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Reforming China

After decades of relative isolation, Chinese churches are discovering—and embracing—Reformed traditions

Reforming China

A worship service at Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church (Zhongming Jiang)

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther changed the course of human history by attaching his 95 Theses to the door of a German church. Today, the church in China is undergoing its own reformation—of a kind.

Chat with Chinese Christians in major cities and the buzzword is gaige zong, or “Reformed theology.” Type “Tim Keller” into Baidu Video (China’s version of YouTube) and more than 400 video clips pop up, showing the popular Presbyterian preacher’s sermons subtitled in Chinese. Chengdu’s Early Rain Reformed Church even wrote its own “95 theses” of the Chinese house church, reaffirming God’s sovereignty, Biblical authority, and proper church-state relations while rebuking the “Sinicization of Christianity” and the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches.

Reformed theology, a branch of Biblical teaching developed by John Calvin and other early Reformers, emphasizes God’s sovereignty, man’s fallenness, and covenantal theology. In China, pastors and parishioners in urban centers are now embracing Reformed theology as it speaks to the unique needs in Chinese Christianity: For intellectuals, it provides a comprehensive worldview for individuals deeply disillusioned by the Communist Party. For first-generation Christians looking for guidance in organizing and running their churches, it provides a time-tested church structure and polity. Although no one knows the exact number of theologically Reformed churches in China, interest in them is growing—evidenced by the teachings of prominent indigenous church leaders, the interest in Reformed seminaries, and the WeChat chatter among Chinese Christians.

REFORMED THEOLOGY ENTERED CHINA in 1807 with the first Protestant missionary, a Presbyterian named Robert Morrison who translated the Bible, along with portions of the Westminster Catechism, into Chinese. Many subsequent American, British, and Korean missionaries also evangelized from a Reformed perspective, influencing the early Chinese converts.

As liberal theology took hold in the United States in the late 1800s, liberal missionaries had little time to spread their beliefs among the Chinese, with the Communist Party shutting the doors on all foreign missionaries in 1949. Thus Chinese churches today tend to be more theologically conservative compared with the rest of the world. Because of this, Chinese congregants more readily accept Reformed teaching, according to Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church. “If you want to understand the 19th-century American church, you should come to China,” said Wang. “Obviously the culture is different, but the spiritual condition is more similar than that of the modern American church.”

Under Communist rule, Christians who did not join government-sanctioned churches faced torture and death, yet Christianity grew more quickly than ever before. Because Christians needed to keep their faith hidden, churches were small, isolated, and led by preachers without training. Some churches had Bibles, while others had only portions of Scripture that they would commit to memory.

Many Chinese came to profess Christ after witnessing the miraculous healing of loved ones, so their theology fell in line with charismatic beliefs, said Tim Conkling, a former missionary whose published doctoral dissertation, Mobilized Merchants-Patriotic Martyrs, examined the house church movement in China. Because of past persecution, the Chinese church largely focused on the practical matters of faith—like how to deal with hardship—rather than theology or ideas.

Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Presbyterian pastor Jonathan Chao (Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Yet once China’s doors opened in the 1980s, Chinese Christians began learning about Reformed theology from overseas Chinese. One major influencer: Jonathan Chao, a Chinese-American who returned to his Chinese homeland to conduct research on the church. Once there, he befriended major house church leaders. His father, Charles Chao, had founded the Reformation Translation Fellowship, and the younger Chao followed in his father’s footsteps by setting up underground seminaries and bringing together network leaders to create a statement of faith for the Chinese house church. His organization, China Ministries International, also smuggled into China the first book of Reformed creeds.

Another big influence is Stephen Tong, a Reformed preacher in Indonesia who has reached Billy Graham–level fame through his large evangelistic meetings throughout Asia. In his sermons, Tong, who is ethnically Chinese, emphasizes the doctrine of sola scriptura while angrily criticizing liberal theology and the charismatic movement. Although Tong isn’t allowed in mainland China, his DVDs, CDs, and online sermons have spread widely among Chinese house churches.

TONG ESPECIALLY ATTRACTED the attention of China’s Christian intellectuals, who believe Reformed theology reconciles their rational and spiritual sides and fills the moral void they see in modern Chinese society. For instance, Paul Peng, a pastor at Enfu Church in Chengdu, said that after professing Christ, he felt he had to “sacrifice my head” to be a Christian. Whenever he asked Christians how to examine issues from a Biblical worldview, they responded with pat answers: “Just pray and depend on the Lord.”

