The Church in China

This special issue of a prestigious academic journal contains ten major articles (including the editorial preface by Dr. Hancock) and seven substantial book reviews. The articles and reviews span both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism from the sixteenth century to the present, and they touch upon history, theology, evangelism and social action, the impact of Christianity upon Chinese society, and challenges facing the Chinese church today. Contributors include scholars from China and the West, representing various disciplines and different points of view. The result is a rich sampling of voices on a wide variety of issues concerning Christianity in China, and it will be of interest to an equally broad range of readers.


Christopher Hancock, as guest editor, opens the issue with a preface that deploys complexity theory to look at the church in China, both past and present. Hancock notes that Christianity in China is now “multi-layered and complex” and thus requires that we study it from many perspectives. He describes the articles in this issue as “a snapshot of scholarship, not a long documentary study . . . [which] reflect[s] my attempt to convey a sense of the breadth of perspective and range of interest found today in study of Chinese Christianity.”

He begins by observing how the included articles reflect divergent theological points of view within Chinese Christianity, much of it mirroring the differing influence of various Western theological traditions. Then he introduces complexity theory as a possible tool for studying Chinese Christianity, along with some cautionary criticisms. He applies to Fabian Vogt’s “proposal for six themes complexity theory [found] in Emerging Churches; namely, openness, adaptability, willingness to learn, decentralization, free information flows and change from ‘the bottom up.’”

  1. Openness is both a strength and a weakness: It includes an openness to a God who meets needs, but “all too easily turns to rejection of a God who does not always answer prayer, heal or deliver from demonic powers. . . . To this pragmatism is allied a risky openness in many of China’s churches to theories, theologies and charismatic leaders that will deliver whatever is deemed essential to life and happiness,” and a dangerous vulnerability to the “prosperity gospel.”

  2. Likewise, adaptability enables the Chinese church to adjust to a rapidly changing situation, while at the same time holding the temptation to “adapt to survive, to thrive, to grow rich and to succeed. . .” in order just to benefit oneself.

  3. A willingness to learn is commendable, but “an openness to learn intellectually can drift into an uncritical need to be satisfied emotionally. Not every expression of the Chinese Church’s willingness to learn is equally commendable. Some forms of ‘Sino-Christian Theology’ appear to be more about Chinese exceptionalism than a sincere desire to receive from God a Chinese expression of a global faith.”

  4. Decentralization has been forced upon Chinese churches as a response to the “iron grip on its political and theological profile” attempted by the Three-Self Church. While it has protected the unregistered churches from attack, it has also allowed local leaders to “become little tyrants and . . . be guilty of all the sins of the flesh. . . . Conversely, without accredited oversight, local pastors are themselves at risk from the 24/7 demands of new or needy Church members. . . . We may not welcome ‘control,’ but we cannot neglect ‘coherence.’”

  5. Free information flows take place in the Chinese church in a way that reflects a healthy “capacity for community life,” but with a subtlety foreign to outsiders, so as Westerners communicate with Chinese Christians, we should be aware of just how “culturally complex this encounter is.”

  6. Finally, the “resurrected” Church in China furnishes a prime example of bottom-up change, for “it has been millions of unknown ‘little people’ . . . who have lived and suffered and sometimes died for their faith in Jesus Christ that have produced such growth. . . . In this they shame the empty faithlessness and odd self-importance of many of our old and far from emerging Western churches.”

I have given so much space to this introductory editorial because it sums up much of what follows, and highlights many of the crucial strengths and critical weaknesses of Chinese Christianity today.

Now for a brief overview of the articles and reviews:


Lars Peter Laaman studies “Apostasy and martyrdom in eighteenth-century China.” When Roman Catholic missionaries proclaimed the gospel to Chinese people, they found that the lack of a sense of a transcendent God led to an inability to understand the concept of sin as offending an almighty Creator and Judge. Rather, Christianity was seen as similar to popular religions, in which the worshipper prayed and offered sacrifices with the intention of receiving a reciprocal benefit from the gods. Such Christianity was necessarily shallow and could not stand up before the harsh persecution that broke out when the Chinese government sought to suppress all heterodox sects, including Roman Catholicism. The rate of apostasy should not have so surprised and dismayed the missionaries since the pragmatic Chinese saw avoidance of earthly suffering as necessary and did not fear eternal punishment.

“Three Challenges and opportunities for the Christian Church in twenty-first century China,” by Paulos Huang, frankly addresses three immense challenges facing the church in a society ruled by a government that cannot brook any rival to its power in all spheres of life:

  1. The challenge of Christianity and politics: The church must overcome the perception that it is necessarily connected to Western imperialism in the past and Western attempts to threaten the government in the present. It also needs to show its support for the government when possible yet not be co-opted by the government and used as a tool to promote the policies of the regime; nor must it pursue its own political agenda.

  2. The relationship between Christianity and Chinese culture: In today’s cultural context, we see “at worst deliberate conflict and at best unintentional misunderstanding between Chinese cultural nationalism, radical Confucianism and mainstream Chinese Christianity.”

  3. Christianity and Chinese society: Huang argues, first, that “Christianity may help China overcome the destructive selfishness that unbridled capitalism can engender and mitigate the negative impact of China’s Leviathan-like political and social structures on individuals and families.” Second, he argues that Christianity “can play a constructive role both in inspiring individual morality and in guiding and controlling responsible democracy”; that “Christianity can also help to promote ‘social righteousness’ by helping law become a rein on the wild horse of the Capitalist Free Market”; and that Christianity can further help China promote social ethics by offering a spiritual dimension to and rationale for both democracy and law.” Huang argues, finally, that because “Christian patriotism operates in wide theological and international categories that ‘fit’ a modern globalised world, . . . careful advocacy can enable the Church to help China overcome a narrow-minded nationalism” that would be self-destructive and disruptive of global harmony.

Carsten T. Vala, Huang Jianbo, and Jesse Sun collaborate to describe a significant new development in “Protestantism, community service and evangelism in contemporary China.” Drawing upon extensive field work, the three authors examine “the range of community service and charity work (including poverty alleviation, disaster relief, education, nursing homes, medical care, and various forms of evangelism) that Chinese Protestants have [undertaken] in the past and still do undertake within the contemporary Chinese Communist Party-state.”

As more young people adhere to Christianity, they are increasingly drawn to express their faith in practical ways outside religious venues. At the same time, though the state actively supports Buddhism over Christianity, which it associates with Western imperialism and constant Western attempts to use religion to overthrow the government, some government leaders still encourage efforts by Christians to meet social needs, partly because this reduces the burden on the government.

Despite many restrictions, Christians continue to seek ways to show the love of God to their neighbors. On the other hand, increasing government resistance makes not only explicit evangelism but also any overt connection to Christianity more and more difficult. Depending on how widely and strictly the new law on NGOs is enforced, church-based social services may become even more difficult to offer.

In “The role of Sinology in the twenty-first century: a Western theologian reflects on the development of Sino-Christian theology,” David Jasper brings his perspective to bear upon a major movement in the Chinese academy. This thought-provoking essay notes that Sino-Christian theology is being done in the academy, not in Chinese churches, and that this “raises questions about the nature of theology per se.” “The essentially practical, indeed political tradition, of Confucian hermeneutics of the Bible give us the clue as to why Sino-Christian theology . . . is, in effect, a continuation of the Chinese imperial scholarship with its intellectual and literary traditions that are now to be found in modern universities.

He acknowledges James Legge’s conviction that no Western Christians can communicate their faith in China without first mastering the classics of Confucianism and Daoism that have so profoundly influenced all Chinese intellectuals. At the same time, he questions whether “Legge mastered, or was himself mastered by these ancient texts,” and he suggests that “Matteo Ricci failed to explore radically the deep contradictions between his form of Christian theology and Chinese tradition, resulting in a ‘somewhat unsatisfactory juxtaposition of disparate elements.’” In the same vein, he questions whether Alexander Chow, in his attempt to relate the “positive” Chinese anthropology with Eastern Orthodox thought, had allowed some superficial similarities to overshadow profound differences between Confucianism and Christianity. In the twentieth century, both Wu Leichuan and even the more conservative Chen Chonggui also emphasized apparent similarities between these two world views.

Jaspers appreciates the work of Yang Huilin, who acknowledges the essential contrasts between the transcendent perspective of Christianity and the humanistic essence of Confucian thought. He sees the difficulty in making connections between Christianity and classical Chinese culture, and he traces the root of the problem to differing hermeneutics, a subject on which he urges further study.

Jing Zhang provides an example of feminist Chinese biblical scholarship in “Metis and the New Testament: wisdom for Chinese women from Mark 7.24–30.” She sees this unique encounter between Jesus and a Gentile woman as intended to “commend and emancipate women. . . . Faith in a Chinese context . . . must be reckoned a God-given instrument to confront powerlessness, domestic violence, discrimination and spiritual (qua religious) manipulation. The story . . . also challenges us to recognize a divine gift of grace that comprehends human failures and divisions and unites humanity in a high vision of God’s inclusive love.”

To be continued

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle