Farmers Resting

Christianity in China

I Stand With Christ

I Stand With Christ: The Courageous Life of a Chinese Christian. Zhang Rongliang, with Eugene Bach. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2015.

T
he former leader of one of the five largest house church networks in China has penned a story that gripped and moved me greatly. Endorsed by prominent Chinese Christians who know the author, this fast-paced narrative covers the decades from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), rapid church growth and persistent persecution in the 1980s and 1990s, consolidation and further expansion in the slightly more relaxed conditions of the late 1990s and early 2000s, to the continued outreach, even to foreign countries, along with government pressure, of recent years.

Zhang does not just give us his personal testimony. As he says, he represents thousands of Chinese Christians who risked everything, and suffered terribly, for the sake of the spread of the gospel. That is why one endorser said that reading this book will give you “details from the last forty years of history in China’s church.”

Born into a poor farmer’s family, Zhang “ate bitterness” from his earliest days – if, that is, there was anything at all to eat during the great famine caused by the ill-conceived “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961). Hard work on an empty stomach inured him to hardship and forged a steely character that strengthened him for incessant labors as an evangelist and pastor, as well as almost unimaginable suffering.

In 1961, when the boy was about twelve, “Grandfather Sun,” who was his grandfather’s brother, explained the gospel of salvation from sin through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, as foretold in Isaiah 53. Then he gave Zhang a Bible and urged him to guard it with his life, for, indeed, “this book is a heavenly book. It is your treasure in this life . . . Consider it more precious than your own life.” Touched deeply by the old man’s earnest words, Zhang gave his life to Christ.

Zhang witnessed Grandfather Sun suffer and die for his faith not long afterwards, so he knew the risks of following Christ and preaching the gospel, but he had committed himself. Despite the threat of public disgrace, beatings, imprisonment, and even death, he began to communicate the Christian message in his own village and then in nearby villages. Through a bizarre misunderstanding, he was asked to join a Communist gang, and then the Communist Party. In his youthful ignorance and zeal, he saw no conflict between Christianity and the revolution led by Mao Zedong, but soon faced a choice between the Party and Christ.

“I stand with Christ,” he responded, thus plunging himself into a ceaseless round of jail terms, torture, continued preaching when he had the slightest opportunity, followed by even worse suffering. Zhang was only a man, and came close to giving up several times. The reader appreciates his candor, and marvels that the barbaric treatment he received didn’t kill him. Each time, however, God “showed up” in a way that reminded Zhang that Jesus would never fail him nor forsake him. When his strength returned, he would be at it again, knowing that horrible, excruciating pain would soon test his faith to the uttermost.

Meanwhile, the gospel was spreading like wildfire, not only in Fangcheng County, where he presided over an ever-widening network of house churches, but in nearby counties and throughout the province of Henan. From there, evangelists fanned out to other parts of China, where God was preparing millions of people to receive the gospel and identify themselves as Christians. Braving brutal persecution, young evangelists conveyed the core gospel of reconciliation with God through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, the now-risen Savior of all who trust in him. They prayed for, and saw miracles of all sorts, especially healing, but also amazing incidents of provision for their needs and protection in times of danger. Transformed lives attracted family and others to the faith.

Bibles were scarce and highly prized. Zhang followed the exhortation of Grandfather Sun to treasure the Word of God as his very life, poring over its pages day and night and instructing others to do the same. Lacking other Christian books, he became a man of one Book, the words of which instructed, guided, comforted, and motivated him to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, regardless of the cost.

In time, Zhang met the leaders of the other networks and began to admire them. He learned, too, from older preachers whom he met in prison or in brief encounters outside. In 1996, Zhang and leaders of the four other largest networks formed the short-lived Sinim Fellowship. Their shared experiences of conversion, preaching the gospel, and suffering for Christ overcame substantial differences in practice and even beliefs among them. Later, several leaders issued a Confession of Faith that set the boundaries of orthodox Christian doctrine, united disparate groups under one common set of beliefs, and testified to the government that they were not a heretical “evil cult.”

