One of the interesting developments in the church in China over the past decade is growing popularity and influence of Reformed theology, particularly within urban house churches. This has come about as the Christians in China have had increasing opportunities to interact with the church outside of China, either directly, or via the Internet. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion has been translated into Chinese, as have the writings of prominent voices in the “New Calvinism” movement in the United States, such as Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, and John Piper. Probably the most influential figure, however, is Rev. Stephen Tong, head of the Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia. In order to better understand the rise of Reformed theology and its impact on churches in China, the Christian Times conducted an interview with a Reformed pastor. Because the interview is extremely long, we are breaking it into parts.
Interview with a Reformed Church Pastor: The Impact and Controversy of the Reformed Church in China
”改革宗” (Gaige Zong) is translated from the English word “reformed,” referring to the Reformed tradition of the Christian church. It is one of the most significant of the major schools of thought that arose following the Protestant Reformation. The Reformed theological system is primarily Calvinist; that is, the theology of the Protestant Reformation’s important representative individual, John Calvin. Chinese theologian Pastor Stephen Tong translates the term as “归正宗,” (Guizheng Zong); therefore in the Chinese community, “Reformed” is also translated as “归正宗.”
For the past ten years, with an increase in communication between the Chinese church and churches overseas, Reformed theology and church doctrine have gradually entered China and have had a profound impact on the Chinese church.
What are the different periods of development for the Reformed faith in China? What kind of impact has it brought to the church in China? How should some characteristics of this phenomenon be evaluated?
Recently, Christian Times invited a Reformed church pastor, Pastor Daniel (at the request of the interviewee, a pseudonym is used) to answer these questions by sharing his personal experiences and thoughts. Pastor Daniel’s church is located in the city center of a second-tier city in eastern China and would be considered an emerging urban church. In terms of its conception of the church, pastorally, and organizationally, it is a representative sample of an indigenous Reformed church.
Pastor Daniel told us that the church where he serves began in the early 1990s as a church that was more typical of a traditional house church.* Around the year 2000, they began to face many challenges and restrictions. However, nearly ten years ago, by adopting the Reformed faith, the church successfully transformed itself into an emerging urban church.
During this process, he studied, and eventually embraced the Reformed faith, as well as reflected on and encapsulated his experiences and lessons learned. Through his sharing, he hopes to help churches and individuals who are going through a similar journey. At the same time, he has developed personal responses, according to his own thoughts and experiences, to some of the common criticisms of the Reformed faith, such as being overbearing or judgmental towards dissimilar perspectives. He hopes to promote a more objective way of becoming acquainted with the Reformed faith.
Christian Times: Against what kind of background has the Reformed faith begun to spread and influence the church in China? How did your church start to come into contact with Reformed theology?
Pastor Daniel: Reformed teaching began to influence the church in China primarily around the year 2000. The background is the rise of the emerging urban church and the challenge of transformation facing the traditional churches.
The emerging church began to pay more attention to such aspects as theological doctrine, establishment of church governance, cultural influences, and how to interact with society. In fact, this is more in line with the gospel because from the point of view of the Bible, one of the effects produced by the gospel is in fact a need to engage the culture. From a historical perspective, Christian culture has been a leading world culture and has had a profound impact on world culture. So, we can say that the train of thought of new urban churches is more in line with the gospel. Therefore this type of church also affected the traditional church which was formed 20 years ago, creating tension; not being able to integrate is an inevitable consequence.
Our church was originally a traditional church, but in 2000 it began to be affected by such a background. There was more of an emphasis on miracles and wonders in the past, emphasizing suffering, and personal piety. Most of the elderly believers in the church had grown up reading Watchman Nee’s books. It was a typical traditional church, established after [China's] reform and opening up to the world [in the 1980's] and after the spiritual revival. Although it was within the city, yet it was still a more traditional church.
Gradually, the church began to grow. New believers began to attend, and the demographics of the congregation began to change. There were more young people and intellectuals. At this time, we discovered that their areas of concern and our areas of concern were different. With the growth of media and the Internet, we discovered the sermons of Pastor Stephen Tong, who taught that Christianity should engage with the culture. This had a profound impact on our thinking, and we began to make changes.
