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The Church in China: Asking the Wrong Questions?


The church in China is often viewed through two prevailing and related paradigms. The "persecuted church" paradigm positions the church and the Chinese government in perpetual opposition to one another, while the "Christian China" paradigm sees Christianity as bringing a new moral order to China and foresees the day when the church will usher in political change.

In her recent post, "Researching Chinese Christianity: (Mis)conceptions and revelations," University of Westminster professor Gerda Wielander takes issue with both these paradigms while posing the question, "What is the real social and political impact of Christianity in China today?"

A survey of the connection between Christian ideas and of individual Christian intellectuals upon current political movements, as well as upon social relations at the grassroots level, leads Wielander to the conclusion that this influence has been significant. The church community provides moral support to individuals, a platform for collective activities, and an incubator for a new kind of social leadership. At the same time, she points out that Christian influence is not only a factor in China's transformation, but also a symptom; China's increasingly diverse and pluralistic culture has provided more and more space for the Christian voice to be heard.

Wielander is not entirely optimistic, however, about the church's prospects as an agent of social change. Its conservatism, particularly in the area of gender relations, and the intolerance of many in the church toward those who hold different doctrinal positions, could keep the church from enjoying wider social influence. So could its apparent indifference toward the marginalized or persecuted (Wielander cites China's Tibetan Buddhist community in particular.). Rather than ushering in transformation, Wielander sees the church as largely reinforcing traditional patriarchal leadership and gender roles:

"It appears that traditional gender roles and notions of male intellectual prowess conspire to create an agenda and future direction of the churches determined by highly educated, middle-aged Chinese men whose leadership many educated Chinese women unquestioningly accept."

Concerning current efforts by Han Chinese to evangelize China's ethnic minorities, Wielander suggests that their use of the Chinese Bible and of Putonghua go hand-in-hand with the government's "civilization" program. She contrasts these efforts with the previous work of Western missionaries, who created for some minorities "alternative pathways toward modernization" by raising their standard of living and translating scripture into minority languages.

Wielander also sees attitudes of "rational" urban Christians toward their rural counterparts, whom they may view as backward or uncultured, as echoing the party-state's differentiation between "normal" religious activity and the superstitious activity of cults. By distancing itself from what has been Christianity's true indigenous manifestation for the past three decades, instead of seeking to strengthen it, the urban church may unwittingly find itself parroting the official line on religion.

According to Wielander, "The framing of the religious question in China through the distorting lens of political repression, human rights violation and dissent, has perhaps led us to ask the wrong questions." Believers in China may take issue with some of Wielander's observations. However, her reframing of the questions is helpful in bringing to light the layers of complexity that exist in the church's relationship to the state, the society, and even to itself.

Photo by Joann Pittman

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