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Looking at the Questions beneath the Surface

In the 2018 summer issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, husband and wife team, Li Ma and Jin Li, bring together valuable perspectives, primarily from mainland Chinese Christian thinkers, on the emergence of denominations within the contemporary Chinese church.

Swirling beneath the surface discussion of denominations—how they are defined, their relationship to the indigenous Chinese church, and whether or not they are needed—are some core questions regarding the fundamental nature of Christian community. Depending on where the discussion goes, various ones of these questions tend to bubble to the surface. In this sense the topic of denominations functions somewhat as a divining rod, drawing out the core issues facing the church.

Leadership emerges as one central issue. (In fact, as they compiled these articles, our guest editors suggested that a future Quarterly ought to focus on this issue alone, as it figures so prominently in the current discussion.) Who is empowered to decide what the church will believe, and where does this authority come from? What to do when the leader goes off track theologically or morally?

Church culture constitutes a related issue and can touch on everything from worship style to norms for family life, dress, and gender relationships in the church. A strong leader can impose a certain culture, while a more passive leader may relegate the establishment of cultural norms to others within the church, creating uncertainty and conflict.

Differences over theological perspectives highlight the question, “What do we really believe as a church” and bring to the fore the dilemma of how believers in a particular congregation should deal with the inevitable conflict that arises over these differences.

Labeling results when conflict is not handled well and believers split into camps. Wanting to view everything in black and white terms, they “weaponize” theological positions and denounce the opposing camp as unspiritual, theologically incorrect, or even heretical. As Andrew Qie points out,

Such labeling is eerily similar to the political culture of China…. Denominational and theological differences can easily become ideological tools. Seemingly godly theological positions can become powerful weapons for murder. The new generation of Chinese believers often lack sufficient understanding of the political environment and have not carefully considered the political fanaticism and worship of leaders from the previous generation, so it is easy for them to fall into another kind of leader worship and fanaticism after entering the church.

As the contributors to this issue suggest, denominational structures can either bring clarity to the concerns facing China’s church or can serve to mask deeper questions lurking beneath the surface.

In addition to their treatment of these and related questions in the current issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, Ma and Li deal with them in further depth in their book, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church, which is reviewed in this issue by two scholars, one Chinese and one American. 

Read the full discussion in “Denominationalism in China.”

This article originally appeared in the 2018 summer issue of ChinaSource Quarterly as ChinaSource Perspective, “Questions Beneath the Surface.”

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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