A Conversation on New Regulations - Is Your Response Pragmatic or Based on What You Believe?
CP editor’s note: Shortly after the implementation of the new regulation at the beginning of 2018, an extensive interview took place with two of the house church’s leading voices – Wang Yi in Chengdu and Gao Zhen in Beijing. A transcript of the interview was published online in China in order to provide the house church with material upon which to reflect and pray, so that there might be a unified response to the regulations among the house churches going forward.
In this interview, the pastors discuss the government’s motivations behind the regulations; questions concerning whether house churches should break up into small fellowship groups; how ecclesiology influences house church responses to the regulations; what testimony the house church is presenting to Chinese society; and why house churches in big urban centers must take the heat for small rural churches.
China Partnership initially translated and published the full interview last year, and is reposting now in smaller sections for deeper consideration in the light of the increased persecution of the house church in the past year. This third portion of the interview discusses whether churches are responding to the new regulations pragmatically because of fear or under the guidance of their ecclesiology.
Read the first portion of the series here.
Read the second portion of the series here.
Read the fourth portion of the series here.
Read the fifth portion of the series here.
You can also read the original Chinese here.
We suggest that you read more about the new regulations before reading this interview if you do not yet have a basic understanding of the changes.
Grace to City editor’s note: On February 1, 2018, the New Regulations on Religious Affairs (abbreviated as the New Regulations) came into effect.
What does this mean for the Chinese house churches? How should the Chinese house churches face this external challenge? “The New Regulations are unconstitutional;” “we should continue large-group worship”; “no we should downgrade into small groups” …With so many different opinions, Grace to City invited Pastor Gao Zhen and Pastor Wang Yi for a discussion on this issue. This conversation is not an analysis of the content of the New Regulations, but a gospel-centered reflection on the church’s attitude, posture and strategy from a theological level, based on our doctrines of the church (ecclesiology) and salvation (soteriology).
For special reasons, pastors who adopted a small-group approach were not able to join our conversation today. Unfortunately, we were not able to have a dialogue between these different points of view because we are missing another voice. This forum is far from being all inclusive. We look forward to a deeper, broader discussion about this issue in the future.
Interview Host: Pastor Wang, based on your ecclesiology, how would you respond to the New Regulations?
Also, Pastor Gao mentioned the issue of separation in the church. Traditional house churches paid a lot of attention to the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), and one implication from that would be the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology. Often we focus on the doctrine of salvation – being born again, evangelism. It seems like downgrading to small groups may even promote evangelism. What role does ecclesiology play in your pastoral practices? How do you perceive the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology? How would your ecclesiology help you respond to the New Regulations?
Wang Yi: Pastor Gao put it very well. The center of God’s creation and redemption is his church. Before the foundation of the world he chose his people in Christ Jesus. As the first fruits of everything, his people are waiting for the day when all things will be united in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. Therefore, we are created for community, and we are redeemed for the kingdom, the body of Christ.
We are kept on earth, rather than being carried directly to heaven after our baptism, because of the Great Commission – to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, to teach believers to observe everything the Lord has commanded us, to establish worship, and to return to the original purpose of creation, which is to fill the earth with God’s image and glory through those whom God has saved. Therefore, the church is first and foremost God’s kingdom.
Under difficult circumstances, this kingdom can even exist in invisible forms. For example, in the 50s and 60s there was no visible church in this land. Yet those believers who were scattered and persecuted still made up the kingdom of God. This never ceased. People may ask, “If persecution comes, should we still keep the tangible, visible form of the church?" There are two questions related to this. One is what Pastor Gao just mentioned – the modern, individualistic understanding of the gospel, which influences our position on downgrading the church to fellowships, because our views on fellowship still come from an individualistic perspective. The focus is still on “me;” “I” need help from others. To put it in a worldly way, "We hold together for warmth.” Therefore, a fellowship is good for my personal growth.
Yet the church is not established from the perspective of individual members; the head of the church is Christ. If one holds an individualistic understanding of the church and the gospel, he will have a totally different response, because it will be all about my own salvation and how many people I can lead to Christ.
