Is the Chinese Church Political?

Is the Chinese Church Political? May 1, 2014

Let me introduce you to a new book called Christian Political Witness (IVP, 2014), edited by George Kalantzis and Gregory Lee.

In the next few posts, I’ll offer a broad overview and critique of the book, i.e. a more traditional book review.chinese-ch-political

Over the coming weeks, I’ll run a new series offering a more detailed “practical review,” which will attempt to apply insights from Christian Political Witness in a Chinese context. This sort of review is appropriate for any book seeking to discuss “political theology.”

(Thank you to Scot McKnight, from Jesus Creed, who was kind enough to send me a free copy to review.)

Define “Politics”

Everyone knows that Christians are not supposed to talk about “politics” in China. Missionaries are told never to talk about the three T’s –– Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. These warnings are understandable from a certain perspective. After all, we do not want people, especially authorities, to be confused about the church’s mission and message.

On the other hand, I think we can easy miss out on a tremendous opportunity if we oversimplify the meaning of “politics.” By “politics,” neither I nor the book’s contributors primarily refer to political parties and systems. That is just a sliver of what could be discussed when talking about politics.

Put very broadly, “politics” is primarily concerned with the use of power in a public context.

Power” should not necessarily refer to the use of force, guns, etc. “Power” is about influence, particularly when used to bring about some intended result. How we influence others is the key issue with which we have to wrestle.

“Politics” is inherently public and social. One finds politics wherever communities exist. Just ask any pastor or leader in a denomination.

(In other words, when I or the books’ authors say “politics,” one should NOT assume anyone is talking about Republicans, Democrats, or Communists.)

Why talk about “politics” in China?

With this understanding, let’s consider why this topic matters.

I know that many readers of this blog will question whether a book about Christian “politics” is all that relevant for their ministry. People are looking for theological perspectives and tips that help them share the gospel and plant churches. As will become apparent in the coming weeks, the subject of a “Christian political witness” is all about being a disciple.

Topics like ecclesiology and the gospel are inherently political in nature.

Christian flag001_red_chinese_flag[1]

In fact, one of the reasons why people think Christianity is so irrelevant is because they have no idea how Christian faith is supposed to affect their lives practically and publicly (i.e. the “political” sphere). The message missionaries preach all to often comes across as abstract and private, i.e. non-political.

Theology and Missiology are Political

Theologically, I often explain to students that the gospel is a royal announcement. We proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the promised Davidic king who reigns over the entire world. Keep in mind that the Romans didn’t persecute Christians because they had stumbled merely onto a new kind of personal religious experience. (Check out The King Jesus Gospel for more on this).

Inevitably, I wind up saying that the gospel inherently carries political overtones. Students are not eager to embrace that language although they have no problem talking about a “king” or “royal” terms. They are surprised but in agreement when I point out that a monarchy, i.e. a kingdom, is simply one type of government or “political” system.

I see similar reactions when I vary the terms “Christ,” “king,” and “chairman.” The last title tends to be most effective in making the point about who Jesus is. He is not merely a doctor for the soul; he is king of kings, Lord of lords, worthy of all allegiance.

Naturally, this discussion has missiological significance. If the Christian life is fundamentally public and not merely private, then what are the implications for ministry?What exactly is the church (including its missionaries) supposed to be doing? Do Christians want to influence the nations? Is not the Church inherently communal?

Finally, given the growth of the Chinese church, it will not be long before Chinese Christians find themselves in a situation similar to the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries. By sheer size, believers will find themselves in key positions of influence that will shape the direction of both China and the world.

Practically speaking, with a little foresight on our part, the church will be better prepared than were Christians after Constantine and the emergence of Christendom.

A little about Christian Political Witness

This is a book to be taken seriously. The contributors address a broad range of topics with thoughtful scholarship. It has 240 pages. I haven’t seen a release of a Kindle version yet, but I would imagine that is forthcoming.

The chapters were adapted from of conference talks given at the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference. Here is a list of the contributors:

Daniel M. Bell Jr.

Jana Marguerite Bennett

William T. Cavanaugh

David Gitari

Timothy G. Gombis

David P. Gushee

Stanley Hauerwas

George Kalantzis

Peter J. Leithart

Scot McKnight

Jennifer M. McBride

Mark Noll

There is too much that could be said about the various chapters. In the series of review posts that follow, I will give more attention to some chapters rather than others. However, I will comment a bit on each chapter.

Here are some of the questions addressed by different authors.

  • What might a distinctively Christian witness mean in an increasingly polarized climate where the immensity of the challenges governments face seems matched only by the partisanship of the political system?
  • What is the proper Christian response to unending wars, burgeoning debt, disregard for civil liberties, attacks on the sanctity of life, and economic injustice, not to mention ongoing challenges to traditional understandings of sexuality and marriage?
  • Are Christians anything more than an interest group, open to manipulation by those who most enticingly promise to preserve a certain way of life?
  • And how will Christians respond to their increasingly marginalized status in the West, where Christendom is at least on the wane, if not, as some have suggested, proceeding to its slow and final death?

What do you think?

Is this a fair way of talking about “politics”?

Should the Chinese church be “political”? If so, in what sense?


I look forward to your comments.

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