Book Review – China’s Reforming Churches

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by Bruce P. Baugus
Reformation Heritage Books 2014
Paperback 320

It is no secret that Christianity in China is growing. In a country that has been historically hostile to religious diversity, Christianity has been growing and making a mark on the whole of Chinese life. One of the factors that accounts for this growth is the infusion of Protestant missionaries from various denominational affiliations. What might come as a surprise to many is the growing and well documented influence of conservative Reformed missionary influence in various ways throughout China.

Through the efforts of a number of Reformed leaders who are involved in the spread of Reformed polity and theology in China, Bruce P. Baugus, professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, has edited China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom. The contributors to this book include pastors, theologians and Chinese-Americans who believe that Reformed polity and theology possess what is necessary to sustain the future growth of the church in China.

China’s Reforming Churches provides a sketch of the history of the conservative Reformed missionary influence in China since the late 1800’s, an assessment of the present state of Christianity in China in general and the Reformed church specifically, and charts a vision for the future of Reformed missionary work in China. Additionally, this book provides theological justification for why the contributors believe that Reformed polity and theology are what Chinese churches needs in order to be grounded in the gospel so as to create a sustainable future for Christianity to grow in China.

Overview

The book is divided into four sections. The first section outlines the history of Reformed churches in China. The history of Protestant missions to China begins with Robert Morrison in 1807 who was also a member of the Presbyterian church (p. 29). Since that time there has been a steady flow of Reformed theological influence through missionary presence in China. Not long after Morrison came John L. Nevius who is perhaps the most famous and influential Presbyterian missionary to China. He is credited with introducing the idea of planting churches that are self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating [from which the “three-self patriotic movement” finds its origin] (p. 41). This is a development that still carries today among missionaries across denominational lines. What many readers, who are unfamiliar with Reformed missionary influence in China, will find interesting is the who’s-who of Reformed theologians who were actively involved in mission work in China directly or who played a major role in training Chinese nationals for missionary work. John L. Nevius and Walter M. Lowrie both studied under Charles Hodge (p. 38, 45), J. Gresham Machen helped found the Independent Board of Foreign Missions from which Richard B. Gaffin would later be sent to do work in Qindgao (p. 54), while Geerhardus Vos was the president of Yingkou Bible Institute in Yingkou, Liaoning (p. 55).

Section two provides an assessment of the state of Presbyterianism in China today. Chapter four offers a fascinating look at the four narratives that outside observers tend to see in the Chinese church.

  1. Persecuted Church – This view sees Christianity in China as always under persecution from political forces of China. However, this perspective has not unshackled itself from China’s past dealings with religious diversity. Brent Fulton says that “it is not illegal to be a Christian in China,” and that “most Christians in China do not face daily persecution” (p. 100).
  2. Needy Church – This view sees Christianity in China “as lacking Bibles, trained leaders, facilities, and finances” (p. 100). What is more realistic is that as long as Christians both in and outside China have an unhealthy dependence on Western Christianity for the sustainability of the Chinese church then it’s needy perception will persist as a reality.
  3. Christian China – This view thinks that since China has more Christians than any other country that it will bring about cultural transformation such that China will become publicly Christian. This is not true since there is not a direct linear relationship to Christian growth and cultural change (p. 101).
  4. Missionary Church – This view sees “China as potentially the greatest missionary-sending country in history” (p. 102). Of the four narratives this might be the most exaggerated as there are not near as many Chinese missionaries going out of China and most of them that do leave do not stay for long.

As the contemporary Chinese Christian scene is laid out in the book, American Christians will be surprised to see that the situation is much like it is in the states: Christian leaders and laypeople are continually encouraging other Christians towards and warning them of the same things that dominate the Western church discussion. Brent Fulton notes that, despite the striking similarities, what separates the Chinese and American churches is that China “has experienced in thirty years what in most other nations has taken place over a century or more” (p. 115).

Section three addresses the social and religious challenges in China for the growth of Christianity (Presbyterianism specifically) and what opportunities lie ahead as a result. While examining the social conditions, G. Wright Doyle notes that the fast paced change in China’s society is creating new problems for the Chinese but also providing new inroads for the spread of the gospel. For instance, China has always been known for having a strong committed family structure but this is changing. Husbands are taking jobs farther and farther away from home and the men are finding mistresses away from home. This, coupled with China’s one-child policy, is wreaking havoc on Chinese families (p. 160-61). Also, though more and more money is coming into China, the gap between the poor and the wealthy is increasing, causing discontent among the people (p. 164-65). In addressing the opportunities these and other challenges bring to Christianity in China, David VanDrunen charts out a vision for the interplay between Reformed ecclesiology and Christian engagement in society as drawn from his book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture.

The final section deals with appropriating the Reformed tradition in China through legal publishing, theological education and the indigenization and contextualization. For publishing, it will come as a surprise to many Westerners that within the last ten years it has become legal to publish limited types of Christian literature in mainland China (p. 245). Phil Remmers lays out the highly controlled and expensive process (upwards of $20,000) it takes to have a book published in China. Remmers notes the pros and cons of unregistered underground Christian publishers and has some surprising thoughts on the potential drawbacks of free digital literature available to Chinese Christians as made possible through ministries like Desiring God (p. 264-66). As far as theological education goes, China has a cultural history of valuing education that can benefit Christian education. What is challenging are the restrictions on seminaries that are not so with churches. There are other issues such as funding for the schools, limited resources and good faculty. There is much room for growth among Reformed seminaries and the future looks bright.

Evaluation

China’s Reforming Churches is a fascinating look at the past, present and future of Reformed missionary influence in China. The contributors show a familiarity with Christianity in China in general and the Reformed tradition specifically, and are knowledgeable about the current Chinese social factors and movements that Christians face. Those unfamiliar with the current state of Christianity in China will find a lot of helpful information and will be surprised by many things like the real issue concerning Christian persecution and the rise of Christian publication.

Though the title does not immediately give it away, this book is written from a decidedly Reformed perspective. All theological and practical (ecclesiological) evaluations and suggestions stem from this perspective. While this does not affect cultural and societal observation (at least in my mind) it does limit the scope for how to move forward in regards to theology and polity. I think there is definitely some overlap that would occur no matter what denominational stream the book was written in. What would be noticeably different is the suggested structure of polity. This limited scope of the book is in no way a fault of the book nor does it detract from its value for those committed to other denominations. This book will serve as a great benefit to any Christian interested in the current state of missions in China and will provide invaluable information for those invested in Chinese missions from all sides.

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More on the church and China

For those interested, here is an article on how the Chinese govt. is working on making their own Christian theology for the Chinese churches.

http://www.relevantmagazine.com/slices/report-chinese-government-may-cre... 

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