Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from an extensive interview with two of the house church’s leading voices – Wang Yi in Chengdu and Gao Zhen in Beijing. The interview discusses these pastor’s views on the new religious regulations currently being implemented in China, and most importantly, how their theology shapes and informs their churches’ responses to the regulations.
A transcript of the interview was published online in China this week in the lead up to Chinese New Year. The intention of these pastors is to provide the house church with material upon which to reflect and pray as the new year arrives so that there might be a unified response to the regulations among the house churches going forward. In this excerpt, the pastors discuss questions concerning whether house churches should break up into small fellowship groups, what influences house church responses to the regulations, what testimony the house church is presenting to Chinese society, and why house churches in big urban centers must take the heat for small rural churches.
We at China Partnership are excited to translate and publish this initial excerpt now, asking you to join your brothers and sisters in reflection and prayer over the weekend. Pray that many pastors and church leaders will read this interview and will be encouraged. Pray for the church in China to respond to the regulations according to the hope and promises of the gospel, rather than out of fear. And check back shortly for our publication of the interview in its entirety.
Wang Yi: Pastor Gao put it very well. The center of God’s creation and redemption is his church. Before the foundation of the world he chose his people in Christ Jesus. As the first fruits of everything, his people are waiting for the day when all things will be united in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. Therefore, we are created for community, and we are redeemed for the kingdom, the body of Christ.
We are kept on earth, rather than being carried directly to heaven after our baptism, because of the Great Commission – to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, to teach believers to observe everything the Lord has commanded us, to establish worship, and to return to the original purpose of creation, which is to fill the earth with God’s image and glory through those whom God has saved. Therefore, the church is first and foremost God’s kingdom.
Under difficult circumstances, this kingdom can even exist in invisible forms. For example, in the 50s and 60s there was no visible church in this land. Yet those believers who were scattered and persecuted still made up the kingdom of God. This never ceased. People may ask, “If persecution comes, should we still keep the tangible, visible form of the church?” There are two questions related to this. [The first] one is what Pastor Gao just mentioned – the modern, individualistic understanding of the gospel, which influences our position on downgrading the church to fellowships, because our views on fellowship still come from an individualistic perspective. The focus is still on “me;” “I” need help from others. To put it in a worldly way, “We hold together for warmth.” Therefore, a fellowship is good for my personal growth.
Yet the church is not established from the perspective of individual members; the head of the church is Christ. If one holds an individualistic understanding of the church and the gospel, he will have a totally different response, because it will be all about “my” own salvation and how many people I can lead to Christ.
On the other hand, we recognize that the church is the kingdom of God. Sometimes under difficult circumstances, this kingdom exists in ways that are not visible to the eyes. The breakdown of the visible church does not mean the kingdom has disappeared. Under such circumstances, people ask, “Why should we keep the assembly and the forms of the visible church? What should the church defend in order to grow and develop?” This is tied to some complex factors. It is related to one’s view of the church and understanding of the situation. I think many churches’ responses are related to their understanding of the situation, their understanding of Chinese society, and their understanding of the relationship between church and state (including their understanding of the church, state, and society).
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In the past six months, I surveyed my colleagues and asked how many of them felt our church was under persecution. I did such a survey four to five times in the past six months. At the beginning half of them thought we have a 50% chance of being persecuted. The most recent one was taken a week ago and 80-90% of them thought we have a 50% chance of being persecuted. What is interesting is that those who frequently bypass the firewall tend to think the danger is not that high, while those who don’t bypass the firewall think the danger is higher.
This shows that our reactions are tied to our sources of information and our understanding of society, including our fear of the state and politics. Sometimes we want to dress up our decisions as theological responses, but I think this differentiation is necessary. Some churches’ responses are not based on theology, but are based on different sources of information, different understandings of the situation, personal experiences, and even fear. There is lots of worldly stuff here that we try to dress up as theology, and this is extremely dangerous. In situations like these, we tend to be weak.
After 1949, the emergence of Chinese urban churches in the last ten years was brought on by God in a relatively relaxed environment. In reality, our way of the cross, our experiences of suffering for the Lord, our grasp of the situation, and self-evaluation have not yet been seriously tested by God. Therefore, we tend to overlook our corruption and fear in the midst of weakness.
In our prior mode of survival, due to the advancement of information age, we were like frightened birds. We held deep-seated fear toward the state and political powers. However, if we face the new regulations with our salvation in mind, it will help us face our fear, timidity, weakness, and corruption in this life. As the new regulations bring challenges to our faith, do we have true freedom in Christ?
When believers today face these external challenges, we should put more focus on our own weakness and fear, and whether we have been fearlessly filled with the Holy Spirit in Christ. In the Bible, the byproduct of being filled with the Holy Spirit is speaking the word of God with boldness. Therefore, our challenge today is ourselves: can house churches in China today preach the word of God with boldness because we are filled with the Holy Spirit? Do we have true freedom through the gospel of Christ? When we face the new regulations, our responses should come more from the gospel itself rather than our assessment of external factors. Often our assessments of external factors are not reliable (it depends on our sources of information, our limited life experiences, and even our geographic locations, like whether we are in Beijing, or Wenzhou, or other provinces). Therefore, we must ask whether our response is one that centers on the gospel. This says nothing yet about our view of the church, but only about our view of salvation. Facing these new regulations, God’s gospel of grace comes to life through the teaching of the church. This is the first point, facing the challenges of the new regulations with our salvation in mind.
Wang Yi: Another perspective would be from that of evangelism and testimony. We must consider, as the church responds to the new regulations, what kind of testimony is the church presenting to the whole of Chinese society. In today’s Chinese society, while the church is not always at its best, it still has a pretty good reputation among the Chinese people.
