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Messy Choices in Messy Situations

From the series China and Me

David H. Adeney is a well-known China worker and writer from the 1900s. He had a huge heart for China and the Chinese people. He was active in China from 1934 until 1950 and returned immediately when the opportunity presented itself in the 1980s.1 In one of his books, China: Christian Students Face the Revolution, Adeney shares on the ground accounts and stories from the 1940s and 1950s. In reading this book again just a short while ago, one specific account stood out to me, mostly because of how it reflects the struggle many believers face, though in various shapes and forms. It is the story of Pastor Yang Shao-tang:

Another evangelical pastor [Pastor Yang Shao-tang] who was greatly loved by Christian students and had been a frequent speaker at Inter-Varsity conferences went through an agony of inner conflict. He was regarded as a leader of what the communist directives described as “the spiritual-minded” party which was known to oppose the Three-Self Movement. In 1950 he was ordered to make a broadcast denouncing missionaries and imperialistic elements in the church.

…If Pastor Yang Shao-tang had refused to make the broadcast, it would have meant imprisonment on a political charge, for he would have been accused of being a traitor and an enemy of the people. He told me of the hours he spent agonizing over the preparation of the script which had to be written many times before it satisfied the authorities. He finally decided it was better to remain free as a shepherd of the flock of God than to refuse to cooperate and go to prison.

…[T]his terribly difficult choice…was only the beginning of a long series of trials. He was a deeply spiritual man with a very sensitive conscience, and large numbers of students had come to know Christ through his ministry. It came therefore as a great shock when members of his own church in Nanking arranged an accusation meeting in which very serious charges were brought against him…

At the end of days of struggle in the accusation meetings, Pastor Yang was broken and actually felt that his ministry was finished. He said that if he was guilty of the charges that were brought against him it would be better for him to die. But the communists had other plans for him. They apologized for the excessive zeal of those who had brought charge against him in the Nanking church and offered to set him free and allow him to continue as pastor of his church in Shanghai if he would join the Three-Self Movement.…

Again he realized that if he refused he would be imprisoned on a political charge. And so, feeling that the church needed his ministry, he accepted their request….

His sincere desire to preach the gospel faithfully while at the same time seeking to satisfy the demands of the communists within the Three-Self Movement caused almost unbearable tension.…The time came…when he was no longer regarded as necessary and he was then accused of being insincere and of “leaning to one side.” He was deprived of his church and forbidden to preach. But in view of his past services he was spared the rigors of labor camps and allowed to work for the government as a translator until the time of his death in the late sixties. I shall always thank God for all that his Christ-like life and friendship meant to me during my time in China.2

I appreciate David Adeney’s conclusion: “I shall always thank God for all that Brother Yang’s Christ-like life and friendship meant to me during my time in China.”3

Having grown up as a Western Christian, I have frequently heard stories of Christians overcoming trials and temptations. In these stories, a believer is presented with suffering, persecution, or temptation. More often than not, the correct response for the believer is presented as obvious and clear. The only question that remains is whether the believer will take said course.

This black and white perspective on trials and temptations finds it origins in part in the black and white culture of the West.4 Another influence is that for many decades, centuries even, much of the Western world identified as Christian nations. And as Christian nations embracing Christian values, right and wrong was considered a matter of course. The result was that “correct” choices founded on “Christian values” were presented as obvious—though difficult—choices in the face of trials and temptations.5 In interpreting Chinese history and stories, we (along with some of our Chinese friends) have also tended to view the stories and choices as right or wrong. Yet Brother Yang’s story and David Adeney’s conclusion thereof challenged me.

Brother Yang’s story is not crisp and clean. His is the story of messy choices in messy times. Did he make the “right” choices? That most definitely could be debated. However, David Adeney recognized what was even more important in Pastor Yang’s story. In all his choices, Pastor Yang sought to do his best to honor God and serve his flock. And in this David Adeney recognized a life and friendship that was Christ-like.

Perhaps in the past, in our “Christian nations,” it was easy to discern right from wrong and act accordingly. Or perhaps we simply presented this as being the case and wrote our narratives accordingly. As I have been reading stories from the time of the Cultural Revolution though, I have realized more and more, discerning the “right” decisions in trials and persecution rarely comes in black and white. More often, these are a matter of messy choices in messy situations.

This is true not only for the believers in China, but also for believers in the West. Right before reading the story of Pastor Yang, I found myself at a Bible study from my home church in the Netherlands. One of the women presented a challenging situation for her. The school at which she worked was celebrating a holiday which she could partly but not fully support due to her faith values. As a teacher she was expected to participate. What to do and how to do it? As we discussed the situation, we realized that the answer was not quite so black and white. What course of action would bring together our responsibility to be a light in the world, to stand for our faith, to pick our battles wisely, and so on and so forth?

In his article “Who Moved My Church?” Brent Fulton pointed out earlier this year that the Western nations are Christian no longer. I would agree. To go a step further, because of this move away from Christianity, I believe we will find ourselves more often facing messy choices and messy situations. As such, David Adeney’s account and conclusions of Brother Yang’s story might be of encouragement and support to believers.

When facing situations in which right and wrong choices are not quite so black and white, we need each other more than ever to discern the right path to take. In supporting each other, I believe we should also give each other the benefit of the doubt more often than not. “Right” in the situation might not seem like “right” after or out of the situation. In recognizing the motivation for the decisions made, we might also like David Adeney recognize and conclude: “I shall always thank God for all that his Christ-like life and friendship meant to me.”6

Works Cited

Adeney, David H. China: Christian Students Face the Revolution. London: InterVarsity Press, 1973.

Bays, Daniel H. “From Foreign Mission to Chinese Church.” Christianity Today. Accessed April 3, 2023.

Fulton, Brent. “Who Moved My Church?” ChinaSource Blog. January 27, 2023. Accessed April 3, 2023.

McElhatton, Emmet and Brad Jackson. “Paradox in Harmony: Formulating a Chinese Model of Leadership.” Leadership 8, no. 4: 441–461. Accessed April 3, 2023.


  1. Bays 2008, 148.
  2. Adeney 1973, 70-73.
  3. Ibid., 73. Emphasis added.
  4. This aspect of our culture comes out most strongly in contrast with the Daoist influences in China. Whereas Westerners tend to view situations as right or wrong, Daoist philosophy endorses that different times call for different approaches. This leads to paradoxes Westerners have found difficult to grasp (McElhatton and Jackson 2012, 445).
  5. That said, having lived in several Western nations, I have found that even the values that we grow up with as “Christian, biblical values” are sometimes more a reflection of our cultures than of the biblical standards.
  6. Adeney 1973, 73.
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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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