A Conversation on New Regulations - The Large Churches Must Suffer to Protect the Small Churches
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 fourth portion of the interview discusses why the larger, urban house churches ought to take the brunt of persecution for the sake of protecting smaller, more vulnerable house churches.
Read the first portion of the series here.
Read the second portion of the series here.
Read the third portion of the series here.
Read the fourth 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: At the intersection of redemptive history and secular history, urban house churches have received more grace through external and visible resources. Since we have received such grace and resources, we should also now pay the price for other churches within the same saving grace, holding firm for them and protecting them with the same social resources that God has given us in the past.
The above five points are the positions of you two pastors/churches, but different churches respond differently to the new regulations. How should the church handle these different opinions?
Gao Zhen: Our presbytery had a heated debate over this topic. I am one of the marginalized. The mainstream opinion in our presbytery is to downgrade to small groups, with the justification that not everyone can face the government like me. I appreciate what Pastor Wang just said. First, we must have unity; otherwise we will all be isolated.
We are beginning to divide internally as we face the new regulations. I think today’s discussion is very crucial because we are creating something visible for others; we have not had such discussion before. Previously some Christian scholars started some conversations concerning the new regulations, mainly from a legal point of view - like how to understand its contents and deal with it legally.
We must face the new regulations from the perspective of a whole church. As one church, as the kingdom of God, we are willing to make the sacrifice, to pay the price, to carry the cross. When persecution came, the early church did not scatter. Although they moved entirely underground, they maintained unity. The early church faced persecutions under Nero and Domitian and they still survived. Today’s persecution pales in comparison to those under Nero, Domitian, Claudius, or the persecutions in China during 1950s and 1980s.
"As one church, as the kingdom of God, we are willing to make the sacrifice, to pay the price, to carry the cross." -Gao Zhen
Today the church must confront these challenges courageously; we must maintain our posture. Putting the new regulations into effect is the government’s problem; the church’s posture is more important. We must maintain unity; at this point there is no unity within our presbytery. Majority of congregations wanted to downgrade the church into small groups.
Wang Yi: First of all, if the responses of other churches are based on their own understanding of the information, and they happen to have a different assessment of the situation, I will still respect their decision, even while I disagree with them. Second, they admitted that they are weak. If my brother told me that he is weak, and he cannot do likewise, I can understand. These are two reasons why we need to respect and understand them.
But if the weakness results in fear and denial and is concealed by smooth “theological talk,” it will bring greater harm to the church. To me, this latter situation no longer calls for respect and acknowledgment, but for pointing out the heart of the problem.
Our understanding of the information is not absolute. I told my co-workers that we shouldn’t be too confident with our own assessment but acknowledge that we might be wrong. What is most important is God’s purpose and will. I see that God’s will is to revive the church. The persecution of house churches in the 50s consisted of a beautiful testimony, but on a large-scale, it represented a setback for the church, and resulted in much weakness and helplessness. The heritage of house churches depended on a handful of servants, so much so that it was not undertaken by the local churches, but by the testimonies of the servants who were widely scattered. I estimate that this round of persecution will not be as bad as the 50s, since the Communist Party does not wield the same power as they did in the 50s, and they do not have the power they did during the peak of Deng Xiaoping’s era. There will be a wave of persecution, but it will get stalled – when the government has prosecuted several cases, shaken up one or two churches, and convicted some or no personnel. This movement would then be punctured, and it will fail to achieve its anticipated goal. This is my prediction for the future.
If we assume that the persecution is going to be intense, I believe that many will feel weak and regress just like the churches and believers did in the 50s. But at that time, I hope to see the house churches in China inherit the progress of the church in the last few decades: we should not repeat the same situation in the 50s, where only a handful of scattered pastors, shepherds, and individuals upheld their faith and followed the way of the cross. In the 50s, we saw that Wang Mingdao, Yuan Xiangchen (Allen), and Lin Gaoxiang were a group of individuals. But today, we see a group of churches, even institutionalized churches, who are willing to follow the way of the cross. If it were not just a handful of scattered individuals but a group of churches, then we would be ushering in a revival.
