Contextual Theology: The Voice of the House Church Must Be Heard

Editor’s note: As the church in China grows, she not only gleans from the centuries of theology done before she arrived on the scene; she has something particular to add to the conversation. There are, of course, numerous obstacles to clearly hearing the house church’s voice; however, the particular struggles and insights of the Chinese church as she contextualizes the Christian story are of great value to the global church.

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

The Need for Homegrown Theology

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In the 1950s and 60s, social scientists around the world prognosticated the demise of religion in modern society, based on the Enlightenment idea that modernization will lead to the decline of religion. It seems those predictions were grossly exaggerated. Instead, the world is “as furiously religious as it ever was.”

One of the most obvious examples of this desecularization is the growth of the Christian church in Mainland China. Well-documented reports of church growth have been done over the past several decades. While there are vast differences in the estimates of the exact size of the Christian population in China, it is unlikely any reports would offer a counter-narrative to this growth—both within government-sanctioned churches, as well as unregistered house churches.

With this growth has come the need for trained church leaders and contextualized theology. Over the past two decades, articles surveying government churches have reported on the need to provide more theologically-trained clergy, as well as calling to improve existing theological education. Both government and house churches recognize the need for homegrown, contextualized theology that interacts with the global church community.

The State of Chinese Seminary Education

In the past, unregistered house church leaders have encountered numerous difficulties in engaging in formal theological education. The number of unregistered churches outstrips those sanctioned by the government, yet the demand for formal, highly structured theological training far exceeds the supply. As the house church has grown in both size and agency, they are less marginalized, and more able to provide necessary educational services for church members. Many house churches have begun to provide unregistered, non-government-sanctioned theological training. Matters related to China’s house church are very challenging to document, due to the sensitive nature of participating in studies. Articles addressing this area are relatively scarce. There is a great need to explore house church theological training and gather data to better understand this field.

How do house church seminary students make meaning of their education? One important element of theological education is its transformative potential. Romans 12:2 calls for transformation by “the renewing of our minds.” 2 Corinthians 3:18 expresses a change that takes place as we transform into the likeness of God’s glory. Both passages use the same Greek root for the word we translate as “transform.” Theological education should, in some way, reflect the transformation spoken of in these passages. In Romans 12, the transformation taking place in our “minds” connotes more than mere intellectual knowledge, but points to a deeper sense of “moral consciousness,” a transformation that takes place at a profoundly deep level. This transformation is ongoing and lasts throughout life. It can be classified as a learning exercise, the goal of which is to confirm and approve of God’s will. God’s will is a moral compass, the supreme norm that guides us through the work of the Holy Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3:18 speaks of transformation in terms of the imago dei in humanity. This image of God displayed in humanity was once broken by the fall (Genesis 3), but is now being restored in God’s redeemed through union with Jesus Christ for the glory of God. Once again,  transformation is a life-long process.

Contextualization: The Intersection of Theology and Culture

Nearly twenty years ago, some in the Chinese church claimed that talk of a moral or spiritual “vacuum” within Chinese culture was greatly mistaken. In more recent years, however, the consensus is that such a “spiritual vacuumdoes indeed exist. Whether or not this vacuum is the cause for Christian conversion is uncertain; nonetheless, it is highly relevant to ask why such a vacuum exists. There is no one, singular factor that serves as the cause, but rather a combination of factors. Since the turn of the 20th century, China has undergone massive upheaval. Today, China faces cultural conflict brought about by a desire to rapidly catch up with industrialization, while maintaining some of its traditional cultural values.

This is not just a phenomenon within China, but one other Asian nations have experienced, and a poignant backdrop for the contextualization of theology in Asia. Asia’s embrace of Western modernization and industrialization has brought both benefits and drawbacks, as countries once isolated are in closer contact with one another. With this come opportunities and challenges for the church.  

