Editor’s note: Church China is one of the most widely read Christian publications in mainland China and is an excellent glimpse into the life and discussions of the urban Chinese house church. Its bi-monthly magazine focuses on different topics concerning the church and theology each month and is widely read among house church pastors and lay leaders. The China Partnership is excited to announce a new partnership with Church China in which we help provide English translations of certain articles for English speaking audiences. We hope increased access to the theological and ecclesiastical conversations of the house church will continue to foster partnerships between the American and Chinese church. In short, we desire to see greater cross-pollination of ideas between the two churches and believe that Church China is an important voice for us to listen to. If you read Mandarin, you can access the full magazine here.
This is the second half of an interview initially published in Church China’s May 2015 issue. Read the first half here.
Editor: Why do want to build sound theology at church?
Pastor Miao: As everything starts to unfold, we find that young believers inherit core values from elders. All of the Biblical sermons, church views, and discipleship are the inheritance of faith. Therefore, we need a standard. Without the statement of faith, we still make decisions based on the subjective self. Also every fellowship and church needs a declaration of faith. It serves as a protection from taking in false teachings and a reminder to walk in faith. At this time, we started to teach the Westminster Confession of Faith.
We read and taught the Westminster Confession of Faith for about two years. Many staff and passionate believers joined, and it took half a day every week. The outcome of studying the Westminster Confession of Faith was beyond expectation. I had only planned to help believers build a sound theological foundation. What surprised me was that the reading led many people to repentance and salvation. An increasing number of members realized we needed further study.
Additionally, after they studied the reading, they now had a deeply rooted faith, which is no longer subject to mysterious feelings, but rather built on Christian beliefs. In the past, I was the only person who had solid theological foundations. As I preached and explained the scriptures, I could only convey limited amounts of knowledge. Slowly but surely, the sporadic teaching had influenced others, but they still could not articulate the theology and still used the old ways to judge spiritual things. I only hoped that they would be willing to hear Biblical teaching, respond, and apply it to their lives, but I did not realize they needed the theological foundation as well. I used to believe that creeds and doctrines were lifeless and useless, but actually doctrines help the congregation understand God’s grace and original sin in clearer terms. Now we are more assured about salvation, and we are rooted in the Christian belief. Indeed, the church needs systematic theology.
Editor: How about building the structure of the church? What is the benefit of doing that?
Pastor Miao: We are currently in the process of building the structure of the church. Having a church framework is based on the understanding of the Bible. The kingdom of heaven has orders, and heaven is one kingdom. Therefore, it is necessary to have some structures for the church. As we build the church framework, the gospel is easily revealed to the crowd. The church becomes a testimony to everyone, like a city on a hill that brings light to the world. The changes our church took also have influenced nearby churches. Therefore, surrounding churches adopted our church structure, and later we formed affiliation. Now, we are doing ministries and training together. The church itself is more stable, and it is no longer an independent church. It is not uncommon to see that in some independent churches, individual pastors are tempted to hijack the spirituality of the congregation, but since we have formed an affiliation with other churches, members feel a sense of trust and belonging. It is beneficial to the development of the church.
Editor: It seems the establishment of the church structures is connected to its influence on nearby churches. When did the church start to have influence on others?
Pastor Miao: In 2010, almost eight years since the church initially changed, the nearby churches noticed the difference. At that time, other churches were exactly the same in practice as our old church. No one had studied theology, and the situation remained. They witnessed our church was heading in a healthier direction, so they invited us to help them. Since we could not visit other churches on Sunday to deliver sermons, I started to develop training for staff about discipleship programs and pastoral care. I used the Westminster Confession of Faith in the training process.
Even though they had never heard of the Westminster Confession of Faith, they enjoyed the study and desired more training. Therefore, they started to study systematic theology. In addition, they thought discipleship and training were not enough, and therefore we opened a theological training institute. It is a two-year program, and students meet three times a year, with each time lasting for a month. In the first year, all of the students were core staff members from nearby churches. Through the two-year program, they learned about Biblical theology, church history, systematic theology, etc. At that point, we all shared the same theology and structures, and we started the process of affiliation.
Editor: You have mentioned a series of changes: from self-centered faith to Christ-centered faith, from mysterious emotions to scripture-based belief, establishment of discipleship, pastoral care and structures. As the church takes steps one after another, significant changes take place. What if one church went through all the steps but nothing changed, what would be the possible reasons?
Pastor Miao: One possible reason is that the rebuilding process is not centered on the gospel we receive. The changes take time to materialize in the church. The true breakthrough happened after I had theological training on the gospel. As I devoted myself to serve the church and people started to have sound beliefs, the revival of the church did not come accordingly. I also used the key discipleship method, but instead I felt more distant from other staff because of the pride, disagreements, arguments and so on. The more I learned, the less I felt others understood and put into action. The comparison made me prideful, judgmental, and bitter.
