让我再次提醒大家，我们的政府雄心勃勃。他们的目标不仅是获得社会秩序，还要垄断垃圾填埋场和地铁站的意义。因此，当我们在垃圾填埋场跳芭蕾舞时，政府很担心。当我们在地铁里拉小提琴时，我们会发现警察把我们钉在地上。但是，这是垃圾填埋场的部分含义，因为上帝允许他们雄心勃勃，因为他想放大信仰的价值。总的来说，表演环境越糟糕，教堂节目的 “末世论意义” 就越大。
根据包括王毅在内的许多中国家庭教会的说法，揭示人类状态的最重要的道歉时刻发生在教会愿意 “走十字架之路” 的时候。为上帝国度的真实作见证，必然涉及呼召人们与基督一起受苦。教会跳的芭蕾舞不是胜利和权力的舞蹈；它是集体苦难和牺牲的舞蹈，邦霍弗本人对这种舞蹈了如指掌，尽管可能无法理解中国家庭教会使用的术语。
在20世纪80年代中国重新开始开放之后，它似乎越来越倾向于不受宗教管制。从20世纪90年代到21世纪初再到2010年代，随着基督教在中国城市中心的蓬勃发展，人们对家庭教会的容忍度越来越高，尤其是在中国沿海最富有、最稳定的城市。“家庭教会” 一词实际上不能局限于在家中秘密举行的教会会议。毕竟，由五百人组成的会众在周日早上在租用的商业空间里聚会，他们自称为家庭教会（嘉亭教会）或 “家庭教会”。它们在很大程度上仍然是非法的，但如果不破坏和平，它们或多或少会被容忍。
他们告诉我们，教会的公共生活必须是十字形的。上帝的恩典使教会与基督团结在一起，在这种结合中，教会必然参与基督的苦难。我认识的一位家庭教会领袖指着马太福音 10:24 来解释。她提醒我们，仆人不能凌驾于主人之上，学生也不凌驾于老师之上；因此，如果我们的主人和老师在这个世界上的生活以苦难为标志，那么教会也应该预见到同样的情况。
王毅想起邦霍弗关于 “廉价的恩典” 和诱惑许多基督徒的宗教安慰的警告的某些方面，他认为，走十字架之路对于教会使命的纯洁性是必要的。当你听到人们谈论他们对教会被边缘化的担忧时，你最常听到他们讨论的是什么？当然，我们面临着各种各样的问题，其中许多问题集中在圣经人类学（人类性行为、堕胎、安乐死等）和良心权问题上。但是，许多人一直担心教会的免税地位和财产权。许多人很快将有形资产与教会的自由联系起来。
有多种方法可以为教会提供政治保护，包括宪政民主，但王毅坚持认为，基督教民族主义不是解决方案。此外，我能想到的每一个 “基督教国家” 的历史例子本身都是在某个时候以某种方式迫害教会的。如果我们不是基督教民族主义者，那么我们必须以一种使我们的教会做好准备来计算上帝实际要求我们保护的代价，而不是我们可能认为教会成功所必需的许多保护措施。
作为基督徒的这种参与意味着在世界生活中分享上帝的苦难。这个概念。。构成了 Bonhoeffer 思想的高潮。他认为，生活在世界上的基督徒成年后必须为世界历史承担全部责任。最重要的是，分享上帝的苦难意味着以真正的门徒的身份生活，在为世界服务时变得脆弱，遵循 “人为他人” 的步伐。因为 “只有当教会为人类而存在时，教会才是她的真实自我。”
王毅和早雨深受2008年四川地震的影响，不仅受到自然灾害的影响，还受到地震暴露的腐败和贫困的影响。2018年5月，也就是他被监禁前七个月，王毅被拘留了二十四小时。这恰好阻止了 Early Rain 在地震十周年之际举行追悼会。王毅于周六晚上获释，周日上午他宣讲了一篇非常激动人心的布道，题目是 “十字架之路，烈士的生平”。在这篇布道中，他解开了教会对苦难的呼吁，宣称：
当你喝基督的宝血时，你自己里面就有基督的DNA。你的 DNA 承载着十字架的 DNA，你变成了这个世界的盐和光。。他首先让我们以他为食，品尝主恩典的甜蜜，然后他通过被吞噬，使我们做好准备，成为世界的祝福。
我今天要问你：这种视角 —— 教会自称被吞噬时最好的公开证人 —— 是否标志着我们今天在北美的公开见证？当我们面对教会现在和将来在美国社会中的边缘化时，我们是否正准备好与主人一起走上十字架之路，以获得食物？还是我们在努力巩固我们的权力、文化声望和政治保护？
Eighty years ago this year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested in Nazi Germany by the Gestapo. He was first held in a wartime prison and later transferred to a concentration camp. He was executed shortly before the end of the war. Halfway around the world and seventy-five years after Bonhoeffer’s arrest, another pastor was arrested in southwestern China and sentenced to nine years in jail, the longest sentence given to a house church pastor in recent decades. For five years now, Wang Yi has slept, awoken, eaten, and struggled through the day in his own prison camp, suffering for the same reasons given his brother from a former century and different nation—subversion of a state seeking the ultimate allegiance of its people.
