However, after a few years these same mission organizations started putting other books at the top of the bags of Bibles. These were books about one particular denomination’s theology, or teaching that focused on certain aspects of God’s Word.
This, I believe, was the start of disunity among many of China’s house churches.
These booklets told us we must worship in a certain way, or that we must speak in tongues to be a true believer, or that only if we were baptized in Jesus’ name (instead of in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) could we be saved. Other teachings focused on extreme faith, still others argued for or against the role of women in the church.
We read all these booklets and soon we were confused! The churches started to split into groups that believed one thing against groups that believed another. Instead of only speaking for Jesus, we also started speaking against other believers who didn’t conform to our views.
-Brother Yun (with Paul Hattaway)
Chapter 20: “The Road to Unity” pg 233
The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun
“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”
“Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (1742)
Any of this sound familiar?
Brother Yun (Liu Zhenying) is describing a situation that occurred with the Christian communities of China in 1994. Various Christian missionary organizations from other nations wanted to help the isolated and often persecuted church in China. When China’s borders started to open up in the 1980s, these missionaries took the opportunity to engage representatives of the church in China, which was broken up in to thousands of house churches for the purposes of security and anonymity in relation to a hostile government, and try to provide for the Chinese Christians’ needs. They needed Bibles…lots and lots of Bibles.
After foreign Christian missionaries were expelled from China after the advent of the communist revolution in 1948-1950, the body of Chinese believers were pretty much on their own. Only a handful of Christians possessed Bibles, including Brother Yun, and almost nothing was known about “Christian theology” except what was revealed by the Bible itself and the Holy Spirit as it was manifested in the lives of the faithful, particularly Pastors and teachers like Brother Yun. Although there were very rare encounters with a few Chinese people who self-identified as Catholic, Christianity in China had no denominational identity of any sort. The focus of Christians in China was to covertly study the Bible, covertly meet in small house churches, covertly travel to preach the Gospel where it was unknown in China, and if captured, imprisoned, and tortured, covertly teach the Gospel to other prisoners and on occasion, even to sympathetic prison guards.
No one was thinking about denominationalism and anyone who was a Christian was a brother and sister to everyone else who was a Christian. They shared the same passion for Christ, the same fear of the government, the same pattern of concealing themselves to avoid detection and arrest, and the same risk of being tried, jailed, tortured, and executed by the anti-church state.
That changed in the early 1990s, and with the knowledge that there were different theologies, different doctrines, different denominations, and different identities, all calling themselves “Christian” but sometimes differing radically from one another, the once unified church of China became fragmented and fractured, just like Christianity in the rest of the world.
We arranged for Zhang Rongliang and the leaders of this Fangcheng Church to meet with us. This was a big step because of the tension that had existed between his group and Brother Xu’s group for many years. The day before Zhang arrived we had a time for prayer. Brother Fan said, “Brother Xu, I believe the Lord has given me a word for you, but I’m not sure you can accept it.”
He continued, “I feel that when Zhang Rongliang and his leaders arrive you shouldn’t sit down with them and talk straight away. You shouldn’t even pray with them at first. When they arrive you should immediately get on your knees and wash their feet one by one.”
Brother Xu, who leads millions of believers across China, immediately responded, “I accept this as a word from the Lord. I’ll certainly wash their feet.”
Yun/Hattaway, pp 236-7
I’ve spent this past week addressing the struggle between Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots Christianity in terms of community identity and whether or not we can consider our two groups (and the multiple sub-groups contained within) at all part of the same “body of Christ.”
There are days when I have my doubts.
This isn’t quite what Brother Yun is describing, but it is related. At one point, the Chinese Christians conceptualized their identities as Christians in fundamentally the same way. They just didn’t know any better. Then, with the awareness of denominationalism, split after split occurred, and the only way to even begin the healing was through an act of humility, much as what the Master performed upon his own disciples shortly before his crucifixion and death.
In the case of Brother Xu and Zhang Rongliang, it almost didn’t work. When the different groups of Chinese Christian leaders got together in the same room, discussions degraded and old arguments resurfaced. Zhang flew into a rage and almost stormed out before Brother Fan pushed Brother Xu into hurriedly getting some water and kneeling in front of Zhang to wash his feet. It took years to unify most of China’s churches again but the effort wasn’t totally successful, at least in the short run. However, by the beginning of the 21st century, most of China’s estimated 58 million Christians were unified as brothers and sisters, averting the disaster that came about with the knowledge of “differences.”