Cultural incongruity and the spiritual vacuum are just two dilemmas that present themselves to Mainland Chinese. These and other dilemmas contribute to a lingering tension that one must accept as part of daily life. Many leaders in the church in China have addressed these issues in their theologizing, but house and government churches often come to vastly different conclusions in how to apply the gospel to this context. Government churches—known formally as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement— combine elements of ecumenical theology and socialist ideology to keep in line with the political agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

House churches, however, have another dilemma they must consider. The vast majority of unregistered house churches, both urban and rural, are not fully legal. Most operate in “gray” or “black” regions of being illegal or ambiguously illegal. Since 1949, the CCP’s religious policy has fluctuated between enlightenment atheism (which treats religion as backward but tolerable), and militant atheism (which sees religion as a dangerous opiate of the masses). For house churches, this creates a dilemma, an important factor in understanding their context and identity. Most unregistered churches have only two choices: cooperation or resistance. Those who resist follow in the legacy of men like Wang Mingdao, considered by many to be the primary representative of those in the house church tradition.  

To understand this resistance position we need to look at Wang and those who follow in his footsteps. Understanding Wang’s background, context and theology reveals the guiding principles of his approach. These principles were: 1) the authority of scripture, 2) a fundamental belief in the separation of church and state, 3) Christian piety, 4) a nuanced approach to popular culture and media, and 5) a rejection of holy and secular dualism concerning one’s job. Resistance is not seen as disengagement from culture, but rather a position that runs counter to socialist ideals as manifested in China. 

Who Dictates the Theological Conversation of the Global Church?

These dilemmas provide the background in which the church must make meaning of her existence. Cultural incongruity raises the question of interaction with the West. Many of the early Three-Self leaders were educated in the West. During the 1970s and 80s, many in the rural house church looked to Western evangelicalism and the charismatic renewal movement for help. In more recent years, many urban house churches have turned toward historical Reformed theology and Calvinism, borrowing doctrines and concepts to address their dilemmas. For government and house churches, looking abroad might mean different things, but  is still a common denominator in the way they approach dilemmas.

The subtle distinction revolves not around whether borrowing resources from Western theology is acceptable, but rather what kind. How much will the Chinese church allow Western influence to dictate the theological conversation? An even more subtle factor is the question of who is allowed to participate in the conversation. Power dynamics in China demand that the Three-Self movement and the government must be in control, limiting the conversation to ideas and doctrines deemed politically in-line with Communist ideology.  House churches have the potential to interact with a broader audience of theological voices.

The topic then turns to the definition of contextualization. “Borrowing” theological resources is inevitable in an increasingly globalized world, and not necessarily antithetical to contextualization. The word “contextualization” was coined in the 1970s by Shoki Coe, a leader in the Taiwanese church. This idea was presented as a way to reform theological education in younger churches, which were mission field churches during the colonial era. The goal was to emphasize self-theologizing through critical contextualizing and a deeper understanding of the gospel, thus driving the church away from being a mission church and toward being missional. Many evangelical churches were slow to adapt contextualization, citing the authority of scripture, but over time came to see its necessity.  

Some studies in contextual theology focus on those who politically resist oppression and the abuse of power. The problem with this focus is with how we define those terms. Distinctions become clouded when the political system that once stood for and still claims to stand for resisting oppression and power abuse then becomes the source of oppression for many within its borders, as is the case in China. Those who resist the political system of oppression then battle with their oppressors over who defines these terms. While resisting oppression is important, it is not adequate as a defining principle. Self-theologizing must take into consideration other factors.

At least one of the determining factors in contextualization should be who does the theologizing and where they do it. Theology that answers contextual questions is important—but who gets to pick which questions are important? Are they being answered within the contextual “soil” by those who grew up in that soil? Those inside the soil may choose to converse with different theological voices abroad based on the needs that face them. This is at least part of what Coe was trying to promote: greater agency and contribution to the global conversation. Are inside voices choosing the content of the theological conversation? Or is that content being thrust upon them? There needs to be a recognition of both the beauty and the fallen-ness of culture whereby we are both purveyors and critics of it. If this is how we measure contextualization, then the voice of the house church must be heard, for their theology is a significant contributor to the conversation.

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Further Reading

Witness In Persecution: Heart Struggle
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How I Prayed For Instruction
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God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
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