Monday, August 05, 2013

Some interesting 20th century movements in Chinese Christianity

Here are some interesting movements and their descriptions as taken from the book A New History of Christianity in China [Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)], pages 129-134:

True Jesus Church (真耶稣教会)

  • Founded by Wei Enbo (1876-1919)
  • Saturday sabbatarian
  • Full-blown Pentecostal — tongues, miracles, healing etc.
  • “Jesus only” Unitarianism
  • Shuns doctrine of the Trinity and teaches unitary and undivided God (数一无二)
  • Radical egalitarianism; only elders and deacons no pastors
  • Church workers are not to receive a salary
  • All must be given the chance to speak and pray

The Jesus Family (耶稣家庭)

  • Founded by Jing Dianying (1890-1957)
  • Communitarian
  • Authoritarian, each commune is governed by a “family head” (家长)
  • Full-blown Pentecostal — tongues, miracles, healing etc.
  • Idea of a distinct (from conversion) special religious experience of being “born again” (重生) or being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (圣灵充满), with the latter accompanied by dancing

  • Most prized and prestigious religious experience is that of “testimony” (见证) which involves first being caught up to heaven in a kind of vision, and there receiving special words to the faithful [directly] from God. Coming back to earth (or out of a trance), the individual then reports to the community, giving voice to what he or she has been vouchsafed by God

  • Strong millenarianism, looking for the imminent end times

Little Flock/ Local Church (小群/ 地方教会)

  • Founded by Watchman Nee (Ni Tosheng aka Ni Shuzu; 1903-72)
  • Living a victorious Christian life is done by distinguishing body, soul and spirit, and by getting the realization that “I am dead with Christ,” enabling the believer to live in victory over the world’s evil

  • All of history is moving towards the “Age of the Kingdom”
  • Millenarian vision of an imminent “end of time” cataclysm
  • Denominationalism as pernicious
  • The reward for “overcomers” is to be with God and Christ in the timeless New Jerusalem
  • Emphasis on the “local church,” or only one church in every city
  • No usage of trained and ordained pastors but simply “co-workers” (同工) for local church leadership

It seems that the most pernicious movement that has affected most of Chinese Christianity is the movement by Watchman Nee with its anti-denominationalism and views against the special offices of the Church (i.e. its ecclesiology).

4 comments:

Benjamin Wong said...

Dear Daniel:


1. Watchman Nee was a genuinely spiritual Christian with some defective theologies.

In my youth, there were a few years I was under the spell of [The Spiritual Man].

It took many doses of Reformed theology before I was able to shake that influence off.

Just a note for your information: I visited the C&MA (Christianity and Missionary Alliance) bookstore on Nathan Road in Hong Kong during my 2003 visit to the city. The Collected / Complete Works of Watchman Nee were on the shelf in the bookstore.


2. I agree with you that "[i]n Chinese Church circles, denominations mean little. Ministers can change denominations easily (and members too) without batting an eyelid."

As the overseas Chinese denominations mature administratively, I suspect it will become more difficult for a minister to switch denomination.

One reason is economic.

A minister may have his pension plan tied-up with his denomination.

But I do not see this happening soon in churches in mainland China.


3. My opinion is that Chinese churches should stay away from the denominationalism of the western churches.

Yet denominationalism is not all bad.

Alister McGrath, in [Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century (2007)], noted that an important factor for Protestant rapid growth during the last few centuries was the competition between denominations / traditions, and also competition with non-denominational churches.

Competition may leads to growth and Protestant churches thrive in a free market of religious competition.


4. Yet I also agree with your view that "[t]he 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."

As to your question "Are the distinctive doctrines held by various denominations worth fighting and splitting over?”

I think it depends on the specific doctrines in question.

Although I would discuss baptism with others, I would not split with a fellow Christians over the mode of baptism.

Although I consider Arminianism to be wrong, I would consider an Arminian believer a fellow Christians.

Although I consider Open Theism to be a heresy, individual open theists may be a genuine Christian.


5. Passing church leadership to the locals as soon as possible, in general, is a good idea.

This has been the trend since the 1960s.

The Lausanne Congress of 1974 may have sealed the trend.

You wrote: "So yes, local leadership is important, but it should be done on the basis of meritocracy."

This sounds good.

But any idea how this would work out between 1949 (establishment of the People's Republic of China) and 1976 (end of the Cultural Revolution) in mainland China?


Sincerely,

Benjamin Wong

PuritanReformed said...

Hi Benjamin

1) I am making no judgment on Watchman Nee, but on the fruits of his teachings.

2) Perhaps, but then the difficulty is administrative rather than doctrinal

3) Denominationalism may be good or bad. The issue is that Chinese churches do not even begin to wrestle with the reasons why denominations developed. Instead, there is a blanket denunciation of denominations, as if their "ethnic non-denomination denomination" is superior and more biblical than Western denominations.

I wouldn't go to McGrath for the final say on anything. McGrath is worthwhile to read, but not the person to turn to for anything definitive. He is also not Reformed.

As for your statement "Protestant churches thrive in a free market of religious competition," that sonds like Max Weber's social history.

4) On Baptism, if you "would not split," tell me what kind of counsel you would give to a pastor who believes in credobaptism who was approached by a pedobaptist couple who wants to baptize their baby boy. Should the pastor violate his credobaptist beliefs and baptize that boy?

On Arminianism, have you read the historical sources and know the difference between Classical and Evangelical Arminianism?

