Chinese Theological Review 16

Theological Reconstruction in Shanghai

Cao Shengjie

1 Process

Since the resolution on "Strengthening Theological Reconstruction" was passed at the Jinan Meeting in 1998, the Shanghai CC/ TSM has made it a focus of attention. As part of its efforts to communicate the spirit of the meeting, the municipal CC/TSM have held many sessions on the significance of theological reconstruction for district and provincial co-workers, lay workers and elders.

In the first six months of 1999, we organized open discussions for young and middle-aged co-workers in which they selected the topics from among eight issues to be found in the church. These issues were: the boundary between the spiritual and the secular; the relationship between church and society; the relationship between faith and reason; are believers and unbelievers opposed to one another; how goodness, truth and beauty outside the church should be viewed; how the Second Coming should be preached; what view to take of material wealth; and how to aid believers in the moral questions they face at home. Following these discussions, representatives from each group met in a joint sharing session and many short essays were submitted.

In the second half of 1999, we had a half-day meeting every other week for pastoral workers on self-propagation. Foremost among the topics they selected (from the eight above) was "the boundary between the spiritual and the secular." The 13 short essays that emerged were collected in the second booklet in the Self-Propagation Study Series: Spiritual Explorations.

In 2000 we organized the 50th anniversary of Three-Self around the theme "The Direction and Path Forward for the Chinese Church," and asked colleagues to hold symposiums on their experience of the 50 years of the Three-Self Movement, considered in the light of hermeneutics and theology, knowledge of church history, and the status quo of socialist society in China. Under the general theme were eight sub-categories:

1 The Church is a group composed of a people chosen and called by God. What then is its relationship to society?

2 Jesus is the Head of the Church. Then how do we understand that the church on earth must be patriotic and law-abiding and accept administrative leadership?

3 The Church must act in obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Why then does it need human rules and regulations?

4 The Church must uphold biblical truth and safeguard the true way passed on by the apostles. What relationship does this have to the development of theological thinking?

5 The Church is ecumenical (catholic). flow do we then understand the reasonableness of the path of "self determination" in the Chinese Church?

6 The Church should be holy, but unholy things happen regularly in the earthly church. How shall we deal with these?

7 The Church should be one. Then why do we need to realize "mutual respect" in matters of faith?

8 The Church should be self-supporting. Is it possible then to use other methods of raising income beyond believers' contributions? Discussions centered primarily around the first five issues.

From April 5-7, 2000 a city-wide symposium of pastoral workers was held in the Qingpu district. Seventeen persons made presentations at this event and 20 others spoke as respondents. Bishop K.H. Ting took part and spoke on theological reconstruction to the 500 or so co-workers and lay workers present. The proceedings of this meeting were published as Proceedings of the Symposium on the 50 1" Anniversary of Three-Self and Theological Reconstruction.

It was after this meeting that a Shanghai pastor, preaching on the topic "China Should be Transformed by the Gospel" said: "A Church that preaches the Gospel must preach signs and wonders; a Church that does not preach signs and wonders is not a true Church." This caused a great stir among colleagues and believers. As a result, co-workers decided to undertake study and discussion on how "signs" should be viewed. We affirm that we all believe in signs, but should our preaching of the gospel today be based only on this? How should we understand the miracles recorded in the Bible? Thirty short essays came out of this discussion, most of which were collected in the 3"' title in the Self-Propagation Study Series, Pastoral Co-Workers Discuss Miracles.

In the latter half of 2000, our discussions centered around the topic: "Christians (in China) are surrounded by many who do not believe in Christianity, how shall we view this situation from a biblical and theological point of view?" We discovered in the course of the discussion that the estrangement Christians feel toward the non-Christians around them stems from the influence of the theological idea that believers stand for good, while unbelievers stand for evil. This brings in the question of whether non-Christians can do good. Where do their good deeds come from? Do their good deeds have value in God's eyes; do they find favor with God? How can we explain theologically that all humans are sinful, but that all humans are also capable of good deeds? What is the Christian view of humanity? And so on. Our discussion of these issues is just beginning and it will take time before a deeper development is seen.

In the first six months of this year (2001), we held discussions with our Jiangsu colleagues on issues of common concern in order to share with and learn from them. We first called upon colleagues themselves to choose topics, for small group discussions. Out of these small groups came 31 essays. Following this a larger symposium was held at which eight co-workers spoke.

Because transportation is less convenient for them and their issues are rather different, colleagues from the suburbs and outlying areas presently spend a day studying sharing with the larger gatherings twice a month.

2 Gleanings

1 Discussion of the significance and necessity of theological reconstruction must be continued and motivation be kept up.

Following the Jinan Meeting, colleagues praised theological reconstruction in informal discussions, but in actuality had no deep understanding of it. They spoke of it in generalities. Though commenting on the necessity for it, few people connected it concretely to their own work. Some colleagues had their own views about it, typically: 1) These are matters for seminary faculty, with little relation to me. I'm very busy with my work in the church, I don't read many theological books, it's not a subject for preaching and I don't need to get into abstruse theories; 2) There are some extreme negative phenomena in the church, but these are the doing of self-proclaimed evangelists, and there are not really many problems in our pulpits; 3) I worry that my faith may be affected; theological reconstruction is simply a matter of factions vying for prominence.

