The Rights and Freedoms of the Christian Cross, Part 3: Understanding Who We Are In Order to Give a Response
Editor’s note: This is the third post of a three-part series discussing the situation of the church in China over the developments of the past year. To read the other posts in the series, visit The Rights and Freedoms of the Christian Cross, Part 1: A Reflection on the Recent Demolition of Christian Crosses in China and The Rights and Freedoms of the Christian Cross, Part 2: What Is the Significance of Zhejiang? We encourage readers to consider this series in conjunction with the recently published 95 Theses: The Reaffirmation of Our Stance on the House Church as it helps provide context concerning the response of the Chinese house church to current political campaigns.
3. How Are We to Respond?
3.1 Who Are We?
We need to first consider who we are before we consider how to respond; if we do not understand who we are, then we have no basis to response to this question. Who we are is our understanding of our identity, and confirmation of our calling; or, knowing why we exist and our purpose of existing.
First, we are the ones that have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. In Christ, we as Christians and the Church have been resurrected. By the merciful calling of Christ, we are the testimony of his death and resurrection (Acts 1:23), establishing the kingdom of Christ and living out the life of citizens of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 28:18-20). The Christian identity as citizens of the kingdom of heaven and the nature of the Church being an outward form that reveals the kingdom of heaven have decided for us our life, the fundamental values which we live by, and our priorities. This understanding has also decided the house church’s positions – we only uphold Christ as Lord, as King, as Ruler. Through faith we rely on the reality of God’s promised grace of the cross, and we live our lives walking on the path of the cross, because God has gotten rid of all of our sins in Christ, cleansed our guilty consciences, released us from the bondage of sin, made us into sons and daughters whom he loves, people of God’s house. From now on we live before God, becoming freed individuals; no longer can any external powers or persons enslave our souls. However, also because of this, every one of the freed souls before God and people, for the sake of the heavenly kingdom of God, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of Christ, we willingly become servants for all, for the sake of bringing them to Christ, and at the end come before Christ’s seat to give an account of our deeds.
3.2 What Is the Relationship Between Us and the World’s Cultures?
What two thousand years of church history have continually shown, and revealed, is exactly what our Lord Jesus Christ called his disciples to do: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The most shocking event in human history was the Word becoming flesh, God entering into this fallen created world, yet he was crucified on the cross by the world. This reality has shown us that the nature of the relationship between God and the cultures of the world is the relationship of the cross – it is either God being judged by this unrighteous world, or this world being judged by God’s righteousness. The unrighteousness of humanity and the world’s cultures are not just moral unrighteousness, it is also an unrighteousness of rebellion against the ontologically righteous God, because God’s righteousness is one of his glorious ontological attributes. God’s image and laws have been carved on every person’s heart. People and cultures that have rebelled against God seeking self-righteousness, in order to cover themselves up and continue their rebellion against God, will often seek to live out a high standard of societal and moral righteousness. But in the end this kind of self-righteous rebellion will see God as the enemy, and will use the most unrighteous methods to crucify the redemptive God on the cross. However, for the sake of the redemption of his peoples that he loves, the Son of God was willingly judged by this unrighteous world. The righteous God let his sinless son carry our sins, resurrected him from death, declared him righteous, saved his people, and condemned the world of their sin, and crucified sin and the world on the cross. Therefore, the nature of the relationship between everything and everybody in this world and God is the relationship of the cross. The only difference is whether this relationship of the cross occurs in Christ or outside of Christ.
Because they have truly received the resurrected life of Christ, the relationship between Christians and the Church and this world is also a relationship of the cross. As with years ago when Christ was in the world, the model and image of our lives is the model of the cross: in this eschatological world of waiting for Christ’s second coming, to suffer for Christ and to suffer with Christ is the norm of living out a Christian and church life; it is the normal way. To describe it further, we who are under created laws and God’s righteous rule through universal moral standards have been given the proper rights that we deserve. But these rights, because of the gospel, because of the resurrected life in Christ, because of obedience to our Lord to live out the morality of the kingdom of heaven, are frequently infringed upon by this unrighteous world.
