An Orientation to China's Reforming Churches: Part Three
April 1, 2013
Editors' Note: This is the third and final installment of this series. You can access part one here and part two here.
Part III: Church Development, Presbyterianism, & China
The need for church development, so acute in China, exists wherever the gospel is bearing fruit. Indeed, the proper goal of the church's mission is not just to announce the good news to those who have not heard or to call unbelievers to faith and repentance; the church's mission has always included establishing a well-ordered church in every land for the welfare of Godís people and perpetuation of the ministry.
A well-ordered church is a church ordered by Scripture. Such a church is not an isolated, autonomous gathering of individual believers but a disciplined body before God, under the watchful care and ministerial oversight of a plurality of ordained elders. It is connected to other like bodies throughout the region (and beyond), worshipping God in spirit and in truth. The local churches carry out the work of the ministry, centered around the core devotions of word, sacraments, and prayer, in fellowship together. In other words, the church of Scripture - the visible church Christ is building on earth until he returns - has a particular nature and shape to it: it is an organism with an institutional structure set by God.
Jesus Christ, in whom all authority in heaven and on earth resides, is the head of this institution, which has been entrusted with the ministry of word and sacraments in order to make disciples of all nations, gathering in and building up God's elect wherever they are found throughout the world. So, the visible church not only has a particular institutional shape, but a unique role to play in God's redemptive program. This role is so vital to that program that outside the visible church "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."(36) In other words, by God's own design, the life and health of the body of Christ and household of God is provided for and sustained through the well-ordered institution of the church.(37)
Presbyterianism, with Chinese Characteristics
The point here is this: the institutional form of the church outlined in Scripture and tersely described above is presbyterian. Particular Presbyterian and Reformed churches have developed highly refined polities which apply the basic principles of presbyterianism to the circumstances of their respective bodies and cultural contexts. No doubt, in time, Chinese Presbyterian or Reformed churches will do likewise; in fact, they already are. Just how presbyterianism will be expressed within the quickly-evolving circumstances of mainland China is not clear, and is for our Chinese brothers to determine "by the light of nature, and Christian prudence." (38)
By presbyterianism I only refer to "the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed," (39) as they relate to the proper order of Christ's church and thus church development, and not to any particular, existing denomination - hence the lower-case "p."
Under this qualification, the need for church development in China, then, is a need in large part for the development of a healthy and robust presbyterianism.(40) As such, this need must be addressed through a deepening understanding of the biblical theology of the church as articulated within the Reformed tradition. Encouragingly, an increasing number of Chinese ministry leaders are turning to the resources of Reformed theology as they face the need for better order and further church development. A church ordered by Scripture is a church capable, by the grace and power of God, of guarding the faith. It can maintain the peace and purity of the body while realizing its unity and catholicity. It can build up its members to carry on the work of the ministry. Somewhat surprising, then, is what little attention church development has received in the mission to China.
Presbyterianism & the Mission to China
Historically, Presbyterians have almost always attempted to establish a biblically-ordered, presbyterian-type church wherever they have labored, and China was no exception in the pre-Mao era. Yet, since its reopening in the 1980s, the mission to China has, until recently, been a notable exception. There are several reasons for this.
First, and most obvious, China is officially a closed country and missionaries have labored under severe restrictions. Although an opening exists for personal evangelism, which is legal under certain conditions, foreign religious workers are rarely granted visas. Consequently, much of the mission to China has focused on placing Christians in the country to do the sort of things they would do anywhere, encouraging them to witness as opportunities arise. That many foreign English teachers in China, for example, are Christians eager to evangelize their Chinese neighbors on the side is no secret. Chinese authorities are often eager to promote knowledge of English for economic purposes and many Christians are more than willing to do the job. The practice is well known and widely tolerated.
A consequence of this practice for the mission to China is a foreign Christian presence dominated by young, adventurous, short-term workers with little to no training in church development or even pastoral experience and no access to the Chinese church. (Foreign passport holders are restricted to worshiping in churches exclusively for foreigners.) There are relatively very few ordained ministers on the ground. Most mission agencies strongly discourage or even forbid their workers from seeking contact with unregistered congregations or developing close working relationships with local Christians. This is done for at least two reasons: to protect their access to China by not running afoul of government strictures and concern for the security of Chinese believers. Contact with foreigners is just the sort of thing that still tends to attract unwanted attention from the authorities.
