Church development involves various facets, but in general, it includes two important aspects. One concerns institution building, that is, church administration, which provides the base for church development and assures the smooth undertaking of church ministries. The other concerns the spiritual growth of the church. This involves providing both spiritual guidance to individuals, to enable them to better serve the Lord, and witnessing to society, so as to glorify God while benefiting people and society.
Jesus once asked the disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Giving the answer to this question has been an important task for the churches for centuries. Churches in different times and different contexts have to provide their own answers to "who Jesus is" to their people. The witness we bear and the message we proclaim should be in keeping with the times.
The revelation of the incarnation is authentic, but we have to realize that the experiences of incarnation and the grace of the cross for people in different times, cultures and contexts are quite different. Therefore, expressions of the incarnation and the grace of the cross can all be different. Human beings are social beings. Communities, including religious communities, are social communities. The consciousness of human beings and communities are conditioned by existing social consciousness. Society however, is not unchanging, but rather undergoes continuous change and development. Our responsibility and that of the Church is to promulgate the unchanging fundamental Christian faith in an ever-changing and ever-developing society. This reveals a crucial fact: theological thinking, that explains the rationality, authenticity, and accuracy of our fundamental faith, must be under constant adjustment, modification and enrichment in accordance with the changing times and changing society. Otherwise, we cannot fulfill the Great Commission God has given us: to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth and to glorify His holy name on earth.
How God reveals His Will and Truth through the Holy Spirit is not absolute. He leads us into His abundant grace in a relative, progressive and continuous manner. Both church history and the Bible bear witness to this most significant point. That also provides the theoretical basis for us to strengthen theological thinking.
Take, for instance, the attitude to the state. With the changing times, the nature of the state changes as well. We must, therefore, make the necessary adjustments in our theological thinking. In Romans, Ch.13 v.1-6, St. Paul emphasizes: "let every person be subject to the governing authorities", and "those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God appointed". On the other hand, the teachings in Revelation are drastically different. There is a switch in position from obeying the rule of Rome to being hostile and opposing. Why? During Paul's time, the Roman authority basically reigned "in righteousness" and ruled "with justice". The authority of such a ruler is from God, and is the instrument of God. Therefore, the rule shall be obeyed. When John wrote Revelation, however, Roman rule had become arbitrary, prurient, wicked, tyrannical and violent. The nature of the regime had changed and such an authority shall not be obeyed or respected. This clearly shows that theological thinking must adapt to different historical periods.
There are two dimensions to this. They are general and particular. These two dimensions apply to the theological thinking that the Chinese Church is calling for today.
The particularity relates to the special historical circumstances in which Christianity came to China, and the special policy of some current western interest groups towards China. Regardless of whether it is of the past or the present, they share one thing in common, that is, to articulate and use certain theological ideas in a dubious manner to serve colonial expansion and to mislead believers. Against this background, church growth and the spiritual needs of Christians are being used as a means to oppose China and the Chinese people. In its extreme form, it breeds opposition to science, rationality, society and humanity.
For instance, these groups proclaim that the world is evil, full of sin and unrighteousness. Thus Christians should not love the world or worldly affairs, especially in a socialist country governed by a Communist Party. Christians are told that their citizenship is in heaven, and therefore are urged to refuse the supervision of the authorities and to disobey laws and regulations. This has led some churches and innocent believers to oppose the government, to oppose social development and nation building. The following is a typical example: A Christian woman used to be committed to her work, actively participating in the community and showing great concern for the country's development. She bore good witness among colleagues and neighbors, receiving many awards from her work unit and community. Later on, however, she was misled by false teachings and regarded herself as having loved the world and worldly affairs. She saw herself as having sinned and having been separated from God. To love God with all her heart and spirit and to separate herself from the world and from sin, she returned all the certificates of merit to her work unit and the community.