While attending seminary in California, his professors introduced him to Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. He began to realize “the Christian faith does not just help us go to heaven, but also allows us to have a kingdom perspective. … It can influence every aspect of life.” Christianity suddenly became deeper and wider than he previously imagined.

Pastor Wang, a former constitutional law professor, remembers learning about the Protestant Reformation as an unbeliever, but it always left him with questions: “How is the Christian faith related to Western development in the past 500 years? What do ‘God-given rights’ have to do with Christianity? And how does all this relate to me personally?”

As he read Tong’s writings, he found that Reformed theology answered his intellectual questions. Not only was there a God, Wang realized, but He was sovereign over individual lives and the world around him. This attracted Wang: “Reformed theology is a complete moral system created for a world in crisis, especially one in which there are no values, like China.”

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Missionary Robert Morrison, and Chinese assistants, translating the Bible into Chinese (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Still, some intellectuals have read Reformed books only for knowledge, without allowing the truth to penetrate their lives. Often referred to as “cultural Christians,” these converts did not attend church themselves, but criticized those within the church. According to Peng, they gave rise to the impression that Reformed theology was elitist and divisive within the church.

WANG POINTS TO THE YEAR 2000 as a turning point for Reformed theology in China. With the advent of the internet, ideas could now spread quickly among house churches all over China. Books once smuggled across the border or printed in secret could now be accessed with the click of a mouse. Communication with overseas churches became easier, and relaxed travel restrictions meant anyone could leave the country.

Pastors started taking trips to Hong Kong to visit established churches and see how they ran. They observed how churches conducted services, held meetings, led small groups, and even printed bulletins, then returned home to copy them. It was a new stage in the Chinese church, as leaders desired to move beyond a simple gathering in an apartment.

Some leaders were attracted to Reformed ecclesiology, which they felt provided a church structure that kept pastors accountable, gave the congregation a say in electing elders, and spread power among a group rather than concentrating it on one leader. They also liked the idea of organizing churches into a unified institution.

Yet Chinese churches face unique challenges in implementing such changes. Wang said the easy part is agreeing to nominate and elect elders. The difficult part is creating a church culture where elders truly have an equal say in decisions. Because Chinese churches traditionally have functioned in a top-down, authoritarian manner, Wang believes it could take a few generations to change these habits.

The small size of many house churches complicates setting up an elder board, as some churches don’t even have their own pastor. Creating a presbytery, a church government involving multiple congregations, requires working with other like-minded churches, yet the isolated nature of house churches makes communication difficult. Government pressure is also a concern since creating a presbytery pushes against the power of the official China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. In recent years, officials have largely allowed house churches to gather as long as they stay small and don’t collaborate with other churches.

Zhongming Jiang

‘Reformed theology is a complete moral system created for a world in crisis, especially one in which there are no values, like China.’ —Wang (Zhongming Jiang)

Former missionary Conkling believes Reformed ecclesiology will develop slowly in urban churches over decades, rather than produce immediate change. The rate of its growth is likely dependent on future leaders of China and how much religious liberty they give to Chinese churches.

“[Reformed ecclesiology is] still in its infancy stage,” Conkling said. “It happened because of their commitment to Reformed theology. They are trying to make it have teeth, not just at the intellectual level of how is a person saved, but to the practical level of how to organize the church, and that’s new.”

Some Chinese “cultural Christians” look at Western history and believe Reformed theology can bring democracy to China. But Conkling points out that changing a society requires changing individuals, social institutions, and political systems. He believes Reformed theology can transform individuals but may have little influence on the other two in China’s current political climate.

In recent years, for example, Chinese Christians have tried to change society through the legal profession. Working as human rights lawyers, they’ve attempted to force the Chinese government to follow its own laws. Instead, the government has thrown many of these lawyers into prison.

Rather than focus on how Reformed theology can transform society, Christians should focus on how it can transform the church, argues Peng, the Enfu Church pastor: “It’s how we as the church understand our identity [and] our root in the gospel. … In that way, I will say that we’re blessing modern China.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.