Even before COVID-19, leaders in the Chinese house church were working on a theology of suffering.
This January, about 2,000 Chinese house church leaders sat in a conference center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, listening to Tim Keller, Don Carson, Chinese Indonesian pastor Stephen Tong, and about a dozen mainland Chinese speakers. The theme of the gathering was how the church relates to culture. But in a culture that has long been hostile to the church, that mainly meant exploring how the Chinese house church can think about persecution and suffering.
The topic couldn’t have been more pertinent: the month before, a cluster of severe pneumonia cases had popped up in the city of Wuhan. Within months, thousands in China alone would die from COVID-19.
The disease added an enormous amount of stress to the daily life of Christians who were already harried. Since 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping has tightened party control over every facet of life. In 2017, the government reiterated that house churches are illegal and that no religious activity—including hosting a home Bible study, donating money to a religious organization, or studying theology at school—could happen without their approval.
Nearly all Chinese house churches have been questioned by the police. Some have been kicked out of their worship space—sometimes out of multiple worship spaces. A few have spent time in jail.
Even before COVID-19, leaders in the Chinese house church were working on a theology of suffering.
But the Chinese pastors and church members attending the conference spoke of sharing the gospel with the police, praying for fellow inmates, and being willing to suffer for Christ.
“The mark of the church is the cross,” one leading Chinese pastor told the audience. “If you truly live the life of Christ, you will be persecuted.” But you will also “have resurrection power. You will have the power to suffer.”
Many times, suffering can lead to self-pity and self-righteousness, to fearfulness, bitterness, and hate, to weariness and discouragement, Keller said.
“The house church I see is, to a great degree, avoiding these pitfalls and problems,” he told a room of Chinese leaders. “In other parts of the world, I don’t believe that theology is in place. And when opposition comes, I think Christians aren’t warned about these things, and they fall into them.”
“I am hoping in many ways the Chinese church will be able to teach the whole church what it’s learning.”
The Chinese church was practicing a theology of suffering long before it articulated one.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Christians held small worship services behind closed curtains with smuggled scriptures and whispered singing, and then staggered their departures. They got baptized at night in a nearby river. They hid their Bibles under their mattresses. If they got caught, they went to jail.
Older generations “didn’t have a systematic theology written on paper,” said one pastor from northern China. “They could not form a system. But they knew, like me, that God controls everything. They read Romans 8:28, that God works everything together for the good of those who love him. They knew God was in control.”
Such suffering had an advantage: it was clear who was a Christian and who was not. There were few nominal believers. And Bible verses on suffering—Romans 5:3–4, Romans 8:18, Philippians 3:10, and more—were real and relevant.
In fact, suffering became such a hallmark of Chinese Christianity that during the relative peace of the late 1990s and 2000s, older believers became concerned. How would the next generation know they were Christians unless they were persecuted? They worried that the untested faith of their children would be weaker, said China Partnership president S. E. Wang. Should we pray for persecution to come? they wondered.
They didn’t have to pray—just to wait. It was on its way.
Theology of Suffering
During the 1990s, Chinese restrictions on trade gradually lifted. Goods and services began crossing borders, and so did people. The internet, although restricted, was connected.
House churches began to meet a little more openly. They could buy Bibles from government-approved church bookstores and listen to sermons online. A few were able to send pastors to seminary overseas.
Along the way, they encountered—and in some cases, embraced—Reformed theology.
During the relative peace of the late 1990s and 2000s, older believers became concerned. How would the next generation know they were Christians unless they were persecuted?
“Covenant theology really speaks to the Chinese, who have a strong sense of collective identity,” China Partnership’s Hannah Nation said. The idea of living inside a metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration also makes sense to people who are used to living in a larger story—in this case, the story of their own country, she said.
Reformed theology also gave them a way to articulate their historical relationship with suffering.
“With Calvin, we must recognize that as Christ’s whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross, so the Christian life in its entirety, not just certain parts, is to be a continual cross,” Westminster Theological Seminary professor Richard Gaffin wrote in 1979. His teaching—some of which has been translated into Chinese—has been influential for a number of leading Chinese theologians, including Wang. (Gaffin was born in Beijing while his parents were missionaries in China. Kicked out by Communists in 1949, the family next helped introduce Taiwan to Reformed theology.)
Our sinful world offers plenty of crosses—from misunderstandings to broken bones to pandemics, we’re constantly bumping into the ways our life here isn’t perfect. But Christians aren’t the only ones breaking bones. Everybody—even unbelievers—endures the curse. So what makes Christian suffering different?
