Faithful Disobedience: A Review

Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement by Wang Yi and others. Edited by Hannah Nation and J.D. Tseng. IVP Academic, 2022. Paperback. 288pp.

It is commonplace today for evangelical leaders in the West to predict, even celebrate, the real possibility that the global church in several decades will be more Asian, African, or Hispanic than European or American. A significant population in that global church may be Christians now worshiping in persecuted Chinese “house churches.”

Chinese house churches do not necessarily meet in houses, nor do they (as the name may also imply) generally worship in secret. The term was adopted by congregations refusing to register with the “Three Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM), a regulatory arm created in 1954 by the communist-controlled government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to control Protestant churches. (The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) was established separately in 1957 to control Roman Catholic congregations). “Three Self” churches are expected to subscribe to “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation,” which is totalitarian doublespeak because all TSPM-registered churches are denied governance, support, or propagation not approved by communist bureaucrats.

Why churches choose not to register and how they understand their relationship to state and society is explained in writings of Chinese house church leaders–the most well-known among them in the West being Wang Yi (pen name Wang Shuya). Wang, a former civil rights lawyer converted in his 30s, became so famous outside China that he was invited to the Bush White House in 2006. Until his arrest and imprisonment in 2018, Wang was pastor of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. He is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence for “inciting to subvert state power” and “illegal business operations.” Twenty-two writings of Wang and other dissident church leaders such as Jin Tianming, Jin Mingri, Li Yingqiang are available in English in Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement. The book includes helpful tools for the reader, including introductions to the readings, a timeline, abbreviations, and a glossary. It certainly deserves its accolades, including a 2022 IVP Readers’ Choice Award and a Finalist in Christianity Today’s 2024 Book Awards.

Faithful Disobedience is certainly worth reading if only to learn how churches struggle under the PRC regime. One can even read it as a window into a potential future of Christianity in China or Asia. It is also an homage to the bravery of Chinese believers and a reminder to pray for the persecuted there and elsewhere. All of that said, the book should also prompt us to reflect and think carefully about how circumstances in both China and the West, past, present, and future, may define the future of the church in an era of increasing ambivalence or hostility towards it.

Circumstances of the Chinese Church: A Brief History

Understanding the ideas of Wang and others on their own terms obliges first recalling the difficult history of the church in China. Rome’s missionaries established their first missions in the 1580s. Protestants followed two centuries later, which meant that their work in China corresponded with the Opium Wars, bloody cultish rebellions (e.g. Taiping and Boxer, the former led by someone who claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ), humiliating extraterritoriality agreements exempting Westerners from Chinese law, and the political chaos of the early twentieth century including an Anti-Christian Movement in the tumultuous 1920s. As Wang describes it, “After the Boxer Rebellion and the Anti-Christian Movement, the relationship between Western churches and Chinese nationalism created a serious anxiety disorder for the church in China” (40).

Mao’s communists declared the creation of the PRC in October 1949 after defeating the Guomindang (Nationalist Party) in a civil war. In 1950, in the context of the Korean War, Zhou Enlai equated evangelism with imperialist invasion and used this equivalence to justify the three “selfs” of the TSPM that would force Chinese churches to sever ties with the world. This left the Chinese congregations to suffer under not only the cruel ideological whims of their new communist rulers but also the seeds of liberal theology sown by American seminaries like Union where some prominent TSPM church leaders studied in the 1930s and 1940s. In Mao’s insane campaigns to purge presumed traitors to his ongoing revolution, even the Three-Self Movement was not safe from the suspicions of party fanatics, particularly the Red Guards. The spiritual language of Christians was even co-opted in the anti-Rightist campaigns of the 1950s: the secretary of the Three-Self Committee declared “The joy in the heart after the denunciations is indescribable. This is what we Christians mean by being “born again” (83).

Under communist rule, one route for Chinese Christians was accommodation in the hope of peace. In 1950, Wang Yaozong published “the Christian Manifesto” declaring submission to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and half of all Chinese Christians (about 410,000) joined him. In 1954, Wang Mingdao retorted with an essay titled “We —for the Sake of Faith” that defined the house church. The house church’s refusal to register was not in opposition to communist ideology per se but to the liberal modernist theology of the TPSM. Furthermore, TPSM congregations were subordinated to the state as a merely national church that not only included trappings of the party (e.g., “Red Songs”) but beliefs and institutions controlled entirely by the state.

