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Historical Context Matters

From the series Our China Stories

When I moved to the United States in 2012, I experienced strong culture shock, stronger than I had ever experienced to date. One day that especially stands out in my memory was Sunday, November 11th. (For my non-American readers, November 11th is Veterans Day.) That sunny Sunday morning I woke up excited for my visit to a church in Spokane Valley, WA. Three hours later, however, I would find myself processing a shock to my Dutch system!

The surprises that awaited me that morning started off immediately with the Sunday school class. Expecting to dive into a Bible study on one of the Old Testament books, I instead found myself amid a political discussion, as the topic of conversation was the recently reelected president Obama… Wait, is this church?

As soon as Sunday school let out, I quickly made my way to the sanctuary for morning service. Still processing American politics, I looked forward to some quiet worship and familiar teaching. Thus all the more my surprise when, at the start of service, rather than standing up for worship, I found myself standing up for the flag of the United States of America! As the national anthem filled the room, two veterans marched the American flag to the front. All the while, gripping images of the American military in action were projected on the screen. “What has the church come to?” I wondered to myself.

After everyone was seated, every veteran was asked to raise their hand in order to receive a gift in thanks for their service. When all the veterans had been thanked, the room stirred as everyone stood up for the American flag to be marched out again. Then the service proceeded with regular worship and preaching.

When I arrived back home that afternoon, I was bewildered. Unfamiliar with American politics and federal holidays, that morning’s experiences had caught me completely off guard. Coming from a country where politics and national holidays are rarely if ever expressed in church, I was not quite sure what had just hit me. Being Dutch and direct, I was quite expressive and vocal about the morning’s experiences. Due to my lack of understanding, however, I am afraid I did initially insult some of my new American friends. Thankfully several of them had more cross-cultural tact than I did. Recognizing where I was coming from, they graciously explained to me the history which had led to the day’s celebrations. It was then that—though I could still not relate to the holiday myself—I found I could at least understand and thereby respect and value it. This change enabled building bridges rather than the distance previously present due to misunderstanding.

That Sunday would be the first of many such learning experiences. Over the following years, I found many aspects of the American culture and mindset I initially just did not understand. My first reaction was often one of confusion. Why did they think that way? Why do they do that? How does this make sense? Yet the more I asked questions and listened, the more I started to understand how American history has shaped much of American culture and practice, including church life. Four years later, I found myself being the one to explain to other Europeans the same observations that had initially baffled me.

What I experienced in America is what many Western people also experience in regard to China. China baffles us Westerners. When we hear stories from China, when we travel to China, when we observe their responses and hear their mindsets, our first response is often that of confusion—”But wait, what? What is happening here? How can this be good (or bad)?” However, as we stop to listen, as we hear the Chinese people’s stories, as we discover for ourselves Chinese history, as we put ourselves in China’s shoes, the Chinese context and therefore their practices and worldview become more understandable.

One such Chinese development that we simply cannot understand without looking at history is the Chinese government’s attitude towards the West and towards Christianity, specifically a certain distrust and lack of appreciation that is sometimes present. Without historical context, we might find such apprehension unwarranted. With historical context, the skepticism not only takes a different shade, but also becomes understandable. And in understanding, we are better equipped to engage when both trust and skepticism are offered in turn.

In studying the history of Christianity in China, the very first pattern I noted was that Christianity has usually been viewed as a foreign religion and that this has usually been the reason for distrust. The very first time Christianity entered China was with the Nestorian monks. The very first time Christianity was kicked out of China was because of its “foreignness”—essentially its threat and lack of adaptability to the Chinese culture. When Christianity entered China for the second time with Mateo Ricci, Ricci was given the space to share his faith with the Chinese people because he was willing to study the Chinese culture and express his faith in locally appropriate terms and forms. The reason Christianity was banished again was because of the Pope’s insensitive cross-cultural engagement in overriding local authority and undermining social structures. (Sidenote: this historical episode still determines the interaction with the Vatican to this very day!)

