Earlier this month, the mainland publication Church China published a long article examining the importance of solid theological preparation for Chinese involved in the Great Commission. What follows in this post, and next week’s post are translated portions of the article, along with short summaries and observations (in italics) by the translator.
Update: This is an edited version of what was originally published on March 22.
What Should the Chinese Church Pass on to the Nations?
It is widely believed that the explosive growth of Christianity in the 20th century in China is closely tied to numerous miracles. God has demonstrated his presence in the expansion of the church in China. For example, countless miracles accompanied the revivalist preacher John Sung during the great revival of the Chinese church from 1927-1937. In subsequent years, God accomplished equally stunning things in other parts of China. From the certain testimony of the Chinese church, by the will of God the Holy Spirit has continued to bestow gifts and abilities on believers who have committed their lives to the Great Commission. To this day, the same events continue to play out and echo each other in distant places around the world, particularly in the developing countries of Africa, South America, and Asia. Miracles are happening!
With its remarkable growth and rise to global power status, it's no exaggeration to say that within the next few decades China may become the world's largest missionary sending country. This is what many missions scholars believe. Our vision is mainly (though not entirely) to evangelize those minority groups in lands to the west that have not yet heard the gospel, then to step outside of China and “take the gospel back to Jerusalem.” Along this route are most of the world's Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims—most of whom have never heard the gospel. However, not only do these major world religions present huge challenges to the gospel, but so do the numerous places in Asia that are suffused with local folk animist religions. These religions believe that reality is dictated by the existence of the spiritual. People must continuously fight with or pacify them in order to survive.
The challenge of these communities is that they seek spirituality and non-materialism. The circumstances of material life, such as births, marriages, illnesses, harvests, droughts, and floods are considered to be the work of invisible spiritual forces. Therefore, solutions require the appropriate spiritual medium or wizard to come into contact with the spiritual world. Thus, missionaries find that when they evangelize in animist communities around the world, and when the Lord by his might performs visible miracles that surpass the animists' gods or the incantations of their spiritual mediums, the animists are willing to turn to Christ. In fact, animists are pragmatists; they want to see the “spiritual manifestation” of Christianity.
When God leads Chinese missionaries westward to the country's ethnic minorities and further on to Central Asia and the Middle East, they will encounter dark places that most people have never experienced before. There, the power of Satan and the oppression of demons are very apparent. In order to glorify God our goal must be to lead these captives to repentance and to believe in Christ for salvation by accepting a completely new life in Christ. We must lead them to taste true freedom and victory, and to completely break away from all the old ways of their false beliefs. This is the result of the “spiritual manifestation” of Christianity. Only in this way can we see each ethnic group produce strong disciples and growth, as well as a flourishing church.
Trusting on the support of prayers from believers around the world, how should the Chinese church proclaim Christ to those countries in the path of this westward vision in a way that meets God's highest glory? Other missionaries' experiences on the mission field will not necessarily become the definite solution for our mission fields. In any case, we should be ready for when God gives us direction to both preach in his power and to reveal his power. If we put too much emphasis on one of these, it could be a problem. In an animistic community, if the gospel is only presented as a verbal message but the power of God is never revealed, those people who receive only a portion of the truth of Christianity will become “double-minded.” They may “believe” in Jesus, but the moment their lives encounter a problem, they still go to a spiritual medium to find a solution.
On the other hand, if we only proclaim Jesus Christ through signs and wonders without fully declaring man's sinful nature before a holy God and man's need for a Savior, then people “believe” in Jesus perhaps only because he can give them benefits. In their animistic worldview, Jesus is just one more god among many other gods. The Great Commission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ among all nations. The Great Commission is not nominal Christians “believing" but not observing God's commands.
It's regrettable when either of the above cases occurs. Only when both the truth of God and the power of God are simultaneously and in an extraordinary way demonstrated can Christianity really be “spiritually manifest.”
In the previous century the primary location where the Chinese church took root was in the rural missions movement. During the 21st century, the church has moved more and more into the cities. Nowadays churches in urban areas are growing the fastest, and a large proportion of believers in the urban church are well-educated young people. With their materialistic environment flooded with flashy shopping malls and luxury goods, urban Christians do not resemble their rural brothers and sisters. Most of them did not experience the miraculous revival decades ago. However, regardless of our situation all believers continue to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and God equips us so as to realize every spiritual gift and grace of the Great Commission—which is a must. If Christian life and ministry are not supernatural, they are meaningless.
The wise way to prepare the contemporary Chinese church for cross-cultural missions is to renew our commitment to total dependence on God, while at the same time welcoming the insight of those in the body of Christ, particularly those in the body who have personally experienced God’s miraculous miracles in their ministries. However, in the process of fervently seeking spiritual gifts, miracles, fruitful ministry, and leading people to Christ, we absolutely must not let anything replace God himself as the absolute core, neither in our hearts or emotions. God, in his own way, in his own time, and according to his own timetable performs his mighty acts. He proclaims his gospel to all nations, he leads sinners to salvation, and he builds his church (through his people). He does not need our help! He is looking for those who are his delight to do his work through them because they have already offered their lives as a living sacrifice, crucified with Christ. This is the first step in biblical "supernatural" ministry: follow the cross; die for the cross!
