“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question … The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter… And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up … And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles… After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me … Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” excerpts from Acts 15: 1-22
The above verses from the pivotal chapter of the book of Acts demonstrate how Spirit-led presbyterian type polity worked in the early church through means of a synodical gathering involving debate, discussion, and deliberation of certain core, pressing issues as the young church continued to spread. This meeting was crucial since the focus of the church had begun to pivot away from Jerusalem / Jews shifting toward Gentiles and major issues were at stake. Elders of the churches and the apostles were sent to this conclave to combat incipient heretical challenges to the health of the church, in the process confirming basic soteriological (salvation) and ecclesial (church order) principles that would help ensure that the church’s mission of edification and evangelization would be strengthened, clarified, enhanced, unified, and carried forward by Spirit empowered co-laborers in the most advantageous way possible.
The authors of this book believe (as do I) that this type of structure (a plurality of elders in local and regional areas) continues to be biblically normative for the church in all ages, being essential for its optimal health and growth and as a particularly pressing need (along with quality Reformed literature and biblical / theological training) for the Chinese Christian church, one of the great mission fields / kingdom projects of the 21st century (as is the rapidly growing church in Africa and Latin America). The need as always is for establishing well-ordered churches under the discipline of God’s Word, cared for by a plurality of well-trained elders in each congregation and region.
China’s Reforming Churches was an interesting, informative, helpful introduction of the history, current status, and possible ways forward for solid, biblical Christianity in a nation that possesses remarkable kingdom potential. It is divided into 4 sections of 13 chapters by 11 authors and is extensively documented in footnotes.
First a few interesting facts about China:
“More people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe” although the quality of leadership is often not of the highest quality (but that is also the case to varying degrees in most countries). China now has the world’s 2nd largest economy, perhaps soon to eclipse the USA. It has 20% of the earth’s population and Mandarin Chinese has the most speakers of any language in the world. Its main social network, Weibo, has 450 million users. It is a nation in the throes of massive social, political, moral, and spiritual changes after having come through the hellishly brutal, repressive years of Mao communism and the Cultural Revolution, now becoming more open but still quite controlled and unfree.
In the first (history) section, the authors quickly sketch the last 200 years of Reformed mission efforts (USA, Great Britain, Korea), wars, and political issues including the Sino-Japanese wars, Chinese Civil War, ~ four decades of subjugation by Japan, the 1949 takeover by Mao and the communist party and the slow easing of repression since the deposition of the Gang of Four. In section two, Chinese pastors tell of their experiences, the church’s needs, current moral, political situations and context, etc., providing helpful insight by people with great familiarity of that culture and its changing conditions.
In the third section (current conditions), the authors highlight some of the issues in the moral, ethical, and social environment – increasing divorce rates, sexual immorality, dishonesty, lying, corruption, fear, weakening of family, suicide among rural women, bribery, mental and physical ailments, low levels of happiness, etc.
The chapter on Reformed Two Kingdom theology in this section was helpful in clarifying for me what is currently, oddly a somewhat contentious issue. This chapter shows how the Noahic covenant of common grace vs. the Abrahamic covenant of Christ’s redemptive kingdom can teach Christians how live in both kingdoms simultaneously, wisely, and well. Supreme allegiance of course is due to Christ and His kingdom alone over which the state is not entitled to any legitimate exercise of authority. At the same time, certain legitimate duties are properly due to the state by the church and individual Christians but the church does not have any direct authorization to attempt to redeem the state / culture directly through organized action. Such social change is indeed often desirable but is a natural byproduct of the vocations and actions of individual Christians working in unison with non-Christians where possible without being co-opted or compromised.
Regarding Reformed literature, there is a huge pressing need for quality translations of classic and current works. The main problems encountered are government restrictions and financial issues due to tenuous markets, piracy, underground presses, free internet resources, the costs of quality translation and editing, ISBN costs, and governmental price controls. The result is a huge Reformed publishing vacuum in a country with 95% adult literacy. For $1 million a publisher could publish 50-60 quality Reformed titles with excellent translation / editing. As a side note, one researcher believes that throughout the world there are ~ 69 thousand new coverts daily, most in Africa, Asia, Latin America, with a need of 7 thousand new pastors daily. For comprehensive biblical / theological training the needs are stability, simplicity, and continuity for students that typically are highly motivated and diligent, although foreign involvement is treated suspiciously (as in most other areas of Chinese life).
In all this was an informative book about China’s recent history, current status, and the way forward for Christian churches in that country. I especially enjoyed the chapters on Two Kingdoms and Acts 15 which for me were very insightful and helpful. A recommended book for those interested in the topic which was provided me gratis in exchange for a review.