On Open Theism, do you think that a God who is not omniscent is the Christian God? Since Open Theists believe in a God who is not omniscent, then their God is not the Christian God. Can belief in a false god save a person?

5) Slowly, with training. The Chinese in China are not idiots, and we should not treat them as such.

Benjamin Wong said...

Dear Daniel:


1. I think the claim that "Chinese churches do not even begin to wrestle with the reasons why denominations developed" is not true.

Chinese churches have been wrestling with denominationalism at least for decades, if not from the very beginning when Protestant missionaries went to China.

Although I have not done a study on the Chinese literature on this topic, I remember the fellowships I attended in my teens have discussed this topic more than once.

A particularly well written essay on this topic that I have read in the early 1980s was:
《華人教會面對的兩個問題》 (1979) [Two Issues Confronting the Chinese Churches] by Dr. James Cheung (張慕皚).

(I am writing this from memory; it is decades since I have read this essay.)


2. Being a seminarian, you are probably much more in touch with Church growth theory and statistics than I am.

As to the statement that "[p]rotestant churches thrive in a free market of religious competition", which observation I learned from Alister McGrath, I meant that as a fact and not a theory.


3. You wrote: "On Baptism, if you 'would not split,' tell me what kind of counsel you would give to a pastor who believes in credobaptism who was approached by a pedobaptist couple who wants to baptize their baby boy. Should the pastor violate his credobaptist beliefs and baptize that boy?"

My view is that the credobaptist pastor should simply refuse to baptize the baby boy of the pedobaptist couple.

When attending a particular church, one should respect the history and tradition of that church.

One should not ask a Baptist pastor to baptize a baby boy that is not capable of making a profession of faith.


4. You wrote: "On Arminianism, have you read the historical sources and know the difference between Classical and Evangelical Arminianism?"

I am not familiar with the historical (original) sources.

But I have read James I. Packer essay on "Arminianisms" (1985).

As indicated, I think Arminianism is wrong.

Although I have an interest in certain theological topics, I understand that most Christians are not interested in theological discussions (as distinct from Bible study).

I suspect that to the vast majority of Christians in the Methodist and other Arminian traditions, Arminianism probably means no more to them than that they believe in free-will.

I suspect that the vast majority of Arminian Christians have no knowledge of the theological intricacies of Arminianism.

That is why although I think Arminianism is wrong, I would (in general) consider an Arminian believer to be a fellow Christians.


5. You wrote: "On Open Theism, do you think that a God who is not omniscent is the Christian God? Since Open Theists believe in a God who is not omniscent, then their God is not the Christian God. Can belief in a false god save a person?"

That is why I consider Open Theism to be a heresy!

Open theists are still working out the implications of their theologies.

And many of them are happily inconsistent.

Consider an open theist who denied the omniscience of God but subscribed to the traditional theory of atonement - would that person be saved?

I would not dare to speculate on the salvation status of such a person.


6. To those of us who put a premium on truth and are interested in doctrines, these practical matters are quite messy.

Yet these practical matters are important too.

In doctrines as well as in practice, one must have a sense of proportion.

If to 95% of Arminian Christians Arminianism is no more that believing in free-will, then as a pratical matter we should temper our rhetoric with that in mind.

I believe Arminianism is wrong and would not ordinarily attend an Arminian church.

But I would, in general, treat an Arminian believer as a fellow Christian.

In discussing theologies, one dictum I constantly remind myself is a criticism level against the neo-Confucians of the Sung dynasty: 以理殺人 (to kill with truths, reason or principles).

I hope I will never do that.


Sincerely,

Benjamin

PuritanReformed said...

@Benjamin:

1) Maybe I should clarify: I mean wrestling with it in the theological arena instead of historically. Maybe I'm wrong and they do discuss that, but what I have seen is more discussion along historicaly theological lines at best

2) I don't see McGrath as unbiased. IMO, he is not the best church historian, parroting for example the Calvin versus the Calvinist line, and reading Calvin in light of Barth

3) I agree that one should not ask for Credobaptist pastor to baptize an infant. But don't you see that implies splitting of any "united" church?

Also, I see you mention "history" and "tradition." What about "bilical conviction" and "creed/confession"? Is everything just reduced to "history" and "tradition" of a church?

4) Read Peter Y DeJong, Crisis in the Reformed Church: Essays in Commenmoration of the Great Synod of Dordt.

Also, read Iain Murray's book Wesley and the Men who Followed.

You say "most Christians are not interested in theological discussions (as distinct from Bible study)." Don't you see that as a problem in and of itself? That is pietisim in a nutshell, where "Bible study" is possible without any form of theological discussion. All forms of subjectivity is introduced when people are more interested in "What does this text mean for you" instead of "What does this text teach."

I do not disagree that the majority of professed Arminians are ignorant of the whole issue. I didn't say we should condemn all professing Arminians. I'm just saying we need to recognize the distinction between Classical and Evangelical Arminianism, instead of just thinking Arminianism is just a slight error.

5) We, or at least the Reformed churches, are not primarily interested in whether any particular person is saved. We are only interested whether a person has made a credible profession of faith. We realize we are not God. Whether individual Open Theists are saved is not our concern. What is our concern is that they have denied vital parts of the faith, and thus should not be treated as believers but called to repentance.

6) What is the relation of praxis to dogma? Is it a matter of "balancing" praxis with dogma, as if the two are two extremes on a see-saw which must be held equally to balance out the "extremes" of both sides?