Imaginations Awakened in the PCA
By Hannah Nation with Beth Gregory
Wang Yi, Chinese house church

The imagination is powerful. 

About 20 years ago, I began to dream of saying I had experienced the Chinese house church. Somehow, I knew that what was taking place in China was important and noteworthy. Like Hudson Taylor 150 years before, my heart was captured by a vision of a countless Chinese host streaming into Christ’s kingdom. Ever since, that image has continued to encourage and motivate me as I walk with Jesus.

I’m not the only one captivated by China. This spring, Kevin Smith, senior pastor of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said that in the aftermath of his worst year of ministry in 30 years, reading from the Chinese church reminded him of the beauty of Christ and His kingdom. In the midst of their own suffering, Chinese pastors held up “something that is so engrossing, something that so captures your heart and your imagination, something that so captures your life,” Smith said. “And that something is Jesus, and His kingdom, and His glory. They reminded me, ‘Oh yeah. Jesus is worth it.’”

For many American Christians, China may seem a niche interest. But recently, PCA pastors and theologians have had a growing interest in Chinese house churches. As Jim Plunk, pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Hernando, Mississippi, says, “[They] seem in some ways different from our Western context, but that doesn’t mean it’s not relevant.”

This has largely been driven by the writing of a Chinese pastor named Wang Yi and the recent publication of a collection of his essays in “Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement” (IVP Academic, 2022). Because Wang Yi is ordained in China’s first indigenous presbytery, holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and has read the Protestant Reformers widely, there has been much natural curiosity within the PCA. 

“Faithful Disobedience” has been eye-opening for many. For some, such as Jay Harvey, assistant professor of pastoral theology and executive director of Reformed Theological Seminary New York City, it has been encouraging to find fresh material from a global church he previously knew little about. He says, “There is such a rich history to China. It’s such a powerful nation. I’ve known about the faithfulness of the house church in China and Wang Yi in particular, but I didn’t know about his theological writings. It’s been a refreshing discovery.”

Rather than resenting society for its brokenness, many house church pastors lean into service. Many people who feel hopeless about Chinese society are encouraged by the church’s mercy ministries.

For others, what stands out is the boldness of Wang Yi’s writings. David Hall, senior pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia, and a scholar of Reformation history, notices how Wang Yi’s writings harken back to the old reformers. He said, “If I admire the Reformers of the 16th century, not only their boldness but their theological articulation — I feel like I’m seeing it lived out again in China.”

Wang Yi is arguably the most famous house church pastor in China. Before his conversion to Christianity, Wang Yi was a well-known intellectual and human rights lawyer. After founding Early Rain Covenant Church, he remained a prominent voice online, pushing the boundaries of house church engagement with the public square. On Dec. 9, 2018, Wang Yi and the entirety of his church’s leadership were arrested. One year later, he was sentenced to nine years in jail for “subversion of the state,” the longest sentence given to a house church pastor since the Cultural Revolution. 

To better understand why the words of a pastor halfway around the world are affecting American pastors, we recently sat down with several PCA pastors to hear about how Wang Yi’s writings are awakening their imaginations.

Three themes from Wang Yi’s writing come to the forefront of what is inspiring PCA pastors and theologians.

Chinese house churches believe in a power that stands above the Chinese Communist Party. 

This shapes their corporate and individual identities, and is deeply rooted in house church history. Chinese Christians are convicted that Jesus is the only head of the church. Because they trust that Christ is the only preeminent authority, they can act without regard for political agendas. Instead, they concentrate on spiritual realities. “When churches refuse to obey evil laws … it stems only from the demands of the gospel and from a love for Chinese society,” explains Wang Yi. 

While the Chinese government wants its people’s ultimate allegiance, house churches declare a different world order. And because the Chinese government does not want its people to believe in eternal realities greater than itself, proclaiming that Jesus’ kingdom will come in the end is protest enough. Together with Wang Yi, Chinese house churches say: “This does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church are in any sense ‘fighting for rights’ or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is the disruption of humanity’s sinful nature by this faithful disobedience and the testimony it bears for the cross of Christ.”

For many North American pastors, Chinese house churches offer strong encouragement in discipling congregations as Christianity loses its cultural influence.

Kevin Smith in Chattanooga says, “I believe America is on the brink of persecution toward Christians in ways we haven’t seen before. And the way it will come seems to be through issues of identity. … I’m seeking to prepare my people for suffering in the name of Jesus and His kingdom, and counting it joy to do so.” But, “even if it doesn’t come, I want my people to love Jesus like [the Chinese house churches] anyway.” He continues, “I want to know this Jesus. But I want my people to know this Jesus.”

