Chinese Theological Review 17

Theological and Cultural Reflections on the Relationship between Church and Society in China

Yang Donglong

Christianity is a foreign religion in China, and did not truly begin to put down roots in this 5000 year-old civilization until Ming and Qing times. By then, Christianity had been developing for over a thousand years, and when it came to China it was a mature religion with set creeds, doctrines and fairly mature doctrines and church disciplines. This being the case it could easily debate with heresies and protect the orthodoxy and purity of its faith. At the same time, upon entering another mature and civilized society, it met with strong resistance and naturally came into conflict with culture. What is culture? In general terms, culture is the sum total of the material and spiritual wealth created in the process of human society and history. In a narrow sense, it is the consciousness of a society along with the system and organizational structures that adapt to it. Culture is a historical phenomenon. Every society has such a culture that has adapted to it and that develops along with the development of material production in that society. Culture as an ideology is the reflection of a specific culture, politics and economics and in turn has a huge influence on and role in that specific culture, politics and economics. With the birth and development of a people, culture takes on ethnicity, and thereby develops and shapes an ethnic tradition. 1

A common phenomenon in the Chinese Church is the distancing of many Christians from culture because of their obedience and loyalty to Jesus Christ. In some cases they may undertake a counterattack on their own culture and become a new grouping. This is because, on the one hand, many Christians, faced with the contradiction between Christ and culture, have recourse to a superficial biblical understanding, especially of the teachings of Jesus. Three points of criticism are most common. First, Jesus urges his followers to withdraw from the desires of the world and not worry about what they will eat, drink or put on. They are to lay up their treasure in heaven and seek the blessings of the kingdom of God; they are not to fear those who threaten their lives: and they are to reject worldly authority and obey God rather than human beings. Niebuhr said that such behavior on the part of Christians leads to human difficulties. 2 Secondly, in his teachings, Jesus seems to ask people to rely on the grace of God rather than encourage human achievement, negating all human endeavor in society. There is a saying of Celsus: "If Romans relied upon nothing but the commands of God, would there be a Rome today? Perhaps they would have been just like the Jews..." 3 Thirdly, the exclusivity of Christ. Jesus said,

"Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in- law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;and whoever loves son or daughter more than me isnot worthy of me; and whoever does not take upthe cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt.10: 34-38).

And 1 John stresses:
"Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches— comes not from the Father but from the world" (1Jn.2: 15-17).

And there are other passages such as "believers may not be yoked together with unbelievers."

In this essay, I will attempt to describe and analyze this phenomenon.

The Relationship between Church and Society as expressed in Theology and Culture

Believers and non-believers

Many Chinese Christians like to separate people into believers and non-believers and call those who believe in Christ those who belong to God (spiritual people). Nonbelievers they call secular or gentiles. Thus faith or belief becomes the standard by which to divide people. Those who believe in Christ have been blessed with salvation. Non-believers are on a par with poisonous snakes; they are enemies of Christ. One who is not in the grace of Christ is under the power of Satan. Therefore, believers may not be yoked together with unbelievers: they cannot work together, or intermarry. Christians should seek Christian colleagues and Christian spouses. They believe that the place of bad people who believe in God is much higher than that of good people who do not believe. And so when a good unbeliever dies, he or she has no share in God's grace. In 1998, Bishop K.H. Ting criticized those who dismissed the good deeds of those heroes who fought the floods, pointing out that to use belief and unbelief to differentiate those around one was not helpful for the spread of the gospel and Christian witness.

Belief in Christ is the difference between Christians and non-Christians. If those who do not believe in Christ cannot be chosen and called out by God, then there would be no Christian church. However, in China, once one is called and becomes a Christian, after the first flush of excitement, he or she will discover that they are only part of a very tiny group and that there is a huge gap between the teachings of the Bible and traditions of the church on the one hand, and the society and culture on the other. Christians are regularly taught that only by severing their relationships with the things of this world, and living God-fearing lives, can they be worthy of the name Christian. For those who are on good terms with the world are enemies of Christ. Many Christians hold to this understanding. If there is salvation outside of Christ, then why would one necessarily become a Christian? Since one has become a Christian, then one should be loyal to Christ and to the church. Those who do not believe in Jesus (including good people) can only live in degradation, enjoying the pleasures of sin. They are in no way comparable to Christians, those sinners who claim to have been called.

