Turning to Ecclesiology, Part 6: Union with God Is Manifested by Cross-Shaped Suffering
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 focused 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.
Catch up on the first half of the 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.
History shows us the church never really considered strategy; Christians continued to preach the gospel of Christ and to testify to God’s presence in their midst.
How did they eventually scatter? If we look at Acts 7, the word “persecute” first appeared in Acts in 7:52, when Stephen says their fathers persecuted and killed the prophets, and today they killed the Righteous One. The word “persecute” was first used by Stephen. Because he accused them of killing the prophets and Jesus, they killed him.
This is outright, irrefutable, external persecution by the sword. In Acts 8:1, the word “persecute” appears a second time: “There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem.” After that, you see the promises of Acts 1:8, where the Holy Spirit dwelt in them and they not only received power, but in the course of persecution and verbal threats, their power grew. Eventually, when the sword came, they were scattered. But when they were scattered, it was not to escape.
When persecution came upon them, it was clear the path and sign of the cross had come. It is only at that point that we can consider whether the Spirit is leading us to be scattered. The point of scattering is not self-protection but fulfilling the mission of the gospel. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem and became the driving force for the faith to move forward. They went to other places to build the kingdom of God, to preach the gospel, and to build the church.
In mainland China, the attitude of some house church leaders is that they will continue to gather for worship under verbal threats, so their lives will bear witness to the presence of God among them. If a pastor is under house arrest or detained (or under similar circumstances where persecution by the sword has come to the church), they will remain firm. When the sword comes forcefully, they continue to move forward in the Spirit, but will submit to the authority of the sword, because persecution comes through the authority God has sanctioned; those who abuse this authority will be judged by God. It is only when the sword comes that we acknowledge this is the path of the cross. Verbal threats, according to the New Testament, are not the same as persecution – therefore, the Chinese church will continue to move forward. This is the attitude of house church leaders.
Examining religion and culture, we see Christianity is actually very weak. It does not have a set of necessary, external, and cultural forms to consolidate the religion in order to pass it culturally from generation to generation. There is also no fixed set of doctrines or structure to solidify it. This is weakness, because the core of Christianity is the true and living God, who reigns from above. Our hope is in the invisible, not the visible. The center is the true and living God, the dead and risen Christ. The core of the faith is the collective union of the church with Christ.
Union with God is a reality manifested throughout history by an intense, cross-shaped suffering. The only way for us to be sure we are close to Christ and God is to ensure we walk the way of the cross, bearing the mark of the cross. It does not matter who – pastors from the earlier generation of Chinese house churches, pastors today, or even those of us overseas – we read our Bible, we pray, and we serve in the Spirit, partnering with the triune God to re-create this ultimate humanity in the last city, the church.
It is in this seemingly unbearable church that you and I are serving the living God. Persecution is a mark, but it is simultaneously a blessing. In Philippians, Paul said he forgets what lies behind, and presses on toward the goal. The verb “press on” is the same as “persecute,” and is used positively by Paul. He “persecutes” to obtain the prize of the upward call of God. Paul sees what is above as the true reality. When he continues to press on toward “the prize of the upward call of God,” it produces a horizontal reaction: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward.
When we “persecute” or pursue the prize of the upward call of God, and in the process face cultural challenges, this eventually leads to persecution. The basis of persecution is not the world, but the fact that we belong to God. We do not seek out suffering, but when we become the disciples of Christ, some kind of suffering will naturally occur in our lives.
What then should our strategies be today? To forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead. When we forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, there is no definite answer to the questions house church pastors face today, about whether to split or not, whether to go or stay. Practically, we bring all of this before God and ask: are we protecting ourselves, or are we doing it for the gospel? Is this for the good of the church? On the final day, can I account for my actions before God? All of us ought to seek God in this process, so we can give an account before him.
I want to end with a few final words about the church of God. The church is the will of God; final humanity is the will of God. The start of every new church is like planting a tree. In our ministry, no matter where we are – whether in mainland China or in North America – God’s church is our deepest love. We hope the ecclesiological reflections of these pastors are not merely their treasure, but our treasure as well. Victor Hugo once said that starting a library is an act of faith, because it is a commitment toward an unforeseen future.
For the people of God and the eternal plan of God, planting a church and starting a church planting movement is an act of faith in the invisible future people of God. It is also a way to behold the inaugurated and present kingdom of Christ. We see the holy city Jerusalem being established among us. We are establishing migrant cities that link directly to God. The resurrection of Christ started this new humanity. The citizens of this city are made up of you and me, a new humanity consisting of the children of God. The characteristic and likeness of this city is the reign of the resurrected Christ. He is our only Lord and beloved, and his reign in us is in the form of the cross. The fall of man started with rebellion toward a King and his command; but through another man, Jesus Christ, and his absolute obedience to the King’s command and plan, we are saved. This salvation created a new humanity who submits to the King.
Time will end with the complete return, victory, judgment, and reign of the King. Eventually, the ultimate and heavenly humanity will be revealed. I hope you and I will be among them! If there are still 10,000 years before Christ comes again, we hope these little trees God has planted among us can continue to grow in our lives as we get older. We hope they will become giant trees, full of grace and glorifying to God! If the world ends tomorrow, we will still plant the tree today: this is an act of faith, and this is the will of God, pleasing to him. This should be the attitude of our lives; this is the life that glorifies God.
Translation provided by Moses, Jane, Ryan, and the China Partnership translation team.