Volume 47 - Issue 2

Church-State Relations: Lessons from China

By Luke Wesley


This article delineates various biblical principles that circumscribe the church’s relationship to the state. In addition to more general principles, these include the recognition that the mission of the organized church is distinct from that of individual Christians, that political institutions tend to become anti-Christ and oppressive, and that our context will determine the extent to which the church can exercise its prophetic voice. In view of these principles and on the basis of his experience in China, the author highlights five theological truths that will inevitably be challenged by totalitarian governments. Our faithfulness or lack thereof will hinge on our response to these challenges.

Normally, my wife and I live in China, and life in the U.S. appears to us to be a distant reality. Yet, as a result of the COVID pandemic, we have spent the past two years in the U.S. While this has been a challenging time in some respects, it also has been a fruitful period, filled with unexpected opportunities. For me, one such opportunity has been the ability to experience and witness a chaotic and disturbing period of North American history, and to reflect on these events in light of God’s word and our twenty-eight years of experience in China.

Let me begin by pointing out the obvious. North America (I think here primarily of the U.S. and Canada) is rapidly moving toward a more authoritarian, totalitarian form of governance. This trend undoubtedly has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic, but the more recent expansion of governmental power and the resulting loss of personal freedom in the region appears to be more than a temporary phenomenon, a small blip on the political horizon. The normalization of “soft totalitarianism,” which demands conformity to and acceptance of a state-sponsored ideology, suggests that Christians and the church in North America may be headed for difficult times. Since Christians in China have lived in a totalitarian state from Chairman Mao’s rise to power in 1949 to the present, it is not unreasonable to assume they might have something to teach us in this regard. The incredible growth of the church in China during these past 70 years also calls us to listen attentively. I begin, however, by articulating three general principles, drawn from the New Testament, that will guide our discussion. I then seek to push the discussion beyond generalities by examining how we might apply these principles to specific groups, contexts, and situations. Finally, based on my experience in China over the past three decades, I would like to outline five key theological issues with which Christians living in a hostile, totalitarian environment must inevitably grapple.

1. General Principles

Not long ago I was privileged to celebrate China’s National Day (October 1) in China. This important day, which that year (2019) commemorated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, was marked by impressive parades, huge beautifully choreographed performances, and powerful displays of military might. My perspective was a bit different from most there in China and from those in other countries. I watched the military parade, a display of awesome power, in the home of Chinese friends. Their two sons were required to watch the televised parade and they had to display proof of this fact in the form of photos sent to their teachers at the local elementary school. Virtually all of the television channels in China showed the parade and the subsequent, massive and meticulously planned celebrations in Tiananmen Square. After watching the awe-inspiring parade, I walked with my friends from their small apartment to a place of worship.

The worship service began with prayer and praise. The 30-plus Chinese believers who had gathered represented six different people groups. They sang with great emotion one of my favorite Chinese songs, “Zhi Dao Zhu Ye Su Zai Lai de Shi Hou” (直到主耶稣再来的时候, “Until the Lord Jesus Comes Again”). A key line goes, “until the Lord Jesus returns I will travel the road of service, I will bear my cross.” The song continues, “when I complete the journey of service, I will see the Lord’s glory, the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ … you are the Lord and Savior of all the earth.”

As we sang this song I couldn’t help but compare the two, vastly different scenes: the military parade and the scene of worship. The contrast might be made whether in China, the U.S., or any other country of the world. On the one hand, a dazzling display of human power and military hardware. On the other, a song extolling the power and glory of God, revealed in the love of a crucified and risen Lord. Both scenes, one might argue, issue a call for commitment. I am very thankful that the Lord enabled me to worship together with this dedicated group; for, as we sang songs of worship to Jesus, we declared that our primary allegiance is “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Rev 5:13).

In the section that follows I want to look more specifically at the relationship between the church and the state—not just in China, but anywhere in the world.1 The key texts we will consider are Romans 13:1–7, Acts 4:18–20 (cf. 5:27–32), and Revelation 13. In these texts we are confronted with three important truths: government is God’s gift to us, there are limits to government’s authority, and our primary allegiance is to Christ.

1.1. Government as God’s Gift (Rom 13:1–7)

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. (Rom 13:1–2)

In this passage we see that government is God’s gift to us. Rulers, “governing authorities,” are established by God. Indeed, Paul continues, “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (Rom 13:4–5).

Paul makes it clear that the state has a clear and important purpose. It has been given the responsibility of protecting its citizens, their rights and property (Rom 13:3–4). This role is fulfilled by establishing laws and enforcing them. The state, then, is God’s gift. The state is thus called to restrain evil and thereby bring order to society. When they achieve this end, governments and their leaders the world over act as “God’s servants” and are worthy of our respect and honor (Rom 13:5–7).

When I think of the poverty, hardships, and chaos of pre-1949 China, I am reminded that there is much to be thankful for in the very imperfect, but at times, extraordinary achievements that have taken place as a result of efforts orchestrated by the government of modern China. In fact, I have often thought that just as Christ came in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), to a world that benefited from: the Pax Romana, the peace provided by Roman rule; an excellent system of roads that enabled travel; and a common commercial language (Greek) that facilitated communication; so also, in today’s China the church has unprecedented opportunities due to these same strengths—relative peace, efficient modes of travel, and a common language—to proclaim the gospel and establish churches.

