Three Unpleasant Realities About the Church in China

American Christians tend to adopt a romanticized view of the Church in China. While we should be excited and encouraged by what God is doing in China, three common misconceptions often obscure a realistic assessment of the state of Christianity in China.

1. Chinese Christians Do Not Number 100 Million Strong

Some estimates place the number of Chinese Christians as high as 130 million, with many more placing the number around 100 million. These numbers become the basis for projections that their will be 200+ million Chinese Christians by mid-century and claims that within several decades Christians in China will outnumber Christians in America (Aikman). Some projections even suggest that China will contain more than half of all Protestant Christians in the world by the end of the 21st century.

Such estimates are simply inaccurate. At best they are grossly inflated due to poor census techniques (see Tony Lambert, “Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report,” IBMR 27.1 [Jan 2003]: 6-10). At worst they represent wild guesses. More realistic estimates place the number in the ballpark of 70 million. The Pew Forum estimates that there are approximately 67 million Christians in China. The CIA World Factbook estimates the number to be slightly less than the Pew Forum does, and other conservative estimates range as high as around 75 million.

When people challenge the 100+ million figures, they often get a response that calls their commitment to evangelism into question. One missionary in China put it this way,

By the way, doubting there’s over 130 million believers in China can make you missiological persona non grata. Never understood that – how does disbelieving in the existence of some Christians somewhere that there’s no evidence for mean you’re against Christians? I wish they were there, too – I also wish there was a pot of gold in my armoire.

We should definitely be encouraged at the many millions trusting Christ in China. However, embracing overblown statistics hardly proves a commitment to world evangelism. On the contrary, overestimating the number of Christians in China can blind us to China’s continuing need for the gospel.

2. Not All Professing Chinese Christians Are Genuine Believers

Whenever you deflate perceptions of the overall number of Christians in China, someone invariably concludes something to the effect: “Well, it doesn’t really matter how many millions of Chinese Christians there are. The important thing is that there are millions of Christians in China, and all their Christians are genuine, unlike in the United States.”

Indeed, it does make sense to assume that people who come to Christ in the midst of persecution would all be genuine converts. However, this is simply not the case. Chinese churches see false professions, and contrary to popular opinion, the problem is not limited to government agents trying to infiltrate the churches. In a review of Liao Yiwu’s God is Red, Jared Compton, a professor at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, writes:

Liao’s account also raises a troubling idea. The book is slightly unsettling, in an unexpected sort of way. Liao includes a handful of conversion narratives that sound—I’m not sure how else to say it—rather shallow. One man, e.g., summarizes his experience this way: “I felt inspired by God and was baptized.” Another, a then-barren women, tells how she stumbled upon Isa 54:1, was moved by its apparent relevance to her life, and, therefore, decided to go to a local church and say a “commitment prayer.” Mercifully, not all were like this, but enough were that I was left discouraged. I’ll admit, I want every single one of those 75 million Christians presently in China to be genuine believers. I’m looking for a simple storyline: Christianity has exploded in China despite Mao’s efforts. Period. What am I to do with this other storyline, this apparently conflicting subplot? Thinking about all this immediately brought to mind a pointed question Philip Jenkins once asked in a similar setting: how can Christians who are willing to face suffering and death be shallow?

The theological answer is that Satan sows tares in China just like anywhere else. Culturally, this phenomenon might be explained in terms of Christianity being altered to meet religious expectations in China’s very superstitious rural areas. Furthermore, unless someone has a promising career, decides to become a house church leader, or joins a church that likes to pull stunts to garner Western sympathy, it is highly unlikely that an average church member in China would suffer persecution, at least not directly. In any case, we need to pray for the many Chinese who are trusting false gospels.

3. The Doctrinal Positions Held by Chinese Christians Vary Widely and Are Neither Identical to Your Own Nor Arrived Upon by an Unaffected Reading of the Bible

This last point is a mouthful, but it expresses the three things Americans need to get about the doctrines taught in Chinese house churches. (1) Chinese Christians have significant disagreements with one another concerning doctrinal issues. (2) Chinese Christians hold doctrinal positions that probably diverge significantly from your own. (3) Chinese Christians did not arrive to their doctrinal conclusions in a vacuum based entirely on an unaffected reading of Scripture.

