Does the End Justfiy the Means?

The pragmatic traditions in the Chinese Church (“What Traveled from West to East?” Part 5)
( [email protected] ) Apr 18, 2005 01:25 AM EDT


According to many church historians, one of the most important differences between Protestant and Catholic Christians is that the Protestant tends to approach the Christian life in terms of action: how-to procedures, methods, and programs. We are more interested in church growth, through attracting non-believers to our congregations, and through sending missionaries across cultural barriers to preach the gospel. We are people of exuberant music, exciting mission programs, and great expectation of revival and the end of history. By comparison, Roman Catholics seem to exude in the tranquility of solitude and contemplation. It is no accident that, in a time of theological confusion, many Protestants (Chinese included) have turned first to medieval Catholicism (rather than to the Bible) for inspiration on spirituality.

In the face of radical secularization and paganism in the 21st century world, the church today searches for programs that are guaranteed to work, methods that are immediately effective, and leaders who are proven “men of action.” We assume that we already know what the gospel is—it is beyond debate, it is assumed, agreed upon. What we need now is to “get the job done”: get the Word out, get people saved, send our missionaries to the field. We are not interested in “theories” that are not “practical,” “words” that are “empty talk,” “spirituality” which does not translate into ostensible demonstrations of effect (spirituality that works, or ling guang). Such is the activist, or pragmatic spirit of the Protestant, and it is very much the common attitude of the Chinese Christian today.

The Chinese church, for better or worse, has imbibed pragmatism as a philosophy of life, without giving much thought to it. Since the Berlin Congress of 1966 and the Lausanne Congress of 1974 (followed by the first CCOWE congress in 1976), Chinese church leaders have been calling Christians to come together, put down denominational and theological differences, and take the gospel to both Chinese and non-Chinese around the world. We soon saw the rise of the “church growth school (both at and beyond Fuller Seminary), the increase in the popularity of “Doctor of Ministry” programs for pastors (who pursue them not only for prestige but for practicality), all kinds of seminars, conferences, mini-courses and pre-packaged programs for ministry and outreach, the tremendous influence of the “cell group church movement,” “contemporary worship music,” and a legion of other practical programs which promise results. It seems that Chinese pastors and missionaries are all searching for a guru; they have all gone to the gurus to receive a secret scripture (qu jing). The outward appearance of this movement is exciting and encouraging. The long-term consequences of this pragmatic approach, however, may be unnoticeable for now, but they are profound and far-reaching.

An uncritical, unchecked pragmatic spirit is harmful to the church. According to a biblical philosophy of life, truth – God’s revelaed truth -- is the basis for action, not the expert’s advice on effectiveness. Bible-believing Christians believe that action and their results do not give us an adequate foundation for true beliefs; God’s Word, and an application of God’s Word (which is Christian wisdom), does.


What, then is this philosophy of life called “pragmatism?” It is a movement in the history of western philosophy identified with thinkers such as Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey’s disciple, Hu Shih, imported it to China through his articles on the vernacular (pai hua wen) movement, and through Hu’s own emphasis on discussing practical problems and solutions rather than aimless discussion on “-ism’s” (duo tan yi xie wen ti, shao tan yi xie zhu yi). Hus’ proposals appeared first in New Youth magazine between 1916 and 1918, on the eve of the May Fourth Movement (1919). John Dewey himself toured China and gave lectures in 1920 and 1921.

Pragmatism is the philosophy which believes that “the usefulness, workability, and practicality of ideas, politics, and proposals are the criteria of their merit.” It believes in the priority of “action over doctrine, of experience over fixed principles; and it holds that ideas borrow their meanings from their consequences, and their truths from their verification” (article on “Pragmatism,” Encyclopedia Britannica). It is a kind of philosophy which militates against rationalism. It believes that if an idea works, or if it produces results, it is true or valid. The important thing is whether an idea produces results.

Translate this idea over to religion, and William James gives us some very startling conclusions, which Christians must take notice. James writes: “On pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily, in the widest sense of the word it is ‘true.’” In other words, if one believes in God, and this belief produces some positive result such as comfort or a spiritual uplift, then the idea of God is true. The Encyclopedia Britannica concludes that this approach is both radical and unnerving: “That religious beliefs exhibit certain consoling and uplifting effects and work well in the lives of particular believers is an unarguable fact; but it is another matter entirely to assert that such attributes substantiate the beliefs themselves.”

John Dewey is the most influential philosopher of education in American history. His basic premise to life is that experience is not passive, but an active, social process. “Knowing … is primarily a matter of knowing how. Inquiry tells us how to transform situations for the better…” In other words, the most important thing for the mind to do in life is to find out how to solve problems. Thus Dewey encouraged the active pursuit of solutions to problems as the basic approach to education. Its influence is profound in American education: children and youth are encouraged to explore; schools need to set up an environment of inquiry and curious exploration, so that students may graduate into a democratic society populated by free-thinking, problem-solving citizens. (This is one of the features of American education which sets itself apart from the Chinese; perhaps it is an attractive feature for Chinese parents!)


