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Towards Authentic Contextualization

A Reader Responds

Coming from an Anabaptist tradition, I found the focus on Reformed churches in China in the winter 2021 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly a stimulating read. Since Chinese Christians have long engaged with the amazing and sometimes perplexing global variety of Christian traditions—the earliest recorded encounter being with an Asian and Nestorian expression of Eastern Orthodoxy in the 7th century—it is not surprising that Chinese Christians today are interacting vigorously with Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal expressions of the Christian movement.

These Western denominational distinctives are not easy to parse, even in the West. There are Charismatic Catholics, Anglicans, and Baptists, and a nearly infinite variety of Protestants, Pentecostals, independent Bible and community churches, and megachurch movements. Whenever Westerners use labels like Reformed, Anabaptist, or Pentecostal, we must make careful and dizzyingly complex distinctions about history, doctrine, and polity. We also find ourselves justifying contemporary expressions of worship, teaching, and practice that conflict with official positions. When we turn to the majority world and the global South where most Christians live today, traditional denominational and doctrinal distinctives that we have passionately fought over (sometimes literally) in the West, are often held lightly as believers deal with pressing concerns of spiritual warfare and existential survival under at times harsh political restrictions and physical and financial hardship.

It is not surprising to see in China the challenge of defining a Reformed or Reforming church, and its underlying theology. In his article, “China’s Reforming Churches, Continued,” Bruce P. Baugus defines such churches in China this way:

A Reformed church not only affirms that Jesus Christ is the only savior of sinners, that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, and that Scripture is the supreme source and only norm of faith and life, it exemplifies these commitments in its practice. Reformed churches, therefore, exhibit meaningful practices of ministerial training, ordination, and subscription; biblically regulated worship; formal processes of church membership and discipline; and the pursuit of personal holiness through the ordinary means of grace God has provided (word, prayer, and sacraments). 

This is a broadly Protestant rather than Reformed description that fits most official and home churches in China—and evangelical churches around the world for that matter. Of course Baugus is more precise and narrow by his reference to the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, and the Second London Confession. But most Christians in China will never read the Chinese translations of documents such as these unless they belong to self-identified Reformed churches.  

I can understand the desire of Chinese church leaders, especially in home churches, to have a theological and ecclesiological “lens” through which they read the Bible and structure their teaching and practice of the faith. I well remember one of my friends coming back to Shanghai from a visit with some Anabaptist Christians in the United States, proclaiming that he wanted their home fellowship to be Amish. Christians and churches everywhere find ways of identifying with other believers, “in Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Seventy years after the Revolution, registered churches in China still retain “founder flavors” such as Anglican, Presbyterian, or Seventh-day Adventist (worshiping on Saturday). And the continuing legacy of the 16th century Reformation is recognized in that two of the five officially recognized religions in China are Protestant and Catholic. 

But I have a nagging worry as we move beyond the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This European social and religious upheaval, which we Protestants celebrate in our various confessions of faith, actually led to a century of tragic religious wars, and in my own Anabaptist tradition, to my ancestors being persecuted and sometimes tortured and killed by our Reformed and Catholic neighbors. Those bloody conflicts ultimately turned Europeans against an internally conflicted Christianity and contributed to a post-Christian culture and largely empty church buildings throughout Europe—except for tourists, many of whom are from China.

And so I ask: how will importing and amplifying these Protestant divisions and conflicts help Chinese Christians navigate the complex challenges of the government’s demand for “Sinicization”? Does not the import of these Western debates hurt the authentic contextualization of the Christian faith in China where Christianity continues to be viewed by many as a foreign or imported religion?

I was happy to see the Quarterly’s Reformed issue focusing on contextualization. Zhen Gao and Dong Mei define healthy contextualization as “on the one hand, recognizing the supremacy of the Bible and not compromising the essence and character of the gospel and, on the other hand, adjusting the methods of sharing the gospel and the models of ministry to reach a given culture.” That is a broad definition. To make it fit the variety of Christian traditions, we might need to say, “recognizing the authority of both the Bible and church tradition.” And that tradition could be Reformed, Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, or some new expression of reformation (or schism, depending on one’s perspective).

