The Chinese Church Under Pressure – A Special Series from Our President


Turning to Ecclesiology, Part 1: The Question Is Not Survival, But How to Remain Faithful

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.’”

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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.

China is facing an unprecedented transformation in society, culture, economy, and religion. How should the church think and make decisions: pragmatically or based on a biblical model? We need to look at the current situation from a biblical perspective, building a model based on scripture to examine how we should interact with the world and culture. 

In this series, let us first concentrate on the gospel’s missiological, cross-cultural influence. Then we will also look at biblical theology, especially that of the kingdom and the eschatological perspective of Christ’s resurrection reign. These show us the church’s calling, and help us derive principles to follow as we consider the church’s strategies and actions.

The Organic Formation of the Institutional Church

If we compare China with Hong Kong, Taiwan, or North and South Korea – all East Asian nations with Confucian cultures – we find the transformation going on today in mainland China today is more intense than it is elsewhere. In this perhaps unprecedented transformation of a large country with a huge population and millennia of history, the issue of the model of governance is one of the greatest challenges. The authoritative model of governance, which has been in place for several millennia, is clashing with modern concepts of governance, and we do not know how it will change. China’s internal resources are already exhausted, but we do not know what the future will look like. Under this pressure, the authoritative regime faces a crisis of legitimacy. 

Simultaneously, the gospel is entering Chinese culture as China transforms. As Chinese Christians, we assume the gospel has completely crossed over into our culture, but experience tells us this process is still happening. It is harder than expected, and the challenges are many. Recent events attest to this. We see the annual debate about whether we should celebrate Christmas, though that is only a peripheral question. The new religious regulations and the questions surrounding flag-raising, registration with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, or acknowledging “who’s the boss” are all fundamentally questions of faith

According to Andrew Walls, the process of Christianity’s globalization is expressed on three levels. 1) The first is the organic formation of the institutional church; that is, the establishment of individual churches and denominations, with organization of governance and pastoral models, including elders, deacons, and even ecclesial properties. 2) Under the teaching of this visible and institutional church, growing and maturing Christians start to share their faith through their lives. As they share, they may start organizations or ministries, such as Bible studies at their workplaces. This is the second level – structural development by Christians in various segments of culture. 3) The third level is when Christianity leaves marks on the culture. These marks mean that even non-Christians who live in the broader culture are influenced unconsciously by the religion. For example, in America the phrase “giving my two cents worth” means sharing your humble opinion, like the two cents given by the widow. This saying is a mark of Christianity on the culture. Thus, the celebration of Christmas reflects the fringes of such a mark, but it is manifested in an acute way when the gospel is preached. The core issue (who the Lord is) and the peripheral issue (whether we should celebrate Christmas) are simultaneously manifested in our culture as Christianity is preached.

If we judge the transformation of China and the culture-crossing progress of the gospel from these three levels, China is still mainly at the first level. At this level, cultural contact is through the formation of the visible church and its influence on the surrounding culture, communities, and local and national structures of governance. 

We Should Not Hide for the Sake of Survival 

From the very first generation of house churches, the biggest challenge for the Chinese church  was to identify whether individuals truly believed. This question still matters, but it is no longer the main focus. 

The main question for the institutional church now is whether to register with the government. Registration implies raising flags and singing the national anthem. It implies being under surveillance and control. Two areas the government is seeking to control are the place of worship and the qualifications of a pastor. The government’s questions of “Who is the boss?” and “Do you love me?” are the core challenges faced by the visible church today.

This is going to be a long-term challenge. Things might be better in a couple of years, but we will still face the challenge of the cross-cultural progress of the gospel over the long haul. China’s transformation is yet to be completed, and it will be a “three-steps-forward-two-steps-back” shuffle. We have to make adequate preparations. The best and most crucial preparation is not a practical, short-term, “underground church survival” plan, only to resurface after the tide has passed. The older generation stood up for the gospel and for Christ; should we hide today for the sake of survival? Are there other factors that dictate what we should do? This is the great challenge for church leaders today. 

Core Beliefs and the Blessing of the Gospel

In this process of gospel culture-crossing, it is important to discern the biblical model for our identity and relationship with the world and culture. This is based on the gospel, on theology, and on biblical revelation. The focus today must be on faithfully adopting principles, strategies, and actions from a biblical perspective. In my interactions with urban pastors, the crucial question for most is not whether they can survive or how to survive, but how they can remain faithful to the gospel and to Christ. Their concern is what kind of blessing God will bestow through this persecution. They want this blessing to be a resource and gift for the theological education of churches over the next 10 to 20 years, and to offer this resource for the benefit of the universal church. 

We start again with Andrew Walls. Walls did not talk only about the three levels of the gospel’s culture-crossing, but he also made a very interesting observation: except Christianity, none of the world’s major religions have left their places of origin. Even Buddhism never went much further than East Asia. 

Judaism, Islam, and even Buddhism: all employ external, cultural forms to strengthen and protect the core of their religion. Only Christianity is not tied to any external forms or cultural expressions as a means of protecting its religious core. For example, some places use unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper, while others use regular bread. There are core articles, but many different external expressions.  

The second phenomenon Walls observed is that, among the world religions, only Christianity continues to transcend surrounding cultures. As Christianity enters a new culture, it takes root in and uniquely expresses itself in that culture. Because Christianity does not have to maintain “external elements” – that is, it does not require others to come under its cultural tent in order to join the religion, but it seeks to cross into other cultures – Christianity faces a huge challenge. With every cross-cultural engagement, Christianity must first strip away the external elements of its native culture in order to return to the core beliefs: the faith of the cross, the incarnation, and the death and resurrection of Christ. With those core beliefs, Christianity then must face unprecedented challenges in the new culture, challenges it did not previously encounter in its native culture.

The Gospel Continues to Move Forward

The gospel gives a life-giving, cross-shaped answer to these challenges, producing new momentum and dynamics as it buds and produces gospel seeds and fruit in the new culture. Christianity must face the aspects of the culture which have the greatest need of redemption, and it must speak to that culture. Through this it actually gains new momentum. 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.

When this fruit is at the peak of budding and growing, Christianity will begin a new process of culture-crossing. In the native culture, the gospel has already influenced mainstream culture and entered mainstream society. This may produce complacency, and a departure from the original message of the cross. The gospel may actually begin to decline in its native culture. But it is gaining new life in a new culture, and it continues to move forward.

Translation provided by Moses, Jane, Ryan, and the China Partnership translation team.

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