Moving from Religion to Faith in China

Christ’s Heavenly Kingdom is the Issue
Transitioning Chinese Christians from Religion to Faith


By Ling Fenglei, a lawyer in Shanghai region


Editor’s note: Born in 1970, Ling Fenglei received a law degree from “Suzhou University Law School” (near Shanghai) in 1992. Five years later, he became a Christian and helped found an evangelical group in Suzhou, the “Jiangnan Fellowship”, in 2009. In 2018 he became editor of a new magazine which considers itself Anabaptist: “The Gospel and Contemporary China”. He describes himself as an independent Christian scholar striving to promote an independent, self-supporting and non-Western evangelical movement. While living in Suzhou with his wife and young daughter, Ling Fenglei also maintains an office in Hong Kong.


This initial article leaves many questions unanswered. But it is important that we in the cultural West become acquainted with alternative Christian thinking in China. Non-Western Christians need the opportunity to express themselves directly and in their own words to a global audience. This article is distilled from three that have already appeared in “The Gospel and Contemporary China”.


The Chinese Condition
Historically, the Chinese church has always been a vassal of European and North American Christianity, subservient to others and following orders. Therefore, since Christianity entered China, the Christian faith has been profoundly subject to the struggle between politics and ideology; it has never been capable of proving its independent character.


Protestantism entered China at a time when Chinese civilization was weakest. European and American Christianity were thus able to enter forcefully and impose the Constantinian model of a state religion. This sentenced Chinese Protestantism to being vassals and a simple extension of European and American “sects”. The lay, office-free Christianity represented by the Anabaptists of Europe and the United States has been suppressed and rejected by China’s orthodox, quasi-state-level churches.


Traditional mission from Europe and North America has had major influence on the Protestants of China. It has:
1. Emphasized hierarchy;
2. Emphasized theocracy as developed in the Old Testament and by the Apostle Paul while ignoring the Gospel’s core message of Christ’s heavenly kingdom;
3. Caused the Gospel’s entanglement and its profound misuse in the political realm.


The immense, historical civilization of China is characterized by the fact that it has no dominate religious or ideological tradition. That makes it highly unique among the world’s civilizations. Yet the structural ties of today’s Christianity to a specific ideology will be difficult to disentangle.   


In recent decades, traditional Christianity has suffered from the rise of religious rightists. Their rise resulted in a wave of rebellion among younger persons ranging from the Confucianist circles of Eastern Asia to European and North American Christian circles. Even in continental European and in Anglo-Saxon-speaking countries, parts of the younger generation of Christians have rebelled and walked away from traditional Christianity. The pursuit and gain of political power through the world’s religious rightists has repulsed the younger generation of non-Christians – even more so than those circles still adhering to traditional Christian thought.


A cultural rebellion has ensued: One could say that faith is rebelling against institutional religion. In Europe and North America, traditional, monotheistic Christendom has begun to collapse. These two continents have entered a post-Christian era. Non-Christian countries, and China in particular, are consequently entering a new non-Christian era.


Following two centuries of weakness, Chinese civilization has regained self-confidence and self-recognition. The result is a new tension with that Chinese Christianity shaped and influenced by European and American Constantinianism. Since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2000, the rise of an independent, civil society has become a dominant trend within China’s social structures. During this era, the great mass of Chinese have begun to extricate themselves from poverty and ignorance and have for the first time gained confidence and real expectations for the future. Chinese have studied in foreign countries and no longer feel subservient. They have developed new expectations regarding their understanding of life and the pursuit of happiness.


While gradually becoming more self-confident, they on the other hand have developed a fear of nothingness or meaninglessness. How is one to attain and realise the true meaning of life? The era of religious anaesthesia and unreflected self-satisfaction have begun to fade and a parallel world of critical religious contemplation and consideration combined with a reinterpretation of mythologies is emerging.


We need to be vigilant regarding the rise of a top-down development of Chinese Christianity. That strategy indeed stems from those pushing for the instalment of a Christian state. The growth of Christian numbers is very much a part of their plan. They all hope that China will become a Christian nation. Yet this type of thinking with bring great harm and impede the continued thriving of the Chinese church.


One can speak of three types of Christianity in Europe and America. Firstly, the model of an earthly, religious kingdom emphasizes the unity of politics and religion. Its ideal is the construction of an earthly kingdom. Secondly, there exists a church model supporting massive consumption. This model is the Christian version of today’s ideology of consumption and wealth. Its ideal is to form a large-scale religious supermarket providing all kinds of religious goodies promising fame and fortune. Thirdly, a proactive mission-based church model also exists. This type of church believes that Christians will remain a minority in society. Christians should therefore above all follow the teachings of Christ and become his disciples.


A possible solution
It is imperative that we establish and demonstrate the independent character of Christian faith. This needs to be the historical destiny of the Christian faith in China. Only so can China's Christians be freed from the entanglements and threatening whirlpools of politics and ideology. By regaining its independence, China and the world can best comprehend the purpose and essence of a renewed Chinese Christian faith.


We strive for the growth of mission-based churches. Yet we must accept that we will remain a minority in this world. Christians do not pursue secular power, neither fame nor fortune. This does not mean they should be inward-turned and defensive. They should rather be active and bear witness of Christian faith in society. But their faith does not require church-run hospitals and schools. Christians are happy to be a part of and serve the whole.


We desire only to be Christians. We are not Orthodox, Catholics, or Protestants, not Calvinists, not Bezaists nor Animists. We are Christians and only Christians. Whether Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholic, Germanic Protestant, or an Eastern Monophysitic sect – for us all traditional Christian denominations have equal status and value. They together constitute the 2.000 years of Christian tradition that we respect. But Chinese Christianity must be transformed and rebuilt if it hopes to truly establish the independent character of its faith. And the key to this transformation is the movement from Christianity as a religion to Christianity as belief.


How are we to rebuild Chinese Christianity? Only a complete return to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life will do. We hold to a faith, not to a religion. We clearly determine that only Jesus' way, truth, and life are the foundation and core of our faith.


Traditional religious Christianity based on clerical privilege will be replaced; the truthfulness and integrity of the Christian faith can then be manifested. This will determine the character of China's independent Christian faith. The decisive rise of Chinese civil society has confronted Christian laity with a new and independent group. These lay believers are gaining the capability of determining the direction of Chinese Christianity in the context of today’s modernity and globalisation. With the aging of the traditionally-minded Christian community, a new generation of laity is beginning to form the backbone of the Chinese church.


In short, the dawning of a new era dominated by a new generation of laity implies that traditional Chinese Christianity led by clergy is coming to an end. Indeed, those who can feel the current of the times while leading and shaping the times are always lay people. Irregardless of how strongly the grouping of traditional clergy attempts to express itself and its mythology, their era is approaching its inevitable conclusion.


During the process of rejecting religion and pursuing faith in the course of the 21st century, independent laity’s spiritual character will propel it to the forefront of the movement for restoring the Gospel as the heavenly kingdom of Christ. This process, which the laity can advance with its own meagre means, is the purpose and goal of the Gospel in modern-day China.


To reiterate: For the young, the theme of the 21st century is the transition from religion to faith. The theme of the 21st century is the renunciation of the theocracy of the Old Testament and the Apostle Paul for the sake of Christ’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven. By emphasizing the uniqueness of Christianity, we instigate a tense confrontation with traditional Chinese civilization. But it is indeed the younger generation of Chinese Christians that resonates most with a Gospel speaking about the heavenly kingdom of Jesus Christ.


Ling Fenglei


Edited by:
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 7 December 2019


A journalistic release for which the editor and Ling Fenglei are solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #19-13, 1.481 words.