Ultimately, the Chinese church will have to give an account before God for what it has passed on to the nations. Is it truly God's work, or a man-made imitation? The result will largely depend on our understanding of the nature of God, the purpose of his salvation, and the relationship between the Almighty and believers' lives and ministry.
The Word of Truth and the Spirit of Truth
The Chinese church has placed a great emphasis on missions. But, says the author, any approach to missions must be completely rooted in Scripture. The Bible is God’s Word and God’s Word is truth. As the Chinese church sends more missionaries, they must protect and preserve this devotion to truth. They must be on guard against sliding into distortions of the truth and erroneous teachings.
Frankly, says the author, if we send out thousands of workers with erroneous theology, unhealthy evangelism methods, and misguided missionary zeal, we may also create the most chaotic movement in church history!
Of course, if the Chinese church wants to complete the task God entrusted to us, we desperately need the Holy Spirit to equip us with every gift and every grace. But, this is the unambiguous criterion we must live out: May our lives being filled with the Holy Spirit. When we take on the Great Commission God may also use miracles along with our ministry. But, at the same time we need to minister entirely according to the clear guidance and boundaries of God's Word. The Spirit of truth and the Word of truth cannot be separated from each other. We must not over-emphasize one aspect at the expense of the other. In fact, there is no need of this because we can enjoy the full range of both. Indeed, this must be our goal!
This is an exciting moment for the Chinese church. But at this crucial stage of preparation for missions the Chinese church must adequately prepare. The Chinese church must be on guard against “snares” and “traps.” This means the Chinese church must learn from examples in contemporary China, including mission work in China from overseas missionaries. We must examine examples of erroneous teachings and distortions of the truth. The article highlights examples of troubling teachings and practices in contemporary China. By doing so, he hopes to demonstrate the importance of “rightly handling the truth” and “examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11b).
The Doctrine of Christ: Fully God and Fully Human
The author uses the first several paragraphs to sketch out the doctrine of Christ and why orthodox Christology is crucial for our understanding of Scripture, our relationship with God, and the development of our faith. His main purpose for this section is to underscore an uncompromising reliance on Scripture in order to conduct missions. He highlights false teachings from overseas as examples of unbiblical evangelism techniques. The warns that, as the Chinese church embarks on missions, it must avoid such unbiblical evangelism techniques.
What we fear is a way of preaching that distorts the Bible's full revelation of Christ as our Lord and Savior. For example, in recent years, some Chinese church groups have been influenced by teachings from overseas that claim the Lord Jesus Christ in his life and ministry on earth was just a human who was filled with the Holy Spirit. He chose not to use his divinity, such as his omnipotence and omniscience. Some even teach that during his incarnation Jesus actually discarded his divinity, or that he simply had no such divine nature.
The author points out that these heretical cults often use Philippians 2:1-8 as a proof text for their teaching: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The author exegetes the text to identify this false teaching.
The hypostatic union of Christ is a profound “paradox,” says the author. Yet, attempts to compromise this paradox only produce more false teachings. Separating or denying the hypostatic union also leads to false praxis. This type of false teaching is primarily brought into China by people wishing to stir people’s emotions through dramatic signs and miracles. If Jesus was just a man filled by the Spirit who can perform miraculous signs, then why can’t we do the same?
The author goes on to give examples of those he regards as teaching a false doctrine of Christ and reminds Christian leaders that:
“. . . rightly to analyze the word of God is to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Once there is a tendency to take things out of context, that is to focus only on part of Scripture and not the whole, then exaggerating one part will sacrifice the whole message. How God's people view the will of God will become dangerously distorted and incomplete.”
The author goes on to say:
So, why is this issue so important? Is this really of great importance to our belief in the Lord Jesus? Yes, of course it is! First, and most importantly, the doctrine of Christ is absolutely foundational to the Christian faith. If there is any deviation regarding who our Savior is and what person he is, all of our other beliefs will be built on this false foundation. Half-truths and specious reasoning can lead to dangerous heresy!
Second, in China there have been many pseudo-Christian heresies, such as "Eastern Lightning" and "The Association of Disciples" [aka Mentuhui]. The common feature of all these heresies (whether in China or elsewhere) is a distorted or incomplete understanding of God and especially the second person of the Trinity. In fact, they follow another Jesus! Generally speaking, they teach that man can be elevated to God's station, and/or that God is pulled down to theirs.
Third, the Chinese church is preparing to carry out cross-cultural missions in our own country and other countries to unreached people groups. If our own understanding of God and his will (which is more important than the challenge of different languages and cultures) is false or unbalanced, then we will do a disservice to those people who are still living in darkness. If we do not give careful reflection to the teachings and influences of today, what kind of "god" will people come to know because of us? What kind of "disciples" will we make? What kind of "church" will we establish? Once again, we will have to account for the message Chinese Christians bring to the nations!
Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr
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