Editor’s note: Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership.
This interview has been edited and condensed for both clarity and brevity.
Yang Mingdao: My understanding of the nature of the church and the mission of the church in this age is this: the nature and the mission of the church have never changed, and they shall not be influenced by the change of the times. I believe that the Lord Jesus commanded us to be the salt and light of the world and to share the gospel to the ends of the earth, which every church at every age must do. Therefore, from the nature and revelation of the Scripture, the mission and nature of the church will not change with the changes of time, environment, and culture.
Of course, for each church, especially churches within different cultural contexts, there are various ways to fulfill such a mission.
In the current context of the Chinese church, there was a period of extreme closure, followed by the great development of the rural churches in the 1980s, the conversion of overseas Chinese in the 1990s, and the rise of the Chinese urban churches after 2000. There was a relatively loose environment for church development, which, to some extent, posed a challenge to the government and the authorities, as they have taken the increase in the number of believers and the rise of Christian faith as a threat or as loss of control. Therefore, in the past couple of years, the government introduced a set of policies and regulations. From what I have seen across China, these regulations are not just against Christianity, but suppress all religions and diverse voices.
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How should the church respond under such circumstances? If there is goodness in us, under any circumstances, we should still live out our goodness. If the gospel of Jesus is the truth, in any time, the truth will shed its light. Therefore, as a Christian, or for a church as a body of Christians, in this age we should still do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, and bear good witness for the Lord. This includes the attitude with which we treat those who persecute us, the mindset with which we treat them, and how we courageously express our faith in this age. How we live out the grace of the gospel and the justice, kindness, patience, and perseverance of God through these interactions is something worth meditating on for the Chinese church today.
This is one way the Chinese church could bear good witness and build up the church through the gospel in this age. This is my personal suggestion.
China Partnership: Many churches facing persecution split or stop meeting together. From the perspective of ecclesiology, how do you think the Chinese house churches should apply their view of the church, and what instructions and advice would you give to these churches?
Yang: As you just mentioned, under the general context of persecution in China, churches have taken different measures and responded differently. Some churches voluntarily dissolved; some strategically split into small groups while keeping the unity and organization of one church; some churches refused to dissolve, and tried their best to gather.
Each pastor in each area receives different guidance from the Lord. From the perspective of ecclesiology, or from the application level, it is hard for us to make an accurate assessment. But if we reconsider this question from the standpoint of what is the Lord’s church (that is, if you think a church split into families is still a church), then we have to think what is a church as a whole, a collection of the people of the Kingdom of Heaven as a whole, how to practice pastoring, how to love each other, how to administer sacraments, and how to practice church discipline. Therefore, while splitting is external, it is worth our time to meditate on whether the church organization as a whole has been dispersed or whether the whole church structure has collapsed, whether the split is temporary or long-term, whether we split out of fear or out of strategy.
In general, I think in a church as a whole, under certain pressure or without the possibility of gathering together, brothers and sisters could split into small groups while maintaining the church structure so that they could meet and split at any time. However, each church should hold fast to be one, unified church. Whether you split into eight or fifty small groups, you still are one unified church; if you have a strategy of church planting, you could passively plant churches under such persecution.
As long as there are revivals of brothers and sisters and pastor and administration of church discipline and sacraments continues, I believe it is still a church. We also know that in previous persecutions, God produced some healthy church plants through such persecutions. Therefore, as a church or as the leaders of a church, pastors and elders should have clear biblical teaching to brothers and sisters about splitting into small groups or even church dissolution. No matter if our churches dissolve or not, God’s universal church exists forever.
CP: Currently the Chinese culture, whether in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, or Malaysia, presents different cultural traits everywhere. In the gospel’s encounter with the Chinese culture, what opportunities and challenges do you see?
Yang: The Chinese culture is definitely a global concept, as we often say that the Chinese culture in southeast Asia resembles the Chinese culture of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese culture in Hong Kong resembles that of the Republic of China era, and the Chinese culture in Taiwan resembles that of the pre-Liberation era (as it is called in mainland China, although it is called “capitulation” in Taiwan). In a sense, you will find it that the themes of the culture were kept differently according to different periods. For example, the current Chinese culture is one of post-1949, a blend of so-called communist beliefs, Marxism, and some thoughts with Chinese characteristics. You cannot accurately summarize Chinese culture in one term, with all the differences in historical stages.
