Contextual Theology: Education that Prepares Chinese Christians for the Challenges They Face


Editor’s note: As we continue to talk about and pray for theological education within the Chinese house church, the maturing house church is finding her voice. The house church insists that the gospel can and should be contextualized to China, while simultaneously rejecting the idea that the gospel can be “sinicized” as the government demands. Individual theology students learn within a community of believers, and grow to understand and face the difficulties specific to the house church experience.

“Urban Farmer” is a pseudonym used by an American who works to support and strengthen the Chinese house church.

Self-theologizing: Making the Gospel Clear in China

Theological education in both the [government] Three-Self and the house church recognizes the need to make the gospel clear in Chinese culture as part of what it means to contextualize. How is this formal house church theological education being done? What impact does theological education have on student’s ability to bring the gospel to the Chinese setting and make meaning of their context? To answer these questions, it is crucial to understand the context of theological education in China and the methods that are being employed.

Theological education fits within the broader discussion of adult Christian education. How students of theological education make meaning of their experience given their unique context is of particular interest.

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Theological study and deeper gospel understanding cannot be done in a vacuum. It must not only interact with its own culture, but also with the theological conversations of the past in its understanding of the biblical text. In the earlier days of the house church, the focus was mainly on surviving, which led to little room for working out deep theology in a Chinese setting. Recently, however, a large segment of the urban house church has turned to the conversation that took place during the Reformation, finding a kindred spirit in Martin Luther’s theology and position of resistance. This has provided a ready foundation for theologizing to address cultural dilemmas. Ironically, the Three-Self church also uses Luther as a reference point, but usually in support of the CCP rather than resistance against it.  

One key conversation about contextualization revolves around the government’s term ‘sinicization of religion.’ The policies of Xi Jinping’s government take a harder line, particularly on religious issues more open to foreign influence. In response to this and other issues, house church pastor Wang Yi, along with the elders of his church, Early Rain Covenant Church, posted 95 Theses, partly to address this issue of ‘sinicization.’ In a bold rejection of the government’s efforts to sinicize Christianity and thereby dictate the theological conversation, the theses reject ‘sinicization’ but maintains a respect for the need to contextualize the gospel in the Chinese culture, affirming both Chinese culture and biblical authority.

An Exercise of Agency: Theological Education from the House Church  

Over the last century, China has undergone massive societal upheaval. One of the structures undergoing this upheaval was the educational system, which moved from being focused on the Imperial Examination at the end of the 19th century, to various forms of public education in the early decades of the 20th century. In this confusing environment, formal Christian education institutions began. A sizable number of higher education colleges and universities established by Christian missionaries dotted the landscape in China, all of which were closed by 1952.  

But a decade earlier, in 1941, there were graduate schools of theology, theological seminaries or colleges, and theological training schools, defined mostly by academic degrees offered and the educational requirements to enter. The seminaries went through a tumultuous period since the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China, closing several times due to political activism and instability. Since those tumultuous days, the Chinese government has seen the need for the expansion of theological education. Currently, there are twenty government-sanctioned theological seminaries throughout China.

Gathering data on theological education done through the house church is extremely difficult. Much of the time we are limited to anecdotal information, personal conversations with house church leaders, social media sources, or perhaps, at best, scholarly estimates. This` had led some into overly subjective, unbalanced scholarship when writing about the house church and their institutions. Responses to such pieces have been heavily criticized, which highlights the need for more balanced input on this subject.  

The house church in China exists in a Marxist political system that has appropriated oppression terminology, while exerting totalitarian control over religion. The irony is rich and complex. Developing and strengthening of consciousness must be understood through the lens of the gospel, not primarily as bringing about social change. Although social change can and should come from gospel focus, it is not the driving emphasis.

The house church in China has become less marginalized, with greater agency. This is not to say house church Christians do not experience being marginalized; rather, it points to societal changes (wealth, technology, and the rapid growth of the church) that have provided the house church with greater human agency. Unlike the fundamentally secular view of humanism, the house church’s increased power is understood as both a responsibility and a God-given gift. The wise use of this agency from a Christian perspective acknowledges the guidance of the Holy Spirit to create and steward for God’s purposes. The Chinese church’s increased institutional means are being exercised by offering theological education for its current and future leaders. 

Transformative Learning: Making Meaning of Theological Education

Does this increased institutional agency trickle down to individual students exercising their image-bearing agency in the educational process? How does theological education coincide with Chinese Christians’ search for meaning? How does this transformation into God’s likeness take place?

While much of the house church in urban and even rural areas does not suffer from poverty, these churches nonetheless face varying levels of oppression brought about by their position of resistance. With this in mind, there is ample room to explore the ongoing work of house church theological education in China.  

Understanding house church theological education requires a framework with which to analyze education. Theological education as a sub-set of Christian education necessarily includes a transformative element. The adult educational theory of transformative learning teaches that learners evaluate their past ideas in the light of new information they are taking in. This theory asks how learners make meaning out of the information they take in, and how their worldview changes as they grow. Spiritual formation during formal theological studies is a high priority for the Chinese church. Is this model of transformative learning appropriate and up to the task of helping Chinese theological students orient themselves within their unique environment?

There are several ways transformative learning can be used in theological education. One constant theme is the importance of community and collaboration. Adult students in community learn important transformative lessons as they walk through a well-designed program together and share life experiences that enrich other students. They learn to think theologically about these experiences and reflect on what they learn. Nurturing a supportive environment is critical in this process, fostering trust among students.  

The “meaningfulness and effectiveness” of our lives are grounded in our claim that this is derived from the gospel and from knowing the God who gives us life. This is a powerful reminder that, in our efforts to make meaning, we are not the source of that agency. Rather it is a gift from God that must be nurtured and stewarded.

Making meaning, community, collaboration, critical reflection, and valuing the experience of the adult learner are all fundamental elements to transformative learning. They also reflect the essence of what Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 teach us about the work of the Holy Spirit in the process of transforming us. Although transformative learning has its limits (as every human theory does), the Chinese house church can employ transformative learning as a useful lens with which to strengthen the quality of theological education and provide a useful tool for its development.

The Dilemmas of the Chinese House Church Present an Opportunity for Transformation

The growth of the Christian church in China is an empirical fact that social scientists and church leaders have been researching and theorizing about for decades. The value of this lies in the ability to better understand the context. How can those of us outside of China better understand what is happening inside? There is a dearth of data and research that gives voice to the voiceless inside China, and a need for voices from within the house church to be properly heard.  

As the church has grown, the need for theological education is in demand. Opportunities within China for theological studies have been emerging among house churches who are less marginalized than before, and more able to provide these services. As these seminaries mature, they need to develop tools to improve the quality of theological education. One way to help with this development is to explore how seminary students make meaning of their theological education. Theological education must prepare them for the difficulties they face.

House church Christians in China face many challenges in their daily faith journey. Dilemmas arise from broader societal issues, such as cultural incongruence and a pervasive spiritual vacuum, as well as issues specific to the house church identity, centered around a posture of resistance. Both these areas need to be addressed; all create powerful disorienting features. These challenges also present an opportunity for house church Christians to learn, grow, and be transformed. Theological education in the house church context must factor in these contextual elements, encourage students to theologize within their communities, and find biblical solutions.

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