A Special Interview with Early Rain Covenant Church, Part 7: The Renewing of Life
Editor’s note: The following is Part 7 of an extended interview conducted by a Chinese writer with the leadership and various members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. It was shared online in China over the last month; the Chinese original can be read here and the entire English translation here. To understand the people and places discussed in the article, please refer to China Partnership’s Early Rain Prayer Guide. This is the second to last section, and the remaining section is very short.
Interviewer: I want to ask a relatively pointed question to Pastor Wang Yi. The fact that everyone paid so much attention to you between May 12 and June 4 illustrates the problem of people paying too much attention to you, so much so that some aspects of the church get covered up. Moreover, many people will say that Wang Yi is doing these things to become famous. Regardless of whether they are done on the street, online, or on Wechat, many of them are done for the sake of fame. How would you respond to these questions?
Pastor Wang Yi: I don’t generally try to explain [myself] because some questions (for example, whether I am doing something for fame) are not asked from the perspective of the church and faith, but are judgments about a man’s heart and way of doing things from a worldly standpoint and mentality. So I think that if these different voices are appearing inside the church, the essential reasons are likely as follows:
First, they don’t know me. There are all kinds of criticisms of me on the internet, and they influence people. When you have already made up your mind about some people or things, that is how you will view them. It is difficult to defend myself against these people. I will not respond to them or try to publicly defend any of my actions. There are negative comments about me in the public space, and these negative comments will influence some people who do not know me very well. On the one hand, I can understand why this happens. But on the other hand, I have no way to explain myself.
Also, I don’t think the church has learned or is aware of how to consider questions from the perspective of God’s kingdom and the gospel movement. First of all, like I just said, an old gospel movement has already passed, and a new gospel movement needs to arise. The essence of the Three-Self Movement is that this country wants to domesticate the church and make ita part of itself. From this perspective, the Three-Self Movement has, for all intents and purposes, succeeded. Its success lies in the fact that within the Chinese church today, a relatively large number of churches have successfully been domesticated by the country. Many house churches have also been influenced in some degree by the Three-Self Movement. Even though they haven’t joined the Three-Self Church, in reality they have been internally influenced by it. For example, Zhou Enlai told the Three-Self Church that the church cannot take to the streetsanymore. Both the house church and the Three-Self church have obeyed these words. Until today, they have become an unwritten rule internalized by you.
The second reason is upholding the independence of the church, upholding the sovereignty of the church before the state. When this happens, the church is upholding the sovereignty of the church within private domains, upholding faith through basic Bible reading and prayer, upholding worship on the Lord’s Day. Upholding the sovereignty of the church through these few most basic things is the house church’s position. Over these past ten years, the house church has unavoidably begun to become known in public society. The church is maturing. It is no longer hidden. Through preaching and teaching the church is also participating in and responding to society. Much preaching is actually a response to social problems. The church will engage in mercy ministries like during the Sichuan earthquake. The church has already inevitably become an active presence in society. Under these circumstances, how can the church maintain its sovereignty and independence before the state? When we describe this problem in terms of church-state relations, we make it too narrow. Or, in other words, we enter into somebody else’s framework. Even though church-state relations refer to the mutual relationship between the church and the state, when we use this term, we seem to be speaking from the perspective of the state and not the perspective of the church and of the kingdom of God. So recently, as I’ve spoken to brothers and sisters, I have often used the phrase “church diplomatic relations” to describe it.
The third reason is I have a deep sense that because of the expansion of the internet, the church and the general public in China have experienced a period of liberalism over the past ten years. The values of liberalism have influenced the Chinese church. Because I used to be a liberal, I pay attention to social phenomena. In my preaching, I will also occasionally use them as examples. I have recently seen many pastors and preachers commenting in great numbers about social issues in their friend circles on WeChat, reposting articles in great numbers and writing things that express the sentiments of average Chinese citizens. This trend toward liberalism has become a very widespread phenomenon in the Chinese churches over the past five or six years. Ten years ago, most pastors would not have done this. In my friend circles on Wechat, I never repost any social news. It is only during prayer or when I’m talking about the gospel that I may say one or two things about the news. Since believing in God and serving in the church full-time, I have never written an article that is not related to the gospel.
