We often hear Christians talking about certain theological ideas and ministry models as “Western.” The implication is that, these ideas and models came from the West, and the church in Asia must take a critical look to see if they are suitable for use in ministry in Asia.
What exactly does the word “Western” mean? And what did the Chinese church import from the West?
WHAT IS “WESTERN”?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ spread in several directions in the first and second centuries. The Christian faith went to India, according to tradition, by the Apostle Thomas. Christians also took their faith to Persia and elsewhere in the Middle East. Others took Christianity to Africa (thus the Coptic church in North Africa traces its origin to the first century). One branch, the Nestorians (whose doctrine of Christ is generally unacceptable to evangelicals today), took the Christian faith to China during the Tang dynasty.
These “churches of the East” are to be distinguished from the “Western” church. The latter refers to churches which grew out of the apostles’ ministry, and the church’s later expansion, in the Greek- and Latin-speaking world. “Christendom” in the west includes Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism. We are Protestants because, like Martin Luther, we believe that (a) the Bible is our only and highest authority in all matters of faith and conduct; (b) Jesus Christ was once for all sacrificed as propitiation for our sins (thus there is no need to re-sacrifice Christ); (c) salvation is by grace alone, and received through faith alone without any merit from human effort; and (d) Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man (thus “saints” have no power to represent men and women before God).
WHAT DID THE “WEST” BRING TO CHINA?
When Christians want to criticize the West, they often refer to western theology as “Greek and Latin cultural baggage.” Reality, however, is not so simple. What exactly did the church in the West, through missionaries, export to China in the last 200 years?
First we must acknowledge that, the vast majority of missionaries brought with them faithful obedience to Scripture, and a fervent love for their Lord Jesus Christ. Scripture and Christ (the Lord of Scripture) remain the highest priorities in their lives. Are these “Western”? They came with “Westerners!” Yet Chinese Christians seldom acknowledge these as gifts from the church in the West.
There are some emphases, stylistic preferences and methodologies, however, which may have arisen from the history of the church in the West. Now let us look at six things which missionaries brought from the West to China in the past 200 years. Not all missionaries transmitted all six; as a matter of fact there is some inherent contradiction among these six trends. The Chinese church need to acknowledge this “mix” of gifts which has been our inheritance.
1. An independent, pioneering spirit of evangelism. Missionaries were the fruit of revival, especially those revivals in the 1830s and 1860s. They have a strong sense of personal sacrifice, and an independent spirit to go where Christ has not been named. Chinese Christians have largely inherited this spirit of independence. The positive side is: Evangelism and frontier missions remain high priorities for the Chinese evangelical church. The negative side is: Chinese Christians have yet to learn to truly and sacrificially cooperate with each other in building up Christ’s kingdom on earth. We care far too much about our own turf, and not enough about others’ ministries.
2. An anti-intellectual, anti-cultural stance. Not all Chinese Christians are heirs to this resistance to things of the mind. However for decades, many evangelical missionaries took to China a 19th-century version of Pietism which say: The world is falling away. Let us snatch individual souls out of Satan’s territory, and not worry about earthly needs (such as the transformation of thought, culture and society with the power of the Gospel). The result: Theological education was second-class at best for many years, until the 1970s when certain Chinese church leaders began to take giant steps toward quality training for pastors and church workers.
3. A lack of church consciousness. Because many dozens of denominations and mission agencies sent missionaries to China, they refrained from honest discussion about theological and structural differences between denominations. We all want to “get the job done” in converting the lost. Interdenominational differences are considered not important, or outright wrong. The result is: Chinese Christians are much more sensitive to evangelism and pioneer missions, and relatively slow to appreciate the need to build institutional maturity and stability for the church of Jesus Christ.
4. A Pragmatic Attitude. With the awakening of evangelicals in the West (through conferences such as Berlin 1966 and Lausanne 1974), Christians assumed that we already know what the Gospel is, we know what the Bible says. What we must do now, is to take the Gospel to the whole world, by all means possible, as quickly as possible. Such a pragmatic attitude can be harmful to the maturing of the church. Each generation must re-think what the Bible says, and how we should present the Gospel. The truth in the Bible remains the same; we must, however, study the Bible and formulate the truth in our own language, and apply it in our context. Pragmatism in missions militates against thoughtful, deliberate theological thinking.
5. Marketing approach to ministry. In the 1950s America began building cars for everyone; the assumption was, “The bigger, the better.” This growth mentality was soon transferred to how we looked at churches and missions. Today, with the availability of the Internet, advertising and other media, Christians are tempted to do big things while sacrificing quality and faithfulness to Biblical truths. This is an aspect of the modern west which permeates every area of our lives. Can we be in the world, but not of it, resisting the temptation to manipulate truth into images appealing to men and women?