1.2. Limitations of the Government’s Authority (Rom 13:3–4; Rev 13:5–10)

Since all governments are established by God, they are also thus accountable to him. God is the ultimate authority, not human leaders or governments. This means that the authority of all rulers, all governments, is provisional and limited. The proper role of government, which is foundational for Paul’s words in Romans 13:1–7, is to protect citizens and their property by restraining evil (cf. 13:3–4).

Problems arise when governmental leaders deny God’s authority and seek to become the ultimate authority. When rulers embrace this kind of idolatry and self-worship, serious problems ensue. In Revelation, with his graphic description of the beast from the sea, John highlights the demonic nature that this kind of government can in the present and will at the end of time take (cf. 2 Thess 2:1–12). John writes, “The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven…. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people” (Rev 13:5–6, 10).

The way to avoid this kind of tyranny is to recognize that the church and the state represent two different spheres of God-given authority.2 They each have separate and unique callings. The government, as we have noted, is called to restrain evil by establishing and enforcing laws. The government is called “to take up the sword” and exercise authority to achieve this end.3 By way of contrast, the church has a different calling. The church is called to worship God, edify and encourage believers, and witness to unbelievers (Acts 13:1–3). To use John Nugent’s helpful phrase, we are to “embrace, display, and proclaim” the kingdom of God.4

History shows that when the state attempts to assume the church’s role or the church attempts to usurp the divinely ordained function of the state, trouble is inevitable. The state cannot minister the gospel and the church cannot wield the sword. God has not called and equipped either of these institutions to perform these functions. Rather, each of these institutions has a specific call and purpose: the state wields the sword; the church possesses the keys to the kingdom.5

A related and important observation is that the early church never forced people to become Christians. Paul writes, “we make it our goal to please [the Lord]…. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ…. Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men” (2 Cor 5:9–11). We seek to persuade, warn, and plead (cf. Acts 2:40), but never use physical force to compel. When the church has forgotten its true calling and sought to use physical force to extend the kingdom of God, the result has been disastrous (e.g., some of the crusades of the Middle Ages).

History also tells us that the state is often tempted to view itself rather than God as the ultimate authority. When it does so, it seeks to deny the church its legitimate role to embrace, display, and proclaim the kingdom of God. The actions of the emperor Domitian in the late first century are described well with John’s depiction of the beast from the sea, who will “utter proud words and blasphemies” and seek to receive worship and exercise absolute control and authority (Rev 13:5, 7–8, 14–17). Domitian loved to be called “our master and god” and could not tolerate allegiance to the true God, for this diminished his power.6 Since Domitian, countless rulers have followed in his footsteps and sought to exalt themselves over God. These rulers persecute the church and ultimately seek to destroy or control it. This leads us to our final point.

1.3. Primary Allegiance to Christ (Acts 4:18–20; Rev 13:9–10)

In the face of tyrannical despots who demand ultimate allegiance, John’s message to the church is clear. We cannot bow down to these kinds of idolatrous demands; rather, we must stand firm and remain committed to true worship. We must worship Christ, who is the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16), for “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:10).

We must never forget that the role and the authority of the state is limited and comes from God. So, when the state seeks to take the place of God or his church, we cannot obey. This calls for wisdom and “patient endurance” (Rev 1:9; 13:10; 14:12). In Revelation, a phrase that we hear repeatedly is the phrase “patience endurance” (ὑπομονή: 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12). With this phrase (cf. Rev 13:9–10) John declares that we will be victorious, not by overcoming in human terms with brute force, but through faithful witness even unto death.

The early church provides a wonderful model of courageous resistance. In their first encounter with persecution, Peter and John boldly reject the command of the leaders of their day, “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” Peter and John reply, “judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18–20).

I often emphasize to my Chinese friends: I am a Christian first, and then every other identity marker follows and pales into insignificance by comparison (e.g., a St. Louis Cardinal baseball fan, an American citizen, etc.). My faith in Christ is what defines me. So, I have a closer sense of connection with my Chinese Christian friends than I do with non-Christians, including those who were raised in the same culture and nation. Paul puts it well: in Christ we are now fellow citizens and members of the same family (Eph 2:18–22).

I do believe that we can and should love our homeland. I am also convinced that by courageously serving Christ in our respective countries, we will become a great blessing to these nations. Indeed, the greatest gift we can give our homeland is to display and proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. As we serve God, he will help us bless the country of our birth. But we must always remember that first and foremost, we are citizens of God’s kingdom. When we do this, we will bless our country as no one else can.

2. Beyond Generalities

The general principles noted above, while offering important boundaries, must be applied to the complex and varied situations that we as Christians living in the inter-advent period face. With this task in mind, I want to press beyond the general principles outlined above by offering a few guidelines that might help us apply these basic principles to our daily lives.

How we understand the mission of the church significantly shapes how we approach the question of the church’s relationship to the state. If we view the mission of the church in broad terms, encompassing the total transformation of human society and all of God’s creation, then we see the church’s relationship with the state as necessarily a vital and close one, involving both prophetic and collaborative dimensions.7 If the church’s mission is ultimately to transform every aspect of society, then by definition the church must be politically engaged and relate in meaningful ways to the state.

