Christianity and China's Moral Crisis

Christianity and Moral Construction in Modern China

About forty scholars gathered from all over China to attend an important Conference on “Christianity and Moral Construction in Modern China,” November 7-9 at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing, co-sponsored by the Christian China Research Center in Los Angeles, led by Dr. Daniel Liling Li, and the Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Religious Theory, Renmin (People’s) University of China. Dr. Wei De-dong, Director of the Institute, informed us that they hold a class annually for leaders of all religions. Furthermore, there are more than fifty faculty teaching religion at Renmin University.

Three Major Addresses

Professor He Guanghu gave the opening address, setting the tone for the entire conference by graphically describing the deplorable state of Chinese society, calling it a "heart disease" that requires nothing less than a "new heart" and a "blood transfusion" that can bring new life to Chinese people. "We have too many selfish people. Our hearts are bad. So we can’t change society to make it strong. We need new heart, a new person, a new society. Heart disease needs religious treatment." His talk was divided into three parts:

  1. China’s moral situation

  2. Medicine for the illness

  3. Power of religion

China’s Moral Situation

Modernization started with opium war. In the late Qing, James Hudson Taylor and other missionaries poured out their lives for China. In the twentieth century, there was a moral revolution. The New Life movement tried, but did not succeed; New Confucianism wants to absorb the good parts of Christianity.

Later in the twentieth century, the government sought to destroy religion. Now our society is built on lies, leading to stealing, which produces moral degradation. The Cultural Revolution was a disaster, for it destroyed men’s hearts.

Twentieth-century society is a moral cesspit. Countless examples prove this point. The disease is like cancer like; it grows and grows, one person by one person.

Medicine: Christianity

Christianity can infuse a new energy into society. The Roman Empire also had moral cancer, because of bad religions. Christianity came and changed individuals and then the whole society, saving the civilization for another 500 years. In fact, it created a new civilization, which led to Christian culture, western culture, starting in the eighth century.

We hope that China will have a new culture, continue our ancient culture. Christianity might be able to give it more life.

Why? Christianity speaks of love, like other religions; but it has a foundation, a greater goal. It is based on faith in a transcendent God. This is our highest desire. Christianity can save individuals, giving them a new heart and life. It brings a “blood transfusion” into the soul.

Wright Doyle delivered the keynote address on the theme of the conference, “Christianity and China’s Moral Reconstruction.” This paper was intended as an overview of:

  1. China’s current moral morass

  2. Qualities which any religion must possess in order to make a positive contribution to this crisis

  3. The ways in which Christianity meets these qualifications

China’s Moral Crisis

Everyone agrees that China now faces a dire ethical and moral crisis. On the one hand, there are no generally accepted ethical standards for conduct; on the other, the moral conduct of most of the population has plunged to new depths of depravity. The Cultural Revolution, Opening and Reform, modernization, industrialization, urbanization, and globalization have contributed to this breakdown.

Selfishness rules; relationships are breaking down; corruption is endemic; the social fabric is unraveling; and there is little sense of God.

What Any Religion Must Have to Make a Difference

To offer any substantial aid, a religion must: Have clear and authoritative ethical standards, expressed clearly in an accessible canon of literature, and illustrated by examples of virtuous men and women; have a clear and realistic of human nature, both its good and evil aspects; provide a way of personal peace and moral transformation from the inside; foster meaningful community and harmonious social relationships in the family and extending to the whole society; provide the motive and power to love the unlovely and forgive enemies; offer compelling motives for ethical behavior; be adaptable to Chinese society, and be compatible with globalization; lead to consistent care for the environment; create a relationship between people and a transcendent God.

The Potential of Christianity

Though Confucianism and Buddhism feature some of these characteristics, they lack others. Christianity alone appears to possess all the required qualifications: an authoritative, accessible Bible with clear ethical teachings, and a long history of exemplary followers of Christ, including Chinese; an appreciation of human nature as created in God’s image and systemically corrupted by sin; both doctrines and the power of the Holy Spirit that bring inward peace and moral transformation; teaching and inner power to build loving and just relationships; God’s grace and Jesus’ example as motives, and the Holy Spirit as power, to love the unlovely and forgive those who have hurt us; full indigenization into Chinese society over the past two hundred years (longer for Roman Catholics); a worldwide reach that has been both a driver and beneficiary of globalization; a doctrine of creation as good that impels us to steward God’s world; and a relationship with God as Father.

Christianity has weaknesses, too, which are briefly discussed, but these are not enough to outweigh its strengths.

Dr. Daniel Liling Li presented concluding remarks:


Newspapers and magazines recently have been publishing more and more articles on China’s moral problem. Someone has recently described Christianity as a major contributor to Chinese culture’s moral improvement.

Moral self-control issues from one’s faith.

The Chinese government worries about religious organization, even as it appears to oppose faith.

Christianity and Chinese tradition

Question: What is the essence and best of Confucianism and traditional culture? Nobody knows. Tradition and foreign exchange will naturally lead to convergence. We can’t control this development, so we need not worry that Chinese tradition will disappear; it will always be part of Chinese Christianity.

Cultural changes come from the margins. Christianity has come in from the margins into the mainstream in the past 15 years. The main thing is not quantity but quality. We must influence intellectuals, for they lead society. More intellectuals have become Christians recently.

Modernization is not questioned, and in fact is our new local god. Morality involves the individual as the basic unit. Christianity influences the individual. Our laws do not reflect modern values. Christianity can motivate individuals to do what is right, regardless of consequences.

At the same time, every Christian must live in a small group. Social morality and law go together. China has little civil society, so it relies on government action and power only. Christianity can contribute to the development of civil society.


Chinese are everywhere. Chinese behavior while living and traveling overseas has not been a good advertisement for Chinese culture.

Universal Values

Some object to the idea of universal values, and to any one system to claim that it is the best, but it is okay to say your faith is best, as long as we also allow others to believe something else. In other words, when we talk about universal values, we should allow others to believe that their view is also the best.

Other Papers

The following report gives only a brief synopsis of some of the other papers, all of which were of high quality and addressed the question of Christianity and China’s Moral Construction from a variety of perspectives. Rather than going through them singly, I shall organize them by topics where possible and summarize the total contents.

To protect the authors from being misrepresented, I will not name them, because (1) all papers were delivered in Chinese, but my notes are in English; (2) my notes are incomplete, both for each paper and because some excellent presentations are not included in them; and (3) they almost certainly contain errors of translation. The full conference proceedings will be published as a book in 2016.

Christianity and Personal Virtue

Virtue must flow from the heart. It is not just a matter of outward behavior. Virtuous actions can only come from a virtuous heart, and such a heart can only result from a true faith. Thus, contrary to what secularists and most Chinese believe, we can’t separate ethics from theology!

Grassroots Christians’ Moral Standards

Extensive observation of rural Christians revealed that Christianity does influence their moral standards and behavior.

Testimony: A very bad man noticed that his wife meekly withstood his abuse. He went to church to find out why. Then he received the Spirit and totally changed. Later, he became a zealous evangelist. Formerly stingy, he became generous and charitable, helping poor people.

Prayer: They often pray for others, not just for themselves, and their petitions are not just instrumental prayer! They sang a song: Jesus is the great Physician. A man with headaches repented of his sins and was healed. So, even prayer is an ethical matter.

They also engage in ethical teaching about human relationships, including marriage, etc. Then they call people forward to repent. One meeting consisted of three days of repentance. There were prophets who could see into others’ hearts and discern their sins. Specific sins were required to be confessed.

These Christians were entirely merged into the local society. Religion and Society were inseparable for them.

The researchers also noticed that there were anonymous offerings for pastors, evangelists, and church workers. Preachers get a low salary, but they still stay on to serve. The church has many good people; it’s because of their faith!

Their songs also contained ethical concepts. They sing of asking God to help them to live a better life, not based on material benefits, but to love God. This is better than Daoism.

Christianity and Ethics in Taiwan

Christians belong to different denominations and their ethical concepts also differ according to denomination.

The religious affiliations in Taiwan are: Buddhists 28%; popular religion 12.9%; Yi Guan Dao 2.4%; Protestant 4.7%; Roman Catholic 0.9%. Most believe in popular religions. 50 percent have a home altar and god shelf.

Among Protestants, Presbyterians comprise 35%; Independent churches 13%; Baptists 9%; Ling Liang Tang (Spiritual Food Church) 7.7%.

Ethical standards: Charismatics are most conservative. More education makes one less conservative. Those who are baptized and serve in church are more conservative in their ethical standards as are those who evangelize others are more conservative.

Among Protestants, charismatics are the most conservative ethically. Some reasons: They hold to a conservative theology; they possess sectarian strictness and seriousness; they emphasize small groups. Next are Local Church members. Presbyterians are the most liberal among Protestants.

Roman Catholic doctrine is most conservative on private moral issues, but Roman Catholic members are the most liberal.

Christianity and Economics

Several papers dealt with the relationship between Protestant Christianity and capitalism, including the question of economic ethics.

A new economic system came naturally from the Protestant Reformation: capitalism. Later, however, capitalism left its Puritan roots and developed into unrestricted selfishness.

The Reformation exerted a great influence on economics ethics. Calvin overcame the distinction between sacred and secular. The Bible is to help us see the world in its entirely. The Puritans said we should glorify God and enjoy him forever; thus, we can enjoy this life. All professions can be callings – a common calling for all Christians and a special calling to show each person what he should do for God. God looks at the heart of the worker not just the work. To serve God, we serve his world and the people in it. Thus, to serve employers is to serve God.

The Puritan view of money was different from laissez-faire capitalism. It was not libertarian, but emphasized our responsibility, right now, to consider how we should steward our money. The 10th commandment tells us not to covet, but to use money to help others. Elders must seek to help young people start a business; that is why stocks were invented.

Christian economics ethical theory can help China’s economy grow, with a new heart.

Human capital is essential, and it must include moral character.

The Protestant Reformation led to a huge change in the economy. Workers are more efficient if you give them a sense that their work has ethical value. This is the basic idea behind the Protestant Work Ethic: Hard work is done for or God, and laziness is a sin.

The entrepreneur has a creative mind to create new things. In the Protestant view, the world is our monastery. All we do is holy to God.

Universal education also derives from the Protestant Reformation.

German education comes from Luther, who said we should have universal education, that is, public schools. In Germany, Protestant areas were richer than Roman Catholic sections, because more people could read the Bible. Calvin also started a school.

Schleiermacher launched a critique of capitalism. Progress and prosperity came from individual expression. But hearts had become bad. Schleiermacher himself participated in society. Moral motives were important to him. He thought that most people were only interrelated in personal profit, and loved pleasure too much. This followed Enlightenment thinking.

God is faithful, as shown in all his dealings with his people and Jesus. This produced moral change in them. Law and worship build a personal relationship with God that leads to moral behavior.

The Ten Commandments were developed in the New Testament into positive commands, which should influence our marketplace behavior. Thus, the Old Testament has vital economic and social ideas for us now.

Christianity and Traditional Chinese Culture

Confucianism and Christian Ethics and Medical Ethics

Medical progress has brought many new problems and questions.

The main principles now are: respecting the person’s individual autonomy and freedom; doing no harm; benefiting others; justice, i.e., to be treated equally with others. Confucianism respects personal moral autonomy, but not his personal autonomy. Christianity respects both.

Confucian influence on rural Christian worship

Rural Christians speak of Confucian virtues in their songs, which are still based on Jesus. Thanksgiving songs also include Confucian ethical values, however. Conclusion: The local church is already Chinese.

Christianity and Modern China

Christianity exerted a strong influence on Chen Duxiu and New Confucianism. Chen found that Jesus had a lot to offer Chinese. The church did not, he thought.

Christianity had a structural influence on the philosophy of He Ling, a New Confucianism leader. He also separated the church from Jesus. He wanted to use Western philosophy, combined with the “spirit” of Christianity, to construct New Confucianism. Religion can furnish motivation for ethics, he believed. Confucianism is insufficient, and needs Christianity to fill it out. He accepted Weber’s thesis.

Question: If you destroy the church, how can the spirit of Christianity be communicated to the world?

Both Chen Duxiu and He Ling were influenced by the New Culture movement.

The Anti-Christian movement came from the USSR and the desire to abolish the influence of American Christians on China.

The Role of Christianity in Society

Christianity, Personal Freedom, and Democracy

In China, personal freedom is now popular, but is being opposed now by the new left and traditional culture. How can personal freedom deal with China’s ethical situation? Will it be extinguished?

The idea of the Leviathan, or big government, was originally that it could help people; later, kings used the people and abused them.

Personal freedom can bring material benefits, but also trouble to society, such as pollution, moral decline, etc. It can’t solve the problems of individuals or groups.

Many scholars now think that Democracy isn’t good for China. It is conciliatory, but during elections, it just tries to please the electorate. For example, in many democratic nations, you can’t criticize homosexuality or feminism. Pastors can’t refuse to marry gays. Luther removed marriage from the status of sacrament, turned it over to the state, making such laws possible.

Personal liberty and law: Should China pursue personal freedom? Confucianism is too optimistic about human nature and moral capability. The Enlightenment’s use of reason has become rationalism.

Christianity can contribute to the structure of knowledge, but it can’t save China. Christianity doesn’t build a nation. That is the work of government. The church must use soft power. Luther said that government power is bad, but given by God. No use of violence to resist government is allowed to Christians. We should only use words of truth and love, and prayer.

Christianity and Yunnan’s tribal people

The missionaries reduced their language to writing, translated the Bible, and taught them to read and to sing. Why is Christianity growing so much in Yunnan? Most of the increase is taking place among the Lisu and other tribes.

They use Christian songs in government approved public holiday meetings, as well as dance, including tribal dances. In other words, the Church now brings all aspects of culture together.

The suicide rate is high among tribal people, but less among Christians. (Mostly men commit suicide.)

There are many refugees from China near Burma. They left China to protest abortion. Overseas Christians give them clothes, etc., which the local church distributes. Christians care for the young, old, weak, sick, dying.

There are many Christians also in border areas, and there they are creating Christian cultures. In fact, international, cross-cultural; Christianity is growing everywhere.

The government has found that Christianity brings better people and a better, safer society, so the government permits it, and prefers it to Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism. Moral change is a major reason for church growth, and the government recognizes this, so it gives Christians space.

In general Christians are found mostly among marginalized people. At the same time, we find Party members believing in Christ and leaving Party.

Christianity and Harmonious Society

Conflict and violence are on the rise now, though there are some hopeful signs. For example, the Oxford Consensus was signed by representatives of different parties (Christians, Confucianists, liberals, new left) who sat down to talk to each other – a first!

Harmony is a core Christian concept – reconciliation with God, then with others. In his 1996 book, Miroslav Wolf speaks of exclusion and embrace - “Theology of Embrace” (Yongbao shenxue). How can we relate to the “other”? We start from ourselves, then relate to others. We must accept the differences between us and give the other space. This shows the love of Christ. Confession and forgiveness are essential. We must first want to embrace the other before we can work towards righteousness. Forgiveness is essential. Forgiveness assumes admission of wrong, and that both sides want to pursue a better relationship. It also presupposes that we won’t let the past offense determine what we will be in the future.

Therefore, we can talk about this as a matter of public ethics, not just personal.

Contemporary Chinese Christianity

The number of professing Christians is high, but the quality of individual believers is low.

Responses to the Conference

This sort of honest dialogue is really useful.

Moral renovation in China requires many parties to make it happen. But ideas eventually do make things happen.

Individuals live out their life in an environment that either encourages them or discourages them. Social structure and law are important. For example, our laws make people afraid of those who fall down on the street.

The problem: There is no trust in society now. Can religion help create trust?