The house church movement survived the dogmatism of Mao and the pragmatism of Deng and came to enjoy relative peace beginning in the early 2000s. It raised its profile in the PRC by providing aid during the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 and achieved prominence worldwide through invitations to international evangelical conferences. However, communist authorities increasingly prevented travel for house church leaders under the justification that TPSM were not likewise invited. Such exclusion constituted, the CCP claimed, interference in Chinese affairs. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, opposition to the house churches from Beijing has become much more centralized–and opposition is therefore no longer an inconsistent affair of the cities or provinces. In 2016 Xi’s government launched a new campaign to “Sinicize Christianity.” Congregations have been intimidated, leaders arrested, and buildings demolished. Fully attuned to the significance of iconography, communist leaders have also destroyed thousands of public crosses.

In a carefully calculated effort launched in 2018, Wang’s Early Rain Covenant Church in Chungdu was raided and closed and its parishioners and leaders have since been intimidated, jailed, or denied access to employment or basic services. In one of his last essays before imprisonment, Wang cast the circumstances there as a chance for the greatest evangelistic opportunity in twenty years and speculated that this current wave of persecution might resemble the persecution of 311 preceding the Edict of Milan in 313 (194-195). We must pray that this will be true.

The Church Under Persecution

Reading sermons and essays from house church leaders, primarily Wang, offers insight into the consequences of ongoing persecution since the creation of the PRC. One should also speculate about how Wang’s insights might apply to the Western Church, particularly America, in an era of increasing hostility.

Wang asserts many benefits of persecution. Using a clearly Calvinist lens, Wang argues that both the perseverance of the church and the depravity of its persecutors demonstrate “two infinities of mankind” (93). Many in Western churches now have little experience of either strong allegiance in the face of martyrdom or visceral opposition to the Gospel. Such freedom from existential threats may explain why the American church is given to both individualism and the prosperity gospel. Both problems, Wang argues (with an obvious eye to the Western church) are solved by persecution. Persecution, Wang argues, is also an antidote for false believers and teachers generally (176-177).

Wang also enumerates the deleterious effects of persecution. Though there is some revival of interest in the house churches, Wang believes that the total number of Christians in China has declined. He emphasizes the isolation that comes from persecution, arguing powerfully that “suffering has made China into a great monastery” (93). He also complains that Chinese believers have become doctrinally isolated from small-c catholic tradition and theology (42). Persecution individualizes faith, weakens the collective work of the church, and tempts believers with spiritual pride (34). Citing Matthew 26:39, Wang emphasizes that just as Christ asked that the cup be taken from him, believers are often weakened rather than strengthened by persecution. They may also carry anger and bitterness in their suffering (102). Persecution also has the effect of psychologizing the Gospel and reducing it to “healing of the heart.” Wang contrasts, for example, the Christ of Colossians 1:15-17, whom he calls the “cosmic Christ” that governs all things including principalities and powers, with the Christ of verses 18-20 who only provides salvation on the cross (185-186). Persecution makes us default to the latter, he says.

We must not only learn from Wang on these points but be chastised by them. With a few notable exceptions, American Christians suffer relatively little or nothing for our beliefs. What then is our excuse for being so given to individualism? Why, as Carl Trueman has chronicled, are we so given to this new anthropology of “authenticity?” I am reminded of a friend’s experience on his podcast: he defied his audience to discern the testimonies of new Christians from people describing gender or sexuality transitions. Each asserted that they had found their true selves. We have allowed relative luxury and freedom to do more harm to us than what harm Wang says persecution has done to the Chinese.

Might persecution then have the opposite effect here, restoring us to community and catholicity? Perhaps, but we must not indulge historical cliches or the fantasies of evangelical leaders who sometimes appear to savor ambivalence or persecution. Russell Moore has, for example, looked forward to the end of “cultural Christianity” in his infamous essay saying goodbye to Mayberry. But even if Moore is right to criticize cultural Christianity (and I don’t think he is), it doesn’t explain apart from traditional Baptist aversion to such things why so many evangelical leaders also eschew Wang’s cosmic Christ governing principalities and powers.

The desirability of persecution should not be judged merely by what it might (but probably won’t) do for our personal piety. Wang adds another harm from persecution: logistical challenges. To elude authorities and arrest but continue worshiping (a response not inconsistent with Christian practice in past persecutions), congregations meet in smaller and smaller groups. As groups get smaller and become what Westerners probably imagine when they first hear of a “house church,” mature believers capable of spiritual mentoring and leading church plants become rarer. The long enjoyment of undisturbed worship and abundant theological resources in the West have made the fantasy of an “underground church” not nearly as undesirable as it should be. The Chinese church lacks the infrastructure we take for granted: it waits on Bibles to be smuggled over its borders and internet access is restricted. Wang is emphatic that congregations require both mature spiritual leadership and vocationally-dedicated pastors with financial support for church planting and worship. If we think we are facing persecution, we should be mentoring more men in our congregations capable of true spiritual shepherding and pay much less attention to managerial expertise and professional administration to facilitate individually satisfying experiences.