However, a number of recent works by evangelical scholars have challenged this broad understanding of the mission of the church.8 In various ways, each of these works argues that the mission of the church should be understood more narrowly as centering on the proclamation of the gospel and making disciples (Matt 28:18–20; Luke 24:46–48; Acts 1:8). Space does not permit me to engage in this important discussion in depth, but for the purposes of this paper it will suffice to note that our vision of the church’s mission largely determines our perspective on church-state relations. I shall examine the church-state relationship from the perspective of a narrow understanding of the church’s mission and describe the important implications that follow.

2.1. Responsibilities: Gathered Church or Individual Christians?

In his illuminating essay, Jonathan Leeman helpfully distinguishes between the mission of the church and the mission of individual Christians. Leeman declares that we must “keep these two missions or jobs distinct,” and then insists that “the church-as-organized-collective and church-as-its-individual-members” must each do their “God-assigned jobs.”9 The former is focused more narrowly on proclamation and making disciples (Matt 28:18–20; Luke 24:46–48; Acts 1:8), the latter includes the broader responsibility of every Christian to live as followers of Christ in their individual callings and with their unique giftings.10

Individual Christians face many questions as they seek to relate to the state: How do I vote? Shall I work for a political party? Shall I run for public office? Shall I obey the laws of the state? However, it should be recognized that the relationship between the organic church (individual believers) and the state is quite different from that of the organized church and the state. The organized church has a specific and narrow mission; the organic church, by virtue of the unique calling and giftings of each individual, has a much broader one. The organized church is called to help its members think and act in uniquely Christian ways through teaching God’s word and the process of discipleship, but it is not called to “wield the sword” by determining the many and varied political decisions that shape the larger (generally, non-Christian) society. Individual Christians, when possible, appropriate, and in accordance with their unique God-given calling and gifts, may participate in the governing process. As members of the body of Christ we are called “to do good” to all (1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 4:19) and thus to exert a positive influence in society through political engagement when possible. Nevertheless, the organized church is not called or equipped to transform the world through political activism nor should it seek to encroach on the state’s God-given role of maintaining order in society. As John Nugent aptly states, “The church’s goal is not to transform the world but to live together as a transformed world, and to invite the nations in word and deed to the Transformer.”11

Contemporary calls for the church to work for “social justice” by linking arms with diverse political forces in order to take command of the apparatus of the state are, from the narrow mission perspective, misguided. This relatively apolitical understanding of the church’s mission, which views the mission of the organized church as distinct from that of the state, has the advantage of enabling the church to feature a message that centers on the word of God and that thus serves to unite the community of faith. The further the church moves into the realm of political or social action, the less it is able to speak with clarity about its suggested course of action. Should Christians support a welfare state as a compassionate choice for the poor? Or should they encourage less government intervention so that individuals and churches have more freedom and resources to minister to them? These are the kind of questions that individual Christians must consider. However, because these questions are not directly dealt with in the Scriptures, they normally generate conflicting responses. Evangelical Christians have, for the most part, avoided theological reflection and philosophical speculation that takes the church away from its apostolic foundations and its central truths.12 They show little interest in political theology. Some see this as a weakness, but I think history has shown that it is a great strength.13

If the mission of the organized church is distinct from the state, it should also be acknowledged that the fruit of any political engagement on the part of Christians, individual or corporate, will also always be provisional and limited in nature. This leads to our next point.

2.2. The Church’s Prophetic Voice: Its Nature and Limitations

If, as we have suggested, our ecclesiology dramatically impacts how we view church-state relations, so also does our eschatology. Indeed, our vision of the future shapes how we view our present lives and mission. Evangelicals rightly proclaim that our vision of the future centers on “the blessed hope,” the return of Jesus. This hope informs our understanding of the nature of our mission. While we believe that we are called and empowered to display and proclaim his kingdom in the present, we have no illusions about how this glorious kingdom will be realized fully in the future.14 The promises of God concerning an eternal kingdom of righteousness will not find fulfillment in the gradual transformation of society through political activism. In Revelation John describes in unequivocal terms the fallen, demonic nature of the social and political structures of the world in his day and ours (the inter-advent period). Although, as we noted, his cry—“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins” (Rev 18:4)—needs to be tempered and placed alongside other biblical themes (Rom 13:1–5), its relevance and challenge for us should not be minimized.15 It encourages evangelicals to steer clear of the siren calls of Protestant liberals to embrace uncritically political movements for “social justice” and link arms together with non-Christian activists promoting them. John Nugent’s warning in this regard is apropos:

It is not of the kingdom if it does not participate in the Spirit’s work of forming communities that embrace, display, and proclaim God’s kingdom, and scattering them through the world as witnesses to God’s accomplished work through Christ. It may be good work and well worth our time, but it’s not our vocation.16

Evangelicals have for good reason placed a priority on the proclamation of the gospel, the formation of disciples, and the establishment of churches. We do strive to practice social justice, but generally do so within the community of faith,17 for how can communities reflect the life of God’s kingdom without a focus on the King? It is only in communities that listen to the voice of the Spirit and worship Jesus that we can truly prepare for the end of history, the return of the Lord of lords.

While we have reason for “sober optimism” with respect to our mission of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples (Rev 11:1–13), we must resist visions of the future that are overly optimistic and largely uncritical with regards to the state, political involvement, and related movements. These utopian dreams fail to give sufficient attention to the demonic nature of many of the social and political movements of our day (cf. Rev 18:4). N. T. Wright, for example, chides evangelicals for our quietism (i.e., our lack of political involvement). I found his criticism—we are too supportive of the political status quo—particularly ironic, coming as it does from a leader in the Church of England.18 I would suggest that “sober optimism” must acknowledge that, along with our call to engage in kingdom work in the present, the final days of history will also be marked by growing apostacy, persecution, and demonic political power. This should make us suspicious of placing too much confidence in political activism and what it might achieve.19 The alternative is not escapism and defeatism—not allowing “evil to proceed unchecked”20—but rather, to embrace with abandonment the unique call and mission of the church.

The recognition that we cannot bring God’s kingdom—we simply bear witness to the King, who will consummate his reign when he returns—and that the political institutions of the inter-advent age are flawed, tend to become anti-Christ and oppressive, and will spiral downward (or are already there) shortly before the end (2 Thess 2:1–12) limits our expectations concerning government’s potential for good. At its best, the state can serve to restrain evil and bring a reasonable degree of stability and order. Yet, history teaches that all too often the state will become a malignant, idolatrous force. This is why discernment is required.

As Christians consider how the church should relate to the state, we must be sensitive to and understand our specific context. Sweeping generalizations at this point are not very helpful. The central question Christians in a given location and specific time must ask is: Does the state acknowledge the church and allow it to pursue its sacred mission? If this is the case, then the opportunity exists for the church to relate to the state without significant conflict. We can then give “to Caesar what is Caesar’s,”21 while we pursue our calling to embrace, display, and proclaim the kingdom. However, if the state is unwilling to recognize God’s ultimate authority and seeks to usurp the church’s unique role, then conflict (i.e., non-violent resistance by defying the state’s mandates) is inevitable.22

A second and related question is this: Does the state allow for and acknowledge the church’s prophetic voice? If this is the case, then the opportunity exists for the church to speak truth—God’s truth—to power. Indeed, the church has a responsibility to address moral issues confronting a society that are clearly articulated in God’s word (e.g., the sanctity of human life and the evil of abortion). As with Esther, opportunity entails responsibility. Some use the term “moral proximity” to speak of the heightened responsibility one has to those who are within one’s direct sphere of influence. The closer the relationship, the greater the responsibility. Should we not, then, also speak of the principle of “moral opportunity” with reference to the responsibilities that come with unique opportunity? When possible, the church should exercise its prophetic voice by rebuking sinful and destructive acts and laws perpetrated by the state. When the church is allowed to function in this type of prophetic role, it can truly become a blessing to the larger society and nation.

However, we must acknowledge that the church is rarely accorded the privilege of exercising its prophetic voice. Prophets did not fare well in ancient Israel (Acts 7:52). They don’t do much better today. As the situation in China today illustrates so well, generally the state brooks no rivals. It is uninterested in hearing dissenting voices, especially voices with a divine mandate. In these contexts, it is not possible for the church to speak truth to power.

It is important at this point to define what we mean when we speak of the church’s prophetic voice. If we follow the New Testament definition, and particularly the early church’s understanding of this concept as recorded in the book of Acts, we will define the term as bold, Spirit-inspired witness for Jesus (Luke 24:46–49; Acts 1:8).23 Typically, however, Protestant churches understand “the church’s prophetic voice” to refer to the church’s role of serving as the moral compass or conscience of the state and society. Mainline pulpits often thunder with the message, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). Unfortunately, as Nugent so powerfully argues, the message of the prophets is all too often misapplied.24 The prophets spoke first and foremost to Israel, the people of God; not to the surrounding nations. So, if the church is called to serve as a conscience, it is the conscience of the people of God rather than the nation as a whole.

In this biblical sense of the term, the church is always called to bear prophetic witness. It must bear bold witness to the gospel and demonstrate its truth through the godly quality of its worship and community life. This counter-cultural lifestyle, along with its prophetic voice (proclaiming the gospel), represent a significant challenge to every totalitarian state.

Nevertheless, as we have noted, in some settings the church may have the opportunity to speak openly and publicly to the moral issues of the day. I would suggest that in North America, unlike China, the church still has an opportunity to exercise its prophetic voice in this larger sense. Yes, the church must also be a counter-cultural community, a polis or ecclesia that represents God and proclaims his reign in Christ. But when possible, it must also denounce the idolatrous pretensions of a government intent on usurping the church’s authority and role. We must not bow down to the gods of the state religion, but rather expose them for the idols that they are. Whether it be the state’s attempt to redefine God-given gender roles or its modernized version of child sacrifice, the church must speak while it still can. Responsibility comes with opportunity.

