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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....
Monday, January 31, 2022
The Winter issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly (December 13, 2021) features the growth of Reformed Christianity in China. Many years ago, I taught at a family church Bible school in Beijing that was run by a Reformed guy. For those of you who are wondering, the term “Reformed” generally refers to that part of the Reformation that descended from Calvin and his teachings. Basically, the Reformation was bipolar. Protestant Christianity followed either Luther or Calvin. That is a simplification, of course. If you want to include Roman Catholics, you could talk about Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits, but that’s really a counter reformation.
And of course, there are other groups, such as the Anabaptists, who didn’t really fit into either the Reformed or Lutheran camp. But I would say that the predominant direction of the Reformation was Lutheran-Calvinist. I don’t want to get bogged down with the differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism—I will do that some other time. What this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly focuses on is the growing popularity of Reformed (Calvinist) Christianity throughout unofficial Christianity in China.
You can scroll through the articles below if you like, but you may want to download the pdf file so that you can read the articles at your leisure offline. I have written a few notes about the articles, which I hope you will find helpful:
- “On December 9, 2018, in a move that attracted international media and government attention, Chinese authorities arrested one of China’s most prominent Reformed voices, Wang Yi, a pastor and former dissident lawyer, along with more than a hundred other ministry leaders associated with Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. Many others associated with this church—members, students, and ministry workers—scattered for protection. While most of those arrested were subsequently released, Wang Yi was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment. The work in Chengdu has not recovered.”
It should be noted that Wang Yi, in sharp contrast to most family church pastors, [I use the term family church because that is the term Chinese Christians use. The term “house church” is a uniquely American construction. I have never heard a Chinese believer use it.] was quite political, and a big part of his message involved a call for political reform. I am not making a judgment about that, nor am I saying that he is not being persecuted—he certainly is. But in his case, it is primarily political persecution, not religious persecution. Americans are not too sure there is a difference between those two, but they are not exactly the same.
- ”What are China’s reforming churches? For a church to make a meaningful claim to being Reformed—whether church is understood as a single congregation or a cluster of congregations operating as a connected body—at least two things should be evident. First, they should adhere to a Reformed confession of faith such as the Westminster Standards (most common among those rooted in the Presbyterian tradition) or Three Forms of Unity (most common among those rooted in the Continental Reformed tradition) or, for Baptists, the Second London Confession (1689), which was an adaptation of the Westminster Standards to Reformed Baptist convictions. These are not the only Reformed confessions, but they are the most common. Others, including newly produced Confessions for the Chinese context, may be regarded as Reformed if, in the main, they agree with these.”
It’s common in America to talk about various branches of a given religious direction, but in the case of Reformed Christianity, this would be much less common in China. You just hear the word “Reformed,” and that’s it. So does this mean that there are people who call themselves “Reformed” who are not? Perhaps. I have a friend who always calls himself a Mormon, because it was a Mormon who first told him about Jesus. But he uses the same Bible I do (ESV) and when I told him that Mormons do not believe that Jesus is God, he steadfastly denied that.
I also wonder a bit if some are not confused by the English terminology. The word "Reformed" looks like it means "that which comes from the Reformation." But in America, by convention, the word "Reformed" refers specifically to that part of the Reformation that came from Calvin. I am not quite sure that all people in China who call themselves "Reformed" really understand that distinction.
For the most part, though, I think people in China who call themselves “Reformed” would have studied Reformed ideas and are very attracted to them. The director of the family church Bible school I taught at many years ago fell in love with Reformed thought when he was in university. He started a group to teach Reformed ideas and got quite a following. The university officials warned him about this, but he ignored them. The finally called him aside and promised all kinds of help in his academic career if he would stop preaching Reformed ideas. He turned down the deal and got kicked out of school.
- “Churches holding this view are mainly house churches who later adopted Reformed theology, including a few of the Reformed Baptist churches. Under the influence of this view, believers in these churches actively evangelize outsiders. They do not care about political topics and have no passion for public affairs. They care about the return of Christ, spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth, establishing churches in all nations, and promoting cross-cultural evangelism. These believers are willing to donate money to evangelical ministries.”