I shared with my co-workers that in 2018, we either forge ahead or we will fall behind. The New Regulations will not remain stagnant or progress slowly like in the past; they will either stall in the middle or they will move forward aggressively. Thus, we will either be persecuted, our people arrested, the church will be hit, followed by a tough season ahead, or the movement will stall in the middle after the first half of the year with nothing happening afterwards. If so, we must do what has never been accomplished before and stride forward a step or two. As the house churches in China face the New Regulations today, we can no longer march on the spot or adopt the mentality of an ostrich – when I bury my head and pull it back out, the earth and sky still remain the same. This is impossible. It will either lead to the reception of a huge revival, or experience a large-scale vulnerability leading to regression and failure. Facing this regulation, it is inevitable that we would either forge ahead or fall behind; we can't stay in the same spot.
Interview Host: We have mentioned previously, based on the two-kingdoms theology or the relationship between church and state, in the clash between the authority of God’s word and the sword of the civil government, they will, of course, raise up the cross as their symbol. Under this situation, if the (path of the) cross is the boundary, is our judgment then only a guideline? Hence, it is only when that sword is abused can we prove our judgment to be correct. Only at that point do we see weaknesses being manifested. When the time comes, if we are maintaining congregations of five to six hundred members, we might as well split into groups of a hundred or so, as it would be easier to shepherd. It is only at that point that we see whether it is a judgment of weakness or a judgment of priority. Now different assessments cannot in themselves become absolute reasons, but only serve as guidelines. What do you make of those who take the initiative to give up even before this guideline becomes clear?
Wang Yi: For example, if there is a church with five to seven hundred members and they wanted to lower the risk or to expand God’s kingdom, they could split the church into three to four congregations of one to two hundred members each. But why are there so many churches of this size that would immediately split the church up into small groups? In reality, they know that if a church of six to seven hundred cannot be maintained, the same number divided into several one-to-two-hundred-people churches cannot hold. Furthermore, they will be weaker in their resistance.
If they immediately split into small groups, it is out of a last resort, retreating to groups and families. This means that they have to maintain it no matter what – and if they still fail, they will be considered apostate. All of this has yet to occur, and they know what the reason is for them to revert back to small groups. If it is out of church planting to become three to four churches of one to two hundred members, this is the expansion of God’s kingdom. But when we face the New Regulations, this is more dangerous. Hence, they might as well retreat to the end. Under such conditions, the assessment of the situation has dominated your decision, and not the gospel itself. How do we deal with them? Other than bearing with them and respecting them, I think the most important thing is to preach the power of the gospel unceasingly. We need to restore and renew the strength of the gospel in the church, in the preachers, and in the lives of believers.
We are not motivated by environmental factors but by the gospel – to be passionate about the gospel and be zealous for the advancement of the work of God. Not to be fearful of the persecution of the government, but to be enthusiastic that God is about to work, this is the strength of the gospel. When we preach the gospel of grace, we speak to them with the strength of the gospel. We do not discuss with them regarding strategies, but to dialogue with them in the strength of the gospel.
"We are not motivated by environmental factors but by the gospel." -Wang Yi
Gao Zhen: I am more familiar with Beijing, and most of the pastors are still living in fear. First, there may be weaknesses that they are unable to share. The believers in the churches that decided to split into small groups might not necessarily agree with the strategy. They will trust the pastor, for the time being. Several days ago, two pastors whose churches have already split into small groups told me that it seems as though the government does not wield so great a power now. I also saw that they may have regretted their decision, and they have acted too quickly. But even so, they will not retract their steps because this will affect the spiritual authority of the pastor in the church. As a pastor, if they have employed the wrong strategy, the believers will lose confidence in them; thus, they would rather be wrong.
Wang Yi: This is where the power of the gospel comes in. Without power from the gospel, it is hard for leaders to make new decisions.
Gao Zhen: Thus, most believers are not willing to split into small groups. They feel lonely in small groups. Most small groups are run by videos or audio recordings, with group leaders sharing once or twice. They lose a sense of unity of the church. They also doubt whether the judgment of the current situation is accurate. My suggestion is not to judge the situation too quickly, because your judgment may be wrong. If you are indeed wrong, how would you then explain your decision? The situation is the same the other way around. If we do not judge, we can focus on standing firm and finding solutions on the way.
For example, if the government comes to look for the landlord and seal up the place, bringing me away, imprisoning others or imposing fines, we could carry on in small groups for one or two months to avoid detection. But once the risk is over, we could congregate again. This is our mindset. We will also avoid going the legal route, because we don’t have that energy. The Bible also mentioned whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; and if absolutely necessary, we could use restaurant conference rooms and pay the weekly rate; or perhaps even in the park or under a large tree. If we have communion under a large tree, it would be better. This is my perspective.
