The Chinese Church and the Culture, Part 1: The Church Belongs to Heaven
Editor’s note: Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically 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.
This post is from a talk given by a pastor at a gathering of those interested in China. It has been edited from transcriptions of the original talk. Make sure you check back for the whole series!
There are great cultural differences between the US and China. The difference is not about which one is better. It is a difference of understanding. We need to know how to receive one another so we can partner. If you lack understanding of a culture, when you reach that place you will not be a blessing, but a hindrance.
I love to eat noodles. When I came to the US to visit my daughter, she took me out to eat. We ordered noodles. I took the chopsticks and started to eat. My daughter saw me eating and said, “Dad! This is the US!” I said, “Okay, how do Americans eat noodles?” She said, “They use a spoon and a fork, they twist the noodles, and then they put it in their mouth.”
This is a cultural difference. When Chinese eat noodles, we suck in the noodles. We make it loud! We use this to show these are great noodles. But Americans do not appreciate this. If I do not understand Americans, when I am in America, I will actually offend Americans. Culture is not about trying to compare who is better. The context, the people, and the geographic spot are all a testimony of a process when people gather together.
The Jewish and Greek cultures were different, but in the book of Romans we see Greeks and Jews coming together to worship God. In Acts 15, a council gathered to solve the issues that arose when Gentiles and Jews tried to worship together. We see a lot of cultural problems that arose. These cultural problems resulted in real problems for the church. They could not really accept one another, and because of this they did not have unity when they worshiped.
Chinese culture is a culture of loyalty, a culture of family. American culture is a federal culture, a communal culture. Democracy arises in a centralized, federal culture. People respect one another, they emphasize human rights and freedom. Everyone realizes they have a role in their community. For example, you cannot be too loud. In the public sphere, you should calm your kids. Chinese cultures are family-based. There is a lack of communal responsibility. When kids go to a public area, they can run, be loud, and they do not have to respect others’ need for quiet. This is a cultural difference. Democracy did not arise out of China’s loyal and family-based culture. Instead, obedience is valued. Chinese culture does not emphasize equality; it emphasizes authoritative hierarchy. Chinese culture is vertical; American culture is horizontal. Join those, and it makes a cross.
I praise the Lord the US and China can come together. China cannot do without the US, because the treasures of China are in the US. I come to the US a lot, because my treasure is here: my daughter is here. The Bible says where you store your treasure is also where your heart is. The hearts of the Chinese people are in the US, because much of the gold and wealth of China is stored in America.
Yet why is China fearful of the US? China is afraid American culture will assimilate into China. China is fearful they will be westernized, and the ideas of democracy and human rights will come to China. That would mean the Chinese people would not be totally obedient to the government. The government is convinced one of the major avenues of western ideas coming into China is through Christianity.
Because of the government’s understanding of Christianity and westernization, they keep pressure on the church. You will never hear anything about Christianity, or anything related to Christianity, in the mainland media. If they must report on Christianity, they will qualify it, saying it only applies in the West. Today many Chinese are convinced Christianity is only a western religion. However, even Jesus Christ was an easterner!
When you think about the history of Christianity in China, many people think Christianity was like an invasive army into China. Because of this, the government puts a lot of pressure on the church. Because they see us as an invasive force of the West, many Chinese people misunderstand Christianity in China. What do we need to do today? We need to help them overcome this misunderstanding. What is the key to this? It is to transform the lives of Christians in China.
Chairman Mao had a famous saying that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Augustine also had a saying: no justice, no peace. In China, there is no justice. The law is not in the hands of the people. The law exists to force the power of the government on the people. The law does not exist to benefit or protect people, but so that the government can control people.
In the past thirty years, the church in China has grown in an environment of persecution. Now, it has grown to be a big tree. The church started from a seed. It kept being suppressed, yet out of suppression, it still grows. When the pressure was heaviest, it actually grew the straightest. It kept growing straight up, and now it is like a big tree. Hopefully, in the next ten years, it will bear much fruit. Hopefully, it will be a blessing for China and the whole world.
Christians in China truly do not fear pressure from the government. Why don’t we fear? Because we realize the church does not belong to this world. The church is a heavenly body. The powers of this world cannot stop heavenly entities, because we have already overcome the powers of this world. The church belongs to heaven. The church is spiritual. The church is the heavenly authority made visible on earth. The world cannot diminish the church, because the church belongs to heaven.
In the nation of Israel, you cannot have a pig farm. One Israelite built a deck about a meter tall and had a pig farm on his deck. The Israeli government came to check it out. They said, “Do you know the law says you cannot have a pig farm on Israeli soil?” The farmer said, “This is not the soil, this is a deck.” The government did not know what to do with this argument, and the pig farm still exists today. What is the point?
The church does not belong to this world. The powers of the world can never really destroy us. Even at the strongest point of the power of darkness, that is when the church grows the most and is at its most powerful.
In the US, everyone is very free. We respect one another. But a lot of times, freedom becomes an idol. According to my observation, Christians in the US have a mentality of consumerism: the church has to be comfortable, parking should be abundant. Maybe this contributes to the weakening of the faith.
Those of you here are the seatbelts of the United States. You have heard these testimonies from China. Hopefully, you will share these testimonies with your fellow Americans so that in this environment of freedom, the faith can be strengthened.
We need to pray for one another. Whether the church in China or the church in the US, we are all churches of our God. We need to rely on the Lord to strengthen us.