This paragraph neatly describes what is the basic perspective of the overwhelming majority of family church Christians. They are fiercely independent. They absolutely do not want to be controlled by the government or by any government agency. But by the same token, they avoid politics and political issues like the plague. This is partly due to the Cultural Revolution, I think.
During the Cultural Revolution, you could get in real trouble for not being political enough. Even university scholars, when they wrote books, would say something like “Long live Chairman Mao!” every few paragraphs or something to avoid getting in trouble. But after the Cultural Revolution, there was a change. Suddenly there was a third option. You still could not be politically incorrect, But being overtly political was not the only alternative. Now you could be nonpolitical, and as long as your viewpoints did not cross the powers that be, you would be left alone. The vast majority of family church Christians in China take this option. Others, like Wang Yi, choose to buck the system. Who am I to say which approach is right for any given person?
- “In the past, many Christians believed that a proper worship gathering needed a public space specially dedicated to worship, a full-time pastor, and a choir. Nowadays, designated spaces, choirs, and public gatherings can no longer be regarded as basic elements of worship. What matters most are the correct preaching of the word, the carrying out of the sacraments, prayers, and fellowship (cf. Acts 2:42). Some churches also share a meal after the Sunday worship.”
The problem here is that a public space dedicated to worship is precisely what makes them illegal. The government policy on religion states that families worshiping together are exempt from the registration requirement. But you can also invite a few friends. So why not another family and a few more friends? You can see where this is going. This is why illegal churches tend to refer to themselves as “family churches.” But in fact, they clearly are not. They are small illegal independent churches. [I have to state, for the record, that this is hotly debated. I visited Samuel Lamb's church in Guangzhou years ago. He preached every week to 3000 people in an unregistered church. When confronted by the police, he did not say "I must obey God rather than man." He insisted that his church was a family church. "This is my house, these are my friends."]
“In the pages that follow, a Reformed pastor laments in passing that the retreat of some house churches from more open worship practices means that people will no longer wander in off the street because they will no longer be able to hear the congregation singing. It is a striking lament. The idea that house churches in China worship so openly that people passing by can hear them singing, and that strangers off the street are welcome to wander in to worship, may surprise readers just tuning in. But more striking yet is that this actually happens in China with enough regularity to be on this pastor’s radar as a lamentable loss to their outreach efforts.”
This is idealistic wishful thinking, I think. I cannot imagine a situation where someone would able to walk down the street, hear singing from a family church, and walk inside. It may have happened, but probably not likely, certainly not in Beijing. Family churches typically use rented office space. They are not “underground” in the sense that they are hiding—the police know they are there. But there is no cross on the building, and their activities cannot be heard from the street. I guess it is fair to say that if someone happened to be walking down the hallway inside the building, heard singing, and walked inside they would certainly be welcome. Of course. This issue is not that they are not welcome. The issue is that family churches are not allowed to advertise, or more accurately, they are not legally allowed to exist. So if the local police tolerate their presence, it would not be wise to press the issue by advertising in a way that would give the police no choice but to shut them down. So generally speaking, the idea of walking by a church and deciding to go inside would be conceivable with a Three-self church, but quite unlikely with a family church. Most people who go to a family church are invited by someone who goes there regularly.
"Since house churches typically choose not to register their venue, they are not legally recognized."
This is a very American idea. The posture of the powers that be in China toward family churches is not, “You are operating as a church so you should register.” It is “We did not create you, so you should not exist.” So while it is certainly true that most family churches do not wish to be governed by the Religious Affairs Bureau, it is just as true that the vast majority of family churches, if they tried to register, would probably be ordered to disband. “We already have ten Christian churches in this citiy of twenty million people, we don’t need anymore.”
I am not going to say anything about Sinification right now, because I am not sure how widespread this will be. Personally, I think it’s a flash in the pan. I have heard of churches who sing the national anthem as a congregation, but I have never seen this myself. So I am watching this development, but it doesn’t worry me. Every action that has been taken by the Communist party to restrict the growth of the church has resulted in the church becoming more robust and more numerous than if that action had not been taken.