We aimed our explanations specifically at these issues; for example:

1 Every preacher, whether she is aware of it or not, has her own theology and this will naturally come out in her preaching. Study and discussion of theology is not only a matter for (professional) theologians, it is also some thing for all pastoral workers.

2 What is preached in our pulpits is certainly not the same as what some self-proclaimed evangelists are saying, but the influence of superstition, extreme negativism and world-denying thinking among believers is great; have we given attention to how to lead them to correct these errors? There are some problems which appear simple, but which are difficult to clarify without a deeper study of the Bible and exploration and discussion of theology.

3 Theology and faith are linked, yet not equivalent. Faith does not change, but just as Bishop Ting has said, revision of theological thinking is essential. Therefore, when considering different theological thinking, one should not simply put a label on it, but should listen carefully and ponder conscientiously.

4 The number of intellectuals in the church is growing and the rural church is gradually becoming less rural and more city- and county-oriented. If we do not raise the standard of preaching in our pulpits, it will be difficult to attract thinking people to Christianity.

We have also learned that the depreciation of or worry about theological reconstruction is not something that can be addressed through a few discussions. Thus, when problems arise, the concrete situation must be promptly brought to bear and facts. In one discussion of "spiritual vs. unspiritual," the situation in the church was brought up -- the fact that some believers think that the biblical phrase "dedicated to the Lord" means that contact with unbelievers should be avoided, even to the point of cutting off relations with family members, divorcing, etc. Others see the "dragon" symbol, a fortuitous sign in Chinese culture, as the devil, and even a "cat" is spoken of as the devil. All this shows that erroneous theology still plays its part. In order to raise the level of believers, preachers must first raise their own level.

2 When issues arise from reality, they arouse more interest.

In discussion, we should approach theory gradually, through the deepening of issues as we go along. At the start, we raised eight issues and co-workers participated in discussion of those that they found of interest, in the style of "interest groups." Nothing much that was new came of the first sharing sessions. Later we gradually focused on the issue of "the spiritual and the secular," going rather deeper. In 2000, under the theme "church and society," we came up with some enlightening topics for reflection and asked colleagues not only to consider the issue in a straightforward way, but that they might integrate a variety of views from the Bible and actual church problems in their deliberations. For example: "the chosen people." Why must we still be concerned about the secular, about patriotism and being law-abiding? The church serves society; is this a tactic for survival and development or an essential witness of the church? "Obey those in authority over you" and "listen to God, not humans": are these two in conflict with one another? "Run the church democratically": how is this related to the fact that the church should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit?, etc.

As for how to treat people who do not believe in Christianity, after discussion, we found greater consensus on the following points: 1) We should affirm that there is goodness, beauty and truth outside the church, and that these also have their source in God. All humans are made in God's image and even after they sinned in Adam and fell, they did not entirely lose that image. Humans still have a conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong, and they have the desire for good. 2) Christians should not make themselves into judges, they should see their own failings on the path to holiness and learn from all that is good and beautiful. 3) God loves all humankind and Christians should treat everyone with love. This is an issue with many ramifications, for example: "good and evil" and "righteousness and sin": are these the same idea? What is the relationship between the two? We feel such questions need to be explored in greater depth and need to be guided by theological theory.

3 Create a freer atmosphere.

Everyone should contribute to small group discussions; there should be no labeling, in seminars everyone should respond; there are no swift solutions to many questions, space should be left for further thought.

Theological reconstruction is a matter that lies within the realm of thought. We do not feel that it can be resolved by administrative order; empty talk has no real substance. Only by inspiring our colleagues to self-awareness so that they are willing to share their thinking can we mobilize all positive factors and change passivity to activity. As for alleviating our colleagues' anxieties, explanations are not enough, we can only demonstrate that this is not a case of one faction trying to put down another through real and free discussion.

It is necessary to have prepared statements on the main topic of a seminar, but if there is nothing more than speeches, the listeners will find it hard to stay focused and will be unable to express their opinions. So we have adopted the "free response" method to encourage everyone to join in. This is beneficial in mustering active participation by all. What comes out in the responses enriches the main topic; differing opinions and questions can open up new lines of thought, deepening the seminar. Even if there are no speeches, it is possible to gain inspiration through contact with other points of view. Seminars are used in scholarly activities internationally and we need to gain experience in doing this well in the course of theological reconstruction.

The 3rd title in the Self-Propagation Study Series published by the Shanghai CC/TSM is on miracles, signs and wonders. It simply sets out the short pieces written by pastoral workers during the seminar, without drawing any conclusions. The reader will discover consensus on some points, for example: 1) "Miracles" does not only refer to faith healing or certain signs. God's marvelous creation and the transformation that follows conversion are all signs; 2) The miracles recorded in the Bible had special goals and we should understand their spiritual meaning; 3) We believe in miracles, but we should not make too much of them, because Jesus did not use signs to make people believe in him. If these views can help ordinary believers not to make too much of miracles and signs and thus be led into fanatical faith tendencies, then they are useful. As for individuals whose views may differ, these can await a deeper exploration at a future date.

