Understanding Wang Yi: A Response to Glenn Moots

As someone who lives and teaches seminarians outside of the Western world, I am always grateful when a Western scholar is willing to engage the thought of a non-Western theologian. As someone who has worked with house church pastors for over a decade and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Wang Yi’s public theological thought, I am even more grateful for close engagement with Wang. It is for these reasons that I was most appreciative of Glenn Moots’ review of Faithful Disobedience here at Commonwealth back in February. Moots holds an impressive understanding of the history of China’s house churches, including the recent increased persecution under Xi Jinping, and his reading and review of Faithful Disobedience demonstrates his great interest in Chinese Christianity. However, there are places where Moots questions Wang that I believe are better explained with further context from Wang’s life and untranslated corpus. By introducing these details, I hope to clarify Wang’s political-theological thought both for Moots and readers of Faithful Disobedience.

A Civil Rights Lawyer Engaging Christianity

To understand Wang Yi’s political theological thought, one must recognize that no event shaped his generation like the 1989 democracy protests and subsequent government crackdown by the military, more commonly known in America as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. This event led many of the intellectuals of Wang’s generation to become even more deeply devoted to Western liberal democratic ideals than before the protests. Add in the fact that Wang is from Sichuan province, a comparatively liberal-minded area of China where he also studied law, and it is no surprise that he would become a liberal minded civil rights law scholar. Many of the 1989 generation were introduced to Christianity in their overseas exiles to Western countries and helped to export it to intellectuals like Wang who remained in China. These intellectuals demanded a Christianity with a gospel for the public square, the type that drew Wang to convert in 2005. In particular, Wang was drawn to neo-Calvinist thought. Perhaps this explains Moots’ suggestion that Wang does not hold to the view of many Protestant confessions that places a responsibility on the magistrate as a “nursing father” to the church. In Wang’s context, there has never been a magistrate willing to protect the church. To the contrary, the magistrate more often than not has sought to persecute the church. Neo-Calvinist thought seems to have helped Wang to make sense of the position of the church in a society with a hostile magistrate. One of his earliest works as a Christian is not a sermon, but a 2007 lecture series titled “Constitutionalism and the Christian Worldview” given to a law society.[1] Wang begins by recognizing his indebtedness to Abraham Kuyper, and the thought presented in the lecture bears striking similarities to that of Kuyper’s own lecture on constitutionalism.[2] This indebtedness to neo-Calvinism continued in Wang’s understanding of church-state relations up to his incarceration.[3]

A House Church Pastor Entering Tradition

However, contrary to Moots’ suggestion, Wang’s neo-Calvinism does not impede him from confessional commitment. In 2008, Wang would leave his career in law to pastor Early Rain Fellowship (eventually Early Rain Covenant Church, ERCC). Perhaps due to Wang’s relationships with Tim Keller and other PCA representatives, he led ERCC into Presbyterianism and the church adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). As evidence of this commitment, Wang spent a year preaching through the WCF a chapter at a time. Wang’s thought cannot be separated from the impact of the Westminster Standards on his ministry. While little mention of this commitment found its way into the pages of Faithful Disobedience, a few brief comments on his untranslated works will help to answer Moots’ questions regarding this commitment.

First, Moots questions whether there was anything in Wang’s writings that would indicate a covenantal understanding of the role of children in the church’s discipleship and growth. Indeed, the experience of Chinese house churches has long been one of adult converts—“first generation believers” in house church terms—and credo-baptism is by and large the normal sacramental position of these churches. However, Wang and ERCC do practice infant baptism. This commitment is explained in two sermons he preached in his WCF series.[4] In these sermons, he defends the institutionalism latent in covenant theology against the traditional leader-centric individualism of both Chinese and Western evangelicalism and relates infant baptism to the way the church views the discipleship of its children. Perhaps more evidential of Wang’s covenantal commitments is his willingness to lead the formation of a private classical Christian school in a country where mandatory public education serves as one of the government’s primary ways of indoctrination. Of all of Wang’s many risky moves in ministry, this one ranks near the top. Moots asks, since all house church activity is illegal, “why not baptize children and set up underground schools and other institutions for catechism and discipling?” Wang and ERCC have done this very thing at great risk to all involved.

Second, Moots questions Wang’s familiarity with WCF chapter 23 regarding the civil magistrate and church-state relations—particularly whether the idea of a supportive magistrate with an obligation to the church is ever in Wang’s purview. The answer lies in Wang’s sermon on WCF 23.[5] Drawing from the narrative of Azariah confronting King Uzziah and Uzziah’s subsequent leprosy in 2 Chronicles 26:15–23 (a proof text from WCF 23), Wang explicates the problem with Chinese society: the Communist government’s attempts to determine church faith and practice, and the establishment Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church’s willingness to bow to the magistrate in this regard. Wang’s answer is found in Azariah who stands up to Uzziah rather than gives in. Wang follows the Confession in rooting his argument in God’s sovereign kingship. Wang’s essays in Faithful Disobedience, especially his “95 Theses,” ought to be read in light of this understanding of WCF 23. In summary, Wang’s covenant confessional commitment is quite important to his political-theological thought.

A House Church Pastor Expecting Persecution

Along with Wang’s confessional commitments, Moots’s questions also concern Wang’s teaching on how we as Christians are to view persecution. Persecution is a focus in Faithful Disobedience given that many of the chapters and talks are written in the time period of an increasing expectation of persecution as churches like ERCC faced Xi’s ire in light of their refusal to “Sinicize.” Moots seems to desire a more clear-cut political-theological response from Wang than that provided in Faithful Disobedience, particularly one that can be understood through traditional Western categories of political theology.

To explain Wang’s position, we must remember that even with his extensive knowledge of Western theological and political thought, Wang views himself first as a Chinese house church pastor in line with the movement’s forefathers like Wang Mingdao (1900–1991). One point of Wang’s theological alignment with these fathers can be found in the “way of the Cross” common to house churches. Simply put, house churches believe that suffering for Christ is part of the Christian faith.[6] There is a certain tendency among house church pastors to fear a level of stagnation and loss of mission that might occur should churches no longer face persecution, a fear shared by Wang. For this reason, at times Wang seems to desire persecution. On the other hand, Moots is correct that Wang is also reticent to believe that persecution is some sort of evangelistic silver bullet, and Wang frequently criticizes government persecution of the church. Much of Moots’ confusion around what to make of Wang’s understanding of persecution centers around this tension present in Faithful Disobedience.

Furthermore, at different points, Wang speaks against the church’s fight for liberal rights, leading Moots to conclude that he is “ambivalent at best” toward them. However, anyone who knows ERCC’s initiatives can hardly imagine this to be the case. Here is a church that holds an annual public prayer meeting on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and allocates part of its benevolence for political prisoners of conscience. So, what to make of Wang’s statements in Faithful Disobedience that the church does not need to fight for rights or to influence the government? First, one must understand that Wang’s willingness to critique the government from the pulpit and his background in law have set him apart from most house church pastors and he is frequently accused of being more concerned about politics and rights than the gospel.[7] Wang’s statements that his ultimate concern is not for political change or liberal rights are made with an eye to these accusations. Second, Wang’s language is peppered with conditionals like, “As long as the secular government continues to persecute the church…”[8], “Once the Chinese government is willing to give up interference…”,[9] or “We hope that one day we will have religion freedom….”[10] Wang consistently recognizes that it is better for a government to secure the church’s place in society through some sort of magisterial protection, but as a house church during Xi’s reign, this situation is highly unlikely. Thus, to draw a Cromwellian or American utopia for his congregants when a storm of persecution is brewing on the horizon would not only be pastorally insensitive, but Wang believes theologically unsound. What ought to be is not what is. This leads us to Wang’s unifying theological answer: inaugurated eschatology.

