Turning to Ecclesiology, Part 2: The Church Is the Complete and Final Humanity
Editor’s note: Yang Mingdao is the pseudonym used by Chinese staff within China Partnership. This important eleven-part series is from a recent lecture given by China Partnership’s President. It has been edited from the original transcriptions.
The first five posts of the series focus on Chinese history in order to grant a greater understanding of contemporary issues facing the church. As the gospel penetrates Chinese culture, deeply rooted historical and cultural idiosyncrasies impact Christianity’s contextualization. The pressures the church now weathers are greatly influenced by these historical realities. To understand the current challenges, one must be familiar with traditional Chinese governance and the trajectory taken since China first encountered Christianity.
Read the whole series below:
Synopsis: The current round of religious persecution in China is fundamentally an issue of ultimate allegiances. “The government used to be laissez-faire, but now they need to hear everyone say: ‘I love you.’”
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Synopsis: Modern day China is the result of a clash between cultures. Before its engagement with the West, China viewed the world according to two categories – its kingdom and the barbarians outside.
Synopsis: A discussion of the authority structures that exist in China due to the long legacy of Confucianism. Authority belongs to the emperor as given by heaven and total loyalty to superiors is necessary for the Chinese system to function.
Synopsis: A two-millennia old system of governance does not easily change overnight. “Yuan realized the universal and interconnected Chinese system could not be transformed into a republican or parliamentary system simply by changing it on paper. In a public discussion in America, he said: “If we do not even have citizens, how can we have a republican system?”
Synopsis: In the past, while China was busy getting rich, the government had confidence in its full legitimacy to rule and there were fewer questions of loyalty. But now, in this time of reconstruction, they ask: “Do you love me? If you do, you must raise the national flag. If you love me, you will register [your churches].
In this second half of the series, we now turn to the ecclesiology (theology of church) developed and deepened by Chinese believers as they face trying times of transition in mainland China. The Chinese church’s understanding and experience of union with Christ, their theology of suffering, and their articulation of the mission of the church are an encouragement and fierce challenge to their Western brothers and sisters.
Synopsis: When a culture desperately needs the message of the cross (not the prosperity gospel, but the central message of Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection) and it is given, the gospel not only crosses and transcends cultural boundaries, it produces long-lasting fruit.
Synopsis: Chinese pastors are asking the question, “What is the church?” The answer is crucial for determining their response to the government. As they try to define their theology of the church, these pastors are going beyond considering its attributes, to trying to understand the very nature of the church.
Synopsis: In the light of Genesis 3, the most important question to ask is not, “How can we be saved,” but rather, “How can the creative will and plan of God to make a perfect humanity be fulfilled?” The answer is the one-and-many humanity God is calling to himself to make up the church.
Synopsis: Today’s church is the construction site for the new creation God is building and which will be revealed in the final day.
Synopsis: The persecution and challenges the Chinese house church currently faces are no different from those faced by the early church in Acts. The authorities of this world always challenge the church with the same question: “Who do you love?” The extent to which the church’s response to this question is informed by its union with Christ will determine its faithfulness to the Lord in the face of persecution.
Synopsis: Moving forward, we must ask: are we protecting ourselves, or are we doing it for the gospel? A lived-out ecclesiology will inevitably encounter suffering.
Chinese culture is undergoing a major transition. As the gospel crosses into this culture, our cross-shaped message and expressions of faith must target the aspects of Chinese culture with the greatest need to be redeemed. This will create a new and original gospel message based on the death and resurrection of Christ. This gospel message speaks to the culture with the specificity of the incarnate Christ.
The core questions of China’s cultural and governing structure transition are, “Who’s the boss?” or, “Who do you love?” The core question the church faces is, “What is the church of Christ?” First-generation Christians are concerned with such questions as, “What is the gospel? What is regeneration?” As second-generation Christians, the greatest question we now face is one about the church of Christ. As the gospel crosses into Chinese culture, and as we face many crises, we must understand what the eternal church is, and what the kingdom of the gospel is in order to confront this millennia-old empire and culture.