First, many (especially Chinese) descriptions of Christianity in China like to use the term “post-denominational” to indicate that Chinese Christians are not divided by doctrinal differences like their Western counterparts. While it is true that Chinese house churches do not have denominational labels to mark their collections of beliefs, each network does have distinctive doctrinal beliefs, traditions, and differences. We shouldn’t mistake this lack of vocabulary to indicate that doctrinal disagreement and debate are absent.

Second, it seems as though most Christian groups in America assume that Chinese house churches not only hold to a uniform doctrinal position but that they also hold a position identical (with perhaps one or two minor exceptions) as themselves. Thus the beliefs of Chinese Christians constantly get characterized in ways that at least boarder on misrepresentation. The likely motivation behind this is my final point.

Third, Americans need to stop thinking of the church in China as the ecclesiastical equivalent to the literary concept of the noble savage. The Chinese church did not arrive at their present doctrinal positions without any outside influence. While it is attractive to think of a group of Christians somewhere deriving a pure expression of Christian doctrine based solely upon an unbiased reading of Scripture (especially if they more or less agree with your admittedly biased interpretations), this simply is not an accurate explanation of what happened in China.

The story of Christianity in China is truly remarkable. American Christians should be inspired and encouraged by God’s surprising providence in this unlikely location. However, we must take care to neither sensationalize nor weaponize this story. The story is already amazing; we don’t need to exaggerate. The story is about what God is doing in China; let’s not make it all about us. As we recognize unpleasant realities about the church in China, we should be driven in prayer to God who has perhaps not finished His work in China.

Bible Puzzler

Can you find twenty books of the Bible hidden in the paragraph below?

I once made a remark about the hidden books of the Bible. It was a lulu, kept people looking so hard for facts and for others it was a revelation. Some were in a jam, especially since the names of the books were not capitalized, but the truth finally struck home to numbers of readers. To others it was a real job. We want it to be a most fascinating few moments for you. Yes, there will be some really easy ones to spot. Others may require judges to help find them, but don’t let that keep you from answering. I will quickly admit it usually takes a minister to find one of them, and there will be loud lamentations when it is found. See how far zeal will take you. A little lady says she brews a cup of chai Asian tea so she can concentrate better. This lady, Anna, hums the books’ names as she reads. See how well you can compete. Relax now for there really are twenty names of books in this story.

Reading the Mosaic Law with the Faith of Abraham

Modern-day readers are often shocked by the brutality of the Mosaic Law. We read of stonings and sacrifices coupled with regulations that even dictated clothing and hair styles. If God became president of the United States, we would quickly vote Him out of office unless congress managed to impeach Him first. Were we present during Israel’s rebellions, we would certainly be among the rioters. Aside from a few crazies, nobody today seriously wants to live under the Mosaic Law in its entirety. Even Orthodox Jews would presumably take issue with a government that stoned their unruly children to death for disobedience.

When Christians read the Mosaic Law, they tend to skim and smirk. They skim so they can check the chapters off their reading plan and smirk at the distasteful commands thankfully now expired. While many Christians attest to the value of every word of Scripture, few find more than marginal worth in the Mosaic Law. Even the most conservative branches of Christendom tend to approach the Law with unspoken disdain, usually expressed in joyful relief concerning our very different covenant or dispensation. Although Jesus Christ came to fulfill (not destroy) the Mosaic Law, our take-home truths tend to center around our joy over the fact that it is no longer in effect.

Christians can easily foster a spirit of rebelliousness in their approach to the Mosaic Law. Believers cannot afford to approach any portion of Scripture being unwilling to obey. No, I’m not arguing that we should try to re-institute the theocracy of the Old Testament. However, we must not read the Old Testament thinking, “I’m glad this stuff no longer applies because I would rather be stoned.” Although Christians today need not obey the Mosaic Law, they still must submit to every word with the faith of Abraham.

Abraham submitted to the ultimate abhorrent command: Go and sacrifice your only child. As Abraham lifted the knife contemplating how to give Isaac a clean death, Abraham proved his faith in his willingness to do whatever God required. In this instance, God required submission rather than obedience, and Isaac (and Abraham) was spared.

Like Abraham, Christians today have page after page of commands that God does not expect us to obey, but this is not to say that we can be unwilling to obey those commands. The Mosaic Law was once the only way for people to approach God, and God was wonderfully gracious for providing His people a means for pleasing Him. Christians now enjoy much more freedom under the law of liberty. However, Christians must approach the Mosaic Law in Abrahamic faith, being willing to obey had the Messiah not yet come. Christians today must submit to the Mosaic Law in spirit even though they are not bound to obey it in action.