When I realized that 2023 marks these two anniversaries in the history of political dissent, religious freedom, and apologetics, I decided to revisit some of the questions Bonhoeffer asked at the end of his life about the nature of the church, and to consider the answers being given by a Chinese pastor who is more truly continuing his legacy than anyone in the Western world can claim today.
The ongoing dismantling of Christendom as well as the loss of traditional Christianity’s cultural cache in the West has many leaders scrambling to figure out what the public witness of the church should look like, particularly in the United States. Though he lived one hundred years ago, Bonhoeffer was not unfamiliar with this conundrum. He lived and was educated in the German intellectual milieu that predicted and helped create the world in which we now find ourselves.
As he wrote prison letters and faced his eventual demise in the context of early twentieth-century totalitarianism, Bonhoeffer concluded, with the best of German philosophy and theology, that humanity had changed. Men and women no longer feel any need for God and no longer need him to answer their unanswerable questions. He wrote, “Humans now operate autonomously, without sensing a need to refer to either divine grace or divine truth. In the world come of age, people no longer require God as a working hypothesis, whether in science, in human affairs in general or increasingly even in religion.” Humanity had grown up, and Bonhoeffer was left with a question: What is the point of the church in a world come of age?
This is a controversial question coming from a martyr whom evangelicals love to honour. Many describe Bonhoeffer’s prison writings as the result of great duress, almost deeming his belief that the world has come of age the result of a labor camp–induced psychological breakdown. Regardless of where one lands historiographically on Bonhoeffer’s mental well-being and its impact on his writings, the idea that the world has come of age, in its own estimation, seems a given to me in the twenty-first century.
One doesn’t need to believe that the world in actuality has come of age and that all of our science and technology has actually closed the gaps in human need, whether spiritual, emotional, mental, or physical, to be compelled by the idea that humanity believes this to be true. As we approach a century of secular development since Bonhoeffer’s claim, I find it an apt description of how the modern world understands itself. As a psychological description of the secular world, Bonhoeffer’s observation has me convinced.
So, then, what is the point of the church in such a world?
Today in the American evangelical church we find a variety of responses to our cultural marginalization at the hands of a world come of age. On one end of the spectrum we find an alarming resurgence of interest in and commitment to Christian nationalism as the church’s best posture. On the other end we find a capitulation to the definitions of meaning and identity given to us by our society’s thought leaders and culture makers. And in the middle we find a confused cacophony of voices who say that if we just argue more clearly, advance more digitally, publish more frequently, and influence more savvily, we can somehow turn a tide that we were decades late in identifying, let alone addressing.
But elsewhere in this world, different answers are being offered.
Like his German predecessor, Wang Yi lives and ministers in an advanced secular context, seeking to carve out space for the church in a totalitarian society that allows for no public sphere or open speech. What Bonhoeffer believed in the early twentieth century about humanity’s modern self-sufficiency and lack of need for the church to provide answers, the Chinese (almost 20 percent of the world’s population) live and teach as authoritative reality. This is not to suggest twentieth-century German secularism is equivalent to that of twenty-first-century China. But as one of the world’s most officially atheistic societies for almost a century, China is an important part of a world that believes it has come of age. Abandoning the imperial cult, folk religion, and older forms of Confucianism to pursue science and technology, and eventually capital, as the answers to all human and social problems, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long taught its people that Chinese society has “grown up” compared to all preceding history. Since the 1920s, the eradication of inherited meaning and purpose has been the CCP’s expressed goal.
