Mitchell R. Herring
China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom, edited by Bruce P. Buagus. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014, xii + 336, $20.00, paper.
China’s Reforming Churches grew out of the China’s Reforming Churches Conference, held in College Park, Maryland, from January 2–4, 2013. It is an engrossing read not only for those concerned about China, or even missiology, but also for those committed to the Reformed faith and to how its distinctives and dynamics impact church and society in the unique historical, political, and cultural context of China. Furthermore, it demonstrates how the Reformed faith is universally relevant in carrying out the Great Commission. Right from the introduction, the editor’s deep conviction comes across concerning the “rich biblical and theological resources of the Reformed tradition and Presbyterian polity” (1), a theme which is repeated in various places throughout the text.
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of Christian believers in China over the last few decades. Part of that growth has been built on the work of early Presbyterian and Reformed missions in China, which is covered in the first part of the book. This is a necessary and helpful inclusion, as this history has tended to get lost in the accounts of Chinese church growth during the last several decades. Even the history of earlier periods has tended to focus, not without merit, on the labors of Chinese evangelists and church leaders, such as Wang Mingdao and John Sung, as well as those of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission. But how many of us were aware, for instance, that the term “Three-Self,” the government organization of officially recognized and supervised churches since the early 1950s, actually originated with nineteenth-century Presbyterian missionary to China John Nevius, as a sound model for indigenous church planting?
The book goes on to offer an overview of Presbyterian and Reformed work in China today. Western misconceptions (and there are quite a few) about the Chinese church and its political and cultural context are dealt with. We see the distinctives of the Reformed faith spelled out regarding their relevance to the “on the ground” experience of Chinese church and culture today, particularly as they impact the life of the church and offer authentic biblical witness to the broader culture around her, under an authority that is still officially atheist. A particularly fascinating account of this experience is a conversation with two of China’s leading reformers—one of whom is known to me—as they speak of the current state of church and society, the role of Reformed theology, efforts to develop an indigenous Presbyterian church polity, and the impact they foresee of Reformed Christianity on the wider society.
Another theme stressed throughout the book is that of great challenge and difficulty, yet through which there is also much opportunity, evident in the essay on the endemic social conditions in China today. The book contains several essays on the importance of church government, including a thoughtful study and insightful reflection on the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15, from which observations are drawn with implications not only for the church in China, but everywhere.
Finally, there is an overview of Christian publishing and theological education in China, both areas with which I am involved. It is suggested that, notwithstanding the establishment of Christian schools and hospitals of a bygone era, past neglect of Christian publishing, i.e., the publishing of solid, substantial books in Chinese, has cost the church dearly. Surprisingly, the greatest obstacle to such publishing today is not the government, but lack of funds. What is needed is both accurate translation of solid theological works and the development of indigenous scholarship. The rise of Reformed “house-church” seminaries, while still in a formative stage, is an encouraging development to this end, as well as for the building of the church, yet not without is own restrictions and challenges. It is emphasized more than once that opportunities are before us and they are now; and owing to the political and social climate in China, things could change very quickly. Yet Chinese church reformers are growing stronger and are gently and respectfully pressing forward.
In summary, not all that was presented at the conference is presented here, and not all presented here was presented at the conference. The book is offered, however, as an extension to the conference, especially valuable to those such as myself who desired but were unable to attend, as well as a summary for those who were present. The stand-out themes are clear and relevant to all: the rich biblical and theological resources of the Reformed tradition and Presbyterian polity; circumstances that are at once formidable barriers but also present unprecedented opportunities; the need for biblical church polity in an environment of rapid increase in the number of believers, as essential for church growth and work of the Great Commission; and finally, the ultimate goal—the long-term development of the church and church leaders, and indigenization of Reformed Christianity in China and throughout the world.
God has revealed the eternal truth of the gospel and mandated a corresponding polity for the church. Yet as one of the contributors put it, “our aim is not constitutional regularity” or “mechanical perfection” for its own sake. These have no power in themselves to prosper the church. This is the Spirit’s work. It is to him, not to procedures, we must look as the source of the church’s life and blessing” (242), even as we seek to be faithful to God’s revealed truth, which the Holy Spirit has authored. And Baugus concludes:
Presbyterian and Reformed folk strive to advance Reformed theology in China—or anywhere else in the world—only because we believe it is the purest and fullest exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ that the church has yet achieved.... We do not hope to see presbyterianism established in China out of petty sectarian pride, but out of a desire to see God glorified through a deeper and fuller enjoyment of Him and His steadfast love for us in Jesus Christ. (306)
For me, there is deep joy in being a small part of this transcendent enterprise on behalf of his beloved servants laboring throughout that great land. And this book, as I read it, only served to sharpen that sense.
Mitchell R. Herring is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the senior pastor of the Rochester Chinese Christian Church in Penfield, New York.