In the decades since it reemerged out of the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China’s church has often been compared to the early Christian community portrayed in the book of Acts.
Indeed, the characteristics of the early church—signs, wonders, miracles, extraordinary growth, and loving Christian community set against a backdrop of suffering and state-sponsored persecution—have all been on display in the modern miracle that is the resurrection of the Chinese church.
Over the years a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the Chinese church has further embellished this original portrait, giving rise to a number of prominent China church narratives that speak not only to the state of the church but also its relationship to the Christian community outside China. These, too, resonate with the major themes found in Acts.
The dominant persecuted church narrative, for example, echoes the experience of early Christians, who suffered at the hands of Jewish authorities and Roman officials. Stephen became the church’s first martyr. Paul went from being the persecutor to being persecuted in the course of his spiritual pilgrimage. False accusations, detention, beatings, and imprisonment characterized the life of the early church. Much the same could be said about the church in contemporary China.
The needy church narrative that characterized much evangelical China discourse in the 1980s and 1990s brings to mind the generosity that emerges early on in the book of Acts, with believers sharing their goods and selling property in order to provide for those who lacked. Deacons were appointed to care for those in need. Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem would become a model for Christian fundraising practices down through the centuries, including raising funds to assist believers in China.
Later in Acts we see how culture was being transformed. Racial barriers came down. The gospel was preached to pagan philosophers and even among the palace guard. The seeds of cultural change that were sown would lead eventually to the Christianization of the empire. Looking back upon this process, sociologist Yang Fenggang and others have asked whether a similar dynamic today could result in a Christian China.
The missionary church narrative running throughout Acts paints a compelling picture of how the gospel spreads, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. And in China today a growing missionary impulse propels believers to take the gospel beyond China’s borders.
The attractiveness of these narratives—both in the book of Acts as well as in the contemporary Chinese experience—lies in their ability to explain significant factors in the church’s development. Yet any one of these narratives, taken by itself, can become one-sided and misleading, particularly if it becomes the sole guide for our own Christian endeavors.
As the contemporary American evangelical experience demonstrates, an obsession with perceived threats to religious freedom can lead to strident political activism and a blatant disregard for truth. A desire to enforce “biblical values” can leave Christians flailing in the trenches of cultural warfare. Defining our success solely in terms of how effective we are at meeting particular needs or how many people groups we can cross off our spreadsheets reveals a pragmatism that undercuts the authenticity of our witness as believers. When we no longer bear the marks of him whom we claim to represent, we have lost the plot.
Like the complementary plotlines in the book of Acts, the narratives often employed to describe China’s church are but subplots in the much larger story of Christ’s witnesses in China.
Luke sets the stage for the entire account by quoting Jesus’s answer to the disciples’ question, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). David Bosch points out that Christ’s response, echoing his words in Luke 24, constitutes the essence of the Christian mission made possible by his death and resurrection, namely, that the message of repentance and forgiveness would be preached by Spirit-empowered witnesses to all nations. The church thus carries forward the multifaceted life and work of Jesus, inaugurated in the Nazareth synagogue where he read from the prophet Isaiah and proclaimed, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).1
The church’s witness entails persecution and suffering. It is lived out in caring Christian community. It transcends cultural boundaries and has the power to transform culture. Each of these aspects of the Christian witness speaks to one facet of the totality of Christ’s kingdom reign. Each provides a complementary narrative in the overall plot, which is the story of Christ at work in and through his witnesses on earth.
Apart from the story of how Christ by his Spirit empowers believers and transforms them to become like him, these lesser narratives are mere descriptions of human effort and activity.
To quote Bosch,
The term ‘witness’ is a very fitting one for what Luke wishes to communicate. It is evident, from Acts, that this task is entrusted to very fallible human beings who can do nothing in their own power, but are continuously dependent upon empowerment by the Spirit. But also, in a sense, they are not really called to accomplish anything, only to point to what God has done and is doing, to give testimony to what they have seen and heard and touched.2
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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