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Working out a Chinese Public Theology

Three Preliminary Guidelines


What exactly is public theology? While there appears to be no standard definition, it is often perceptually linked with the relationship between religious and civic life—how one reconciles and acts according to one’s so-called heavenly and earthly citizenships.

While this tension has always been present in the Christian life, the methods and rationales used for responding to it have often shifted based on changes in culture and society. In the past decade, such changes have been especially dramatic in the People’s Republic of China, making conceptions of public theology in the Chinese context more important than ever. In such a complex environment, how might scholars, ministers, and the everyday faithful go about articulating a public theology?

In this post, I would like to humbly offer three guidelines by which public theology might be worked out given China’s unique context.

  • First, a Chinese public theology ought to provide the Chinese church with sophisticated responses to both state support and persecution.
  • Second, a Chinese public theology ought to be responsive to historical themes and questions in Chinese Christian history.
  • Third, a Chinese public theology must engage the daily concerns and realities of Chinese public life.

These three points are based on my reflections in response to thoughts on public theology posted/translated by ChinaSource in recent weeks, many of which I will reference accordingly for the reader to review.  

Providing Sophisticated Responses to State Support and Persecution

Church-state relations lie at the heart of many public theologies, and a Chinese public theology will be no different. However, China’s distinct governance structures and unprecedented social change require a nuanced framework for Christians to navigate the constant ebb and flow of political change.

In the past decade, these changes have had a tremendous impact on Christian life. The dualistic days of an antagonistic “Faithful Christians vs. Atheist State” worldview will no longer do. Many urban house churches have been allowed to thrive, boasting diverse demographics interested in living a holistic Christian life that permeates society rather than only a life of prayer hidden away from others. The government has even been supportive of Christian social ministries that strengthen social stability. I have known of instances of government support for churches seeking to support youth “left behind” in rural villages when parents migrated to cities for work.

Conversely, recent media attention also highlights the ways the government has been aggressively removing crosses from registered church buildings and arresting leadership who voiced their opposition publicly. A recent Economist article has taken note of the slightly schizophrenic nature of current events, highlighting the ways in which the government has appeared to simultaneously support and persecute churches in attempts to take advantage of Christian charity while eroding political agency. Their conclusion states, “The party seems to be groping around with a stick in one hand and a carrot in the other, looking for ways to bully and coax Christians into serving its ends.” This mix of selective political support and persecution will likely become the new norm and Chinese Christians will have to form an equally sophisticated public theology to address it.

Without an updated public theology, the church risks knee-jerk reactions that can result in a net loss to its greater mission to embody God’s reign. A recent Chinese Church Voices translation of a thoughtful article from the Pushi Institute for Social Science provides some insight on the church’s response to the current “cross-demolition” campaign:

On the part of the churches, when faced with unfair treatment, there was a lack of sufficient, calm-minded examination of legal rights and areas in need of improvement, and no venue for processing which things are worth addressing. During the past few decades the church has largely been marginalized in its relationship to the state. The church has failed to realize that as the number of Christians has grown, so has its influence. Christianity has become a public institution and can no longer be ignored. Since there has been no change to a more “public” way of thinking regarding their influence on society, the resulting excessive self-righteousness in dealing with public affairs has resulted in further intensification of the conflict on both sides.

The author’s analysis reinforces my own perceptions of the church’s need for new theological frameworks birthed from the complexity of today’s context—ones that provide scaffolding for living a robust public life that is both “shrewd as vipers” and “innocent as doves.” The Chinese church will have to ask itself critical new questions, reconsidering how multi-faceted understandings of the gospel might be best communicated and fulfilled in each circumstance.

One way to begin this process is to re-examine the historical, social, and political contexts of the early church’s experiences with an antagonistic Rome. Within them are the shared experiences of persecution and social engagement, and wisdom for navigating these turbulent waters. Chinese Christians will have to struggle anew with the New Testament teachings of Jesus and the Epistles. What does it mean to “Render unto Caesar . . .  and unto God,” as Jesus taught? How shall Chinese Christians respect and honor the authorities as some of the Epistles teach? These questions will be answered in unique ways by the modern Chinese church given much of Western Christianity has articulated its answers to these same questions as a religion of state privilege. As such, Chinese articulations of public theology will not only be vital to the life of the Chinese church, but a substantial gift to the church universal, especially in places of complex state-religion relationships.

The second and third guidelines will be examined in part two of this post.

Image credit: Church of Tianjin City by廷 温 via Flickr.

Easten Law

Easten Law

Easten Law is a PhD student in theological and religious studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  His research examines the dynamics of religious pluralism and public theology in Chinese society. View Full Bio