The Spiritual Legacy of the House Church – A Chinese Response

Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese voices within China Partnership.

From my personal experience and reflection, and as someone who grew up amidst the generation of Christians under severe persecution in the 1960s and 1970s, yesterday’s recounting of the Chinese house church’s spiritual heritage is a good summary. It provides a window to peek into the differences between one group of the current generation of Christian leaders, represented by yesterday’s author, and the older generation. Because this account does not only describe the spiritual legacy, but also gives a respectful critique, its aim is to be reflective and pedagogical.

I am interested to remind our readers of several backdrops against which the house church’s heritage, and the national Christian leaders of the 1950s and 1960s who largely shaped this heritage, came into being. The key leaders of the house church movement were born between 1900 and 1928. The years 1900-1912 saw the final, desperate, survival attempt of the Qing dynasty, the end of which signified the termination of a great 2000-year old cultural and social-economic system handed down through multiple dynasties. 1912-1928 witnessed an ambitious political drama and attempt to bring new social order to China by introducing the Western constitutional political system. This series of efforts was only doomed to fail and eventually led the nation and its people into civil wars and tyranny. We had to admit that after thousands of years of empire, tyranny backed by force was the only alternative that could bring meaningful social order when the legitimacy of the emperor's rule as the Son of Heaven was blown away with the Qing dynasty; there were simply few social constructs to sustain and reach any stable structure to sustain the modern constitutional political system. The church-state relationship rarely emerged as a serious category to the church leaders.

The great theological war between liberalism and Bible-believing Christians in the 1920s was also very impressive to the generation of house church leaders aforementioned. For that first generation of Christians who personally tasted the salvation of Christ, deeply convicted of sin, and rooted in the life giving word of God, liberalism was their foremost concern and enemy, rather than a new communist government who was then very shrewd. It was only afterwards, that we could recognize the basic motive and nature of this ideology and its regime. As the result, it was very natural for that generation to reject the Three-Self movement for the same theological and spiritual reasons against the liberalism.

However, having said the above, I also strongly doubt that the leaders, like Wang Mingdao and some others, were so naive and simple in their rejection of the Three-Self movement without any concern of the state's interference into church affairs. In Chinese political tradition, the people have been trained to give good “face” reasons and hide their real rationale to avoid irritating the government, or even to save others’ [reputations].

The leaders of that time, as the second generation of indigenous leaders, arise out of the modern missionary movement in China from the mid-nineteen century. As Andrew F. Walls categorizes, the churches and the theology of the time were still in an infant and catechesis stage. What sustained them through the most severe persecution and hardship was not their matured theology or ecclesiology, but their mutual rootedness in their love of Christ and the decisive, cross-bearing commitment to following Christ. The heritage they handed down is truly the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of the gospel. It is the task of our generation to build on top of this great heritage through theology and ecclesiology in order to richly manifest and preach the kingdom of Christ.