The Decline and Fall of Mainline Denominations in America

I recently read Dave Shiflett’s Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity (New York: Sentinel, 2005). Shiflett writes from the left and analyzes the downfall of the Liberal American mainline denominations.

The book contains some startling statistics such as “a 1995 study found that Methodist churches had been losing one thousand members a week for the past thirty years” (xv). On the other hand, “by the mid-1990s, the Southern Baptists were taking on 750 members and five churches per week” (xvi).

Shiflett recounts the experience of a student in a liberal seminary who was told by his fellow classmates: “We’ve been talking about you. We know you’re having a rough time, and we’ve finally figured out what your problem is…. You’re the only one here who believes in God” (72-73).

Liberalism systematically undermined belief in God and the authority of Scripture. Christian vocabulary was redefined to express secular philosophy rather than biblical teaching. When Scripture could not be bent, it was broken. Shiflett explains,

The bishop [of Wales] had provided a blueprint of the mechanism by which Scriptural admonitions are neutralized. The process is quite simple. Step one is to find a passage in the Old Testament that is startling in its brutality–cutting off limbs, executing unruly children, and stoning women are popular choices. Step two is to fine the New Testament passage on wants to undermine–in this case, passages critical of homosexuality, and before that admonitions against divorce and remarriage and female ordination. Step three is to insist that if one is indeed taking one’s cues from the Bible, then one must take the book all in all. The Old Testament thus neutralizes the New and leaves wide the way for the substitute virtues, such as tolerance, inclusion, and the insistence that sexual behavior traditionally considered sinful is to be considered morally co-equal with heterosexual monogamy.

As liberal denominations ceased believing in God and rejected biblical doctrine, they lost their reason for being. Shiflett’s thesis is simple and sound. Mainline denominations are failing because:

Progressive clerics are talking themselves out of a job. Their admonitions that we should all be nice to one another–be accepting, tolerant, hospitable, and open–are welcome enough in a harsh world. Yet they are not giving the world anything it cannot get from television chat shows, movies, op-ed pieces, and the other soapboxes where contemporary sages gather. Their advice is much the same, if not identical, and sofas are much more comfortable than pews (25).

Bribery and the Church in China

A number of Christian ministries in China consistently pay bribes to have local officials look the other way. This practice is widespread enough that some have suggested that missionaries to China must look past their ethical qualms and embrace this practice out of sheer necessity. Aside from the obvious objections to the pragmatism of this approach, a recent secular blog post has cast doubt on the effectiveness of bribes in China.

The post was written by a businessman and argues,

All of the foreigners I know who have given bribes have done so at the advice of their Chinese partners of staff.  Most of the foreigners I know continue to believe that bribes have helped them get more done more quickly in a corrupt system.  However, it’s clear from talking to them and comparing their experiences to the “clean living” lifestyle practiced both by me and a small handful of other foreign businesspeople I know that they are not only not gaining an advantage from bribing but are possibly setting themselves up for a pattern of repeat extortion.

The author does note that bribery is common in China, but he suggests that foreigners should consider playing by different rules.

Of the Chinese businesspeople I know who have specifically told me about situations where they have given expensive gifts it sometimes works to their benefit and sometimes has no obvious result.  However, unlike foreigners doing business in China, they are working from within a system that they grew up in.  One presumes that they know whose palm to grease and how to do it.  That or they only tell stories about the times that it worked.

In the case of the church in China, we should be slow to condemn the actions of house churches that use bribes to provide safety in the midst of religious persecution. However, western missionaries should also take careful thought before they adopt the practice.

Attorney Dan Harris rightly identifies pride as the driving motivation making Westerners willing to pay bribes. He writes, “I am convinced that there are companies that almost want to pay bribes so they can act like they ‘really know the system’…. I am not saying that all companies can function in China without paying a bribe at some point, but I am saying that most foreign companies can and do function in China just fine without ever paying a bribe.” Perhaps the same is true for Christian ministries in China.