But it is in this relationship with the cross that the disciples of Christ and the Church have accomplished the commission to testify to the world that Christ has risen, and endlessly serve this world. Faithfully finishing the calling to give testimony of him (in words and deeds of life), it will guide them to a model of the life of the cross, and the model of the life of the cross is also in and of itself the testimony of the risen Christ. Christians’ testimony of the life of the cross becomes a staged drama, a grand episode of “art of actions,” causing those that don’t know Christ to think about the gospel, to think about Christ, to think about questions of sin and life, so that they might be granted salvation in God through the Bible and the work of the Holy Spirit.
The cross of Christ, the cross of the disciples of Christ, is the nature of the relationship we have with this fallen world, and is also the nature of service that we provide to this world. The Church of Christ’s true and real love for his world is that she will continuously proclaim the great love of the cross to the world, and the Church will suffer with this world that has crucified God to the cross.
3.3 The Key Is In the Mentality
Based on what the Bible has revealed, the confirmation of identity and calling in the gospel has decided our relationship with this world, and also formulated our mentality.
Even until today, facing the cross demolition events, I have seen two of models of thinking. The first type is more active, modeling citizens’ rights according to modern political definitions. The other type is a passive fleeing of the world into a hermit mentality. Comparing the two, it seems like the former has, to some degree, had more of a say in the matter and looked down on the latter. Of course, with general worldly values as the basis and framed with modern constitutional rule-of-law models for the citizens’ freedoms and rights, whether it is in the society or culture, it is better than rule-by-man and tyranny, and it is the envy of the people. But we must first ask, this envy of the people, this better model, is it the same as what the Holy Spirit has called out? Is it consistent with the calling we have received in the gospel as Christians and the Church? Or is it because this is a model that is better than what China currently has, and therefore it is reasoned that it must be the Church’s unwritten mode of mentality, or even the primary mode of mentality?
During the last century in the beginning of the 1950s, many churches, pastors, and Christians have been attracted by a better idealized society and political model, and joined what was then the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. We can see the lesson learned isn’t far behind us. We can also see clearly from church history that the things that have the best chances at replacing Christ are the things that cause the Church to deviate from her calling and missions; these are not evil things, but rather they are those temporary things that are very good and have major attraction. If those extreme or utopian ideologies of the past cannot be our mentality, then today’s conservative, realist, constitutional democratic ideals may also not become the Church’s mentality.
Of course, between these two there are major differences. The former naively tried to build upon the goodness of humanity, to realize heaven on earth; yet the latter sees the reality that humanity has fallen and use it as its basis, dedicated to form a limited power, protection of personal rights and freedoms, and a “least evil” political society. Not only that, the respect that it has for God’s natural law is also part of the latter’s (especially Great Britain’s and America’s) important foundation, formulated through a long historical process. But all of these, in and of themselves cannot become the Church’s primary mentality.
The reality is more bleak since in China many that dedicated themselves to establish a constitutional, rule-of-law, democracy are themselves like the former - they hold to extremism, rationalism, idealism, and also the Chinese traditional mentality of monism. These are what they brought with them in their endeavor to build an idealized constitutional democratic nation. Some of them also tried to use the Church of Christ’s abundant “social resources” to help them realize this goal. We need to be especially careful and prudent, because the Church is foremost heavenly; she has a completely different identity and calling.
Here, I am not denying the benefits of constitutional rule-of-law and the universal values that it represents, and I am also not against or denying the exertions of these people. I will even agree that this is the direction that Chinese society should strive towards, protecting citizens’ faith, life, liberty, and properties, and building a freer and more open secular society. I admire many people’s ideology and sacrifice. But no matter what, a temporary, of-the-world, “least evil” political system and its model of citizens’ rights should not become the Church’s only or primary model of thinking, it shouldn’t become the heavenly Church’s goal.
3.4 Ambassador–Sojourner–Kingdom Model
Here, I will attempt to propose an ambassador that is based on the Biblical doctrine of the Church – the model of the sojourner. From the perspective of the whole Church, we can say this is a kingdom model as well. This model is the New and Old Testament revelation about the gospel of the kingdom of God, with the corresponding doctrines of eschatology as its direct application. We (individual Christians and the entire Church) are the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, with identities as priests of the kingdom, representing Christ in the midst of all peoples and nations. Therefore, our identity, rights, and mission belong first to Christ, and to heaven. Our names are recorded in heaven, and the Church holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven with the power to bind or release (authority). Being an ambassador that lives in a nation not of one’s own, his whole life and mission should first be to remain loyal to the King of his own nation that has sent him. In times of peace, and even with relationships of alliance, he can expect to be treated with respect and fairness based on the laws and cultural mores of the nation in which he resides and enjoy certain rights. However, all these should not become the center of his life and livelihood, even in a peaceful environment. When an individual right and the identity of the ambassador and his mission are in conflict, he should give up the former first. When the two nations’ relationship is broken and results in conflict, even entering into a state of war, the ambassadors/sojourners not only should be prepared to give up their rights, but also should be prepared to be loyal to their true identity and mission, even at the cost of one’s life.
