The Lord’s Purpose in China

By Ja Naw
Burma Council of Churches-Urban Rural Mission (BCC-URM)


The ecumenical exposure tour to China and the meeting and sharing with our Chinese Christian brothers and sisters was a very meaningful experience. All of their sincere concerns, their kind help and warm hospitality were refreshing and built a closer friendship between us. Although our visit to China was short, it gave me inspiration and renewed my insights.

I personally feel that the new development of China challenges both Christians outside of the country and local Chinese Christians in many aspects. As we know, there was infiltration by hostile religious forces from abroad and factionalism within the churches brought mainly by Western theological principalities, which are related to economical and political benefits, that have divided Christians into "progressives" and "conservatives." Today among Christian groups the different trends of thought are the most important problems. Regarding the trends of thought. I would like to give the following illustration:

"Once a traveler suddenly slipped and fell down the side of the mountain. Fortunately he was able to grasp a small branch and break his fall and, thus, saved himself from falling surely to his death. He shouted for help, and then he heard a voice from above asking him, ‘Friend, do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior? If so, let go of the branch, and He will surely save you. Trust Him.’

"The traveler thought to himself that if I let go of the branch and do as the man says I shall surely fall and die. Thus, the traveler said, ‘No, I won’t let go of the branch.’

"The man from above said, ‘Friend, if you do not have faith and trust, how can you be saved?’

"A second man came along and studying the situation said, ‘I must save the man,’ and he lifted him on to the road. The traveler was so thankful and said to the man who saved him, ‘Friend, you saved my life!’ The man who was praised thought to himself that what he had done was right."

Looking at the first man, we will notice that he believes that if one has faith, that is, enough and complete faith, then other things are not so important. We see that this man is preaching to the traveler to accept Christ as Lord and Savior; but when it comes to practical help, especially involvement in social action for justice, the first man tends to ignore, fail and fall short of this aspect of Christianity. Why? Today these actions are a stumbling block in efforts to enhance the ecumenical spirit of churches and to those who would like to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.

Studying the second man, we will find that he practiced what he believed: he saved a man when he most needed help and was in trouble. He shows no serious consideration for those who are preaching for the lost souls of people without taking any kindly action in their life. Here we do not hear preaching but see action.

Christ Himself taught that we, all Christians, are called to be His witness by word and by life. With either one of them absent, the Great Commission is incomplete. Why in mission work is there no unity between these two main groups - the socalled conservatives and progressives? Who created the two groups and their trends of thought? What is the motive of the creator? When the two groups re-examine themselves, do both groups really have the spirit of Christ, His desire for unity? I would say that each group has its own weaknesses and shortcomings in attempting to achieve their beliefs, and they need to make necessary changes and improvements by transforming their hearts according to the teachings of Christ.

In studying Document No. 19 (the basic viewpoint and policy on the religious question during China’s socialist period and its implementation of the religious freedom policy issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after a careful study of their past bitter experiment), I see that the Chinese government has made necessary changes and improvements. The Chinese government is aware of the danger of foreign infiltration and the problems of churches’ factionalism brought mainly by Western ideological and theological principalities. Today, on one hand, the Chinese government actively develops friendly international religious contacts (by combating any use of religious extremism to divide the Chinese people and, thus, damage the unity among the people) and, on the other hand, is striving to overcome it by enhancing the spirit of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

I also see that the Chinese government is encouraging Christian believers in China to have both concern for spirituality and social involvement. While I was in China, I often heard what Chinese Christians said: "We are theologically conservative but politically progressive." I notice, however, that the Western understanding of the term "conservative" is different from that of Chinese Christians. In China, it means a strong and firm belief and trust in God. It is more than spiritual, however; it has concern for social involvement as well as spirituality. Their worship services, sermons and witness are simple but deep in faith. The fruits of their faith are the revival of the churches - the increasing number of churches and the increasing number of believers in the churches - and Christians are regarded as good citizens.

During the Cultural Revolution, religious activities were banned, and temples, churches and church buildings were confiscated. Today the Chinese government, CCP and its religious body, the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), help Christians through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement to reclaim confiscated church properties, to reopen church buildings and to construct new churches, although the CCP itself does not allow its party members to become religious believers. It denotes that the CCP itself does not preach the Gospel, but it encourages others to live out the essence of the Gospel.