Several years ago in Beijing we started to hear that family churches were going to be restricted. I asked a sister who went to a local family church what they were doing. I had been to her church. It had three Sunday morning services, with about 100 people in each service. She told me that they had divided into thirty groups of ten people. But when I asked another sister what her family church was doing to anticipate the change, she said “Nothing. We have a good landlord.” So responses are varied. The powers that be can announce changes, but they simply do not have the power to enforce those changes universally. Think about it: how easy would it be to put tens of millions of people in prison?
As I said, I am paying attention, but I really don't anticipate much difference in how family churches operate, and those who divide a church of 300 people into 30 churches of 10 people will just become thirty new family churches that will eventually grow into many more people than if the government had not announced a new policy. I think we would all be wise to remember the words of the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
“The theological education of ministers and other kinds of church workers in China often occurs in seminaries. What counts as a seminary in China and how these seminaries educate their students varies widely. While I do not know of any credible count as to how many there may be—back in 2006 David Aikman guessed hundreds—it seems certain that there are many more seminaries in China than in North America.”
I don’t think it’s possible to know how many Bible schools or seminaries there are in China. Probably lots. But there is something that isn’t mentioned here. More and more young people who grow up in family churches are going to the national seminary in Nanjing, not because they think it is such a great school, but so that they can become pastors in Three-self churches. Of course that doesn’t meet the needs of those who are looking for Reformed type seminaries—most of them will probably go abroad. Hard to know how that is going to go because of COVID, but I expect to see a big increase there. Not just the United States, but Singapore, the Philippines, Korea, and also some to Europe.
As for this statement: “…it seems certain that there are many more seminaries in China than in North America.” Not real seminaries of any substance. I don’t believe that. Seminaries in China are typically small, illegal family church seminaries. They are sometimes tolerated because they are small and the local cops really don’t care. But no, seminary education in China does not begin to compare with America.
“With its confrontational stance toward the government, a home-grown Christian school, an outspoken public voice on social issues such as abortion, and a thriving seminary, Chengdu’s Early Rain Reformed Church appeared to many as the epitome of the Reformed movement in China.”
It has to be pointed out that groups like Early Rain that set about to establish large mega-churches have to know that they are going to be shut down eventually. There’s just no way they could not know that. That’s why most family churches would never try it, because they are about establishing a body of believers, not creating an international protest. So why do groups like Early Rain do what they do if they know they are going to be shut down? I guess they are hoping to get international attention that will result in pressure applied from abroad that will somehow allow them to succeed. It is a vain hope, but it fools a lot of Americans, as this paragraph indicates. Anyone who actually allows himself to hope that a church like Early Rain will become the epitome of anything just doesn’t know China. It’s not going to happen. Not anytime soon.
Is this bad? Well, from an American perspective, yes. But I believe that it is part of God’s plan for China, because keeping churches small so that they mulitiply rapidly is resulting in much faster church growth. This is a good thing, you guys. If your hope is in one particular movement (such as Reformed Christianity) then you may not be happy about it. But if your desire is to see the body of Christ as a whole develop and grow, then we all have much reason for optimism.
But let’s ask the question: Is this new Reformed fad good for China? I am not a five-point Calvinist, and I do have some concerns about Reformed ideas that stand in contrast to the clear teaching of Scripture, such as cessationism, but I do think it is a good thing for one main reason: It is attracting men. As you may know, the population of family churches is lopsided. Usually more women than men. But the Reformed movement is attracting lots of men. That is a good thing.
My concern is for the church as a whole, so I am always wary of a movement among believers that is smaller than the body of Christ. But I think this is going to have a positive effect, because there will be more Christians in China as a result of it. This movement is reaching people (especially young men) who probably would not have been drawn to Christianity if the only church they knew was a bunch of ladies like their grandmother who sit around and talk and weep. So in spite of my reservations, I have to say that it is a positive movement. The Reformed believers I have been acquainted with (mostly through teaching at that little Reformed Bible school in Beijing) are good people. They have a solid faith in Christ, and they are committed to a deep understanding of spiritual truth.