I know many pastors who struggle with this existential crisis along with the practical questions of whether to split [into small groups] or to go overseas [in the face of pressure]. The primary question they ask themselves is: “As we return to the Bible, to the gospel, what is the church of Christ?” This is first and foremost a theological question, but how does one live this out in life? This is not merely a pragmatic or existential question but a theological question stemming from the Bible. By reflecting on this question, we arrive at a theological model that will not merely guide our present situation, but contribute to the kingdom of God and the gospel.
The bigger picture shows us something interesting: we face tension between the institutional church and contemporary Chinese culture, especially regarding the legitimacy of governing structures. The church is viewed as a challenge to the legitimacy of the government. Traditionally, China has been governed by rulers who claim to carry a “heavenly mandate.” But today, it feels threatened by such a challenge.
In traditional Chinese culture, common citizens had to show absolute loyalty to the emperor. There has never been free enterprise or a civil organization that possessed the uniqueness of the church. The church’s central and highest allegiance is not to the emperor, but to the everlasting, heavenly Christ who died and rose again. This is something our culture has never before encountered.
More than any other self-governing structure or civil organization, it is precisely this community that gives some foundation of legitimacy to rulers. Why? Christians believe everybody must submit to the governing authorities, who do not bear the sword in vain. This is the sword God has given to reward good and punish evil, and this stems from the will of God. The irony is that it is precisely this community that gives governing legitimacy to rulers, but at the same time declares that their absolute loyalty and love are reserved only for Christ and God.
Chinese Society Needs the Church
These two concepts exist simultaneously and are actually the greatest resource for a transitioning China. We can no longer return to the past. What does Chinese society need most right now? Harmony and forgiveness. Only a community and church formed by the gospel of Christ can provide this true source of forgiveness and harmony. Granting partial authority and governing legitimacy is based on the absolute allegiance of the church to God. It is based on love for Christ. These two concepts must exist simultaneously, with the latter forming a basis for the former.
We need to live with great patience when we are misunderstood by the culture and the government, while unabashedly proclaiming the gospel, just as the early church was faithful to the gospel of Christ. At the same time, we submit to the authorities sanctioned by God. All this must be articulated by the church today. How we express this depends on our understanding of the Bible. We need a deep ecclesiology in order to establish our principles, strategies, and attitudes.
From here, we focus on reflections and constructions of ecclesiology. After the New Regulations were announced, everybody realized the challenge we now face is ecclesiastical in nature, so they shifted their consideration to this. We must ask a basic question: what is the church?
When we study ecclesiology, we have to talk about the attributes of the church. The church is one, catholic, holy, and apostolic in its foundation. We also recognize the three marks of the church that we inherit from the Reformation, which are the preaching of the word, the administration of sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. But when Chinese pastors look at the church, they not only consider the attributes of the church, but the very nature of the church.
What is the church? Edmund Clowney, in a book called The Church, writes that the nature of the church is established on the foundation of the triune God. What can you observe about the church from the triune God? First, the church is the people of God. Second, the church is the bride of Christ. Third, the church is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. From these three we can also mention other expressions: the church is the body of Christ or the temple of the Spirit.
Chinese pastors have built on Clowney’s foundation to go one step further from a biblical theological perspective: the church is heavenly, and its nature is heavenly (belonging to God and to Christ), but at the same time it is the humanity God wanted to create, according to his will. The church is the complete and final humanity. This humanity (the church) is an eschatological, perfect image of God. When God decided to create mankind, every person in the church had his or her name recorded in heaven. It is a heavenly kingdom and the holy city Jerusalem – the final stronghold of humanity. At the end of history, the final humanity is the saints in the holy city of Jerusalem. This group of people is the church.
Translation provided by Moses, Jane, Ryan, and the China Partnership translation team.