Can persecution grow the church in the PRC? On the one hand, Wang believes that genocides and persecutions can only cause the Kingdom to gain more ground (114, 200) On the other hand, not only does he think that the number of Christians in China has dropped by 5 million, he also disagrees that the population of Chinese believers may rise to 240 million as others have predicted. That would give China the largest population of believers in the world and a 200% increase from Wang’s current estimate of 80 million. Does he think that the size of the church in China would be even lower if not for the persecutions, however? He doesn’t say.

Wang is right to say that the “life of the martyrs is the glory of the church” (181), and this is consistent with Revelation 6 and the Te Deum, but he also eloquently summarizes why the church should not seek persecution: “When the government persecutes the church, we do not think it is harmful only to the church. It is also harmful to the government. Even unbelievers are harmed, because their opportunity to hear the gospel is diminished. It is not just believers who are being suppressed. All people are harmed. God’s blessing might be removed, and he may discipline them because this is something God is displeased with” (203). In sum, persecution hinders evangelism and brings judgment. Even if Wang thinks that the blood of martyrs is a seed of the church, he does not seem to think that this seed alone will yield the right size crop. Evangelical leaders like Moore hinting at a welcome for persecution should keep all of this in mind.

Persecution as Evangelism?

Given Wang’s sobering insights, what then should we think about persecution as evangelism, not only in China but in the West? Admittedly, persecution is certainly a last-resort evangelism: what is left to give, after all, to testify to the love of God and his children? But Christianity is not stronger in north Africa or the Middle East now because of what Muslim or Ottoman armies did to Christians there or what has happened there in the wake of the Arab Spring or American meddling. Christianity did not sprout from the martyrs murdered in communist gulags or Nazi concentration camps. Christianity has never flourished in Japan despite persecution there. We must avoid falling prey to a church history crafted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by a strange alliance of persecuted denominations and Enlightenment figures like Hume, Voltaire, and Gibbon? In this revisionist history, true Christianity was born under the torments of Nero or Diocletian, went underground during Constantine’s toleration and Theodosius’s establishment, struggled as a remnant during the Middle Ages, and was reborn only under modern religious freedom (particularly in America). On the other hand, if Wang has seen the church grow under persecution then we must hope for that should God make persecution our course.

However, such presumed perqs of persecution should not make us prefer it to other evangelistic routes, and one must remember that Wang cannot deploy other evangelistic routes in China as easily as we can in the West. To recall the case of Japan again, which the church has always been relatively anemic, it was never the case that China (like Japan) was “Christian” in any way that European or Anglo countries have been. Christians in China have been such outsiders, real exiles in essential ways, among Confucians, Daoists, Buddhists, Emperor-worshippers, warlord sycophants, Maoists, and now also amoral pragmatists that one can hardly blame house church leaders for seeing anything but persecution as a source of growth. By contrast, Westerners can recall within three generations institutions both legal and civil not only valuing but even rewarding and propagating Christianity while discouraging its enemies–even if sometimes only to maintain public morality, unity, or cultural norms. It is therefore imperative to pray not only that Christians in China can and should erect such institutions when their godless regime collapses, but also that we retain and build what is left of the righteousness of our institutions… Russell Moore notwithstanding.

Particularly interesting in the Chinese case is a glaring absence in his essays about children–an obvious route for church growth. While the witness of faithful believers under persecution may be salutary for all ages, why does he say almost nothing about this more ordinary means of transmitting the faith? Wang identifies as Reformed and Presbyterian and calls on his brethren to yield to “catholic theology and the Reformed faith” (42). That does not preclude him from being a credobaptist, of course, but this would not be the traditionally catholic or Reformed position. One essay by Wang suggests that baptism is forbidden in China before children turn eighteen years old, which may be germane to the point (186), but Wang elsewhere emphasizes (with some implicit humor) the house church’s “freedom” to establish whatever institutions they want–all of them are illegal, after all–so why not baptize children and set up underground schools and other institutions for catechism and discipling? Perhaps this is discussed in essays not included by the editors?

Another explanation may be that Wang doesn’t mention children because of the demographic collapse caused by Chinas’s one-child policy. There must have been very few children in the churches over several decades, though that may change if Chinese Christians take advantage of the fact that the government now allows three children. On the other hand, control over housing or employment may yet give the government a route to blunt the cultural impact of Christian children. Furthermore, collapsing populations in South Korea and Japan aren’t owed to government control but to materialism and urbanization. If Chinese Christians can not only elude government controls but also transcend these more self-imposed cultural obstacles, they could yet increase. We must pray that Chinese house churches are thinking along covenantal lines, and we must continue to emphasize the same here along with encouragement to our children to marry and have children.

