As I type these words one of our presbyteries in China is being investigated by the local authorities. In the process of this investigation I received word that nearly 4,000 Christian books, which were being stored in the church facility, have been confiscated. As this event has been unfolding the pastor reached out to the churches, pastors and churches of our network within China using a chat group that we formed to connect our network church leaders. We are joined together in prayer awaiting the outcome of this formal investigation.
This network is a young, fledgling denomination and spans 6 regions including thousands of believers and somewhere between 20-30 churches. While this is a small portion of the overall church in China, it is significant because it has a connectional element that is centered around reformational theology and principles, rather than a centrally located governing authority (many of the older networks in China have developed through a centrally located authority structure).
The idea of a denomination comes with a lot of baggage and some of it is deserved. The divisive elements that have been part of the history of many denominations are certainly a reason to rethink whether we want to keep them. On the one hand as we look at denominations we could conclude that we do not need the divisive baggage that they bring. Why would we want to burden the Chinese church with this baggage? This view is a very commonly held opinion among most foreign missionaries in China. At the same time it has been my observation that most of the missionaries I have encountered have never been part of a Chinese church plant either in China or anywhere else.
There are two problems with the view that says China does not need denominations. The first is that it fails to recognize that China already has it’s own version of denominations in the form of the five large house church networks that grew out of the countryside revivals of the 1970’s and 1980’s. These networks effectively function as denominations.
The second is that it ignores many of the positive aspects that denominational affiliation can bring. Over the last 20 I have been involved in church plants in the Chinese community both in North America and China. I remember in 1995 my first experience with being part of Chinese church plant left a deep impression on me. The kinds of basic questions about church governance, doctrine, leadership, and legal documents that came up overwhelmed my Chinese brothers who were tasked with figuring it all out. After months of planning, hours of research and what seemed like endless meetings, one of my Chinese brothers turned to me and said, “now I understand why churches join denominations.”
Besides the obviously practical aspects mentioned above there is an even more fundamental need that any church has which is to connect with a historical body of doctrine and practice to help guide the church. Connecting to history helps the church learn from past mistakes and allows the church to see that when problems arise within and without, chances are the historical church has already faced these problems. If done with wisdom and the grace of God, connecting with a denomination can be done while avoiding past mistakes. Chief among them is what John Frame calls “denominational chauvinism”, the idea that our tribe is inherently better than those who are from another tribe.
The house church in China, especially the urban house church, has been harassed by the government to the point that brothers and sister in different churches do not trust one another. Many Christians in urban centers feel they cannot trust other believers outside the boundaries of their small house church. A denominational network creates a connectional body that offers support and stability and can actually promote greater unity. These are elements that the Chinese house church desperately needs.
In the period of time it has taken me to write this short piece I have been monitoring the chatter on our network (denomination) chat group. The pastor of the church under investigation mentioned in the first paragraph has never experienced this level of harassment but other pastors in the chat group have extensive experience with being harassed and even arrested. The outpouring of concern has been very encouraging. Pastors offering support to other pastors, in the form of advice, prayer, encouragement and admonishment. These are all things that every church, every pastor and every congregant needs.