ChinaSource Blog Posts

For and Against Denominations in China

A defining characteristic of the ministry of Ni Tuosheng (Watchman Nee) was his fierce antipathy toward denominations. Rebelling against what he saw as the corruption endemic in the mission churches, Ni denounced denominations as anti-scriptural and called on Chinese believers to leave the institutional church.

Writing in the upcoming issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, Jesse Sun traces the roots of Ni’s anti-denominationalism to the influence of the Brethren movement in the UK as well as Ni’s reaction to hypocrisy among Western missionaries who, in Ni’s words, “came to China in the name of saving people without themselves being saved.”

Guest-edited by Mary Ma and Jin Li, this issue of the Quarterly, which will go on line next week, examines both the history of denominations in China and the current discussion taking place in a church that is often referred to as “post denominational.”

The various contributors, most of whom are mainland Chinese, present contrasting views. Andrew Qie, a Christian educator currently studying theology, writes, “Denominationalism in thought and action is very popular in the current Chinese church—and very dangerous.” Author Wei Zhou, meanwhile, asserts, “Churches that reject denominationalism may have some success making a system of church governance effective to some degree, but they will have a hard time achieving its real purpose.”

In this issue we explore questions including:

  • Why have denominations become such an important topic for the church in China today, and how is this trend impacting church life?
  • Have divisions among China’s traditional house churches actually sown the seeds of current “denominational” distinctions?
  • How did pre-1949 Christian reformers differ from Ni in their assessment of denominations, and how do their perspectives inform the current debate?
  • How can Chinese Christians pursue unity even as they move toward distinct denominational identities?
  • How might Chinese church culture be a reflection of China’s political culture?
  • What challenges do churches face that embrace denominationalism?

Is the emergence of denominations inevitable? For his part, Ni’s pursuit of a non-denominational Chinese church was as much a reaction against foreign institutions as it was an attempt to remain faithful to the New Testament ideal of one united body of Christ. Yet, as Sun points out, “ironically, Ni’s vision of transcending church division actually led to the formation of a prominent sectarian Chinese church.”

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. 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... View Full Bio

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