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Christianity in China

Chinese Christian Unity, Indigenization, and the Role(s) of the Missionary

Journal review of International Bulletin of Missionary Research. Vol. 36, No. 1, January 2012.

F
or years, I have found the IBMR enormously valuable as a resource for the latest and best scholarship on the history of missions and world Christianity, but this issue holds particular value for all those who seek to understand the church in China today. No fewer than six major articles, including the lead editorial, deal with the history of Christianity in China, with pointed references to the situation today.

“If the quest of the church is for unity in Christ, the on-the-ground reality has been kaleidoscopic fragmentation. And the kaleidoscope is spinning with increasing speed,” observes Dwight Baker in his editorial, “Unity, Comity, and the Numbers Game.” What is true worldwide applies to the Chinese scene as well, despite obvious peculiarities of the situation there.

He asks rhetorically, “Who has measured the level of redundancy, competition, ill-coordination of efforts, and striving to establish organizational identity or ‘brand’ that this level of multiplication entails?”

To be sure, organizational diversity reflects the vast variety of gifts, abilities, and interests within the Body of Christ, so “diversity and fragmentation” may not be precise synonyms, but we must admit that “the ways these tensions have played out in mission practice and in the wider Christian movement have frequently been less than edifying.” Several articles in this issue demonstrate that “the planting of the Protestant church in China provides an excellent case in point.”

“Comity Agreements and Sheep Stealers: The Elusive Search for Christian Unity Among Protestants in China,” by Gary Tiedemann, very helpfully traces the competing trajectories of movements towards unity and the dynamics of diversity from the mid-1800s to the present. He notes the efforts of mainline mission societies to cooperate in various large ventures, such as education and medical work; the role of the Student Volunteer Movement; and the integrating effects of a shared “evangelical” theology, joint missionary conferences in Shanghai, and the regular publication of the Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal.

The pace quickened after the electrifying speech of Cheng Jingyi at the Edinburgh conference in 1910, leading eventually to the formation of the China Continuation Committee, then the convening of a National Conference in 1922, the formation of the national Christian Council of China (NCC) and finally the creation of the national Church of Christ in China in 1927.

On the other hand, fragmentation also increased, driven by denominational determination to remain separate, the “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy beginning in the 1920s, the entrance of faith missions and holiness movements into China, the rise of independent Chinese leaders and churches, and the influx of a host of independent and “radical” missionaries from the West. Tiedemann very usefully describes these and the roles they played in organizational diversity, concluding that “despite the best efforts of the authorities in the People’s Republic of China to create one unified postdenominational faith, deep divisions persist to this day within indigenous Protestant Christianity.”

With this historical background, we can briefly discuss the other excellent articles in this issue of IBMR, beginning with Gloria Tseng’s lucid and illuminating portrait of the conflicting historiographical challenge posed by differing accounts and assessments of 20th-century Chinese Christianity in “Botany or Flowers? The Challenges of Writing the History of the Indigenization of Christianity in China.” Both the division of Protestants into government-sanctioned churches and unregistered (or “house” churches) and varying theological and ecclesiological assumptions make composing a balanced narrative quite difficult (though she has the courage to be undertaking such a project at this time!).

Tseng notes that “the history of the indigenization of Christianity in China in the twentieth century has three currents: (1) the ecclesiastical development of the Church of Christ in China, . . . (2) the emergence of Chinese Christian intellectuals associated with missionary colleges and universities, . . . and (3) the emergence of independent preachers and their mass followings.” The first two of these share both a similar cast of actors and a similar cohort of supporters among historians; the last group has evoked quite a different set of responses, both within China and among outside historians.

Three examples are given: Wallace Merwin’s “sanguine assessment” of “the ecclesiastical development of the Church of Christ in China and the role Cheng Jingyi played; Samuel Ling’s critique of the Chinese Christian intellectuals involved in the May Fourth Movement; and Lian Xi’s study of popular Christian movements. Ling and Lian believe that the “liberal” unification project, which was closely tied to political involvement, did not succeed in fostering true indigenization; Lian believes that popular Christianity has assimilated too much from popular Chinese religion.

If we are properly to understand the current situation, we must acknowledge both the historical and theological conflicts which have led to it, Tseng concludes.

Narrowing the focus to one leading figure, Peter Tze Ming Ng portrays Cheng Jingyi as a “Prophet of His time.” Like the previous contributors, however, Ng puts his portrait of Cheng on the wide canvas of the indigenous movements from 1900 to 1949 and the overall quest for indigenous Christianity. He shows why Cheng was such an influential person in the whole process, and why he deserves great respect as someone who saw the issues facing the Chinese church, issues which remain unsolved to this day.

Turning our attention back to the beginnings of Roman Catholic missionary work in China, Jean-Paul Wiest succinctly presents Matteo Ricci as the “Pioneer of Chinese-Western Dialogue and Cultural Exchanges.” After describing Ricci’s education, training, and remarkable personal abilities, the author reminds us of Ricci’s “respect for the diversity of Culture”; his “promotion of mutual understanding”; and his status as a “pioneer of dialogue” between well-meaning Chinese and Western interlocutors.

Of particular relevance for us today are Ricci’s commitment to learning Chinese language and culture; his cultivation of deep friendships with Chinese scholars; and his immense labors to connect with Chinese culture in communicating his understanding of the gospel.

Jessie Lutz returns to the vicissitudes of the Protestant missionary endeavor in her article on “Attrition Among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1807-1890.” Drawing upon a wealth of sources, she uncovers the principal reasons for removal from service (death and disease) and delineates the different experiences of men and women on the mission field. Men lived longer and stayed longer, especially in the early decades. Women died earlier, or left when their husbands died. Illness and death among children produced profound sorrow and discouragement, testing the faith of the best of them. Until medical and scientific knowledge uncovered the connections between sanitation and health, all too many succumbed to diseases such as dysentery, or suffered all their lives. When converts were few and opposition was intense, missionaries struggled with despondency– again, especially in the first period.

In short, “Mission work in China remained a costly and risky career.”

Finally, Australian scholar Ian Welch recovers the highly-relevant life of Lydia Mary Fay, missionary with the Episcopal Church Mission in China. Her career illustrates the trials and triumphs of hundreds of intrepid women missionaries to China. Though Fay walked a “path of lowliness and lowliness of service,” she persevered, refusing to become one of the statistics cited in Jessie Lutz’s article on missionary attrition.

As teacher and administrator in missionary schools, she evinced dedication and devotion, expressed through hard work over many decades. She expended the time and toil to learn the Chinese language so well that she evoked the admiration and trust of Chinese readers and editors. Above all, her character gave everyone an example of selfless service as well as patience under affliction, including lack of proper recognition by her male superiors in the mission.

Evaluation

In addition to the broad survey of modern Chinese history contained in these essays, we are provided with three examples of superb Christian living and serving, reminding us that long-term usefulness requires hard work, courage, perseverance, and a host of other rare character qualities. I consider it a privilege to read about such heroic people.

Furthermore, the problems of unity and indigenization remain acute today. Though control of Chinese Christianity is in the hands of Chinese, and is thus in one sense “indigenized,” the complex task of allowing the gospel to take root in Chinese culture remains a daunting challenge. Ricci’s program was controversial in his own time, and remains so today, but regardless of whether we adopt his strategy of accommodation, we must learn from his example.

These articles come from some of the most outstanding scholars working today. Their research and writing deserve our highest respect and close attention. Just to list their major publications would take too much space; I refer you to the journal itself. We are all indebted to their many years of tiring and diligent labor in libraries around the world, and to their carefully-crafted, succinct, and yet comprehensive essays.

I strongly recommend that you peruse this number of the IBMR, which is available without charge online at www.internationalbulletin.org/register.

Having said that, in the interests of clarity and accuracy I presume to make the following comments:

Two of the authors cite Alvyn Austin’s China’s Millions: The China Inland Mission and late Qing Society, 1832-1905, which, as I have tried to show elsewhere in these pages, is often highly inaccurate and unreliable. In particular, the claim that “the CIM adopted an ‘extensive’ rather than an ‘intensive’ missionary strategy” has been convincingly challenged. Dr. Tiedemann’s frequently-used adjective “radical” also needs further definition to be helpful.

Secondly, it seems to me that the essays on Christian unity pre-suppose a definition of “church” which may not be warranted by biblical usage. I realize that this is an extremely controverted subject, but believe that we need to re-think our assumptions about the precise form(s) which Christian unity should take. Though visible unity of some sort is clearly commanded for both individual congregations and among Christians in any locale, any wider use of the term “church” must be carefully scrutinized, for most biblical scholars, and many theologians, would deny its application to a national organization or worldwide denomination.

Perhaps the search for Christian unity needs to be directed towards the congregation and the city rather than a larger organization, not only because of the biblical evidence, but also for a more practical reasons: Larger networks necessarily provoke government intervention, either in the form of state sponsorship and potential control (TSPM, CPA), or opposition and possible persecution (unregistered or “underground”) churches. There is also the historical reality of almost inevitable abuse, even corruption, when power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few people.

Those remarks aside, however, I believe that all serious students of Chinese Christian history should make it a priority to read these outstanding essays, all of which possess relevance for our understanding of today’s situation.

G. Wright Doyle