The church, if it is able to speak to the state and the larger society, must do so carefully. This “carefully” might be defined in two ways: first, church leaders should only speak to those political/moral issues where a clear biblical response is affirmed by a strong consensus of evangelical Christians (and particularly Christians within their particular church body); and secondly, wisdom calls for discernment of one’s specific context and the suitability of issuing a public statement. As I have stated, not all contexts are alike. The situation of house churches in contemporary China is considerably different from that of the state church in Hitler’s Germany. One has no possibility of turning the wheels of power; the other is already an integral part of the ship’s means of propulsion. The “just war” theory might be helpful here. Just as Christian participation in a “just war” was limited to wars in which one has a reasonable chance of success, so also the church’s political assertions, its prophetic voice (in this larger sense), should not be offered as “pearls” to an unhearing herd of swine (Matt 7:6). As a wonderful Chinese proverb puts it, this is like “playing the piano for cows” (对牛弹琴, dui niu tan qin).25

In short, if political speech on the part of Christian leaders is to be meaningful, it must be addressed to specific issues in particular contexts. Typically, broad generalities or tropes are not helpful since they lack specificity and fail to take into consideration the distinctive elements of particular contexts. For this reason, discussion of political issues is often most constructive when it is undertaken among Christians within their specific communities of faith. These discussions may or may not reveal a strong consensus and, depending on the results, could lead to specific action, whether it be a public statement, passive non-resistance, or even peaceful demonstration.

2.3. Resistance: Appropriate Means

When the state acts as Satan’s servant, how should we respond? This is a difficult question and it has been answered in various ways by Christians and church groups through the ages. Certainly, John the Revelator calls Christians to resist. His sobering exhortation calls for passive, non-violent resistance. Paul’s words in Romans 8:18 offer strong motivation for this kind of patient endurance: “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” We need to view our lives and situations from an eternal perspective. Only then are we able to act in a righteous and just manner.

However, the question must be asked, in our differing contexts, how shall we appropriate the teaching of the New Testament on this matter? Here, I believe the distinction between the role of the organized church and the organic church is again helpful. The organized church can never use force to achieve its divinely mandated purpose. The power of the gathered church is not of this world. Yet, individual Christians, as Bonhoeffer saw so clearly, may be forced to take sides. Their Christian consciences, informed by the Holy Spirit, may require them to take up arms. Whether it be at Lexington and Concord or Bull Run, historically many Christians have made that difficult decision to bear arms. When they do so, they act as citizens of earthly, fallen kingdoms; but they also do so as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom.26 There is perhaps no more dramatic illustration of the “already present/not yet” tension that marks our present existence than this. But who is able to say that this option is not open to Christians who have one foot in God’s eternal kingdom and one foot in this present evil age? “Not all evil can be avoided … to let violence and aggression go unchecked does not eliminate the evil, nor does it leave me unimplicated if I could do something about it.”27

I do believe that, while the possibility of individual Christians bearing arms both in war and revolution cannot be discounted on principle (of course, some will disagree), several considerations call us to examine the possibility of participating in such extreme measures (i.e., violence) with the utmost care and only after fervent prayer and much soul-searching reflection.

First, we have already noted the provisional and limited nature of all earthly governments and political movements. Our ultimate hope is not found in political redemption but in divine intervention. Our ultimate allegiance can never be granted to fellow human beings or institutions of their creation.28 These theological convictions should chasten us when we are tempted to throw our lot in with those who advocate war or revolution. The horrors of slavery and the Holocaust remind us that evil must be restrained, but the bloody extremes of the French revolution also serve as a cautionary warning.29 Even when the cause appears just, we must be mindful of the character of the group with which we align.

Second, an honest appraisal of our limited ability to understand the complex realities of our world should also encourage us to exercise extreme caution concerning decisions that might lead to violence. No doubt many felt that the Czar’s cavalier attitude towards the plight of the peasants justified violent revolution in Russia. But could they envision the suffering that Stalin’s totalitarian regime would bring? Humility should bring anyone contemplating violence, whether in war or revolution, to their knees.

Third, the problems associated with the application of the “just war” theory to our contemporary setting, particularly if revolution is in view, also call for pause. Arthur F. Holmes’s seven-point summary and discussion of the just war theory—just cause, just intention, last resort, formal declaration, limited objectives, proportional means, and noncombative immunity30—highlights that the theory’s intent is “to place severe limits on war that would prevent its lapsing into barbarism.”31 He also acknowledges that the “theory insists that private individuals have no right to use force.”32 This does not necessarily exclude all forms of violent rebellion. For example, although Calvin confines the use of the sword to civil authorities, he does recognize that in extreme cases rebellion may be necessary. Holmes summarizes Calvin’s position in this way:

As for rebellion, a tyrant may not be forcibly deposed unless the just rule of law no longer exists; in such an extreme, authority reverts to the people, who may then form a new government which accordingly has the right to use force against the tyrant. But private individuals per se in a civil society may not fight.33

Nevertheless, the way the just war theory limits the use of force to civil authority suggests that the participation of Christians in rebellion or revolt should be limited to the most extreme cases.

3. Lessons from China

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 “battle ground” issues for Christians living in a hostile, totalitarian environment. These truths will be challenged by totalitarian governments and our faithfulness or lack thereof will hinge on our response to these challenges.

3.1. The Head of the Church

Jesus Christ is the head of the church, not any government or human authority. 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.”

