We Cannot Stay in the Ivory Tower: Gospel-Centered Legal Practice

Editor’s note: According to Chinese Christian attorneys, recent years have brought a crackdown on house churches which continues to intensify. Chinese house churches need knowledge and discernment to respond to these challenges.

In a 2021 seminar for Chinese Christians, a Christian attorney shared about how and why house churches should adopt a gospel-centered legal framework, and what that means practically for believers and their church communities. He also called on other Christian attorneys to step up and be willing to help the church in their fight. This excerpt from that seminar uses the book of Philippians to call Chinese Christians to have wisdom in legal matters and to advance the gospel in and through the current environment.

This excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.


Since February 2018, when the Religious Affairs Regulations were promulgated, many thousands of house churches have been impacted. However, the reaction of society and the internal discussions and reflections of our house churches are far from sufficient. Many churches have not changed their frame of mind. A large number think filing an administrative review or lawsuit is opposing the government. Other house churches think, if they lawfully communicate with the government or even use confrontation, they are avoiding the cross. Churches are in great need of legal talent and awareness. Yet although there is sufficient legal talent, there are not enough people who actually act on their talent.

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“We are not to wage war according to the law; we are to engage in warfare by the gospel and to be witnesses for the gospel.

Today, we come together to study the Word of God in Philippians.


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“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

Philippians 1:9-11

Equip Yourselves with Knowledge

Many interpreters of Philippians believe Paul was writing to the Philippian church in Rome. The Philippian church had internal disputes and quarrels, but both the writer and the reader of this letter were in the midst of suffering. However, in Philippians Paul mentions words like “glorifying God,” “joy,” and “gladness” many times. This helps us understand where his hope and way of escape were during suffering. We are not to wage war according to the law; we are to engage in warfare by the gospel and to be witnesses for the gospel.

Paul began by saying, “It is my prayer that your love…” Paul did not think love and knowledge conflicted. Many brothers and sisters are inclined to anti-intellectualism. Some think we do not need knowledge, or that it is sufficient to rely on the Holy Spirit. Some say they do not need to commit themselves to the church, and can simply have personal devotions at home. Because of this lack of knowledge, they suffer considerable loss.

Let me give an example. A sister preacher in a charismatic church in eastern China was communicating with officials at the Bureau of Ethics and Religious Affairs. They proposed she should go study at a provincial seminary in order to supervise her. The sister was enthusiastic, but she had no discernment. She went to study, and eagerly invited her teachers and classmates to her home as her guests. The seminary discovered she had a small group meeting at her house; she was disciplined and had to withdraw from seminary. Because of this, she was then supervised more severely. Her church was repeatedly punished, and now it is difficult for the church to meet normally. This sister was enthusiastic and caring, but she lacked knowledge and insight. Her shortcomings led to loss in her pastoral care.

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“Brothers and sisters, we cannot stay on an academic level. We believe Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh; we believe in his death and resurrection. All of this occurred in the world. This is not just ethereal theory. Our faith enters into history.

It is necessary to be equipped intellectually to deal with these things. Knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit that can cultivate our faith. There is both true and false knowledge, and this requires discernment. Some churches despise knowledge. They speak of dreams and visions, yet they seldom take root in the Bible, and are rarely equipped with knowledge. As a result, when faced with such situations, there is a lot of confusion.

Discernment: To Give a Blameless Answer

The passage mentions not only knowledge, but also insight. This relates to experience; not just being a nerd, but being able to navigate society. Insight is honed, experienced, and refined by continuous reflection. We cannot simply remain in the ivory tower and acquire knowledge for the sake of knowledge. We have to progressively grow our insight at the knowledge level so we “may approve what is excellent.” Knowledge and insight exist to help us form judgments and values, so we are not bogged down in books. We are to “be pure and blameless,” to put faith in practice and live it out.

Some attorneys are inclined to hide in the ivory tower and not leave. This type of attorney is not willing to put his faith into practice; he is not willing to commit to a church; she is not willing to serve the church. This contributes to a great loss. When John Calvin was passing through Geneva, he was young and desired to live a reclusive life of academic work. But William Farel rebuked him and said, “If you do not stay after seeing such a great need, may God curse you.”

Brothers and sisters, we cannot stay on an academic level. We believe Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh; we believe in his death and resurrection. All of this occurred in the world. This is not just ethereal theory. Our faith enters into history.

You cannot say litigating church cases is secular because it occurs in history. Nor can you say that, since you do these things, you have a low social status. From the standpoint of faith, the truly noble are not those who live strictly contemplative lives. We are to be both pure and blameless. In the church, there is a great need for attorneys in the Lord. If you are burrowing into an ivory tower and seeking your own interests, how will you give an account to the Lord?  More than 3,000 churches are being raided each year – and this is only the ones that have been counted. There are so few attorneys in the Lord in this country, and the church is suffering a great loss. If we hide our light, who will mend the breach?

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“We are to have knowledge, but we do not stop there. We are to be honest, but we are also to have the wisdom to discern and respond. We need to be equipped with information, and also to manifest these things in a clearly defined life of faith occurring amid specific historical events.

Be pure, but also blameless. Yet many brothers and sisters, when confronted with an inquiry, tell everything. They think Christians should be honest and open. Since they have nothing to be ashamed of, they answer whatever is asked. For example: “Give us your bank statements.” “Who are your preachers?” “How do you pay them?” “How do they receive tithes?” “How is the tithe spent?”

These brothers and sisters do not consider whether the questions and the case are related; they do not discern whether the other party has the legal right to ask these questions; and they do not ponder the motives behind these questions. Consequently, many Christians are arrested because their confessions become evidence used to punish both them and other believers. We need discernment, because we must be both honest and blameless. This indeed is very difficult.

Practical Living to the Glory of God

The purpose of practical living is to be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” The fruit of righteousness glorifies God and benefits people. As Christians, we are to have knowledge, but we do not stop there. We are to be honest, but we are also to have the wisdom to discern and respond. We need to be equipped with information, and also to manifest these things in a clearly defined life of faith occurring amid specific historical events.

We give glory to God.


Gabriel (加百) is a pseudonym for a Chinese Christian who works as an attorney representing believers and churches facing legal challenges.

 

FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION

Pray for Chinese Christians to be filled with both knowledge and discernment, so their decisions in legal matters will be pure and blameless.

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With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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