When Jesus was in conflict with this world, he said clearly, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and asked rhetorically, “Do you think I cannot ask of my Father to send for me twelve legions of angles?” Biblical revelation has shown us that God only sent his Son to enter Jerusalem, go on the cross, and not go towards Rome and sit on the emperor’s throne. When Christ came the first time, he was not here to establish his political administration on this land or the throne of the emperor, and he also did not come to build a constitutional, rule-of-law, free society, and certainly not to build an ideal society of uniformity. He came to bring the kingdom of God to the world, defeat the powers of sin and death, redeem his people, restore the regent identity that humanity lost in Adam, and recreate a perfect image of God back in man. As with Christ when he was in the world, through the death and resurrection of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, the kingdom that has come is in its nature aimed at the release and lordship of the souls. When Jesus comes again, all the powers in the created world will be completely handed over to Christ; but in this period of time, the eschatological era in which we wait for Christ’s second coming, God did not choose to reveal his sovereign rule in the political arena and did not call the Church to participate in this endeavor.
Therefore, being citizens of the kingdom of heaven that are sojourners in this world, our first priority, basic identity, and calling is that only the gospel of the Christ’s death and resurrection alone gives us a new identity and calling. Presupposing that we are faithful to this calling and have it as the highest priority in our mentality, we can ask this world’s political powers to follow God’s order of creation and moral laws, and seek our proper citizens’ rights (individuals and corporate). This is the freedom of the Christian person. But the latter should not see the former as a cost. In other words, all actions of an individual Christian and all decisions and policies of churches cannot sacrifice what Christ has given us in him, which is our new identity and the gospel calling (this is also the principle of the apostles and early church). We need to be always vigilant. Are we more worried about our temporary worldly rights and powers (such as localism), or are we first and foremost more concerned about our heavenly identity and calling, so that the former belongs within the latter.
Under the guidance of this model, we also need to be aware that we need to place all the rights and wrongs before us within the context of China’s “biggest transition that was unseen for the last three-thousand years.” We need to think about them with this as the background. This social change is a very slow process. Therefore, even under the circumstances that the gospel commission will not be lost, as we exercise our freedom as Christian people, fight for our proper rights, we must not be naïve nor radical in our demand that these rights be properly realized. China is still on the path of transition, and the kingdom of heaven is not of this world. We must have a realistic attitude, be understanding of the weaknesses of peoples and their systems, keep up with the hope of Christ’s second coming, and with reason and orderliness seek our rights (like the Apostle Paul). This is more effective in showing the life of Christ, testifying to the gospel.
It is more complicated that China is still in the mindset of using radical methods, from its thousands of years of emperorship to the transition towards modern constitutional democratic politics, from a backward agricultural society undergoing the process of transition towards a modern industrialized society. The West that we seek to imitate has already entered post-modernity, and they are in the process of completely rooting out the foundations of constitutional rule-of-law. Recent rulings by America’s Supreme Court concerning homosexuality is an example of the greatest rebellion against the foundations of British-American, constitutional, rule-of-law conservatism and its classical traditions of liberty, and also at the same time a violation of the root of conservatism which is natural law – God’s creation mandate and moral laws. When constitutional rule-of-law has lost its respect for God’s creation mandate and moral laws, it will bring us to another kind of slavery and strip our freedoms. A secular, constitutional, rule-of-law system may still be against the Bible’s truth and moral laws. Christians should not see a society ruled by constitutional rule-of-law as an idol, even using utopian or radical methods to force its realization. This is not only a rebellion against the spirit of constitutional rule-of-law, but this is a denial of our identity and mission in the gospel.
