This is the second part of an interview with a Reformed church pastor that was originally published in the Christian Times. In Part 1, Pastor Daniel shared about the background of the development of Reformed theology in China, the current condition, and his thoughts on what’s next. In this part, he discusses some of the challenges that churches face in adopting Reformed theology, and shares some of the lessons he learned as he led his church through a transition. He acknowledges the criticisms of Reformed churches, and urges pastors and churches to adopt the right attitude.
Christian Times: Churches that have adopted the Reformed faith are mostly urban churches, especially those with intellectuals involved. But at the same time, there are still many traditional church pastors who have not made the change. They stress that what we should look primarily at is not the writings of the Reformers, but the Bible. What is your response to this?
Pastor Daniel: The Bible is certainly the fundamental authority. But the question is how do we interpret the Bible? According to the Bible, what is confession of faith? In this way, many people do not understand the Reformed faith and do not understand that "Scripture alone" is one of the five "Solas" of Reformed theology.
When a person wants to read the Bible carefully, and is still in need of help to do so, he needs an interpretive book, such as a commentary. He needs to understand different types of classic interpretation. One certainly must select, and will come into contact with, different denominations. In this process, Reformed books on Biblical exegesis can be very helpful. One of the greatest exegetical writers in the United States is D.A. Carson (Professor of New Testament Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago), who is Reformed. You only need to go looking for this century's best books on exegesis and naturally you will find Carson and be influenced by him.
Christian Times: In China, one of the controversies surrounding the Reformed faith is that there are pastors and church workers who feel that Reformed churches and pastors excessively stress that they themselves are correct and that they express a kind of tougher critical attitude toward those who are different from them. Therefore, there are pastors and church workers who are rather put off by this kind of attitude and reject the Reformed faith. What are your thoughts on this matter?
Pastor Daniel: First of all, we must remember that Christianity itself is exclusive. It has its own clear-cut position. Whether it is engaging in dialogue with society or culture, it still has its own distinct understanding. It is not like other religions that say "all roads lead to Rome” or “no matter what you believe you can go to heaven.” The Reformed faith maintains its own identity; it will not hold two contradictory views at the same time. Of course, for some non-doctrinal issues there will be tolerance, but in regards to questions of doctrine there is a very clear position.
But I think that the Reformed tradition gives people an impression of intolerance, not because its theology is intolerant, but because of attitude. For example, Pastor Stephen Tong's theology is very profound, very principled, and treats many questions as clear-cut, which is very good. But for people who do not know him, or do not entirely follow the content of his talks, they sometimes feel that his manner of expression is rather strong, making a person feel uncomfortable. I believe that some people might think he is not very forgiving, not because the theological beliefs he expresses are not forgiving, but because they feel his manner of expression appears to be unforgiving.
In fact, the Reformed faith is very forgiving, and the manner of expression of many representatives of the Reformed tradition is also very gentle. For example, Pastor Tim Keller is very similar to Pastor Stephen Tong in that they both very clearly state that homosexuality is sin. However, because the two deal with different social environments as well as different points of contact with culture, their manners of expression are different. American, overseas Chinese, and mainland traditional Chinese cultures are all very different. We are not able to completely copy another person's manner of expression in China. We can not require China's Reformed churches to all be like Pastor Stephen Tong or to all be like Pastor Tim Keller.
China's Reformed churches are in a process of transformation and learning. We have to admit that we are still immature in many areas. Perhaps when studying another person's theological positions, we have also absorbed their manner of expression, causing people to have a misunderstanding of the Reformed faith and feeling that the Reformed faith is not very forgiving and mature.
I think many people's misunderstanding of the Reformed faith today is a result more of the manner of expression as opposed to misunderstandings of theological ideas. And, indeed some Reformed voices are relatively narrow minded in regard to comprehension of the Reformed faith at the start of their studies. So, these are all reasons the Reformed faith is criticized by some people today.
To reiterate one point, China is in a period when the urban church is emerging. These have been growing since 2000. However, an important problem is that many of these Reformed urban churches do not have an overlapping older spiritual generation from which to inherit. On top of that, there are many intellectuals in these churches, so they are susceptible to the trap of rationality and reason. Reformed thought itself is very rational and logical. So it's not surprising that, because of its developed thought and the lack of overlap with living spiritual predecessors, combined with an innate deficiency, people feel as if the people of the Reformed church are very rational, enjoy debating and critiquing people, and that all conversation is logical, coherent, and about the law. This is a common phenomenon.
