Chinese Theological Review 14

The Church in China Today

Su Deci

I would like to share with you what the church in China has experienced in the past, its present condition and its future.

First of all, I bring greetings on behalf of the China Christian Council and our brothers and sisters in China to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and to the churches and our brothers and sisters in the United States. May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you! I hope all participants in this Consultation will share with each other in the Lord, so that our mutual understanding will be deepened, and our hearts united in our love, care and help for each other. Each of us is a part of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I will share about the church in China in three parts:

Necessary Background

To understand today's Chinese church and comment on it, we need to understand the context of the church, especially the historical background. Some overseas friends have many questions about Christianity in China. I will raise three points for your reference that I hope will be helpful.

First. China is a civilized country with a long history. Three of the tour most ancient civilizations have either vanished or been alienated. China is the only country able to maintain and renew its tradition over its 5000 years of history. Monotheism has a place in our tradition and culture: the notion of Divine Right of Emperors was utilized to safeguard imperial authorities in all the past dynasties in China.

The doctrines Confucius formed about 2500 years ago, while recognizing the existence of a conscious God, also emphasized humanism, in order to expand imperial power at the expense of theocratic power. The history of religion in China gives evidence of religious beliefs, but seldom of systems of religious thought. "Human ways" were promulgated in the name of "heavenly ways". 'Therefore, traditional religions are primitive in that they have no theological underpinnings. Hence the equivocal attitude of the majority I Ian Chinese towards the concept of God and religious faith. Even though this attitude to theism and religious faith has been consistent, atheistic propaganda in the last half century has been ineffective. More often than not, atheism has a voice, but theism is still practiced. On the other hand, theologized religions were considered alien and were rejected as well.

Second, the concepts of rule of law, human rights, and separation of church and state, were promoted in the western world by bourgeois revolutionists in the 18"' century. Religious freedom has been one of the basic rights of citizens, protected by constitution and law. China lagged behind for 200 years, but in 1912, the year the Republic was founded, the Provisional Constitution stipulated that "the people have the right to believe in religion." In the ensuing years, there were the promulgation of the Covenantal Law for the Period of Political Instruction and the Constitution. Following the founding of the People's Republic of China, the Common Guidelines were followed by several versions of the Constitution. Even so, recognition by the whole people of religious freedom as a basic right of a citizen has been a long process. Some positive steps are being taken to popularize this view.

Third, Protestant Christianity has a history of nearly 200 years in China. During the 1960s and 70s, religious phenomena were almost extinguished under the ultra-leftism of the so-called Cultural Revolution. The church in China that you see today is the result of 20 years of restoration. So the various kinds of work of the church in China are still in their preliminary stage and set for rapid development.

The background described above is quite different from that of churches in America and the western world. I hope you will not forget to consider this background information when doing study and research about the church in China.

The Historical Experience of the Chinese Church

First, Christian missions to China can be traced back thirteen hundred years. In the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty, Christianity in a Nestorian form, called Jingiao in Chinese, was brought to China. It largely disappeared 200 years later. In the 13th century, during the Yuan Dynasty, Nestorian Christianity spread into China again, this time under the Chinese name Yelikewen and disappeared a second time one hundred years later. At the close of the 10 th century, Catholic missionaries came to China and enjoyed some success, but were banned by the authorities at the beginning of the 18" century. Not until the Opium War did Christian missions to China resume with the signing of the unequal treaties.

What caused these ups and downs in Chinese Christianity? I think the main reason was that missionary presence depended on the favor and power of the imperial authorities. Once out of favor or at the change of ruler or dynasty, the church found itself at once in a precarious condition. The rulers of the Yuan Dynasty were ethnic Mongols. When they lost power, Yelikewen Christianity was considered an alien religion and suppressed. There was a time when the Qing Dynasty forbade missionary activity and missionaries then relied on the power of their native countries to infiltrate into China and conducted underground missionary activities, resulting in massive suppression and confrontation. Such practices were detrimental to the image of the church and of Christians.

The question is, mission by peaceful and lawful means, or mission through authorities and militaries? The question concerns our faith in God. The gospel of Christ is not by might nor by power. but by the Spirit of God. We firmly believe that the Word of God is the Word of eternal life. and can only be disseminated in the economy of God. The methods of flesh and blood do only disservice to the church. The history of the church in China proves that development by human ways can be demolished by human ways. Today having gone through many ups and downs, God's church in China still exists and is growing. We feel deep in our hearts that this manifests the power of God.

Second, it's been fifty years now since the founding of the 'Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Some friends do not quite understand the Three-Self Movement or have misgivings about it because of things they have heard. I feel the perception of this movement will be decisive for the attitude to and comments on the church in China today and I would like to share my thoughts about it with you. If we can reach a consensus in this way, we'll be closer to each other.