On the other hand, we recognize that the church is the kingdom of God. Sometimes under difficult circumstances, this kingdom exists in ways that are not visible to the eyes. The breakdown of the visible church does not mean the kingdom has disappeared. Under such circumstances, people ask, “Why should we keep the assembly and the forms of the visible church? What should the church defend in order to grow and develop?” This is tied to some complex factors. It is related to one's view of the church and understanding of the situation. I think many churches’ responses are related to their understanding of the situation, their understanding of Chinese society, and their understanding of the relationship between church and state (including their understanding of the church, state, and society).
In the past six months, I surveyed my colleagues and asked how many of them felt our church was under persecution. I did such a survey four to five times in the past six months. At the beginning half of them thought we have a 50% chance of being persecuted. The most recent one was taken a week ago and 80-90% of them thought we have a 50% chance of being persecuted. What is interesting is that those who frequently bypass the firewall tend to think the danger is not that high, while those who don’t bypass the firewall think the danger is higher.
This shows that our reactions are tied to our sources of information and our understanding of society, including our fear of the state and politics. Sometimes we want to dress up our decisions as theological responses, but I think this differentiation is necessary. Some churches’ responses are not based on theology, but are based on different sources of information, different understandings of the situation, personal experiences, and even fear. There is lots of worldly stuff here that we try to dress up as theology, and this is extremely dangerous. In situations like these, we tend to be weak.
After 1949, the emergence of Chinese urban churches in the last ten years was brought on by God in a relatively relaxed environment. In reality, our way of the cross, our experiences of suffering for the Lord, our grasp of the situation, and self-evaluation have not yet been seriously tested by God. Therefore, we tend to overlook our corruption and fear in the midst of weakness.
In our prior mode of survival, due to the advancement of information age, we were like frightened birds. We held deep-seated fear toward the state and political powers. However, if we face the new regulations with our salvation in mind, it will help us face our fear, timidity, weakness, and corruption in this life. As the new regulations bring challenges to our faith, do we have true freedom in Christ?
"In reality, our way of the cross, our experiences of suffering for the Lord... have not yet been seriously tested by God." -Wang Yi
When believers today face these external challenges, we should put more focus on our own weakness and fear, and whether we have been fearlessly filled with the Holy Spirit in Christ. In the Bible, the byproduct of being filled with the Holy Spirit is speaking the word of God with boldness. Therefore, our challenge today is ourselves: can house churches in China today preach the word of God with boldness because we are filled with the Holy Spirit? Do we have true freedom through the gospel of Christ? When we face the new regulations, our responses should come more from the gospel itself rather than our assessment of external factors. Often our assessments of external factors are not reliable (it depends on our sources of information, our limited life experiences, and even our geographic locations, like whether we are in Beijing, or Wenzhou, or other provinces). Therefore, we must ask whether our response is one that centers on the gospel. This says nothing yet about our view of the church, but only about our view of salvation. Facing these new regulations, God’s gospel of grace comes to life through the teaching of the church. This is the first point, facing the challenges of the new regulations with our salvation in mind.
Second, there's the ecclesiological perspective. Pastor Gao just said, no matter how you respond to the New Regulations, no matter what the government’s intention is, we must seek God’s will. God would never intend to reduce church worship through our responses to the New Regulations. Churches in China have indeed gone through periods without large congregations. We have already experienced decades with only small groups, family worship, and gatherings of only two or three people. In the past ten years, we saw God leading Chinese house churches into a new age. If it were not for the New Regulations, all of us would be talking about new buildings, pastoral systems, church planting and evangelism. Should we stop talking about these things because of the New Regulations?
God’s will is to bring his scattered children together to build tangible, visible congregations, where God’s people can gather together as a church (whether with one hundred, five hundred or fifty people – size is not important) for public worship and sacraments. Will the churches' responses to the New Regulations diminish our worship? If what we do diminishes our worship, then our response to God is wrong and contradictory to God’s guidance for the Chinese house churches in the past ten years. If the church’s response is more church planting, that is certainly good.
Take the Presbyterian church for example, to establish a new church there must be qualified elders. First, this requires a certain church size: a small group is unlikely to have two to three mature elders. Second, this takes time: a dozen people may share the gospel and experience trials in life together; it could take seven to eight years or even ten years before two or three of them qualify to be elders. Such a body needs time and stability. If a church’s stability is disrupted by men and it downgrades to small groups, realistically it will have no manpower to plant a church.
