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Church Development and Theological Education

In this post we are delighted to introduce our readers to GCM, an independent prayer ministry which publishes a monthly email newsletter via MailChimp. Each issue includes an article and items for prayer. You can subscribe in English, simplified Chinese, or traditional Chinese by clicking here. The article below is from GCM’s January 2023 newsletter and is reprinted with permission.

Beginning in the 1980s, contemporary Chinese Christianity progressed from partial revival to full-scale development. Orthodox theology and traditional biblical faith had been suppressed, while many new heresies and cults were prevalent.  Examples of some of these native-grown false teachings were: the “Three Atonement Christ,” the “Established King” cult, and “The Narrow Gate in the Wilderness.” These cults created much difficulty for the development of Christianity and caused chaos in mainly rural areas.

While the emergence of these heresies caused theological upset for churches all across the country, nevertheless the onslaught of these false doctrines also pushed the Chinese church to start independent theological reflection. This theologizing led to the abandonment of very conservative theological positions such as “using faith to supplant practicality”  (see Wang Delong’s From ‘Faith’ to Abandoning ‘Usage’: Jia Yuming’s Life and Thoughts, Xiangshan Academic Series, 2017) [editor’s note: Jia Yuming(1880-1964) was a Chinese pastor and theologian, known for his emphasis on a pietistic spirituality]. Gradually the old traditions of refusing to study or discuss theology crumbled, and the word “theology” entered everyday usage in the church.  Eventually theological study and training of ministers became a mainstream trend.

The head teacher of nationwide Bible correspondence course from the Jinling Union Theological Seminary [note: the top official registered seminary] had the following recollections.

In 1989, the Bible Correspondence Class of Jinling Seminary began to recruit students but encountered two difficulties.  The first was the cap on the number of students. The Religious Affairs Bureau stipulated that only 1,000 slots were available each year, but there were more than 15,000 applicants in the first year. The correspondence course prioritized those with the most urgent needs—volunteer preachers in remote areas, then older workers who lost ten precious years during the Cultural Revolution and who were willing to devote the rest of their lives to the gospel. The second difficulty we encountered had to do with political approvals.  The admissions regulations required that each applicant have the official seal of the provincial-level Christian “Two Organizations” indicating that the applicant was recommended by them [note: these are the CCCChina Christian Council and the TSPMThree-Self Patriotic Movement, officially established institutions through which the Party-State can control Protestant Christianity in the country]. A second seal from the provincial Religious Affairs Bureau was needed to show that the applicant had passed a political review. These requirements were less difficult for the preachers of the government-established Three-Self Churches. However, quite a few of the applicants were workers from house churches, and it was impossible for them to obtain the above-mentioned official seals….At that time, nearly 30% of the applications of the first batch of admitted students did not have official seals.

This teacher continued his memories:

The first batch of trainees left a deep impression on me. For example, some church workers, volunteers, died relatively young from exhaustion. They had striven to recover church property illegally appropriated and stolen by the authorities or by other individuals. There was more than one such worker like this. Others were persecuted by unbelieving family members. Their homework sent in had been torn up but pasted back together, and there were some papers with signs of having been thrown in water and fished out again. Some were preachers from minority ethnic peoples in the southwest of the country. Their living conditions were harsh. By day they farmed and then by the light of oil lamps they would study late into the night. Because there were no pastors in their areas to coach them, sometimes they would trek many miles along mountain tracks to the local town to ask the pastor for instruction. Then they would walk home, often with fiery torches in the dark.

Students in poverty areas had no cash on hand for most of the year either, so they could not pay their tuition on time. (In those days we charged 90 RMB for tuition and fees each year, including textbooks for 18 courses, exam papers and mailing fees.) These poorer students had to wait till they could sell eggs during the summer and other farm produce in the autumn. Students from wealthier areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong lent a helping hand by paying tuition for three or five of the less well-off students. Recalling these things and these folks still move me to this day. Also some testimonies were hand-written on the registration forms; these were the voices of the Cultural Revolution generation of preachers, a very precious legacy. What a pity that when the seminary moved, these materials were not preserved.

