The Spiritual Legacy of the House Church
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors thinking about writing about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.
I believe that there are seven aspects of the spiritual legacy of the house church: adherence to the essentials of the faith; holding to the separation of church and state; walking in the way of the cross; focusing on the inner life; focusing on repentance, prayer, and the work of the Holy Spirit; emphasizing the life of faith; and a special focus on evangelism.
1. Adherence to the essentials of the faith.
House churches hold to the fundamentals of the faith. In contrast to liberal theology, these fundamentals underscore three matters. First, the absolute authority of the Bible. The Bible is God’s complete and inerrant revelation, the absolute authority on truth in our faith and lives. This authority is not to be weakened by any means. Second, emphasizing the complete divinity of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the manifestation of God in the flesh. For mankind, he died and rose again, and will come again. And third, Christ’s death and resurrection lies at the heart of salvation. It is the only requirement for the salvation of the individual soul. The house church holds to these essentials in its opposition to the falsehoods of liberal theology, contributing greatly to building up a foundation of a pure faith.
However, some house churches, in order to underscore their belief in these essentials, reject and criticize all theology (thinking that theology weakens the absolute nature of the faith and truth). They emphasize the salvation of the individual soul, while overlooking the building-up of the church and also the caring-for of society (thinking that the salvation of souls is the most important, as this world will pass away). As time goes on, their faith becomes distanced from the world, and the church’s relationship with the world is gradually isolated as they become closed off. This is a departure from the spirit of the incarnate Christ who “became flesh.” This is also the reason why fewer house churches are calling themselves fundamentalist and refer to themselves as evangelical instead.
2. Holding to the separation of church and state.
The house church has always strongly emphasized that Jesus Christ is the head of the church and that the church must unite with or be held in bondage to worldly powers, lest it fall into spiritual promiscuity. Therefore, the house church has maintained the principle of separation of church and state. Yet the author discovered that the early house churches (and also later ones), in the practical application of this principle, very seldom approached it through the lens of church-state relations, but basically approached it from the personal faith angle, avoiding addressing the issue directly.
Why not join the Three-Self? First, Wang Mingdao put forth a reason that was later widely adopted by the house churches: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers,” meaning that we do not share the same beliefs as those in the Three-Self. However, what if Wu Yaozong and Ding Guangxun had abandoned liberal theology, then how would we handle this matter? This is a key issue today. In reality, the house churches’ refusal to participate in the Three-Self is not just because of its “liberal theology,” but rather because behind the Three-Self there is government control (leaders) or submission. Therefore, one can say that participating in the Three-Self is to acknowledge the government’s power as the head and not Christ. This kind of church is no longer “virgin,” but rather is an “adulteress” united with a worldly regime. Within the house church tradition, there have also been those who have raised this issue from the perspective of who holds decision-making power (such as Allen Yuan and Samuel Lamb).
If there is a long-term avoidance of the issue of church-state relations, thinking that it is all just politics, what will be the result? The church would completely give up its rightful place in society, which also implies the public square. Before the Three-Self movement, whether it was Wang Mingdao or Watchman Nee, Christian leaders were able to openly publish journals and newspapers, making their voices heard to all society. But when the church avoided the church-state relations issue, it lost its witness to all of society and the public square. So in the past, whenever a Christian engaged with the public square, the house church would be very sensitive and nervous about it. Up until recently, many house churches have been very sensitive and have purposely distanced themselves from those “activist” Christians, for fear of “getting burned.” But today, many house churches have been helped through these individuals, entering the public square and using legal means to safeguard the churches’ legitimate rights and interests. The Three-Self submits to the government, abandoning its mission – it dare not, it cannot, and it will not enter the public square. But with the growth of the house church, the Lord’s church will fully enter China’s public square (last year’s church involvement in relief efforts proves this point). Sometimes I must follow the example of the Apostle Paul, who often used his Roman citizenship and the laws of his time to protect and expand the rights of his faith and preaching, in order to adhere to the faith, and by means of the law, protect the autonomy of the church.
