This article was originally published on June 26, 2015 in “Theological Reflections on Urban Churches in China,” the 2015 summer issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, the core publication of ChinaSource which takes an in-depth look at critical issues that affect the church in China and those who serve the church. The author, Paul Peng, works with the China Partnership and is a key voice in reformed Chinese Christianity.
Over the past forty years, reformed theology has become more and more influential among Chinese Christians. I think this is a result of three ministries, including the introduction and translation of classic reformed literature through Reformed Translation Society founded by Pastor Charles Chao (Zhao Zhonghui), the evangelistic meetings and lectures given by Pastor Stephen Tong, and theological education programs, formal or informal, organized by Pastor Samuel Ling (Lin Cixin) and Stephen Chan (Chen Zuoren).
During the past fifteen years, these influences have resonated among mainland Chinese Christian intellectuals, which is quite remarkable. When asked why reformed theology appeals to them, their answers generally fall into categories such as: it resolves the cognitive problem between faith and reason; it offers a comprehensive worldview; it provides useful tools in responding to many schools of secular thoughts. Thus, more and more Chinese Christians have become familiar with reformed doctrines, theologians, and literature. Nevertheless, the spread of reformed theology has also brought trouble among Chinese churches, to the extent that many church leaders frown at the mention of it. Their concerns are due to a variety of reasons: a preoccupation with doctrines has overtaken pastoral care; some self-acclaimed reformed believers do not commit themselves to church life, or they have not been spiritually guided in a local church; many are prone to critique rather than to build others up, a trait especially noticeable among those who are active in cyber space.
In recent years, another fascinating phenomenon in mainland China has emerged: the Christian thought movement based on reformed theology has developed into a church movement. This change has been led by a group of church leaders who used to be Christian intellectuals and are now followed by more and more churches and pastors. It is a movement based on a reformed theological understanding of church planting and church polity restructuring. There are many positive changes in this movement.
- The institutionalization of churches. More and more churches are formalizing their confessions, church by-laws, membership rules, and ordination requirements based on classic reformed confessions, such as the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism.
- The founding of Presbyterian classis. In order to connect with churches in the same locality that share the same confessions, many regional churches have started, or are preparing to start, a Presbyterian classis (a governing body over a group of churches within a geographical area; a presbytery). The purpose of setting up a regional classis is to lay a foundation for defending the faith against heresies, for training and ordaining ministers, for exercising discipline in disputes involving ministers, and for developing Christian education. A classis network of reformed Baptist churches in China is also forming.
- The development of Christian education. Christian schools are in a fledgling state, and reformed churches are the pioneers working with them. Christian schools founded by churches with a reformed understanding make up a large percentage of all Christian schools in China. This is attributed to the strong emphasis on covenant theology found in reformed churches. Churches are viewed as covenantal communities, and thus our next generation needs to be educated with a holistic, biblical worldview. Based on this theological foundation, educators can better work out the church-school relationship so that the school can receive long-term support from the church.
- The practice of Christian disciplines. Reformed churches emphasize family worship and other spiritual disciplines that are consistent with reformed theology. Pastoral care and counseling ministries are carried out in a biblical manner; believers practice living out their faith in their professional lives.
- Church-planting with a kingdom vision. More and more reformed churches, inspired by kingdom theology, have broken away from tribalism and engaged in broader church-planting ministries. Some reformed seminaries on the mainland have added church-planting courses to their curricula. This helps solve an inherent inward-looking tendency among reformed churches.
Despite these promises and positive changes, I think this movement also shows many signs that deserve notes of caution.
- We should be on our guard against sectarianism and emphasize kingdom vision. Last year during a discussion on denominationalism among reformed leaders, we all reckoned and analogized ourselves as being like one tribe among the twelve tribes of Israel. This means we do not claim to possess all truth, although we do have our unique priorities, such as an emphasis on doctrines and church polity, on education, and a holistic worldview. We believe that these are gifts that would nurture the whole body of Christ. I gladly observe that after many local, reformed churches have become institutionalized they have gained more confidence in their spiritual identity motivating them to share resources as well as connect and collaborate with churches of different theological backgrounds in prayer and mercy ministries.
- We should be on our guard against institutionalism and reinforce the concept and practice of life renewal through the grace of the gospel. Churches cannot function without institutions; however, institutionalism should not exist. If we have institutions without pastors, elders, and coworkers who experience life renewal by the grace of the gospel and who fail to practice listening and humble service, we are not likely to grow into a vibrant spiritual community.
- We should guard against doctrinairism and emphasize spiritual disciplines such as scripture reading, meditation, family worship, living out our faith in professional life, and so on. Our biblical faith is systematic and all-encompassing, but at the same time it is also powerful and vibrant. Our faith is practical and applicable. We need to constantly grow in the experiential knowledge of how to live out our faith in our devotional life, family living, and professional life.
- We should guard against a separation from our historical roots and have a clear understanding of how the reformed faith is related to the spirit of house churches. China’s reformed churches did not originate from a vacuum but from a rich, historical heritage of reformed faith. We also grew out of the soil of China’s persecuted house churches. If reformed churches cut themselves off from the house church movement, they will lose a strong sense of historical belonging. The spirit of house churches includes an emphasis on the path of the cross, on freedom of conscience in church-state relationships, and on self-denial in personal devotions. These are all consistent with the Puritan tradition and reformed theology. We should reflect on these and unite the parts that are consistent.
What can churches of other countries do to help China’s churches in this movement? First, we have to come to the realization that churches in China have matured to a stage where a parent-child model, indicative of the early missionary stage between foreign countries and churches in China, is no longer feasible. The current relationship needs to be a kind of companionship or partnership. In this respect, I do see huge needs in three areas. First, we need pastoral experience. Most reformed churches in China are made up of first-generation believers who are new converts. We need pastoral experience in our families, churches, and communities. Second, we need more literature, including the translations of classic reformed resources as well as teaching resources for adult Sunday school and children’s Sunday school. Third, we need help with theological education and Christian schools.
As a pastor of a reformed Presbyterian church, I hope to address those who share the same reformed understanding in the following way: I desire to see our love and grace being matured with God’s help. As mainland China’s first generation of reformed churches, we are still ignorant in many areas compared to what we ought to have known. Even by the standard of what we already know, we have not practiced or lived this out fully. Even when examining the things we are practicing, our motives can be purified; we still need to mature. I also hope to address those members of Christ who do not claim to be reformed with the following: If you perceive yourself to be a spiritual descendant of the Reformation, then the “Five Solas” are our common ground. Please do not allow the immaturity of any reformed people you may have met to become the disincentive for your drawing from the rich river of reformed theology. If you identify with house churches as your spiritual heritage, then the Puritans, who suffered for the freedom of conscience, were our forefathers. We have many common battles to fight. Let us pray for one another.