Theology, Culture, and Counseling Victims of Sexual Abuse

So I finally got around to watching the 20/20 episode about Tina Anderson. Chuck Phelps and I run in different IFB orbits (independent fundamental Baptist churches constitute anything but a cohesive movement), and until now I haven’t given the Zichterman/Lewis/DoRight arguments much thought. Their accusations simply don’t apply to my splinter group of what I seriously doubt can even still be called a movement. However, I was recently asked about the counseling method discussed in the 20/20 episode (see part two) and watched the video. One allegation raises an issue concerning how theology and culture intersect.

Tina Anderson alleges that during counseling Chuck Phelps’ wife asked if Tina enjoyed having sex with her rapist. According to 20/20, Linda Phelps denies ever saying that. Personally, I have neither an idea who said what nor any desire to speculate. However, this counseling technique was often used in IFB circles during the 1990s. It was motivated out of a sincere desire for holiness but suffered from a serious lack of wisdom and an imbalanced approach to sin.

On Thursday Evening, July 26, 2001, Evangelist Tom Farrell preached a message at the Wilds Christian Camp titled “The Priority of Purity.” In that message, he explained,

Now I’m going to deal with something that is a little touchy so don’t move. Somebody comes and says, “Preacher, I was sexually abused.” I want you to here me, and pastor you may want to use this. In counseling—and I’m very discreet in my counseling—I will ask this question: “Was there ever a time that you were a willing partner?” There’s a reason I ask that. Now don’t look at your friend watch me. If there was, it may have started as abuse but if you surrendered for any reason then you are guilty, and you will never know the forgiveness and cleansing of God until you confess where you were wrong. However, if there was never a time that you were willing and you were sexually abused, let me give you an illustration that will help you.

Suppose you worked for me at a grocery store, you were one of my cash register gals. I give you the deposit. I say, “Go two blocks down here. Make a deposit at First National Bank.” On the way down you are robbed. You did not do one thing wrong. You are robbed. Are you guilty of stealing? Yes or No? No, you are not. Now, suppose you go and step into an alleyway and you take out two hundred dollars and put it in your pocket and deposit everything else. Are you now guilty of being a thief? Yes, you are. You may not have stolen the whole thing son, but you did steal part of it.

Now you understand this. If you have been robbed, God’s judgment is on the person that did it to you. You don’t have to get even and you don’t have to be bitter. You can cast your care upon the Lord and God will deal with that. But I want you to know—from the front row to the back row—if you were sexually abused and you had nothing to do with it, you need feel no guilt because in the sight of God you are not guilty. You were robbed, and God almighty will deal with the thief who is the low down scum who did that. You let God take care of that. You let Him be the avenger. Now if you are in sin, then confess your sin.

Evangelist Tom Farrell is a popular speaker and leader among a significant segment of IFB churches. This summer camp message was preached to about a thousand teenagers and their pastors who came as sponsors. Due to the nature of Farrell’s ministry, this sermon was likely preached thirty or more times in 2001 and was heard by thousands. The statement quoted above was an aside towards the end of the message, so it could have been a one-time extemporaneous addition. Please remember that this was a spoken address and was not prepared with the precision we expect in print. I don’t know if Farrell still promotes this approach to counseling victims of sexual abuse, but messages such as this did contribute its widespread use.

Let’s break down the approach.

The Good

Tom Farrell rightly observes that people can sin while and especially after being victimized by sexual abuse. The human heart is desperately wicked. Sin pollutes everything people do this side of heaven. Even while being victimized by another, the human heart can rebel against God. Following any sort of sexual abuse, victims must guard their hearts lest their righteous anger turn to bitterness and their innocent suffering become a justification for destructive sin habits.

The Bad

This approach takes an imbalanced view of sin. Sins connected to immorality are treated with the utmost priority as the ultimate obstacles to sanctification. Remember the sermon is titled, “The Priority of Purity.” Earlier in the sermon, Farrell argues that “virtue” in 2 Peter 1:5 refers to moral purity and must be achieved before any progress can be made in sanctification. He states, “After you are saved, the next choice you must make is moral purity because purity precedes maturity.” He then has the crowd repeat “purity precedes maturity” several times. Farrell argues that Christians must deal with purity before they can become sanctified in other areas of life. Thus TV and music choices make appearances in this sermon. If any area of your life can be tied in some way to sexual sin, you must confess and forsake it before you can start becoming spiritually mature.