I myself am in the process of learning and understanding that the Reformed faith is very forgiving. But if the method is wrong, it is easy for people to misunderstand. I pay attention to the method of expression, so the process of transformation in our church is relatively smooth and we have had relatively little conflict.
Christian Times: Can you talk specifically about how your church deals with the process of transition? What were your experiences and lessons learned?
Pastor Daniel: I have seen some previous examples of churches that used relatively rigid methods and processes during the time of transition that led to many conflicts. In the end they ended up with nothing definite or they failed. So one thing I learned was to proceed cautiously.
I came into contact with Reformed teaching in 2000. In 2001, our church workers began to study individually, but it wasn't until 2006 that our church officially began the transition. So the first five years were just a time of continuous study without any steps towards formal transition. In 2006 we formally confirmed our Reformed doctrine and adopted the Presbyterian form of church governance.
From 2001 to 2006, I mainly researched and studied Reformed theology on my own. Previously, most of what had I read talked about the inner life. The church in China likes to read books such as Streams in the Desert and Broken Spirit, but books on exegesis and theology are rare. At that time I basically watched all of Pastor Stephen Tong's video lectures on exegesis and I downloaded and listened to his sermons. So, he enlightened me. Later I read Calvin's book Institutes of the Christian Religion and many Puritan books, such as those written by Spurgeon, Bavinck and other translated books. At this stage I was reading a lot of books.
As my own Reformed thinking began to take shape, I started looking for co-workers to share and discuss these things with. Many of them were also struggling with and pondering these things. At the start there was a lot of tension and people could not accept it. But I used a gentle way, saying, “If you do not accept it, then we can suspend it.” At the time, there were many people who could not accept things like infant baptism, or eternal security. But over time, with study and learning, they came to accept these teachings. So, I think the key point here is the pastor's way of preaching. You need to wait for the congregation with a shepherd's heart. This is the same as a parent waiting patiently for a child, who is small and doesn’t understand things, to grow up. It means waiting for the Holy Spirit to open a person’s heart and allow him to grow slowly. This is the process.
However, I found out during this process that the early adopters of the Reformed faith only preached doctrine; they did not pastor their congregations. They lined up to speak everywhere, but did not shepherd their churches. So, what the people from the congregation would say would be different than what the pastor was saying. Because the backgrounds of the two were different, the style, method, and the tone were different. For example, Moses was very tough, but after 40 years of shepherding in the wilderness he was completely different. So from my experience I would say be sure to be careful and slow, but also be soft and wait. At the same time, remember that there will inevitably be people who do not accept the transition. So, we also must respect them and respect that they can not accept it.
As I mentioned before, our church workers began to study Reformed theology in 2001, but we didn’t begin the process of change until 2006. We waited until everyone was in unanimous agreement before beginning the process of change.
I have shared my experiences with transforming churches around the country, reminding them that they must be cautious and take it slowly. Transforming churches must know this. Why is it especially important to remember this? Because when you contrast the doctrines of the Reformed church and the teachings of the traditional church you will see a big discrepancy and you will feel a moment of sudden clarity. You will go from previously opposing theology to valuing theology, from no rationality to rationality, from a patriarchal system to a democratic system. For those well-educated and learned people who see this, I hope that you will make the change in the right away, that it will arouse a passion in you to transform immediately. Yet, contrary to expectations, it will produce negative effects, it will produce harm, and the biggest problem is that it will produce division. In fact, many divisions are not caused by Reformed teachings, but because the extreme approaches cause division.
So, why do people in traditional churches criticize the Reformed churches? Certainly there are teachings that are hard to accept, such as total depravity, or the doctrine of the millennium. But these are not fundamental issues. Another example is infant baptism. I know one very representative Reformed church in which they do not require church members to perform infant baptism, but if you want your children to receive baptism the church will do it. I think this is a very broad-minded [forgiving] attitude. So again, infant baptism is not the biggest problem.
The main problem is attitude, not theological differences. A wrong attitude makes people feel that we are “puffed up with arrogance.” "You all are not the true church; we are the true church. You all are not Reformed; we are the most Reformed. You are not really spiritual; we are really spiritual." These kinds of expressions disgust people. So I think an attitude of respect is very important.
Original article: 专访一改革宗教会牧者：改革宗在中国的发展、影响与争议(上) (Christian Times. Translated and posted with permission)
Photo Credit: Hugenotten Museum
Note: In Part 3, Pastor Daniel will discuss the differences in Reformed practices in China and the west, and once again emphasize the importance of attitude.
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