These phenomena are widespread in the church in China. As emissaries of the Savior, Christians enter this evil world filled with a sense of superiority, to be "all things to all people, that some might be saved." We might say that this sense of superiority is both the confidence and grace that God gives to Christians as well as the "spiritual arrogance" of Christians themselves. It is not difficult to see that Chinese Christians' concept that believers may not be yoked together with unbelievers is related to the fact that Christianity in China has always been small and weak, an immature group. If such a group does not do something new and original to emphasize its special character, it will be inundated and sink in the vast waters of the secular society. At the same time we can see that the spiritual arrogance of Christians is related to the low view of Chinese culture held by western missionaries who preached the gospel in China. Additionally, the view that believers cannot be yoked together with unbelievers is also related to the religious and philosophical diversity of traditional Chinese society.

Belief is a very important matter for Christians, but use of belief vs. unbelief as a means to classify the righteous and the unrighteous creates an opposition between church and society. The difference between these two (belief/un-belief) is belief in what and unbelief in what, something that cannot be simplistically be used to classify people as righteous or unrighteous. Some scholars have suggested that to enable Christianity to take root in China, we should hereafter emphasize the doctrine of "love." The issue of be-lief/unbelief need not be so important. Love can blend harmoniously with all sorts of humanisms, belief is limited to Christians. The idea that only through belief can one enjoy the grace given by God and that without it (belief) all is emptiness, is perhaps the most important factor in shaping the idea today that church is church and society is society: two separate entities.4

In his "Establish a correct view of the Bible," K.H. Ting says, "It might be a good idea for us in China to play down the idea of "justification by faith," for this would help people know and understand Christ. This is not Martin Luther's time. Our encounter is with the Chinese people; if some think it is dangerous for me to speak of "playing down," I am willing to hear them out, and we can consider this together..." K.H. Ting feels that God is a cosmic God, the creator God, and the world God's creation. Salvation and sanctification cannot be separated, and the source of all these is Love, the key that opens up all existence. This is a question of how to view the Bible. Bishop Ting says, "In the beginning, we made belief and unbelief the only question Christianity posed to humanity; only later did we realize that God's creation, salvation and sanctification are one in the cosmos and in history." In the light of the Holy Spirit, our knowledge of the Bible is constantly growing deeper; at the same time our social environment is constantly changing. It is reasonable, then, that our view of the Bible should adjust and change. If we can come before God in humility, we can say with confidence, this is the light God has given for our age, to bring us to God. One of the quite crucial issues for the theological reconstruction currently going on in the Chinese Church is the establishment of a correct view of the Bible.

The existing relationship between Christian faith and real life in the modernization process

The teaching and practice that centers around the idea that "believer and unbeliever cannot be yoked together" has had a rather long history and deep impact. Even now there is quite a large segment of Christians who hold this view.

As times change, there are new developments in the relationship between the society and the church as well. Chinese Christianity is growing in the footsteps of modernization, working silently on its behalf. At the same time, it enjoys the rich fruits of modernization.

The church has never been a financial entity; it is not suitable for the church to engage in economic activities. Jesus rebuked his disciples saying, "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." Facts show that it is wise and proper for the church to keep well out of economic activities. Once churches have become involved in financial dealings, they find it creates a great many difficulties for their preaching and pastoral work. If a church makes a profit, giving will go down, even though the church's real income hasn't risen and, because it is involved in financial dealings, the church co-workers are not as involved in the church's ministry, and some even come to grief over money. Some churches may incur losses through financial dealings, even resulting in losses in church property; the church building itself may be sealed off by the courts. It is easy for a church to lose its identity and proper witness in the midst of financial dealings, and such losses are inestimable. Being of this world, the church is also a social organization which needs financial support. But the church is not the usual sort of social group; it is rather a spiritual group. Its needs are met by love offerings from the brothers and sisters. A church leader explained things to a government official this way: "Yes, the church needs money, but the government need not worry, the church does have money—the money in the believers' pockets. As long as the believers are happy, the church need not worry about money."

The church's refusal to take part in financial dealings does not mean that the church refuses to be part of the modernization process. Quite the opposite, the church encourages believers to take an active part in the economy, to strive to make money and to strive to give money. For work (making money) is what Christians are put on earth to do. The Bible encourages believers to work hard, for when one has more than enough, he or she can help others in need. Yet Christians who are involved in business may meet many tests and difficulties, such as unfair competition, corruption and so on.... The Bible teaches "Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord" (Prov.20:23). But in the face of the fierce competition of the marketplace, the Christian has often to make choices in the midst of a complex social and business culture. It is a comfort to know that Christians who do well often love the Lord more and serve the church more enthusiastically. This is a clear challenge to the many people in society who deteriorate morally when they become rich. Therefore, Christian ethics and virtue provide a treasure of spiritual wealth to China's modernization.

The stand of Christian faith against folk religions

Though Confucianism is emblematic of traditional Chinese culture, at the popular level a pantheistic folk religion predominates. This folk religion has had a far greater impact on Chinese people's thinking, especially among the rural population than Confucianism. Respect for ancestors and worship of gods and spirits are its main content. Over the past twenty years of the policy of reform and openness, folk religious practices in some areas have experienced a return to life, with large-scale construction of temples, and in some areas, worship takes place not only in set venues, but is often seen in the streets and alleyways, inside and outside the temples. Superstitious folk religious practice insinuates itself under the cloak of traditional Chinese culture, but this is exactly the sort of worship of idols that the Bible condemns and that the Christian churches have forbidden. The majority of Christian churches oppose participation by Christians in idol worship or related activities, and to a certain extent, this distances the church from the society. Due to the fact that folk religious practices are often part of involvement in social activities, the absence of Christian participation is often taken as a sign of shirking of proper social responsibility, and this creates tension between the church and society. We can say that the greatest pressure the church is facing at present comes not from an atheist ideology, but from local forces of feudal superstition. In some places, the local residents will not permit the building of churches, and even if government pressure is brought to bear and a church is built, the placing of a cross is often not permitted, because their thinking says that the God of the Christians is all-powerful and if a church is built, their own gods will not dare to come near to be worshipped. The refusal of Christians to worship idols and other gods and spirits often earns them dislike and prejudice from their neighbors. For example, one who becomes a Christian is often considered unfilial (because they do not venerate the ancestors according to folk religious practice) and loses benefits and status within the family or clan. However, due to the implementation of the government policy of religious freedom, such bias toward Christians is gradually diminishing. At the same time Christians express their own position on matters in a positive way. For example, on the one hand, Christians refuse to give the expected contribution for such activities, but on the other hand, they are active in social welfare efforts, giving time and labor, and helping to create a better environment. While keeping well away from idol worship, the church is making efforts to establish cultural forms which can express Christian faith. For example, at important festivals and holidays such as Spring Festival, Christians give a spiritual and Christian interpretation to traditional customs: pasting up rhyming couplets with a spiritual meaning, taking advantage of the holiday to hold gospel meetings and revivals, imbuing important occasions like marriages, funerals, etc. with Christian meaning. These are all significant attempts. Because the church in every place shows forth the virtues such as love and holiness, the expressions of Christian faith are gradually becoming known and admired in society and more and more people are drawn to Christian civilization, especially young people and other more enlightened types.

Ecumenism and patriotism

For the most part, Christianity came to China in tandem with the forces of imperialism, and its teachings were strongly colored by western missionaries' colonialist culture. This made it seem that the message Chinese Christians received was that it is enough to be citizens of heaven, or that they should orient themselves toward the western countries and study their lifestyles. It is hardly to be wondered then that Chinese critiqued this phenomenon by saying, "one more Christian means one less Chinese." Christians were looked upon as second-class foreigners or as foreigners' slaves, and Christianity as a tool of aggression against China, while the Chinese church was seen as the comprador of imperialism in China. Thus, whenever there was tension between China and a foreign nation, a great deal of pressure would be put upon Christians—they became scapegoats.

Historically, though we cannot entirely discount the patriotic sentiments or ethnic spirit of Chinese Christians— for there are a lot of excellent witnesses in this regard—the relationship between the concept of nation taught by Christianity and Chinese nationalism was one of tension. In general, the Christian concept is broader than that understood in China. The Christian is not only concerned for his or her own nation and people. It is a more universal concern that includes all nations and all peoples, because all the earth belongs to Yahweh and Christians have a father in heaven, God. Christians make no distinction on the basis of nation or race; all are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ; all belong to one family. When Christians from different places come together, they feel very close to each other, but this is not easy for non-Christian Chinese to understand. Yet, in terms of the relationship of nation and state, state and religion, Christians need to have a deeper understanding.

Today, Chinese Christianity advocates love country, love church; glorify God and serve the people: these are not only demands of the times, but even more an intrinsic and important part of Christian faith, with a wealth of biblical evidence behind them. In my remarks at the first flag-rais-ing ceremony at Guangdong Union Theological Seminary, I spoke of my understanding of patriotism: "I love my country, this place which gave birth to and nurtured me." This is the common voice of each one of us, for we are each born in a particular country, just as we are born of our parents. For the Israelites, two things could not be forgotten: God and the fatherland. Consequently, in times of chaos and defeat, the prophet Daniel prayed three times in the direction of Jerusalem each day. In China, we have had the great patriots Su Yu, Yue Fei and Wen Tianxiang, whose moving stories are known to all Chinese.

