With the Future in Mind: Reformed Theological Education in China

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In many ways, the Chinese house church continues to mystify many American Christians. To many people, China is a walking contradiction. Brent Fulton at ChinaSource got it right when he identified four common narratives Americans believe about the Chinese church. We are prone to think the Chinese church is either severely persecuted, desperately in need, launching major missionary endeavors, or so successfully impacting China that cultural triumph is inevitable. Each of these common narratives has a grain of truth in them, but none adequately communicate reality. Both “yes” and “no” are honest answers to most questions asked about China. One particular area of growing interest is the Chinese church’s development of theological education. Where once church recommendations and lay leadership were adequate, today the Chinese house church not only recognizes its leaders’ need for further academic training, but it also strongly desires to take its place in the long line of theological tradition. China’s house church believes it has a theological voice to offer the world and it is excited to develop Chinese theologians who can contribute to Christian theology’s millennia-long legacy.

At the same time, there is growing interest within the Western church to assist in this endeavor. Theological education in the rising global church is generally a hot topic among those missionally minded. Many display a true and humble desire to serve sister churches globally. Yet, the interest in theological education can also demonstrate an attitude of wanting to “fix” the non-Western church. Motivations in the West are mixed; many correctly fear growing heresy, while others simply want to ensure the West’s legacy lives on. Theological training is a tricky area to negotiate; it is both truly needed and requested by the rising global church, but also an easy route for the Western world to take in order to maintain influence over “mission fields.”

Because I hear increasing interest in the topic of theological education in the global church, and in China particularly, I believe it is important for Western churches to understand to their best ability what actually is already taking place. Amazing movements and projects are already underway and there is much to be clarified lest we fall into the trap of believing a few stunted narratives about their development and needs. Of course, the problem remains that information is so rarely available to the American public about the intimate details of the Chinese church. While we cannot go into the detail many would like here, we can share some recent developments among certain portions of the Chinese house church that the China Partnership knows well. Many exciting and promising things are taking place and we hope they will encourage you.

From China Partnership’s perspective, the push to develop theological training in China has picked up speed in recent years. At the same time, there has been increased interest in Reformed theology within a significantly growing subset of the house church. These churches are deeply committed to theological education and are working very hard to establish top-level programs in China. The China Partnership maintains relationship with a small coalition of house churches working to establish Reformed seminaries and denominations and the observations I make here come from those relationships.

These particular churches are deeply committed to being confessional, to maintaining certain key doctrines, and to holding each other accountable. They are keenly aware of the potential for liberal theology to infiltrate the house church and have determined to prioritize the need to form coalitions, denominations, and accrediting boards. They are committed to protecting and promoting the essential elements of the Christian faith within China and particularly note the need to hold each other accountable to the doctrines of grace and inerrancy. For their confessions, they have adopted the Westminster Standards, the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. They have also acknowledged the Gospel Coalition’s Foundational Documents, but have not given these documents binding power. In general, the education they envision for their pastors will emphasize teaching original texts, the classics, and practical matters.


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There is generally a spirit of cooperation among this collection of seminaries. They value sharing their resources and explicitly state a desire to avoid competition. They hope to complement one another, building each other up in the service of God’s kingdom in China. They hope that this cooperation will foster a new generation of Christian education in China and will enable them to develop teachers, adult education, and good digital materials.

Perhaps most excitingly, these Reformed house churches are striving for future generations. Their vision is to build up a community of educators not just for their own generation, but also for their children and grandchildren. The Reformed seminaries greatly desire to be leaders in Christian education so that fifteen years from now, there will be children who have received a Christian education from their youth. They desire to instill in their children the spiritual heritage of the Chinese church and believe its traditions are important to “…persevere, develop, organize, reflect, inherit… and respond to needs of the contemporary situation.” Though the West is in many ways involved in the development of theological education in China, the China Partnership has observed an admirable desire among this particular group of churches to inherit and develop a distinct Chinese tradition within the historic Reformed faith.

In addition to planning for future generations of the Chinese church, this group of house churches and seminaries are also committed to engaging the global church. They are keenly focused on enabling students to stay in China for theological study. They are concerned about the effects of sending students to America for their education and the resulting struggles these students face in adapting back to the Chinese context. However, they also greatly desire for their students and pastors to stay connected to the global church and hope to enable all of their students to spend one semester abroad, particularly in America, so that they might form connections with the church worldwide.

All in all, these churches and seminaries not only want to bless China’s church with “…prophetic preaching and priestly pastoring,” but they also want to bless the world’s churches. Within China, they hope to combat the trend of pastoral ministry being just another job among many. Beyond China’s borders, these churches want to lend their voice to the international dialogue of God’s people. China’s churches have endured much and they have incubated a deep and poignant theology on suffering in the Christian life. Now they desire to share it with their brothers and sisters and in order to do so, they have started prioritizing the translation of their writings into English. As one of their founding documents states, they plan to “…publish books that interpret and commentate on Scripture, to look back on the history of the church in China, to analyze the current situation and to make prospective [sic] on the future.”

In the end, a significant difference between theological education in the United States and that envisioned by these Reformed house churches is that the Chinese seminaries intend to establish themselves as gatekeepers to the church. Spiritual formation is and will be the primary focus of a seminary education in China. The participation of the church in pastoral training is a primary value and they intend to continue to promote a close symbiotic relationship between the church and seminary. Chinese seminaries are responsible not only for the academic excellence of their students, but also for the development of their faith and character. They desire greatly to ensure the maturity, not just the academic excellence, of those put forward for leadership and view this as integral to their identity as the Chinese house church.

At the heart of it all, though, these Chinese Reformed churches are deeply committed to the gospel of grace. If there is anything to take away in understanding this subset of the Chinese house church, it is that this group is working hard to defend and promote what it believes to be the most essential aspect of Christian life. In a short devotion given to a group of seminary leaders, one pastor read Ezekiel 44:1-5:

“Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east. And it was shut. And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince may sit in it to eat bread before the Lord. He shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.’ Then he brought me by way of the north gate to the front of the temple, and I looked, and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord. And I fell on my face. And the Lord said to me, ‘Son of man, mark well, see with your eyes, and hear with your ears all that I shall tell you concerning all the statutes of the temple of the Lord and all its laws. And mark well the entrance to the temple and all the exits from the sanctuary.’”

After finishing, the pastor remarked, “The church and the seminary are God’s temple, and Christ Jesus the door.” It is only through Jesus and his grace that access is gained to God’s presence and that is something our sisters and brothers in the Reformed churches of China hope above all to instill in China’s future generations.

 

Hannah Nation serves as the blog editor for the China Partnership. She is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works full-time on staff with China Outreach Ministries, serving students in the Boston metro area. She first traveled to China in 2005 and has cared deeply for the country and its church ever since.

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The Internal Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

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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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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