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In Search of Structure

The Pull of Denominations in China


Chinese Church Voices is running a series of articles taken from a lengthy interview with a Reformed unregistered church pastor in China. The fact that the Christian website in China where the interview originated gave the topic such in-depth attention, and the fact that this particular pastor (and many others like him) are such strong advocates of Reformed theology, raise the question of why denominations have become so attractive to Christians in China.

One answer is perhaps that denominations have what the unregistered church – in the eyes of many Christian leaders – is lacking.

Accountability, for example, is often recognized as a weakness in the unregistered church. Leaders can be quite isolated from one another and traditionally very top-down in dealing with their congregations. Denominational structures provide a mechanism whereby leaders become answerable to others within the church.

Orthodox teaching is another area. Unregistered churches have, over the years, given birth to myriad cults and heresies due to a lack of solid biblical teaching. A coherent theological framework, such as that offered by the Reformed tradition, addresses this shortcoming.

Church government has traditionally not been a strong point of the unregistered church, as the emphasis has been on evangelism, not on church administration. Here again, denominational structures and procedures provide proven answers to questions about how to manage the affairs of the church.

In the absence of strong teaching for children – a need now being recognized as acute in the unregistered church, a catechism can give families and church leaders a framework for Christian education among children.

Other examples could be given. The point is that denominations in some ways can be see as offering ready-made solutions to the thorniest problems facing churches in China.

The danger, however, comes when foreign denominational structures and traditions are adopted as the yardstick for measuring every aspect of church life. If something in the Chinese church experience seems off or doesn't fit, then it can too easily be labeled as error, without stopping to ask whether God has in fact allowed this particular attribute to develop within the church for a reason and without examining both the old and the new critically in the light of Scripture.

The current discussion on Reformed theology, and the wider examination of the role of denominations in China today, are necessary as leaders seek to shore up areas in the church that have been lacking. At the same time, unless this exploration is conducted in a spirit of humility and waiting upon the Lord, well-meaning attempts to address very real needs in China's church can unwittingly turn into lines drawn in the sand, accentuating divisions rather than inviting constructive dialog with those of different traditions.

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio