Saturday, August 03, 2013

Chinese Christianity and (anti-) denominationalism

In Chinese Church circles, denominations mean little. Ministers can change denominations easily (and members too) without batting an eyelid. Already back in the missionary enterprise in China, Chinese Christianity was very much against denominationalism, seeing it as an artifact of Western Christianity of which it doesn't want any part.

This strong anti-denominationalism continues on to this day, and I have personally seen and experienced it. The Chinese Churches function almost like a movement, a strongly ethno-centric (Sino-centric) movement. This can be seen in STEMI crusades among others. The focus has always been about reaching ethnic Chinese for the Gospel, and ministering in Chinese circles. Now of course none of them are prohibiting non-Chinese from joining them or against engaging non-Chinese in evangelism, but the emphasis has always been to the Chinese, and to the Chinese churches. If one doubts the veracity of this claim, just find out when was the last time any Chinese Church tried to engage in ecumenical talks with a "white church" (in Western countries) or a native church in whatever country they are in (i.e. Russians in Russia, Ethiopians in Ethiopia).

This strong anti-denominationalism is itself a legacy of the missionary enterprise, which has little if any vision for the Church. It is almost a classic case of the dictum, "what you win them with is what you win them to." The missionaries generally minimized doctrinal differences, albeit for good motives. So a Chinese Presbyterian is brought up not knowing why he should be Presbyterian and not, for example, a Baptist, and vice versa. Sure, he might know the history behind Presbyterianism, but such is manifestly not sufficient.

The problem with the anti-denominationalism in Chinese Christianity is that it creates churches where certain biblical truths are minimized. For example, most Chinese Presbyterians do not have a biblical doctrine of infant baptism. They are Presbyterians of tradition, not Presbyterians of conviction. The list of doctrines for each denominations can go on and on. Now of course, such may not be a bad thing. The question however is this: Are the distinctive doctrines held by various denominations worth fighting and splitting over? And if it is not considered worth fighting over, which doctrine or practice becomes the default? The issue with Chinese Christian anti-denominationalism is that such questions are totally circumvented and ignored. It is one thing to come to the conclusion that certain doctrinal issues may be unimportant or that one view is the obvious correct view; it is another thing to ignore the question altogether and assume that there is a "biblical default" which all Chinese Christians will fall back to: i.e. Credobaptist, Congregationalist, Egalitarian, Charismatic.

When one sees the history of Chinese Christianity, one sees the problems of such naive biblicism. The Taiping rebellion was just the extreme acting out of the type of "charismatic biblicism" where people claim direct divine sanction for their "theology." Chinese Christianity continues to be plagued by people claiming direct revelation from God even when they are not officially Charismatic and Pentecostal, continually violating the Third Commandment by claiming "God's vision" and God's direction for the Church they are a pastor or an elder of.

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