The Forbidden City, Beijing

Christianity in China

Global Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity - Part One

Global Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, edited by Fenggang Yang, Joy K.C. Tong, Allan H. Anderson. Volume 22 in Global and Pentecostal Studies, edited by William K. Kay and Mark Cartledge. Boston, MA: Brill, 2017. Paper. 373 pages, including index. ISBN9789004336896.

his fine collection of essays grew out of a symposium organized by the editors titled “Global ReOrient: Chinese Pentecostal/Charismatic Movements in the Global East,” held November 1-3, 2013, at Purdue University. Most of the chapters were presented at papers though some have been added.

At the outset, I should say that Global Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity breaks new ground in our understanding of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity among Chinese around the world. It also provides valuable information and insight about large elements of Chinese Christianity that are not, strictly speaking, “Pentecostal” or even “Charismatic.” On the whole, these chapters give a pretty good overview of much Chinese Protestantism, though its focus on P/CC means that one must turn to other books, such as Surviving the State, Remaking the Church, by Li Ma and Jin Li, and China’s Urban Christians, by Brent Fulton, for fuller treatments of the new urban churches.

Pentecostals and Charismatics among Chinese Christians: An Introduction.

Noting the dramatic rise in conversions to Christianity in China since 1950, as well as the huge growth in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity around the world, the editors say that they intend to study”Pentecostals and charismatics in global China, which includes not only China proper but also Chinese societies and diasporas around the glove that are closely connected in interwoven networks. We examine various cases in diverse localities in historical, contemporary, social, political, cultural, and religious contests.”1

Difficulties hinder accurate research. One of them is just how to define the terms “Pentecostal” and “charismatic,” since both English and Chinese terms are imprecise and fluid. “As a working definition, ‘Pentecostalism’ may be considered to include churches and movements which, despite significant differences, share a family resemblance in that ll emphasize the miraculous working of the Spirit through the practice of spiritual gifts, especially healing and speaking in tongues.” 4

I disagree with that definition since Pentecostal theology believes that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a distinct work of grace, different from and subsequent to, regeneration (conversion, being born again, etc.), with speaking in tongues as its sign. The other characteristics they name are common to both Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity.

The book tries to describe the varieties and complexities of Chinese P/CC and trace its distinctiveness within Global P/CC. Chinese P/CC has “a distinctly Chinese form that confronts sickness, misfortune, and evil spirits, and lives constantly in expectation of the miraculous. In doing so, Chinese Christianity has largely rejected the modernizing Social Gospel . . . that was the legacy of many Western missionaries . . .” On the other hand, in Wenzhou, “the so-called ‘boss Christians’ with their emphasis on God’s blessing resulting in economic success are reminiscent of the prosperity gospel present in Pentecostalism in other parts of the world.” 5

Only some Chinese Christians would identify themselves as Pentecostals. They prefer the term, ling’en pai, of the spiritual gifts movement. Even here, however, some could be called “heavy” ling-en, “which means placing some of the Spirit-gifts at the center of their belief and practice”; these can be called charismatics. Others are “light” ling-en, which means “occasionally having some of the Spirit-gifts.” 6

“The light ling’en is very common among Chinese Christians, in such forms as occasional miraculous healing, occasional glossolalia, or occasional Spirit-moved crying in thanksgiving or repentance, or occasional revelation in dreams or through some other signs.” 6 There are some Pentecostals, like the congregations associated with the Assemblies of God denomination founded in the United States, and the True Jesus Church.

Importantly, however, if we just Chinese terminology, many contemporary congregations re ‘charismatic’( i.e., associated with heavy ling’en), not ‘Pentecostal,” and these charismatics do not appear to be the majority of Chinese Christians.” 7

Some of the influential leaders who did not join the official church after the Communist revolution were opposed to the charismatic movement, and their position still carries weight. “In addition, many Chinese Christian intellectuals, especially those in seminaries and divinity schools, have some inclination toward Confucian sentiments that favor order, rules, rationality, and sobriety. For them, Pentecostal or charismatic practices appear to be chaotic and hard to control. .” 8

Outside of China proper, some revivalists like Yuan Zhiming and Zhang Boli are open to charismatic practices, while the magazine Life Quarterly, edited near Chicago but distributed widely in China, maintains a fundamentalist, anti-Pentecostal and anti-charismatic sentiment.” Here the authors rightly say that the late Jonathan Chao tried to attract Chinese Christians to the Reformed tradition, but wrongly say that he was anti-charismatic.

Their conclusion: “Overall, . . . we may say, tentatively, there are are a few Pentecostals, a few more charismatics (but not necessarily a majority of Chinese Christians) and a growing number of Christians who do not reject certain charismatic practices.” 10

Since the Introduction contains the major questions and findings of the research presented in this book, our survey of the other chapters will be less detailed.

Chapter 1. Contextualizing the Contemporary Pentecostal Movement in China, Donald E. Miller.

