One of the most remarkable books to appear in recent days is Faithful Disobedience, a collection of writings from leaders in the Chinese house church movement—most notably pastor Wang Yi, who has been in prison since 2018.
When you hear about “house churches,” you may imagine 15 people gathering secretly in someone’s home. But in China, the house church refers more to a movement than a location. These churches and their leaders follow a path set by earlier heroes (such as Watchman Nee and Wang Mingdao) who courageously resisted taking part in the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement. House churches today often boast several hundred members, and their activities are known to the public and the authorities. Many of the fastest growing can be found in China’s cities. What sets apart the house church is that it’s unregistered—“non-sanctioned” by the government.
Early Rain Covenant Church has been one of China’s most prominent house churches. In December 2018, the pastor, Wang Yi, was imprisoned, Early Rain was raided, and more than 100 of its members were arrested.
Faithful Disobedience isn’t the story of China’s tragic crackdown on Early Rain and other churches. It’s a collection of essays, pastoral letters, and conference talks that give you a glimpse of the theological perspective of this church and its pastor before the hammer fell. And this is the first time these resources have been made available in English.
The mission of Early Rain Covenant Church was expressed in October 2018, just two months before the fateful arrests were made: “Christ is Lord. Grace is King.” And the path to carry out the mission? “Bear the cross. Keep the faith” (201). Nothing sums up better the main themes of the book.
1. Christ is Lord.
Jesus is Lord, and God’s kingdom is spreading. Christians humbly and obediently submit to the government authorities wherever possible, as Christ has commanded, but they draw the line at allowing the government to interfere with the inner life of the church or her public witness in fulfilling her mandate.
In 2015, Wang Yi wrote,
“God’s kingdom is already here in China, it cannot be denied by the power of the sword because his kingdom is brought forth by the only begotten Son of God, our Savior Lord Jesus Christ, who brought forth this kingdom on the cross through his own death under the power of the sword.” (114)
Although Wang Yi’s church is Reformed, his insistence on the separation of church and state resembles the legacy of the Baptists. He pulls no punches in describing the eternal consequences that await those who hinder the church’s freedom to serve her Lord:
“The church’s religious freedom to proclaim the gospel and worship our God is given to us by Christ himself. Any infringement or stripping of such freedom is the evil act of the antichrist and will not be spared from the fury of hell fire and God’s righteous anger.” (115)
Taking the mantle of a prophet who thunders with clear lines of distinction, Wang Yi excoriates the churches that belong to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, declaring their nationalistic “autonomy” to be a disastrous denial of the church’s catholicity. Furthermore, their willingness to sing patriotic songs in church or listen to patriotic speeches constitutes a denial of the supranational lordship of Christ. Once a church falls prey to this kind of nationalistic sentiment, it has succumbed to Satan’s scheme to turn the true church into a fake one.
Although Wang Yi distinguishes between these churches and the sincere believers who may still attend them, he makes clear the dividing line between the true church and the church with the spirit of the antichrist:
“Once the church capitulated to the flesh in holy doctrines, holy offices, and the holy sacraments, once it began to depend on earthly powers and submit to politics, then the church gave up her worship to idols. The church has lost her beautiful and glorious nature as Christ’s bride, which is her holiness; and she will become a whore and no longer a church of our Lord.” (121)
2. Grace is king.
These harsh indictments of compromise frequently run right into gushing displays of grace. The house churches emphasize the cross of Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners and also the grace that flows to and through Christians today. The pastoral letters urge Christians to treat government authorities with respect, and even honor, especially those who are simply cogs in the evil machinery of Chinese repression.
Grace makes the church fearless. “No matter what our reaction,” Wang Yi writes, “once fear has spread, any reaction based on fear is not one driven by love” (175). The stark contrast between the true church and the antichrist, or the lordship of Christ and the idolatrous seizing of ultimate power by the Chinese government, in no way minimizes the Christian responsibility to love one’s enemies, to return evil with good.
Fear and resentment, anger over injustice—these are not the motivations for Christian obedience. Love must be the driver. That’s why Wang Yi urges his fellow believers to treat even their captors with kindness. And the church that fights for freedom does so not because believers seek benefits for themselves but because religious liberty will benefit the government and the rest of the country. In other words, Wang Yi’s motivation for pursuing religious liberty is to bless the nation through the spread of God’s kingdom, not to acquire the personal privilege of churchly comfort.
3. Bear the cross.
What is the path to fulfilling this mission? Suffering. In “20 Ways Persecution is God’s Way to Shepherd Us,” Wang Yi exhorts his readers,
“Test yourself to see if you are crazy for the gospel. When you are threatened with death for the gospel, you find out for whom you really live. When faced with the risk of job loss, you know for whom you really work. When you may lose fortune and position for the sake of the gospel, you find out whether you are crazy for money or crazy for the gospel.” (176)
What are we “crazy” for? The idols of comfort and status and prestige vie for supremacy in our hearts, driving us to do seemingly crazy things to attain them. Yi envisions a church that’s unexplainable apart from the power of the gospel, where people act in ways that seem “crazy” to the world because they’ve devoted their all to Christ’s kingdom.
4. Keep the faith.
The ever-present temptation for the house church is to look for ways to compromise with the world or to give in to the unjust demands of the authorities by aligning with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But it isn’t the role of the state to enforce the precepts of Christianity:
“Once the church falls into the trap of being ruled by emotions, depending on power, or yielding to politics on matters of doctrine, priesthood, or sacraments, they have worshiped a false god.” (27)
Likewise, Sun Yi urges believers to keep the faith and focus on the church’s primary mission, which cannot be hijacked by political aims:
“An organization cannot be called a church if it does not make Jesus’ Great Commission its primary objective but rather makes the religious policy of the ruling party and the state its primary objective.” (60)
All the writers warn against seeking to use the church as a means to worldly approval, a temptation to which not even church leaders are immune: “There is no one more wicked and adulterous in the world than the preacher who has not divorced from this world” (141).
God of Tomorrow
Faithful Disobedience is a challenging book to read. Some of the essays are academic. Others are pastoral or devotional in nature. There are historical accounts of the development of the house churches, as well as clearly articulated principles that promote the supremacy of Christ over nationalistic idolatry.
The editors seem uneasy at times with the bold language of Wang Yi and his fellow writers, especially their willingness to paint black-and-white lines and call out the spirit of the antichrist. But their eternal, on-the-spiritual-battlefield language is closer to what we find in the New Testament than what passes muster in polite evangelical circles.
In the end, I’m most inspired by what Wang Yi wrote in a letter that was to be given to his wife whenever he would be arrested:
“I am still a missionary, and you are still a minister’s wife. The gospel was our life yesterday and it will be our life tomorrow. This is because the One who called us is the God of yesterday and the God of tomorrow.”
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