Over the past year, prominent house churches such as Zion Church in Beijing, Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, and Rongguili Church in Guangdong were shut down by government authorities. The closing of such churches has again stirred up questions about how the church and state in China should interact. How can the church be the church in this environment? Where is the line between the church and the state?
In this article from the journal ChurchChina, Jiang Dengxing sketches what that boundary should look like in China and argues that the future of the church in China depends on holding that line. Because of its length, we are posting excerpts of this article in four parts. This is part four.
Searching for the Boundary between State and Church in the East, Part 4
Let the Cross Clarify the Boundary between Church and State
In this ancient kingdom of the East, the social changes that we face are a very long process. The encounter of the gospel and Eastern humanism is as remarkable an event as was “the encounter of the gospel and Rome.”
We, as the church in this age, need to be unified by Jesus’ humiliation, hardships, and submission in our interactions with this earthly world. Therefore, we must strive to be submissive to governments. But when political authorities cross biblical boundaries—when the house church’s bottom line is violated as explained above—we hold fast to “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
We can propose this view, that the church must remain absolutely pure in things that relate to its heavenly nature, that is in areas of pure preaching of the gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, authority to govern, as well as pure worship, the fellowship of the saints, and the Great Commission. In these things we must be absolutely loyal to Christ, and display the spiritual authority Jesus Christ holds over the church as king of the kingdom of heaven. In these areas, the church cannot allow governments of the world to interfere.
This affects the church’s stance: as God’s possession, the church governs Christians’ worship of God, and therefore the church’s authority belongs solely to God. The church should reject any authority of Caesar that meddles in the church’s spiritual affairs. But the government, of course, has the authority to manage the church’s outward aspects, such as fire safety, disturbance of civilians, security issues, etc. Those belong to Caesar’s authority, and the church should not neglect its responsibilities in these areas just because they belong to heaven.
The church should remain absolutely pure in terms of spiritual faith. But in terms of religious rights, the church should remain unobtrusive and patient. Unified with the historic Christ who humbled himself, the church should be humble and suffering in this generation, bearing witness for the gospel. Only such a path is the true path of the cross of the Chinese church.
But I believe that under certain circumstances, such as when the biblical church is completely banned, it becomes difficult to distinguish between holding fast to religious rights and holding fast to the true faith. Under the current Regulations on Religious Affairs, any large gathering is illegal, and gatherings in houses are also illegal. Therefore, I believe anyone who confesses the gospel today and holds fast to the true church, is my brother. Like us, they are suffering for the same Christ. Their defense of religious rights as well as their defense of the true faith and the true church, is worthy of our respect. Every person should act according to what they receive. They will one day answer to God for their actions before him.
However, whether the theological stance behind the actions of each church and each pastor is biblical, as well as the bottom line to which they hold fast according to their understanding of the Bible, are most important questions. They relate to the church’s welfare, and as we are called to shepherd the sheep and watch over the church, we must be careful. After all, our understanding may be erroneous, or our human desires may be present.
If we represent this with a drawing, under the premise of holding to the basic bottom line of house churches, the public strategy of churches might differ. Many churches might appear in the public space. Some might be in the middle. Some are utterly hidden. But all are connected to the same cross. The basic theme is, whether they are loyal to Christ the head of the church, and whether they are loyal to the witness of the cross.
Spiritual Humility, Submission, and Heavenly Persistence
The church is unified with the glorified Jesus through being unified with the suffering Jesus.
When our faith is condemned or banned, that is when the church’s glory is manifest. This is where the confrontation between the authority of earthly kingdoms and the authority of Christ’s kingdom takes place.
Through this witness, the church becomes naked in this age. It becomes people whom the world is not worthy of. Through exercising his spiritual authority against this world, Christ displays his kingship in this world, so that worldly authorities surrender before the authority of the gospel, the hard hearts of people are taken out, and the peace of the gospel is accomplished.
In facing the Eastern political system, the church faces the government with spiritual humility, submission, and heavenly persistence. In this tension the church carries the cross, spreading the gospel of peace. The church’s mission is to spread the gospel of peace to those in power while carrying the cross. The church’s hope is that the authority of the gospel will cast out the hardness of heart of those in power. The church’s suffering is the channel through which God sets in action the power of the gospel. Therefore, when Christ’s church faces the government while holding fast to Christ’s eschatological kingship, the church must bear its cross. The cross-bearing church is the body of Christ. And when it meets with politics in a gentle, yet firm, manner that is when the boundaries of church and state in China slowly become clear.
Translated, edited and reposted with permission. This article is an excerpt from the original. Please refer to the original for the full context. The full English translation is now available for download here.
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