New Chinese Church Leaders Stress Need for Unity

Amity News Service
In February (2008), Theresa Carino visited the Shanghai headquarters of the National CCC/TSPM and interviewed newly elected leaders Rev. Gao Feng, President of the CCC and Elder Fu Xuanwei, Chair of the TSPM. Their hopes and concerns are summarized below.

Reverend Gao Feng

Reverend Gao Feng
At the age of 46, Rev. Gao Feng is the youngest leader to take the helm of the China Christian Council since its establishment in 1980. Hailing from Shandong Province where he made his mark as the leader of both the CCC and the TSPM there ten years ago, Gao also heads the Shandong Provincial Seminary. Since 2002, he has served as a Vice-President of the CCC at the national level and is a member of the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Conference (an advisory body to the Chinese government.)

Speaking of his new job as CCC President, Gao stressed the need for unity among China’s church leaders: “Zhong Xin He Yi—We need to work together to do things well.” He spoke self effacingly about his stint as leader of the Shandong TSPM/CCC, saying he had to “learn on the job”. He realized, though, that having a supportive team had definitely helped him avoid many pitfalls: “We made fewer mistakes because we were united and worked as a team.”

Elder Fu Xuanwei, newly elected Chair of the National TSPM, agreed wholeheartedly with Gao. Also a member of the CPPCC, he was previously one of the Associate General Secretaries of the National TSPM. Born in 1944, Fu has been active in the Chinese church, especially in Shanghai, for decades and remains the Chair of the TSPM in Shanghai. Under his leadership, the Shanghai TSPM/CCC has seen an influx of youth and professionals into its ranks and women constitute the majority among the city’s clergy.

Elder Fu Xuanwei

Elder Fu Xuanwei Pointing to the new situation and new context among grassroots churches, Elder Fu explained the need for pursuing theological reconstruction. “Many grassroots leaders are not trained. Our society has undergone opening and reform resulting in changed perspectives and attitudes among people—which is both good and bad.” Alluding to new social and ethical challenges, he believes that Christians should provide leadership in areas affecting human relationships and inter-faith relations. Issues which are no longer considered problematic in some countries may still be regarded as controversial in China. For instance, some theologians may say that other faiths have their own integrity but this may not be well accepted by some grassroots believers in China. “Our challenge,” says Fu, “is how to provide leadership for a church that has grown so much. Some old ideas and attitudes in the church may no longer be in keeping with the needs of the times.” There have been notable changes in the government’s attitude towards religion and many different sectors have emerged besides the state in Chinese society. At last year’s Party Congress, it was reiterated that religion can make an important contribution to the building of a harmonious society. Observing the new importance attached to religion, Gao and Fu agreed that Christian churches should evangelize and make social contributions. The church has a strong tradition of diakonia which has its basis in the bible. Through its social service department the CCC/TSPM could reach those in need both within and outside the church. It was an important medium of social witness. Both leaders expressed a strong concern that materially rich churches along China’s eastern seaboard should share their growing resources with much poorer churches in China’s west. A common statement of faith They highlighted the significance of the revisions to the Chinese Christian Church Order that had been approved at the 8th National Conference of the CCC/TSPM in Beijing in January. For the first time, there was a clear and fairly lengthy common statement of faith. This common understanding was crucial given the wide range of church traditions that have co-existed under the umbrella of the CCC/TSPM. Elder Fu emphasized that “We still respect the different church traditions whether they are Anglican, Adventist, Baptist and so on. But mutual respect is crucial. Grace Church (Mu En Tang) in Shanghai was originally a Methodist Church, but many Christians of an Anglican background worship in it. The Adventists continue to have their sabbath on a Saturday and we respect that.” As a post-denominational church, however, one of the biggest challenges facing the Chinese church is how to develop a church order and common liturgy. With China’s opening, denominational tendencies are re-emerging, putting stress on the church’s fragile unity. This has been further threatened by the many Christian sects that dot the Chinese countryside, exerting an unwelcome influence on some grassroots believers. According to Elder Fu, “Our responsibility is to properly nurture our grassroots believers. The new constitution is very important and we need to put it into practice.” Theological exchanges and ecumenical relations Theological education is another area of primary concern. Both leaders underscored the pivotal role played by the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, the only national level seminary in China. Tasked with producing leaders for all other seminaries in the country, it is crucial to the development of the church in China. At present, faculty development is a primary focus and it is hoped that before too long, the seminary will be able to offer its own doctoral program. Elder Fu expressed his hope that courses on pastoral care and counselling would eventually be included in every seminary’s curriculum. Noting its importance for the nurture of church pastors and lay workers, he announced that the CCC/TSPM will be holding a course on pastoral counselling in June this year, in Shanghai. Exchanges with Chinese scholars of Christianity were welcomed by Elder Fu, who explained that three years ago, thirty-eight pastors, evangelists and seminary graduates from Shanghai had attended a program on church history, New and Old Testament studies, and history at Fudan University with the support of the Shanghai Christian Council. One of the differences in their approach, Elder Fu noted, was that the scholars tend to look at Christianity as culture rather than as faith. Ecumenical relations was also given prominence by both leaders. They highlighted the importance of exchanges with churches overseas, stressing that the Three-Self principles do not imply that the Church in China is “closed”. “We are part of the ecumenical world,” said Fu. Both he and Rev. Gao welcomed cooperation with churches in other countries in the field of theological education, as long as the Three-Self principles are respected. Rev. Gao concluded: “We will continue to expand the work of overseas relations. At the same time, we need to nurture local pastors to keep pace with the rapid growth of believers. The development of theological education and an ecclesiology appropriate to China’s churches are of top priority. Nanjing Union Theological Seminary needs to develop its faculty in order to run a sustainable Ph. D program. It will take some time to achieve this. We ask for the support, understanding and prayers of churches overseas.” ——- The Church Order of Protestant Churches in China (articles of faith etc) can be found here

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