Over and over, this pattern continues. The Chinese people, especially their leaders, grew to distrust Christianity because it was foreign expression. It never fit. Instead it always challenged their culture and authority, undermining their lives and society. It was a “cultural invasion and enemy to the people”.1

Christianity was mistrusted not only because it was foreign and subversive to the Chinese culture. It was also held in suspicion because time and again Christianity came into China, not on its own merit, but as a carrier of the national politics and culture of its messengers. Such was the case with the Mongols in the 13th century, the Roman Catholics in the 16th century, and the Protestants in the 18th and 19th centuries. History taught the Chinese to distrust and hate Christianity not just because it was a foreign religion, but because it was a foreign religion with political ties. Regretfully, this mix-up of politics and religion continues to this day in some way or form. Rather than undermining this fear, this only reinforces Chinese concerns.

The mistake often made by many missionaries in the past (and present) has been becoming aware too late. For the most part, the missionaries’ intentions were honest. They just wanted to reach the Chinese people with the gospel. To this end, many missionaries gave much to China and paid a heavy price themselves.2 However, in the process, too many presented not only their faith, but also their nation’s politics.3 By the time they became aware of this dilemma and its repercussions, it was too late to undo the harm done. As David Adeney reflected in 1973 from his own experiences in China in the years before the Communist takeover:

The presence of foreign warships on the Yangtze river was a result of the unequal treaties of the nineteenth century which followed the opium wars. Few of us at that time realized the implications of the gunboat policy through which missionaries were protected by the armed power of the nations to which they belonged. Even though we did not ask for protection and longed to be identified with the land of our adoption, we could not avoid the stigma of being associated with the imperialist powers…. Our one concern was to preach the gospel …. [However] perhaps in our desire to reach individuals for Christ we were not sufficiently sensitive to the needs of China as a nation.4

Rather than give grounds for trust, the missionaries only corroborated Chinese fears. Over the decades, this pattern has repeated itself. True, a lot of good has been done in China by missionaries for Chinese citizens. This has also often been recognized by both government and nationals. However, foreign (religious) activity in China has also given room for concern on numerous occasions. Only by acknowledging the harm done (past and present) are we enabled to step forward with sensitivity. And only through cross-cultural sensitivity can we live out a different story of Christianity in China.  


  • Adeney, David H. China: Christian Students Face the Revolution. London: InterVarsity Press, 1973.
  • Dowsett, Rose. “Deliver Us from Evil.” In Sorrow & Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom, 61-64. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012.
  • Miller, Jon and Gregory Stanczak. “Redeeming, Ruling, and Reaping: British Missionary Societies, the East India Company, and the India-to-China Opium Trade.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48, no. 2 (June 2009): 332–352. 
  • Thomas, I’Ching. Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing: The Gospel for the Cultural Chinese. Graceworks, 2018.
  • Wang, Thomas and Sharon Chan. “Christian Witness to the Chinese People.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 583-588. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009.


  1. Thomas Wang and Sharon Chan, “Christian Witness to the Chinese People,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, ed. Ralph D. Winter (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2009) p. 586.
  2. I’Ching Thomas, Jesus: the Path to Human Flourishing (Singapore: Graceworks Private Limited, 2018), p. 62.
  3. Jon Miller and Gregory Stanczak, “Redeeming, Ruling, and Reaping: British Missionary Societies, the East India Company, and the India-to-China Opium Trade,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48 no. 2: 334.
  4. David Adeney, China: Christian Students Face the Revolution, (Westmont: Intervarsity Press, 1971) p. 12-13.
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Laura de Ruiter

Laura de Ruiter

Laura de Ruiter grew up in China (1997–2010). She completed her BA in Biblical exposition at Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, US in 2016, then earned her master’s degree in strategic leadership and change management in 2017. From 2018 to 2019 she worked as a pastor in Frankfurt with a …View Full Bio

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