Fellowship of His Sufferings
Sharing in the “fellowship of his sufferings,” Gaffin explained, means that “existence in creation under the curse on sin and in the mortal body is not simply borne—be it stoically or in whatever other sinfully self-centered, rebellious way—but borne for Christ and lived in his service.”
In other words, Christian suffering has purpose. It reminds us—again and again and, in case you forgot, again—that we live an “already, not yet” life. Like Jesus, we exist in both a broken world and also a spiritual reality. We carry in us both the pain of this sinful physical existence and also the Holy Spirit. We’re caught, as it were, between two worlds.
That’s not a bad thing. Suffering changes us—“it will make you a far better Christian than you would have been, or a far worse Christian than you would have been, but it will not leave you as you were,” Keller told the conference attendees.
They’ve seen it happen. They know pastors who have closed down churches out of fear; in fact, the entire Three-Self Patriotic Movement pledges loyalty to the state in exchange for security.
On the other hand, when one young persecuted church was asked how opposition had changed their leaders, they reported improved sermons and more stable faith. Another pastor credited imprisonment with transforming his Christianity from theoretical knowledge to deep, real-life belief.
As Jesus was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10), so are we. Trials are not a sign of divine dislike, but of deep love. He disciplines us, perfects us, through fire; indeed, it is through many tribulations that we enter his kingdom (Acts 14:22).
Trials are not a sign of divine dislike, but of deep love.
And all that suffering reveals his glory, too. “My power is made perfect in weakness,” Jesus told Paul (2 Cor. 12:9). When we crumble before “insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” God holds us up. Our ability to stand, to be calm, to be kind, to be hopeful, is all his. And the beauty of that response, since it is his, glorifies him.
Another pastor, Simon Liu, offers a different image: “In a world where everyone seeks pleasure, we glorify God by seeking to suffer and give of ourselves. In a corrupt, dog-eat-dog society, we give ourselves to be devoured by others. In a world where everyone is doomed to die, we become vessels of the life-giving Jesus Christ, who gives away the bread of life.”
So what does that look like in real life?
Being “in Christ” is a lot to wrap your head around.
Historically, “churches of the Reformation have shown a much better grasp of the ‘for us’ of Christ’s cross and the gospel than they have of the ‘with him’ of that gospel, particularly suffering with him,” Gaffin wrote.
But the Chinese church hasn’t had a choice. Suffering has always been with them, and not just general, original-sin suffering, but also pointed persecution. An academic discussion in America is lived reality in China.
Xi’s government isn’t trying to police people’s beliefs, the way Mao’s did in older generations. Instead, it focuses on loyalty and behavior, pressuring house churches to come under Communist Party control and punishing members for attending by docking “social credit” scores—which increasingly determine how likely you are to be able to purchase airline or train tickets, get your rent application approved, or land a job.
Gospel-centered house churches have protested, but are primarily responding by preaching the gospel.
“I equip people with Scripture,” a pastor from Shanghai said. “So whatever happens, they know where to seek confidence and comfort.”
He just finished preaching through the book of Revelation, which led to studying earlier persecuted churches as well as revealing the idol of government—both communist and democratic. He also taught through 1 and 2 Peter in Wednesday night Bible studies and offered a Capitol Hill Baptist Church course on suffering.
There is no safe place to be—not in America or China or Russia—except in Christ.
“Everything is in God’s hands,” said one of his church members, a 38-year-old project manager. “God himself prepares the faith we need and reminds us of our hope in Christ.”
She isn’t angry at the police who question them. “The police are sinners. They are falling into hell. We need to be merciful to them—they need to hear the gospel.”
And she knows, from her pastor, that “we cannot protect ourselves. There is no safe place to be—not in America or China or Russia—except in Christ.”
But even when united to Christ, persecution can be scary.
Choosing to Suffer
“I don’t want to be persecuted,” said the pastor from the north. When the police hauled him down to the station, “I was very much scared. My heart beat quickly.” They wanted him to publicly recant a statement he’d signed, along with 458 other house church pastors, denouncing the government regulations.
He said no. Instead he talked about the gospel, answering their questions about eternity and the resurrection.
They told him religion was ridiculous. That it was dangerous for him to stick his neck out and sign the document. To stay out of trouble or things would get worse for him.
“Theology helps at such moments,” the pastor said. “God is in control.”
He reminds his church members that faith must be tested. And they know it—their services have been raided, their elders hauled to the police station for questioning, their meeting place closed.
Their new worship space is smaller. It’s easy to compare it to the old place, which had a larger kitchen and let them all eat together each week. The pastor tells them not to complain, though, but to treasure every time they do get to meet, every meal they get to share. He warns them against making comfort an idol.