Here you have it: Who is in charge: Jesus or the state? Christians are ultimately accountable to a higher power (Acts 5:29). This is one of the reasons why state churches have had such a checkered past throughout the history of the church. The Barmen declaration (1934) was a call to resist the theological claims of the Nazi state. More recently, Chinese “house church” leaders have issued their own kind of Barmen declaration, A Joint Statement by Pastors: A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith. The initial statement, released on August 30, 2018, was signed by 116 Chinese church leaders, including the main author of the statement, Early Rain Covenant Church (Chengdu, Sichuan) Pastor Wang Yi. By November 17, 2018 (the 11th edition), 458 prominent Chinese house church pastors, including one of my close friends, had signed the document. Pastor Wang Yi was arrested on December 9, 2018 and remains in a Chinese prison. In this statement Chinese believers boldly declare, “we believe…that all true churches in China…must proclaim Christ as the sole head of the church.” Many of those who signed this statement have been imprisoned and countless more interrogated and harassed by the Chinese police. But, as the statement declares, “Christian churches in China are eager and determined to walk the path of the cross of Christ and are more than willing to imitate the older generation of saints who suffered and were martyred for their faith.”34 Are we willing to do likewise?

3.2. The Nature of the Church

The church, by its very nature, is a global, trans-national community. It cannot be reduced to any single socio-economic class, ethnic group, or nationality; rather, it includes all people who are willing to 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. Bonhoeffer and the confessing church saw through this: they saw that it was not a question of whether they should meet separately (e.g., from Jewish Christians), it was a question of whether they would truly be the church!

So also, in today’s China, 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).35 The attempt to isolate the Chinese church is actually part of the state’s larger goal of molding it into an image of its own creation. In China, the CCP has announced its intention to create a “Sinicized Christianity.” One aspect of the CCP’s new “Sinicization of Christianity” policy is the prohibition of children from attending services in the government-recognized (TSPM) churches. This attempt to limit further the church’s reach reveals the state’s true motivation.

Yet, as history has shown, the efforts of the CCP to “chain” the gospel will fail (2 Tim 2:9). I will not 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. He said that normally there would be no opportunity for him to speak to a group of largely Han, educated city-dwellers like the present group. 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!

How will Christians in North America respond to the demands of an increasingly repressive government that seeks to reshape the church into its own image? How will American Christians react to attempts to divide us along socio-economic, racial, ideological, or nationalistic lines? Will we quietly acquiesce and accept a church that is not really whole?

3.3. The Message of the Church

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a political ideology or an agenda for social justice. It is the message of how we might be reconciled to God and to one another through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.36 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 Sinicization of Christianity, declares the CCP’s 5–year plan, “must be guided by the core values of socialism.” Since atheism is a core value of the CCP’s version of socialism, there is a glaring contradiction here. Equally startling are the CCP’s attempts to minimize access to and the influence of the Bible. So, the official 5–year plan flatly states, “Contents of the Bible that are compatible with the core values of socialism should be deeply researched in order to write books that are popular and easy-to-understand.” At the same time, in early 2018 the CCP banned major retailers from selling the Bible.37 It is evident that the CCP wants to co-opt the church and it knows that if it is to be successful in this task, it must alter its message. 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 not succumbed to intimidation and pressure. They have 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.”

3.4. The Power of the Church

The power of the church is not found in worldly might or the power of this world (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?

3.5. The 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). 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 beyond China’s borders in the regions beyond. This vision to bridge every conceivable barrier in order to take the gospel to the lost is what animates “the back to Jerusalem” movement, a movement dedicated to evangelizing the predominately Muslim nations that lie between China and Jerusalem.

By way of contrast, I have yet to see TSPM leaders at a high level openly talk about engaging in missions; that is, their responsibility to take the gospel to unreached people groups of other cultures and nations. I have heard, however, many stories of how TSPM pastors who are too active or aggressive in reaching out to other communities are reprimanded and punished. One friend’s vehicle was confiscated because he strayed beyond the state-established boundaries in order to reach the lost. Can a church that does not view missions (proclaiming the gospel to those culturally distant who are not Christians, especially those who have not heard) as a central part of its purpose really be considered the church? Does it have a future?

How will the church in American respond when we find that 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?

4. Conclusion

I have argued that, in addition to several general principles—the state is a gift, but has a limited sphere of authority; the church also has a specific calling and mission; ultimate allegiance must always be given to God in Christ—there are also additional theological themes that circumscribe the church’s relationship to the state. First, the mission of the organized church should be distinguished from the larger responsibilities of individual Christians. Although the gathered church should seek to teach believers as a matter of discipleship what it means to live as Christians in society (and therefore address from a biblical perspective a wide range of contemporary issues), it should only speak publicly on those moral/political matters that it can address with clarity from the Scriptures.

Secondly, the recognition that we cannot bring God’s kingdom and that the political institutions of the inter-advent age tend to become anti-Christ and oppressive will limit our expectations concerning government’s potential for good. This recognition should serve as a warning for Christians not to place too much hope in political movements. Our primary identity must be firmly rooted in Christ and his call on our lives. It goes without saying that this warning is especially relevant for revolutionary movements that espouse violence.