To provide another example: These groups belittle human beings, who are God's creation and considered good by God, claiming that human beings are full of evil and unrighteousness. They reject the function of ethics and morality by saying that where sins increase, grace abounds all the more. They believe that, in God's eyes, human righteousness is worthless as rags.
They treat rational thinking, knowledge, intelligence as something derived from the soul, and condemned by God. The more inventions people have, the farther people stray away from God.
Affected by such theological ideas, some believers engage in practices that are incompatible with their faith, with some of them becoming extremely anti-reason, anti-science and anti-humanist.
From these examples, it is clear that there are, at present, two completely different trends in theological thinking, with different effects on churches, congregations and society. The idea of theological reconstruction that the Chinese church is advocating aims to distinguish theological thinking that is Biblically grounded and able to provide a sound explanation of fundamental Christian faith, from thinking that is anti-material, anti-rational, anti-social and anti-hu-manist. The latter must be abandoned. Our purpose is to construct a theology that encapsulates the special experience and special gift of our Chinese Church with a sound grounding in basic Christian faith.
Responding to God's commission, the Apostle Paul served the church "to make the word of God fully known". This is a commitment and a command, not only for Paul, but for all those who have become servants of the Church. For those of us who are God's servants in the Chinese Church today, this commitment and mission is clearly the vision before us. To construct a theology with Chinese characteristics will be decisive in fulfilling God's special commission to make the word of God fully known at this time. God's commission is the energy and resource for theological reconstruction.
In promoting theological reconstruction, the National TSPM and the China Christian Council have set up some major guidelines and principles.
1) The major task of theological reconstruction is to develop a theology that is Biblically grounded, provides a sound explanation for basic beliefs and keeps up with the times. We will draw on the experience of the Chinese Church in the past 50 years in constructing a theology with Chinese characteristics to provide direction for the development and spiritual growth of the church in China.
2) The majority of church workers, both clergy and laity, seminary faculty and students, and all Christians who have the necessary cultural background, academic ability, religious knowledge, spiritual experience, and intellectual capability will constitute the essential task force for theological reconstruction.
3) Diversity and plurality shall be encouraged as long as there is a basic respect for the Bible and as long as there is a common understanding of basic Christian faith.
4) We should not criticize certain theological schools while one-sidedly canonizing other schools. We are against drawing lines between theological schools.
5) We respect the fruits of earlier theological efforts and will use our rich historical resources, but we will not simply repeat or cater to what is foreign. We are clear that the Chinese church is the subject (not an object) and will select, from foreign sources, what we consider useful. We are also clear that the modern era is the focus, and what is historical should be adapted to the contemporary.
6) We should integrate the need for popularization with raising standards, and combine research at the grassroots with the work of experts.
Questions have been raised about whether theological reconstruction will succeed. In this task, we can derive confidence from the following:
1) Over the last fifty years, the TSPM has gone through difficulties, but also experienced God's abundant grace. The experience, insights and inspiration of the last fifty years constitute a very precious resource for theological re-think-ing today.
2) Through the last fifty years, the Chinese Church has developed a large core of people made up of theological faculty and lay workers who are academically, theologically and Biblically competent.
3) Even more precious is the group of senior church leaders who are committed to God‘s ministries and are full of wisdom and knowledge. This constitutes an irreplaceable force and resource.
4) There is much in terms of earlier theological efforts that we can study and consult.
5) "Strengthening theological reconstruction" is the special vision that God has bestowed on the Chinese Church, and it is God's significant commission to us. God will lead the way with abundant grace.
6) God has prepared a wonderful social context for us to enjoy the freedom to carry on the task of theological reconstruction. This task has the understanding, sympathy and support of the government.
All these will assure success in our efforts at theological reconstruction. We move forward with confidence. In the past four years, we have enjoyed achievements and experienced the joy of God's blessings. We trust that through God's abundant grace we will be led towards greater success.
Talk delivered during CCC/TSPM visit to the WCC in Geneva, April, 2003. Reprinted with thanks from Amity News Service.