Usually big is not necessarily wrong; God intends growth for his Kingdom. Also the communication of the gospel needs to proceed with great sensitivity to the human condition. However distortion and manipulation can occur. Christians need to be critical in our adoption of tools for ministry.
6. Advanced Training and the Authority of the Expert. In matters of Biblical studies and theology, Chinese church leaders have been talking about “indigenous theology,” while at the same time receiving their advanced theological training in the West.
Since the 1960s, Chinese Christians have become to shake off their anti-intellectual past, and sought advanced training in theology in western universities and seminaries. We are also sensitive that the “imperialist” Western, missionary-dominated period in Chinese church history is over; it is time for the Chinese church to assume responsibility to articulate our own theology, and train our own church leaders.
However we have uncritically adopted many theological methods and trends. The result is: We are importing various schools of Western theology to Asia which may or may not be faithful to Scripture. The issue isn’t whether the ideas listed below have a Western or Asian origin. The point is: in the past few decades, Chinese Christian scholars have studied in the West, or have adopted Western intellectual methods. The result is a variety of approaches to faith and life, whose faithfulness to God’s truth in Scripture may be questionable.
Let me name a few:
a. Uncritical acceptance of contemporary theories of linguistics and deconstruction when interpreting the Bible.
b. A preference for Biblical studies (which sounds noble) which is actually hostile to the study of systematic theology. Some biblical scholars sound the cry to “let the Bible speak for itself”; yet at the same time they are really saying, “The historic doctrines of the church are to be ignored.” This is a widespread, subtle way of undermining the truths taught in Scripture (because it is done in the name of Scripture).
c. An approach to Biblical interpretation, using contemporaries tools, which consistently leads the student of Scripture away from more traditional, conservative stances on various issues – an almost deliberate reaction to the historic stand taken by evangelicals throughout the centuries.
d. An admiration for the man-centered, experience-centered, and paradox-oriented way of constructing systematic theology, which is at the same time hostile to a consistent, reasoned system of doctrine deduced from Scripture. God is actor rather than truth-giver; salvation is encounter rather than justification and propitiation.
e. An uncritical adoption of methodology which comes from 19th century sociology of knowledge and 20th century thought, as one seeks to “integrate” theology and culture.
f. An uncritical appreciation and respect for Chinese thought and culture (especially Daoism, Confucianism and New Confucianism) which is in fact a deliberate reaction against the sanctified use of the mind. In promoting the Dao De Jing, for example, a form of “Christian” anti-rationalism, irrationalism or mysticism is presented in the form of “theology for the Chinese people.”
So what is Western, what is Chinese? In reacting against western theology, Chinese church leaders often use Western methods and tools.
The most important thing is: When doing theology, Christians should be obedient to the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture. We need to re-affirm that the Bible is entirely trustworthy and inerrant in all that it affirms, including issues of faith, conduct, history and science. We need to re-affirm that Scripture interprets itself, and that Scripture is sufficient for our use. Then we need to critically look at our methodologies and models.
A mature church must not only “react” against the missionaries. We need to appreciate all that is sound and biblical, throughout church history. We must reject all methods and ideas which have a false presupposition or worldview, even if these ideas sound very appealing and attractive to contemporary men and women, with broken hearts and homes in search for an authentic encounter with God.
The place to start is: What does the Bible say? Does the Bible present to us a body of doctrine, which is authoritative? Did God speak the final Word in Scripture?
There is a body of doctrine contained in Scripture. Here we are not discussing which schools of doctrine to adopt (Pelagian vs. Augustinian, Calvinist vs. Arminian, Covenantal vs. Dispensationalist, Evangelical vs. Charismatic). We must have the utter confidence that, when we study the Bible, we can come to know this system of doctrine, which is centered on the person of God the Mighty Maker of heaven and earth, and on His Son our Redeemer Jesus Christ. We can put our confidence in these doctrines (i.e., put our trust in God and in Jesus Christ). We need to understand this system of doctrines, defend it, proclaim it, obey it and teach the adults and children of our church to internalize it. This system of doctrine is contained in the Bible. Only if we study the Bible diligently will the church of Jesus Christ mature, in the East as well as in the West.
Samuel Ling is president of China Horizon, scholar-in-residence at Logos Evangelical Seminary
and visiting professor of missions at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.
(This article appeared in Chinese Around the World, January 1999. CATW is published by CCCOWE, P.O. Box 98435, TST, Hong Kong.)