In August 2015, a Reformed pastor in China nailed 95 theses to his website.
The pastor was Wang Yi, a former human-rights attorney and now leader of China’s arguably most prominent Reformed congregation. About 700 attend the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwestern China.
The theses, which Wang signed along with another pastor and five elders, laid out the gospel using a covenantal framework. They drew on documents such as Calvin’s Institutes and the Westminster Confession, and from theologians such as Augustine, Samuel Rutherford, and Karl Barth.
And they drew a clear bright line around God as the church’s only authority, in a direct rebuke to China’s government-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches.
“[I]t is difficult to read the document as anything other than a call to a new Reformation,” Yale Divinity School professor Chloë Starr wrote about the theses.
It was also a significant public step taken on the wobbly legs of the small but growing Reformed movement in China.
In a country where religious practice outside of official TSPM churches is technically illegal, Reformed theology “is clearly a rapidly growing influential movement,” said Bruce Baugus, a Reformed Theological Seminary professor who wrote a book on it. And while some TSPM members espouse Reformed thinking—and Reformed titles are selling like hot cakes from official TSPM bookstores—most of the growth has come in unregistered churches.
Chinese church leaders are writing books of church order. They’re organizing into networks. They’re starting Christian grade schools and seminaries. They’re reading everything they can get their hands on, buying out Reformed authors at bookstores and heading to Reformed websites.
And some are also stumbling, passing quick judgment on those who aren’t five-pointers. Some are proud. A number are splitting up congregations.
In many ways, Reformed theology in China looks like a newborn colt attempting that first walk—eager, stumbling, up and down and up again. And hopefully, growing stronger and more stable with time.
Dutch missionaries brought Reformed theology to China as early as the 1600s, when the Netherlands colonized Taiwan, wrote Alexander Chow, a lecturer in theology and world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. Scottish Presbyterian missionary Robert Morrison—the first Protestant missionary to mainland China—tried again in the early 1800s.
But any progress by Reformed theology seemed to grind to a near halt after the Communist Party took over in 1949, ejecting foreign missionaries and banning religion. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s was much harsher: clergy arrested, churches destroyed, believers sometimes tortured.
Christianity was still spreading, but quietly. Christians in the West sent suitcases full of smuggled Bibles and heard about Christians meetings in darkened Chinese living rooms.
When China eased open the door to religion again in the 1980s and 1990s, those house churches came blinking into the light. Made bold by loosened restrictions, fueled by miraculous healings, and generally regarded as Pentecostal, Christianity skyrocketed mainly in still-illegal house churches in the country.
But “it was only an inch deep,” said China Partnership’s Jeff Kyle. “People were taught how to read the Bible, pray, and evangelize. All of those are absolutely essential, but when you end up facing a secular workforce, unbelieving parents and friends, and political pressure, that faith can crumble under pressure, or become weak. Or you can withdraw from culture and become moralistic, pietistic, and legalistic, which has been a dominant characteristic of the Chinese church.”
Ecclesiology was weak for several reasons. China’s officially closed status means missionaries labor under restrictions, Baugus wrote. So mission organizations often stay away from the unregistered churches both to protect their own access to China and also to protect the house church from unwanted attention.
In addition, “no new Chinese [house church] pastors had been trained since the 1950s, and the church’s ‘underground’ status up until the 1980s had prevented formal organization,” ChinaSource president Brent Fulton said.
Those things are still true.
But over the last three decades, China’s demographics have radically shifted—and so have theological trends. Spurred by reforms, the country developed one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The share of people living in cities leaped from 13 percent in 1950 to 45 percent in 2010.
And the government began sinking $250 billion a year into education, quadrupling the number of college graduates since 2004. Some went overseas. In 2005, more than 62,000 Chinese students headed to the United States for school; by 2015, the number was nearly 330,000.
The country was ready for what Baugus calls “almost a second wave of house church development.”
For educated, urban Christians looking for a logical approach to faith and a systematic way to organize the church, Reformed Christianity is a good fit, Fulton said.
Like Christians elsewhere, the Chinese are drawn to Reformed theology’s “strong focus on salvation by faith, grace, and Christ alone, and its high view of Scripture and redemptive-historical approach,” Kyle said.