As I mentioned before, from the mid-19th century on, Christian missions in China were more and more dependent upon the might of the western powers and the superiority of missionaries in China as a result of the unequal treaties. While a cultural confrontation between East and West was inevitable, there were various ways to ease the tension. Some at that time recognized that Chinese traditional culture had tremendous vitality. It flourished in its own soil; its existence was inevitable. Thus it was better to inculturate as far as the fundamental doctrines of Christianity would allow. Others saw a strong West and a weak China and feared how the weak might adapt to the strong.

These are two absolutely different approaches, with different consequences. Unfortunately, the latter dominated at the time. As a result, Christianity was not accommodated to local culture and society and was rejected as an alien religion by the great majority of Chinese people. In the 1940s, as revolution was progressing toward success, every social entity in China was faced with a more explicit choice, and the Christian church was no exception. While many things about the Communist-led revolution were difficult to understand. its objective won the hearts of the majority of the people-to deliver the Chinese people from the humiliation and poverty of the past hundred years. With such a serious issue before them, Chinese Christians should not focus only on otherworldly concerns, turning a blind eye to the world we live in. Only when our destiny is knitted to that of our compatriots can we communicate with them and channel the Good News to them. Whether to be deported along with the foreign forces as an alien religion, or to be faithful to God and stay in the land to continue to spread the seeds of Gospel and the Word of eternal life: Chinese Christians were at the crossroads.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement was established on this basis. Its significance lies in two areas. First, politically, it manifested our love for the nation and our co-existence with the people. Theologically, it meant dependence upon God and independence from foreign powers, bringing down the wall between God and humankind: thus, face to face with God. Although the church later on suffered from the so-called Cultural Revolution because of leftist influence within the Communist Party, when darkness finally faded away and light dawned, the church in China had cast off its image as an alien religion, rising as the Chinese people's own church and religious faith. We have stuck to the principle of self-government. sell' support and self'-propagation, relying on the grace of the Lord to restore the Body of Christ in China. I believe you will also agree with our conclusion as to the necessity and rationality of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, if you consider our situation.

In the last two decades, under the grace and guidance of God, the church in China has developed rapidly. Yet, there is before us a long and strenuous journey and we will uphold the three-self principle.

However, three-self doesn't mean self-isolation. We firmly endorse the oneness of the church. There is one Christ, so it is with the body of Christ. The church is also indigenous and individual. Catholicity is manifested in the communion of churches of different places and nations. Hence the richness of the truth of God and the comprehensiveness of the grace of God.

Challenges and Direction

In the last twenty years, the church in China has experienced the richness of God's grace. In divine eternity, twenty years is as fleeting as the blink of an eye. What is required of us in the divine plan is that we should be diligent in our efforts, straining toward what is ahead, spreading God's grace to the people around us. The church in China is still in its preliminary stage, rising from the debris of the past, and burdened by many problems, among which I will state the major ones:

First, the imbalance between pastoral and evangelistic work. The ratio of theologically trained pastoral workers and believers is 1:4000. The Great Commission that Jesus gave us has two aspects, namely, evangelization and pastoral work. The two aspects should be synchronized and balanced like our two legs: when the left leg takes a step, the right leg must take another step so that we can move forward in balance. Now there seem to be many channels for evangelism, for example-overseas broadcasting programs, secret missions and even various heretic teachings from abroad-but pastoral work is lacking. This one-sided emphasis on "evangelization" leads to "a blind man guiding a blind man" and causes splits in the churches, a surge in heresies, and disturbances harmful to the church.

Second, China was traditionally a backward agricultural country. In the last half century, industry developed rapidly, but rural population still constituted 80 percent of the total population. In the last two decades, the economy has grown very fast, and the rural population now makes up 70 percent of the total population. In one of China's provinces, the urban population now surpasses its rural population. urbanization seems to be accelerating, but the majority of Chinese Christians still live in rural areas. Lay church workers trained in short-term programs are now serving in churches due to the shortage of pastors. With further urbanization, the current practice will not be appropriate. We should be prepared for a modal shift from rural Churches to urban churches.

Third. urban churches are faced with the issue of adaptation to social development. Since the state called for revitalizing our country with science and education and moving toward a technological economy, people's education level has been raised. Many pastors of the older generation are more than Ill years of age. and we cannot ask them to update their knowledge. On the other hand, the younger generation of seminary graduates since the 1980s were not well equipped at school. but are now busy with administrative work and lack opportunities to renew their knowledge. After the Second World War, pastoral theology was renewed with the fruits of modem psychology. New disciplines such as pastoral psychology and pastoral care are almost barren areas in China. So intellectuals and young students often come to church because they are spiritually hungry, but are disappointed and leave the church.

Fourth. with the rapid pace q/ Chinese society toward modernization, cultural restoration and re-integration have entered a new period. There has been an influx of cultural influences from the West, including Christian culture, in the wake of the adoption of the guidelines "using the antique for today and using the foreign for China." According to a report, approximately one thousand books on Christianity have been published. Some universities have established research centers on Christianity and many scholars are doing research comparing Christian culture and Chinese culture. This phenomenon helps more people to know about Christianity; it is also a challenge for the church. Because we lack church scholars in dialogue with scholars outside the church, there isn't much research on the integration of Christian thought with Chinese culture. If we can voice our opinion and contribute to the new round of cultural integration in our country from a Christian perspective, it will raise our value in society.