Wang Yi: In 2009, I broke bread for communion in the street once. We had different ways of dealing with it then. First, we strengthened the small groups in this process. Previously, we had 60-70% of the members in small groups, but now it is 100%. Some people were not deeply committed to small groups, and they did not attend regularly. But we added to these small groups, assistant leaders and care for the leaders. We also prepared families to open up their homes in case they needed to swap places. These are the preparations we made for small groups. Next, maintaining a public voice has always been our stance. We are not fighting for secular human rights, but we take it as an opportunity to testify to all.
When we talk about the problem of fear, this new regulation would be a greater threat to the pastors than to the believers. If they were to apprehend any, it would be the pastor; thus, the pastors face the greatest risk. Thus, this is a test to the generation of pastors in house churches, in order to test their courage in the gospel. If they are timid and weak, how can we help them? We should not rebuke. On the one hand, we should have fellowship with them in the gospel, but on the other hand, we should be courageous.
"We are not fighting for secular human rights, but we take it as an opportunity to testify to all." -Wang Yi
For example, the Olive Fellowship in Chongqing was scheduled to be closed, and they requested a hearing. The legal team in our church went to assist them, even though they were still closed after the hearing. But it is alright to close, as they can open up at another place. But this entire episode served as a great encouragement in the faith to the brothers and sisters as well as the other churches. We will voice our opinions and go the legal route; through this process, we will defend our faith and express the church’s stance while explaining our viewpoint. First of all, this is not targeted at the government, but towards the church so that all other churches will see and be encouraged; next, it is a testimony to the society – so that they see how the church handles such situations and perseveres and endures. Third, it is a contest with the government, so much so that there is a chance of manifesting our faith in the courts. By speaking of heresies and sentencing, etc., some lawyers are able to recite the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the church’s confessions (e.g., Westminster Standards) in the courts, and thereby revealing their faith in the courts. Our strategy is: when we are persecuted we will speak publicly and we will pursue legal procedures.
Interview Host: This is the unique characteristic of your church. Just as when we talked about the different churches in large and medium-sized cities, different communities in the church will carry different burdens. This is a unique burden that you have accepted to bear.
Wang Yi: Yes, I do agree that most churches do not need to follow our example, and they do not need to pursue this path. But at the national level, there is a need for several churches that would pursue legal procedures to voice their opinions publicly. Most churches that are not equipped or prepared in this manner need not do likewise. I would suggest they don't do this at all. But it would be beneficial if there are churches that are willing to do this. In the hundreds and thousands of churches that are persecuted, it would be great if there are tens or even a hundred churches who are willing to do this. The purpose is so that most of the other churches can focus their energies on other things instead of this legal matter.
Interview Host: You mentioned this earlier: different churches will adopt different stances. With our approach to serving and the like, what are the specific challenges that the implementation of the New Regulations poses to the church, and what strategies would you suggest for churches?
Gao Zhen: From my own personal observation and communication with law enforcement: first, the law enforcement agencies are not prepared, and they themselves are surprised that some churches have acted so quickly.
The second is regarding the issue of selective law enforcement: the power to enforce the New Regulations is insufficient; the passing and execution of laws in China have always been disjointed. The manpower and police force are not capable of carrying out the law to its smallest details. They can only choose to enforce the law selectively. This selection means that they will find the representatives within their jurisdiction. If you have split into small groups, they cannot even locate you. Then, they will find those who are still standing - for example, us or the Early Rain Church. We are willing to do so in order to divert their attention to us and protect the other churches.
Third, we should have a sense of unity when we are faced with this selective law enforcement. If some churches are persecuted, the other churches should support and comfort them. For example, during the eviction of the low-income population in Beijing, some churches extended their hospitality to the homeless. We are willing to open up to the churches that are being persecuted. We are also not afraid that they might bring us trouble. We are willing to offer the free time in the church’s schedule. We are willing to do this, and we told it to our presbytery. If we are not persecuted and closed, we will always be open to other churches.
"If some churches are persecuted, the other churches should support and comfort them." -Gao Zhen
Fourth, if our church is persecuted and shut down, our choice is to utilize conference halls rather than splitting into small groups. My first choice is to enter the conference halls of nearby office buildings. We will rent one hall every week, and our members are all in various groups so that when the message goes out, we will gather. If they enforce the law to the limit by pursuing us even to that extent, then just like what happened with Shouwang Church, it means that they are really out to get us. Then we will have diverted all their attention to one church. It is because Shouwang Church attracted all the attention, so that “through his stripes, we are healed.” This then is how we are protecting other churches through our actions.