"God would never intend to reduce church worship through our responses to the New Regulations." -Wang Yi
Suppose we have a church of two hundred members. In the past seven to eight years, it has become a congregation with three qualified elders and a team of Christ-centered pastors, teachers and evangelists; they are all working well together. This is a church of two hundred members, growing under the guidance of God in the past seven to eight years. Yet now because of the New Regulations, the church downgrades to five or eight small groups. On average there will not even be one qualified elder in each group. The church’s teaching, worship and governance will have been weakened. This is not the result of proactive church planting, but instead a demolition of what God has built up in this church in the past few decades.
If however, after seven or eight years of growth, the church is preparing to split into two congregations, or sending a group to plant a church, or more ambitiously, splitting into three congregations in the next two to three years, that would be great and very plausible. This would be the right way to grow a church organically. But if the church downgrades into ten small groups, the church would be taking a step back rather than moving forward. The result would be separation of the whole church, and separation of the body of Christ.
If the church downgrades into ten small groups, we are not likely to have ten churches in the future; rather, five or six of them may be lost, and two or three of them may repeat the slow growth for the next seven or eight years and return to where we are today. Today we must consider whether it is worthwhile for us to pay the price for Sunday worship, church government, and the administration of the sacraments that God has established among us? Should we walk the way of the cross and not give up easily? This has to be the most critical question.
I do understand that some churches choose to scatter their people based on their understanding of the situation (even though later development may prove them wrong). I would not criticize them, because they did so based on their understanding. If today’s situation is as bad as it was in the 1950s and 60s, maybe we all have to scatter. We have to pay the price; if things become severe enough at the end, it is likely that we will not even hold public worship with more than fifty people. Even if that happens, we still believe that a visible body of Christ will continue to exist in China.
But the current question is, would you pay the price? Would you pay the price for what God did through the house churches in China in the past ten years? For the whole urban church planting movement, congregation-building, formation of Christ's body, slowly maturing into an ecclesiology that informs our teaching, pulpit building, administrations of sacraments, church officer training, and discipleship? For most churches, this only has taken place in the past seven, eight or ten years. Are these worthy of us paying the price of walking the way of cross, even to the degree of imprisonment, until we cannot take it anymore?
"Would you pay the price for what God did through the house churches in China in the past ten years?" -Wang Yi
We should respond step by step, rather than overreacting and downgrading the church in advance. Downgrading in advance is tied to one's ecclesiology; it is tied to courage and filling of the Spirit from the gospel as a result of one's soteriology; it is also tied to a faulty judgment of the situation or insufficient information.
Interview Host: First, for a Christian, the doctrine of salvation should equip him with sufficient courage to face persecution. Second, the importance of the doctrine of the church. Pastor Wang mentioned the relationship between salvation and the church, that God’s will is for the church to be an integral community of life, to complete the ultimate salvation of the new man.
Today we gather those who have been scattered on earth, to join together, with churches, with divine governance and the works of the Holy Spirit, with maturity and discipleship, as a visible, organic community, as a church or a congregation. This is the precious work of God. Based on this ecclesiology and appreciation of God’s work, we see God’s guidance through so many years. Based on this ecclesiology, should we make decisions with incomplete information? Should we readily give up without walking the way of the cross, without doing our duty, without making any sacrifices for God's work?
This is the reason you continue to hold public worship. If one day, after paying the price, we still end up being separated, that is the will of God. But before God’s will is revealed, you are willing to carry on the work of God, for the maturing of the church, continue as a full church and congregation.
Wang Yi: One more point - in the past few months and also moving forward, we are actively promoting and accelerating church planting. Intentionally planting a church is different from small groups. We launched one new congregation at the end of last year; we plan to do so again in March; we may launch or support one more new church this year. This is consistent with the logic of building up the church, only that current events may bring new energy to our movement. This is completely different from downgrading into small groups.
Interview Host: This is a proactive response under the church's unity and sovereignty, not passive and restricted. To some degrees the situation accelerated the process, but this is a proactive action by the church, rather than reactive.
Wang Yi: In addition, according to our ecclesiology, the fundamental issue is our understanding of the relationship between church and state. Why would there be New Regulations? In many ways the New Regulations are concerned with ideological and national securities because in essence the governing philosophy in China sees politics and religion as one. The state does not accept a spiritual authority or a kingdom in the realm of faith. Therefore, our response to the New Regulations today carries significant evangelistic and apologetic purposes.
