the church in China

If you live in Grand Rapids and don’t have tickets to Taylor Swift, consider coming out to Baker Book House tonight at 7:00, when I’ll be speaking on Christ Alone.

I was fascinated by the cover story of the current Books and Culture, entitled “A Critique of All Religions:  Chinese Intellectuals and the Church.” David Lyle Jeffrey’s essay includes highlights from two academic books, one of which (Sino-Christian Studies in China) was edited by the academic vice-president of People’s University, the Communist Party school established by Chairman Mao himself. It’s also where I taught English for two years, and where my team still has teachers, so I can’t help wondering if we had friends in high places. Imagine: one of the top officials at the Marxist university in China is a publicly professing believer in Jesus Christ. That’s not the only surprise in this article.

1. The quality of biblical preaching and teaching in both the state registered (“Three Self”) and house churches is vastly superior to what American evangelicals receive. The money quote:  “one may expect to find much higher levels of biblical literacy and theological clarity by three to five years post-conversion than amongst American counterparts after two or three decades in the church.”

My take: this may be true among urban Chinese Christians, who are led by university professors and other intellectuals, but I doubt this is equally true in the countryside. Urban Chinese arguably have more in common with Westerners than they do with their rural countrymen. Still, in my experience with new Christians in Beijing, they hungered for the Word and were delighted to receive it straight up, without the creative methods that we often use in American churches to make the Bible seem relevant. Any way you cut it, if that quote is even half-right then we in America should feel ashamed.

2. Chinese intellectuals, even those who aren’t believers, demonstrate more respect and appreciation for “historically normative Christian theology” than many of their Western counterparts. The Chinese recognize that the metaphysical claims of Christianity contain ethical entailments, and they don’t separate these as if we could have one without the other. In other words, they are not as impressed by modernity’s insistence that we can separate fact from value, or what is from what we should do. They readily recognize that if the resurrection did not happen, then there is no Christian reason to do good to others.

3. Christians in China are motivated by what they believe is their eschatological role. They observe that the gospel moved west from Jerusalem, through Europe to the Americas, and that now it is coming back around to China, whose mission is to complete the loop and spread the gospel through the Muslim Middle East and back to Jerusalem. This compelling missionary vision is a natural fit for former Marxists. Rather than spread socialism throughout the world, Chinese Christians are discovering the more exciting call of converting Muslims to Christ.

4. This missionary vision does breed a strong sense of nationalism, not unlike what Americans felt when we sent missionaries to rescue the heathen on the other side of the world. The Chinese are as fiercely patriotic as Americans—probably even more so—and this is something that Christians there will have to monitor. Are their missionary efforts fueled solely by love for Jesus and others, or are they also motivated in part by their love of country?

5. Chinese Christians are some of the leading intellectuals in their country, and they are currently working out what we would call a Christian worldview, with “Chinese characteristics.” They are unimpressed with unbridled, free market capitalism and western notions of autonomous, individual human freedom, and so they are filling in the lines of what it means to be a Christian in their country. If this article is any indication, they are doing a terrific job, and way ahead of schedule.

4 Comments

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  1. Dr. Wittmer,

    Do you have any recommended reading on China?

  2. Nick: it depends on what you’re looking for, and I’m no longer the person to ask, as I’ve been away from it for so long. Most Americans have no idea about the history of China, so I’d start there. I can’t remember the one I read 20 years ago, but it opened my eyes to the tragedy of western imperialism during the Opium Wars. Amazon has several recent histories to choose from. I’ve also heard good things about David Aikman, “Jesus in Beijing” and “Here Comes China.” The first page of the Books and Culture article lists several others.

  3. Margie Smallman July 28, 2011 — 10:11 pm

    I never tire of hearing how God is moving in and throughout places that have been bound by religious and governmental mandates; how He brings salvation to whomever He chooses. He really will finish what He began and that’s coming alive more and more as I see this country wobbling on its tooth-pick legs; its stability showing itself to be a farce. Meanwhile, elsewhere, solid, sober-minded and vibrant believers are growing in spite of the absence of freedoms we seem to be squandering!
    I remember when you taught there. Having done that lends great perspective, doesn’t it!

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