But the problem isn’t the same in the Messianic Jewish/Hebrew Roots Christianity space. Jews are different by design…God’s design. Finding a way to integrate Gentiles into a Jewish religious movement and yet have the Gentiles retain their identity, not requiring that they convert to Judaism, was and is something of a chore. I personally don’t believe it was ever completely accomplished in Paul’s lifetime, and not that soon afterward, the whole thing disintegrated (though it took a few centuries to finish it off) into a Jewish religion that did not believe the Messiah had yet come, and a Christian religion that believed the Jewish Messiah came, rejected the Jews for rejecting him, and took upon himself the Gentiles instead. When the Christ returns, it is generally believed he will reward his faithful Gentile Christians and judge the unbelieving Jews.
What a mess.
I still don’t have an answer but I have a vague sense of an ideal. The ideal is that somehow, in some way, the Jewish sheep and the Gentile sheep will be able to enter the same room and without too much discord, be able to have a conversation. In some way, we’ll be able to discuss what we have in common and not just what makes us different (and was drives us apart). In some way, we will all seek to encounter God and we will all seek joy in Him in a way that is universal.
Imagine what it would be like to speak to the wisest, most powerful being in the universe.
Realize that when you pray, you are doing just that. As you talk in prayer, nothing else in the world exists for you but Him and you. Talk to Him with the ease you talk with your father. At the same time, maintain complete awe and respect.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
When you personally are happy, it doesn’t make any difference what others have. So the way to counteract envy is to increase your own level of joy.
By mastering joy, you will become free from envy.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Joy Removes Envy Of Others
I believe fear of assimilation and marginalization within the Messianic movement drives Messianic Judaism to strive with great effort to preserve their Jewish identity. The history of the church has certainly shown us that such Jewish fear is well founded and that supersessionism, otherwise known as replacement theology or completion theology, is something, in all its forms, to be resisted, battled, and defeated.
I believe that a lack of recognition of the Jewish source of Christian faith, and frankly, envy of Jewish “chosenness” has led some factions within Hebrew Roots to claim the full Torah mitzvot for themselves. Even if these factions deny attempting to usurp an actual Jewish identity, modeling your life on modern Jewish synagogue worship practices and recognizing zero differentiation between Gentile and Jewish believers within the body of Messiah amounts to taking away another kid’s toys just because that kid has them and you want them.
OK, both of those examples were of extremist positions but things can be pretty “extreme” in the world of religion. The Chinese Christians had nothing to fight about until the very concept of differences and distinctions within Christianity was introduced from outside of China. You might think that Hebrew Roots has the right idea from that example and say that the “cure” for the Messianic Judaism/Hebrew Roots conflict is also to eliminate distinctions, form a unity movement, and to start washing each other’s feet (washing away uniqueness and identity along with the dust of the road).
But as far as I can tell, there were no Jewish believers in China. Brother Yun’s book doesn’t address the issue. The problems and the practice of Christianity in China over the forty or so years his book covers had wholly different priorities.
But it also presents a kernel of truth. Distinctions being what they are, we all either need to find some common ground upon which to walk and talk with each other, or we might as well accept the denomination solution that has been alive and well within both Christianity and Judaism for many centuries and agree to disagree, form our own groups, and be happy inside of them.
Do Orthodox Jews complain about Reform Jews? Do Protestants complain about Catholics?
Even if I went around washing everyone’s feet in the blogosphere, I doubt that it would result in the sort of healing that Brother Yun describes in his book. The only healing I know how to accomplish is my own, and even that is a monumental task. Rabbi Pliskin describes how prayer can connect each of us to God and dispel petty bickering, envy, and unhappiness, replacing them with awe, respect, and joy.
I can’t control anyone reading this blog. I can’t stop caring about you and what happens to you, but I can’t affect your lives in any way, shape, or form unless you allow it on some level. I probably shouldn’t even try because trying only contributes to my own lack of peace, blunting my joy in the realization of God.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
–Philippians 4:4-9 (ESV)
“Hope never abandons you, you abandon it.”
Walk whichever path that you will. Peace.