Wang Yi: Our strategy is basically the same as Pastor Gao. When the New Regulations emerged last year, I wrote several articles. I shared with my co-workers that my intention was to attract their heat towards us. If we are to be persecuted as a representative church, then we are willing to suffer this for the church of our Lord.
Our strategy is: if our sanctuary gets shut down, we will find other venues. If they come after us once, twice, or three times, we will endure that for a little bit. If we can no longer find a place in Chengdu and its surrounding areas, and if we are chased out of everywhere we go, we will then gather out in the open. This will force them to apprehend us. If they are not willing to handcuff us in public, they will never bring this church down. Either they apprehend us immediately by the law, or they put us under house arrest like Jin Tianming and take away our freedom. If they deal with us illegally, it is a testimony to society that the government is not lawful, and that they are reckless. To persevere in this way would serve as a very good testimony.
If a church of several hundred members attracts this kind of heat, they won’t be able to carry out a second case. Thus, we will have to wait until other pastors and I are apprehended, losing our freedom. Not until this final situation do we retreat into small groups. In midweek, we would have twenty small groups, and on Sunday we would gather in five to six meeting spaces. That is to say that small groups and Sunday worship would be distinct. On Sunday, two or three small groups would gather at a larger venue. A church is thus split into five to six meeting spaces and over twenty small groups. If a pastor is freed, we would immediately resume gathering. On the other hand, we would await legal proceedings to voice our opinions through due process.
Interview Host: You have both shared some possible ways of facing the New Regulations, and your respective strategies. In this interview, what other challenges and responses would you like to share with the rest of the churches?
Wang Yi: Concerning the challenges, we have mentioned some and it can be summarized as the following: the first greatest challenge is aimed at pastors and preachers, not at believers. Pastors of this generation face a greater risk than believers. When a church faces these things, believers will carry on with their lives, but pastors pay the greatest price. Are the pastors and preachers willing to pay the price and lead the church? Thus, I issue a call to the pastors of house churches: are you willing to walk the way of the cross by depending on the power of the gospel? This will not only affect you and your family’s lives, but it will also affect the church of our Lord and millions of God’s people. This is above all a test and challenge to the lives of the church leaders.
The second challenge is the unity of the church. Under this situation, will the house churches of China dissolve? Of course, persecution will certainly bring some unity to the churches in the process, and that is our hope for unity. Can the churches encourage one another, be in harmony with each other, and be united as a result of the New Regulations – thus, fostering greater solidarity and networking? Divisions on a small scale, but unity on a large scale. I think this is one of the greatest challenges that the New Regulations will bring to the church.
Gao Zhen: [Third], I believe there are some benefits to the persecution of the church, as it will purify the church. I personally believe that the impact of secularism is a greater threat to the church than the New Regulations. Secularism includes materialism, pluralism, and moral relativism, which all have a great impact on the church. For example, some intellectuals are very liberal – they do not read the Bible, but they use the Bible to speak. This is a great challenge to the church. Furthermore, the church is becoming more congregation-centered, taking the needs of the congregation as a starting point. In this way, the New Regulations are a test for the church – can we stand firm and be victorious through our dependence on the Lord in persecution and trial?
[Fourth], then there is the gospel that Wang Yi talked about. Regardless of the situation, we should be gospel-centered. The gospel deals with our sin, and it enables us to be humble, loving, and accepting of one another. Thus, we must truly understand what the gospel means for us. We have learned so much theology, but today we are entering the lab, and this will be an actual exercise and test, examining our lives. This is how I view the New Regulations and thus I am not fearful.
Wang Yi: [Fifth], I think we can talk about the regulations from another perspective. In the past two decades, Reformed theology has been preached in the Chinese house churches. The integration of Reformed theology and the way of the cross in Chinese house churches are being tested. If there is no integration between Reformed theology and the way of the cross in Chinese churches from either side, we can never face the challenge of the New Regulations and walk toward a future revival. The Reformed churches that were built in the past twenty years, and the Reformed theology that has been preached, will be tested during this persecution.
Interview Host: Thank you both! We talked about a lot in the last three hours. May God lead us, and may God grant us the hope for a greater unity in this test of integration between Reformed theology and the way of the cross in Chinese house churches. May we be rooted even deeper [in Christ]. Please pray for our country, church, and this period that we are facing.
"The Reformed churches that were built in the past twenty years... will be tested during this persecution." -Wang Yi
English translation provided by the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.