“Pentecostalism is not growing in China in the same exponential way that it is exploding in many parts of the global south, and especially Africa. There are house-church movements that are Pentecostal, and, more recently, individual house churches have been influenced by Pentecostals from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and elsewhere . . . [T]here are house churches that affirm some elements of the Pentecostal tradition, such as healing and, on occasions, speaking in tongues and deliverance from demons, but they are not overtly Pentecostal in other ways.” 18

There follows an excellent section of “observations Regarding the House-Church Movement.” All are growing except the rural congregations, who have lost members who migrated to the cities. On his visits to China, Miller was surprized by “the negative attitude toward Pentecostals . . . among many urban house church-leaders.” 20 He estimates that the number of Pentecostal house-church members may be “no more than 10 percent in Shanghai and Beijing. Especially among educated professionals, Pentecostals are viewed as emotion and too noisy in their worship, and therefore give a bad name to Christianity.” 20 They also believe that much P/C C has the flavor of shamanistic folk religion.

In the cities, people are looking for personal peace amidst massive social change and psychological pressure. Belonging to a close-knit Christian community helps to meet this need. Conversions and new ideas also come from students who professed faith while in the West, “but 90 percent fall away from this commitment when they return home.” 21 One reason may be that they encounter more traditional worship in Chinese churches than in the West. Church splits seem to involve generational differences, with younger people preferring a livelier form of worship sometimes characterized by charismatic congregations.

His conclusion is that “What is happening in house churches in the major cities of China is new, but it does not seem to be particularly Pentecostal, nor is it being stimulated by outside missionaries to any great degree.” 31 Western labels do not necessarily apply to China, where the situation is fluid and complex, and many congregations feature some things associated with PC/C but without the same emphases.

Chapter 2. Chinese Ecstatic Millenarian Folk Religion with Pentecostal Christian Characteristics?, Daniel H. Bays.

Bays surveys the history of P/C C in China since its first introduction by Western missionaries in the early 20th century. He finds that these movements have always been a mixture of Western P/CC and local traditions, including millenarianism. This mix often results in splits, the formation of new groups, and the disruption of existing church and even social structures, as some groups combine religious fervor with an intense expectation of the coming of the end. Naturally, governments fear such ideas, since they have in the past led to rebellions like the Taiping rebellion in the 19th century.

The combination of Western Christian ideas and practices with local Chinese religious traditions and habits has resulted in a new form of P/CC, one that is hard to define with Western labels.

Chapter 3. Pentecostalism Comes to China: Laying the Foundations for a Chinese Version of Christianity, J. Gordon Melton

The first Pentecostal missionaries to China were Thomas j. McIntosh and the Rev. Alfred G. Garr with his wife, Lillian.Like other Pentecostal missionaries, they taught a three-stage view of Christian life: “salvation,” that is, believing in Christ; sanctification; and the baptism with the Spirit, an empowering for service. Several of them believed that when they received that “baptism with the Holy Spirit,” God had given them supernatural ability to speak in foreign tongues, including Chinese. They went to China on their own initiative, not being sent by an organized denomination.

When they arrived in China, they discovered that, in fact, they could not understand or speak the language, and came to believe that speaking in an unknown tongue was primarily for their own spiritual edification. They also discovered that most – though not all – Western missionaries were not receptive to their new teaching.

Very importantly, however, they did find a warm reception among Chinese Christians, whom they then empowered to lead local churches. Thus, Pentecostal Christianity in China became an indigenous, Chinese-led movement.

Pentecostal missionaries began arriving in force, so that by “1912, Pentecostalism in all parts of China,” despite opposition from traditional missionaries and their societies,“ partly because the “Pentecostal message split the missionary team.” 52 By 1914, all the Pentecostals were totally cut off and isolated from the mainstream of Chinese Protestantism.” 53

Within the movement splits soon occurred. Perhaps most significant for China was the Oneness Movement, which focused on Jesus alone as God. Through the influence of Norwegian Bernt Berntsen, this became the guiding theology of the True Jesus Church, founded by Wei Enbo and Zhang Lingsheng. The TJC “would become the cutting edge of the Pentecostal movement over the next generation and go on to become the largest Chinese Pentecostal church, indeed one of the three largest Christian bodies, in the whole of China, and take the lead in spreading through the Chinese diaspora I Southeast Asia and beyond. In the process, it would establish both a singularly unique version of Pentecostalism and a textbook example of what would come to be identified in China as a ‘Three-Self Church,’ a Chinese-led ecclesiastical body that was truly self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.” 60

Chapter 4. Elitism and Poverty: Early Pentecostalism in Hong Kong (1907-1945)

Typically, in the early years of its development in the West, professional elites did not respond as warmly to Pentecostalism as those in the lower socio-economic strata. As a result, a gap typically existed between the majority of Pentecostals and the elites in their society.