In a sense, we can see that pragmatism is distinctly an American philosophy. Americans assumed that reason and science would bring positive results to man and society. They believed in the ultimacy of progress: the democratic experiment will succeed, life will be more comfortable for all, things and machines will be bigger and better. Science and technology would usher in utopia, so thought many 19th century Europeans and Americans. Compared with Europe, the United States did not produce speculative rationalists like Rene Descartes or Immanuel Kant (French and German); she did not produce godly scientists like Isaac Newton (England) nor romantic and existential theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher or Soren Kierkegaard (German/French and Danish). America is the great “Virgin Land” which invited a pioneer spirit of conquest and settlement (this is one of the hypotheses set forth by historians to explain the character of the American people). Thus, the first and last great theologian America produced was Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was a pastor who witnessed the Great Awakening breaking out in Massachusetts beginning around 1734. He was a theologian who answered his contemporary skeptical critics; he was also a theologian for the church, providing the biblical foundation for spiritual experience, and guarding the church against excess enthusiasm in revivalistic outbursts. (His classic, Religious Affections, has been translated into Chinese: Zong jiao qing chao zhen wei bian, Reformation Translation Fellowship.) Edwards, therefore, was a theoretician and a practitioner: he was both theologian/philosopher and pastor. Such is a rare combination, unfortunately, in later American history.

In the 19th century revivals broke out in America, but these latter-day outbursts were not accompanied by deep biblical, theological reflection. Thus Ian Murray makes the distinction between “revival” (e.g. Great Awakening) and “revivalism” (19th century movements) in his book, Revivals and Revivalism (Banner of Truth Trust). Charles Finney and Dwight L. Moody each adopted novel methods to get the sinner to show some outward sign of repentance. Moody, A.B. Simpson and John R. Mott worked to mobilize as many Christians as possible to go to China, India and Africa as missionaries. Mott’s famous slogan in the 1890s was: “the evangelization of the world in this our generation.” The pragmatic spirit permeated the revival of the 1830s (Finney) and 1860s (Moody). Thousands of Americans – mostly young college graduates, often with their newlywed spouses – sailed for the mission field in the 1880s and 1890s, and on into the 20th century. M. Searle Bates, in his article (in John K. Fairbank, ed., The Missionary Enterprise in China and America) tells us that the average American missionary who went to China between 1900 and 1950 received a liberal arts education in a church-related college, which included two or three Bible or religion courses. The training they received in the scholarly study of the Bible and theology is far, far less than the average American pastor, who is required to go through three years of seminary beyond college. We may add to Bates’ observation that, for those who went to Bible colleges (founded by Moody – Moody Bible Institute – and Simpson – Ontario Bible College) did not fare better. They had more Bible courses, but little theological or missiological reflection. Result: missionaries sent to China were mostly men and women of action. They loved the Lord; they were people of prayer; they burned with the desire to see the conversion of the heathen; they gave their lives for missions. They made great sacrifice to leave home and loved ones to spread the gospel. Many suffered from health problems. Many died in China; they and their children were buried on Chinese soil. However, by and large they were not profound thinkers; with some outstanding exceptions, they did not give China a strong doctrinal foundation to build the 20th century Chinese church toward theological maturity.


During the first half of the 20th century, China was in turmoil. There was precious little time for quite, theological reflection. John Sung, Watchman Nee, Andrew Gih, the Bethel Evangelistic Band and many others traveled across China and the Pacific Rim in the 1930s and 1940s, bringing the gospel, calling for repentance, conversion and a consecrated life for Christ. The Chinese church grew. Many believers were encouraged and prepared for a period of suffering and persecution after 1949. The “pragmatic” fruit of a gospel presentation which puts strong emphasis on prayer, holiness, evangelism and separation from the world stood the Chinese church in good stead. Suffering and the cross have since become the hallmark of Chinese theology.

During the second half of the 20th century, the overseas Chinese church began to grow and mature, first in Asia, then in North America and elsewhere. In the 1950s and 1960s, America was confident in her military and economic prowess; this confidence in programs and methods spilled over to the church, and to the Chinese church. The Berlin Congress (1966) and Lausanne Congress (1974), both convened by Billy Graham, gave visibility to a global evangelical church, reaching out from six continents to six continents. It was an encouraging, exciting time. In the Chinese church, new ministries were born in the 1970s in theological education (new seminaries), counseling, youth ministry, pre-evangelistic or cultural outreach, and multi-media evangelism. As Chinese churches are planted overseas, pastors are called, church buildings are procured, and soon mission budgets are adopted: the church is called upon to support a wide variety of ministries, all subsumed under the umbrella of “missions.” The church is busy; there is much to do; and the average layperson is eager to invest his/her life, and to participate in what God is doing in the world.

