Chinese Church VoicesChurch Life

Interview with a Reformed Church Pastor (3)

From the series Interview with a Reformed Church Pastor

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In August, the Christian Times published a two-part interview with a pastor from a Reformed church in China. We have translated and divided that interview into three sections. The first two sections can be found here and here.

In this section (our Part 3) “Pastor Daniel” discusses the importance of attitude in preaching Reformed doctrine, specific lessons learned, and  how it has impacted renewal in many urban churches in China.

Continued from: "Interview with a Reformed Church Pastor: Development of the Reformed Faith in China, the Impact and Controversy" (Part 1) (Part 2).

Christian Times: You mentioned that this kind of attitude might cause people to misunderstand the Reformed faith. In fact, if we look at the world now, in places such as Europe and the United States the Reformed tradition is actually softer. Why is the Reformed faith in China different in this regard?

‪Pastor Daniel: I think there are several reasons. I already mentioned the first reason, that Christianity itself is exclusive. We believe that the Reformed teaching is the most biblical. When talking about faith, both John Calvin and Martin Luther expressed it in these terms. In fact this is the most original and normal expression. Today our expression is actually a little diluted. We seem to have forgotten the most original expression and it seems that softer is now normal.

‪Second, the earliest form of Reformed teaching that the Chinese house church came into contact with was a more conservative form, such as the translated works of some North American Reformed theological writers. However, although their thinking is more conservative, their manner of expression is still very gentle. But why did it become more extreme when it arrived on Chinese soil?

‪This is how I look at this issue: Many of these Reformed theologians are indeed more conservative. For instance, some even sing Psalms a cappella, completely without instruments, which in the current Chinese context is very difficult to understand. However, although they are very conservative, when they express their conservative ideas they use a very gentle tone and attitude to express a firm position. The resulting attitude is: “although I will not join your church and will not accept your teaching, this will not cause me to dislike you. I still have an accepting attitude towards you.” This is very good. However when we  encountered the first wave of Reformed preachers, we felt that their language and tone came off as arrogant. So, the people listening to the man not only rejected his thinking, but rejected the man.

‪But thankfully, this was a relatively short period. And most fundamentally, the writings of these Reformed theologians began to circulate, so that more people became aware of the Reformed faith. After that, we also slowly came into contact with more modern mainstream Reformed theologians and churches, such D.A. Carson, Pastor Tim Keller, and others. We also increasingly found that the original Reformed tradition was not like the one we initially thought we understood, and that the world's major Reformed traditions are not like that either. Indeed we are all interpreting Calvin, but the focus and expression of our interpretation is not the same.

Christian Times: So, as you look back on the ten years of events and effects of Reformed teaching in China, what is the state of affairs in terms of the general phase and the development of the church? Can you give a rough summary?

‪Pastor Daniel: It can roughly be divided into two phases. ‪The first stage was primarily the sermons and lectures of Pastor Stephen Tong, the works of Reformed theology translated by Pastor Zhao Zhonghui, as well as some domestic preaching from Reformed teachers with whom we initially came into contact, in three totally different ways.

‪Even though some traditional churches do not like Pastor Stephen Tong because of his criticism of charismatics and Little Flock, the impact of his sermons and lectures has basically been positive. Pastor Zhao Zhonghui's translation of Puritan books also has had a profound impact. Of course, these are all more indirect ways to access and learn about the Reformed faith.

‪The second stage began when Chinese church pastors began to be influenced by some of the modern western Reformed teachers. For example, pastors from some Chinese churches went to Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York on a study tour, and listened to his "Grace and the Gospel" sermon series.

Christian Times: Since coming into contact with representatives of western Reformed teaching, what specific lessons have Chinese church pastors learned? What kinds of renewal and changes have taken place?

‪Pastor Daniel: I would say that the main change is that some pastors of the Reformed faith have become softer and more gospel-centered. ‪Why has there been such a change? When the Reformed churches in China initially encountered and began to study Reformed teaching, they were primarily interested in learning systematic theology. There was interest in the emphasis on logic and reason, which would help develop the thinking skills of the people. But that led to a problem: we stressed systematic theology and developing rationality and logic, but neglected emotional sensitivity.

Another problem facing the Reformed churches in China is legalism. The traditional church is antinomian (emphasizing emotions) and anti-intellectual. One problem caused by antinomianism in the traditional church is the inundation of teaching an "Ideology of Grace" (恩典主义); that is, teaching only grace and love. For instance, previously the church simply taught that believing in Jesus would cure illnesses, and that believing in Jesus would bring peace to all areas of life. Reformed teaching raises the issue of the law, stressing that teaching about grace is good, but that grace without law is overindulgence. The function of the law is to make one aware of sin. Without an awareness of sin, one will treat grace very casually, and view it as an inevitable right. But that is not really grace. Elevating the positive role of the law has been an important contribution of the Reformed faith. Only people who recognize their sin under the law can truly understand grace.

