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    Chinese Christians praying at a conference

    Building on Rock

    China’s persecuted house church leaders are showing the way by being the first to repent.

    By Hannah Nation

    April 11, 2022
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    • Sheena Atkinson

      Thank you. This is so beautiful.

    • Lee Nanfelt

      Very powerful. Thank you for these good words.

    • Tim Welty

      An interesting and challenging observation that highlights many concerns with the current evangelical church in the West. Not only do we avoid public confession, but most churches avoid providing a time or place for any type of confession, even private, personal confession. This builds an attitude of self sufficiency and no realization that I am accountable to a holy and perfect God. That attitude has all sorts of ramifications for our lives and they way we live different from the culture around us.

    When I think of evangelicalism today, my mind divides between two geographic points: the United States and China. These places could not be more different from each other. I’ve spent my entire adult life watching the evangelical church in both locations and one prominent difference overshadows all others in my mind: the practice of repentance.

    I know a woman who was jailed for a month for pastoring a small house church in China. When this happened, we prayed for her and for her church. We prayed that she would be spiritually sustained. We prayed for courage. We prayed for physical well-being. And we prayed for her release. It never crossed my American mind to pray that she would repent as a result of being imprisoned.

    I had the opportunity to record her testimony of her time in jail. This is what she had to say about the impact of praying the Lord’s Prayer while in jail:

    As I prayed, “Forgive my debts as I forgive my debtors,” God helped me face my own sins. In particular, he helped me face my idols, the idol of comfort and worldliness and the idol of wanting others’ approval. We had little privacy in there – we were often strip-searched – and we did not have much food and had to sleep on the floor. But God used all of that to deal with my idolatry.

    She went on to talk about repenting of her lack of desire to preach to the drug dealers and prostitutes incarcerated with her. She described being convicted of her anger toward the government, and her newfound ability to love her enemies. In the end, her own ability to see her need to repent led her to say, “The Lord’s Prayer closes with ‘Amen’ because in all things we see God’s glory being revealed. My time in detention was really quite all right and I felt very thankful for that.”

    Chinese Christians praying at a conference

    Chinese believers praying at a rare conference gathering, 2017. Images courtesy of China Partnership.

    Currently, the American evangelical church is embroiled with the issue of spiritual abuse. Within a few short years, we’ve gone from barely acknowledging such a problem exists to an abundance of negative examples. From Ravi Zacharias to Mars Hill Church, abuse now figures large in the evangelical imagination. So many of my peers have years of heartbreak to work through. And from my own difficult experiences, I understand.

    The testimonies of Chinese brothers and sisters I know have been one of the primary encouragements to me through these recent difficult years. Even as I hear American Christians resist repenting for individual sins, or deny that corporate repentance is even possible, the pastors I know in a gospel movement spreading across China demonstrate that the practice of Christian repentance is alive and well in the church. The Chinese house churches are not perfect; stories I hear of church disunity, pastoral conflict, and sexual sin are reminders that they are beset by their own sins and strife. But watching them has given me hope that when grace is preached and repentance practiced in churches living under cultural pressure and marginalization, the narcissism and abusive authority we currently see in American Christianity might be mitigated.

    There are two areas where the practice of repentance is being demonstrated among Chinese house churches I’m familiar with. Both run counter to the trends in American evangelicalism.

    First, house church pastors are publicly confessing their sin and idolatry, repenting in their personal lives and before their congregations. Several years ago, a well-regarded house church pastor from Beijing spoke to an audience about his need to personally repent of idolizing a big church made in his own image. He explained that he had watched how the Americans and South Koreans build large megachurches and felt compelled to do the same out of envy. He stated, “We all wanted to build this big church and see the pastor as this big boss. … We wanted to be a legend. So even though out of my mouth I was saying that I’m serving God, I was really seeking my own accomplishments.” The result of this ambition was deeply damaging not only to the church but to himself, his family, and his relationships. He realized that he was losing the joy of the gospel: “My own accomplishments became my idols.” His conclusion was to forego attempting to build a grand church, and instead to focus on the people in front of him.

    May we in America who lead in the church have such grace, transparency, and humility to publicly repent of our desire for a good name and of our idolatry of the “big bosses.”

    In another case, a Chinese pastor I know writes of publicly repenting to his wife of his sins against her. He writes about a fight that occurred with his wife during a break in a class he was teaching to train leaders in his church. Though he had prepared carefully for days leading up to the class, his wife corrected him during the break and suggested he had made an error in his teaching. He writes:

    In our family, we have a rule that when we have conflict, we keep communicating until we reconcile. But at that moment, I refused to follow our family rule. … My wife saw I was losing my temper and said, “I just pointed out an issue. Why have you become angry at me?” As I was talking to her, I began to yell, “Are you being attacked by Satan or possessed by a demon? Why are you starting this fight with me?” In reality, though, I had started the fight. While we were fighting, I even threw a cup on the floor. Bang! It dented the floor.

    To his dismay, at that moment the pastor realized he had left the Zoom session running and his entire class of new church leaders had witnessed this fight with his wife. Deeply ashamed, he had a choice to make between defending himself or repenting.

    Then, I calmed down and was still before God. My wife is a person full of grace. She looked at me and said, “Shall we pray together?” I examined my behavior. I asked the Holy Spirit to enlighten me. I was able to see that I wanted to build a false ego during this time of teaching so that people would think I was great at this theology, that I was capable of teaching, and that I could help others transform and renew their lives.

