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Sociological or Theological Interpretation of Christianity? - Take the Case of Chinese Church

Sociological or Theological Interpretation of Christianity? - Take the Case of Chinese Church

The church The church
ByYao Xiyi September 20, 2019
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We know by common sense that the core of Christianity is its theology, the church system and its mission. However, when we face Chinese Christianity, we find that it is not the development and challenge of the pastoral ministry and theology in the church but the social impact of Chinese Christianity and its impact on human rights and China's international relations, which have received much attention in the Western media in the past decades.

There are a variety of reasons behind this particular phenomenon, from the geopolitical concern of the West to the extraordinary role played by the country in influencing the fate of Christianity in the situation of China. One of the main points I would like to emphasize here is that we observe and interpret the different ways and means of Christianity in China. In fact, this factor is related to another issue which is even more crucial: How do we interpret Christianity, the greater tradition?

Religion is a very complex social phenomenon which can be studied from many angles and perspectives. Therefore, the nature of religious study is interdisciplinary. However, this complex nature also poses many challenges. One challenge is that different disciplines can draw very different or even completely opposite conclusions about the same aspect of the same religion. More difficulties arise when scholars in one discipline begin to cross their boundaries and enter other fields, and then claim that their conclusions are universally applicable.

A good example of this is how different theologians and sociologists have done this in their research and evaluation of the Western classically Christian countries.

Traditionally, the historical process of the church's transition from a persecuted minority to a state religion had been seen as a great victory by the church and its theologians. In the past decades, however, more and more people have considered it a tragedy and a betrayal of the early church's vision. In the theological world, the concept of "Christian society or state" has been questioned or criticized, and people's attention has shifted from the size of the Christian population to the depth of their lives as disciples, namely from quantity to quality.

On the other hand, some sociologists have currently become increasingly interested in early Christianity often making very positive judgements of the church's transition from minority to statehood. In their view, this historical change in Christianity is almost a classic example of how a religion develops, acquires scale and power so much so that the social and cultural mainstream must pay attention to even embrace it. In the sociological community, the concept of "Christian society or state" is still in use, and quantity and influence remain the main basis for research and evaluation.

We don't have to decide who is right or wrong. From the theological point of view, the center of Jesus' teachings and the vision of the early church lied in radical discipleship which was in tension with and even confrontation with the world. However, this teaching and vision were completely lost in the Christian paradigm, which transformed the church into the master of the world and made its prophetic voice disappear. However all that remained was a church that was weak spirituality and compromised to the world's way.

With the collapse of the Christian state in the West, the church once again finds itself marginalized and even exiled in society and culture. A growing number of church leaders are calling on the church to regain the lost vision of the early church and return to the pattern of being a loyal minority witness in a less friendly world.

On the other hand, from the sociological point of view, this shift in the church from marginalized groups to the cultural and social mainstream indeed took place and had a huge cultural and social impact. However, problems arise when sociologists begin to move beyond empirical and scientific research in Christianity and use sociological methods to draw theological conclusions. For example, some sociologists in their studies of early Christianity tend to argue that the establishment of a Christian state or Christian dominance in society is replicable and should be replicated in our time, especially in countries like China. They encourage the church to pursue quantitative growth and increase its social and cultural influence, and describe it as the only future for Christianity in the world.

There are at least three dimensions to the mistake of this claim:

First, it is not in line with global and social realities. On the one hand, the once-Christianised West is rapidly entering the so-called post-Christian era. On the other hand, even in the non-Western world where the church has been rising, Christianity is unlikely to become a dominant and sustainable cultural and social force in the 21st century.

Second, and perhaps more crucially, what is sociologically true and correct does not necessarily mean that it is the same in the Bible or in theology. A strong cultural influence in society, and a large Christian majority, may not be good news for the health and testimony of the Church. This can be confirmed by evidence of church history and experience.

Thirdly, from the biblical and theological point of view, a Christian society is an indefensible concept and an unfortunate reality. However, in sociology and history, Christian societies and countries did exist and still exist, and there is still the possibility of becoming social realities again even in certain special circumstances. As mentioned earlier, a social and historical reality is not necessarily theologically meant to be commendable and pursued. History has taught us that a society dominated by a Christian majority must be a nominal Christian society, and its adherence to gospel values is merely a superficial indication or even a distortion of it for its own benefit.

Of course, problems arise when theologians cross their fields. Some theologians may condemn the Christian state so harshly that they completely ignore the historical inevitability of the Christian state in the West and the constructive social and cultural consequences that the Christian state may have for society. Even from a biblical point of view, these consequences can and should be recognized. But while some sociologists speak highly of the dominance of Christianity in society, it seems they are predicting where the church will go and hinting at what it should do in the future. In theological terms, this can be very disturbing and potentially misleading.

The key issue is that we should draw the right line between sociological reality and theological virtues and truth. This is particularly evident in contemporary interpretations of Chinese Christianity. In my view, an overwhelming sociological interpretation, without a sufficient balance through theological considerations, has led the Western media (both secular and Christian) to tend to place too much emphasis on the numeral growth of Christianity in China, as well as on cultural, social and even political influences at the expense of or ignoring of the theological and pastoral trends of the Church. As a result, issues such as religious freedom and political relations which dominate discussions about the Chinese church are often mistaken for a fundamental agenda in the life of the Chinese church.

Even more disturbing is the idea that a "Christian society" has been identified and advocated as the goal of the Chinese church.

One of the things we can do as an interpreter of Chinese Christianity in order to correct this unfortunate situation is to take full account of the advantages and limitations of each discipline and perspective. Humility is a must when we interpret a complex phenomenon like contemporary Chinese Christianity.

Finally, any Christian researcher and reader, regardless of their own area of expertise, must have an understanding of theology. This is not to be excessive. After all, theology is one of the core elements of Christianity.

(The article was originally published in the Volume 5 of "Gospel and Modern China" magazine.)

- Translated by Charlie Li

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