by Ralph Covell
For multitudes of God’s people concerned for the spiritual needs of all the world, President Carter’s mid-December announcement of the establishment of full diplomatic relationships between the United States and the People’s Republic of China was electrifying news.
For multitudes of God’s people concerned for the spiritual needs of all the world, President Carter’s mid-December announcement of the establishment of full diplomatic relationships between the United States and the People’s Republic of China was electrifying news. Possibly it compared with Christian reaction to the exciting account, by the intrepid Prussian missionary, Karl Gutzlaff, of the epochal voyages he made along the coast of Imperial China in the mid-1830’s. Gutzlaff summed up his report in one terse message, "Blot it from your missionary publications that China is shut!"
Many years have come and gone for China—and so have the missionaries. A small but influential church was established in a period of slightly over one hundred years. Without institutional trappings, that church remains-the people of God in difficult circumstances. Isolated from much of the world by its thirty years of self-imposed seclusion, China with its strong ideological campaigns did not afford the kind of soil in which the church could easily grow. It was hardly "shut" to God and the gospel, and yet the potential for outside spiritual influence was minimal.
No one can predict the kinds of spiritual results that may come from the reconciliation between the U.S. and China. The lives of Christian people may go on relatively unchanged for the rest of the century. Chinese and non-Chinese Christians may find occasion to serve China with their professional competencies, even as they live and speak their Christian testimonies.
On the other hand, the God who has done far more in a very short time to change the China situation than we could have possibly imagined, may again grant an opportunity for the worldwide church in an institutional way to help meet the spiritual needs of this vast country. If he does, will the churches be ready? Do the lessons of the past mean anything? Or is there now a generation of newcomers to the China scene who believe God’s work must begin completely anew with them? Have mission agencies really learned anything? Or have they just been treading water, waiting for the opportunity to repeat past mistakes?
Each "old China hand" has his pet list of "China mistakes." On the basis of some of the more generally accepted mistakes of the past, here is what mission agencies need to do now.
First, they have infinite need of patience. Any new opportunity in China will demand new attitudes, new goals, new strategies, and new methods. Prayer, consultation, and cooperation are of high priority. God will not be hurried and neither must we. If we as his people wait upon him and work out a strategy appropriate to his character and guidelines, we may expect his benediction. If, however, we jump compulsively on every bandwagon, with one eye cocked to gain the best possible promotional advantage, we will erect only more barriers against the Christian faith.
In 1842 Christian missionaries impatiently assumed that an open door" for commerce and diplomacy was also an entrance for the gospel. We are still reaping the results of this tragic action.
Second, mission agencies must avoid any alliance with power and privilege that would create special advantage in presenting the gospel message. As followers of the crucified Savior, we must divest ourselves of a crusading mentality and triumphalist spirit.
From the beginning of the treaty period of Christian missions in 1842, missionaries road the coattails of political power. Missionary activities were frequently characterized by a certain arrogance, an insistence upon "rights," an assumption of European superiority, an easy acquiescence in any action as long as it seemed to promote the progress of the gospel, a disdain for the need to adjust to Chinese culture, a smug satisfaction with mediocrity, and a resignation to the alliance of the gospel with worldly power.
Issachar Roberts in his initial missionary efforts in Canton conducted his work-largely itinerant preaching and tract distribution-in such a way as to gain the approval of even antiforeign Chinese. When the treaty edicts of 1842-44 came into full force, an immediate change became apparent. No longer lowprofile in fitting into the Chinese role of a dispenser of moral maxims, he rented a chapel for public worship, erected a high steeple offensive to local customs, then on the basis of certain provisions of the Treaty of Wanghia, sought almost any occasion to challenge local authorities with his newly found legal standing. Although known for his eccentricity, Roberts was, at this point, only too typical of what others were doing in all of the treaty ports.
In view of this past interrelationship between the cross and the flag in China, any new attempt there could well commence with an official statement of repentance. Appropriate in itself as a spiritual commitment, it might have additional results in new opportunities for beneficial ministry.
