Pentecostal Theology and the Chinese Church

 

By Robert Menzies

Many readers may be puzzled by the term, Pentecostal theology, and all the more by discussions of its impact on the Chinese church. Isn’t Pentecostal theology an oxymoron? I would suggest that it is not. Certainly, the rapid growth of the modern Pentecostal movement – one sociologist describes it as “the most successful social movement of the past century”[1] – has, like a mighty river, produced many tributaries and scholars are often reluctant to distinguish the various streams: Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, and Charismatic. Nevertheless, the Pentecostal movement has a clear genesis and, as I have argued elsewhere, a clear theological message. This message centers on Christ and is rooted in the Bible. Indeed, the modern Pentecostal movement was birthed in a Bible school. Although Pentecostals are thoroughly Evangelical (they now represent the vast majority of Evangelical believers in many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia), they do affirm three distinctive doctrinal convictions. Pentecostals believe that: the book of Acts serves as a model for contemporary Christian life and ministry; the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) is a post conversion enabling for ministry; and speaking in tongues marks this experience.[2]

The impact of these Pentecostal convictions upon the contemporary Chinese church is conspicuous. So much so, many sociologists describe the Chinese church as Pentecostal or Pentecostal-like. These same scholars, however, are loath to give theological definition to the movement or these churches. Along with Simon Chan, I believe this is a mistake.[3] Certainly, not every Christian that prays for the sick, exorcises demons, or prophesies, would affirm a baptism in the Spirit distinct from conversion that is marked by speaking in tongues. Nevertheless, there is a significant number that do.[4] And their influence, as well as the clarity of their biblical convictions, should not be underestimated. The common thread that unites Pentecostals in China with other Pentecostals around the world is their sense of connection with the apostolic church as reflected in the book of Acts. Chinese Pentecostals pray for the sick, worship with joyful abandonment, speak in tongues, and seek the enabling of the Spirit for bold witness in the face of persecution because they find all of these experiences described in the New Testament. The message and methods of the early church are models for their lives and ministry.

The impact of Pentecostal belief and praxis upon the contemporary Chinese church should not surprise us. The Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909), the key catalyst of the movement, was still burning brightly when its first representatives arrived in Hong Kong in 1907. The Pentecostal message quickly spread to other parts of China and had an immediate impact. Indeed, one of the striking aspects of Christianity in pre-1949 China was the emergence of strong, vital indigenous churches. These churches were founded and led by Chinese Christians. They were established and operated entirely independent of foreign finances, control and leadership. [5] Two of the three largest independent Chinese churches that sprang up in the early part of the twentieth century were Pentecostal. And one of these Pentecostal groups, the True Jesus Church, was by far the largest single indigenous Chinese church group of that era. This fact, coupled with the significant impact of the Pentecostal form of revivalism that swept through China in the 1930s, indicates that the majority of Chinese Christians prior to 1949, when able to develop their own Christian identity, gravitated to Pentecostal forms of worship and doctrine. Indigenous Chinese Christianity was predominantly Pentecostal.

Asian Pentecostalism - Girl PrayingThe house church movement that emerged in the 1960s and 70s and then exploded in the 1980s and 90s has also readily embraced Pentecostal belief and practice. In 2002 I spoke with Zhang Rongliang and Sister Ding Hei, the key leaders of what was then probably the largest house church network in China. They both affirmed that the Fang Cheng (or China for Christ) Church was thoroughly Pentecostal. Sister Ding emphatically stated that their church came to these Pentecostal convictions, not on the basis of receiving this tradition from others; but rather, as a result of their own experience and study of the Book of Acts. She indicated that in the 1970s and 1980s they were quite isolated and experienced significant persecution. In this crucible of persecution they developed their classical Pentecostal orientation. At this time their church began to grow rapidly.