Thirdly, I have highlighted the fact that our context will determine the extent to which the church can and should exercise its prophetic voice. While the church must always bear witness to the gospel, I have argued that the church should not feel compelled to function as the conscience of the state when its voice is not recognized. The Reformers (e.g., Luther and Calvin) addressed a society shaped largely by the Christian tradition and their perspectives assumed this unique setting. Although the Anabaptists were severely persecuted, their perspective was also significantly influenced by their experience within Christendom. Today, large numbers—perhaps the majority—of Christians live in societies that are hostile to the church, both organized and organic. This calls us to prayerfully reflect on the specific contexts in which we live and to discern the unique opportunities and challenges that come with them.

Finally, I have noted that North America is rapidly shifting from a post-Christian society to an anti-Christian society. A totalitarian state seems to be emerging, one that with growing intensity demands total allegiance. Christians in North America thus have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in China. The experience of the Chinese church highlights five theological truths that will inevitably be challenged by totalitarian governments. These truths include: the church’s head (Christ); its nature (a trans-national community); its message (“repentance and forgiveness of sins…in [Christ’s] name,” cf. Luke 24:47); its power (not of this world; cf. Acts 1:8); and its mission (bear witness “to all nations,” Luke 24:47–48). Each of these 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.

[1] I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to R. C. Sproul for his helpful book, What is the Relationship between Church and State? (North Mankato, MN: Reformation Trust, 2014), which was a source of inspiration for this section.

[2] The Reformed tradition speaks of different “spheres,” while the Lutheran tradition speaks of two distinct kingdoms (gospel and law). Although both traditions thus recognize this basic truth, their different language has led to different emphases. Lutherans have been less willing to relate the gospel to the political sphere. Robert Benne notes, “While Luther tended to emphasize the distinctions between the two kingdoms, Lutheran jurists tended to emphasize their cooperation.” The Reformed position sees the gospel impacting the state in an indirect way. James K. A. Smith describes the Reformed perspective in this way: “As spheres, the church as institute is distinct from the state, but the church as organism is called to be faithfully present—and a reforming influence—in every sphere, including the state.” Quotes from Robert Benne, “The Lutheran (Paradoxical) View,” and James K. A. Smith, “The Reformed (Transformist) View,” in Five Views on the Church and Politics, ed. Amy E. Black (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 64, 155, respectively.

[3] The KJV of Romans 13:4 reads, “…for he beareth not the sword in vain.”

[4] John C. Nugent, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016), 171.

[5] Sproul, Church and State, 19.

[6] Suetonius, Domitian 13.2 (dominus et deus noster), noted by Brian J. Tabb, “Wisdom and Hope in Difficult Days: Reading Revelation in 2022,” Themelios 47 (2022): 10 n. 43.

[7] For this perspective see N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 133–34, 189–289; Chris Wright, “Participatory Mission: The Mission of God’s People Revealed in the Whole Bible Story,” in Four Views on the Church’s Mission, ed. Jason S. Sexton, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 63–91; Amos Yong, Mission After Pentecost: The Witness of the Spirit from Genesis to Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), passim. Cf. Robert Menzies, “A Tale of Two Stories: Amos Yong’s Mission After Pentecost and T’ien Ju-K’ang’s Peaks of Faith,” Themelios 46 (2021): 391–401.

[8] See Nugent, Endangered Gospel; Jonathan Leeman, “Soteriological Mission: Focusing in on the Mission of Redemption,” in Four Views on the Church’s Mission, ed. Jason S. Sexton, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 17–45; Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011); and Jerry M. Ireland, The Missionary Spirit: Evangelism and Social Action in Pentecostal Missiology, American Society of Missiology 61 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2021).

[9] Leeman, “Soteriological Mission,” 44.

[10] Leeman, “Soteriological Mission,” 44.

[11] Nugent, Endangered Gospel, 192, 194.

[12] A central part of the problem here is that for Christians most political decisions require both an understanding of biblical teaching and an analysis of contemporary culture. While we may agree on the former, the latter often proves to be a source of contention. I was reminded of this fact as I considered recent public statements of a friend. Although our theological perspectives are quite similar, our analysis of contemporary culture is very different. So, our political views clash at numerous points.

[13] Zhao Wenjuan, in her illuminating article, “Being a Protestant Church in Contemporary Mainland China: An Examination of Protestant Church-State Relationships,” Asian Journal of Theology 33 (2019): 1–31, describes how the government-recognized TSPM churches, the conservative house churches, and the radical house churches (a recent, largely Reformed group of churches that arose in the 1990s among Chinese intellectuals) relate to the state. The author argues that whereas the TSPM churches and the radical house church movement have lost sight of the church’s unique mission by either conforming to the state (TSPM) or seeking to subvert it by transforming Chinese society around democratic ideals (radical house churches), the conservative house churches have remained faithful to the counter-cultural ecclesiology advocated by Paul and reflected in the early church. Through their apolitical stance, the conservative house churches have formed distinct communities marked by unique intimacy and solidarity. Zhao concludes, the Chinese Protestant conservative house church’s “historical and current strategy is by no means a ‘withdrawal’ from society, but, rather, a faithful witness to Jesus Christ” (p. 30).

[14] Robert Menzies, The End of History: Pentecostals and a Fresh Approach to the Apocalypse (Springfield, MO: ACPT Press, 2022), 125–47.