At the beginning of the year 2000, I (and the church) first came in contact with the Reformed faith. We listened to the sermons of Pastor Stephen Tong, studied his theological lectures, and slowly began to transform. And this is not just true of our church; most of China’s transforming churches have been, to some extent, influenced by him.
Since then, the Chinese church began to transform. One factor has been the impact of the emerging churches. Another factor is that traditional churches have been forced by the problems brought on by their own growth process and have no choice but to reassess and transform. For example, it is easy for Eastern Lightning to ransack a traditional church, or even to destroy an entire church. Because the traditional church is only concerned about suffering and does not value theology, it values emotions and not reason. It emphasizes mystical interpretation rather than Biblical exegesis of the original text, and personal worship rather than valuing church government. So when faced with heresy they can be easily pillaged. In short, most churches in China today are in a period of transition, because they understand that if they don’t transform, they will be relegated to the margins of society.
Christian Times: How far, then has the church come since 2000? What stage is it at currently?
Pastor Daniel: Most churches in China began to make changes beginning in 2000. Theological changes happened first, followed by institutional changes.
In terms of theology, I think that the Reformed tradition has certainly been influential. Of course, the number of churches that have actually become “Reformed” in terms of their theology or in establishing a Presbyterian form of governance is still small. However, I have observed that many churches have begun to at least recognize the importance of the Reformed faith, and have begun to explore it.
The traditional church is beset by its own problems. These include having no systematic theology and no organizational structure. Therefore, in order to grow, some have begun to look at the Reformed faith. Even churches in newly developing work places, and those with many young people (and where Arminianism is rather prominent) have begun to focus on the Reformed faith.
Christian Times: Allow me to insert a question here. In fact, some of the traditional churches are also working hard to transform and integrate into the city. Some knowledgeable and experienced traditional church leaders are also starting to create their own theological system and church governance based on local circumstances, and it can be said that they have not caught the reformed “bug.” Do you still feel the Reformed faith will impact them?
Pastor Daniel: If the traditional church would begin to value theology and trace it back to its origin they will certainly encounter the Reformed faith. In researching the history of Protestant doctrine, ultimately you cannot avoid its origin in the Reformed faith. No matter what Protestant denomination you are a part of, a focus on theology will ultimately lead to Reformed theology. The three most important figures of the Reformation are Martin Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. Martin Luther was a pioneer, and Zwingli later supplemented his work. However, Calvin was the one who had the biggest impact on later generations. He was responsible for shaping a theory that was to have a huge impact on later generations. And later, Arminianism was produced in reaction to dissatisfaction with reformed theology. So, if you are looking, you will find the Reformed faith: you cannot get around it.
Christian Times: So, looking ahead, in the future what do you believe will be the next focal points of the Reformed faith that will impact the Chinese church?
Pastor Daniel: What is the future trend? I believe that the focus will be on church governance.
So far, Reformed theology has had an impact on the Chinese church, but the impact of [church] governance/polity is still relatively slight. One thing is for sure: the Reformed faith has led many churches to start thinking about church governance, prompting the development of church government. This is very good. For example, although Baptists use a congregational form of government instead of a Presbyterian form, it is still a form of governance. Furthermore, in the modern context, it certainly is better than the patriarchal system. In regards to church governance, there should be a church structure, a constitution, and one’s own liturgy, but most churches in China do not have any of these. The most common structure is patriarchal, where there is no order to follow – only that which is based on the authority of the individual leaders. Things are done as the leader dictates. Therefore, the demands of the institutional church will become a focal point of future investigation.
As I said before, there have been two main transformations of the church; one is theology, one is church governance. Theology became the focus starting in the year 2000, but this has now begun to settle down, and tensions have reduced. The church has gone from thinking little about theology, culture, and society to starting to value theology, culture, and society. Church government will be the next focal point.
*”Traditional house church” here refers to type of house churches that grew up in the countryside during the era when churches went underground due to persecution. As people from the countryside migrated to the cities, these churches moved as well, bringing with them their forms of worship and governance.
Original article: 专访一改革宗教会牧者：改革宗在中国的发展、影响与争议(上) (Gospel Times. Translated and posted with permission)
Image source: Hugenotten Museum