I just finished reading “Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement.” Written by Pastor Wang Yi and others, and edited by Hannah Nation and J. D. Tseng, this collection of essays offers a historical perspective on the growth and persecution of Christian churches in China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The story is unfinished, as the church in China continues to endure despite the arrest and jailing of many of its leaders. Nevertheless, the book provides valuable insights that may benefit Christians in other parts of the world. Here are a few points that caught my attention:
We often think of Christians in China as meeting in secret, and sometimes call them (collectively) an underground church. Wang Yi shuns this label, preferring that they be known as unregistered or unlicensed churches, or as house churches, even though many of them meet publicly in buildings they construct or rent. They believe that the church must maintain a visible presence by meeting and worshiping together as a witness to the Gospel, regardless of whether the government approves. Many American Christians seem to think of witness on a personal rather than congregational level, and it is encouraging to hear a reminder that credibility, visibility, and witness are important on both levels.
Wang Yi traces the history of Christianity in China since the CCP takeover, and observes that over time the Christian churches in large cities gradually sort into liberal and conservative congregations. By his definition, liberal churches drift away from the authority of the Bible while conservative churches adhere to it. The liberal churches eventually accept CCP government oversight and allow the government to select their pastors and priests, decide what may or may not be preached and taught, and even insert CCP songs and “educational” materials into their worship services. In contrast, the conservative churches insist on independence to follow the Scriptures, train and select their own pastors and teachers, worship without CCP control, and evangelize the surrounding community. This is not a judgement; rather, it is simply empirical observation. As Wang Yi recounts the past 70 years of church history in China, he noted that liberal churches in the larger cities have gone through two cycles of compromising, losing their identity, and essentially disappearing under CCP rule. So what happens when liberal churches eventually go under? See the next paragraph.
Wang Yi noted that liberal churches in larger cities have gone through at least two cycles of losing their independence and disappearing into CCP culture. Each time, the Christian community was eventually re-seeded into the cities by Christians coming from Bible-believing churches in smaller cities and towns. This gave me a new perspective on small-town and rural churches in the US. As liberal churches in the US become less comfortable with the Bible and more comfortable with government policies on abortion, sexuality, education, and natural law, it could be that God will use Bible-believing churches to preserve a faithful remnant and re-seed communities as He appears to have done in China.
But what about the title, “Faithful Disobedience?” The title reflects a Chinese house church approach to life under the CCP. Rather than simply doing whatever government demands, as a quick read of Romans 13:1-7 might suggest, Wang Yi points out that if a government begins systematically punishing good and rewarding evil (according to God’s definitions of good and evil), if a government demands a level of allegiance above allegiance to God or sets itself above God, or if a government attempts to remove Christian witness from a community by closing churches and banning evangelism, then Christians will need to consider how they can faithfully and sacrificially disobey. This is not to pull down the government, but to show God’s Gospel in hopes that government officials (and others) will repent. As the Romans passage explains, government authority comes from God, so, if forced to a choice, Christians must obey God first. And, as Wang Yi describes, house churches and Christians in China have been dealing with these choices and their consequences ever since the CCP came to power. Sometimes they fail and other times they persevere, but they remain rooted in God’s love.
Over the past 10-15 years I have read several books about how Christians and the church might respond to cultural, social, and government pressures. In fact, I even wrote a short book on this topic myself. “Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement” makes a helpful contribution in this area by sharing perspectives that we in the United States might not otherwise see. It was a good read, and I recommend it.