Some people outside of China may think that by not allowing a CCP member to become a religious believer that a citizen loses their basic rights, but it can be seen in many countries that the religion of the majority becomes the state religion or dominant group. Today the tension and conflict between the majority group and the minority group, which have stemmed from religious discrimination, have become a global issue. However, I believe that by not allowing a CCP member to become a religious believer that a party member in China can undertake his or her tasks without bias and can prevent domination by the religion of the majority within governmental bodies. The obvious evidence in China today is that all religious groups equally enjoy their religious freedom that is provided by the Central Committee of the CCP.

Looking at the main reason for the growth of the churches today, I see that it is not only because of the revival of the churches but also because of the implementation of the religious freedom policy by the CCP government. Thus, the churches in China not only symbolize the belief of the Chinese Christians but also are historical landmarks of China and the unity of the country. I would say that this is the Lord’s purpose.

When foreign missionaries had to leave the country, many people thought that the Christian faith would gradually become weak and die. But it was not so. Foreign missionaries leaving the country gave a great opportunity to Chinese Christians to affirm their faith in God which then became rooted in Chinese soil. Today the Christian faith, which was regarded by the majority of the Chinese people as a foreign culture in the past, has become an indigenous religion. Here my view is that the CCP is striving to continue to carry out this thrust through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. This has given me a clearer realization that the Gospel has interacted with culture and that the spirit of God can work, leading all cultures to their fulfillment in Christ where there is love, justice, equality, freedom and identity. What I mean is that China’s experiences prove that God’s hand is still working in China’s culture.

According to party policy in China, if you are a religious believer, you cannot be a political power holder. Thus, it is clear that the mission carried on by Chinese Christians is not accomplished by using secular power but by their faith and trust in God and the power of the Holy Spirit. I, therefore, observed the persistent faith and sacrificial life of the Chinese Christians in their mission work that endured through the Cultural Revolution, living as good citizens today as a non-party political movement. In other words, it is like "leaven in bread." Today the increasing number of Chinese people, including some party members, who have converted to Christianity can be seen in China.

In 1981, after the era of the cultural revolutionary struggle was over, the new leadership led by Deng Xiaoping implemented an ambitious economic development program known as the Four Modernizations. It envisioned significant advances in agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology. China also opened up to foreign trade, investment and borrowing, including foreign tourism. In addition, special economic zones (SEZs) were established to attract foreign factories by offering a range of incentives, such as tax breaks and cheap land and labor. As more people became self-employed, the longstanding problems of unemployment and underemployment were diminished. (In order to propel economic growth, I noticed that factories were encouraged to produce consumer rather than capital goods, and people were also encouraged to consume.) In the countryside, the People’s Communes were dissolved, and land was redistributed into family-size units rented from the State. Production quotas were replaced by taxes. Peasants were also permitted to sell their surpluses for cash in the towns and cities. It is clear that China wants modernization; there is no harm in that. According to the experiences of Third World countries, however, spiritual and cultural values, which are the vein for communal life, have eroded with the coming of modernization. My question is: "Can China overcome the consequent problems of modernization?"

The Lord’s purpose is a mystery. In Romans 9:25-26, the words of the Old Testament book of Hosea are repeated:

"I will say to a people that were not mine, ‘You are my people,’.. .Instead of being told, ‘You are no people of mine,’ they will now be called the sons of the living God."

And in Romans 10:20, God expressed the words below through Isaiah:

"I have been found by those who did not seek me and have revealed myself to those who did not consult me."

These scriptures are really true for the Chinese people and have come to be fulfilled in the Chinese context today. My Biblical reflection on the religious freedom policy of China is that the policy is like "new wine in old bottles." The party policy, to become like "new wine in new bottles," is a great challenge for both local Chinese Christians and the world Christian community.

In conclusion, the words of a Chinese Christian have stuck in my mind: "The changes in China were the Lord’s purpose"; "God uses our government"; "Our responsibilities are to believe and trust God and to tell about life that God gives"; and "I believe that God can do everything."

(Ed. note: This story contains the reflections of the author after an exposure trip to Jiangsu Province in China from April 16 to 27,1992, that was organized by the Amity Foundation.)