4 We should encourage co-workers who take part, especially middle-aged and young ones, to spend more time in thinking about these issues and we should do more to publish their views and create the conditions to help them improve.

Twice a month, the pastoral workers of Shanghai hold a seminar on theological reconstruction. Some of the participants (about 20) take part in a weekly enlarged discussion group on self-propagation. Together they study and decide on topics for discussion and are asked to do some preparation. In this kind of discussion, two persons are asked to speak each time, the rest respond at will, everyone speaks without reservation, and it is possible to move to a deeper level. This energy can then be brought to the larger discussion and serve to keep things on track.

When the co-workers from the suburbs and county level meet, there are six or seven each time who deliver prepared speeches which the whole meeting then discusses. These co-workers are now more positive about theological reconstruction. They can say what is on their minds and we allow them more opportunities for study and sharing. Through preparation of speeches and writing of essays and so on, they serve as the mainstay of the enlarged sharing and study meetings; at the same time, they have gained through their participation.

5 Through explanation and publicity, through training courses, our knowledge is then passed on to even more lay co-workers.

Fengxian County in Shanghai has many Christians, churches and meeting points. Believers there also have a lot of confused theological notions received in the past from evangelists active in the area, such as an emphasis on believers vs. unbelievers and the sacred vs. the secular. Some openly say: "The good deeds of believers are like real flowers, the good deeds of unbelievers are like plastic flowers; they look nice, but are false." Others say, "The good deeds of unbelievers are like Satan pretending to be an angel of light." Some think that patriotism is unspiritual, and oppose having the flag hung in churches and meeting points, or holding meetings with applause in church, etc. Because of this, beginning in 1999 we held three special training courses in this county, one a year for 3 years, each with about 100 participants. The courses consisted primarily of Shanghai coworkers from the enlarged self-propagation study seminars giving talks on specialized topics such as "belief vs. unbelief”; "the spiritual and the secular"; "the church and society"; followed by group discussion. The participants sometimes did written homework, and through feedback and response, lecturers were able to explain at a deeper level, with quite good results.

Within the city, we also had a plan to speak on the significance of theological reconstruction to lay workers in each municipal district. In this way some errors were eliminated and concern for theological reconstruction grew among some co-workers.

3 Gains and areas for improvement


1 Discussion has been systematized. Co-workers have become accustomed to participating in regular study and discussion activities. Now about 50 professional clergy in Shanghai participate each week; in the suburbs and counties, the number is about 30. Those who had thought this was "nothing to do with me," now for the most part feel that the study and discussion are helpful and inspiring; anxiety has been reduced and thinking opened up. Some retired co-workers, even some over 90, voluntarily come to take part in discussions. The improvement in those taking part in the enlarged self-propagation group is even more evident.

2 Reflection in the pulpit. Some co-workers are able to naturally reflect what they have gleaned from theological discussions in their sermons, such as: rather more emphasis on God as love and that Christians should treat others with love; that faith and action should be one; that one cannot speak empty words about "the spiritual," etc. Some refer to goodness, truth and beauty outside the church in their sermons and that Christians should pay attention to their own "orientation," etc. Christians have reflected that these sermons have something new to say, and extreme negative content in sermons (emphasis on belief vs. unbelief, the sacred vs. the secular, etc.) has been greatly decreased. This is a self-conscious adjustment by co-workers. Our feeling is that as long as the individual can see some improvement on his original foundation, this should be welcomed.

3 In addition to publishing a special issue on the seminar in 2000, the Shanghai CC/TSM, published three titles in the Self-Propagation Study Series. On Bible Codes, which begins with a discussion of the Bible and eschatology, was prepared for the Jinan Meeting. Explorations in Spirituality is a discussion of the spiritual vs. secular issue; Pastoral Workers Speak about Miracles presents opinions on signs and shares some thoughts on them. We hope that such booklets on specialized topics will not only record the fruits of colleagues' reflections, but serve as theological guides for believers and lay workers.

Areas for Improvement:

1 Planning is inadequate. Theological reconstruction is still at an exploratory stage. Assessment takes place at each step, but an overall plan is lacking. We need to consider how to move forward in a situation where most co-workers have been mobilized; otherwise it will be difficult to go deeper.

2 The level of discussion is not deep enough. Coworkers have not yet made theological reconstruction the center of their work, they do not read enough, ponder deeply enough, write enough; all this means it is difficult for there to be much improvement.

3 Participation in the study seminars is not broad enough. Participants at present are mainly clergy, but there are many retired and elderly co-workers, lay elders and lay preachers preaching in the pulpits of Shanghai who have not yet had any contact with theological reconstruction This being the case, it is difficult to bring about fundamental change in the guidance given to believers.

We hope that through this time of sharing with colleagues from Jiangsu, we will be inspired to strive better to move forward!

From Symposium on Theological Reconstruction in Shanghai and Jiangsu Shanghai: Shanghai TSM/CC, 2001, 120-127.