Fifth, the church in China has entered a stage of post-denominationalism Although denominational structures no longer exist, traditional features of the denominations are respected and maintained. In recent years, however, some overseas organizations have emphasized denominationalism while visiting China, and this has led to embarrassing consequences. We understand that missionaries set up their respective denominational structures, and we respect history. But when churches in China came together under new circumstances and in a time of financial and personnel difficulties like-mindedly sought God's guidance and way of unity, they were in accordance with biblical teachings and were successful in overcoming difficulties. This was good in the eyes of God. I hope our brothers and sisters of various denominations in the world will respect this reality and thank God for our unity in the Lord.

Sixth, the latter half of the 20th century was a time of awakening of the nations. Oppressed and humiliated countries raised the flag of independence one after another. Every nation has its national consciousness and will maintain its self-esteem, and every state has its state consciousness and will safeguard its sovereignty. This was China's situation, and the church in China also received the concept of sovereignty through God's revelation. A missiology of our own is in the making though China was formerly considered a mission field. We believe churches in every country are responsible to spread the gospel to the people in their respective countries. When we are invited to visit churches overseas, we are there to exchange opinions, learn from them, make friends and help each other instead of conducting missionary work, unless we were invited do so. The missiological theory of 19th century colonial expansionism is out dated, otherwise trouble unrelated to religion could arise. However some oversea missionary organizations carry on so-called "underground missions" -in China by illegal and clandestine means. This is dangerous and inappropriate behavior, which has unfavorable consequences for the church in China, the Holy Name of Christ and believers. We are worried about this. We hope to carry on friendly dialogues and exchanges with more friends in Christ. Nevertheless we should follow the principles of equality, openness, sincerity and legality.

Seventh. we should not take the various challenges easily. We will continue to rely on God's power to respond to these challenges. There are many things to do, among which I feel two things are of first priority.

1) Stepping up the training of personnel at different levels in different aspects of the church's ministry. When the Lord Jesus began his work on earth, he first called the disciples and trained them. God's work on earth is accomplished through human efforts. For historical reasons, the church in China faces a severe shortage of personnel, so priority is given to the training of personnel. A multitude of God's workers are needed for our times. Horizontally, we need to train pastors and personnel in areas such as Christian literature publication, administration, theological education, research in theology and related disciplines, and overseas relationships, etc. Vertically training is needed at high, middle and low levels. In the 18 seminaries and Bible schools, we have the graduate program, the undergraduate program and two- year training program. In addition, there are lay training centers in the provinces. We thank overseas churches, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for providing scholarships to help us train personnel. We plan to increase our capacity to train graduate (M.Div.) students, and in the future those sent abroad to study will work toward doctoral degrees or master's degrees in some specialized fields. The curriculums of the training centers need to be substantiated. We expect training centers to become accredited through gradual enhancement of faculty.

2) Step by step we are emphasizing and strengthening theological building up order to form a theological system for the church in China.

Theology is the thinking of the church. Some have figuratively termed it the head and brain of the church. Every church has its own theological thinking which indicates its maturity. In the 1950s, God revealed to us the three-self principle and building up the church independently in those conditions. Thereby, the Body of Christ in China has become a truly Chinese church. During the 1980s and 1990s, the church in China was restored to new life and revival. In the last two decades, emphasis has been put on opening or reopening churches, Bible publication, opening theological schools, ecumenical relationships and so on. Through the years, the church in China has accumulated experience in the grace of God.

Theology is also a summation of the experience of the church in a certain period, which will be the guidelines for the church. Therefore, the Plenary Meeting of the China Christian Council, led by K.H. Ting, adopted the Resolution on Strengthening Theological Reconstruction in November, 1998. In the last year we have engaged in this work and an atmosphere of theology has been formed. Beginning with reflection on context, there have been theological discussions on creation and redemption, church and society, faith and reason. women's status in society, biblical studies and hermeneutics. We hope that through these discussions a variety of flowers in various beautiful colors will bloom in the garden of Chinese theological thinking. In order to bring our efforts to fruition more effectively and more quickly, we will make short-term, intermediate and long-term plans, dealing with various themes at all levels. We believe that, through our efforts, with time, a theological system that is revealed by God and reflects the special experience of the church in China will be soundly founded, and will be a part of the theology of the ecumenical church, reflecting the fullness of God's grace, wisdom and glory. To this end, we will have more exchanges with churches worldwide, teaming from each other and praying for each other.

A talk given in Louisville, KY, at the Consultation on Partnership between the China Christian Council and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 19-22 March 2OOO. English text.

Rev. Su is a Vice-President and General Secretary of the China Christian Council.