Editor’s note: How does a church under pressure stay renewed in the gospel of grace? For 70 years, house churches in China have grown amidst cultural marginalization, political disenfranchisement, and periods of active persecution. In recent years, a growing movement of Reformed, urban house churches have begun to articulate an important theology of ‘walking the way of the cross’ which shapes their ecclesiology, evangelism, and discipleship. As North American churches navigate the increasing pressures of a polarizing culture, there is much to learn from our brothers and sisters in China.
This essay is adapted from a seminar at the summer 2023 PCA General Assembly.
The Power of the State
The major difference between us and China is they exist under the rule of an authoritarian, atheistic government and lack religious freedom. Whether you are a Christian or not, the power of the Chinese government is felt everywhere. It is watching you, and is ready to pounce on you if you do anything critical of the government. Xi Jinping’s primary focus is the stability of Community Party rule. In China, it is not enough to just keep quiet. For him, you have to give enthusiastic support to his government and to the [Communist] Party.
Whether you are a Christian or not, the power of the Chinese government is felt everywhere.
This makes house churches a major target, because they acknowledge a higher Lord and a higher rule than the government. Their allegiance is first to God: not to the Party, not to China, and not to Xi Jinping. This is something Xi cannot accept, so it forces house churches to carefully reflect on their relationship with the government, and the relationship between the heavenly and the earthly kingdom. They have to think about when to obey and when to resist; when to accept penalties and when to fight.
It also forces them to think about their relationship with their city. How do they love their neighbors in the face of social injustice? How can they be salt and light when so many people keep their heads down and don’t speak up? Reformed theology becomes an important tool as they reflect on these questions.
We have the same doctrines, but if you carry a pocketknife and live in a city, you probably don’t use it much — maybe to cut apples. But, if you go camping with a friend, and he pulls out a pocketknife and uses it to clean fish, you learn something about the knife you carry: it is really useful!
In the same way, we have been living in a relatively peaceful era, and don’t think about how to use our Reformed doctrines. The Chinese church has lived as a church in the wilderness. They can teach us the power of this “pocketknife” we have been carrying around. We can learn to use our doctrines to think about things we didn’t think they spoke to.
Keep Quiet, You Are Powerless Anyway
One way Chinese Christians live out the resurrection power they have is through what they think about power. Two recent examples came to mind regarding this.
First, I was reading some Chinese reviews of the film, Everything Everywhere All at Once. There is a silent scene where Evelyn and her daughter turned to rocks and are thinking about how small and insignificant they are in the vastness of the multiverse. Everything in me revolted against that idea, because I know I am loved by God. God sees us, loves us, and gives us value. But many Chinese reviewers said that scene was the most powerful part of the movie. That scene connected with them, because they feel powerless and insignificant in their society, like a tiny black speck in history.
We have been living in a relatively peaceful era, and don’t think about how to use our Reformed doctrines. The Chinese church..can teach us the power of this ‘pocketknife’ we have been carrying around. We can use our doctrines to think about things we didn’t think they spoke to.
The second example came when, almost overnight, at the end of last year, China removed their very strict Covid lock-down. After a lot of devastation for a lot of people under two years of strict lock-down, everything snapped back to normal. They suddenly removed the lock-down, and a lot of people went on to die. But almost nobody asked: “What happened? Why did they do this? What is going on?” In America, there would have been multiple congressional hearings, people would have protested, voted, all of that. But nothing like that happened in China.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Some of that is because people don’t want to get in trouble by speaking up. But also: what is the point of asking questions when you can do nothing about it? You would get more angry, but you cannot change anything. You also risk drawing attention to yourself. This is what the Chinese government relies on: people keep their heads down and keep quiet. But this is exactly what Chinese house churches don’t do. They do not want to keep quiet.
The Power of the Kingdom of Heaven
While Chinese house churches don’t have political power, they do have heavenly power. They are united to the Lord, Jesus is in heaven interceding for them right now, and they testify to a kingdom that is to come. This knowledge gives them a tremendously large amount of power. It also gives them courage to speak up against injustice, and to speak for their neighbors. They speak out, not to gain political power, but as salt and light. They want to speak the truth when most people just let the authorities tell lies. Sometimes, asking hard questions is one way to love your neighbors.
As Christians in the U.S., we have some political power. We can vote, protest, and keep people accountable. We absolutely should do that. We are given power to keep the government accountable — but do we exercise our political power at the expense of speaking the truth, or of loving our neighbors? How does our union with the risen Lord inform us to exercise our political power correctly?
While Chinese house churches don’t have political power, they do have heavenly power. They are united to the Lord, Jesus is in heaven interceding for them right now, and they testify to a kingdom that is to come.
We are not as powerless or as marginalized as we think. It is just that our power is of a different sort. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” What does it mean for us, here in America, to know we have a different kind of kingdom?
In Chinese churches, I see the balance. They love their neighbors, clean streets, have ministries to visit widows and the elderly, and do things other Chinese citizens would not do. These Christians love their neighbors. They care about the well-being of society, and at the same time, testify to a power and a kingdom that is yet to come and is different from earthly power here. They keep the delicate balance of focusing on both present reality and the reality to come.
Ryan moved from Guangzhou, China, to Ohio at the age of 12. He is the pastor for neighborhood ministries at a PCA church, and also serves as the translation manager for China Partnership.
Pray that the Lord will help you and your church to live in the freedom of the power of the kingdom of heaven.