At the end of 2012, I started to have [additional] theological training on the gospel, which helped me realize I was not living in the gospel truth. When I was studying in the theological school earlier, I had many of my questions answered and therefore I believed I had fully understood God. In fact, I was only satisfied by the gain of knowledge, and I based salvation on knowledge. Later as I started discipleship groups and served the church, I based salvation on work. As I gained “salvation” through work and knowledge, I actually departed from the gospel truth and I had no more joy and peace. In theory I knew the Gospel, but in practice I tried to gain salvation through work and my faith did not connect to the salvation Jesus provided. I thought my dedication by doing many events would bring revival to the church, joy to my life, and acceptance from others. As others did not accept my ideas, I felt upset and bitter. Therefore, my work became an idol. When the work was effective, I found my value; if not, I lost.
In the past, many of my Biblical sermons were about laws. Even though teaching on laws can help people recognize sinful nature, bring people to repentance, and have some gospel truth, the gospel truth was not the main focus. I did not realize that every time I spoke a sermon, I should speak about the gospel, grace, and salvation. Even though I mentioned those from time to time, it is so different from being intentional about sharing a Christ-centered belief. In the discipleship program, I also misled people that knowledge could transform belief. We had trainings for different levels of students, which posed a danger that people were tempted to find salvation in knowledge as they advanced to a higher level. Believers fed on the knowledge rather than the gospel.
Therefore, the changes at the time were not fundamentally complete, and the process took a long time. As I had education on the gospel, I realized I had many problems to solve and I started to change. As I personally changed, I found out that many changes took place at church. Nowadays, no matter how much work I have done and knowledge I have attained, I will not place my satisfaction and security in those. The gospel brings peace and joy, and I serve the church with a heart of thanksgiving. As I preach, I preach on Jesus Christ. As a result, many attendees who were not part of the body of Christ have turned their hearts to God. In the past, I had bitterness in my heart, and therefore I kept some distance from others and the church was not unified. Now I am no longer fearful about being hurt by others and placing security in external matters. I find peace in Jesus and strive to share the love of Christ to others, and now the church has unity and becomes one community. Because we rely on the Holy Spirit and have peace, I have more strength in serving God.
However, this process has ups and downs. Since I had theological training about the gospel, it also became a type of knowledge in my head. I felt I had understood much, experienced a breakthrough and felt excited again. Sometimes the knowledge did not translate itself into action. In addition, the theology of the gospel focuses on grace. Therefore, if one does not have a proper understanding of grace, it may cause him to adopt a faith of antinomianism.
Overall, we keep reflecting on the matter and moving forward, and we find peace in and from Christ. Being in Christ also means giving up oneself. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). We often vacillate between legalism and antinomianism, but as we walk on a faithful path, we find the true beauty of the gospel. There is no peace and joy in legalism or antinomianism. We indulge ourselves in worldly things in antinomianism. As we come to understand the gospel, the bouncing between legalism and antinomianism becomes less intense. It is difficult for human nature to fully understand the gospel. Therefore as we understand more, we realize more of its significance.
Editor: You talked about your “spiritual experience” in the beginning of your faith journey, but now you still emphasize your experience with the gospel. What are the differences?
Pastor Miao: In the beginning, my “spiritual experience” was subjective and self-seeking, based on emotions. I did not fully know the gospel, nor sought life in the truth. I was feeling satisfied by either feelings or knowledge. Now I am more mature. I live by the word of God, and I am filled with peace and joy through union with Christ. I am deeply affirmed with the communion with Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit, and I am living the life that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). In the past, my efforts of service were the signs of my life, which led to pride and false salvation; now, I humble myself to live in Christ and have a true relationship with Christ. In the past, I had false beliefs; now, I have a framework of belief and sound doctrine. I am united with Jesus, and it furthers my faith.
Editor: You mentioned union with Christ, and it has two tendencies. One is that someone is well versed in theology and doctrine, but he does not live in the gospel. Another is that someone enters into mystic beliefs. From your perspective, how to solve this issue?
Pastor Miao: Contemporary theologian John Frame comments on the knowledge that there are three aspects: the knowing subject himself, the object of knowledge, and the standard or criteria by which knowledge is attained. As we get to know Christ, we should have three things in mind: the standard to study theology and doctrine; the knowing subject [who] lives a life for God; the mysterious understanding with the object of knowledge. All of the three are important. If we only focus on the experience with God without a standard, we will fall into mysticism; we might feel good, but it is not right. If you only emphasize on living a faithful life, we might neglect the motives behind. We need to know about our motives and purposes of performance.
