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An Excerpt from “Following Christ and Confucius” by Christopher Payk

One of the most influential figures in Chinese Christianity, church leader and evangelist Wang Mingdao rejected state control of religion in favor of the religious freedom of the unregistered House Churches—a choice that made him a frequent target of government persecution. In Following Christ and Confucius, a thorough new biography, scholar Christopher Payk traces Wang’s life and Christian development through the sociopolitical tumult of twentieth-century China.

Wang never desired to create a comprehensive or systematic theology. He received a thorough bi-cultural education in the Christian and Confucian traditions while he was dependent upon missionary Christianity. After his break with missionary Christianity in 1921, as an independent church leader, his theological works were constructed in order to meet contextual needs he felt required attention at the time. After his arrest, his prison works focused on writing to the government in order to clarify his situation and to defend those he felt had been wrongly accused. It is interesting to note that several of the people he defended while in Yinying were later rehabilitated by the CCP after Deng Xiaoping was made paramount leader. One of Deng’s reforms was the release of “counter-revolutionaries” like Wang. His writings in this period were focused on seeking political rehabilitating for himself and those implicated with him. When he was released, Wang was shocked to discover that unregistered house church Christians in China honored him as a spiritual father.

During this mature stage of his spiritual father years, after the long period of contemplation at Yinying, Wang’s theology took on different emphases. He was much more interested in writing about and discussing politics than he had been before. The decision he had made in 1924 to turn his back on the world, including its politics, became impossible after his arrest in 1955. His personal moral failure, sufferings, and the period of time he had to review a broad scope of Chinese history in Yinying provided him with significant resources to minister to Chinese Christians that were coming out of the Cultural Revolution and were hoping to make a positive impact on the nation. Wang saw recovery from the previous years of “catastrophe” in China as possible through people pursuing a “Spirit of Righteousness,” the primary virtue of which was to tell the truth. Both the Christian and Confucian traditions nourished his thought and allowed him to formulate a Chinese theology that was relevant to twentieth century Chinese who were coming to visit him in Shanghai.

Wang’s articles in The Spiritual Food Quarterly cover the major theological emphases he wanted to articulate at the time. He was always more interested in describing the practical working out of Christian theology through a life of upright moral character than he was in creating a systematic exposition of Bible doctrine, so Wang Mingdao’s theology can be correctly categorized as a “folk theology.” Never convinced by what he saw as the Modernist emphasis on transforming culture while neglecting personal religious and moral transformation, Wang always prioritized the individual in his theology.

The Social Significance of Wang’s Theology

It would be an error to assume that because Wang prioritized the individual, that his thought has no social significance as Ng Lee-Ming has done. Li Boxiong has noted that it was precisely because Wang’s thought focused on the micro-level individual and not the macro-level society that it provided help to Christians living in a socialist society. As noted by Liang Shouhua, Wang’s negative attitude towards people establishing the ideal society created a false impression that Wang had no concern for society. Liang wrote an important article in 1998 entitled “Independent Religious Beliefs’ Effect on Society: A Reinterpretation of Wang Mingdao’s Thoughts on Society,” in which he reinterprets Wang Mingdao’s thoughts on the social implications of Christianity. Liang notes that Wang is one of the most respected people in the modern Chinese church and that he is viewed as a model of faithfulness unto death by many Christians. He argues that even though some people claim Wang held an estranged, negative view toward society, Liang maintains that it is not difficult to see that Wang’s writings have a social nature and modern significance because his thought does not escape reality but often responds to social situations. Therefore, in contrast to Ng Lee-Ming and Lam Wing-hung, Liang sees Wang’s writings as being very meaningful to society. Furthermore, Liang argues that Wang’s attitude toward society was based on the Bible and on Wang’s observations and concerns and that his dissatisfaction and distrust of society was in continuity with contemporary liberal academics and Marxists in China. Liang thinks that Wang’s thought is conservative but modern and critically conservative and that he is even more critical than cultural and social activists of his time. He sees Wang as having maintained an independent, detached position that was not manipulated by secular power. Because his detached religious beliefs did not have a fixed political position, this allowed him a free and independent critique of all authority that did not meet his standard. Liang’s article attempts to show how the social situation Wang encountered affected his attitude toward society and that this attitude was appropriate and widespread in Chinese society at the time. Liang believes that Wang’s negative attitude towards people establishing the ideal society created a false impression that Wang had no concern for society and that critics have missed that his teaching and thought have social implications. Due to historical factors and a limited period of development due to his arrest in 1955, Wang was not able to fully develop his ideas of how the gospel was to affect society. However, it is clear from his works that he was interested in the practical nature of how Christians should interact with society. Liang interprets Wang’s separation from the naivety of the Modernist theologians of his time as having allowed him to be a more independent critic than they were of the powerful. His high morality and suspicious spirit combined with this separation from society allowed him to be a more thorough and broad critic of society. This sort of transcendent critique was not loyal to any group or personal loyalty, so he was able to become a properly objective critic, not controlled by the power of the political right or left.

Lam Wing-hung’s critique of Wang that his individual focus was inadequate to resist societal evil is more substantial because, as Lam noted, macro-level evil often requires macro-level power to correct. Lam states that social ideas received very little attention in Wang’s writings mainly due to the fact that he promulgated the theological sequence of “first transform a person, then reform society.” However, according to Lam, after people receive salvation, they will not necessarily naturally reform society. Also, Lam claims that Wang’s attacks on church and societal sin only led to ways of dealing with these macro-level sins at the personal level. Lam argues that believers should resist societal evil and attempt to remove it or at least reduce it. Many organizational level sins require organizational level power and actions to destroy. However, as Lam concedes, there has been no way to plan social movements in order to reform society in China in any way that is not approved by the CCP.

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