Intimately related, a second reason for the general neglect of church development in the current mission to China is that Chinese believers have not enjoyed a wide liberty to assemble and organize along biblical lines. TSPM congregations are permitted to exercise rights of assembly and association, and have been given some room to negotiate polity under the auspices of the China Christian Council (CCC), but unregistered churches do not enjoy these advantages. This has not, however, prevented them from multiplying rapidly and forming networks with meaningful connections, appearing and functioning more and more like full-blown, Western-style denominations. Still, church development among the unregistered congregations has been limited and remains a delicate matter throughout China. Even where unregistered churches are openly tolerated, forming connections between churches, assembling councils of church leaders, operating schools for training ministers, and other similar activities are frequently not tolerated and often harried by a paranoid state when attempted. Yet the work of the ministry must go on, as must the institutional development of the church along biblical lines. Such development is occurring and will continue to do so despite the challenges.
This brings us to a third reason church development has been much neglected in the post-Mao mission to China: the significant influence of post-war American evangelicalism. While the remarkable accomplishments of evangelical missionaries ought not to be overlooked, on the one point in view here - the lack of attention to church development in the mission to China - some friendly criticism is in order. Highly individualistic and pragmatic, American evangelicals (and Pentecostals) tend to have a low view of the church and lack the biblical, theological, and historical perspective needed to appreciate her crucial role in Godís redemptive program. It is not surprising, then, that American evangelicalism frequently suffers from a low esteem for and lack of confidence in the ordinary means of grace God has appointed for the work of the ministry.
The consequences are numerous. Defining the mission of the church without reference to the church's role in God's redemptive program, evangelicals have at times operated with a missiology focused almost exclusively on evangelistic activism - a kind of counting coup approach to missions. Though many evangelical groups have come to see the need for what they term "follow-up" or "discipleship," they have not always focused on developing the church to this end.
Or, sometimes when they do pay attention to the need for church development, it is only to serve these narrowly defined pragmatic ends. This leads to relatively light, flimsy, storm-tossed congregations which are ill-prepared to defend the faith, maintain the ministry, or sustain the ongoing mission into the next generation. Meanwhile, evangelism and other aspects of the church's mission are carried on in the a-ecclesiological contexts of various parachurch organizations. Finally, even among those evangelical groups that do acknowledge the desirability of engaging in some measure of church development, this work sometimes has such a low priority that when it proves costly and difficult, as it inevitably does, it is readily laid aside as a kind of luxury. It is seen as something we can get along without rather than being indispensable to Christ's redemptive work on earth and the mission he has given his people.
Again, it is not surprising that Chinese ministry leaders are turning to the resources of Reformed theology and Presbyterian polity in their vital work of founding sustainable institutions to serve the needs of tens of millions of Chinese believers. Here they find a much stouter evangelical tradition with an ecclesiology grounded in Scripture and built to last; they are encouraged to find that God speaks to the kinds of challenges and problems they are facing in their pastoral ministries. God is not indifferent about these matters and has not left his people fumbling around in the dark about how the church should be ordered and go about the work of the ministry.
The fourth reason for the underdevelopment of the contemporary church in China is perhaps the most important - and certainly the most encouraging: the rate of numerical growth has effectively outstripped the development of the church at almost every level except the often hasty formation of congregations. These congregations come in many shapes and sizes. Often they are thrown together as loose associations of believers and function more like a campus ministry or men's or women's fellowship group might in America. A common claim is that in China the two-year old Christian teaches the one-year old Christian. That is becoming less common over time, but many of today's house church leaders more or less stumbled into this circumstance in just such a way.
Conversely, some veteran church leaders have spent time in prison or been tortured for their faith. Not long ago, such experiences were nearly viewed as qualifications for leadership positions. More to the point, more and more congregations have trained ministers, spiritually mature lay officers, and regular administration of the sacraments. A few even maintain active membership rolls and practice church discipline, though this remains relatively rare. And, as already noted, extensive networks of house churches are widespread. Yet, the majority of believers are first generation Christiansl the situation is vastly different from places where the church has been long established and is well served by numerous institutions and resources firmly in place.
Cultural Christianity, Chinese Style
Not all the current interest in Reformed theology is driven by the practical demands of pastoral ministry and church development, however; there is another distinct and perhaps complicating factor. Some of China's cultural elite believe they have found, in Reformed Christianity, a resource not just to support healthy church development but for reconstructing China's culture.