But whereas Bonhoeffer concluded that the church was obligated to adapt in order to testify of God and the way for men and women to enter relationship with him, Wang Yi seeks to proclaim that in a world come of age the purpose of the church is to contradict the world’s understanding of itself. He uses the metaphor of a masterful ballet dancer who must perform on a stage in the middle of a landfill. The contrast between the performance and the stage is intended to provoke the audience to understand the need for the landfill to be made new. Wang Yi writes,
The key is faith, and faith needs a stage. Faith is like a master ballet dancer dancing gracefully on a dilapidated stage. On the one hand, as long as the dance is beautiful, what does it matter if the stage is in tatters? Alternatively, imagine how glorious and resplendent it will be the day this master dancer performs on a magnificent stage. For now, however, God says that the value of the dance must be expressed on a dilapidated stage.
He says also,
Let me remind all of you once again that our government is ambitious. Their goal is not only to obtain order in society, but to monopolize the meaning of landfills and subway stations. As such, the government is concerned when we dance ballet at landfills. We will find police officers pinning us to the ground when we play the violin in the subway. However, this is part of the meaning of the landfill, for God has allowed them to be ambitious because he wants to magnify the value of faith. In general, the more terrible the performance environment, the greater the “eschatological meaning” of the church’s show.
Unlike Bonhoeffer, Wang Yi and many of his peers in the house churches view the process by which the true humanity is revealed as necessarily a process of contrast and antithesis.
The world’s true coming of age is not dependent on humanity’s perception of itself. To say that humanity can actually come of age in this world brings to mind C.S. Lewis’s illustration of humanity as a child content to play with mud pies in the street when he has been offered a trip to the seaside. For Wang Yi and those in his theological movement, until the arrival of the eschaton, when the true humanity does come of age and the kingdom of God is consummated, the church exists as a resplendent show to testify precisely to the fact that we have not come of age, that humanity is still content with its mud pies in whatever era it finds itself.
According to many in the Chinese house churches, including Wang Yi, the most significant apologetic moments revealing humanity’s state to itself take place when the church is willing to “walk the way of the cross.” To testify to the reality of the kingdom of God necessarily involves the call to suffer with Christ. The ballet that the church dances is not one of triumph and power; it is a dance of collective suffering and sacrifice, a dance that Bonhoeffer himself knew well, though perhaps was unable to understand in the terms the Chinese house churches have come to use.
Wang Yi says,
How do we show that we are motivated by faith, not by political goals? We must be willing to take the way of the cross and suffer for our faith. . . .
This is the way of evangelism and apologetics. The church has an opportunity to contend, persevere, and pay the price for our faith in front of society and its rulers. If this is the first nation-wide persecution of house churches in the last twenty years, it is also the church’s first evangelistic and apologetic opportunity in the last twenty years.
What do you have to believe to say that when hardship comes to the church, its suffering is its greatest apologetic and evangelistic moment? Greater even than efforts made in comfort, power, and celebrity? These are the questions that fill my mind as I look ahead to the rest of this century, whether or not it does prove in the end to be the Chinese century.
The Chinese house church was born in suffering and hiddenness. Accordingly, it has not been considered noteworthy for contemporary apologetics. But we ought to reconsider and give it its due. Though we have often othered the Chinese house churches and distanced their reality from ours, their legacy is less one of miracles among bamboo forests and more one that recalls the legacy of Bonhoeffer: stubborn commitment to the universal church in the face of nationalizing forces and an unwillingness to give allegiance to a power that claims to represent the world come of age.
Contrary to common misconception, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, it did not abolish religious practice. Instead, it simply required that all religions demonstrate their patriotic support for the new government and submit to the oversight and regulation of the governing authorities. Eventually, this effort was consolidated in a state church called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSMP). Apart from the most intense decades of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP has never attempted to stop religious practice from existing in China; it simply requests that Christians submit to its authority. The party wants the love and allegiance of its people.