The Chinese government has more demanding and concrete expectations with regard to contextualization. Churches are expected to “practice the core socialist values; adhere to the nation’s principle of religious independence and self-government, persist in the nation’s orientation toward the [Sinicization] of religion, actively bring about the adaptation of religion to socialist society; and preserve religious tranquility and acquiescence, social harmony, and ethnic concordance.”1 What “Sinicization” means in practice is clearly spelled out. Churches are expected to:

  • ritually raise the national flag, often while singing the national anthem;
  • teach believers about and promote the Chinese Constitution, laws, and regulations;
  • preach and promote Core Socialist Values; and
  • promote China’s excellent traditional culture.2

How Chinese Christians understand and respond to these demands will gradually become evident, and ChinaSource will be an invaluable source of information for those of us who follow and pray from a distance.

Many American Christians might not object so strenuously to such demands from a communist government if we contextualize them. We might, for example, encourage churches to display the American flag, pledge allegiance to the flag in Christian as well as in public schools, sing the national anthem at various public and sporting events, and help believers and nonbelievers alike to appreciate the Christian foundations of the American constitution and democratic capitalism, and to celebrate American exceptionalism, a “a city on a hill and a light for the nations.” Is this Christianity with American characteristics?

In Europe, of course, contextualization has deeper and more complex roots. The Queen of England is the head of both church and state. The German government collects taxes to support Lutheran and Catholic, but not Baptist or Pentecostal churches. Since 1929 the Vatican has been independent from Italy and is now a sovereign city state, under the authority of the Pope, who holds spiritual authority over 1.3 billion Catholic Christians around the world.

After its “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western Christian countries, is it surprising that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to ensure authentically contextualized churches in China—patriotic churches that are self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating, that reflect Chinese culture in the same way that Western churches reflect their own various cultures?3

Gao and Mei conclude their helpful review of contextualization in China alongside the government’s demand for Sinicization with this prescient statement:

How the next generation will turn out is the most important question. The crisis of faith has intensified in the twenty-first century, and this is a global issue. Islam is growing in Europe; technological advances are causing the spread of worry over human value; materialism, diversification, and secularism are penetrating ever more deeply. The Christian faith will be less and less tolerated by the world and will even become a minority religion instead of a majority religion. In such circumstances, it is the people who have a steadfast faith, are well equipped, and were trained up since childhood who will courageously take on the responsibilities of the future.   

It puzzles me that while we want to affirm the authentic contextualizing of Christianity in China, we continue to import ancient and modern European and American divisions (and let us be honest, conflicts) into China. How do these Western doctrinal and denominational divisions help Chinese Christians to authentically contextualize the gospel whose roots and practice were Asian long before they were European and Protestant? Is it not ironic that—after the CCP removed most denominational distinctives from Protestant churches in China—we, the still deeply divided churches of the West, continue to find ways to smuggle these divisions back into China? Should we not be ashamed that the CCP enforces unity for Chinese Christians while we continue, if unintentionally, to encourage division?

Would it not be more helpful and honest if we humbly acknowledge that many Western churches (Protestant, Reformed, Pentecostal, and Catholic) are shrinking and dying? Should we not recognize and celebrate that, by contrast, churches of the global South and East (including in China) are growing and that they are creatively contextualizing the gospel and theology in ways at least as biblical and Spirit-directed as our various Western denominational contextualizations? That this non-Western contextualizing will leave many of our Western theologies and “brands” diminished or transformed could encourage us to repent for the scandal of our divisions—which the world (and the CCP) can readily observe—and to redouble our efforts to fulfill one of the final earthly prayers of Jesus that “we all be one.”

For all of us there is the challenge in contextualization of protecting the gospel of Jesus from an idolatrous nationalism (or denominationalism) on the one hand, or a post-Christian syncretism on the other. We can be patriotic citizens who celebrate our various national and cultural identities who at the same time are “fellow citizens with all God’s people and members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Messiah Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone—all of us united in a temple in which God by his Spirit is pleased to make his home” (Ephesians 2:19-21, paraphrased). 


  1. Unofficial translation of Measures on the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services at China Law Translate
  2. “Four Requirements.”
  3. It is not always remembered that the “three-self principle” has roots in a 19th century missionary strategy widely honored if not always consistently practiced in China and other Asian countries.
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Nate Showalter

Nate Showalter (ThD) has pastored international churches in Taipei and Shanghai; he is currently a consulting pastor with the Vine Church in Hong Kong. He is author of The End of a Crusade: The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and the Great War (Scarecrow, 1998).View Full Bio

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