Chinese Church VoicesChristianity

Western and Chinese Church History

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 this article, The Chinese Church: Past, Present and Future, translated from the journal ChurchChina, author Gao Zhen explores the history of the Chinese Church, examines the issues and challenges facing the church today, and looks ahead.

Due to the length of the original article, we have decided to post the sections of the article in three separate posts.

Section One of the article is titled The Swinging Pendulum: Western and Chinese Church History. The author gives a brief history of the development and growth of Christianity in China.

The Chinese Church: Past, Present and Future

The Swinging Pendulum: Western and Chinese Church History

An investigation of church history - the early church, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and modern church history from the Renaissance to the present day - reveals it to be a cyclical, or pendular, history. Throughout, God is the one who drives and directs church history; He exerts sovereign control over the whole of human history.

Until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, the early church existed in a state of persecution. Claudius, Nero, Domitian - each Roman emperors oppression of the church was crueller than the previous. Unable to accept the humiliation of bowing to Caesar and recognising him as their lord, Christians were forced to become an underground church. These brothers and sisters patiently set their hope on light and freedom.

After the Edict of Milan, Christianity gradually became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the religious environment slowly relaxed and opened up. The church turned its attention towards improving its own internal structures and packaging: hymns and choirs began to appear, and church buildings in a variety of styles were built. All these things brought a certain thrill to peoples faith, but overall their influence was negative, leading to the degeneration of the church.

In 1517 Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, seeking to bring the church back to Biblical orthodoxy in order to prevent it from wandering further and further from the Bibles standard. Calvin contributed to the establishment of church structures. The Puritans learned from Calvin how to hold fast to the faith with a clear stance, acknowledging Gods sovereignty and explaining the true meaning of the word of God. The Puritans influence spread to Britain when they returned from Geneva.

In general, when we look at the history of the church, we can note a pendular movement. First, the church struggles for survival under persecution. Then circumstances relax, but if the church lacks vision then church development loses its goal and sense of direction and the church degenerates. Aware of the churchs degeneration, some factions are unwilling to comply and call for reform, becoming the mainstay of healthy church development. God is still using people like this to protect his church today.

As for China, Christianity entered on several occasions. The Nestorian Monument pushes back the earliest known date for Christianity entering China by one thousand years. At that time it was brought by the so-called Church of the East (the Christian heresy Nestorianism), but later during the anti-Buddhist persecution Christianity also disappeared. After this Christianity entered China on several other occasions through men such as Matteo Ricci during the Ming Dynasty and Robert Morrison during the Qing dynasty, but these failed to make a significant impact. Riccis influence was limited to the imperial court, and Morrison mainly focussed on translating the Bible. It was Hudson Taylor and his China Inland Mission that had a real influence due to their emphasis on going inland to spread the gospel, not just focusing on Chinas coastal cities.

Around 1920 many indigenous Chinese churches began to take root and grow. Several representative examples are the Jesus Family founded by Jing Dianying from Mazhuang, Shandong Province; the Little Flock movement under Watchman Nee; and Wang Mingdao of Beijing.

The ministries of these three men had different characteristics: Wang Mingdao emphasised the tension between culture and Christianity, stressing that the church must safeguard holiness. His church was not big, nor did it greatly influence later generations, but Wang Mingdao is chiefly remembered for resisting the Three Self Movement and insisting on the sanctity of the church. Watchman Nee of Shanghai focussed more on personal piety. His theology has been the mainstream theology of Chinas house churches for the last few decades, and its impact is still felt today. Jing Dianying believed that Chinese churches should return to the structure of the early church, and so he established Jesus Families, using a patriarchal system of organisation. But these three men all shared a high view of Gods word, an emphasis on personal godliness and holy living, and an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. In this they made an immense contribution to the Chinese church.

The signing of the Three Self Declaration by Wu Yaozong, founder of the Three Self Movement, and 48 other influential pastors and church leaders began a new era of Chinese church history, marked by blurred boundaries between church and state. During this period the Chinese church gave their God-bestowed sovereignty over to the ruling powers, which led to another group represented by Wang Mingdao, Moses Xie, Allen Yuan and Samuel Lamb expressing fervent resistance to the church. From that time right up to the present day there have only been two types of churches in China: the state-recognised Three Self Patriotic Movement Committee / China Christian Council churches, and the house churches. As the latter is not registered with nor recognised by the government, it has also been called the underground church. Recently, a third type of church has appeared: house churches that have registered with the government and are attached to the Three Self Church.

In 2005 Premier Wen Jiabao issued a new document, the Regulations on Religious Affairs. The content and effect of these Regulations demonstrates that the government hopes to both steer and open up the field of religion, so as to make possible the appearance of a body like the Chinese House Church Alliance. Many years ago the government did not manage to bring house churches into the orbit of the Three Self Church, and now by promoting the formation of a House Church association it is reattempting what it failed to do back in the 1950s. Under a different name it is trying once more to bring house churches into the governments sphere of control. This trend can already be felt.

The form of worship for Chinese Christians is unique: they neither worship on a mountain, nor in a temple, but in spirit and truth. When two or three are gathered in a home, this is a church. To form a Chinese House Church Alliance requires someone who will take the lead in establishing this alliance. Who will stand up and take the lead in this work? We must give careful consideration to this question because if we get it wrong we will have a new Wu Yaozong on our hands, concealing his claws under a revolutionary cloak. If we get it wrong, the Chinese church will go down the same old path and return to the situation of the early 50s.

After the Reform and Opening Up Policy of 1979, China was no longer closed to the outside world. Many people left to study abroad and many scholars entered China to work in universities as foreign teachers. This constant flow of people greatly contributed to Christian mission, as many who went out became Christians and many who came in led those around them to Christ. At the same time, missionaries from Hong Kong, America and Korea came to Chinas rural churches, where they brought great revival through preaching, healing and casting out demons. The largest revivals were in Shandong Province and Fangcheng, Henan Province, where several thousand people are frequently baptised at one time. This work has been going on for around ten years.

However, the Chinese church cannot remain at the stage of seeking miracles; it needs a large number of preachers who are capable of teaching, pastoring and building up the church. But preachers in rural churches have generally received very little formal schooling, with many leaving school after junior high or even earlier, and their ability is often limited to reading a bit of the Bible and explaining a couple of sentences. This means that the on-going development of churches is weak, and many churches that were once full of revival are now struggling. Seeing this need, overseas missionaries have reconsidered their strategy and are one by one turning their hand to establishing theological colleges to equip Chinese preachers. Today, development in the Chinese church is still at the stage of equipping, training and growing preachers.

Original article: 中国教会的存在形式讨论

Photo source: Wikipedia

ChinaSource Team

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