Church and State

To further understand the Chinese house church, and ourselves as well, we should also remember that the Chinese lack Christian civilization not only in cultural terms more generally but also lack any experience with Christian magistrates, legal establishments, national churches, or enthusiastic Christian practice in the “public square.” It is therefore worthwhile to consider what Chinese house church leaders think of their status under law, and what they think of political ideas that flourished in a Christian West.

Wang has a high opinion of religious freedom and a dim view of magisterial authority in religious matters. For example, he calls the TSPM a “religious industrial complex” (26). One can infer that Wang would view any cooperation with civil authorities, that is, every variant of magisterial Protestantism, equivalent to a false god or a “theocracy” in which the state seizes the ministry of the keys and violates Matthew 16:19 and 22:21 (27-28). His view resembles that of Western evangelical leaders for sure. But not only have most Western evangelicals failed to carefully study how the magisterial tradition is sensitive to Wang’s precise concerns, they have also not lived in a society so thoroughly secular and hostile as Wang’s. Wang’s cynicism about magisterial authority is much more excusable than ours: the TSPM co-opts congregations to spread ideological propaganda and refuses to be accountable to God. It does the opposite of what Western religious establishments did, so we can understand why Wang thinks of the church as entirely universal, spiritual, invisible, and operating only through local congregations. Wang’s colleague Jin Mingri presents the house church in Lockean terms, merely as an extension of individuals who make it up (48) which implicitly prevents it from being an institution treated differently in the law as it was over many centuries in the West.

Do not confuse the Chinese aversion to magisterial partnership with fondness for liberalism, however. Wang is ambivalent at best about rights in the liberal tradition and argues that making individual rights foundational is contrary to Christianity. Liberalism is harmful to the minds of young people, he says, because it makes “individual selves the standard to make sense of the church.” By contrast, the church values community and responsibility and emphasizes self-denial rather than individual rights (204). Wang is very explicit that he is not leading a religious “civil rights movement” but a “genuine gospel movement” (103). Might the Chinese house church leaders therefore be offering us a more credible and less reactionary post-liberalism?

Maybe, but Wang goes too far by seeming to deny rights entirely, even in the sense that we might think of them institutionally or constitutionally. Sounding more like Jin’s Lockeanism, Wang argues that the church has no rights other than what any individual would have. Individual rights would normally include a right to protest (especially policies concerning the church) and self-defense. But Wang does not seem to think that these rights should be exercised, a view that even Western “postliberals” would not agree with. Wang says, “By faith one may give up physical resistance and protest, which delights God and is consistent with what the Lord has done.” Such a choice is godly, he argues, if it comes out of one’s faith and conscience (114). All Wang leaves for the house churches is “nonviolent noncooperation.”

Does Wang even have a robust idea of law and the church’s rights under it? Wang argues that while the church’s activities are illegal, so is the persecution by the PRC government that has violated its own constitution and guarantees of rights (96-97). However, legality is not the ground of Wang’s protest. He also says of the state’s persecutions, “We do not say that it is wrong for the government to do this because it violates the constitution, and we do not say it is wrong for the government to do this because it violates its own laws. . . . It is wrong for the government to act in this way because the Bible says it is wrong” (203). What then becomes the desirable legal or political infrastructure for Christians desiring to advance not just eternal life but other blessings as well?

In a significant departure from the Western tradition, house church leaders certainly do not consider the church to be an institution to whom the state has obligations, certainly not as a “nursing father.” Such obligations were certainly emphasized in every Protestant confession for over a century though gradually discarded out of prudence or pragmatism or some variant of liberalism or Neo-Calvinism. The church, Wang says, “explicitly refuses to appeal to worldly authority.” Would this even include simple protection as the (modified) Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) has it in Chapter 23? Wang does seem to know something about that confessional tradition, even in the original WCF, when he says that “till the time of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646, or for Europe until the time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the political order in Europe was understood to be bound by faith in God and the law of God” (185). Does Wang reject any partnership because it isn’t possible where there is no allegiance among magistrates to the law of God? Or is Wang advocating for pluralism? Wang doesn’t say, other than to emphasize that the Chinese congregations seek nothing from the state but religious freedom so they can evangelize (98, 102).

