Why Theologians Aren’t as Excited About Chinese Christianity’s Growth as Sociologists

On March 1, the Chinese government enacted wide-ranging restrictions on religious communication, teaching, and evangelistic efforts conducted online. Now, only religious groups with government approval can carry out such activities.

Various media outlets around the world shared this news, which is unsurprising. When we think or talk about Christianity in China, its social impact and implications for issues such as human rights and China’s international relations—rather than its pastoral and theological developments and challenges—have received disproportionately large attention in the Western press in the recent decades.

There are many methods and approaches we can apply in observing and interpreting Christianity in China. But this leads to a larger question: How do we read Christianity in general? Religion is a complex social phenomenon, and different disciplines can draw varying—even opposite—conclusions about it. More issues arise when scholars in one discipline begin to cross the boundaries of other fields of study and claim universal applicability for their conclusions.

Church and state relations in the West

A good example of this is how differently theologians and sociologists approach and evaluate the establishment of classical Christendom in the West.

Traditionally, theologians have viewed the church’s transition from a persecuted minority to the state religion as a great triumph. However, in recent decades, they are increasingly considering it a tragedy and betrayal of the vision of the early church.

On the other hand, certain sociologists’ growing interest in early Christianity has led to assessments of the church’s transition from minority to establishment status. They present Christianity’s historical transfiguration as a classic case of how a religion can develop and gain in size and power to the point that the social and cultural mainstream must take it into account and even include it.

A prominent example of this is American sociologist Rodney Stark’s bookThe Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. Here, Stark attributed Christianity’s growth in the Greco-Roman world to the early church’s strong conversion networks and believers’ high fertility rates.

Theologians are doubtful of, and even discredit, the notion of a “Christian society or nation.” Their focus has shifted from the number and size of the Christian population to their discipleship, and from quantity to quality of the Christian community. In contrast, sociologists continue to discuss the notion of a “Christian society or nation,” and numbers and influence are still the focus of study and the primary ground for evaluation.

We do not have to decide who is right or wrong. My opinion is that both approaches are right as long as they stay in their respective fields.

From a theological point of view, the center of Jesus’ teaching and the early church’s vision is a radical form of discipleship in tension with, or even in confrontation with, the world. But this teaching and vision is fundamentally lost in the Christendom paradigm that turns the church into a master in the world and mutes its prophetic voice. Then what we have is a spiritually weak and socially collaborative church.

As Christendom collapses in the West, the church again finds itself marginalized, even exiled, in society and culture. An increasing number of church leaders are calling the church to recover the lost vision of the early church and return to a mode of witnessing as a faithful minority in a not-so-friendly world.

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When sociological interpretations go awry

From a sociological point of view, the transfiguration of the church from a marginal to mainstream group has produced immense cultural and social impact. Problems occur when sociologists begin to go beyond empirical and scientific studies of Christianity and draw theological conclusions using a sociological approach.

Some sociologists tend to present their studies of early Christianity in such a way that advocates for the establishment of Christendom or Christian dominance in society, especially in countries like China. Encouraging the church to grow numerically and enhance its social and cultural influence is purportedly the only way to secure Christianity’s future in the world. As an article in The Telegraph declared in 2014: China is on track to become “the world’s most Christian nation” by 2030.

However, this approach to church growth does not match our global, social reality well. As the once-Christianized West is quickly entering the “post-Christian age,” it is highly doubtful that Christianity will be a dominant, sustainable, cultural, and social force in the 21st century—even in the majority world where churches have been on the rise.

Further, just because something is true sociologically does not necessarily mean it is also true biblically or theologically. A culturally powerful and numerically large Christian majority in a society may not be good news for the church’s spiritual health and witness.

Church history and empirical evidence attest to this. “Christians engaged the culture without excessive compromise and remained separate from the culture without excessive isolation,” wrote theologian Gerald L. Sittser, in an essay exploring how the early church flourished as a minority movement. “Christians figured out how to be both faithful and winsome. They followed what was then known as the ‘Third Way,’ a phrase that first appeared in a second-century letter to a Roman official named Diognetus.”

Finally, biblically and theologically speaking, a Christianized society is an untenable concept and an undesirable reality. However, sociologically and historically, Christianized societies and nations did exist, and they remain a sociological possibility and even an inevitability in certain contexts.

Again, a sociological and historical reality does not mean it is theologically desirable and commendable. History has told us that a society dominated by a Christian majority is bound to be a nominal Christian society that only pays lip service to gospel values or distorts them for its own advantage.

Theological pitfalls to avoid

Of course, problems arise when theologians go beyond their own fields, too.

Some theologians may denounce Christendom so harshly that they completely ignore the historical inevitability of Christendom in the West and the constructive social and cultural consequences that Christendom may bring to a society. But a biblical point of view can and should endorse the latter.

Having said this, I do not believe that these theologians’ “offense” is too serious. After all, when they denounce Christendom and all the harm it brought to the church, they are largely speaking to their own circle, the church. But when some sociologists speak highly of Christian dominance in society, it seems they are predicting where the church is going and suggesting what the church should do in the future. Theologically, this could be very troubling and misleading.

The key is for Christians to draw a proper line between sociological reality and theological merit and truthfulness. If we fail to distinguish these, the consequences could be immediate and serious.

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This is especially evident in contemporary interpretations of Christianity in China.

In my view, an overwhelmingly sociological reading that is not adequately balanced by theological considerations has serious implications. It contributes to the tendency of the Western press—secular as well as Christian—to overemphasize Chinese Christianity’s numerical growth and cultural, social, and even political impact. This is at the expense of the church’s theological and pastoral trends.

As a result, issues like religious freedom and church-state relations dominate the discourse about the church in China. These issues mistakenly define the Chinese church’s essential agenda. Even more ominously, a “Christianized society” becomes the goal for the church in China to strive toward.

To correct this unfortunate situation, one thing we can do as the interpreters of Christianity in China is to become fully mindful of the strengths and limitations of each discipline and perspective. A sense of humility is also needed in our reading of such a complex phenomenon like Christianity in contemporary China.

Kevin Xiyi Yao is professor of world Christianity and Asian studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

A previous version of this piece was published on China Source.

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