3. Walking in the way of the cross.
Since house churches refuse to compromise with the government, if history is a guide, they will walk in the way of the cross, giving up everything including their lives and families without hesitation. Therefore suffering will become the mark of the Chinese Christian during this unique historical time. True Christians will hold onto their faith and refuse to be disciples who compromise on the truth, and so it will be nearly impossible to avoid suffering (unless the Lord provides special care and protection). Those who lead the church must especially face the responsibility of experiencing persecution.
We believe that suffering refines the lives of pastors and believers and it also refines the church; it is through the sufferings of these spiritual elders that an unshakeable foundation is built for the Chinese church. However, extended suffering brings its own set of challenges as it individualizes faith, breaking down disciples so that each must face their faith alone. Because [in that environment] churches of a certain size do not exist, with pastors often jailed, brothers and sisters can only pray and read Scriptures (if they have Bibles at all) and fellowship in secret (if the police have not raided their locales). Suffering individualizes faith, weakening the collective sense of the church (group identity), bringing emphasis to individual faith and witness, while ignoring the importance of building up the church and its corporate witness. Therefore, house churches that experience persecution over the long haul, both should seek out the faith and peace of mind that accompanies relatively more peaceful times, to prevent the danger of seeing suffering as a source of spiritual pride. They must also learn, in actual peaceful times, to continue to lay themselves down and walk in the way of the cross.
4. Focusing on the inner life.
The spiritual distinctive of the house church is the inner life of its believers, with a focus on a believers’ individual relationship with the Lord; this has become the strong foundation as they experience suffering, seeking breakthrough and growth in their spiritual lives through devotions. Whether it is Watchman Nee who was influenced by the Pietists, or the Reformed pastor Jia Yumin who graduated from a Presbyterian seminary, they are all in accord on this point, and this has always been the emphasis of the Chinese house church.
However, the house church often uses the phrase “spiritual” to express the inner life, making it difficult to be objective about God’s commands as a code of conduct; the result is that the spiritual life often becomes out of touch with real life. In fact, when the Bible speaks of a truly spiritual person (someone of the spirit, filled with the spirit), there’s always clear accordance with biblical codes of conduct instead of evaluations based on inner feelings or surroundings. Consistently, a truly spiritual husband, wife, father or mother, son or daughter, master or servant, all have standards by which they are assessed (Ephesians 5:18-6-9). Apart from the codes of conduct found in the scriptural truths, focusing only on the inner life makes it too easy to take human (or even fleshly) standards as false spiritual ones.
Moreover, an over-emphasis on the inner life will inevitably create an extreme: an opposition to any efforts at church organization. There are three reasons: first, as mentioned before, the emphasis on the individual relationship with the Lord as the main medium for faith. This often leads to thinking that church governance and organization comes from man and is not “spiritual.” The second reason is because the church has long avoided addressing church-state relations; after leaving the public square and entering homes, the scale of churches has been small, with no need to create additional structures, disciplines, or governance. The third reason is that under specific historical contexts (including now), organizations have been targeted; therefore, one should avoid all organizing. Being opposed to organizing has diluted the group nature of the churches’ faith and service while emphasizing the spiritual nature of the church (for where two or three or more are gathered in his name, there is the church). This has resulted in the house church lacking a proper ecclesiology. Therefore in the historical context, it is not hard to understand why: churches entered the private sphere of life and became “house churches,” and under these circumstances undertook “decentralized guerilla” tactics (which has long been the spiritual trump card of the house church) to protect individual belief and grow within safe limits. This “house” nature of the house church attaches great importance to close fellowship and life connections, so house churches typically have this legacy.
In the past, house churches suffered for the right to individual belief; today’s house church must persist in suffering in order to build the church. The church-state conflict and its essence have not changed.
5. Focusing on repentance, prayer, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
House churches tend to emphasize confession of sin and repentance, which is also directly tied to their forbearers in the faith. Wang Mingdao emphasized the holy living of Christians as new creations, and being “emptied of sin” was the focus and climax of John Sung’s (Song Shangjie) evangelistic revival meetings. Currently if anyone is willing to trust Christ, we usually lead him or her in a decision prayer. However at least twenty years ago, if someone was willing to trust Christ, typically they were brought by an elder brother or sister to a room to confess all of their sins from youth till now. This kind of repentance, emptying of sin, was viewed as the sign of rebirth. The house church also very much emphasizes prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit because of its emphasis on the inner life. Because in specific historical contexts, other than prayer, there was not much else that could be done. In prayer they sought the Lord, and thus experienced the mighty work of the Holy Spirit. A focus on repentance, prayer, and the work of the Holy Spirit – these became the spiritual distinctives of the house church, which also cannot be divorced from the spiritual impact of the evangelistic revivals of John Sung across all of China and even the Chinese-speaking world.