This sort of emphasis was hardly limited to Independent Fundamental Baptists. Evangelicalism as a whole has historically tended to make bodily purity a default watershed issue when lacking of a clear theological understanding of culture. In an article that traces Evangelical attempts to adapt to youth culture, Thomas Bergler notes,

But how could Christian youth and their leaders tell the difference between worldly compromise and beating the world at its own game? Because they had few clearly articulated theological criteria for deciding which adaptations to youth culture were morally acceptable, YFC [Youth For Christ] leaders instinctively turned to the purity of youthful bodies as the key distinguishing mark that separated cultural victory from worldly contamination” (“Are We going to Grow Up?” Christianity Today [June 2012]: 21-22).

As with any theological imbalance, this singular focus on purity resulted in a host of unintended consequences. In broader Evangelicalism, the Christian’s personal relationship with Christ was often transformed into “an erotic, emotional attraction to a teen idol” (Bergler 22). In some circles, this imbalance resulted in insensitive counseling techniques.

The Ugly

“Was there ever a time that you were a willing partner?” This question does strike upon a potential sin problem. Adolescents can commit sexual sins regardless whether they are old enough to give legal consent.

However, such a question must be used with extreme caution. Victims of sexual assault often struggle with false guilt and doubt whether they put up enough of a struggle. If one is going to give one piece of advice for counselors of sexual abuse victims, this question shouldn’t be it.

Inevitably, counselors will need to help victims sort out their feelings of guilt, and occasionally some guilt might be genuine. Unless a counselor already has a close relationship with the victim, counselors may need a long time to raise discussions of guilt. If the possibility of sexual sin becomes the ultimate aim of counseling, this discussion will be rushed, more important issues of healing will be ignored, and the victim will be hurt.

Going Forward

Obviously, anyone still using this question as an initial part of counseling sexual assault victims should re-evaluate this approach. Perhaps a potential sin is being pursued with unwarranted and potentially destructive vigor due to a knee-jerk reaction from sinful culture. Of course, counselors may need to eventually raise a question such as “do you fear that any of this guilt might be genuine?” However, this must be done realizing that sexual impurity is not the ultimate sinful pollution.

On a broader level, Christians must develop a theologically informed view of culture. Unbiblical assumptions will inevitably have unintended consequences in ministry. These problems can’t be fixed by petition drives or public apologies. The ugly results will just crop up somewhere else. The only solution is to think more biblically, especially about culture.

Getting Married, Having Children, and Growing Up

My wife and I recently watched a documentary on China’s economic rise as a superpower. The documentary identified one interesting contributing factor. Chinese individuals are delaying marriage, and after marriage couples are delaying childbirth.

This cultural shift unquestionably springs from China’s one child policy. If you knew that you could only have one child, it makes perfect sense to extend adolescence, delay marriage, and wait towards the end of your fertile years to have your one child. This happened all across China, and to the government’s alarm, the birth rate has plummeted faster than anyone anticipated.

The government has partially rescinded the policy so that virtually every Chinese couple can now have at least two children. However, while cultures can change with astonishing speed, they tend to resist manipulation. China’s current generation does not want to have more than one child and has chosen a lifestyle that makes multiple children families impracticable.

In the West, this lifestyle is hardly foreign. Without any sort of looming government mandate, individuals have waited past their twenties for marriage and well into their thirties for children. This practice offers the hope for unparalleled self-actualization but comes at the risk of never actually growing up.

One important part of adulthood is the capacity to deny one’s self. Children behave erratically in part because they constantly chase after whatever they think will bring them the most pleasure. They must learn to deny themselves so that they can do more important things. They need to grow up.

Nothing teaches self-denial quite as effectively as marriage and children. Nobody wants to yield to somebody else. Nobody wants to please somebody else at the cost of his or her own hobbies and interests. Nobody wants to get up at 2am to tend to a screaming child. Nobody wants to think about what is best for another 24/7.

Somewhere along the line, however, most spouses and parents learn that relatively few of their wants comprise the most important things in life. They become adept at foregoing their own desires and consequently become adults. Perhaps the childishness that marks self-indulgent cultures is largely a byproduct of their tendency to delay marriage and childbirth. Interestingly, the long interval between birth and parenthood is one of the few details Moses records about the culture of the world that perished. Growing up must take priority over self-fulfillment. Can anyone really experience a full life without ever truly becoming an adult? We need to aspire to more than being amused children.