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 two.
Searching for the Boundary between State and Church in the East, Part 2
The principle in the West of separation of church and state can be traced from the unified Christian church-state system under the Millennial Holy Roman Empire, to the Reformation, to the Puritan movement, and migration to the New World. These, combined with the influence of secularization, caused the separation of church and state.
As for China, we face a thousand years of authoritarian tradition in the East, and only 200 years of history of a small and weak church. The church must have a clear understanding and discernment concerning the long-term nature, the difficulty, and the tension of a transformation to “separation of church and state.”
I agree with the principle of separation of church and state. However, this is simply a concept. It is not sufficient to help us face complicated church-state relationships. We must carefully, diligently study the Bible. How is the church to exist in this world?
The Nature of the Church and the Eschatological Kingship of Christ
In our country today, the boundary between church and state has never been clearly defined. The state’s tolerance of the church is the tolerance a court shows to outlaws. The existence of the house church in China has never received any legal recognition.
However, the church of Jesus Christ is established by God, is a holy nation, is the body of Jesus Christ, and so her existence has a natural legality. The legality of her existence is greater than any law on earth.
We need a clear understanding regarding the nature of the church, so that when we face the government, we know what we must hold fast to, and what we can tolerate or compromise on.
Core Themes of the Church
In the Bible’s definitions of the church, there are several points that grab our attention:
1. The church is the body of Christ.
Jesus’ fleshly body has already experienced the suffering of the cross and the resurrection from the dead, and has been transformed into a spiritual body and ascended into heaven. Therefore, the church on earth must have Christ as their ruler in heaven. The Bible also says that Jesus Christ has become ruler of all things for the sake of the church on earth (Ephesians 1:20-23).
Ephesians also says Christ is the head of the church and the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:23-24). Therefore, the church has responsibility on this earth to recognize Jesus as their highest ruler and to resist all evil acts attempting to invade or tarnish the church of Christ, and so display the church’s faithfulness to Christ. As the older house church preachers, Yuan Xiangchen for example, emphasized, “the church is Christ’s bride,” and this bride will not be tarnished.
2. The church is Christ’s kingdom.
From many passages in the gospels, we can tell that the kingdom of heaven points to the gathering of God’s people—the church. Jesus teaches in Matthew 16:17-19, for example, that the church is closely tied with the kingdom of heaven. The historic church is a gathering on earth, but the church also points to the eschatological, heavenly, imperishable kingdom.
Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” This means that the church, as a historic gathering of God’s elect, is a manifestation on earth of God’s kingdom. This kingdom will last throughout eternity.
Therefore, Jesus is the king of the church. The kingdom is in this world, but does not belong to this world. That is because the king of this kingdom entered this world through the Word becoming flesh. And through his death and resurrection, he has surpassed this world.
3. The New Testament church is an eschatological existence.
Between the first coming of Christ and his second return, the church exists in tension: the church still exists in this age, but belongs to heaven. It waits for Christ’s final return, so that he may take her into eternal glory.
The church lives in this tension between two ages, so we need to define what aspects of church life belong to the earth, and what aspects belong to heaven. Things belonging to the earth are not absolute, but can be relative. Things belonging to heaven are absolute, and we most hold true to this without yielding.
4. Suffering is the characteristic of an eschatological church on earth.
In terms of suffering, the church is the body of Christ on earth. This is precisely Paul’s perspective in Colossians 1.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (Colossians 1:24)
Even though the head of the church, Christ, is already glorified in heaven, the church continues here on earth, and continues to bear an unfinished suffering. The church’s suffering and humility today is complete when joined with Christ’s historic suffering and humility. This completeness of suffering was shown when Jesus told his disciples over and over again, “take up your cross and follow me” as he prophesied his own suffering and resurrection.
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.
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