‪Why does legalism remain a serious problem for the church in China? In fact, previously the Chinese church talked little of the law; they focused on piety. In reality, piety is legalism. Why do I say that? Because on the one hand they minimize the commands of God set forth in the Bible, saying they do not want the law. But then they set up their own law, just like the Pharisees. For example, they don’t allow smoking and drinking. In fact, most of what they teach is morality. These do not bring you to Christ, but to morality. Actually this is no different than Confucianism because Confucius also taught morality.

‪Why would legalism appear in the traditional Chinese church? Because their theology did not leave room for believers to be convinced of their salvation. “Until the Lord comes you cannot truly know whether or not you are saved. Who knows right now if you can be saved? So, you have to work hard!” This is relying on yourself for salvation; it is simply morality.

‪The ideal of Chinese culture is ethical thinking. Daoism and Confucianism both emphasize ethics, blending morality and faith. So, you will find that whether it is the Reformed church or the traditional church, because of this environment in China, both very easily live under the law.

‪Since logic is very strong and emotional sensitivity is weak, legalism is a problem and limitation many Reformed churches and church workers face. Recently, however, our contact with mainstream Reformed theologians, such as D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, John Piper, and others, has brought us far-reaching and profound renewal and change.

‪Let me give you the example of Pastor Tim Keller. What great renewal has his preaching and theology brought to us? One very good point is his emphasis on grace. What does he say the gospel is? The gospel is to live with Jesus Christ at the center of life. Actually, this is not new. We also like to talk about Jesus Christ as the center, but what does Tim Keller stress that the gospel is? The gospel is self-denial, living in grace; the more you live in grace, the more you deny yourself. The law is not an artificial standard, but if there is no law of grace, we bring harm to ourselves. So, law and grace are inseparable. This gospel makes you realize that whatever you do is with Christ at the center and that by nature you are an enemy of Christ. So the first reaction to an understanding of the true gospel is the desire to repent. When you truly understand Reformed teaching, you first realize that you want to learn about all the Christian denominations. This kind of study is not to say that I do not have my own position, but that I firmly stand on my Reformed position to look at other people. And the more I see the greatness of Christ, the more I see my own corruption and weakness, so I must continuously return to Christ.

‪Therefore the great impact of this on us is to make us gentler. Different theological backgrounds have great respect for each other. Even though, as Reformed believers, we hold a firm position, we also want to express ourselves gently. Why is this? Because we are repentant people. It's not that others need to repent; the first to repent is myself, and the second to repent is still myself. I must focus on my own need for repentance, not on the need of my brothers or sisters or others in the church that need to repent.

‪This type of theology will influence imagination, vitality, and action, and is related to our high regard for biblical theology. Before our main emphasis was on systematic theology because of its ability to develop the power of logic. But now more and more attention is given to Biblical theology, which looks at historical figures, historical events, and the overall context of events in the Bible. When looking at the characters and the history we see their emotion and plight. For example, the parable of the prodigal son in Luke really moves people. In this way, with regards to the aspect of vitality, we inject affections and warmth into the indifference and ideals cultivated by the study of systematic theology alone. Moreover, vitality needs to manifest itself through how we live our daily lives; this is faith action.

‪We also have come to see that the first one you serve is your home, not your church, workplace, or church members; otherwise these will become idols. Many of us have created an idol in our hearts; but these idols are not the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin Bodhisattva) or money, but rather our ministries. We minister and preach and do good things. We pay attention to our morality, and live sacrificially in terms of pay and being a role model. So maybe our idol is working 12 hours a day or preaching throughout the country. We wonder why we need to repent. We need to repent, not just of our filthy thoughts and behavior, but also for those things we believe we did well. We repent for the wrong things we have done, but also repent for the right things. We find our ”filthiest rags” are those right things that we have done well. This understanding marked the beginning of a new era.

‪The mainstream Reformed churches worldwide influenced our renewal by helping us understand that the gospel is not "ABC" but "from A to Z." All aspects must be renewed.We must pay attention to our families and to the little things. If my ministry keeps me from serving my wife and children, then it is an idol. Of course, it is not just the Reformed churches that have benefited from this teaching; many traditional evangelical churches have also benefited. Many pastors have experienced renewal and change and have repented.

‪The Chinese church began to be influenced by Reformed theology in 2000. Today they have started to move from an era of harsh expression to gentleness, from a focus on systematic theology to a focus on renewal of life.

‪I thank God for bringing us to this new stage. I think the Reformed church is a weak limb among the numerous denominational branches. If Reformed theology has brought revival to the church in China, it must certainly be God's own work; it is God dealing graciously with China.

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(下) (Gospel Times. Translated and posted with permission)

Image source: Hugenotten Museum

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