[15] Brian Tabb also highlights the contemporary relevance of this text from Revelation in “Wisdom and Hope in Difficult Days,” 13.

[16] Nugent, Endangered Gospel, 171 (italics original).

[17] Graham H. Twelftree, People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 203. Twelftree concludes, “Social action, in terms of caring for the physical needs of the outsider, plays no part in Luke’s view of mission” (p. 203). On the priority of proclamation over social action in Luke’s view of mission, see also Robert Menzies, “Complete Evangelism: A Review Essay,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 13 (1998): 133–42.

[18] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 264–71. State churches have not had a good track record. For example, Eric Metaxas notes how the Nazis attempted to and often succeeded in co-opting the church in Germany. He writes, “Bonhoeffer knew that something of this unwillingness [of pastors] to speak out with boldness had to do with money. The state provided financial security for the pastors of Germany” (Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010], 282).

[19] Ben Witherington III, Revelation, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 258: “John is clearly an apocalyptic thinker and, as such, would see most modern theodicies as incredibly naïve, not taking into account the depth of human and supernatural evil.”

[20] Wright decries the “radical distortion of Christian hope” that combines it “with a quietism that leaves the world as it is and thus allows evil to proceed unchecked.” He suggests that “the church must learn the arts of collaboration without compromise…. There are good things going on in the wider world, and we must join in while always remaining on the lookout for the point where we will be asked to do something that goes against the grain of the gospel” (Wright, Surprised by Hope, 269). For a response to Wright, see Menzies, The End of History, 142–47.

[21] Matt 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25.

[22] This does not mean that the church and individual Christians must openly, publicly defy the state. In China, the house church, which has little or no political power, has (for the most part) quietly and clandestinely pursued its mission. Thus, the house church movement in China is an “underground” movement. House churches generally do not register with the government or seek the government’s approval.

[23] Robert P. Menzies, “The Spirit in Luke-Acts: Empowering Prophetic Witness,” Pneuma 43 (2021): 409–41.

[24] Nugent, Endangered Gospel, 56–58.

[25] While I admire the courage of Wang Yi and the other Chinese pastors who issued A Joint Statement by Pastors: A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith (issued and signed by 116 Chinese Christians on August 30, 2018 and, by mid-November, signed by 458 prominent house church pastors), I question whether the public nature of this statement, openly addressed to Chinese governmental leaders, was prudent. Pastor Wang Yi was arrested on December 9, 2018 and remains in a Chinese prison. For more on this statement, see part 3 below. Some in the Reformed tradition (such as Pastor Wang Yi), with its emphasis on the church’s calling to proclaim God’s word, feel compelled to speak to the political powers whatever the setting (so, even in contemporary China). I feel this view does not adequately recognize the church’s primary calling (to proclaim the gospel and make disciples) and fails to distinguish between the different responsibilities the church has to those within the body of Christ (to teach and practice kingdom living) and to those without (to proclaim the gospel). The church is not responsible for bad government or for fixing it. Its responsibility to serve as the conscience of the state is contingent on its opportunity for influence, whether direct or indirect, within the various political settings in which it exists.

[26] This is why the Anabaptist tradition rejects the use of violence. Yet most Christians have determined that pacifism does not flow from a careful and nuanced reading of the Scriptures, nor does it adequately account for our responsibility to restrain evil.

[27] Arthur F. Holmes, “The Just War,” in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 118.

[28] C. S. Lewis creatively makes this point in The Screwtape Letters, reprint ed. (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 31–35 (ch. 7).

[29] James K. A. Smith, “The Reformed (Transformist) View,” 160.

[30] Holmes, “The Just War,” 120–21.

[31] Holmes, “The Just War,” 121.

[32] Holmes, “The Just War,” 120 (italics original).

[33] Holmes, “The Just War,” 130.

[34] The full text of the “Joint Statement” can be viewed at

[35] Jackson Wu, “‘Sinicized Christianity’ is Not Christianity,” Patheos, 20 March 2019,

[36] For a thoughtful, evangelical perspective on the gospel and the church’s mission, see Brian J. Tabb, After Emmaus: How the Church Fulfills the Mission of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021). Tabb demonstrates that Jesus’s words in Luke 24:46–47 serve as an interpretative lens for understanding the Messiah and his mission in Luke-Acts.

[37] Wu, “‘Sinicized Christianity’ is Not Christianity.” Both quotations in this paragraph are from this source.

Luke Wesley

Luke Wesley is a pen-name used to safeguard the identity of the author. The author is a missionary who has lived and served in China for most of the past three decades.

Other Articles in this Issue

This article examines Christopher Nolan’s three most recent films, Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), and Tenet (2020), through the lens of Christianity’s preeminent theological virtues: love, hope, and faith, respectively...

Syncretism—the blending of two or more religious paradigms—threatens Christian witness around the world...

Mark 2:26 has presented itself as a difficult textual and historical problem for interpreters...

Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:1–7 can be applied to Christian voting behavior in the West...

This article is a response to Robert Golding’s recent essay, “Making Sense of Hell,” in which he contends for the logic of eternal punishment on the basis of a progressive and asymptotic conception of sin and sinners in hell...