According to the enrollment limit set by the Religious Affairs Bureau, there were 1,000 students in each class, but three years later upon graduation there were 1,000 graduated. This kind of full graduation quota is very unusual and unique in correspondence education. The reason was that there were hundreds of “understudy” students back in the churches studying along with the regular students in each class, and when one regular student had to drop out for any reason, another “understudy” quickly took their place.(, accessed on February 8, 2023)

Undoubtedly, this head teacher’s recollections are moving, giving us a glimpse into the boundless enthusiasm and active pursuit of Bible studies and skills displayed by church workers all across the country from the 1990s onwards. Of course, this teacher’s recollections also showed that there was still room for improvement in the implementation of religious policies, even after more than ten years of reform and opening up that allowed for Christian activities to be conducted legally. We also see that though the scale of Jinling Seminary’s correspondence program was already huge, compared with the actual needs of the developing church it was only a drop in the bucket. Thus a large number of workers with a heart to study theology were obliged to seek other ways or methods. And so beginning in the 1990s, various types of local, indigenous theological training programs have blossomed everywhere.

Church growth inevitably required more and higher levels of theological training. In the 1990s, shortly after graduating from college, Y started serving in the church. When recalling how he embarked on this path of service, he summarized three aspects:

The first thing was the influence of the older generation—their experience of suffering and yet holding on to faith. They emphasized prayer and eagerly sought to know God’s Word, so they had a great influence on the spiritual growth of the younger generation. The second was the impact of theological education, which is very important for our normative handling of theological subjects. More importantly, the teachers were not only academically qualified, but their lives were also a testimony. This factor also impacted us greatly. Thirdly, we experienced God’s leading. Our church started from scratch. We first invited some colleagues and friends to our home, then gradually grew from several dozens to today’s large community of believers who love spreading the gospel. We saw God’s leading in the process. It was precisely because of seeing the results of ministry, coupled with having had systematic preparation and the encouragement of the elders, that everything came together.

L from the countryside recalled that after he believed and was baptized in the early 1990s, he was so enthusiastic that he gave up everything and started to evangelize in all the villages around and about. He soon discovered that he could not carry on without training. Right away he began studying and went on participating in different levels of training classes. Now looking back, L says that serving is to truly understand the meaning of the cross and to walk the path of service according to God’s heart. It is not just being zealous to work for the Lord, without really grasping what God’s heart is. For example, some people are perfectionists, seemingly “watertight” and their lives look so good, but there is no transformation. Their lives appear perfect on the outside, inside they are empty. Therefore, says L, [learners and teachers] must have undergone life change; they must come back to the Bible and not lead people astray.

Through examples from both teaching and learning, we find that:

  1. The early 1990s marked the start of the surge in Bible and theological studies.

  2. From that time beginning in rural areas, theological training gradually became indigenous and then slowly headed towards connecting with trends elsewhere in the world.

  3. The rise of theological education was motivated by the growth of the church and the need for believers to understand Scripture and to edify congregations. At the same time, the emergence of well-trained ministers also enabled the church to better counteract heresy and continue to grow in the truth.

  4. The basic need of Chinese theological education is still the need for traditional concepts. These include the need for life transformation, the need to carry one’s cross, the need to return to Scripture, rather than bringing in novel theological ideas.

  5. While we cannot speak of a universal standard in the following area, Chinese theology is very consistent in its preference for separation of faith from politics [“separation of church and state”] and does not allow the infiltration of political ideologies and the manipulation of theological education and study by the former.

Doubtless the vigorous development of theological education since the 1990s is one of the important evidences of the growth of Christianity in China. Besides reflecting the growth of the church, it was itself a factor in the further expansion of the church. The rise and development of theological education is the path Chinese Christianity had to take in order for God to shape it into a missions-minded maturity.

A grassroots person (一草民) who is a pastor, author, and a researcher.

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ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

Written, translated, or edited by members of the ChinaSource staff.          View Full Bio

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