More recently (March, 2014), I spoke with Uncle Zheng and several leaders of the Li Xin Church.[6] This church was established in the early 1980s in Anhui Province. It has grown rapidly over the past 20 years and now has churches throughout China. The Pentecostal message, complete with an emphasis on speaking in tongues, came to the church in 1988. Two Christian brothers were released from prison after spending 15 years in a labor camp. Zheng noted that the earlier generation (1950s to 70s) of evangelists spent many years in labor camps; his generation (1980s and 90s) represented the “short-term” generation, because they only spent a few years in prison. These two brothers encouraged Zheng and his church to consider the role of speaking in tongues in their own worship and prayer lives. They also introduced them to a Romanian missionary, Brother Matthew, who brought to them the Pentecostal message of tongues as the sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit. They said from this point on, they began to emphasize the work of the Spirit and speaking in tongues.

Dennis Balcombe visited the church in 1988 and his influence was also significant. Uncle Zheng and his colleagues spoke of Balcombe’s ministry and influence with great appreciation. In fact, they began to receive Bibles in 1985 and this was largely due to the ministry of Balcombe’s church in Hong Kong.

As I reflect back on these conversations, I can now see that there are several streams of Pentecostal influence that have impacted China’s house churches. First, it is clear that there were seeds of Pentecostal teaching and revival planted by the indigenous house churches that were so prominent in China prior to 1949. Additionally, the testimonies of Sister Ding and Uncle Zheng point to the Chinese believers’ sense of solidarity with the persecution and power of the apostolic church. Their context of suffering encouraged their own Pentecostal reading of the New Testament. Finally, Dennis Balcombe’s influence and teaching have served to encourage and give further impetus to Pentecostal revival in China. It is probably difficult to overstate the impact of Balcombe’s example and teaching on the Pentecostal churches in China.[7]

A survey of the larger house church networks in China reveals that a majority is Pentecostal in theology and practice. The Fang Cheng (or China for Christ) Church, the Li Xin (or Zhong Hua Meng Fu) Church, the Yin Shang Church (Anhui), and the True Jesus Church are all strongly Pentecostal groups. The China Gospel Fellowship should probably be categorized as Neo-Pentecostal, although it is home to many Pentecostals as well.[8] The Wenzhou church established by Miao Zhitong might also be described as Neo-Pentecostal. Non-Pentecostal groups would include the Word of Life (or Born Again) Church, established by Peter Xu, and Watchman Nee’s Little Flock (Xiao Qun), as well as a number of smaller groups that are largely reformed in theology and follow the cessationist teaching of the Indonesian-based Chinese pastor, Stephen Tong.[9]

Why have Chinese Christians gravitated toward Pentecostal forms of belief and praxis? A host of explanations have been offered. For example, Hunter and Chan point out that Pentecostal values resonate with important features of Chinese folk religion and thus meet the felt-needs of many Chinese believers.[10] Fenggang Yang argues that the vicissitudes in China created by the transition to a market economy have created a new kind of angst and the need for a new world-view “to bring sense and order” to peoples’ lives.[11] Pentecostal spirituality helps meet this need. Chen-Yang Kao argues that the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) paved the way for the emergence of “practice-led Pentecostalism” by stripping away various forms of ecclesiastical authority that, without the strident persecution that characterized this era, would have been present. Thus, “there was no Christian authority that was able to provide a doctrinal framework or institutional regulation for discouraging those ecstatic experiences and the exercise of charismatic power….”[12] Although all of these explanations may in varying degrees help us understand more clearly why China, like so many places around the world, has been such fertile ground for Pentecostal church growth, they all fail to account for the central dynamic: the biblical record. Yes, the Pentecostal faith, with its openness to the supernatural, provides spiritual resources for significant felt needs. Yes, the Pentecostal message, centered as it is in faith in Christ, provides stability in the chaos of moral confusion. And certainly, Pentecostal faith thrives where there is limited ecclesiastical structure. But none of these explanations takes us to the heart of the matter. Pentecostal faith is rooted in the Bible and flows from the conviction that the stories in the book of Acts are our stories: stories that provide models for life and ministry.

