Chinese Conviction & American Apathy

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In 2018, the Chinese government acted to crack down on unregistered Christian churches. These churches are sometimes called “house churches,” which is a misleading term, since many of these churches have hundreds, even thousands of members and own their own buildings.

Chinese law requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned organization which manages churches. Millions of Chinese Christians meet in unregistered churches which defy these government regulations, seeing them as compromising the church, especially considering the Communist government’s atheistic agenda.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has stepped up their persecution of Christians by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religious materials and closing churches, even demolishing their buildings, as can be seen in this video:

In December 2018, more than 100 Christians who attend a Reformed church in Chengdu were arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chinese Conviction

The pastor of that church, Wang Yi, a former human-rights lawyer and law professor, who has been an influential intellectual in China, issued a statement along with other Chinese Christian leaders titled: “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” in which they stated that they would not cease gathering together for worship and studying the Bible.

Additionally, around 500 Chinese Christian leaders have signed a document called “A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” in which they stated that they were prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of their freedom and their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

For Chinese Christians, gathering together for worship and Bible study is an act of resistance and social disobedience. It brings with it the possibility of arrest, punishment and persecution. And yet – believers are resolute: they will not stop gathering for public worship services, no matter what the cost.

American Apathy

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the American church is seeing a rising wave of apathy.

Some of the reports of the decline of Christianity in the United States are misleading, as I’ve written about here: Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1 & Part 2.

However, other reports show that while reports of the decline of Christianity in the US may be overstated, there is a growing sense of apathy in regard to church attendance.

Christianity Today recently published these infographics based on data from Pew Research Center:

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Read the full report here: Pew: Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home

Two significant things that these infographics reveal: 1) Americans view Christianity as being important for the purpose of moral formation, 2) Americans tend to think that church is superfluous when it comes to Christian faith.

The Irony

Comparing the Chinese situation with the American one, what we see is that the people who stand to lose the most from going to church (the Chinese) are the most resolute in doing so, even though doing so will likely hurt them financially, socially, and even physically. Conversely, those who have the most freedom and stand to lose nothing are the most apathetic about public worship.

Whereas many Chinese Christians see gathered worship as central to their faith, something they absolutely cannot give up or do without, and an act of resistance – many American Christians see it as extraneous.

Who is Right?

I believe that we in the West can afford to learn something from our brothers and sisters in the East.

Christianity was formed and grew in the crucible of persecution, and perhaps the worst thing for Christians is to experience such ease and comfort that we lose the understanding that following Jesus is a radical and subversive thing in this world.

Perhaps the greatest danger our faith can face is not direct persecution, but patronizing “pats on the head” and people thinking that Christianity is “nice”.

Sinclair Ferguson has put it this way:

“We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

Recently I read an article by Simon Chan from the theological journal Pneuma, in which he very astutely wrote this:

[Western Christians] have a very weak sociological concept of the church. This has two negative consequences. First, the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church. But when individuals are seen as existing for the church, the focus shifts from the individual needs to our common life in Christ: how we as the one people of God fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for the universe, namely, to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Chan is challenging us to ask the question: Contrary to our consumeristic mentality, isn’t it actually true that the church does not exist for us as much as we exist for the church, and the church exists for God?

I believe that we in the West can afford to look to the East and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in China about the importance of gathered worship.

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“Oh, How I Love Your Law” – the Role of the Law in the Life of a Believer is More than Just Showing You that You Need a Savior

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For Thanksgiving I took my family to California to visit family and friends. We drove out; it’s a 15-16 hour drive each way, but this afforded me the chance to listen to 3 audiobooks.

The first was The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Earlier this year I read A Farewell to Arms and loved it, particularly the ending, and how Hemingway is clearly expressing his own wrestling with faith and belief in God. However, The Sun Also Rises was not like that at all. Besides the detailed account of bull fighting, I didn’t really like the book.

The second book I listened to was The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson, on the topic of the Marrow Controversy, a debate which split the Scottish Presbyterian churches in the 18th Century over the topics of legalism and antinomianism (anti – nomos (law) = against the law).

Ferguson points out that legalism and antinomianism are like cousins who are more related to each other than they are to the gospel. The legalist looks to rules and performance to earn status and favor with God. Clearly this is a wrong and unbiblical view. But the other extreme is antinomianism – a rejection, even antagonism towards the Law, i.e. the moral commandments, rules and obligations which the Bible lays out.

The thinking behind antinomianism is that the Law served one purpose: to show us that we are sinners who need a Savior, and once that work is done, we have no further use for the Law, and we should have nothing to do with it in our lives, beyond historical reference.

It is true that the Law serves to show us that we are sinners who have not lived up to God’s perfect standards, and therefore we need a Savior. Romans and Galatians make this point crystal clear. But is this the only function of the Law in the life of a believer? The answer is: No.

So then what is the role of law in the life of a believer – one who has been set free in Christ – beyond just showing us that we are sinners who need a savior?

1. The Law points us to Christ as the Fulfiller of the Law

The Bible is full of moral principles and injunctions towards things like kindness, compassion, honesty, forgiveness, generosity, humility, etc. The problem is that very often we read these (or teach them) without reference to Christ. Paul writes in Galatians 3:24 “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”  The Law shows us that we are sinners who desperately need a Savior. But, we see the perfect fulfillment of the Law in Christ—and only in Him! The Law points us to Christ not only by condemning us for breaking it, but by pointing to Christ who is the fulfillment of it! Jesus said: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17)

2. The Law Reveals God’s Character and Shows His Glory

The Law reveals the Glory of God, by showing us His holiness, how He is “other”, different, perfect and good. Where we fall short, He does not.

The Law leads us to reverence and worship of a God who is greater than us. This leads us to a posture of humility before God. 

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:10)

3. God’s Law is a playbook for the redeemed person to use in bringing Him pleasure

We ought not look to God’s moral injunctions as the means by which to garner His love or favor, nor as a way of earning or meriting anything from Him. But for the redeemed person, the Law becomes a playbook in our hands, which tells us what God likes and dislikes – and therefore how we, as people who love God, can bring joy and pleasure to His heart.

I recently taught a class at White Fields’ School of Ministry on the Minor Prophets. The last book, Malachi, talks a lot about obeying God by keeping His law, and specifically talks twice (in only three chapters) about tithing. The question I asked the students was: What is the role of keeping God’s Law, and specifically of tithing, for the New Testament believer?

The answer was that, as people who don’t relate to the Law as a means of earning or meriting anything from God, we approach it as a playbook which instructs us about what God loves and hates, and therefore helps us to respond in love to Him who has poured out His love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and redeemed us from the pit and set us on a rock in Christ. When we obey His moral instructions and commands, it doesn’t make Him love us more, but it is a way that we can bring Him joy and pleasure.

May we not become antinomian in our view of the Law, but may we see it for the good and glorious thing that it is, and say with the Psalmist: “Oh, how I love your Law!” (Psalm 119)