    I suddenly realized that, in the process of teaching, the people were no longer human to me. Because I made myself the lawgiver, I would be angry at and judge anyone who dared prevent me from reaching my goal. At that moment, I did not see my wife as human. I could receive none of her opinions and felt she was getting in my way as she confronted me. I realized that I needed to look up to Christ with my shame, and the moment I looked to Christ, all the pressure I put on myself from teaching rolled off inside of me.

    When the break was over, I turned on the video. That session was on spiritual warfare. I did not continue to teach, but spent the whole session resolving the conflict with my wife in front of the brothers and sisters and co-workers. I told her the struggle within me, and my building up a false ego. I also asked for her pardon and her forgiveness. In the midst of my struggle, I wanted to make myself righteous and worthy in front of others through my works.

    The course on spiritual warfare was about whether I would trust in Christ or do things according to my selfish desires, so we gave an example of what spiritual warfare may look like and conducted a process of reconciliation and forgiveness on the spot. After the course concluded three days later, we collected feedback and many said the most impressive session was the one I led on spiritual warfare, where I apologized to my wife and publicly confessed my sin to God.

    May we in America who lead in the church have such grace, transparency, and humility to publicly repent of our desire for a good name and of our idolatry of the “big bosses.”

    Chinese Christians praying at a conference

    Second, Chinese house churches are repenting corporately for their lack of trust in God and service to their neighbors in the face of persecution and pandemic. As a White, middle-class American, I am astounded by the responses to persecution I read from my Chinese brothers and sisters. When the church in America feels attacked, what do we do first? Call the lawyer. Write an op-ed. Rethink our communications strategy. Prepare for the next election cycle.

    But consider the words of Early Rain Covenant Church. Their pastor, Wang Yi, is currently serving a nine-year jail sentence for subversion of the state. This church has been harassed since December 2018. They have every right to complain. And yet this is what they shared publicly as a congregation this past fall:

    Righteous Father, we repent to you for the Chinese house churches’ inward focus in the midst of persecution. … Not only are we to live according to your holy law, but we are also to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Lord, we need to repent before you. In many things we have not witnessed your righteousness and have fallen short of your mercy: we have not prayed for the people of Hong Kong, we have not prayed for the people of Xinjiang, we have not even prayed for our brothers and sisters in bondage. … Lord, may your holy and good Spirit rebuke us, and your gracious Spirit uphold us, so that we may be strong and courageous, and remain faithful in the midst of persecution, not counting the gains and losses of this life, but thinking of the kingdom and the gospel of the last days, to testify and glorify your name!

    When American churches feel the culture shaking its finger at us, we seem to think the best response is to argue harder for how good the church is. Meanwhile, this church undergoing active and persistent persecution in China has responded by going to the Lord and publicly repenting for neglecting Micah 6:8.

    The reason they are able to do this lies in their theology of the church’s union with Christ and his suffering. They are equipped for this response because evangelism in the house church isn’t about public relations to secular society. It is about becoming one with the suffering Savior and walking the way of the cross behind a Lord who broke his body for the least of these.

    A pastor and his wife were recently fined 200,000 RMB (more than $30,000) for pastoring their church. The pastor’s wife has written many things about her spiritual life in China’s current religious conditions and she regularly communicates this theology of walking the way of the cross with simple beauty. After traveling to minister to a church under severe attack, she wrote a prayer which reads in part:

    Lord, since you were born, not a single thing you have done on earth was for your own sake. Yet this world has fervently persecuted you. This world was not satisfied until it had nailed you on the cross. Yet the wonder of yourself was that by such a cross, you have accomplished redemption. O Lord, we thank you! Just as your days were on earth, so are our days also, for the students are not above their teacher.

    The Chinese house church members I know are filled with the power of repentance because their eyes are not on the culture which surrounds them but on the Lord above them. When the church compares itself not with those who attack or dismiss but rather with the Savior who suffered, how can repentance not be the collective response? The suffering of our brothers and sisters in China ought to lead us to repentance. They call us to follow them in their practice of this basic and essential part of the Christian life.

    Here, in America, fear of the broader culture has led us to sword rattling. Threat of the loss of cultural privilege has encouraged our idolization of power – charismatic leaders, megachurch numbers, competitive church planting, slick presentations, perfectly lit stages, and hundreds of thousands of bombastic words spewed across digital platforms.

    House church pastors who toil away at scaffolding the kingdom of heaven here on earth in their Chinese megalopolises tell me that they do not pray for persecution to end. I used to bristle every time I heard them say so. Now I just weep. They do not say this flippantly. They do not say this masochistically. They say this because they believe that loss of privilege and power is the primary tool God uses to purify his church and the shepherds he has placed over it. The visible aspects of the Chinese house church movement can be paused (conferences, publishing, even public worship) because the movement is not relying on celebrity but rather on repentance, prayer, the sacraments, and the Word.

    Every church across the globe and through all of time has been prone to give its heart to Babylon. When we cease to be able to discern the difference between the power of man and the power of the gospel, when “repent and believe” simply becomes “believe,” when the way of the cross is no longer preached as the way of the kingdom of God, we need whatever it takes for our hearts to be pruned. The Chinese house churches know this. We need them to teach us the power of the truth that loss of cultural privilege can be good for the church.

    Contributed By

    Hannah Nation serves as managing director of the Center for House Church Theology and content director for China Partnership. She is a co-editor of Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church (Kirkdale Press, 2022).

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