A Conversation on New Regulations – Small Groups and the Struggle for Power between God and Man

CP editor’s note: Shortly after the implementation of the new regulation at the beginning of 2018, an extensive interview took place with two of the house church’s leading voices – Wang Yi in Chengdu and Gao Zhen in Beijing. A transcript of the interview was published online in China in order to provide the house church with material upon which to reflect and pray, so that there might be a unified response to the regulations among the house churches going forward. 

In this interview, the pastors discuss the government’s motivations behind the regulations; questions concerning whether house churches should break up into small fellowship groups; how ecclesiology 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.

China Partnership initially translated and published the full interview last year, and is reposting now in smaller sections for deeper consideration in the light of the increased persecution of the house church in the past year. This second portion of the interview discusses the differences between breaking down into small groups in response to persecution and intentional church planting.

  • Read the first portion of the series here.

  • Read the third portion of the series here.

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  • Read the fourth portion of the series here.

  • Read the fifth portion of the series here.

  • You can also read the original Chinese here.

We suggest that you read more about the new regulations before reading this interview if you do not yet have a basic understanding of the changes.

Grace to City editor’s note: On February 1, 2018, the New Regulations on Religious Affairs (abbreviated as the New Regulations) came into effect.

What does this mean for the Chinese house churches? How should the Chinese house churches face this external challenge? “The New Regulations are unconstitutional;” “we should continue large-group worship”; “no we should downgrade into small groups” …With so many different opinions, Grace to City invited Pastor Gao Zhen and Pastor Wang Yi for a discussion on this issue. This conversation is not an analysis of the content of the New Regulations, but a gospel-centered reflection on the church’s attitude, posture and strategy from a theological level, based on our doctrines of the church (ecclesiology) and salvation (soteriology).

For special reasons, pastors who adopted a small-group approach were not able to join our conversation today. Unfortunately, we were not able to have a dialogue between these different points of view because we are missing another voice.  This forum is far from being all inclusive. We look forward to a deeper, broader discussion about this issue in the future.

Interview Host: Pastor Gao, Pastor Wang has already touched on ecclesiology. A while ago you mentioned that the question of downgrading (to small groups) or not is not the most important; what is most important is to think with a proper ecclesiology. From your standpoint, how does your ecclesiology help you think through the whole issue? What role does ecclesiology have in your pastoral practices? How does it guide your thoughts?

Gao Zhen: First, we have to think about what makes the church distinct from other religions.

The New Regulations regulate Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism and other religions. People see us as one organization, but we have a strong, biblical doctrine of the church. If your form of worship can be changed easily, that means your ecclesiology is not strong enough.

A strong ecclesiology comes from the Bible. Doctrine of the church, doctrine of worship, moving onto the doctrine of God, the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of salvation, they are all inseparable. Many people’s confusion comes from a lack of unity; they separate these doctrines from one another, leading to pragmatism and confusion in real life applications.

Currently there is a two-wing system in churches in Taiwan, which is large group gatherings plus small groups. But they can’t find a balance between large group and small groups, to the extent of placing the administration of baptism and communion in the hands of small groups. As a matter of fact, they don’t pay much attention to Sunday worship and give most authority to small groups.

My biggest concern is the response to the New Regulations by downgrading into small groups. Christ built up the church, not to fulfill personal needs, but to fulfill the need to worship God. This is extremely important. Right now, the inclination toward individualism is very serious; some people think that public worship and Sunday gatherings are merely formulaic; they want to cut back on public worship and think that churches should have lovely and nice fellowship. Therefore, if the church downgrades to small groups in response to the New Regulations, while there are some remedial measures (for example, two big gatherings every year), as time goes by, your ecclesiology will be turned upside-down.

“Christ built up the church, not to fulfill personal needs, but to fulfill the need to worship God.”
-Gao Zhen

Such churches are not be called by God, but they are self-initiated. Sacraments, church discipline, and even God’s Word may be weakened. John Calvin wrote about the three marks of a true church: the holy word, holy sacraments, and church discipline. None of these three can be administered effectively in small groups. These three marks are tied to the church’s catholicity, apostolicity, and holiness. The New Regulations were done rashly; it would be even more rash if we downgrade the church into small groups just to respond to the New Regulations.

Interview Host: Pastor Gao, you mentioned the three marks of a true church – the holy word, holy sacraments, and church discipline – and the church’s attributes of catholicity, apostolicity, and holiness. Only in these terms can we find the form of a visible church. A visible church is different from a small group in that a small group does not have these attributes and cannot fulfill these marks. Your concern is that, without the guidance of a proper ecclesiology, downgrading into small groups would lead to a loss of the church’s full functionality and its existential purpose to worship God. Therefore, it is inappropriate to downgrade the church into small groups without the guidance of a proper ecclesiology. And this is why you don’t downgrade your church into small groups.

Gao Zhen: This in essence is a struggle for power between God and man. Small groups reflect human power while the church reflects God’s power, that is, hallowed be your name.

Interview Host:  When a church planter plants a new church, it looks a lot like a small group. What then are the differences between a church plant and a small group?

Gao Zhen: A church plant is not a fellowship because it has a sending church.

Interview Host: But a church plant at the beginning does not have a complete set of sacraments, preaching (God’s word), and church discipline. You may say that from the sending church it inherits the attributes of catholicity, apostolicity and holiness. But a small group also has these attributes as an extension of a larger congregation, only that it does not have the marks of an independent functioning church. So what are the essential differences between a church plant and a small group?

Gao Zhen: A church plant is in a transitional stage between a missional gathering and a full congregation. But small groups already have a full congregation, only that the congregation has been separated.

Interview Host:  That is to say, while a church plant and a small group may look similar from the outside, a church plant is more like a seed that will eventually grow into a tree.  This is only a temporary transition. But if we downgrade to small groups, we may be in that format forever and will not become a church again.

Wang Yi:  These are two different scenarios. It’s a totally different thing when a church separates for the sake of church planting. If the conditions are met and we can plant a church earlier than expected, then we are not talking about small groups, but rather we are talking about a church planting movement.

“This in essence is a struggle for power between God and man.” -Gao Zhen

English translation provided by the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.

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