On this very quiet evening, l was looking through the April 1954 issue (No. 2) of the NanjingTheological Review. The last article in that issue was titled "Introducing Nanjing Union Theological Seminary." It was a two-part article; the second part was subtitled "Mutual Respect". T his was a fundamental principle of the Seminary Board for dealing with all the differences and varying backgrounds among students and faculty at the time:
"With regard to differences in theological viewpoints, and in matters of faith, order, organization and liturgy in churches, Nanjing Seminary applies the principle of mutual respect."
The proposal of this principle is associated with Comrade Luo Zhufeng, then Chief of the East China Religious Affairs Office, who promoted the union of seminaries and bible schools in eastern China. At the Fast China Forum on Theological Education held in the summer of 1952, Luo said that since there is freedom of religion, there is also freedom of theological viewpoint. "Mutual respect" was also written into the constitution of the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement in 1954 and was then used to promote and develop the great unity in the Chinese Christian church founded on patriotism. We might say that the principle of mutual respect is founded on patriotism, and at the same time, functions to strengthen that foundation.
From the 1920s and 30s to the 1940s, there was a conflict within the Chinese church between the so-called "new faction" and the "old faction", which was in fact the modernist-fundamentalist conflict. In fact, the conflict between the two was simply a "disease", "caught" from the United States. Like denominationalism, it was a calamity inflicted on the Chinese church by the American church. Without care, an old disease can recur and an old calamity resurface.
The modernist tendency with regard to political and social issues is to pay attention and join in, while the fundamentalist tendency is to stand aloof and avoid these issues. From the 1920s on, China was undertaking a new democratic revolution under the leadership of the Communist Party. The reconciliation, the social gospel, and national salvation through morality propagated by the modernists was inevitably stamped as reformism. The otherworldliness propagated by the fundamentalists, their rejection of the world, the non-cooperation between believers and unbelievers, etc., inevitably became obstacles to the revolution
The establishment of the People's Republic and the development of the Chinese Christian Three-Self Movement set both on a love country, love church, independent path of initial adaptation to socialism. This is the political foundation for mutual respect, co-existence and mutual honor among those who differ theologically and liturgically. When Nanjing Union Theological Seminary was founded on November 1, 1952 the purpose of the principle of mutual respect was not to ensure that "the well water won't mix with the river water." Rather both were to co-exist peaceably, each got what they wanted, and this led to further exchanges; each brought out the best in the other. And in the leadership of the whole Chinese church at all levels, there appeared pious modernists and open-minded fundamentalists. It became difficult to distinguish between the "new faction" and the "old faction".
It must be pointed out that after the Cultural Revolution, the faith of the majority of Chinese Christians was fundamentalist or evangelical. This has led some to say that the mainstream of the Chinese church is evangelical. In this special characteristic, the situation in China is unlike western Christianity and this is a reality that the leadership of the Chinese church and its theologians must respect. To offend the feelings of this mainstream does not help Three-Self, nor does it contribute to the broader unity and stability. For one voice or one faction to hold sway and turn a cold shoulder, avoid, or even exclude those who differ, is even less suitable. It is not good to react to various extremist views in an extreme manner, as long as they are not blatantly reactionary or heretical.
"Development is our firm principle." We must speed up development of China in the 21st century, call for unity and stability, for mutual understanding on all differences, for mutual respect, and for unity of purpose. Can the Chinese church, making a supreme effort to build up its internal structure and its strength in theological studies, do without mutual understanding, respect and unity of purpose?
Nanjing Theological Review, No. 2 (1999), p. 9.
Rev. Wang Weifan is retired from Nanjing Union Theological Seminary where he was Professor of Biblical Studies and Chinese Theology.