Globalization and unification are unavoidable trends. The phenomenon of stronger and bigger countries "picking on" smaller and weaker ones will continue. What can Chinese Christianity do? I believe that with striking a balance between patriotism and universalism as a prerequisite, we should actively establish and develop friendly relationships with Christians overseas. This will both deepen our fellowship in the Lord, is consonant with the spirit of Christian ecumenism and unity, and will deepen people-to-people understanding with other countries. Misunderstandings and violence can be elminiated and world peace maintained, providing a peaceful international environment for our modernization. This is a mission Chinese Christianity can strive for.

This life and the hereafter

The teaching Christians receive from the Bible and from the church stresses both concern for human life in this world, living a good life day to day through grace, but also longing for that eternal, incorruptible country. Human life is very limited, and by counting our days we learn wisdom. This limited life will pass away, but for Christians, death is not the end of life, but the beginning of a life transformed and made new. Thus, Christians can smile in the face of death, and in the midst of difficulties, have an even stronger hope in the joys of that eternal life to come. This is Christian eschatology.

Whether we reason from biblical teachings and revelation or from logic, the end of the world is an inevitability. Many people say that several thousand years have passed since Jesus said "The Kingdom of God is at hand," yet we have not seen the world coming to an end. Does this mean there will be many years yet before the end? We can affirm that there will be thousands more years of human history to come. Yet in China, for various complex historical reasons, Christians' hope for the end of the world has been the object of suspicion and attack. Around the time of liberation, because some foreign missionaries were very anticommunist, they tried to harm the fledgling new China through their preaching on the end times. Today as all China is striving for economic construction and a prosperous socialist China with improvements in the people's standard of living, if Christians continue to preach the end of the world, it seems like a negation of the people's efforts and achievements.

In fact, Christians hope in the world to come because Christ makes us look calmly upon the future, to look for another, better, world. Today, as we see the environment being destroyed, Christian eschatology can serve as a warning. The world's ability to endure the damage imposed on it by humankind is not without limits; if humanity does not reflect on its ignorant behavior and desist, nature will punish us. The disasters that affect the world are certainly related to the damage and overuse of natural resources that have upset the ecological balance. If people do not come to their senses, and protect and cherish this world God created, "the end of the world" will come upon us. If we can set aside purely political views and take a level-headed approach in using theology and other disciplines to care for the future of humanity, the positive significance of eschatology will show forth.


The relationship between church and society has had many expressions, both in history and the present: contradictions, unity, adaptation and failure to adapt, and these are related to Christian doctrine and its growth in history. However, another equally important reason is China itself. Facts show that contradictions are nothing to fear, the fearful thing is to lose one's selfhood in this cultural environment and be lost as was Nestorianism in its time. Unity and conflict between Chinese Christianity and Chinese society is fully expressed in the piety and perseverance of Christian faith. When state power oppressed the church, many Christians, in order to express their loyalty to Christ, acted on their beliefs and were willing to lose family and property and social guarantees and endure physical and spiri-tual hardship, in order to leave some basis for the resurgence of the Chinese church. Christianity's relationship to society and culture during the modernization process is, on the one hand, to witness to Christian faith, and on the other, to breathe new life into a renewal of Chinese culture. Following our reform and openness, some scholars found that the Christian spirit helped in China's modernization, so they hoped to use Christian culture to enrich and influence China. In my opinion, this is the positive significance of both the contradictions and the unity that exists between Christianity and society and culture.

As both parties affirm the positive significance of the contradictions, we as Christians must not forget the reality and teaching of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As we enter into the particular culture and society in which we live and share in the weal and woe of our fellow Chinese, we invite and accompany them as they experience death and new life in Christ. In this way, the Christian spirit achieves a positive and profound significance.

Yang Donglong is Dean of Guangdong Union Theological Seminary. Nanjing Theological Review,3 (2002): 19-23.

1 Cihai Encyclopedic Dictionary . (Shanghai: Cishu Publishers, 1979), 3510.
2 Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture . (Taiwan: East Asian Graduate School of Theology, 1986), 4.
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Lu Shiqiang, "Reasons why modern Chinese intellectuals oppose Christianity," in Essays on the Indigenization of Christianity in China , 214.