In Hong Kong, however, “a group of elites who were members of a Congregational church founded by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (BABCFM). They left their wealthy church, where their fervent faith in revivalism was unacceptable, and started the Pentecostal Mission . . . among the downtrodden in the city, provided education for women, fought for tenants oppressed by high rents, and launched missions in remote villages. They also published a Chinese Pentecostal newspaper, Pentecostal Truth . . . Although the church was founded by the elites, it was for the poor and of the poor.” 63

This chapter tells the exciting story of that unique expression of Chinese Pentecostalism.

A Chinese Pentecostal Denomination: The True Jesus Church

Chapter 5. Charismatic Crossings: The Transnational, Transdenominational Friendship of Bernt Berntsen and Wei Enbo.

“The closeness between Berntsen and Wei in their personal relationship and in their churches is telling because it reveals the transnational exchange that played a key role in the development of Christianity in China in the early twentieth century. . . Wei’s True Jesus Church was both authentically Chinese and authentically Pentecostal, a direct descendant of Berntsen’s congregation and of the Los Angeles revival” that helped to birth the worldwide Pentecostal movement. 92

At their first encounter, Berntsen washed Wei’s feet in a gesture of humble Christian solidarity. Their families became good friends, the two men engaged in a business partnership, and their two churches in Beijing engaged in healing and other ministries together. Their intimate friendship surpassed most of the relationships between Western missionaries and Chinese in depth and reciprocity.

They had major theological and policy disagreements: Wei refused to repay a loan Berntsen had given him and they split over the issue of baptism but they remained friends. Equally important was their agreement on major points of theology and practice, including baptism by immersion, foot-washing, and rites in the name of Jesus only.

The TJC developed some distinctive beliefs, however, including the conviction that the Western churches were in error and, in fact, not “true” churches at all.

What held Berntsen and Wei together was their zeal for the gospel and their hunger for direct experiences with God through visions, signs, and wonders.

Chapter 6. Taming the Spirit by Appropriating Indigenous Culture: An Ethnographic Study of the True Jesus Christ as Confucian-Style Pentecostalism, by Ke-hsien Huang

Pentecostalism emphasizes “the free agency of individual believers.” This creates a problem in Chinese society: “How can the maintenance of religious order be tackled in a religion like Pentecostalism?” 119

The author’s answer is that “local culture . . . can be utilized to tame the otherwise freewheeling Spirit among the laity and consolidate leadership.” Specifically, typical Pentecostal “performances” have been toned-down and “downplayed in three ways: (1) worship services have been shaped as a Confucian-style educational venue with an emphasis on silence and order; (2) the base of religious legitimacy has shifted from God-given spiritual capability to the literati-style ability to memorize canons; and (3) spiritual practices are deliberately assigned to female partners along with moral teachings.” 119
“Pentecostalism is characterized by its ability to adapt to local cultures. The appropriation of spiritual cosmologies and ritual practices from indigenous culture can be seen in many Pentecostal faiths” around the world. 119 The True Jesus Church (TJC) offers a prime example of this feature of Pentecostalism in China.

Since Confucianism, with its emphasis upon ethics and civility, is still central to Chinese culture, “every religious group that hopes to be accepted by Chinese society accommodates itself to Confucianism in one way or another. Christianity is no exception.” 121 This stunning statement should give everyone pause: How much of Chinese Christianity is “Christian”?

In the TJC, worship services are adapted to Confucianism by (1) the segregation of different social groups,” including men and women; (2) the presentation and interpretation of classic text,” with sermons being filled with quotations from the Bible; “(3) pedagogy; and (4) an emphasis on self-control.” Even speaking in tongues “is repetitive and not high-pitched, and has a more or less uniform style.” 127
Leadership legitimacy rests upon both spiritual gifts and the mastery or classic texts, especially the Bible but also standard TJC documents by the founder, Isaac Wei. Women play a prominent role, both in teaching and ministering to other women and in prayer for healing.

In sum, Confucianism has re-shaped traditional Pentecostal practices to make this faith acceptable to Chinese.

Chapter 7. Glossalia and Church Identity: The Role of Sound in the Making of a Chinese Pentecostal-Charismatic Church, by Yen-zen Tsai

Despite all the variations among Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, “glossolalia or speaking in tongues [is] the trait most widely shared by these groups. It is a powerful experience that almost all charismatic Christians have recognized, and the defining feature that has congregated them into a group called Pentecostals” –or, one might add, charismatics. 139

This practice is not just an individual matter, but “a public discourse that concerns a church community.” 140 “On the communal level, this ‘expected and normative’ ritual ‘helps to unite [worshipers] emotionally and spiritually.’” Through this practice, “the members of the . . . church obtain a ‘sense of unity with God, which in turn contributes to action that sustains and nurtures community life.” 141

In the TJC, speaking in tongues is an indispensable sign that one has received the baptism with the Holy Spirit and is, therefore “saved.” “When – and when only – one speaks in tongues, one becomes a true member in and of the True Church.” 145 For many, receiving this gift marked the beginning of a new life with God and the start of the transformation of character.

This one phenomenon stands at the center of TJC teaching and practice.

To be continued