On the basis of my experience in China over the past 30 years, I want to highlight five theological truths that inevitably emerge as crucial battleground issues for Christians living in a hostile, totalitarian environment. Although the experience of Christians in the U.S. is vastly different, we can learn from the faithfulness of our brothers and sisters in China.
1. Head of the Church
Jesus Christ, not any government or human authority, is the head of the church. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has consistently sought to assert its authority over the church since the formation of the “new China” in 1949.
I vividly remember a dialogue I had some years ago with a Chinese government official. When he asked, “Are you here to propagate religion?” I responded, “I am a Christian. If people ask about my faith or express interest, I will tell them about Jesus.” He shouted his response: “You will obey Chinese law.” There you have it. Who’s in charge: Jesus or the state? Christians are ultimately accountable to a higher power (Acts 5:29).
2. Nature of the Church
The church, by its very nature, is a global, transnational community. It cannot be reduced to any single socioeconomic class, ethnic group, or nationality; rather, it includes all people who repent and follow Jesus as Savior and Lord (Acts 2:38–39).
Totalitarian governments often try to limit the church to a select group for their own purposes. Hitler’s regime in Germany tried to limit the church to ethnic Germans alone. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the confessing church saw through this: it wasn’t a question of whether they should meet separately (for instance from Jewish Christians), it was a question of whether they’d truly be the church!
Likewise, the CCP attempts to limit the church in China solely to Chinese nationals. Recent regulations severely restricting the role of foreigners in the life of the church are nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt to isolate Chinese believers from the larger body of Christ. The notion that the church in China should only have Chinese characteristics and exist exclusively for the Chinese, devoid of any external influence, is profoundly unbiblical (Eph. 2:11–12).
The notion that the church in China should only have Chinese characteristics and exist exclusively for the Chinese, devoid of any external influence, is profoundly unbiblical.
I won’t soon forget a beautiful house church worship service in a forest of Southwest China. An evangelist from the Miao tribe shared his testimony with a group of largely university-educated Han Chinese. He began by noting that the Miao are generally looked down upon by other groups in China, especially the dominant Han majority. Normally there’d be no opportunity for him to speak to a group of educated, city-dwelling Han. However, he declared, “Our faith in Christ has changed all of that. In Christ, we are all one family.” In that setting, marked by the Spirit’s presence, this Miao brother felt at ease, a member of the family of God.
3. Message of the Church
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a political ideology or an agenda for social justice. It’s the message of how we might be reconciled to God and to one another through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. At the heart of the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior of the world. There is only one Lord and one Savior (Acts 2:36; 4:12). This is a message that cannot be co-opted by any political movement or governmental body. Yet totalitarian governments try to do this very thing.
The message that centers on Jesus, the risen Lord, challenges the CCP’s ultimate authority. Thankfully, the Chinese church has a rich heritage of ministers who have been willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the gospel. From Wang Mingdao (arrested in 1955) to Wang Yi (arrested in 2018), countless Chinese ministers have refused to succumb to intimidation and pressure. They’ve remained firm in their call and mandate to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), irrespective of the cost.
I pray that North American Christians, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, will exhibit similar courage in the face of opposition and the threat of persecution. May we too preach the Word boldly (Acts 4:31). As one Chinese friend put it, “In the good times, we should be careful. But when we encounter persecution, we must be fearless.”
4. Power of the Church
The power of the church isn’t found in worldly might (Eph. 6:12; 2 Cor. 10:4). As the psalmist beautifully states, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps. 20:7). The Chinese church has, in a remarkable way, exemplified this declaration of faith.
In the 2018 Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith, Chinese believers declare, “We are willing and obligated under any circumstance to face all government persecution, misunderstanding, and violence with peace, patience, and compassion. For when churches refuse to obey evil laws, it does not stem from any political agenda; it does not stem from resentment or hostility; it stems only from the demands of the gospel and from a love for Chinese society.” This is the way of the crucified Savior. Is there anything more powerful?
5. Mission of the Church
The mission of the church, described so beautifully in Acts 13:1–3, involves three elements: the worship of God (v. 2), the edification of the saints (cf. prophets and teachers, v. 1), and the proclamation of the gospel to the lost (vv. 2–3). Totalitarian governments inevitably try to hinder the church from fulfilling this mission, particularly its mission to bear bold witness for Christ “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
I pray that North American Christians, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, will exhibit similar courage in the face of opposition and the threat of persecution.
The single greatest difference between the house churches and the government-recognized churches of China is found right here: How do they respond to the CCP’s attempt to restrict their engagement in the mission of God? The house churches, in the face of every conceivable barrier, have attempted to proclaim the gospel and plant churches, not only in every province, town, and village in China but even in the regions beyond China’s borders.
Can a church that doesn’t view missions (proclaiming the gospel to those culturally distant who aren’t Christians, especially those who haven’t heard it before) as a central part of its purpose really be considered the church? Does it have a future? How will the church in America respond when our efforts to engage in cross-cultural missions are ridiculed and impeded by the state and related institutions? Will we have the courage to resist the lies of a secular society that already decries missionary service as a form of racism and a vestige of a colonial past?
Each of these five truths and the imperatives that flow from them will be challenged by totalitarian regimes. Our faithfulness—or lack thereof—will hinge on our response to these challenges.