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Thursday, July 3, 2014

"China's Reforming Churches" (Bruce P. Baugus)

TITLE: China's Reforming Churches
AUTHOR: Bruce P. Baugus
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014, (320 pages).

China is a rising world power. For some, it is already one poised to overtake the United States in the near future on many fronts. One such front is the growth of Christianity. Like many movements throughout history, it is one thing to form a network of churches. It is yet another to keep them refreshed, relevant, and reformed. As far as the author of this book is concerned, evangelization is just the beginning. Keeping them constantly reformed is the next and the next, and the next big thing. Writing from a Presbyterian angle, the author argues that the time for "presbyterianism" is now, and the way forward is the call for presbyterian practices to help reform the many churches in need of reforming. While other denominations have their merits. Baugus is convinced that Presbyterianism has rich resources and experiences to offer.

With a population of 1.35 billion people, China is currently the most populous nation. Even a small percentage who become believers in China can number in the millions. That is why some had even said: "More people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe." With rapid growth comes dire needs for leaders and church governance, training, ordinations, and structural needs. This book contains essays by eleven contributors. All of them are either leaders of the Presbyterian Church in North America and Asia, or advocates of Presbyterianism, believing that that is what the growing churches in China need. The book gives the reasons why.

Historically, Christianity is not a new face in China. Focusing on early Presbyterian and Reformed influences, Michael M. looks back at the checkered past with Presbyterians grappling with two key concerns: Methods and Cultivating Relationships. Different Presbyterian groups adopt varying techniques, some that fostered greater dependence on foreign missionaries and others working toward indigenous development of local leaders. The concern eventually boils down not to Presbyterianism versus other Christian groups, but Christianity versus all others, especially liberal theologies. A. Donald McLeod looks at the work of a missionary called Watson Hayes and the setting up of a teaching center: North China Theological Seminary in the light of student revolt at the previous school at Qilu. The alternative school, NCTS quickly "became the largest and strongest theological seminary in China." Baugus and Steve Park discusses the significant influence of Korean Presbyterians in China. Despite the efforts of the authorities to close the door on Korean Presbyterians, by 1992 the re-establishment of diplomatic relationships between South Korea and China re-opened the door. The contributors assert that the vibrant faith in China may very well re-ignite the gospel witness back in Korea too.

On the current scene, three contributors look at the development of Presbyterianism now. Brent Fulton points out four narratives of Christianity in China. The first is that of a "persecuted church" where China churches are victims of an atheistic state. The second is a "needy church" where outside help is needed. The third is that of a "Christian China" where some see Christianity as the hope to fill the "spiritual vacuum" in an increasingly capitalistic China. The fourth is a "missionary church" which sees China as potentially the missionary exporter to the world. Fulton then personally listens to the Chinese believers themselves and discovers that no one single narrative can fully describe the Chinese church. Some observations include the rising affluence in the country also brings about challenges for the Church. Despite the advances in social media, self-censorship is still being done where certain topics are not openly discussed. There are many opportunities for Marketplace ministries. Ethical and morality challenges need to be addressed quickly. Theologically, there is increasing separation between secular and the sacred. Luke Lu gives reasons why the Chinese Church needs Biblical Presbyterianism. With sola scriptura as the emphasis, covenant perspective as the underpinning theology, Lu proposes three areas for attention: covenant-family baptism; male leadership; and plurality of elders. Baugus returns with a dialogical engagement with two prominent Reformed leaders, G. and W. in the Chinese Church.

Four contributors deal with the challenges of the Church now and in the future. G. Wright Doyle discusses the social conditions of ministry that includes work, family, education, morality, health, and rising discontent. Brent Fulton returns with some commentary on the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the underground house church, concluding that political reforms will have direct implications on the freedom of the religious culture in China. Guy Prentiss Waters looks at Acts 15:1-35 to learn from the Early Church to address five specific concerns regarding church governance.

The fourth and final part of the book touches on how the Chinese appropriate the Reformed tradition. Phil Remmers sees publishing as an opportunity especially with more legal ways to publish various titles. For a title to be legal, it needs to have a Beijing ISBN. There are challenges not only to publishing but also distribution networks. The more China opens up, the more opportunities there will be for translation work, for theological skills, for publishing platforms, and more. Bruce Baugus looks at the state of Reformed Theological Education, and suggests the three challenges being "stability, simplicity, and continuity." Paul Wang discusses the indigenization and contextualization of the Reformed Faith in China. What is particularly interesting is the three principles for contextualization.
  1. Affirming strongly biblical truth
  2. Applying biblical doctrines
  3. Relying on the power and efficacy of biblical truth
So What?

I have mixed feelings as I read this book. On one level, I feel like this book tends to have too much of a Presbyterianism slant which can isolate other non-Presbyterian groups. That would be a pity as the content is rich with many insights on the missionary movement in China and the many positive things that the Church can be effective in China. The overuse of Presbyterianism makes me wonder whether the contributors have unconsciously pushed themselves to the top of the heap over and above all other branches of Christianity. While the title of the book is not so explicit, the articles have way too much Presbyterian flavour that tends to appeal more to readers with a Presbyterian background. Having said that, if readers from other denominations can be open about it, substituting the word "Presbyterianism" with Christianity, they have much to gain as the challenges in China are way too many for mini-squabbling over theological differences.

On a positive level, the book gives readers many wonderful insights about how the struggles of the Chinese Church is also linked to the struggles of the nation as a whole. Whether secular or religious, the people in China all need hope and vision for the future. All can play their part in nation building. Christianity can assist rather than antagonize the leadership. This calls for wise leadership and constant prayer for the leaders of the country in accordance to 1 Timothy 2:1-3. Let me pose three concluding sentiments I have about this book, which applies to both inside and outside China.

Firstly, indigenization is key to the development of Christianity in China. This means training and equipping the Chinese believers to serve their nation in Christlike ways remain top priority. If Christians are making a positive influence for the good of society, why would any government stop them?

Secondly, information sharing is important. I appreciate how Fulton discusses the four narratives of the Chinese Church in which outside observers can often be too naive to take one of them to apply to the whole. This means outsiders themselves need to be educated too. There are both information as well as misinformation out there. Wisdom and discernment, and maybe friends from within the country will help us dispel false information and see truth.

Thirdly, integrating the faith must continue to be done. Do not be distracted by styles. The better Westerners are at integrating their own faith, the better will be their testimony to the other nations. Remember that China is the world leading replicator of world products. From the biggest brand names to the most efficient manufacturing processes, they are all ready to do what is tried and proven in the West. If Christians in the West are able to live out their faith well, integrated in both religious belief and Christlike behaviour, there is no reason why Chinese Christians will not want to learn from them. When that happens, I believe there is a lesser need to push our resources to them, but a greater hunger that resources will be pulled by the believers of our brothers and sisters in China. They choose what to import. Let us showcase the list of things that are glorifying to God.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Reformation Heritage Books and Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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