Wang Mingdao – Against the Christless Christianity of the Authorized Church

 Wang Mingdao – Against the Christless Christianity of the Authorized Church

            After the Chinese Civil War and the victory of Mao Tse-Tung over General Chiang-Kai Shek, the Chinese government re-evaluated the role of Christian churches in the country. They allowed their existence, with restrictions. For example, Roman Catholics had to belong to the Catholic Patriotic Association and avoid any interference from the Vatican, while Protestant churches had to sign up with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), allowing the government to supervise their decisions and even the topics of their sermons.

            By these means of oversight, the government hoped to ensure the conformity of Chinese Christians to the Communist regime. The name Three-Self Patriotic Movement derived from a formula created in the 19th century by either Rufus Anderson or Henry Venn, whose goal was to help foreign churches to be self-propagating, self-governing, and self-supporting, rather than being dependent on missionaries. For the Chinese government and most churches, this formula included a nationalistic vein, fueled by a common antipathy for foreign interference in their country.

            The founding of TSPM was promoted by the YMCA and the Episcopal Church. If autonomy from the west had been their only goal, these entities would have had less opposition. The problem was, in their desire for unity and agreement, they abandoned most biblical teachings.

Justification by Love

            A prominent TSPM leader was the Episcopal Bishop Ding Guangxun, also known as K. H. Ting, who also a member of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee.

            Ding aimed at steering the Chinese church toward a position that was compatible with the teachings of Marxism. To do so, he discounted the importance of the bodily resurrection of Christ, the full authority and inspiration of Scriptures, and the doctrine of justification by faith, which he found restrictive.

            He spoke instead of a “justification by love,” which would allow Christians and Communists to cooperate for the good of the country. In other words, the church would simply become a society of people working to do good to others, and the hope of heaven would be open to all, including unbelieving Marxists, as long as they demonstrated love to others. He spoke mostly of God the Father, and saw Jesus as a moral teacher and fellow sufferer who doesn’t condemn anyone.

            While this formula could appear attractive to those who didn’t understand the meaning of Christianity, many others were appalled, refused to cooperate and started some underground churches.

Standing Up for Biblical Christianity

            One of the protesters was Wang Mingdao. Born during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and trained at the London Missionary Society in Beijing, Wang came to understand God’s free grace in Christ after a long time of search and reflection. Once the gospel was preached to him clearly, he devoted his life to God, teaching others in private settings until 1937, when the number of people in attendance encouraged him to open the Christian Tabernacle, a church that continued to grow. He also spent much time on the road as an itinerant preacher. His lack of formal training, powerful preaching, and conscientious defense of believer’s baptism are reminiscent of Charles Spurgeon’s experience.

            By the time Bishop Ding advocated his liberal theology, Wang had a firm grasp of the historical Protestant teachings. He believed firmly in justification by faith alone and insisted that the Father can only be known through the Son as He is revealed in Scriptures. Besides upholding these realities in his sermons, he faithfully expounded them in his magazine, Spiritual Good Quarterly, which became greatly influential among Chinese Christians.

            Wang published a series of articles denouncing TSPM’s departure from true Christianity. In We, Because of Faith, he explained that his opposition to TSPM was theological and not political: “The modernists who explain away the fundamental doctrines about Christ and say they are not essential to faith, are they not dishonoring, despising, and denying the Son?”[1]

            Ding had insisted that all Chinese Christians should unite, in spite of theological differences, because they believed “in the same Heavenly Father and the same Bible.” And yet, TSPM’s interpretation of the Bible was thoroughly modernistic, denying, among other things, the historicity of miracles and of Christ’s physical resurrection.

            “Since the modernists do not honor the Son, since they despise Him and deny Him, since they transgress and abide not in His doctrine, how can we acknowledge that they abide with us in the same Father?”[2] Wang asked.

Imprisonment and Release

            In spite of his explanation of his stand as purely theological, and in spite of his longstanding promotion of an autonomous church, he was arrested as counter-revolutionary and unpatriotic. By dividing the Chinese church, they said, he was playing the game of western imperialism, always eager to divide and conquer. Wang was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Ding was one of the people responsible for his capture. After little more than a year, Wang was released after confessing to crimes he had not committed and promising to join TSPM.

            The experience caused him a great deal of anguish. After much reflection, he recanted his promise and confession, and was rearrested in 1957, together with his wife, Liu Jingwen. This time, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

            Most Chinese prisons at that time were harsh labor camps where prisoners were kept in harrowing conditions. Allen Yuan Xiangchen, another dissenting Christian who was imprisoned with Wang at Heilongjiang, Northeast of China, remembered the cold weather, poor food, and hard work as they grew rice and the overall feeling that they were going to die there. They were not allowed to have Bibles.

            Liu Jingwen was released in 1973, blind in one eye. Wang was released in 1979, due to mounting pressure from human rights organizations. At first, Wang refused to leave until his name had been cleared. Eventually, the prison tricked him into leaving anyhow. By that time, he was toothless and nearly blind and deaf.

            In spite of this, Wang continued to speak against liberal theology and the so-called social gospel, while upholding the biblical gospel of Christ and the historical Protestant doctrines. He spoke strongly about the need for Christians to live holy lives, while keeping a clear distinction between justification and sanctification. Far from promoting Christian isolationism, he encouraged Christians to act as salt and light in society, without becoming unequally joked with unbelievers, whether in worship or in marriage.

            Wang died in 1991 and Liu Jingwen the following year[3]. Their example and his books have inspired many. In his autobiographical writings, Wang portrays himself with all his weaknesses, fears, faults, and falls, praising God’s grace for preserving his faith.

            But Wang was not the only Chinese Christian sustained by God’s grace. In spite of the ongoing persecution, the dissenting churches in China, joined in what is known as “the house church movement,” continued to grow. By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, this movement counted about six million people, as opposed to one million in 1949. Today, China is home to more believers than any other nation in the world.[4]



[1] Wang Mingdao, “We Because of Faith.” Cited in Thomas Alan Harvey, Acquainted With Grief: Wang Mingdao's Stand for the Persecuted Church in China, Brazos Press, 2002, 86–7

[2] Ibid.

[3] For a more complete biographical article on Wang’s life, see http://bdcconline.net/en/stories/wang-mingdao

[4] In December 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, Global Christianity reported the existence of 58 million Protestants and 9 million Roman Catholics in China.