There is a certain eschatological bend that marks many of Wang’s works as his pastoral career progresses. This bend is evident in some of the works included in Faithful Disobedience. Wang increasingly plants his readers and listeners in the reality that the end has broken into the here and now with the Creator king’s incarnation, death, and resurrection by which he has ensured the finality of his victory over any rival Babylon—one of Wang’s favorite eschatological images. Until that day, the church is subject to a great spiritual battle that results in its suffering at the hands of rival kingdoms. What of Western-style democracy that respects the rights of humanity set forth in Scripture, allows the church its rightful place in society independent of government oversight, and even recognizes the benefits to society that might result? That would be great. But as long as Xi continues his push for ideological conformity, Wang knows the Chinese church should not expect such things. Again, what ought to be is not what is. Therefore, the ultimate battle is not about liberal rights. To make it about rights risks losing sight of the end in light of the temporal, potentially leading to the individualistic idolatry stemming from liberalism. Rather, the ultimate battle is a spiritual battle that is being waged on earth in the last days against the church by kingdoms that seek to usurp Christ’s universal authority. While that battle has traditionally been more subtle in the West, in Wang’s context it is waged day-to-day with revisions of religious regulations, demands to join an establishment church that submits to the intrusion of an atheistic state, police raids of Sunday services, and in his case, incarceration. Church rights are not to be expected, but the pathway of exaltation through humiliation is. Persecution makes a church clear-eyed to the nature of the time between the times. However, persecution also pushes the church to hope in the end where her victory is sure. Moots reminds us, “we must remember that God will eventually destroy this wicked regime as he throws down every wicked regime opposing him.” Wang’s point exactly. If what ought to be is not what is, then what is is not what will be. It is here that Wang finds theological surety. His works in Faithful Disobedience should be read in light of this eschatological reasoning.

Moots asks, “Will the house churches develop a more robust political theology as Christians did for centuries…?” I hope that this response demonstrates that Wang Yi holds a robust political theology that is theologically centered in Scripture and the Reformed tradition and yet deals with a context that many Western political theologies today lack— persecution and Christ’s way of the Cross.

Jarred Jung (Ph.D, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a resident faculty of theology at East Asia School of Theology in Singapore and a research fellow for the Center for House Church Theology.

  1. Wang Yi, “Constitutionalism and the Christian Worldview [Xianzheng Zhuyi yu Jidujiao Shijieguan]” in On the Relationship Between Church and State [Lun Zheng Jiao Guanxi] (Chengdu: Early Rain Covenant Church, 2019), https://www.wangyilibrary.org/post/《王怡牧师文集:论政教关系》.

  2. Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism: Source and Stronghold of Our Constitutional Liberties,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

  3. I argue this more extensively in my doctoral dissertation, T. Jarred Jung, “Costly Kuyperianism: Neo-Calvinist Public Theology in a Context of Persecution with a Focus on Pastor Wang Yi” (PhD diss., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2023), ProQuest.

  4. Wang Yi, “Signs of the Covenant, [Shengyue de Jihao] Romans 15:8–9” (presented at the Early Rain Covenant Church Sunday Worship, Chengdu, 26 December, 2010), https://www.wangyilibrary.org/post/圣乐的记号; Wang Yi, “Baptism and Circumcision [Xili yu Geli] Colossians 2:9–12” (presented at Early Rain Covenant Church Sunday Worship, Chengdu, 9 January, 2011), https://www.wangyilibrary.org/post/洗礼与割礼.

  5. Wang Yi, “Kings Wear Swords, Priests Burn Incense [Junwang Pei Jian, Jisi Shao Xiang] 2 Chronicles 26:15–23” (presented at the Early Rain Covenant Church Sunday Worship, Chengdu, 14 November 2010), https://www.wangyilibrary.org/post/君王佩剑祭司烧香.

  6. This is explained by Jin Tianming in Faithful Disobedience 33–34.

  7. For an example of this criticism in writing, see Wenjuan Zhao, “Being a Protestant Church in Contemporary Mainland China: An Examination of Protestant Church-State Relations,” Asian Journal of Theology 33.2 (2019): 1–32.

  8. Faithful Disobedience, 224.

  9. Faithful Disobedience, 123.

  10. “Kings Wear Swords.”


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