in China over the last 50 years, died peacefully in Nanjing on November 22, aged 97.

Ting's life coincided with the rise, triumph and rule of the Communist Party in China. He was born in Shanghai in 1915 and went to the Anglican St John's University there. Ordained in the Anglican church in China in 1942, he confessed to having early on discarded the orthodox faith of the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book for a liberal theology which was more compatible with socialism. In the same year he married Kuo Siu May, a fellow Anglican. From 1946-1950 he trained and worked overseas in Canada, the U.S. and Switzerland. In 1951 he and his wife returned to China willingly after the Communist Party had seized power. In 1952 his name appeared 8th on a long list of national Christian leaders condemning the United States for supposedly using germ warfare in Korea. This was a mark of how high he had already risen within a year of returning to China. In the same year 11 theological seminaries were closed down and amalgamated into the Nanjing-based Jinling seminary with Ting as the new young principal. In 1953 he stated that full academic freedom prevailed but not "to spread rumors or to uphold imperialism." In the 1950s after all the missionaries had been expelled, and the various denominations were collapsing to be superseded by the Party-controlled Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), Ting was ordained in 1955 as a Bishop at the young age of 40 and rose to a position of influence in the TSPM. He appeared to be groomed as a successor to the notorious Y.T. Wu who had abandoned orthodox Christianity completely and had been elevated from a lowly secretary of the YMCA to be head of the TSPM.

During the 1950s the Communist Party closed down most churches and imprisoned many Christian leaders as well as encouraging vicious "struggle" campaigns against some Christian leaders. Ting attacked in print the respected evangelical leader Wang Mingdao for his refusal to join the TSPM on Biblical grounds. Wang was soon after imprisoned for 23 years. Ting attended the Soviet-controlled Prague Peace Conference and visited Hungary soon after the abortive 1956 revolution, praising the Russians for repressing the "counter-revolutionary" rebellion. However, in 1957 when Mao launched his notorious "Hundred Flowers Campaign" to encourage intellectuals to criticize the Party, Ting openly challenged the crude Marxist view that religion was an "opiate." Surprisingly, he emerged unscathed when the movement was soon halted and many other Christian leaders were condemned to years of prison as "rightists."

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when all the churches were closed down under Mao, Ding escaped lightly and even emerged as a government spokesman for the moribund TSPM to the few foreign visitors at this time. He spoke disparagingly of the church as virtually doomed to extinction. However, after Mao's death in 1976 and China's opening up to the outside world in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping, the TSPM and its churches were again allowed to function. Ting re-emerged and became head of the resurrected TSPM and thus assumed the most influential position in the State-supervised Chinese Protestant church. He was an influential member of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee. He traveled widely overseas and hosted many ecumenical delegations from abroad. Most were impressed by his soft-spoken manner and theological acumen.

Within China itself, outside of Party and government circles, Ting was regarded with suspicion by many Christians not only in the unregistered house-churches but also by older pastors within the TSPM churches. Many of them had known him in the pre-1949 days and were convinced that he was a secret Party member working for the government within the church at the highest level.

From 1979 until recent years Ting presided over the enormous growth of the State-managed TSPM church from zero churches to over 65,000 today, the opening of some two dozen seminaries and Bible colleges and the printing of millions of Bibles at the Amity Press in Nanjing. Based in Nanjing, Ting was head of the re-opened Jinling Theological College, the most prestigious in the country, and also the most liberal. However, by the 1990s there was a groundswell of evangelical faith at Jinling which reflected the overwhelming resurgence of Biblical faith at grass-roots level not only in the house-churches but also in most of the TSPM churches. Ting proceeded to purge the faculty of known evangelicals and in 1996 at Jinan launched what was to become the nationwide "theological [re]construction" campaign. His avowed aim was to steer the entire Chinese church away from a narrow "fundamentalism" into a more liberal theology which was completely compatible with Marxist socialism. To that end, Ting wrote many books and innumerable articles in which he developed his own unique theology which was a mixture of fairly old-style liberal theology, Marxism and Process Theology. His theology was much more subtle and less overtly unorthodox than Y.T. Wu's. For instance, he wrote a booklet on "How to Read the Bible" which caused some extreme liberals in the WCC to suspect that Ting himself was a fundamentalist! However, theologically educated Chinese Christians became aware that he was ambiguous concerning the bodily resurrection of Christ, did not accept the full authority and inspiration of the Bible, and opposed classic evangelical teaching on the crucial doctrine of justification by faith, for which Ting proposed substituting "justification by love". His theology spoke much about the incarnation of the Cosmic Christ and the resulting universal benefits for all mankind, including [Marxist] atheists, and little about the cross and the atonement.

On the eve of the Democracy Movement in late 1988/ early 1989 Ding appeared to support high official moves to abolish the TSPM and the entire repressive structure of control of religion in China by the Party's Religious Affairs Bureau. He later retracted his statements when returning to China from the USA. In June 1989 when most house-church Christians avoided political action in support of the Democracy Movement as too dangerous, Ting continued his politically liberal stance by supporting TSPM seminary students when they came out in protest on the streets against government repression. He seems narrowly to have escaped demotion when the movement was bloodily suppressed.

Over the following two decades or more Ting presided over the continuing growth of the State-controlled church. This explosive growth from under 1 million Protestants (in 1949) to over 23 million in the TSPM church today was due not to Ting's theology which downplayed evangelism, but rather to the zeal of millions of humble Christians at the grassroots who witnessed for Christ, set up Bible studies, reopened closed churches, built new ones, started Bible-training classes and schools, and engaged in a host of evangelical activities. Although disagreeing with evangelical faith personally, Ting was on record as admitting the overwhelming majority of Chinese Christians were evangelicals and he sought to woo evangelical leaders from the United States, Europe and many other countries. In this he was often successful, and overseas Christians who should have known better, were sometimes led to make statements critical of the house-churches. However, Ting's own public stance on the controversial issue of the unregistered house-churches was nuanced and not extreme.

Ting's legacy is hard to assess. It seems unlikely that his "theological construction" campaign will outlive him very long, as most pastors and preachers in the TSPM churches are more concerned to preach the Gospel than engage in politically-motivated theological discussion. The growing numbers of young evangelical leaders in China are far more attracted by the Biblically-informed stand on social issues of Lausanne or John Stott than Ting's Marxist-oriented liberalism. However, his stand on the necessity of creating a "post-denominational" Chinese church which would not return to the old days of control by foreign denominations or missions is to be applauded and still needs to be heeded.

Image credits: Joann Pittman and The Times