“Spiritual disobedience and bodily suffering are both ways we testify to another eternal world and to another glorious King,” pastor Wang Yi wrote in 2018, about a year before he would be sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting to subvert state power” and “illegal business operations.” “The cross means being willing to suffer when one does not have to suffer.”
And there’s the rub. Because all these churches could elude danger if they’d just sign up under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. They’d be able to meet legally. Only problem: they’d have to acknowledge that the Communist Party—not Jesus—is the head of the church.
Few are willing to do that. But these house church pastors do draw different lines over what they will do.
What’s Worth Suffering For?
“Wang Yi didn’t allow government cameras inside his church,” said one Shanghai pastor, who followed seminary with an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.. “I think that’s okay, because they install one outside in the public space, facing the church. So to me, having one inside is the same thing.”
This Shanghai pastor would send his sermons over to the government (“For a record, not for censorship—we put them on the internet anyway”), and if the police wanted to make an announcement (say, about public health), he’d let them use his microphone.
But he’d go to jail before he’d put up a Communist flag in his worship space. Because that, to him, signifies loyalty to a state that puts itself above God.
From a distance, it can be confusing. Why does one gospel-preaching pastor ban cameras and another says they’re okay? Why does one encourage his congregation to stay home and watch the livestream if they’re scared of police, and another tell them that’s fear of man and they need to show up?
Remember that China is a massive country, with somewhat vague directives carried out differently in each locality. A gathered church of 200 in a rural area is more exposed than the same number in an urban setting. And the maturity of each congregation, along with the education of leaders, differs widely.
So while each pastor comes down a little differently on what he’d allow, each one is firm in his stance. “For those who are doing this, it’s almost black and white,” one of Wang Yi’s colleagues said. “They are standing on the Word of God. So for the video camera question, Wang Yi would ask, ‘What authority does the Bible give the government? Is this within that?’
“You can see how someone else would see that differently.”
These house church pastors, then, would go to jail over different issues. But they’re all willing to go to jail.
In Christ, In Jail
Before his sentencing, Wang Yi was hauled into the police station multiple times. Whenever that happened, he’d tell the police what his bottom line was—that he would not deny Jesus or forsake his church. He was opening himself up to beatings that way, and he knew it.
“I am putting my physical safety at risk in exchange for the safety of my soul,” he told a friend.
This friend, who may someday face the same situation, thinks the same way: “I pray to God: ‘I’m willing to be a chained pastor for you.’ And the minute I make that prayer, I am free.”
He hates to see Wang Yi in prison. But he knows that’s where God has led Wang Yi, and he knows that being in God’s will is the safest place a person can be.
It’s why young seminarians are returning to China instead of staying in the United States, where they could minister legally.
“I’m actually operating out of fear,” one told TGC, but he doesn’t mean fear of prison. Despite offers from American churches, he too is pastoring in Shanghai. To stay in the relative safety of the United States would mean he wasn’t doing what God told him to do—and that, he knows, is a dangerous place to be.
That desire to be “in Christ” sits underneath the hard decisions these pastors make. It’s the foundation they stake their lives on.
Such a Time as This
Even before COVID-19 landed in the United States, American Christians were seeing the culture shed nominal Christianity.
“In the West right now, I see just very small amounts of opposition to Christianity—small compared to what you have here, but a lot compared to what we had in the past,” Keller told the conference attendees. “Young Christians who are really afraid of the world’s disdain and scorn are being pushed either to withdraw—to keep their head down, don’t identify as Christians, keep their faith completely private—or, on the other hand, to begin to compromise. To begin to shed unpopular Christian doctrines and not believe them anymore.”
Along with fear, opposition can also lead to outrage.
Let us see how Jesus lived out his life, and we’ll live the same way. As God sent Christ, so he sends us.
“Many American Christians are really angry,” Keller told a room of Chinese leaders. “I don’t see house church leaders doing that. The leaders of the house churches are already warning their people against this.”
Instead of bitterness and self-righteousness and anger, he said, “we need to say, ‘Let’s see how this is revealing idols in our own heart, things we need to be repenting.’”
Persecution, opposition, suffering—that’s God’s plan, and not just for the Chinese church. In fact, perhaps the Chinese church has been prepared for such a time as this.
“There was persecution; there was a time of peace in which you could develop theological resources and infrastructure; now there’s a return to persecution that’s purifying the church,” Keller said. “We see God preparing the Chinese church for service to the worldwide church.”
The message they’re carrying isn’t complicated.
“Let us see how Jesus lived out his life, and we’ll live the same way,” an influential house church pastor told TGC. “As God sent Christ, so he sends us.”