Wang also advocates “separation of church and state” often, but it isn’t clear that he means this in the simplistic way that Western liberals do now. He certainly condemns a “dualistic sacred-profane view of church-state relations” (42): the church holding the keys and the state bearing the sword does not make the latter profane (118). Wang emphasizes that the state is appointed by God as much as any authority, but only God can ask for unconditional obedience (106). He also indicates that he is familiar with more traditional Two-Kingdom theology, distinguishing the spiritual from the earthly, the internal from the external, and the conscience and spiritual goods from the body and bodily goods (117-118). He also heeds the prohibition some Reformed theologians placed on church officers serving in the government and vice-versa (122). But at no point does Wang seem to make these demarcations parameters for religious establishment such as the magisterial Reformer had done.

Wang is certainly familiar with Western political theory. For example, he offers an impressive summary of Plato’s Republic as a defense of justice. He quotes Eric Voegelin’s statement that “History is Christ Written Large” (179), and when arrested tells a police officer this and adds that history is not “Xi Jinping written large” (184). He also cites Voegelin in his criticism of man’s self-deification. He blames both Bodin and Hobbes for asserting unlimited state sovereignty as an idol wherein almost all states presume to be supreme autonomous authorities–the exception being only Britain and the US retaining a nominal acknowledgement that all legitimate civil authority comes from God. Wang credits such lingering acknowledgement to the Reformation and laments that Europe’s millennia-long acknowledgment of the kingship of Christ that long ago dissolved what he calls the “pharaonic” political system of the ancient world has now traded the kingship of Christ for the pharaonic philosophy of Hobbes and Bodin (184-188).

Though Wang is agnostic about rights and opposed to religious establishments, we should not conclude that he is blasé about broader political liberty or the rule of law. Contra Rodney Stark, Tom Holland or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however, Wang does not associate them closely with Christianity. There is in the book, however, a curious anecdote about a human rights activist emotionally moved to tears at a June Fourth prayer meeting at Wang’s church (202). Was the celebration motivated only by a vague promise that the Tiananmen protests, if successful, would have enabled greater evangelism or freedom? Or was there something more that Wang’s church would have impacted the PRC even more broadly? Wang does not say. He acknowledges that freedom of religion is associated with freedom of thought and speech, and even argues that the “confiscation” of religion precedes the confiscation of assets and speech (72, 88). But would he say the same for “religion” generally or just for Christianity?

It would be exciting to know what house church leaders might think about whether and how Christianity became, in the Western experience, a robust support for rights and liberties long before the dawn of liberalism proper in the nineteenth century. What do they think about the ancient Western tradition of (pre-liberal) rights and liberties, common law, or the constitutional tradition into which Christianity is woven, from Magna Carta to what Justice Kent articulates in The People versus Ruggles (1817), for example? What about the essential role of Christianity in constitutionalism about which Harold Berman and John Witte, for example, have written so forcefully? What about the reputable arguments by public intellectuals like Stark or Holland that it is no accident that everyone benefits when Christians cast down both false gods and political idols?

What Might Christian China Look Like?

All of this presumed ambiguity in Wang’s mind invites the question of what a future Christian China might look like. Wang argues that “the goal of [civil] disobedience [what the churches are doing in China] is not to change the world, but to testify about another world” (223). Perhaps a Gospel sealed off in this way, disassociated from any causal connection with commodious and humane political life makes for a clean break with the pitfalls of liberalism, the social gospel of theological modernism, or the cynical appropriations of the communists? Perhaps Wang simply wants to make it clear that while Christianity may enable economic development, democracy, human rights, rule of law, and social concord, these should not be what we first and essentially gain by repentance and faith. Insofar as Western Christianity, whether liberal or postliberal, may be confused with social agendas left or right, we can sympathize with Wang’s aversion.

But we must also remember that God will eventually destroy this wicked regime as he throws down every wicked regime opposing Him (Isaiah 2, Psalm 110, etc.). Will the house churches develop a more robust political theology as Christians did for centuries, believing with Heinrich Bullinger that the promise to Abraham and his descendants wasn’t simply spiritual? Or will it settle for presumption of a social and political exile to which David Van Drunen’s “Radical Two Kingdom” consigns us? Hannah Nation, one of the editors of the volume, would prefer that Western Christians learn from the house churches whom she considers closer to us as “urban” and struggling in “an age dominated by material gain, technology, and secularism” and distance ourselves from “premodern, preindustrial, predigital, predemocratic, presecular, precapitalist” European past of the Reformation.

Alas, avoiding such false choices, and the presumptions undergirding them, is precisely what the Davenant Institute and this Commonwealth project are all about.

Glenn A. Moots is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Northwood University and also serves as a McNair Center Fellow there. He is the author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology (University of Missouri Press, 2010, 2022 paperback), and he coedited, with Phillip Hamilton, Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).


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