Aligning the gospel witness with the privileged status of commercial, educational, technological or diplomatic positions may be an appropriate strategy for other countries, but for China, still painfully aware of past "religious imperialism,” it may be counterproductive. We may do far better to make our religious intentions perfectly clear and not cloak them under other activities, no matter how legitimate.
GOSPEL RELATED TO CULTURE
Third, the gospel needs to be related much more thoroughly to the Chinese culture. We cannot assume a tabula rasa and ignore the past and present realities of the Chinese context. At the Chinese Congress on World Evangelization (August 18-25, 1976), Stephen Tong, well-known Chinese evangelist and seminary professor from Indonesia, asked his fellow Chinese participants: "If God were to open the doors of mainland China to the gospel, would we evangelicals have a theology to speak to her needs?"
Christianity in China, even as presented by groups not directly related to the missionary enterprise, has been viewed as foreign, an exotic transplant from the outside world. Missionaries, with rare exceptions, unconsciously identified a particular Western systematization of theology with biblical truth, and the Christian message never really came to grips with the Chinese worldview.
Not that many missionaries did not study and learn Chinese culture with great thoroughness – but these cultural perceptions and biblical theology were kept neatly in separate compartments with no integration.
Failure to interact seriously with the target society came at several levels. The warp and woof of Chinese culture was Confucianism-a diffused ideology rather than an institutional religion. Converts were given the alternative of Confucius or Christ. Little effort was made to develop creative ways by which the gospel message might possess and transform Confucian thought and life, as doors to the hearts of the Chinese people.
Under the impact of the Cultural Revolution and the more recent anti-Confucius campaign, the great Chinese sage would appear to have fallen from his once exalted pedestal in the life of the mainland Chinese. But the soul of a society is not so conveniently exorcised. One writer has commented,
… while Mao has set himself squarely against the Confucian virtues as well as against the entire social context in which they were expressed, he has only reestablished these same virtues within another context. The revolutionary struggle itself, with its constant self-examination, is nothing other than a transposed version of the traditional Chinese effort at inner personal renewal each day … The willingness to serve others, to submit to the community … is a manifestation, in a new context, of the traditional virtue of jen … The key to understanding Mao is in recognizing in him a counter- Confucius, whose greatest historical mission, in spite of himself, is to evoke a renewal of the Confucian tradition.1
Although Mao’s cultic ideology has now been replaced by Teng Hsiao-ping’s frantic "Long March to Modernization," the glue of society in the People’s Republic of China continues to be the Confucian personality. Any effort to expand the Christian message in the mainland context cannot escape this reality in one form or another.
If there has been an inadequate indigenization of the Christian faith in the past, so also were there few efforts to contextualize Christianity to the broader economic, social and political needs of the country. Many missionary reformers, including men like William A.P. Martin and Gilbert Reid, could only view China’s vast needs through pietistic spectacles: once ignorance, fear, and superstition were removed, all of China’s economic, military, social, and educational problems would disappear. They often applied moral maxims and platitudes idealistically, in fact, almost simplistically, to many complex situations and gave little consideration to historical, economic, or sociological realities.’ Strategies for development and structural change were not often viewed as within the purview of the gospel.
The same voices are heard today as Christians think again of what China needs. She obviously needs the gospel. There is no eternal salvation in Maoist thought. Whatever good has been accomplished in society is not to be equated with the totality of God’s purposes for China. But will the gospel meet all of her needs? Will she become a "superpower," as one recent prayer request put it, by many of her people trusting in Christ? Or must we think of more comprehensive solutions, at the very center of which is the gospel of the Kingdom and the motivation and insights that it gives for all of life?