The Chinese house church has definitely experienced historically the Holy Spirit’s revival of believers’ inner lives and the outward flourishing of the church. Perhaps because of this, soteriology [the doctrines of salvation] in the house church has historically not emphasized “justification by faith,” by which the faith comes from the Holy Spirit. Rather the emphasis has been on personal experience from those who have been saved, born again, and have been emptied of sin – lacking the biblical and theological perspectives to interpret and define salvation. Today, the house church has begun to pay attention to theology and the inherited creeds.
6. Emphasizing the life of faith.
There has been an emphasis that preachers live a life of faith, with all ministry relying on a pure faith and trust in the Lord. This kind of “not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit of God” complete faith is absolutely a very precious part of the house church tradition. Because in matters of survival, facing an external environment that is not free, the preacher demonstrates faith in God (if there is a lack of faith in basic areas of life, how would they teach brothers and sisters to truly lean on God), especially in difficult places (like in the countryside) where they perhaps follow Paul’s example in “tentmaking” in order to shield brothers and sisters who live lives of hardship from economic burden. It is right for preachers to live by faith and practice self-denial in this way. However in the past, the house church has over-emphasized that preachers needed to live by faith, neglecting the fact that congregants needed to also supply the pastors’ needs. This should not happen. There are even cases of churches that do supply financial assistance to their preachers and yet hold to the view that it is “unspiritual” that these preachers receive salaries or have the same standard of living as others (do not forget “the worker deserves his wages” [1 Timothy 5:18]). We must reflect on and correct these misconceptions before God. A Three-Self pastor may have been assigned several homes, so it is often hard for them to hold to the truth while worshipping Mammon; but the house church also takes it too far, often not providing enough for a preacher to have enough to eat.
In the past, we have rarely seen congregants dedicating funds to proactively support the church’s ministries. This has definitely been related to the security concerns around designating an offering box. In addition, when there is a pure heart to trust God, it is easy to neglect adequate planning and preparation, typically relying on prayer alone. This approach is very appropriate given the unique circumstances, because it truly requires the Holy Spirit’s clear guidance; moreover, since the church is so small, adjustments can be made at any time. In the past, it has been very precious to rely on the Lord alone to provide, but we cannot forget the other ways the Holy Spirit works as a result; he is a strategic, intelligent, and wise Spirit. With the growth of the church and the development of the church serving collectively as Christ’s body, there is a growing need to build careful planning upon the foundation of prayer.
7. A special focus on evangelism.
From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the rural house church suffered widespread persecution. Preachers had no choice but to leave their hometowns, and this set off a high mark in national evangelism and missions. Under the “Three Decisions” [policy of the government], Three-Self congregations were restricted from freely opening new sites or crossing regional borders to evangelize. Evangelism (here broadly defined) across the city and rural areas, became a distinctive feature of the house church, something that has always been a focus for the church and has brought joy to and blessing from God.
The house church has always emphasized evangelism, but it is has lacked a complete ecclesiology, and with the restrictive circumstances, it has neglected the building up and pastoring of the local church. In the early days, the harvest was plentiful and the lack of preachers felt acute; today, we face the situation where evangelists have established so many church sites, but the lack of pastors is increasingly felt – those with a solid equipping in the truth, with a strong testimony of character, with enough insight and wisdom to shepherd believers full-time. With the growth of the church, we are increasingly realizing the need for church and worker capacity building.
With God’s blessing, the urban house church has grown significantly in recent years. The size of local congregations has also increased with the breakthroughs in church-state relations – from the house fellowship form of church, slowly evolving to a “church hall” form. Therefore, regardless of its outward manifestation or its varying perspectives on ministry, the church has now overcome some of the limitations of the house church tradition. Under this historical context, discussing and passing down the spiritual legacy of the Chinese house church has become even more precious.