A loosely connected movement re-kindled the earlier “Back to Jerusalem” vision that had sent a few Chinese Christians to the western regions of China as a staging-point for taking the Christian gospel through Central and South Asia all the way back to its place of origin. In recent years, a formal Back to Jerusalem organization, based in the United States and the United Kingdom, has emerged. Both Zhang and Brother Yun, the “Heavenly Man,” now have ties to this organization, which published Zhang’s book.

They have not neglected the vast unevangelized areas of China, however. As the largest human migration in history has taken hundreds of millions of rural Chinese into cities, the house church networks have intentionally planted churches among urban migrants.

Conditions in China relaxed under the “Opening and Reform” programs of Deng Xiaoping (after 1978) and his successors, creating openings to receive foreign visitors like Dennis Balcombe, a missionary based in Hong Kong. Under an alias, Zhang was able to procure passport that allowed him to make eleven trips to other countries, including the United States and England, where he was able to express his gratitude for the sacrifices made by the early missionaries to China. He thrilled audiences with stories of the rapid increase of the number of Christians in China and the miracles they had witnessed.

Not everything went well, however. Zhang’s “imperial” style of leadership provoked resentment and finally rebellion, leading to a split in his church. Deeply hurt, he acknowledged his faults, and came to see this split as God’s way of multiplying the number of new churches.

The law finally caught up with him, and he spent another seven years in prison. This time, however, there was plenty of food, the guards refrained from torture, and the sick received medical treatment. As before, the prison became a hothouse for the conversion and spiritual growth of even more people. When he regained his freedom, Zhang found that his church had flourished in his absence. Though he enjoys friendly relations with the local police, he remains under surveillance and wonders what will happen to him if they ever obtain a Chinese copy of his story.

Evaluation

The “Simple Gospel” Applies to Chinese

The first thing that strikes me is how Zhang’s story completely refutes the increasingly popular theory that, since the Chinese “have no concept of sin,” we must alter our message to them. (For reviews of two books advocating different versions of this approach, see Saving God's Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame and Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment.

In stark contrast, Zhang’s conversion, the message that he and others like him have preached, and the response of millions of Chinese, demonstrate that the “old, old story” of salvation from sin through faith in the atoning death of Jesus continues to draw Chinese to Christ. The same is true, by the way, of China’s urban Christians.

Power Corrupts

As his influence grew and more and more people responded to his preaching, Zhang, like most Chinese church leaders, followed the only model of leadership he knew – the “imperial style” that Chinese had seen in their homes and in society for millennia. Predictably, this concentration of power in one man leads to resentment, rivalry, and even rebellion, as happened with Zhang.

Money Does, Too

Reliable Chinese Christians have accused Zhang of telling one story to audiences overseas and another story to people in China. They attribute this to the influence of his foreign “handlers” in the Back to Jerusalem organization, and to Zhang’s ignorance of the ways of Western “Christian marketing.” Brother Yun, the “heavenly man,” has come under criticism as well.

Only God knows the truth of the mater, and no one is saying that either Zhang or Yun has personally profited from their public speaking or the publication of their books by the Back to Jerusalem organization, despite allegations of lack of transparency and accountability in the use of funds by their Western sponsors. Perhaps all that has changed in response to such criticisms. One hopes so.

Greatness Through Suffering

Zhang frankly admits that he has made mistakes. Who has not? From his narrative, however, several things emerge with compelling force:

Persecution and suffering refine, strengthen, and enable Christians to bear witness to Jesus Christ and to draw others to believe the gospel.

The Christian church can grow despite massive opposition from the government. As China begins to impose another round of restrictions on religious expression by Christians outside the “official” church, we do not have to worry that the Word of God will cease to spread.

Zhang and his fellow believers have experienced God’s presence, power, provision, and protection in ways that most Western Christians have not. Despite our greater access to resources in theology, biblical studies, and church history, our multi-million-dollar buildings, and our slick promotional programs, Western Christian leaders would do well to sit at the feet of people like Zhang as humble pupils in the school of Christ.

This book has “the ring of truth.” When I finished my second reading of it, I burst into tears. I recommend it as a valuable resource for understanding the recent history of Protestant Christianity in China.

For a brief biography of Zhang Rongliang based on this book, go to http://www.reachingchineseworldwide.org/blog/2017/12/28/zhang-rongliangs-stand-with-christ