But the worldview is especially attractive to those disillusioned with government promises that didn’t deliver.
“It deals with the relationship between church and state, and between church and society,” Fulton said. “Both of those are burning questions in the mind of intellectual Christians in China.”
Not only is the theology right, but so is the timing.
China’s young Christians are in a unique position—30 years after Tiananmen Square, they didn’t experience the persecution their parents and grandparents can remember. So they’re bolder, as evidenced by the 95 theses.
They’re better educated, with many leaving to study in the United States and Europe, where they often encounter Calvinism. And as other areas of the world draw missionary funding and interest away from China, they’re finding more space to step into religious leadership back home.
These young, urban, educated Christians are looking for better-educated pastors, for better-organized church structure. They’re finding what they need in the “rich body of material in Reformed orthodoxy,” Baugus said.
Spreading Reformed Theology
Reformed thinking seeped into the country through the strong voices of Reformed pioneer Jonathan Chao and influential Indonesian pastor Stephen Tong. It spread through missionaries and through the returning educational diaspora.
And it gushed out through the internet. By 2000, churches were listening to Tong’s sermons online. Ministries like John Piper’s Desiring God, Mark Dever’s 9Marks, and Tim Keller’s City to City released Chinese versions of their websites. Seminaries began offering distance-learning classes, including Third Millennium Ministries’ free Reformed seminary courses in Mandarin and four other major languages.
Even though Reformed publishing was slow to get started—in 2011, only about 25 or 30 of the 600 Christian titles had a Reformed theme—it’s catching up. And that’s been a boon for the movement.
In school, Chinese students are more passive than American students, learning through lectures and reading instead of interactive activities, said Mary Ma, a senior fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. That preferred method of learning holds as they age.
“Most people get access to Reformed theology through books,” Ma said. She read her way to Reformed theology; so did her husband, an economics historian.
Now Ma is paying it forward, working to get more titles into Mandarin. So far she’s translated Piper’s Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, D. A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance, James K. A. Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist, and Keller’s Generous Justice. The Gospel Coalition has added Piper’s Legacy of Sovereign Joy, Keller’s The Gospel in Life, David Helm’s Expositional Preaching, and Edmund Clowney’s Preaching and Biblical Theology and Called to the Ministry.
“Reformed ecclesiology requires long-term church planting, but missionaries come and go because of political reasons,” she said. “So the long-term impact is from literature distribution.”
It can be tricky. The Chinese government limits print runs, and “in the past three years, Christian books faced stronger censorship,” Ma said. But the internet with its endless space offers an alternative, she said, especially through social media.
Ma wouldn’t yet call the Reformed growth in China a movement—“it’s very scattered”—but does say Reformed leaders have “a big voice.”
Baugus agrees that the public face of Reformed Christians in China can make it seem bigger or more stable than it is.
“There are people being influenced by Reformed theology who are writing books and journals and articles, and that Reformed perspective comes out in their work,” he said. “Some are well-connected. Reformed groups are sending missionaries overseas and planting churches in a way that is more organized and less accidental.”
Ma estimates there are only 100,000 to 200,000 Reformed Christians. Baugus guesses that church networks and organizations on the Reformed continuum—he calls them “Reformed or Reforming”—represent at least 2 million to 3 million people. (It’s important to remember that “China is the Texas of the world—everything is bigger there,” he said. The number of Christians is probably between 80 million and 90 million.)
The scattered parts are beginning to organize. Early Rain started a Christian day school, one of the 200 to 300 in the country, said Ma and Chinese history scholar Andrew Kaiser. Baugus estimates that dozens are associated with Reforming churches; Kaiser thinks most have been influenced in some way by Reformed thinking. (Early Rain’s is classical.) A few schools even hand parents copies of Piper’s Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, Ma said.
Early Rain has written a polity book, organized a presbytery, and started a seminary—one of four leading Reformed seminaries in China, Baugus said. The seminaries even have their own accrediting agency.
“It’s not at all unthinkable that China would have more Reformed seminaries within 20 years than we do here,” Baugus said.
China Partnership started 16 years ago. The organization uses The Gospel Coalition foundational documents and City to City curriculum and training for church planters and pastors in China.