I need to point out once again for those that conform to God’s creation mandate and moral laws - seek out and protect individual freedoms, justice and fairness, if it is in a situation that does not sacrifice Christian identity and the calling of the gospel. This is the freedom of every Christian person. This may even be a result of trying to live out the morals of the kingdom of heaven; this is not necessarily a contradiction to the nature of our identity and our calling. Not only that, it is just so that a person’s proper rights and freedoms belong in the sphere of God’s laws. It doesn’t matter if one is in conflicts and persecutions, or in a very laissez-faire cultural environment, we can willfully use methods of political appeal to fight for rights and freedoms as a way to spread and preach the gospel (just as the Apostle Paul did when he appealed to Caesar). But as one is doing this, we need to ask for God’s mercy to help us continue to clearly hold the gospel at the center as our heart and motivation, in order to prevent us in our own lust from turning our methods into our goals.
3.5 Application of the Models
3.5.1 Demolition of Crosses
As this paper has presented, if we are certain that the demolition of crosses belongs to a crisis for rights, rather than a crisis of faith concerning whether to “believe or not believe,” then how we react to demolitions should belong to each individual church, based on their individual situations and social/cultural/political surroundings, to make their own free decisions. On the one hand, we do not actively cooperate in the demolition of the crosses on the churches. But on another hand, the degree of response that we give to protect rights and liberty needs the churches to find within themselves their identity in Christ and gospel calling, and to make a faithful decision towards God in their specific environments, and to give a testimony of love. Those house churches that have not been persecuted need to pray for the bodily members of the house churches and the churches themselves that are being persecuted, and consider with a clean and free heart giving assistance in resources and friendship.
The greatest needs and lack of freedoms in the Christian church are not the loss of external rights or liberty, and definitely not the lack of materials, but are passionately loving one’s own powers more than the greatest commandment of “Love God, love neighbors,” seeking the powers that can be seen more than following the gospel’s Great Commission. Therefore, in protecting one’s own rights and powers, we need to reflect what degrees of emphasis we are placing on our own rights and powers. Are they more than the heavenly rights (names recorded in heaven) that truly give us hope and satisfaction? Are they higher than our faithfulness toward the heavenly powers (the power of the gospel to bind and release)? Are they bigger than our love for souls and their burdens, and our involvement in preaching the gospel? At the same time, when we are in success and abundance, we need to examine our compassion towards orphans and widows, towards the weak and the poor amongst our neighbors, and care about their rights? Are the degrees of care for them at least the same as the care we give to seeking to protect our own rights and powers? It doesn’t matter what the result of these demolitions is. As we reflect on this in its entirety, it will help us to be more faithful in serving our Lord, loving our neighbors, so that we will not fall into the disappointment of losing a battle, or into the arrogance of “victory.”
Also, if it is the Three-Self churches that have their crosses demolished, then this demolition is already made implicit in their own principles of Three-Self vision statements, and we should not feel surprised. As they face demolitions, the first thing the Three-Self churches need to do with resolution is leave the Three-Self church, just like the house church, and hold on to their own positions of faith. One should be in persecution, enduring the loss of powers and freedoms and accepting that they will operate in a smaller social sphere, rather than sacrifice their inner freedom and faithfulness towards Christ our Lord’s gospel commission. The house church should pray for the body of the Three-Self church – that they will be release from bondage, and return to the house of God to serve and worship God freely.
The so-called “Five-Entrance/Five-Transformation” has crossed the line in the sand of our faith, changing our identity and calling, and we cannot give in. Whether it is today’s demolition of crosses or the enforcement of the “Five-Entrance/Five-Transformation,” they are seeking to use the reliance on the visible church and its properties to coerce the Church, to control it. “Five-Entrance/Five-Transformation” is a radical nationalism using an extremely reckless method to openly seek to change the nature of the church, which is impossible for any Christians or churches that truly belong to Christ to accept. We should rather give up the church building, give up church properties, and go back to our homes, willing to go to jail, and not compromise.
3.5.3 A More Covert Temptation
We have to be alert to two types of “New Three-Self Movement.” One type is an attempt to convince the church to work towards the ideals of constitutional rule-by-law, in order to work towards the realization of better protection for the rights and liberties of citizens. These types of actions are truly noble, but these are not the calling of the Church. Also, it is because these ideals are noble that it is easy for churches to be sucked into this “New Three-Self Movement.” Some would say that calling this movement “New Three-Selfism” is wrong and unfair. But as one thinks about it, as we take away the differences in ideology, compared to what the past Three-Self Movement church leaders were doing as they strove to achieve their goals with the cooperation of secular political powers to build a beautiful, ideal society, their motivations and goals are the same. It doesn’t matter how noble this secular ideal is, it is still a temporary order established in this fallen world; this is not Church’s calling and it should not be what the Church strives for. Not only that, but in reality when constitutional rule-of-law deviates from its roots, which are God’s creation mandate and moral laws, it in itself can also be corrupted to be an extremist political system that infringes on citizen’s basic religious freedoms.
Another type is accepting the outreached hands and privileges given by the current administration for the sake of the ministry, development of churches, work of missions, and any other noble cause, therefore implicitly losing certain independence and gaining in return some benefits from the system or future developments. This political power, which holds extreme levels of authority and demonstrates a formidable will as it transitions from tyranny and rule-by-man into modern political systems, is in its nature not seeking equality with any social institutions or mutual respect, or in reaching any non-aggression agreements. In today’s political environment, any agreements, cooperation, or acceptance by default are simply ploys for the sake of political stability. With their conditions is a hidden agenda to get us to give up certain independence, positions, principles, identities, and callings.
From the perspective of control, if there is a lack of legal or fundamental basis to resolve the problem and enforce the freedom of citizens’ right to assemble, any types of relief provided to churches can only come from a “tyrannical, rule-by-man” political power, using policies to give the church privileges and benefits. If these political privileges come with added conditions or demands, a possible result will be that some house churches that are willing to satisfy the powers will be granted privileges, and others that do not will be outcast. Not only that, but in the process of enforcement the government may even establish and entrust a civilian or half-civilian agency to supervise the conditions and demands, and from it form a new “Three-Self Agency,” becoming another new Three-Self Movement 2.0.
Step back and consider, even if this policy gives in to the collective social powers of the Church of Christ and does not have any political conditions attached, the incarnational Church of Christ should still consider if we should allow ourselves to accept such special privileges and status, and enjoy liberty and rights that other social institutions do not have? Will this really accomplish and promote the Church’s gospel commission? Is this the way of the cross for the Church? Speaking about the longterm, is this building up the Church or destroying the Church? Church history has shown that we already tried Christendom once - what kinds of reminders and references can we learn from it? Should the Church of Christ walk with the poor and the persecuted, becoming the last civilian institution that can be made public and legal? Is your church and our church willing to be one with all the Church of Christ, being the last ones with the qualifications to be registered churches?
The relationship between this world and the kingdom that Christ brought to this world is not a passive relationship, nor is it a parallel relationship; rather, it is an active perpendicular relationship. This active perpendicular is the cross - it shows the Church of the kingdom that Christ brought, and the Church is focused on the cross. The nature of the Church of Christ is being in this world, but belonging to heaven. It has been decided for her that in this world her eschatological image is the image of the cross. Because the Church is united with Christ, receives the gospel commission, and has the Holy Word that binds and releases, the Church itself is the temporary arrival of the eternal of kingdom of heaven. It is the cross of Christ that is revealed in this world in form and in shape.
The created world is under God’s creation mandate and moral laws, and Christians and the Church are like any other individuals and people groups - we are all under God’s mercy and patience. In this secular world, we should enjoy the benefits of being human – God’s images of dignity, liberty, and rights. From the perspective of this secular world, they have every right to ask for being treated equally and fairly. But because of their loyalty to the king of heaven, their faithfulness to their heavenly identity and calling, their clear understanding that the world is antagonistic against God and has died in sin, their true and real love towards this world, the people of heaven are like their Lord and do not fight for what they should of have. Because of our hope for the eternal kingdom of heaven, for the sake of the gospel, and for the benefit of the neighbors, we are willing to put off any external rights and liberties, including our lives. So that the liberty that released us from the bondage of sin and the world, the rights of sons and daughters of the eternal God, even in the midst of losing their external rights and liberties, may more clearly show that this is the way of the cross, this is the image of Christ. For this world, this is the incarnation of the gospel, the revealing of the cross. This is also the most basic loyalty one can offer to the cross itself, to the Church’s liberty and rights of the cross. Christians’ rights and liberty of the cross is the cross that Christians bear in their rights and liberty.
“Christian will walk amongst markets of vanity, covered in blood stains, but his heart and soul will be more pure, in his wars against the world, body, and Satan, he knows his goal – the kingdom of heaven and the one that called him and gave him life, the Lord Jesus.”