Some caught this vision long ago. The English Baptist missionary, Timothy Richard, confronted by the tragic famines in Shantung and Shansi in the mid-1870’s, engaged in usual activities of relief but put much more emphasis upon progressive economic development. Although he favored European models of scientific and technological development, his entire approach was motivated by a broad theological perspective. Protestant rural reconstruction efforts in the 1920’s and 1930’s followed in this tradition. For many Protestant missionaries, however, all such efforts were relegated to secondary importance and viewed as a neglect of evangelism.
Beyond the traditional and current economic and social complexities of the China scene, any gospel proclamation in contemporary China faces the ideological challenge of Marxism. It is too simplistic to conclude that communism gained control of the Middle Kingdom because of Christianity’s failure. Certainly, however, many leading intellectuals, including not a few Christians, turned to Marxist principles, hoping to heal China’s ills. For them, Christianity with its heavenly theology had little relevance for China’s landless and oppressed peasants, or for corruption, inflation, political chaos and backwardness.
Some of the ancient demons have been expelled from Chinese life. Great changes for good have been effected on many levels. With these have come the rigorous denial of many basic human rights. One can hardly make much of a case, however, that there was much real freedom or human rights in the political, economic, and social chaos of the pre- 1949 period.
How are Christians to confront the reality of a changed China? What does the gospel have to say to Marxism? To the "new" Chinese man? To the obvious good brought about by the government? To the injustices of an authoritarian society? What is the distinctive Christian message in a collectivistic society? Can potential missionaries ignore these questions and expect that God’s truth will have any impact on China?
Whether we speak of indigenization, contextualization, or confronting alien ideologies, any new effort in. China requires missionaries to adopt the primary role of learners. It must not be said of them as it was of a noted past missionary that he "gave the Chinese officials, scholars, as well as the common people, what he knew to be best for them at the time, whether they desired it or not."
Fourth, new efforts to penetrate China spiritually, be they covert or overt, must not resurrect the denominational fragmentation of the past. All reports on Chinese churches in the People’s Republic agree that denominational labels have disappeared. Scattered and persecuted believers have found a deep unity in Christ, and put no priority on man-made divisions. Has missionary maturity reached this level? If not, we must question whether we have a gospel for China. It may be more appropriate for them to minister to us!
Fifth, even as denominational rivalry is eschewed, other kinds of cooperation are demanded. Past mission efforts in China were often characterized by "every mission society doing that which was right in its own eyes." What degree of cooperation are evangelical agencies prepared to develop? Can they work cooperatively in the model of the United Mission to Nepal? What attitude is to be taken to those "fly-by-night" enterprises that will seek to make spiritual "hay" from the China situation? Should not every mission agency seek the advice and direction of Chinese colleagues? The natural deference they wish to extend to Westerners because of money and experience must not be accepted. We are their servants.
THE EXISTING CHURCH
Sixth, even as mission agencies develop strategies in conjunction with Chinese partners, they must never forget that, unlike the pioneer days, God’s people are already there. They are a spiritually lean, disciplined, committed church, molded and refined in the crucible of testing by the Spirit of God. How are missionaries to develop those lines of communication with them that will enable them, in whatever they do, to be sensitive to their needs and their precarious situation?
THEOLOGY OF HOPE
Seventh, the understanding of biblical suffering in the past in some circles seems to have been a theology of deliverance. With great confidence Christians were assured that certain political calamities would not fall on them. God was in the business of delivering his people from difficulties, tragedies, and misfortunes. This was proof of his faithfulness.
As missionaries may again have the opportunity to minister in the context of suffering, do they understand with more depth that while God is able to deliver, he more often sustains believers as they go through the deep waters? Do missionaries now have a more valid theology of hope in the midst of suffering? Do they know enough of suffering to minister to a suffering church?
There is a great future in the past. It may not give us a detailed agenda for positive action, but its warning signals may keep us from obvious pitfalls. May God help mission agencies and missionaries to research the past as they plan the future. The lessons learned can become a significant part of our discipleship strategy as we pray, project, and prepare for the future.
1.Thomas Berry, "Mao Tse-tung: The Long March," Theological Implications of the New China, Geneva and Brussels: 1974. 67.
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