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 three.
Searching for the Boundary between State and Church in the East, Part 3
Where is Christ’s kingship manifest?
The nature of the church is spiritual, heavenly. Any area within the church that is heavenly in nature—such as the pure preaching of the gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, exercise of church discipline, church worship, fellowship of the saints, the Great Commission—must be kept absolutely free and pure, not controlled by any earthly authority. These are the very areas that display Christ’s kingship over the church today; and it is holding fast to this heavenly nature that displays the church’s faithfulness to Christ’s kingship.
Because these six points relate to the core of Christ’s kingship in the church, we can say that the church truly glorifies Christ as king by holding true to these six points.
To discuss further the six points of Christ’s kingship:
- The church’s pure preaching of the gospel cannot be restricted by [government] administration. Earthly authorities cannot interfere with or constrain the gospel declaration of the sin of mankind, Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, return, and judgement. The ideologies and moralizing of this age should not appear at the church pulpit. The church should not support any particular ideology. And the church should reject being ideologized.
- In Geneva and the early period of the New World, a person’s baptism and communion were related to his citizenship, so at that time sacraments were influenced by political factors. However, the church today no longer has the problem of communion relating to citizen rights, so communion being polluted by politics is a relatively rare occurrence.
- In terms of church governance, pastors, elders and deacons should be appointed by the Christian community in accordance to their understanding of the Bible. No political powers outside the Christian community should be allowed to meddle. The church should also act according to the Bible in deciding whether or not a believer should receive church discipline.
- There might be an infiltration of ideological content in church worship, or interference from secular authorities—for example, demanding churches to put up images of leaders or teach political values. To violate pure worship is to offend the spiritual kingship of Jesus Christ.
- As for the fellowship of the saints, the church of Christ is called together according to the Bible and by God’s authority alone. Once gathered, they cannot be banned by any political factor, and should not be forced to share fellowship with any other group that does not act according to the Bible.
- Likewise, the Great Commission may face inappropriate restraints. Christ’s commandment was that the gospel be declared to all peoples and all nations. The declaration of the gospel should not be restrained by a certain age, a certain place, a certain socio-economic class. Neither should people of any age, place, or class be considered outside of the audience of the gospel.
The church’s outward earthly form—such as the shape and form of gathering, and even to some extent the method of governance—would normally seek the most reasonable expression that reflects the church’s nature, goals, and functions. But when pressed by the situation or state of affairs, whether or not a church holds to any particular form should be decided by each church according to their own conscience and liberty. But the reality of the six points listed above cannot be compromised. In holding fast to this reality, we necessarily have certain standards for the outward expression. Though changes are forced by our situations, we must hold fast to certain forms that express the real nature. In short, the church should be united to Christ’s humility, on the one hand maintaining the church’s spiritual bottom line, on the other hand submitting to authorities in power, suffering persecution and hardship in this age.
Looking at the boundary of church and state from this perspective, the church holds fast to its heavenly citizenship in a prominent manner, but holds fast to its outward rights in an inconspicuous manner.
A glorified church or a humbled church?
In contemporary China, as we handle China’s church-state relationship according to the principle of church-state separation, I believe we need to be careful of the following two points:
Firstly, in the East we do not have the thousand years of Christian state tradition that the West has, nor do we have a constitutional framework. We face a situation where the state controls all social life. This situation is very similar to Daniel’s situation in Babylon, and is also similar to the early church’s situation in the Roman Empire.
If we do not clarify certain points, we might emphasize the Lord Jesus Christ’s absolute sovereignty over the church based on the principle of separation of church and state. We would then always emphasize the absolute sovereignty of the church—whether in pure preaching of the gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, or areas of church governance—and we would absolutely refuse any secular interference. Then whatever political situation the church faces, the church could always prominently emphasize its own religious rights. One possible result of such an ecclesiology is emphasis on the church’s outward unity, and emphasis on freedom to practice religion. From this perspective, the church as God’s kingdom is parallel to the governments as secular kingdoms.
I believe that we need a bottom line concerning our faith, and that is to distinguish between the above six points of Christ’s sovereignty, and with the church’s practice of faith. Rights relating to the practice of faith may be constrained by our world in some non-essential areas, but the nature of the faith cannot be restrained.
I worry that emphasizing the exaltation of Christ and making a direct connection between the exalted Christ’s sovereignty and the current church’s rights to faith—instead of making a direct connection with the nature of faith—is a theological crisis behind the current trends. If so, we neglect the church’s current situation and Christ’s eschatological sovereignty, and would result in practicing a glorified ecclesiology. What the results of such practice might be are not yet clear.
One more theme we must pay attention to is, under God’s protection, what the interaction between God and his people looks like. The church-state relationship is one of the ways in which God actively interacts with his people. This method of interaction is very active and diverse, and is decided by whether or not God’s people are acting within God’s will. To churches, politics sometimes seems like persecution, sometimes like kindness, sometimes like oppression. God’s will is sometimes to save, sometimes to discipline, and sometimes to refine.
Furthermore, from 1 Peter we can see that the public theology of God’s people is often displayed as a passively suffering theology. When we are deprived of our religious rights, the most important public theology is that we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. 1 Peter 2:23 says,
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
When he was crucified on the cross, Jesus willingly suffered, not attempting to argue what’s right and wrong here on earth. Because we believe that God has his righteous judgements, we too should suffer willingly.
The reason that some people can be at peace even though they are wronged—not seeking to avenge themselves or fight back—is because they believe that a higher power is watching, and that he will ultimately avenge. Through his hardship, Christ brings us salvation. And when we suffer, others will see from our life of doing good in suffering that we are followers of Christ. God will use this for salvation, and will also cause enemies to repent and be brought before God, reconciling with him.
Original Article : 在东方，探求国家与教会的边界, on ChurchChina
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 will be available for download at the completion of this series.
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.