The whole world is now a global village. With different ways of communication from the past, we have more interaction with overseas Chinese. These interactions are a great reminder for us from the perspective of the gospel.
For example, in a country where there seems to be no persecution, such as southeast Asia, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, the number of believers in the gospel has not significantly increased. Yet situations in China over the past decades proved that, after all these years of so-called de-Sinicization, the introduction of so-called Communist thought, and thirty years of so-called Communist rule, there has been a huge response to the gospel, as we suddenly found that the hearts of the Chinese people were gradually opening to the gospel.
In this regard, a relatively suppressed, persecuted, and blended Chinese culture was opening up to the gospel, while Chinese cultures in some relatively free areas, such as southeast Asia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong hold onto some traditions of the Chinese culture that continue to resist the gospel. Through this comparison we can meditate on the fact that an environment of religious freedom does not necessarily lead to an increase of acceptance of the Christian faith, while a persecuting environment does not necessarily lead to a decrease in acceptance of the Christian faith.
A Romanian pastor used to tell this story when the Romanian Communist Party was in power. They had found out that many policemen who persecuted Christians became believers in the process of persecution, and the persecution these believing policemen suffered was even more severe than what the Christians had suffered. He said something very profound: “I believe no matter what age we are in, even in an age of persecution, the number of God’s chosen people will not diminish because of persecution.” This is a great inspiration, as we believe in God’s sovereignty, and that in any age, God’s work will not be hindered by human efforts.
CP: From a historical perspective, with the recent amendment to the Constitution and the publishing of the new regulations on religious affairs in mainland China, the trade war between China and the United States, the situation in Hong Kong, and the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China, where do you thing mainland China is heading? Will the world become even more tumultuous?
Yang: As Christians, we know God is the Lord of history. We know that for Christians, the future has to be better, because one day God will bring the new heavens and new earth to this world. It does not matter whether the future will be better or worse. I am not saying that we should not be concerned, but for Christians it is unnecessary for us to be worried about the future, as the Bible keeps telling us: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow.” I think the world is getting more and more corrupt as a whole after the fall; there have been more evil people, and with the multiplication and continued maturity of sins, certainly the world is getting worse. We can see that in the history of human wars, the number of casualties of each war has been increasing significantly; but at the same time, we also see the continuing growth of the human population.
Therefore, from this perspective, where is the world heading? There is always a war between good and evil. Sometimes, in an age like what we are in now, there has been no large-scale war since World War II. But is it possible for a large-scale war to break out? I think it is possible, especially with what we have been witnessing recently, including what’s happening in Hong Kong and the trade war. But what’s behind all this may not be as simple as what we see on the surface, and the essence of the trade war is not an issue of trade war. Therefore, often we tend to have superficial understandings of the development of the whole issue. It is important for us as Christians to discern, in this age and in the context where God has put us, how we could best serve the people around us and live out goodness, justice, and mercy, which I believe is our top priority right now.
Regarding the direction where the world is heading, first, no one can take charge of this. From a historical perspective, we seem to believe that one certain person can manipulate all of history, but I think that is an inaccurate view. Every person, since the fall of man, or every so-called “great person,” longed to be in charge of history and at its steering wheel. Yet all of them ended up finding they could not even control the steering wheel of their own fate. Let us, as believers, facing the voices of this world, live in this world humbly with reverence for God and respect for life.
I especially wanted to encourage Christians that our future must be good, because God has given us a great promise, and he has told us that he is greater than all things in this world. Therefore, we are in God’s hands; not because of how capable we are, but because God is our help, God is our support. It is unnecessary for Christians to be particularly worried; even if the whole world ends tomorrow, God will still lift up his chosen people into heaven, into his own kingdom and paradise. If you have a Lord who has conquered death, death will not be formidable for you. We should have hope for the future as a whole, because we do not just die when we encounter death; instead, we will encounter an eternity beyond death, an eternity that brings us true hope, as all the things of this world are not what we truly hope for.
Do you worry about where the world is headed? What would it look like to trust God with that anxiety instead of holding onto that fear?