Frame refers to God as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. He says as we know one person, it will help us know the other two, but we must know all the three persons to have communion with God and live a godly life. When we live a faithful life, our source of perseverance must be from the Holy Spirit and communion with God. If it is not from the Holy Spirit, then we will claim ourselves self-righteous. Even if we perform better, we fall into the trap of self-righteousness and we grow distant from God. Therefore, we need to combine all three aspects. For spiritual formation, we learn about God’s word, Jesus and the gospel, and they are all standard. However, we cannot limit our experience with God to mere knowledge. We need to speak in the way Jesus speaks, enjoy the sweetness of God’s word and experience renewal in life. Only in this way, we can deepen our relationship.
Editor: Based on your experience, why is it a controversial topic between knowledge and [spiritual] life? What is the nature of the dispute?
Pastor Miao: I think it is linked to Chinese culture. In Chinese culture, a concept does not tend to be well defined. Chinese philosophers do not analyze and speculate by logic, and they do not emphasize an objective standard. Chinese culture promotes mysticism and pragmatism. We either focus on feelings and experiences with mysticism, or emphasize on the good deeds with realism. I think the understanding of [spiritual] “life” also falls into the situation, and that is the fundamental reason house churches argue about knowledge and [spiritual] life. Some believe knowledge is not important, and some even believe that knowledge conflicts with [spiritual] life.
For example, in terms of the body, spirit and soul, some people think the spirit and the soul are not compatible. The spirit is about feeling and the soul is about knowledge. So this false belief leads to anti-intellectualism. While the broken soul waits for redemption, the spirit seems filled. Therefore, people blindly trust their feelings, which becomes mysticism.
In addition, we often say: we do not need to hear so much reasoning, tell us what to do. But why do we do this? What is our motivation? We need to develop a correct value system for believers. In fact, we do not focus on this, and we only care about the outward performance. Sometimes, people even use greed to breed actions. Recently I heard one story about a church that did not receive many offerings. A missionary visited and told the congregation, “Giving tithes will bring blessings from God. If God doesn’t pour out his blessings, ask me for them.” After he said so, the church’s offerings increased. In two weeks, another believer shared his testimony, “I felt excited after hearing the missionary’s talk. I wondered if God has not blessed me, but I have started giving, will I receive more blessings? So I borrowed ten thousand RMB from others, and I earned a hundred thousand in a month.” Once everyone heard his testimony, everyone praised the Lord with “Hallelujah!” People only cared about the outward effect, but they do not think about the motives and the methods. Also they do not have the correct world value and Christian belief. This is pragmatism.
Editor: You have mentioned the tendency of mysticism and pragmatism in Chinese culture and the conflict between knowledge and [spiritual] life. On the other hand, some people point out that the young generation does not submit to the Holy Spirit, but instead to knowledge as they serve in the church. How do you think about knowledge with no [spiritual] life?
Pastor Miao: I think knowledge itself is good, and true knowledge will lead us to know God and ourselves, which will prompt us to surrender to God. However, that is in theory. In fact, people are so easy to go astray from the gospel, relying on other things for security and seeking salvation in other means. Therefore, people unconsciously make knowledge and degrees into idols. Many people pursue theological study for the sake of the degree. After they finish studying, they find questions about [spiritual] life. True knowledge will enable us to see the beauty of Christ and the brokenness of humanity, and therefore it helps us deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Jesus. It is also likely that many young Christians see knowledge as the capital to brag about after completing the degree. The prideful heart blinds them from accessing true life.
I also see another danger for the young generation. In the past, church did not provide support to missionaries who had a hard times making a living. So missionaries basically left everything behind to follow God. But now, many young believers use the ministry to build themselves up, use missions to live a comfortable life, and find security in their performance. Mission work becomes an idol, and they start to drift away from the gospel. If they don’t live in the gospel, but rather live in themselves or have idols, the living water will never flow. Therefore, some people claim that young believers do not rely on the Holy Spirit to lead the church. We need to destroy and get rid of the idols, and live in the gospel. The Holy Spirit will overflow in us. Then people will realize knowledge is important and helpful.
Editor: You have mentioned revival - what do you think could lead to revival in both the church and personal life?
Pastor Miao: I think true revival should come from God. As long as we truly understand the gospel and live in the gospel, God is almighty and he will make things happen. When we have sound theology and live in the gospel, the truth becomes real and visible to us. In this way, people can feel the power of God’s word, the presence of God, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit leads us to work, true revival is about to come. Sometimes we are resistant to what the Holy Spirit has been doing, and we think we need to rely on earthly power and capabilities, but the Bible says, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit” (Zachariah 4:6). We need to destroy all idols, so that the Holy Spirit can work in us.
In the first chapter of Acts, when the disciples ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replies, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Revival is not about seeing the immediate effect, but as we truly understand the gospel and live in it, the living water of the Spirit will overflow and revival will shortly arrive.