With the Future in Mind: Reformed Theological Education in China
In many ways, the Chinese house church continues to mystify many American Christians. To many people, China is a walking contradiction. Brent Fulton at ChinaSource got it right when he identified four common narratives Americans believe about the Chinese church. We are prone to think the Chinese church is either severely persecuted, desperately in need, launching major missionary endeavors, or so successfully impacting China that cultural triumph is inevitable. Each of these common narratives has a grain of truth in them, but none adequately communicate reality. Both “yes” and “no” are honest answers to most questions asked about China. One particular area of growing interest is the Chinese church’s development of theological education. Where once church recommendations and lay leadership were adequate, today the Chinese house church not only recognizes its leaders’ need for further academic training, but it also strongly desires to take its place in the long line of theological tradition. China’s house church believes it has a theological voice to offer the world and it is excited to develop Chinese theologians who can contribute to Christian theology’s millennia-long legacy.
At the same time, there is growing interest within the Western church to assist in this endeavor. Theological education in the rising global church is generally a hot topic among those missionally minded. Many display a true and humble desire to serve sister churches globally. Yet, the interest in theological education can also demonstrate an attitude of wanting to “fix” the non-Western church. Motivations in the West are mixed; many correctly fear growing heresy, while others simply want to ensure the West’s legacy lives on. Theological training is a tricky area to negotiate; it is both truly needed and requested by the rising global church, but also an easy route for the Western world to take in order to maintain influence over “mission fields.”
Because I hear increasing interest in the topic of theological education in the global church, and in China particularly, I believe it is important for Western churches to understand to their best ability what actually is already taking place. Amazing movements and projects are already underway and there is much to be clarified lest we fall into the trap of believing a few stunted narratives about their development and needs. Of course, the problem remains that information is so rarely available to the American public about the intimate details of the Chinese church. While we cannot go into the detail many would like here, we can share some recent developments among certain portions of the Chinese house church that the China Partnership knows well. Many exciting and promising things are taking place and we hope they will encourage you.
From the China Partnership’s perspective, the push to develop theological training in China has picked up speed in recent years. At the same time, there has been increased interest in Reformed theology within a significantly growing subset of the house church. These churches are deeply committed to theological education and are working very hard to establish top-level programs in China. The China Partnership maintains relationship with a small coalition of house churches working to establish Reformed seminaries and denominations and the observations I make here come from those relationships.
These particular churches are deeply committed to being confessional, to maintaining certain key doctrines, and to holding each other accountable. They are keenly aware of the potential for liberal theology to infiltrate the house church and have determined to prioritize the need to form coalitions, denominations, and accrediting boards. They are committed to protecting and promoting the essential elements of the Christian faith within China and particularly note the need to hold each other accountable to the doctrines of grace and inerrancy. For their confessions, they have adopted the Westminster Standards, the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. They have also acknowledged the Gospel Coalition’s Foundational Documents, but have not given these documents binding power. In general, the education they envision for their pastors will emphasize teaching original texts, the classics, and practical matters.
There is generally a spirit of cooperation among this collection of seminaries. They value sharing their resources and explicitly state a desire to avoid competition. They hope to complement one another, building each other up in the service of God’s kingdom in China. They hope that this cooperation will foster a new generation of Christian education in China and will enable them to develop teachers, adult education, and good digital materials.
Perhaps most excitingly, these Reformed house churches are striving for future generations. Their vision is to build up a community of educators not just for their own generation, but also for their children and grandchildren. The Reformed seminaries greatly desire to be leaders in Christian education so that fifteen years from now, there will be children who have received a Christian education from their youth. They desire to instill in their children the spiritual heritage of the Chinese church and believe its traditions are important to “…persevere, develop, organize, reflect, inherit… and respond to needs of the contemporary situation.” Though the West is in many ways involved in the development of theological education in China, the China Partnership has observed an admirable desire among this particular group of churches to inherit and develop a distinct Chinese tradition within the historic Reformed faith.
In addition to planning for future generations of the Chinese church, this group of house churches and seminaries are also committed to engaging the global church. They are keenly focused on enabling students to stay in China for theological study. They are concerned about the effects of sending students to America for their education and the resulting struggles these students face in adapting back to the Chinese context. However, they also greatly desire for their students and pastors to stay connected to the global church and hope to enable all of their students to spend one semester abroad, particularly in America, so that they might form connections with the church worldwide.
All in all, these churches and seminaries not only want to bless China’s church with “…prophetic preaching and priestly pastoring,” but they also want to bless the world’s churches. Within China, they hope to combat the trend of pastoral ministry being just another job among many. Beyond China’s borders, these churches want to lend their voice to the international dialogue of God’s people. China’s churches have endured much and they have incubated a deep and poignant theology on suffering in the Christian life. Now they desire to share it with their brothers and sisters and in order to do so, they have started prioritizing the translation of their writings into English. As one of their founding documents states, they plan to “…publish books that interpret and commentate on Scripture, to look back on the history of the church in China, to analyze the current situation and to make prospective [sic] on the future.”
In the end, a significant difference between theological education in the United States and that envisioned by these Reformed house churches is that the Chinese seminaries intend to establish themselves as gatekeepers to the church. Spiritual formation is and will be the primary focus of a seminary education in China. The participation of the church in pastoral training is a primary value and they intend to continue to promote a close symbiotic relationship between the church and seminary. Chinese seminaries are responsible not only for the academic excellence of their students, but also for the development of their faith and character. They desire greatly to ensure the maturity, not just the academic excellence, of those put forward for leadership and view this as integral to their identity as the Chinese house church.
At the heart of it all, though, these Chinese Reformed churches are deeply committed to the gospel of grace. If there is anything to take away in understanding this subset of the Chinese house church, it is that this group is working hard to defend and promote what it believes to be the most essential aspect of Christian life. In a short devotion given to a group of seminary leaders, one pastor read Ezekiel 44:1-5:
“Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east. And it was shut. And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince may sit in it to eat bread before the Lord. He shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.’ Then he brought me by way of the north gate to the front of the temple, and I looked, and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord. And I fell on my face. And the Lord said to me, ‘Son of man, mark well, see with your eyes, and hear with your ears all that I shall tell you concerning all the statutes of the temple of the Lord and all its laws. And mark well the entrance to the temple and all the exits from the sanctuary.’”
After finishing, the pastor remarked, “The church and the seminary are God’s temple, and Christ Jesus the door.” It is only through Jesus and his grace that access is gained to God’s presence and that is something our sisters and brothers in the Reformed churches of China hope above all to instill in China’s future generations.
Hannah Nation serves as the blog editor for the China Partnership. She is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works full-time on staff with China Outreach Ministries, serving students in the Boston metro area. She first traveled to China in 2005 and has cared deeply for the country and its church ever since.