That is to say, we are not reactively responding to the New Regulations, but we have an opportunity to continue to demonstrate to society what the church is; why spiritual authority should not be in the hands of those who wield the sword; why we can accept external governance (at least we could endure that) but can not allow our faith, worship, teaching, shepherding, church offices and members to come under the state's review and control. This is an opportunity for the church in China.
In the 1980s and 90s there were several rounds of persecution toward house churches in China, but in the past twenty years there has not been a nation-wide persecution of house churches. In the past twenty years there were only individual cases of persecution for certain believers and churches in certain areas. But there have not been any national persecution movements in the past twenty years. This is really an opportunity, as the government makes a new attempt (to persecute the church).
I personally believe this is the last attempt by the CCP – in hope of complete suppression or at least strict limits on the development of Christianity in China, even adopting legislation, mandatory enforcement and possible criminal cases in the future (probably not many, five or six cases in different parts of the country). The government is sparing no expense to suppress house churches. I think this may be the CCP’s last attempt in its transition. What I meant by the last attempt is that this may not be successful. It may get stuck in the middle and be abandoned after a couple of high points.
It is a lot like the Edict of Milan in 313 AD: before Christianity was legalized, it suffered one last severe persecution in 311 AD, which seemed violent but did not last long. Therefore, how the church respond to the New Regulations is a large-scale evangelistic and apologetic movement that no individual church, minister or believer could do in the past. This is God’s will, that through persecution or some kind of wide-spread suppression, the church has an opportunity to rethink or even demonstrate in this process, with humility, gentleness and yet a resolute heart, that the essence of this church-state relationship is the boundary between a spiritual kingdom and a worldly kingdom with swords.
The church of Christ's position on the church-state relationship is shaped by our ecclesiology. In fact, all other religions are beneficiaries of Christianity’s position on this issue, because they do not have a philosophy of separation between church and state. In its response to the New Regulations, the church must explain and hold firm to its position of separation between church and state. We must express to the government why our faith supports a separation between church and state, and why we firmly reject sinicization of Christianity, government interventions in churches, and exams on pastoral qualifications.
For today’s churches, we must examine whether we should firmly reject government interventions. If yes, how do we show the government that we are motivated by our faith, not by political goals? This means we are willing to take the way of the cross and suffer for our faith. What is the way of the cross? Some say that both separation and solidarity are ways of the cross. I don’t think so. I understand that you are downgrading because of your judgment of the situation. Even if later events prove your decision wrong, I understand the motivation behind your decision. But I don’t think that is the way of the cross. That is to say, what did you pay the price for? It is not for dodging, but for the society and the country to know why our faith rejects the government’s limit and control over what we believe. I am willing to pay the price for this. I am willing to show you that I am willing to pay the price. This is the way of evangelism and apologetics.
You must look at your response from an evangelistic and apologetic perspective, rather than simply saying that separation would prompt me to share the gospel in the streets. That is an excuse, because as long as you are not in prison you can share the gospel with people in the streets; this has nothing to do with responding to the New Regulations. As long as you have personal freedom, you can share the gospel with people. This has absolutely nothing to do with the church’s response to the New Regulations.
Therefore, the most important issue is that the church has an opportunity to contend, persevere, and pay the price for our faith in front of society and its rulers. If this is the first nation-wide persecution of house churches in the last twenty years, the church also has its first ever evangelistic and apologetic opportunity in the last twenty years. This is the way of the cross that is consistent with a theology of the cross that God has put in our hearts.
Grace to City has been advocating for a gospel-centered and Christ-centered church; we have been teaching that the cross is our center. As we face the New Regulations, unless churches in China, the Reformed churches, and churches involved in Grace to City demonstrate that they are willing to pay the price for what they teach and for the way of the church, we are betraying what we have been teaching. This is an opportunity for the churches in China to have not only a message to preach, but also leaders with testimonies.
In response to the New Regulations, Grace to City should become a gospel-centered church planting movement that stands firm for our ecclesiology, based on our Christ-centered and gospel-centered faith, which supports a separation of church and state; Grace to City should be willing to pay the price and voice its concerns. Unless Grace to City plays such a role in this movement, it will lose the power to share its gospel.
English translation provided by the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.