Editor’s note: What is the church? How can a church be governed by the Bible? These are questions Christians have struggled with for more than two millennia. As the Chinese church continues to mature, Chinese believers are also facing these difficult and important questions. Pastor Wu Jing continues this series, fleshing out why and how his congregation chose to become a part of a larger church institution. He also talks about how being a part of a more established confession impacted the daily life and practice of believers in his body.
This article was originally published on the Grace to City website in March, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Choosing a Denomination
Initially, our church leaned toward the Reformed Presbyterian position. But as we studied their confessions, ecclesiology, and practices, we could not agree with the Presbyterian position on infant baptism and on the relationship between local churches. It was a continuous journey of learning and exploration as we searched the Bible together and sought God’s guidance. In 2018, church leaders decided we would become a Reformed Baptist church. The following were key factors:
- Biblical foundations
When we face practical issues in church governance, we search and find answers in the Bible. Our faith came to us through revelation. The church belongs to God, and was not built according to the pattern of earthly organizations. A church must be built on God’s Word, not human ideas or plans.
- The confessions and experiences of different denominations throughout church history
We looked into the historical experience of the church, and began to learn why different denominations arose. We also learned of some of the controversies between these denominations.
Our faith came to us through revelation. The church belongs to God, and was not built according to the pattern of earthly organizations. A church must be built on God’s Word, not human ideas or plans.
Previously, we focused on evangelism, missions, and individual salvation and healing. We rejected denominations, believing they came about due to disunity. We were also ignorant about the denominations, unclear on the reasons for their creation, and uncertain of the arguments between them. Yet when we began to study, we found that today, we face those same controversies from church history. We struggle with the same arguments. Every individual has their own theology; each church has its own beliefs. Is our confession of faith clear or confused?
Yet even as we consider church history, we still also need to return to the Bible. Our goal is not to become a particular denomination. Our goal is to use denominational confessions as a guide to help us return to Scripture and find what we, as a church, believe.
- Communicating with established churches is a great help
The problems Chinese churches are encountering right now are very similar to one another. Communicating with other churches has helped us a lot. We have become more aware of the problems we face, and of how to make decisions.
- Patiently waiting for God
We need to wait for God’s timing. Our church was one congregation under a larger church, and needed to wait for the whole church’s decision. In 2017, the church decided each congregation would become an independent church. Our own church was officially established in 2018.
Return to the Bible Together
A church is a living organism, not something created by humans. The New Testament letters clearly show early church governance went through a discovery stage. God’s revelation clearly came through the process of building his church. Later in the New Testament, particularly in 1 and 2 Timothy, God revealed clear principles on which the church could be built, governed, and pastored.
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We were ignorant about the denominations, unclear on the reasons for their creation, and uncertain of the arguments between them. Yet when we began to study, we found that today, we face those same controversies from church history.
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We must be especially vigilant not to “graft” or apply any one system to the institution of the church. The Bible is the source of all our actions. As pastors, the most important thing is to lead people back to the Bible. Pastors should ask important questions that we have not thought about before, and lead people to explore the Bible together. When we began to institutionalize our church, we did not start by emphasizing one particular denomination. Instead, we searched the Bible together.
The process of institutionalization brings opposition. Some were unwilling to change; others had different positions. This is when pastors need to be able to persevere and lead people through challenges. Conflict is inevitable. Pastors need confidence to look to God and do what is right. External markers (such as systems, documents, and teaching) are relatively easy. Expressing the confession of faith at the action level is very difficult. Personally, I think this is the hardest part. After hearing teaching, it seems everyone agrees. But when practical issues arise, people realize they do not understand what they have agreed with, and what biblical church governance is.
For example, after institutionalization, we faced the issue of church discipline. Our teaching was clear. But when the church was to enforce actual discipline according to the biblical confession, brothers and sisters realized this was intimately related to themselves. It is a great challenge to submit to church authority in these times. Only when specific problems arise do we truly understand what the teachings mean.
Before we became our own church, we spent a year teaching church doctrine and confessions. But these things remained intellectual and were not reflected in people’s lives until we confronted specific issues. Only then did we wake up to realize our confession of faith and church constitution were practically relevant to life. We ought to submit to the authority of the church, and we are to govern the church according to biblical teaching. Every Christian must live according to the Bible, especially when it comes to their life in the church. If Christians cannot live according to biblical teaching in church, how can they live out the gospel in other areas?
Our teaching was clear. But when the church was to enforce actual discipline according to the biblical confession, brothers and sisters realized this was intimately related to themselves.
Institutionalizing the church also pushes people to use biblical teaching to govern both the church, themselves personally, and to grow together according to the Bible. Every aspect of the church is led by the Bible: creation of positions, governance, and church life in general. Believers do not come to church to hear the Word and then leave; they come so we can apply the Word to all aspects of our lives.
The institution itself is not the goal. Instead, as we faithfully live and govern the church according to the Bible, and as we come to know the Bible more deeply and live according to it, each Christian must face the question of whether the church is governed biblically. What do you think the church is? How should it be governed? Does the Bible have limiting principles regarding governance? Or can you make your own choices? These questions will inevitably arise.
Wu Jing is a pseudonym for a post-80s generation pastor. Wu began to pastor after he graduated from seminary in 2014.
Pray for Chinese churches who are seeking a strong understanding of what the church is and how to best govern her.