Preparing people for possible persecution is a scriptural task, not one based on defending a way of life. David Hall states, “I don’t think Wang Yi is on a mission to defend a tradition. I think he tries to go to Scripture, to see who God means the church to be, and extrapolates from Scripture who the church is to be, and it bumps into civil governors quite frequently in his context.” Whether faithfulness to Scripture means frequent bumps, as in Wang Yi’s context, or less frequent bumps, as in other settings, Hall says, “As a common pastor, we have to be teaching our children, our grandchildren, the members of our churches, that there may be some times when you have to say to civil governors: No, that is God’s authority, not yours.”

In a “dog eat dog” society, many house churches seek to adopt postures of service, sacrifice, and prophetic preaching.

The Chinese house church pastors I know love China deeply. These same pastors are brutally honest regarding the state of Chinese society. Over and over again, Wang Yi writes about the gospel against the backdrop of the hopelessness Chinese citizens feel — about marriages and families, workplaces, or the callousness they perceive in society. 

In one moving essay, Wang Yi describes the world as a sinking ship, a ship that is not our final, eternal home. But it is still a ship that we need. He writes, “It is only on this old ship that we can understand the form of the new ship.” He goes on:

The key is faith, and faith needs a stage. Faith is like a master ballet dancer dancing gracefully on a dilapidated stage. On the one hand, as long as the dance is beautiful, what does it matter if the stage is in tatters? Alternatively, imagine how glorious and resplendent it will be the day this master dancer performs on a magnificent stage. For now, however, God says that the value of the dance must be expressed on a dilapidated stage.

Rather than resenting society for its brokenness, many house church pastors lean into servitude. House churches were on the front lines of the response to the disastrous Sichuan Earthquake of 2008. When Covid-19 hit, they quickly responded to physical needs. When not addressing national disasters, they are present in unassuming ways. Again, from Wang Yi: “… as we confront this general despair within society, we emphasize mercy ministries. … Many people who feel hopeless about Chinese society are encouraged by the church’s mercy ministries.” 

Even this often challenges the narratives of Chinese authorities. The church’s role in serving and protecting human life is often seen as subversive because it implies that the actions of the authorities have been inadequate or even harmful.Chinese house church, Wang Yi

For many in the PCA, house churches willingness to suffer for their cities is glaringly noticeable. Kelly Kapic, professor of theological studies at Covenant College, observes that Wang Yi talks about martyrdom as an important sign of Christianity. There is a rise in conversations about persecution among many American Christians, but “it’s really not about suffering for your neighbor — it’s about suffering by your neighbor.” Wang Yi talks about it differently. “He talks about love — constantly talking about identifying with the suffering of Christ, rather than taking vengeance on people.”

Jay Harvey in New York City observes that this posture seems directly tied to the house churches’ understanding of themselves as a minority group in society. He says, “This is actual suffering. So much of what can be protested in our circles is theoretical.” While fear of persecution leads many American Christians to retreat, “Wang Yi wants to be out of the house, he wants to be public. That’s the whole reason he is in prison, because he’s not content with [hiding in] the house.” Going on, “You see him, as a cultural minority, as a leader of a church that is a cultural minority, trying to advocate for his people. They know the state has its sphere and the church has its sphere, and the state should not be interfering in this way. But, if you let the church be the church, we’ll be the best citizens, not the worst.”

Ultimately, perhaps it simply comes down to our expectations for Christian life and ministry. At a seminar during the PCA’s most recent General Assembly, Corey Jackson, senior pastor of Trinity Park Church in Cary, North Carolina, spoke about what he has learned in his own pastoring by walking with the Chinese house churches for more than 20 years. As a former missionary with many ongoing connections and relationships, Jackson told listeners that house churches have challenged his expectations for what a pastor’s calling entails. He says:

I’ve learned that when I suffer as a pastor, it is both normal and essential. Chinese pastors are not surprised by suffering. When they signed up for ministry, they signed up to suffer. I didn’t do that! I signed up for seminary because I love to study theology, I wanted to use my gifts, I felt a sense of calling to the ministry, and maybe I’d have some fun, too … there are a lot of reasons. But I did not necessarily wed my call to the ministry to a call to suffering. 

But the last two and a half years have shown me that the call to suffer is not just a call to the global church or the international missionary. It’s a call for every pastor. My Chinese brothers and sisters are teaching me that suffering is not something to be afraid of, but rather it is something that is essential for the growth of the church, even here in the United States.