Maoism is dead. Most Chinese know this but no official dares admit it in so many words and some citizens still do not want to accept it. The problem runs much deeper than the awkwardness of the ruling party admitting it long-ago traded its name-sake ideology for pragmatism. Chinese society, from top to bottom, is founded on materialistic principles that have proved culturally bankrupt. Capitalism is quite compatible with materialism, so for all the outward changes, the shift in economic policy has generated deeper and more threatening issues to China's society. These issues remain unaddressed. Wealth has perhaps delayed a cultural crisis a few decades, but many believe one is nonetheless on its way as the latest form of materialism exhausts itself.
What can replace materialism and stave off the coming cultural collapse? Different answers are proposed from different quarters, but one proposal that attracts an astonishing amount of support is Christianity, and among those advocating this answer most vigorously are a number of university professors, lawyers, writers, journalists, and the like, who advocate a distinctively Reformed brand of Christianity. Even as elite society in the West has largely turned against Christianity, especially in its Reformed strands, at least some of the elite society in China are embracing it. "In China now," as one commenter put it, "this kind of Christianity is seen as forward-looking, rational, [and] intellectually serious." (41)
What will become of this phenomenon is unclear. It is not even clear that all those advocating the Christian option are themselves believers.
Even some non-Christians are raising the question: "What can Christianity do for China?" Reflection on this question has given rise to the "Cultural Christian," who may not participate in the life of the church but is otherwise sympathetic to the teachings of the faith and optimistic about their transformative power.(42)
For many, that transformative power is most clearly and forcefully expressed in certain strands of the Reformed tradition. The potential politicization of the Reformed brand could harm the vital, ongoing work of church reform and the subjection of the church and her mission to a cultural-changing agenda could undermine it.
At this moment, however, a notable reformation is underway: Reformed theology is being disseminated and embraced throughout China; distinctively Reformed confessions of faith are being translated or written and adopted; new attention is being paid to worship, preaching, and leadership; local congregations and, in a few cases, entire networks are being organized or re-organized along Presbyterian lines; Reformed seminaries are being established throughout the country; a Chinese Presbyterian polity has been drawn up; Presbyteries are being formed in various places, and in communication with one another; ministers are being trained, examined, and ordained; and the great works of the Reformed tradition are being brought into open circulation. All of this is just the beginning of an attempt by Chinese pastors and church leaders to meet the needs of Godís people and lay a firm foundation for the future. Despite their vigorous efforts, everyone of them "would agree that the church is struggling to keep up with the demand for trained leaders and other resources," as the gospel continues to spread and grow in the world's largest mission field.(43)
These are China's reforming churches. Seizing this moment of profound need and remarkable opportunities amid China's fast-changing culture, they are transforming not only the nature and scope of the Presbyterian and Reformed mission to China but the future of Christianity and the Reformed tradition globally. Complex challenges demanding thoughtful and decisive action abound, but the vital work of developing ecclesiastical structures capable of supporting the present and future ministry needs of the Chinese church is moving forward. Surely this is one of the great kingdom projects of our generation.
Dr. Bruce Baugus is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.
36. Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2.
37. To insist that the church has a particular institutional form is not yet to specify what that form is. Though unique, it appears throughout Scripture that the church is most like a family. While sometimes compared to a school (Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.4), hospital (Augustine, Homilies on John, 41.13), or some other institution, healthy families function as schools and hospitals too, and the family seems the closest analogy to the church in Scripture. This family-like dimension of the institutional church is beautifully expressed in biblical presbyterianism.
38. Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6.
39. Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6.
40. For a recent and highly readable description of presbyterianism see Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011).
41. Andrew Brown, "Chinese Calvinism Flourishes," Guardian: Comment is Free, May 27, 2009: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2009/may/27/china-ca... (accessed November 30, 2012).
42. Brent Whitefield, "Chinese Protestants and the West since 1949," originally accessed at ChinaSource, the article is now available at God Reports: http://www.godreports.com/ministry-updateview/1140 (accessed Dec 3, 2012).
43. Brent Fulton, "The Facts about the Church in China," ChinaSource, September 27, 2012: http://www.chsource.org/en/articles/church-in-china/item/82-the-facts-ab... (accessed Dec 7, 2012).