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Thoughts on Theological Education for Chinese Believers

Certainly Chinese church leaders need theological training. Here are some thoughts about the current situation of theological education for Chinese believers.

I like the idea of encouraging more theological training to be done within China rather than in other countries. It’s cheaper for Chinese believers to study in China, plus everything can be done in Chinese, their heart language. But as the number of official seminaries is inadequate to train all the leaders needed for the church in China and none of the house church seminaries are legal, theological education in China is still developing. However, there are many avenues of theological education currently in use in China.

One type of theological education is the many underground seminaries within both the wealthy and the poorer house church networks. These seminaries are less formal, and primarily use materials translated from English into Chinese. The instruction is usually done in Chinese by Chinese house church pastors. Often the teacher and the students build tight bonds with one another as they spend all their time together for an extended period of time. A downside of this type of seminary is that the teachers themselves often don’t have formal theological training, so false teachings can creep in.

Another kind of theological training that has been increasing is for seminary professors or pastors from the U.S. or other countries to travel to less evangelized areas of the world, including China, to teach short-term seminary courses. They teach intensive classes all day for a week or two to a handful of local believers. The advantage of this method is that the visiting professors usually have a strong theological education, but this format is still not ideal.

One weakness of this method is that the instructors usually have to use a translator because they don’t speak the local language. Also, they are only there for a week or two and have no way to evaluate the effectiveness of the classes or if the teaching is being implemented in the students’ ministries. Also, there’s no longer-term relationship between the instructors and the students, which limits their impact on the students as well as their ability to provide meaningful accountability.

A third kind of seminary now available in China is one where all of the teaching is done in Chinese by either a Chinese person or a foreigner who has been living in China for many years and speaks Chinese well. My old pal Jackson Wu is involved in this way to theologically train Chinese house church pastors. This is a good format because the professors are formally trained in theology, usually with a PhD from an accredited overseas seminary but the teaching is done in Chinese by teachers who speak Chinese well. Students who do a program like this receive an internationally accredited bachelor’s or master’s degree.

One further improvement will be when theologically trained Chinese believers teach all the needed courses, rather than having foreigners teach any of it. Foreigners may help lay the groundwork, but Chinese theologians will increasingly take over the responsibility. Over time, Chinese believers will step up as theologians and write doctrinally-sound books in Chinese—eliminating the need for translation—out of a Chinese mindset rather than from a western worldview.

Finally, another option for theological education for Chinese believers is now available at Columbia International University [CIU] in South Carolina (US) under the leadership of Chinese program director Zhiqiu Xu. Students from China can get a master’s degree at CIU—all in Chinese.

A weakness of the program is that the students have to read Chinese subtitles online while watching a CIU professor lecturing in English. This is much more difficult than listening to a professor lecture in Chinese.

The entire program only costs US$16,000 which is more expensive than seminary programs in China but cheaper than other US programs. There are scholarships available to cut down costs even more. However, many of those scholarships are contingent on the student returning to China after graduation which provides a strong financial incentive to return to China after receiving a degree. Students who decide to stay in the US after graduating won’t receive the full amount of scholarship money from the school.

Of these options, which one seems the best? None of them is perfect. I pray for the Lord in his mercy to provide many godly Chinese believers to step up and lead local seminaries faithfully and to write doctrinally-sound, original theological works.

We say to them: “Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it!” (Ezra 10:4)

Image credit: Swells in the Middle Kingdom.

Tabor Laughlin

Tabor Laughlin (pseudonym) is a PhD student in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He received his MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Missions and his bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from Oklahoma State University. He has been serving in China for ten years, and is president of a …View Full Bio

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