Over the past five years, they’ve trained thousands of pastors in Reformed theology, said Kyle, who is the U.S. manager.
“We are also translating 99 books we think are key,” Kyle said. Authors include Keller, Piper, and Paul Tripp, but also C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Gerhard Forde. “Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage went through five print runs in one month.”
(Kaiser is hoping the next generational of Chinese theologians—those in seminary now—will draft theology that is “fully Christian and distinctively Chinese.”)
It’s hard to keep up. China Partnership had to pull in pastors to do training who hadn’t yet completed it themselves. “We have seen tremendous grasp of the gospel in such a short time,” Kyle said.
But the youth of the Reformed movement can sometimes get it into trouble.
“There is a popular strand within Chinese indigenous Christianity that says everything is a hill to die on,” Kaiser said. “The great strength of [Reformed theology] is that it does try to encompass all aspects of life and give a fully orbed system to living your faith, but the downside is that everything that doesn’t match the system is clearly wrong.”
Enthusiastic about Reformed thinking, some Christians are demanding everyone agree with them. Church arguments and splits are common. “If you say to people doing the splitting, ‘Surely we can work together to advance the gospel,’ you’ll get rebuffed and accused of preaching a false gospel or only being a four-pointer,” Kaiser said.
Some Reformed Christians look down on the rural church without gratitude for its legacy. Some struggle with the idea of male headship, especially given that many of the Chinese house churches were started by women, and that most evangelical churches in China allow women pastors, Ma said.
And some people just want the Reformed tag, drawn by its reputation for theological orthodoxy and depth, Ma said.
The word Reformed has gathered so much baggage that China Partnership leaves it off, opting instead for “gospel-centered ministry and framework” or “the historical gospel.”
“When something is new, you get excited, and you can get puffed up or superficially absorb it,” Ma said. “Also, pedagogically, we are not trained well to teach each other. We go to an authoritarian culture, or we argue and split. . . . So it is a very exciting time of growth, but there are so many growing pains.”
Church and State
Another area for potential conflict is between the church and state, especially when both want to claim ownership of Abraham Kuyper’s “every square inch.”
Case in point: the 95 theses, which “spread like wildfire within Chinese social media” before the original link stopped working within China, Kyle said. The translated version was China Partnership’s most shared blog in the last two and a half years.
Written 60 years after Wang Mingdao—the patriarch of the house church movement—publicized his decision not to join the official TSPM church, the theses lay out a vision for how the government and the church can co-exist. The government shouldn’t interfere with a Christian’s faith or with the church’s functions, the theses said, but “the church and her officers have no right to interfere or participate in government operations.”
That’s one way to navigate the reality that Christianity in parts of China is still tightly regulated.
“The Bible gives us clear ideas about how government ought to work, and we should encourage the government in that direction,” Fulton said. “But given where things have gone politically the last few years, I think some are saying, ‘This just isn’t realistic. It’s not God’s timing now. There is no space for the church to step in at this point and get involved.’”
But staying out of the Communist party—which requires members to be atheist—isn’t the same thing as staying out of the public square.
“Reformed theology has an outsized representation among Christians who are engaged in political reform,” like human rights lawyers or public intellectuals, Kaiser said. There’s also a “groundswell of interest among younger Christians—many of whom are at least loosely Reformed—who believe that charitable work is the key to advance the gospel in China today.”
They’re registering NGOs, running short-term mission trips, and looking for ways to provide social services, Kaiser said.
China’s Reformed legs may be a little wobbly, but they’re ready to use.
“We have to let the gospel control the discourse, control the narrative, interpreting our life and driving our ministry,” wrote a Chinese staff member of China Partnership. “The gospel always subverts and changes us, and that is the passion of the gospel-movement in China.”
Editors’ note: Would you join us in helping thousands of church leaders in China by providing gospel-centered resources? Between now and April 1, all gifts to our Chinese Outreach will be matched (up to $40,000). Click here to learn more about this Theological Famine Relief project.
- Send Gospel Resources to China (Bill Walsh)
- Chinese Christians Preparing for ‘New Normal’ (Andrew Kaiser)
- What Christianity in China Is Really Like (Colin Clark)
- The Church in China at the Threshold (Brent Fulton)
- The Bells in China Are Not Silent (Joann Pittman)