Wang Yi: The long road
A pastor’s perspective on Chinese house church obstacles and opportunities
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Our April 30 cover story reported on the bravery of Pastor Wang Yi and his Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, China. I first interviewed him in 2014 one day after he was taken into a local police station for passing out brochures urging women not to abort their babies. Two years later, I visited the church again to see its progress in helping create the first complete Christian education system, expanding its ministries to reach political petitioners and women with unplanned pregnancies, and forming a local presbytery. Here are edited excerpts of Wang’s thoughts, translated from Chinese: The first five questions and answers are from 2014, and the rest are from this year.
What is Early Rain’s goal? To become a completely open church. We believe the Chinese house church shouldn’t stay underground, but should be a city on a hill. Our purpose isn’t to avoid persecution but to bring both our faith and the persecution we face out into the open. If we are afraid, we shouldn’t keep that fear in secret, but we should bring it into the light and ask God to help us.
How is the government responding? The government accepts house church worship services on Sunday morning across the country. It’s concerned about believers going out into the streets, such as holding a public evangelistic meeting. The officials want to keep expression of faith within the walls of the house church, much like they do with the [government-sanctioned] Three-Self church.
What is your church’s next step? Our church’s vision is to expand and break down these restrictions—whether they are drawn by the government, or by our own fears. Urban churches are legally allowed to do many things but don’t because they think it’s illegal. Some people say we are looking for trouble because we take up causes that increase the likelihood of persecution. Yet we believe the gospel’s mission is to break down man-made restrictions through peaceful means so we can share the gospel with those who need to hear it.
‘Our purpose isn’t to avoid persecution but to bring both our faith and the persecution we face out into the open.’
How do you respect authority in an anti-Christian country? Yesterday I told the police, “Out of all the groups you deal with—petitioners, rioters, protesters—is there any group that’s as easy to bully as Christians? We never fight back, we endure suffering, we let you arrest us.” The Bible tells us to respect the authorities, but it doesn’t tell us to go against our conscience or the message of the gospel. So the church uses peaceful means to display its faith and spread the gospel.
Where does that respect end? When they arrest me, I allow them to take me in because I respect the authority of the officer arresting me. Yet in today’s society, the government doesn’t even follow its own laws. So if a law-abiding Christian is arrested by an official who disregards the law, it would be foolish to still try to follow the official’s arbitrary “law.” According to the Bible, the number one law we follow is the Bible. Next it’s the Chinese Constitution, which is the country’s law. If the government can’t follow its own laws, then Christians can’t respect them.
How does Christianity in China differ from Christianity in America? Christianity has influenced all aspects of American society, yet is declining in power. China is a pre-Christian society—Christianity has no influence on culture or society, and Christians are a minority. For future generations to maintain their Christian faith without being completely influenced by culture, it is very important for the church to create its own schools. So you’re emphasizing education. For the Chinese church’s revival of the last few decades to take root in China culturally and historically, the church must create an educational system that can teach the next generation, which can then teach generations to come. We want to create an entire Christian education system from elementary school to seminary. The quality of this first generation of Christian schools may not be the best, but we will do our best so the second and third generations can build something greater. We need the support of the U.S. church and its experience in Christian education, for in the next 10 years, China will produce the world’s largest Christian school movement.
How did the government demolition of crosses in Zhejiang province affect house churches? It minimized the differences between Three-Self churches and house churches. Even though the government mostly tore down crosses from Three-Self churches, they were crushing a symbol of Christianity, so we could all feel the pain and anger, the fear and worry. The government did this to show Christians that it can crush us. But some pastors left the Three-Self church because of this, and that is a good thing. The campaign also caused house churches to fear that they may be next in line. We are still waiting to see if this will happen.
Ironically, the Christians speaking out the loudest against the cross demolitions are house church leaders like lawyer Zhang Kai, who is from Shouwang Church. When Shouwang was persecuted [in 2011], you didn’t see the Three-Self church coming to help. But now when the government is oppressing them in Zhejiang, they put all their hope on a house church lawyer who has dealt with persecution. And now he is the one facing the penalty. [Zhang was imprisoned for seven months and criminally charged with “endangering state secrets” and “gathering a crowd to disturb the public.”]
What are the biggest issues facing the Chinese house church? Within the church: the lack of theological education, the lack of church governance, and the lack of legitimacy. From a higher vantage point, you can see that the Chinese church has a great testimony: It suffered persecution and grew amid very adverse conditions. Yet the global church has an over-glorified view of the Chinese house church. In reality, our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough faith and we are very afraid of becoming more open and evangelizing the community. Most churches are trying to stay undercover.
Does that fear show that communism still has an influence? Yes: Communism is the most evil political system because it can control people at a deep level. China’s past emperors were harsh, yet they did not have the ability to control all of China. The question now: Will this generation of urban churches take up the blood of the martyrs, walk the road of Calvary, and maintain the house church’s tradition?
What can American churches do to help? After 200 years of Protestant missions in China, there is now a large number of Chinese Christians. China is no longer a place for Americans to evangelize: It’s a place that needs assistance in building up its young church. Missionaries should not come to China to start churches, but should help existing churches, seminaries, and NGOs grow in maturity. We need about two more generations of help before we can do it on our own. Also in terms of financial assistance, many churches have enough to flourish, but one area where support is needed is in cultural engagement ministries, as most churches do not yet see the importance of influencing culture.
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