Dragon Leaders and Older Sons - How the Doctrine of Grace Alone Impacts Chinese Pastors

Yang Mingdao is the pseudonym used by Chinese staff within China Partnership.

In Chinese culture the goal of society is to produce “dragons,” or extraordinary people. Leaders must be perfect heroes. This culture of leadership has penetrated every corner of Chinese society, and churches are not exceptional. Pastors and church leaders are treated as the heroes of churches and local communities, putting tremendous pressure of them to maintain a perfect image. They work hard to make sure they are perfect in people’s eyes. If they fail to produce such a perfect image, they are forced to fake it for their congregations. But, surely, no one can be perfect. Sooner or later, all will eventually fail.

Chenxing has been pastoring his church for more than fifteen years. Now his church has more than ten gathering places across the city. I still remember what he shared four years ago in our training class. “I am so tired, so tired. I can’t even do anything, I still feel tired. A mountain is on me.” This mountain is the pressure from his people, the pressure from himself, and the pressure of playing a dragon hero before his congregation. The mask he has been putting on has become too heavy and too fragile to cover the real Chenxing. He preaches the gospel regularly to his church, and even to many other churches. But, while he understood the idea of “grace alone,” he forgot to taste it and drink it. “I tasted it twenty years ago, but then I shifted to working for my salvation, working hard to please people, working hard to earn my identity.”

Chenxing finally realized all of this after watching a sermon called “Prodigal God,” by Timothy Keller, a pastor from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Rev. Keller points out that after accepting Jesus Christ many Christians are still trying to earn their own righteousness in God’s eyes. Not only does the younger son need to come to the father, but so too the older son who stays at home and is even more distant from his father. The older son does not know his father’s love; he still wants to earn his father’s favor. Therefore, he has been living under the law, not grace, wanting to create his own perfect image of what it means to be a son and ignoring the true son, Jesus Christ. And this is the core of dragon culture: perfecting man’s image, earning respect from others. Receiving, rather than earning, the perfect image is the true understanding of the gospel. It is grace alone that saves us and sanctifies us. No one, especially those who try hard, can be the real dragon. In fact, the manmade dragon leader is the enemy of the true gospel.

The doctrine of “grace alone” reminds leaders of urban unregistered churches about the true identity in Christ. Christians are people who have received their true identities from Christ. Through faith men become the children of God. No one can grant you your birthright apart from your parents. No one can remove the right to be children of God. God loves us and he has granted us to be his children through Christ. This is the true meaning of grace alone, and it is this doctrine that secures the true identities of Christians, the children of God. Nothing can change this fact.

Now Chenxing says, “Once I discovered my problem, I started to remind myself, ‘Grace alone, I am living by grace alone.’ Now I can tell my coworkers and my congregation that I am not a perfect pastor, only Jesus Christ is ‘the real dragon.’” He adds, “For so many years, I had been trying to be someone I am not. Now I am free – grace has set me free.”    

The gospel of “grace alone” brings church leaders to think hard about true grace: Jesus Christ has accepted who we are, even while we were sinning against him. We do not need to earn our salvation; we do not need to earn our sanctification. We already have them in Christ. For church leaders, this is the source of power to imitate our Lord and serve the local church. Change in the lives of leaders brings about change in local churches. The culture of “saving face” can be replaced by the culture of grace. All fake dragons are exposed by the light of the gospel, and the Real Dragon, Jesus Christ, reigns in the ancient land of the dragon. He will set his people free!