But all is not well in the Chinese church. The pragmatic spirit unleashed particularly since the 1970s has given rise to a weak stance in matters of faith and doctrine. We are more interested in being “user-friendly” and “strategically effective” than in being faithful to the truth once delivered to the saints. Like Donald MacGavran, founder of the “church growth school” of missionary thinking, we assume that we already know what the gospel is; the challenge that remains is to take the Word to the world. The church became lax in her confidence in the Bible as the inspired, infallible and inerrant Word. The Chinese church has become open to a kind of inter-religious dialogue without at the same time taking a strong stand on Jesus Christ as the only truth, the only way, the only Savior. (Our seminary professors and theological journals are reflecting these trends.) The church imports secular ideas in marketing and psychology uncritically. Today the church is so much like the world; the world has come into the church. We have fallen into the exact temptation which the Lausanne Covenant (1974) warned the church against: “The church is in the world, but the world must not be in the church.”

When we allow the “positive results” of ideas to determine whether those ideas are true or not, we lose control over what we believe. Such is the state of the Chinese church today, at least in some very significant quarters of the Chinese church. We want to be practical people; we want results. But the results are taking us into worldliness and pagan thought and life patterns.


The Chinese are a practical people. Traditional Confucian-Taoist thought has two components: mysticism and pragmatism. Mysticism in Chinese thought represents man’s communion with nature, and the importance of art and literature to reflect this correlate, harmonious relationship between man and nature. Pragmatism is Confucius’ vision that the prince should rule by his virtue (not by the force of law). The combination of the mystic and the pragmatic vision has given rise to a man-centered (humanist) way of life which has allowed the rulers to rule with a myth, and the masses (the ruled) to go on with life in a survival mode. The Chinese version of pragmatism is a desire to survive this winter, so that the peasant has enough to pay the landlord and still has enough leftover for family needs and the next year. With the onslaught of Western and Japanese imperialism, Chinese pragmatism has become the drive to survive in the modern world as a nation-state. Technology, military prowess and economic modernization have become China’s goals, not only since the rise of Deng Xiaoping (after 1976), but since the rise of the Empress Dowager (during the Tongzhi Restoration, 1862-74). The Chinese church, thus, has a dual impetus to be pragmatic: encouraged by Chinese tradition, and by western missionaries.

How, then, should we live? Is there an alternative to unbridled pragmatism? There is. We must return to the question: from God’s point of view, what is the most practical thing to do? What is the most practical thing in life?

If we study the Old and the New Testaments together, we will discover that, in God’s revealed Word there is much emphasis on “fearing God,” “knowing God,” and “wisdom.” Other words include “obedience,” “faith,” “worship,” “service,” and keeping/observing “the covenant.” Do a word study, using a concordance, on these words; or consult a good reference work (such as The New Bible Dictionary or The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). We will soon find that in God’s plan for His believers, His primary will is that we fear him, know him personally (both in our minds and in our hearts, not just in one), serve him and obey all that He has commanded. Evangelism and missions are part of what it means to obey God’s commands. However evangelism is not the totality of serving God; mission is part of the church’s purpose, but mission is not the church.

In the fury to become practical, in the face of a rapidly changing world with pressing needs, the church has often lost the vision to faithfully, quietly, uneventfully obey God and fear God. This kind of steadfast discipline only happens when the local church teaches Scripture systematically, faithfully, year in and year out. No spectacular, magic formula which promises instant results, but the determined effort to apply God’s Word systematically, comprehensively to all of life as God’s people struggle with what it means to please the Lord Jesus Christ. Pastors, elders, deacons, counselors, Sunday School and Bible study teachers must cling to this primary purpose.

More fundamentally, we must go back to the Bible, in every generation, and discover the true meaning of the gospel. This is an urgent task (though it often does not appear to be urgent), because false religions, humanistic philosophies, and various forms of godless attack against the truth throughout history. Our moment in history is no different. We simply cannot rest and “assume” that we know what the gospel is, and mindlessly proceed to discuss how to “get the job done.” The task of defining and defending the gospel (apologetics) is ever with us as a God-given calling.

When we fear, obey and serve God, as individuals and as congregations, people in the world will begin to stand up and take notice. When we faithfully and boldly proclaim the truth, and defend the truth against all forms of godlessness, the world will notice. Evangelism and mission become natural extensions of our disciplined minds, hearts and lives. There will definitely a place for strategy, methods, procedures, and training/mobilization programs. But strategies and programs will work only if the foundation is strong. And our choice of strategies and programs will depend partly on whether these methods conform, in their method as well as methodology, to the Word of God. Methods are not neutral!

What is the most practical thing in life? Colossians 1:9-10 and Philippians 1:9-10 echo the voice of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: the most practical thing in life is to acquire wisdom and knowledge, so that we may bear fruit, please God and cause thanksgiving and praise to go up to our Father in heaven.

People who go to gurus for secret formulas (qu jing), take heed!


Samuel Ling is president of China Horizon, an apologetics ministry based in Los Angeles, USA. Visit him at: