Denominations – What Every Pastor, Church, and Congregant Needs
Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American living in China assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.
As I type these words one of our presbyteries in China is being investigated by the local authorities. In the process of this investigation, I received word that nearly four thousand Christian books, which were being stored in the church facilities, were confiscated. As this event has unfolded, the pastor of the local church reached out to the churches and pastors of our network within China by using an online chat group we formed. Since then we have been joined together in prayer awaiting the outcome of this formal investigation.
This network is a young, fledgling denomination and spans six regions. It includes thousands of believers and somewhere between twenty to thirty churches. While this is a small portion of the overall church in China, it is significant because it has a connectional element that is centered around reformed theology and principles, rather than a centrally located governing authority (many of the older networks in China have developed through a centrally located authority structure).
The idea of a denomination comes with a lot of baggage and some of it is deserved. The divisive elements that have been part of the history of many denominations are certainly a reason to rethink whether we want to keep them. On the one hand as we look at denominations we could conclude that we do not need the divisive baggage that they bring. Why would we want to burden the Chinese church with this baggage? This view is a very commonly held opinion among most foreign workers in China. At the same time, it has been my observation that most of the foreign workers I have encountered have never been part of a Chinese church plant in either China or elsewhere.
There are two problems with the view that says China does not need denominations. The first is that it fails to recognize that China already has its own version of denominations in the form of the five large house church networks that grew out of the countryside revivals of the 1970s and 1980s. These networks effectively function as denominations.
The second is that it ignores many of the positive aspects that denominational affiliation can bring. Over the last twenty years I have been involved in church plants in the Chinese community both in North America and China. I remember my first experience with being part of Chinese church plant in 1995 left a deep impression on me. The kinds of basic questions about church governance, doctrine, leadership, and legal documents that came up overwhelmed my Chinese brothers who were tasked with figuring it all out. After months of planning, hours of research, and what seemed like endless meetings, one of my Chinese brothers turned to me and said, “Now I understand why churches join denominations.”
Besides the obvious practical aspects mentioned above, there is an even more fundamental need every church has to connect with a historical body of doctrine and practice to help guide the church. Connecting to history helps the church learn from past mistakes and allows the church to see that when problems arise within and without, chances are the historical church has already faced the same problems. If done with wisdom and the grace of God, connecting with a denomination can be done while avoiding past mistakes. Chief among them is what John Frame calls “denominational chauvinism,” the idea that our tribe is inherently better than those who are from another tribe.
The house church in China, especially the urban house church, has been harassed by the government to the point that brothers and sisters from different churches do not trust one another. Many Christians in urban centers feel they cannot trust other believers outside the boundaries of their small house church. A denominational network creates a connected body that offers support and stability and can actually promote greater unity. These are things that the Chinese house church desperately needs.
In the period of time it has taken me to write this short piece, I have been monitoring the chatter on our network (denomination) chat group. The pastor of the church under investigation has never before experienced this level of harassment, but other pastors in the chat group have extensive experience with being harassed and even arrested. The outpouring of concern has been very encouraging. Pastors offering support to other pastors, in the form of advice, prayer, encouragement, and admonishment – these are all things that every church, every pastor and every congregant needs.