It is perhaps easy to forget that the Pentecostal movement was birthed in a Bible school. Around the world, Pentecostals have always been quick to establish schools that highlight the study of the Bible. Although Pentecostals feature a simple, narrative approach to the Bible and their hermeneutic is void of the angst over miracle stories and apparent contradictions that characterize many in the West, they emphasize the Bible just the same.[13] This is certainly true of the Pentecostal house church networks in China, who have established an impressive array of training centers in the face of staggering obstacles. As one Pentecostal church leader from Wenzhou stated, “We act strictly in accordance with the Bible. The Bible is the standard for our faith and way of life. We are not Evangelical. We emphasize the full gospel.”[14] Another Chinese evangelist framed the issue in a slightly different way, choosing to highlight the different approach to Scripture that marks many Chinese believers. He said to me, “When Western Christians read the book of Acts, they see in it inspiring stories; when Chinese believers read the book of Acts, we see in it our lives.” Of course his point was clear: Chinese believers tend to read the book of Acts with a sense of urgency and desperation, with a hunger generated by their need. This type of reading often leads to a Pentecostal approach. [15] This is certainly the case in China.


Footnotes:

[1] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 8.

[2] For more on Pentecostal identity and theology, see Robert Menzies, Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (Springfield, MO: GPH, 2013). A Chinese translation of this book is also available.

[3] Simon Chan notes that, “an adequate definition of Pentecostalism cannot be restricted to phenomenological description” (Chan, “Wither Pentecostalism” in Allan Anderson and Edmond Tang, eds., Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia [Costa Mesa: Regnum, 2005], 578).

[4] See my forthcoming article, “Pentecostals in China” in Vinson Synan & Amos Yong, eds., Global Renewal Christianity: 21st Century Trajectories, vol. 1: Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements in Asia (Lake Mary, Fla.: Charisma House Publishers, 2015), forthcoming; and my older work written under a penname, Luke Wesley, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (AJPSS 2; Baguio: AJPS Books, 2004).

[5] More recently, Daniel H. Bays, a noted historian of Chinese Christianity, has highlighted the significance of these groups. See Bays, “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900-1937” in Daniel Bays, ed., Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 309-10.

[6] Also known as the Zhong Hua Meng Fu or China is Blessed Church.

[7] Sister Ding also acknowledges with appreciation Dennis Balcombe’s influence on the Fang Cheng Church. See Dennis Balcombe, China’s Opening Door (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 110.

[8] Although several CGF leaders affirmed the Pentecostal distinctives noted above, a survey of 20 students at their Beijing seminary revealed that only seven viewed tongues as a sign of Spirit baptism; and only nine said that tongues occurred in their churches often or occasionally. I define Neo-Pentecostals as Christians who affirm that the book of Acts serves as a model for contemporary Christian life and ministry, and that the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) is a post conversion enabling for ministry; but, deny that speaking in tongues is a normative sign of this experience.

[9] These conclusions are supported by: the results of a questionnaire completed by house church leaders from the Fang Cheng Church, Miao’s Wenzhou Church, and the China Gospel Fellowship (for a copy of this questionnaire, contact rmenzies@mail2go.net); an interview with the leaders of the Li Xin Church, including the founder, Uncle Zheng; an interview with Dennis Balcombe on Oct. 14, 2014; and my personal observations and conversations in China over the past 20 years.

[10] Alan Hunter and Kim-Kwong Chan, Protestantism in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 141-63.

[11] Fenggang Yang, “Lost in the Market, Saved at MacDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44 (2005), 432.

[12] Chen-yang Kao, The Cultural Revolution and the Post-Missionary Transformation of Protestantism in China (PhD thesis, University of Lancaster, 2009), 102.

[13] In China, a narrative approach that takes seriously the spiritual needs of people and the miraculous power of God is destined to win a hearing.

[14] My translation of a written statement from a questionnaire completed by a pastor and church leader from Wenzhou, dated March 18, 2014. Early Pentecostals often spoke of the four-fold gospel: Jesus as savior, baptizer (in the Holy Spirit), healer, and coming king. The “full gospel” refers to the proclamation of all of these themes. This Chinese brother appears to contrast his group’s message with that of Evangelicals who fail to emphasize healing (and perhaps other gifts) and/or baptism in the Holy Spirit.

[15] For a discussion of translation issues that are significant for a Pentecostal reading of the Chinese and English translations of the Bible, see Robert Menzies, The Language of the Spirit: Interpreting and Translating Charismatic Terms (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2010). A Chinese translation of this book is also available.

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