You can love both God and country, right? In the early 1950s roughly half of the Christian population of China decided that, yes, this was possible. After a century of Western and Japanese imperial forces walking all over China, Christians were compelled by the Communists’ ability to restore the sovereignty of their country. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese Christians signed a document called “The Christian Manifesto,” pledging their love for China and allegiance to the government.
But the other half of China’s Christian population said no. Figures such as Wang Mingdao, long known for his rejection of missionary oversight for China’s newly forming indigenous churches, maintained that only Christ is the head of the church. There cannot be any state authority over the inner life of the church, and the first generation of house church pastors chose to lose their political protections and rights in order to maintain this definition of the church. This is what became what we now call the Chinese “house church.” House churches are not defined by where they meet or how they meet; what defines them is their unwillingness to enter the state church.
After China began opening again in the 1980s, it seemed like it was trending more and more toward non-regulation of religion. As Christianity exploded across China’s urban centres from the 1990s through the early 2000s and into the 2010s, there was increasing toleration of the house churches, especially in the wealthiest, most stable cities along China’s coast. The term “house church” really couldn’t be limited to a church meeting secretly in a home. After all, congregations of five hundred people meeting on Sunday morning in rented commercial space called themselves 家庭教会 (jiating jiaohui), or “house churches.” They were still very much illegal, but they were more or less tolerated if they didn’t disturb the peace.
According to Wang Yi, when there is opposition, churches ought to be willing to give up their civil rights, legal stature, physical property, and money. But what the church must never give up is its doctrine, the sacraments, and the offices of the church.
In 2018 this changed when the CCP implemented a new set of religious regulations. The emphasis has been on limiting all religious gathering to the TSPM, and there has been a noticeable increase in harassment and persecution of house churches, along with many other forms of religious expression across China. The arrest of Wang Yi in December 2018 and the violent attack on members of his congregation, Early Rain Covenant Church, was one of several signals that year that persecution would increase under Xi Jinping. This was made doubly true during the Covid-19 pandemic when Xi’s Covid Zero policy was used harshly against house churches. Though the current situation is nowhere near the persecutions of the twentieth century, this is generally considered the harshest crackdown since the earliest days of the house church in China.
A friend of mine is a Chinese church planter in a major Chinese city. His baby church launched a few weeks into the breakout of Covid-19, right after the Wuhan lockdown. One short year later, their church had grown from a dozen people to one hundred, and on their first baptism Sunday they baptized six adults and nine children. Now, in their second year of existence, they are already moving ahead with planting a whole new church. And this has been against the backdrop of submitting fully to the government’s oppressive Covid Zero policy, and all of the much more mundane pressures of living in one of the world’s most urbanized, digitized, secularized, and competitive cities. The pressures they face as the church outweigh anything we experience here in North America.
The World Christian Encyclopedia states that in 1970 there were fewer than one million professing Christians in China, or 0.1 percent of the population. The number it lists for today is 112 million, almost 8 percent of the population. Even allowing for the massive growth of China’s population at the end of the twentieth century, that is a sixtyfold growth of professing Christians in China. Since the birth of the house church in China, it has grown—without political protections, public platform, or recognized institutions. If we want to learn an apologetic for the predicted pressures that will be put on the twenty-first-century Western church, we should consider what a church that has not only survived but exponentially grown under seventy-five years of oppression can teach us.
In establishing its foothold in China, the CCP declared modern Chinese society to be part of a world that had come of age. The house churches have suffered for seven decades in order to deny that description of reality.
They teach us that the public life of the church must be a cruciform one. God’s grace unites the church with Christ, and in this union the church necessarily participates in the suffering of Christ. One house church leader I know points to Matthew 10:24 to explain. She reminds us that the servant is not above the master, nor the student above the teacher; therefore, if our master and teacher’s life in this world was marked by suffering, the church ought to anticipate the same.
