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We've Come this Way Before


Throughout history as various attempts have been made to introduce the gospel to China, a series of “perennial questions” have arisen regarding the relationship between the Christian faith and Chinese culture. Understanding the background behind these big questions is essential to addressing them as they appear in China today. Here are four that come to mind:

How to make the gospel “Chinese?”

This is the question that faced the Nestorians when Christianity first came to China in 635AD. In an effort to make the gospel relevant during China’s Buddhist golden age, the Nestorians couched the Christian message in Buddhist and Daoist terms. This “gospel of the cross and lotus” contained elements of the essential Christian message, but its messengers ran the risk of being misunderstood as just another Buddhist sect.

Later Protestant missionaries struggled to separate the gospel from its links to gunboats and the opium trade. The common phrase “one more Christian, one less Chinese” eventually gave rise to indigenous Christian movements that sought to put distance between the Chinese church and its Western antecedents. More recently, in an attempt prove that Christianity is not alien to Chinese culture, books such as Faith of our Fathers and God’s Promise to the Chinese have endeavored to prove that ancient Chinese had knowledge of the God of the Bible.

What about the ancestors?

Disagreement about whether Christian converts should be allowed to observe Chinese ancestor practices culminated in the Rites Controversy, resulting in the expulsion of Catholic missionaries from China by the Kangxi Emperor. Protestant missionaries were equally divided on the subject. In the last century the debate has played out in Christian communities in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Today in China ancestor practices are making a comeback. Chengdu pastor Wang Yi mentioned in a recent sermon that 206 million Chinese believe in the existence of ancestral spirits, and 123 million give offerings in their homes to ancestors. A deeper and perhaps more immediate issue concerns filial piety and the question of how Christian young people are to honor their parents when the desires of their parents run contrary to God’s will.

The relationship between religion and state.

The Rites Controversy highlighted the long-held assumption in China that the state is ultimately above all religions, whether homegrown or imported. The state retains the prerogative to determine which religions should be allowed and how much space they should be given. Such has been the case throughout most of China’s history, and it is certainly true in China today. “Religion serving socialism” is the regime’s current slogan for describing the church’s place vis-à-vis China’s ruling Party.

The name for God.

Catholic missionaries devised “Heavenly Lord” (Tianzhu), while Protestants were split between “Lord on High” (Shangdi) and the more generic “god” or “spirit” (Shen). The debate was somewhat put to rest with the publication of the Union Version Chinese Bible, which has two editions depending upon which name for God one prefers. Yet communicating the notion of the Christian God within the Chinese cultural context remains a challenge. More than a question of semantics, it requires understanding the worldview of those with whom one seeks to communicate, whether atheist, animist, or traditional Buddhist.

With all the talk of a “changing China,” it is easy to assume the Middle Kingdom has moved beyond its cultural moorings, deeply imbedded in the nation’s long history. Much has changed, yet where gospel and culture intersect many of the questions remain the same.

Dr. Brent Fulton is President of ChinaSource and author of China’s Urban Christians: A Light that Cannot be Hidden. This post is excerpted from “The Church in China Today,” a new ChinaSource Institute course that will be available online later this summer.  

Image credit: IMG_9437 by Ken Marshall via Flickr.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  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 China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio