Chinese Church Voices

The Challenge of Relationships in the Church

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

In Chinese culture, relationships or “guanxi” are the axle on which society turns. Business deals, government policies, career advancement can be greased to run more smoothly depending on how well one is connected to people in power.

In this article from Behold Magazine, Lu Ju discusses how relationships influence the church, particularly in reference to the way cliques and factions can damage the witness of the church. Lu argues that the Bible calls on Christians to uphold the universal or “catholic” nature of the church by humbly serving and reaching out to all people and cultures.

Relationships or Not?—Discussing “Public” and “Private” in Church

Anyone with pastoral experience has heard it before: “To do ministry well, we must first build up relationships;” “if you have the right relationships, things are alright. If you don’t have the right relationships, every thing’s problematic;” “problematic relationships lead to problematic everything;” “it’s hard to take even a step without relationships;” “you must first cultivate your own people, only then will people respond to your call and move the ministry forward”. . .

And so in certain churches, pastoring becomes drawing on relationships and building relationships. As long as relationships are harmonious, then the church gets along happily. When relationships are in discord, it causes people to lose morale, the group to splinter, and even tumultuous storms to happen.

Is this “theory of relationships” truly biblical?

Cliques and Factions

Relationships are indeed important. The God we believe in is a trinity, and this reveals that the divine being not only includes actual persons, but also the relationships between these persons. Relationships are not external, additional, or optional. Relationships are a part of God’s being! Looking over all religious systems, the Christian faith is the one that pays most attention to relationships, so much so that we can directly and simply define: “God is love!”

To emphasize relationships in church is necessary. However, if we move ministries forward by simply relying on relationships, we will cause harm to the church. The church may see cliques abound and factions grow, like the situation of the Corinthian church: “‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” (See 1 Corinthians 1:12).

Once factions appear, the truth will be twisted. Even if there are many problems, we would protect in any way possible anyone who has a relationship with us, who is in the same party as us. As for those who are not in our party, we would distance ourselves from them. We would act as if we had not heard or are unmoved by their suggestions even if they adhere to biblical principles. . . The entire spiritual environment would turn acidic, unsuitable for spiritual growth. The church pastor would lack energy, be less effective, and be worn out physically and emotionally. Outside visitors would have a hard time integrating, and would leave in disappointment after some time. 

Even worse, certain leaders in the church may be tempted by power, attempt to control the church’s entire development by their own power, or even leave with their own group of people and split the church.


The above scenarios all come from over-emphasizing relationships, and not understanding that the church should function and develop according to another principle—that is, the church’s catholicity. Is it the model of personal relationships that moves the church forward, or is it the principle of church catholicity that allows the church to function in the sunlight, according to the principles of truth? This is an important topic in contemporary church practice!

So, what is the church’s catholicity? The word “catholicity” comes from the Greek καθολικός, meaning “general,” “universal.” The root word means “the whole,” “the entirety.” Catholicity, along with unity, holiness, and sainthood, are four basic attributes that make up the church.

The church’s catholicity means preaching the complete gospel truth to all, without regard for sex, class, people group, or other such divisions. Protestantism considers this a feature of the invisible church. Evangelical scholars consider the invisible church the true universal church, because it includes believers from all ages, and includes people from all over the earth, just as it says in Revelation 5, the Lamb “. . . by [his] blood ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and [he has] made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (See Revelation 5:9-10).

The Apostle John also saw the same vision: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9).

The universalness of the church is God’s desire, and is God’s declared will, because [as John saw, there was an angel flying with] “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (see Revelation 14:6).

This catholicity was no doubt displayed when the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost. Acts 2:5-6 records, “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” The Holy Spirit pouring forth visions on Pentecost shows that the gospel is not secret, but is public. The church is not limited by any one language, people group, region, but is able to reach everywhere.

Chinese Definitions

“Public” and “private” have fairly clear definitions in traditional Chinese culture. Understanding these definitions can be helpful in understanding the church’s catholicity.

Shuowen Jiezi quotes Han Fei, defining “public” as “public being the opposite of 厶 (si)” (note 2). 厶 (si) is the ancient word for 私(si), “private.” Xu Shen, author of Shuowen Jiezi, further defines 厶(si): “si, is devious and wicked. Han Fei says, Cangjie created writing, defining ‘private’ as thinking of one’s own benefit.” Legalist Han Fei of the Warring States period thought that, “Cangjie invented writing, defined ‘private’ as thinking of one’s own benefit, and defined ‘public’ as the opposite of private.”

The focus of private-ness can be an individual, a family, a party, or even a nation. The private-ness that centers on the individual is the most ancient; when centered on the family, it is nepotism; when centered on a party, it is factions and cliques; when factions try to seize control of the country, it becomes a “party state”; when centered on a nation, it becomes nationalism.

From the simple selfishness of an individual’s private-ness, to the ideology of collective selfishness among families, parties, and nations—as the focus changes and expands, the extension of the ethical structure continues expanding, and the “selfishness” manifests in many different ways.

“Public” and “private” are not absolute—depending on the different ethical stance, people have different views of what is public or private. For example, the willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of one’s nation can be seen by said nation as selflessness for the public good, but at the same time seen by the other nation as cruel and violent.

Niebuhr, an American theologian from the middle of the twentieth century, realized the complexity of collective selfishness, and thus wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society. He pointed out that compared with the ethical relationships between individuals, morality between collectives was far rarer.

Niebuhr’s book was written during the summer of 1932. One could almost still smell the bloodiness of the First World War, proving Niebuhr’s claim, that collective selfishness is far more terrifying that individual sin. A collective’s nature to seek its own gain is so strong that reason is totally unable to restrain the powerful, selfish urge of the collective.

Invading the Church

The ideology of collective selfishness is invading the church in many different ways. Like the ideology of collective selfishness in society, collective selfishness within the church always has a certain element of confusion and deception. For example, the Corinthian church of the New Testament split into many small groups centered on a few well-respected church leaders. “‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” (See 1 Corinthians 1:12). Splitting the church in the name of the apostles is not dissimilar to people propagating the ideology of collective selfishness by raising the flags of gang rule or nationalism.

Whatever the motive, to divide God’s unified church into all sorts of small groups goes against the principle of catholicity of the church.

Looking carefully at Jesus’ Great Commission from the perspective of Greek, we will find that there are a number of words representing “all,” “whole,” “completely,” “each”—“All authority in heaven and on earth” (πᾶσα ἐξουσία ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶγῆς), “all nations” (πάντα τὰἔθνη), “teaching them to observe all” (διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα), “to the end of the age” (ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος).

The Chinese Union Version conveys the Great Commission fairly accurately: the object of the gospel is all nations, people in all succeeding eras; the content of the gospel is the complete truth; the time for the spread of the gospel continues, until the end of time. The Great Commission includes catholicity, which can be expressed as: Jesus commands his disciples to spread the complete gospel to all peoples on earth, and people of all ages.

From this we can see that the catholic church is the global, universal church that functions in the light. Every local church has the attributes of the catholic church. It contradicts the basic principles of the catholic church to set up patriarchal systems, divide into groups, fight as factions, or seek to control the church.

All aspects of the church should reflect the principle of catholicity. The church needs to develop a constitution, establish an open administrative structure, and manage church affairs according to appropriate processes. The board of deacons or the council, as the representative organization of the church, must not be biased, must not have any prejudice, but must walk rightly, act fairly and justly, and speak the truth in loving kindness as the Bible teaches.

Church finances must not be managed in a black box, but must be regularly audited according to financial systems. Choosing people to serve at church must be done by open standards and transparent processes, rejecting nepotism. The catholic church is not a mom and pop shop. The catholic church is not controlled by a small group. The catholic church is not a gerontocracy. The catholic church does not write anonymous letters. The catholic church is not run by dictatorial pastors or elders. A church’s pastor is not a priest, but is the servant of the catholic church, a servant of the kingdom of heaven. Pastors have no right to act on emotions or act against someone privately. The principle of the catholic church is to overcome evil with good, to overcome selfishness with that which is selfless.

The church belongs to God. No person, group, or faction has the right to set itself above the church, the right to control the church, nor the right to use church services for their own or their collective gain. God is just and unselfish, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (See Matthew 5:45). He “establish[es] it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (See Isaiah 9:7).

Only a kingdom with God at the center is a just kingdom. God’s kingdom lasts far longer than human history, is far vaster than the greatest empire, and is far more diverse and colorful than any country of many peoples!

Original Article: 有關係,沒關係?——談教會的“公”與“私”by OC举目

Image credit: Kaiyu Wu on Unsplash.
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