Wang Yi describes the cruciform nature of the church’s public witness in the following way:
How then do I manifest an invisible world? How do I show my true wealth in this life? I show it through poverty. How do I display resurrection power? Through suffering. I have the ability to suffer. I can give because I have. What I give testifies to what I have. . . .
So Christians witness for Christ in this world through the subversive means of the cross. My life, God’s creation, and the entirety of world history are all unfinished. The cross means you build your hope on the future instead of realizing it in the present.
In this statement, Wang Yi gives a cosmic, eschatological dimension to the church’s call to suffer with Christ. The willingness and readiness to walk the way of the cross is a necessary distinctive of the church’s public witness. He goes so far as to argue that the church fails to participate in the life of Christ and denies his lordship if it lacks the willingness to be known by and identified with suffering.
Calling to mind some aspects of Bonhoeffer’s warnings regarding “cheap grace” and the religious comfort that tempts many Christians, Wang Yi believes that walking the way of the cross is necessary for the purity of the church’s mission. When you hear people talk about their fears regarding the marginalization of the church, what do you most frequently hear them discuss? Certainly, we’re confronted with a wide variety of issues, many of which centre on issues of biblical anthropology (human sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, etc.) and the rights of conscience. But there is a persistent fear among many regarding the church’s tax exemption status and property rights. Many are quick to associate physical assets with the freedom of the church.
Wang Yi argues that the church ought to fight, but he does not believe in fighting for the things many Americans are keen to protect.
Wang Yi is not saying here that Christians are not called to work for better systems and political protections; he is simply arguing that the church ought to be crystal clear about what God has tasked the church with protecting when push comes to shove. And while certain rights can be accurately understood as products of a society that understands and values the role of religion in general, and Christian churches in particular, they are not what defines the church. According to Wang Yi, when there is opposition, churches ought to be willing to give up their civil rights, legal stature, physical property, and money. But what the church must never give up is its doctrine, the sacraments, and the offices of the church.
There are multiple ways to provide political protection for the church, including constitutional democracy, but Wang Yi maintains that Christian nationalism is not the solution. Besides, every historical example of a “Christian nation” that I can think of has itself ended up persecuting the church in some manner at some time. If we are not Christian nationalists, then we must disciple in a way that prepares our churches for counting the cost for what God has actually told us to protect, instead of the many protections we might believe necessary for the success of the church.
In times of duress, the church must be willing to give up its civil rights to maintain the purity of its mission. To have a public witness, the church must fight for what truly defines it. Wang Yi reminds us that tax exemptions and church buildings are not the church. To testify to its true nature, the church must be willing to give up all its rights as its master, Jesus, did. I suspect that all the things some American churches are afraid to lose are the things Bonhoeffer would point to as the trappings behind which cheap grace hides. Wang Yi points to that which is necessary to leave behind in order to refine and purify our allegiances and loves, and to ensure the church understands the costly nature of discipleship.
Wang Yi argues that the way of the cross is necessary for testifying to the truth of the gospel. As already stated, according to Wang Yi, this is why the church grows under duress. Wang Yi’s primary hope in the months before his arrest was that he would be able to speak at his own trial and publicly declare his beliefs. He wanted to proclaim the gospel to the judges, lawyers, and officials in the courtroom.
Wang Yi argues that the way of the cross is necessary for testifying to the truth of the gospel. As already stated, the way of the cross is the way of apologetics. The more the church is persecuted, the more it testifies to the world about the kingship of Christ.
But this isn’t true only of Wang Yi. Countless Chinese pastors have recounted facing courtroom trials and questioning by officials as apologetic moments to testify to the truth before the world. They understand persecution as an opportune time to make the gospel known to those they would not frequently engage with—the highest and lowest among Chinese social strata. When they are sentenced to time in jail, they understand it to be an opportunity to preach the gospel to those often most difficult to reach outside jail—the drug dealers, prostitutes, gambling addicts, and thieves that generally fill the Chinese jail system. It’s a common joke among Chinese pastors that their arrests provide the Chinese prison system with its chaplains. When the church does not view itself above its master, when it is willing to walk the way of the cross, its apologetics begin to look a lot like Christ’s ministry on earth, testifying to what we believe to both the rulers of this world and the lowliest.
