Navigating the Troubled Waters of the Adventist Church in China
5 January 2022 |
In 1958, the Chinese Communist regime implemented a radical policy of homogenizing the Chinese Protestant population in the notion of “unified worship.” The policy banned all distinct denominational practices to give way for a united mode of Chinese Christian faith in a socialist setting. After the Maoist decades of hostile suppression, the government reintroduced the same policy in the early 1980s. Today, the Chinese state boasts the success of establishing a “truly indigenous” Chinese church, which is “post-denominational,” free of any influence from the West, and is independent in financial management, church governance, and evangelistic propagation.
This talk examines the strategies and struggles among the Chinese Adventists in navigating and resisting the state-imposed control mechanism to preserve their denominational characteristics in different periods of transition. Of particular interest are the Wilderness Adventists and the Wheatfield Ministry. The presence of both movements highlights an uneasy question of how Adventism should relate with Sunday Protestantism concerning the religious policies.
We first look at the translation of Ellen White’s Conflict of the Ages series, a strategy with which the Adventists preserved their doctrinal stability after the departure of the missionaries in 1951. The talk then turns to examine the strategy of “negotiated compliance.” Adventists boycotted the official policy of “united worship,” forcing the local officials to mediate in their negotiations with other non-Adventist churches to gain autonomy over the management of financial and ministerial matters from the Sunday Protestants.
Some Adventists saw the “negotiated compliance” strategy as yielding to “apostasy” and a compromise of the denominational identity, and based on Ellen White’s books, they framed a “come-outism” rhetoric, calling the Adventists in the united worship to leave the “apostate” church. These “come-outers,” organized into what their opponents labeled as the “Wilderness” church, struck a discord to the unified Christian symphony the Chinese state sought to present to the outside world.
A key to understanding the rise of the Wilderness faction centers on the drama of two senior Adventist leaders: Lin Yaoxi (David 1917-2011) and Chen Dengyong (b. 1925). [Chinese surnames come first, followed by the given name.] Both men suffered from a long period of hard-labor punishment for the faith during the Maoist years. Both were praised for their suffering as a moral example of God’s servant. Both were former mission workers and were authoritative in their use of Ellen White’s teachings and those of the Bible in interpreting the Adventist doctrines. Despite these similarities, both responded to the state’s religious policies in different directions, with Chen raising the “Wilderness” resistance movement while Lin launched a counter-movement against it.
Outside the religious policy intimidation, Adventists struggled to shake off the “legalist” label attributed by Sunday Protestantism. In the 2010s to present, an Adventist church network under the banner “Wheatfield Ministry” attempts at a strategy of reorientation. This strategy looks for a common theological ground for Adventism and evangelical Protestantism by downplaying Ellen White’s spiritual authority and the denomination’s unique doctrines.
This session focuses on the Wheatfield Ministry theologian Liang Shihuan, a prolific writer published outside the Chinese Adventist circle and a pastor of a mega church in East China, and includes a reflection on the problem of Christian ecumenism in China in relation to Adventist’s denominational impulse.
To read for the class:
A native of Hong Kong, Christie Chui-Shan Chow earned her Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is now a visiting scholar. Her research interests include World Christianity, Chinese Religions, gender, and church-state relations. Her monograph Schism: Seventh-day Adventism in Contemporary China (Notre Dame University Press, 2021) combines ethnography and history to investigate the Seventh-day Adventist movement in contemporary China. Her works appear in the Journal of World Christianity, Social Sciences and Missions, and Exchange. She co-edits Oxford Handbook of Seventh-day Adventism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), and her most recent work, titled “From Persecution to Exile: The Church of Almighty God from China,” will be published in Global Visions of Violence: Agency and Persecution in World Christianity (Rutgers University Press, 2022).
Raj Attiken is an adjunct professor at Kettering College, and a former president of the Ohio Conference.
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- January 15: Reinder Bruinsma
- January 22: Reinder Bruinsma