In traditional Chinese culture and society there is one group of people who, with no practical (economic or political) gain in mind, would hold on to their conscience and pursuit of faith to the point that even government persecution could not force them to give up. Moreover, they would express their goodwill by reacting not in violence but in gentleness. In the Chinese society, only the Chinese church has this type of testimony in the past few decades.
Yet the testimonies of the house churches were not well known by the majority of Chinese society. How many people knew of Yuan Xiangchen (Aleen) or Wang Mingdao? Their testimonies were limited to a very isolated system; but the situation for the house churches today is very different. With tens of millions of believers, today’s house churches are becoming more known by Chinese society.
I do not know exactly how many Chinese people have known of admirable Christians like Wang Mingdao; I would guess no more than ten million. But today at least 200 to 500 million Chinese people know about house churches. Moreover, with the social changes in the past ten to twenty years, more and more Chinese, including those who pursue freedom and democracy and care for society, have gradually come to see the testimonies of the house churches. These are all brave people who hold onto freedom of conscience. The house churches are different in a sense that we do not take to the streets or resist with political campaigns. The church is by nature low-profile, obedient, and gentle. Today we have an opportunity to respond to a massive persecution brought by the new regulations.
The problem with testimonies from the past are, first, not very many people know about them, and second, they are in the past. But how the Chinese house churches react to the new regulations and bear witness for Christ today could have an unimaginably positive influence on the future of the gospel movement in China.
Interview host: To summarize what Pastor Gao and Pastor Wang have shared, we see from four different perspectives why you choose to continue large-group worship and follow the way of the cross.
First, Pastor Gao mentioned that the functional unity of the church, particularly the preaching of the word, the administrations of sacraments and church discipline, and the purpose of the church, all need to happen within a full church body.
Second, Pastor Wang mentioned the perspectives of ecclesiology and the unity between ecclesiology and salvation. The church is an organic, unified body; rather than easily giving up the fullness of the body, we walk the way of the cross.
Third, from the perspective of kingdom sovereignty, the sovereign boundary that God gives to the church is that of the kingdom. By following the way of the cross and the marks of the cross, we will demonstrate that our boundary is different from that of the world.
Fourth, the perspective of bearing witness to society and representing Christianity as a church. Our willingness to suffer is a testimony to our present age.
These are the four main reasons why you want to continue large-group worship.
Wang Yi: I would like to add one more perspective that Pastor Gao has already mentioned.
Fifth, churches in big cities must stand up for churches in smaller cities and villages.
From a biblical view of the church, I think it is wrong for any congregation to consider reacting to the new regulations solely on the ground of its own benefit or loss. Any decisions from that basis would be wrong. The decisions have to be made from a kingdom perspective – that churches in all of China are Christ’s body. We are one church.
There is one issue with this perspective: urban churches tend to endure more pressure than rural churches; churches in medium-sized cities tend to endure more pressure than churches in second and third-tier cities.
Over the past ten years many urban churches have begun to emerge in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Chengdu, with public gatherings of over a hundred believers outside of their homes (some even climb up to three hundred or more, but usually they are between one and two hundred). We don’t know what the goals or final results of the current government persecution are. Is it targeted to crack down on congregations with over a thousand believers and leave those with a hundred alone, or is to crack down those with a hundred and leave those with fifty alone? We have no idea.
From this perspective we realize why churches in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu must stand firm, because this is your responsibility. You stand among your brothers and sisters; you stand within the body of Christ all over this country; if you are quick to give up, churches in smaller cities will give up even more. If your congregation of two hundred members gives up easily without persecution from the sword or political authority, a church of fifty in a smaller city will have to give up to avoid imprisonment. If you can hold on, a church of fifty in smaller cities may be okay.
Only those with over a hundred members (i.e. larger congregations) are conspicuous. All the churches in this country are part of the body of Christ, one church. In this storm, you must hold on for your brothers. You cannot only think of your own congregation.
You must consider your response: you have come to your privileged position as a church in the capital, in the provincial capital, or in an urban center, and enjoy so much common grace from God; but it may be that God will also use you to stand up for your brothers, to hold on against the sword and the authorities. This is a crucial burden for the whole body of Christ.
Interview host: At the intersection of redemptive history and secular history, urban house churches have received more grace through external and visible resources. Since we have received such grace and resources, we should also now pay the price for other churches within the same saving grace, holding firm for them and protecting them with the same social resources that God has given us in the past.
The above five points are the positions of you two pastors/churches, but different churches respond differently to the new regulations. How should the church handle these different opinions?
Gao Zhen: Our presbytery had a heated debate over this topic. I am one of the marginalized. The mainstream opinion in our presbytery is to downgrade to small groups, with the justification that not everyone can face the government like me. I appreciate what Pastor Wang just said. First, we must have unity; otherwise we will all be isolated.
We are beginning to divide internally as we face the new regulations. I think today’s discussion is very crucial because we are creating something visible for others; we have not had such discussion before. Previously some Christian scholars started some conversations concerning the new regulations, mainly from a legal point of view – like how to understand its contents and deal with it legally.
We must face the new regulations from the perspective of a whole church. As one church, as the kingdom of God, we are willing to make the sacrifice, to pay the price, to carry the cross. When persecution came, the early church did not scatter. Although they moved entirely underground, they maintained unity. The early church faced persecutions under Nero and Domitian and they still survived. Today’s persecution pales in comparison to those under Nero, Domitian, Claudius, or the persecutions in China during 1950s and 1980s.
Today the church must confront these challenges courageously; we must maintain our posture. Putting the new regulations into effect is the government’s problem; the church’s posture is more important. We must maintain unity.