Interviewer: Pastor Wang Yi, personally speaking, after going from being a liberal to a pastor, where have you seen the greatest personal transformation, either in your thinking or in your life?
Jiang Rong: Throughout this process, I’ve seen a great transformation in how my husband expresses love and care. Because Wang Yi is a man who likes to think, he doesn’t pay attention to people. He was not the most sensitive person. But after going through these experiences, I’ve realized that he has changed a lot in his preaching, in his actions to serve his family and the church. In the past, he would think that as long as he explained an idea clearly you should understand it. He wouldn’t patiently and caringly walk with you through the gap between the word and the day-to-day experience. I’m not saying that he now fully walks with people in their growth, but he is now very conscious about doing this. I also think he is very selfless toward his family. As I’ve gone through these things, there have been times when my heart was weak and my body tired. Even when he is also tired, he still serves our family with joy.
For example, church workers come to our house every week for Bible study. He asked me a few times if we could invite everyone to our home for dinner in the evening. I always hesitated because once you start it you have to do it to the end. I wanted to wait a while until I had enough strength and energy to do it, and then I would think about it. Then later he said, “You don’t need to cook. I’ll cook.” And then he simply began by telling everyone, “Those of you who get off work late can come to our home for noodles.” Then we had a fellowship meal once every month. Throughout all of this, he took the pressure off me, and he relieved the tension that everyone felt trying to hurry over to our house. He made the food himself; even if he is really busy, he still remembers to cook noodles for everyone on Fridays. He will also make sure to spend time walking with our child and me through our growth. As long as he is at home, he will lead family devotions. He regularly takes our child on a “date” to watch a movie or do something. Even if he has a lot to do, we will still chat for a while in the evenings.
Pastor Wang Yi: For me personally, the most basic transformation is in my thinking. A liberal sees individual rights and the individual as the foundation. This is completely contrary to Christianity and the conservative gospel. The beliefs I held before I believed in God are what I criticize now. I’ve also seen that liberal ideology is continually fermenting in the minds of young people. Many in the younger generation use individual rights as the standard to make sense of the church. They use their individual selves as the standard to make sense of what is happening in the church. Last year, I wrote an article listing a set of values that conservative churches should hold. What the church holds is completely opposite of what liberalism holds. The church values community. It does not eliminate the individual, but it values community. The significance of the individual is made clear and fulfilled in the context of community. The church values responsibility over individual rights. The Bible teaches self-denial and responsibility, not individual rights. The impact of liberal ideology on the church is actually very great. I think this is at the root of many of those comments about the incidents between May 12 and June 4. They are made within the linguistic context of liberalism, and they are rooted in conspiracy theories and fear of Chinese politics. They speak with the language of liberalism and fail to assess things from the church's standpoint and from God's kingdom perspective. If you assess things from a church and kingdom perspective, even if your views and mine are completely opposite, it doesn’t matter because the language behind them is not the same.
I’ll give another example. This is my own personal reflection on this.I think I’m very different now than I was before the constitution was amended. Because before the constitution was amended, I still wanted to connect with some pastors and tell the National People’s Congress, “We believe that what you are doing violates the constitution and goes against our faith.” But after the constitution was amended, I thought this was completely meaningless. What does amending the constitution mean? Its ideology portrays the dominance of the Communist Party and the supreme authority of atheism in this country. What does this mean for the church? Does it mean that our attitude will be completely different from the past? There is something else that happened after amending the constitution, namely the unification of party and government. The Chengdu Cultural Affairs Bureau is now no longer part of the Chengdu city government but rather part of the Municipal Party Committee. The Religious Affairs Bureau is also no longer part of the government but rather part of the Provincial Party Committee. This is no longer just about church-state relations but church-party relations. What does this mean for us? The independence of the church has become a more pressing question now than it was in the past. In other words, the focus of the government’s attack is ecclesiology. But the government is not just attacking Christianity. It is attacking the transformation of the whole society. How can the church protect its independence and sovereignty in the midst of this social transformation? So when you think about the question of whether the church should hold prayer meetings, and you do so from an ecclesiastical perspective, you will not consider whether May 12 or June 4 are sensitive dates. Because when you consider whether a certain day is sensitive, this is not out of a consideration of ecclesiology, it is not proceeding from the standard of the kingdom of God and the gospel; it is not proceeding from the church’s gospel burden for lost souls in the midst of these events. The government says, “Don’t go out onto the streets.” Even though you haven’t joined the Three-Self Church, you have already internally accepted this command. They are saying, “Don’t discuss politics. June 4 is sensitive. Don’t talk about it.” Even though you haven’t joined the Three-Self Church, you have already absorbed the Three-Self ideology into your bones.
I have gone from being an individualist to an ecclesiasticist, from believing in the supremacy of individual rights to emphasizing responsibility, sacrifice, and courage as the highest value standard for Christians. This is the kind of preacher I have become.
Interviewer: Let’s consciously look again at what “openness” means from the perspective of biblical theology. Even though you used the word “openness” when you speak, I think this means something different from the “openness” that the church spoke about ten or twenty years ago. What does openness mean to you?
Pastor Wang Yi: A dozen or so years ago, when the church spoke about openness it wanted to become a part of public society. That openness was defined as being recognized in the realm of society, which was symbolized by legalization, maybe even having a gospel position—the church being given more space to do more things (even opening a door to advocate for some kind of universal values within civil society). First of all, from the perspective of a pastor, this is not our line of thought. But intellectuals may speak like this. For pastors, this might not be their line of thought but rather a kind of linguistic strategy. “Doing this is good for society, generating healthy power for a socialist society.” This is the kind of rhetoric they use because they are speaking to the government. But as a strategy, it has a weak ecclesial ontology. So when I speak of openness, I am not talking about becoming a part of mainstream society or obtaining a position in mainstream society. I am saying that that the house church in essence has a tendency to privatize itself. The house church may not be conscious of the church’s place in the universe and in world history.
In the past, we hid underground when we met. It appeared as though we didn’t have any relationship to politics. But in reality, it resulted in a high degree of politicization. This is the point I want to communicate. You are viewing yourself through their framework. You understand yourself as Christians meeting together. We don’t need to establish a church. We’re just meeting together. This in reality is the Chinese house church's privatization of self-knowledge. It reflects a low view of eschatology. You are in reality understanding yourself according to the rationale of this world. It is not a spiritual understanding. The church is shining, open, and bright. When I talk about openness, I meant that the church must openly manifest itself in the world. God wants to show his church to the world: “This is my church, my children, the body of Christ on earth.”
Ephesians 3:10 says, “…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” God has placed the church in the most open places throughout the whole world so that everyone will see it, in order to display the his wisdom, especially his wisdom in salvation. From this perspective, we need to correct the church’s understanding of itself. The kind of openness I’m talking about has nothing to do with legal status. I don’t care whether the government recognizes us or not, whether it legalizes us or not. The church is already open. What openness means is that the church doesn’t need to be recognized by the government in order to exist openly. The church has existed openly from the beginning.
Practically speaking, we want to strengthen our ecclesiology. The vision of “three hua”is actually a kingdom perspective of the church. Of course, it’s not easy to find a form of expression aimed at the current situation in China. Our ecclesiology is weak, and not just from the perspective of the formation of churches—no one is being appointed to holy offices and confessions of faith are not clear – but also in our understanding of ourselves — Who am I? What relationship do I have with world history? If the supreme God is sovereign over all the kingdoms of men, then what relationship do I have with the kingdoms of men? (Interviewer’s note:our macro-narratives and micro-narratives are not centered on redemptive history.) I’ll give an example. When I was taken in for the first time on May 12, they said I was being charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” They used as evidence a few articles I wrote after September about the religious regulations, including the article “When the Police Come Knocking.” The part they were most offended by was not the point I made about the constitution—that according to Chinese law these regulations are wrong – but rather that I said they are evil from a religious perspective, that they are hostile to Christ’s church, that they are hostile to God.That man said that this was the most intolerable portion because I used an entirely different set of language. He said, “How can you use the word ‘evil’?” I said, “Evil is a moral and religious term. If you believe in God, then there is such a thing as righteousness and evil in relation to him. If you don’t believe in God, then saying you are evil is just like saying you are ugly. There would be nothing for you to be embarrassed about. Why then are you so anxious?” First of all, he didn’t like to hear that. And second, it was difficult for him to talk about this in political terms,because I was using religious terminology. He sensed that he and I were talking in different realms.
Interviewer: So, on the whole, you have switched realms in your logical framework and linguistic norms. This change of realms is done with the church at the center. Between May 12 and June 4, have you consciously been acting from the realm of the church and not entering the realm of politics? Have you considered this or are you aware of this?
Pastor Wang Yi: Yes, we have. In our legal training, us church workers have been speaking and acting this way. We refuse to obey the entirety of the new religious regulations. Why? Because they run contrary to our faith. According to the Bible, this law is wrong. They will say, “This is what the law says,” and we will say, “We are Christians. The Bible is our highest authority.” This is generally our standard response and appeal. We don’t discuss questions of the law. Those are for lawyers to discuss. Our team of lawyers will file lawsuits. They will use legal terminology, and of course they will also emphasize our faith. But the church directly speaks the language of the Bible. The highest authority for Christians is the Bible. The way we often expressed this in the past was, “The religious regulations are wrong because they violate the constitution.” But since May 12 and June 4, we have given up this way of speaking. Even though lawyers will speak this way, the church has completely switched to using church language.
Interviewer: When you say that we must manifest the gospel through the cross, what do you mean by “the theology of the cross” and “the way of the cross”?
Pastor Wang Yi: The first aspect concerns eschatological views, and the second concerns the fact that the future world has already entered into the present world. Because of sin, the present world is an inversion of the world that God created. The cross flips this inverted world back around. The gospel has a strong eschatological nature. The good news of the gospel is not good news about how this present life is transformed. Even though this life is part of it, the focus of the gospel extends to eternal life. In this present life the gospel subverted by sin, the good news of eternal life must be manifested through subversive means—the means by which Jesus saves us. The cross is what we believe, and it is also the means by which we believe. The cross is not only the content but the form. This form tells us that the world is not yet complete—God’s creation is not yet finished. My life is also not complete when I leave the world at 80 years old.
How then do I manifest an invisible world? How do I show my true wealth in this life? I show it practically through poverty. How do I display resurrection power? Through suffering. I can suffer. I have the ability to suffer. I can give because I have. What I give testifies to what I have.
Just like my classmate once said about Desmond Doss in the movie Hacksaw Ridge, he wouldn’t use a weapon because this had to do with his faith. How did those people know that what he said was true? Simple—they beat him up and saw how he reacted. If, after being hit, he got angry and hit back, then this would prove that what he was talking about wasn’t real. But if, after being bullied continuously, he still kept saying the same things, then what he said was true, or at least he believed it was true. So Christians witness for Christ in this world through the subversive means of the cross. The one is the subversive work of the cross, and the other is the unfinished nature of the end times. My life, God’s creation, and the entirety of world history are all unfinished. The cross means you build your hope on the future instead of realizing it in the present.
Interviewer: Pastor Wang Yi, in your article “The Cross and the Landfill,” you spoke about the theology of the cross in a very unique way. During your church’s retreat last year, you also spoke specifically about this topic. How has the theology of the cross affected the pastoral care of the church and your personal life?
Pastor Wang Yi: In my own assessment, there is a strong consensus among church workers about the theology of the cross: because of the gospel that we believe, the church must walk the way of the cross. In the past, this consensus was not clear or strong, but now it is very clear and very strong. In their preaching, the different speakers all preach a theology of the cross and the way of the cross in different ways. As for the congregation (I can’t say for everyone), grace and the cross seem to have become two focal points in their understanding of the gospel through the preaching and pastoring of the church. I’ll give in an example. On May 12, May 28, and June 4, the church often sang the hymn “The Old Cross is My Glory.” When we were being detained inthe police station we sang “The Old Cross is My Glory.” This worship song has become our theme song this year.
English translation provided by Moses, Ryan, and Brent of the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.