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Why Denominations?

Responding to “When the 'Golden Age' Is Over”

From the series Reflecting on the End of the “Golden Age”

I commend Chen Jing for his recent timely and insightful blog post, “When the ‘Golden Age’ Is Over: A Call for Missiological Reflection.” In light of the recent expulsion of many cross-cultural workers from China, Chen Jing suggests it is particularly appropriate and urgent that at this crucial moment in history, we reflect on the theology and assumptions that have guided our missiological praxis in China over the past four decades. Specifically, Chen raises a number of important questions for consideration. Although all of the questions posed have merit, I would like to respond to one in particular, “Why should American denominations be re-introduced into China…and promoted,” especially in the early twenty-first century?

I have lived and served in China for most of the past thirty years, and this question reminds me of two conversations with Chinese Christian friends. The first conversation took place in the mid-1990s with a Chinese friend (let’s call him Brother Li) who was a relatively new Christian, but extremely gifted and destined to become a strong church leader. Brother Li noted that, in his view, the church in China didn’t need to engage in the theological debates that seemed to divide the various church traditions and denominations in the West. I remained silent, but inwardly smiled and thought, “How long will this last?”

Sure enough, over the years I watched those seemingly distant debates became pressing issues as the Chinese churches, including one that Li helped establish, developed and began to wrestle with many of the very same issues. How do we baptize new believers and is this a necessary prerequisite for participating in the Lord’s Supper? How shall we select church leaders, and do we include women in these roles? How shall we structure our worship services, and what role do we give to gifts of the Spirit? How should we collect tithes and offerings? Shall we send out missionaries and, if so, how? These and a host of other questions emerged. The denominational distinctions in the West no longer seemed so esoteric. Most, it seemed, were rooted in real-life issues that usually could not be avoided.

Additionally, if local churches wanted to work together in order to provide accountability for ministers, more effectively plant churches, send out missionaries, and train leaders, a number of theological and methodological questions needed to be addressed. Increasingly, Chinese church leaders began to see that they need not “reinvent the wheel,” but might benefit from the wisdom of Christians through the ages. Upon further reflection, Brother Li found that the forced isolation of the past had actually served to separate indigenous Chinese churches from one another as well as from past generations of wise Christian brothers and sisters. The perspective gained from studying church history was not only helpful and unifying, but it was essential for cooperative work.

Fast forward almost twenty years. Around 2013 a student at a nearby TSPM seminary approached me and asked if I would be willing to mentor and teach him. He was frustrated by his courses at the local TSPM seminary. He felt that the seminary’s “post-denominational” curriculum, which tended toward simply describing various positions on theological topics (e.g., Lutheran, Presbyterian, and so on), was confusing for young students. The different positions, which appeared to him to be contradictory, left them all bewildered. “We don’t know what we should believe,” he stated. This young man yearned for a tradition, a clear and consistent body of doctrine, upon which to base his ministry. So, he came to me and said, “I want to know what you believe.”

My student friend also noted many within the TSPM were openly acknowledging they had made a mistake in following the post-denominational route. Indeed, he said that there is a hui gui chuan tong (回归传统, back to tradition) movement that is calling for a reconnection with the denominational traditions of the past as well as their corresponding churches abroad. In short, many are fed up with coerced, artificial uniformity and frustrated with training methods devoid of any clear doctrinal stance.

Together, these two conversations highlight the inevitability, and even the desirability, of the churches in China forming denominational structures. These structures will normally either parallel or consciously connect with existing Christian traditions and denominations. This development should not be viewed negatively, as a manifestation of the colonial past; but rather, it should be seen for what it truly is: the Chinese church benefiting from the wisdom of a rich Christian heritage.

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Image credit: Antonella Vilardo via UnSplash.

Luke Wesley

Luke Wesley (pseudonym) is a cross-cultural worker who has lived and served in China for most of the past three decades.View Full Bio

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