Chinese house churches invite us to understand the church’s sacrificial posture toward the city, even when the city aims to do the church harm. After all, as Kevin Smith reminds us, “We are Americans. We think it has to pay. Is it worth it? [Chinese house churches] remind me, yeah, Jesus is worth it. And His kingdom is worth it … Suffering will not have the last word over God’s people. The last word over us is glory.”

In the face of a regime that wants to keep them separated and nationalistic, house churches seek a connection to the historic and global. 

Occasionally, I come across critiques of the modern urban house church for a lack of contextualized theology. As historically Western theological frameworks (in particular, Reformed theology) find traction, I sometimes hear frustration that house churches are losing their “Chinese-ness.” There are lengthy debates to be had on this topic, but one key, often overlooked issue, is that part of the power of Reformed theology is how it empowers house churches to push back against the nationalistic requirements of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Much CCP control over modern Chinese life focuses on establishing a nationalistic identity. This flies in the face of the worldwide identity inherent to Christians. In 2010, when Wang Yi and hundreds of other house church representatives were forcibly stopped from attending the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, he wrote, “Religious matters never belong to ‘my country, China,’ nor do they belong to the United States, nor South Africa.” Chinese house churches are indeed beginning to write their own contextual theology. But because they are forcibly kept from physical communion with the historic, worldwide church, they relish the taste of the faith through the ages they get when interacting with the creeds, historic prayers, and systematic theologies they encounter from non-Chinese churches.

Chinese house churches invite us to understand the church’s sacrificial posture toward the city, even when the city aims to do the church harm.

Chinese house churches feel they grow in their global identity by engaging historic Western Reformed theology. So too, many in the PCA feel they are being awakened to a renewed global understanding of the church by engaging China’s take on modern Reformed theology. 

Kelly Kapic sums this up best. He believes Chinese house church theology can enlarge his students’ ideas of Christian faithfulness — especially as many American evangelicals deconstruct. Wang Yi’s “Faithful Disobedience” gives his students a picture of God outside the narrow confines of America. “This work is an example of cultivating faithful imagination,” he says.

Kapic compares global theology with historic theology. “As C.S. Lewis said, [it] introduces waves of different perspectives. You’re not really tempted by their flaws, because they seem so weird and old, but they help you see your blind spots. It’s the same [way] reading Wang Yi. … [He] helps point out blind spots. One of those big blind spots is, ‘What is the good life?’”

Because of his vision of Jesus and the church, Wang Yi is willing to go to jail. Kapic says this resonated with students in his Christology course this past spring. “A lot of them were seniors, about to graduate from college, and they were trying to imagine what the successful life looks like. … They’re focused on trying to get married, get this job, make $100,000. All of these things; it’s not that they are unimportant, but [reading Wang Yi] does expose what we think the good life is.”

He goes on, “Our theology is impoverished without learning from our sisters and brothers around the world. … Our imagination of what God is like, and what He is doing, and who He is, and how we worship Him is impoverished without these writings.”

Though they have never met, Kapic and Wang Yi wholeheartedly agree. Before his arrest, Wang Yi encouraged his congregation to lift their eyes beyond their local circumstances. He wanted people in his church to imagine their lives as part of the big, global identity of God’s kingdom. Despite their own persecution, he wanted them to remain concerned about what happened across the world. 

He wrote in a congregational letter: 

“If the God you believe in is only the God of Chengdu, then He is a tribal god. As for Lhasa or Cape of Good Hope — places you will never visit — they exist outside the meaning of your life. … However, the church does not worship tribal or industry gods, but rather ‘the fullness of him who fills all in all.’ ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the Lord.’ If your master is master of the whole universe, then the whole universe is related to your life’s meaning. The whole universe is your sphere of operation. Although you live, move, and exist in only one corner of the universe, unless every part is meaningful, your corner can never be meaningful.”

Today, Wang Yi remains in jail. Though he suffers for the sake of the gospel, he knows his corner of this world has meaning, because his imagination is filled with the vastness of the Lord God. And in this, he calls us to join him.

Hannah Nation serves as managing director of the Center for House Church Theology and as content director for China Partnership. She is an editor of Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church (Kirkdale Press, 2022) and Wang Yi’s Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement (IVP Academic, 2022).

E.F. Gregory serves as China Partnership’s blog editor and as the writer for The House Church in China podcast. Before working for China Partnership, E.F. lived in China for several years.

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