But walking the way of the cross is not just about the church’s public witness in the face of active hostility. The way of the cross is not only a public testimony in the midst of persecution. The Chinese house churches proclaim that this is to be the church’s apologetic even in times of peace and prosperity. Even in rights-protecting, peace-abiding, middle-class America, the church remains united to a Saviour who promised that his disciples will share in his sufferings in this world. This promise ought to form the foundation of our public witness.
Though they start with different understandings of the world, both Wang Yi and Bonhoeffer ultimately conclude that the church’s public witness necessitates forms of public suffering. Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen describe Bonhoeffer’s views on the matter, saying, “We must ‘drink the earthly cup to the lees,’ he declared, for only in so doing is the crucified and risen Lord with us.” They continue,
Similarly, Wang Yi argues that the point of the church in a world come of age is in part to partake in its suffering as an act of burden sharing. The goal is not simply to reveal humanity’s mud pies and leave it in its misery. The church participates in the world’s misery and offers itself up for its good.
Wang Yi and Early Rain were deeply affected by the Sichuan earthquake of 2008—not only by the natural disaster but by the corruption and poverty that the earthquake exposed. In May 2018, seven months before his incarceration, Wang Yi was detained for twenty-four hours. This happened to deter Early Rain from holding a memorial service on the tenth anniversary of the earthquake. Wang Yi was released on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning he preached a highly emotional sermon titled “The Way of the Cross, the Life of the Martyrs.” In this sermon he unpacked the church’s call to suffer, declaring,
Part of Early Rain’s calling to suffer is a calling to identify with the specific burdens of their city, Chengdu. Salvation does not remove God’s people from their local contexts; rather, it calls them to suffer alongside their local context.
Elsewhere Wang Yi stated, “The church is the watchman for today’s world. If the church does not point out the evil of the world, the church will be condemned along with the world. The church is the intercessor for today’s world.” For Wang Yi, walking the way of the cross enables the church to see and share in the burdens of its neighbours, as Christ himself did.
Wang Yi isn’t the only house church leader thinking along these lines. In one exemplary sermon on the topic, Simon Liu uses eucharistic imagery to highlight the Christians’ union with Christ and participation in his suffering. He describes this union with Christ with Jesus’s words to eat his body and drink his blood. By feeding on Christ, the Christian ingests and imbibes the Lord’s DNA, thus becoming one with him. Then, in union with Christ, the Christian becomes an offering to the world. As Christ allows his people to feed on him, they in turn allow the world to feed on them. Thus, the church’s primary apologetic to a world that believes it has come of age is its willingness to offer itself as a eucharistic gift on which the world may feed.
Suffering is not here understood according to privatized, individualized language. The church’s public witness in the world is not a selfish focus on protecting itself. Instead, it is the corporate experience of God’s people in service of a world that believes it has come of age but in fact is in a state of decay. For the world will not come of age before the return of its King. For now the world is simply a child sitting among its mud pies, hungry for the next pretty thing to devour. As we await the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, as we await the revelation of the true humanity, the church is to participate in the Lord’s suffering, providing its best apologetic when it becomes that which the world feeds on.
I ask you today: Does this perspective—that the church’s best public witness is when it offers itself to be devoured—mark our public witness in North America today? As we face the present and future marginalization of the church in American society, are we gearing up to be fed on, walking the way of the cross with our master? Or are we striving to shore up our power, cultural prestige, and political protections?
Scanning the history of the church, I’m convinced that the most important apologetic moments, the ones that altered the fabric of civilization, all took place when the church adopted this posture. From the first martyrs in the Colosseum, to St. Patrick returning to his enslavers, to Luther’s “here I stand,” to the missionaries who laid down their lives across China itself, to the black Christians who withstood the fire hoses in Birmingham—all these examples teach us that you cannot testify to a greater reality without first understanding the life of the church as a life of sacrifice.
The strongest apologetic moments in history arrive when the church collectively suffers in order to testify to reality, either because the world has pressed it to that point or because the church has proactively given itself up on behalf of the world. As the house churches in China today remind us, the most important ingredient of the church’s public witness is a body of believers who willingly lay down their lives to testify to what God has revealed to us in his Son.