The persecution of underground house church Christians is a well-known fact among Christian advocacy groups and Western governments. Quite a few high-profile cases have emerged in recent years, as China under President Xi Jinping backslid greatly on religious freedom.
Cross demolitions and church razings first began in heavily Christian parts of Zhejiang province back in 2014, led by Xia Baolong, the ideologue party loyalist who now leads the Hong Kong and Macau Office in Beijing. The arrest of intellectual-turned-pastor of urban megachurch Wang Yi in 2019 attracted U.S. State Department condemnation. Several high-profile urban megachurches, which had redefined Christianity and pushed it back into the public sphere, were closed before Xi came out guns blazing.
A lot has been said and written about these courageous men and women who are now denied their right and place to worship. But very little has been written about the theology behind the revival movement which catapulted these churches into prominence, changing a previously heavily rural and Charismatic underground house church movement in the 1980s and 1990s to an ambitiously young, urban and aggressively public Christianity which became a huge threat to the Communist government.
That theology is Chinese-style “New Calvinism”.
Calvinism in the West has recently enjoyed a certain resurgence under the Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement. It is a mostly urban and aggressively evangelistic movement which seeks to change the culture and return conservative Christianity to a “meatier, more substantive and biblical Christianity”.
The movement produced some of the most influential current Christian thinkers such as John Piper, Tim Keller and Albert Mohler. Its flagship network is The Gospel Coalition, one of the most active Calvinist networks in the world. It started in the early 2000s and has since grown to become an international movement, as well as producing a “Reformed resurgence” in America.
This movement stands out in how confident and unapologetic it is after decades of culture war onslaught, which rendered the Church in the West toothless and weak. It advocates a muscular defence of Christianity, which has been missing in Western Christianity since the 1960s.
While the new Calvinists in the West began their resurgence, a massive transformation was also underway in China as house churches began embracing Calvinism in an intellectual wave of revival that was completely organic and led by locals, independent of Western influence. The one person to thank for that is the incredibly influential Chinese-Indonesian evangelist Stephen Tong （唐崇荣）.
Tong, also known as the “Billy Graham of the East”, was born in Fujian, China in 1940 and moved to Indonesia at the age of nine following the Communist takeover. He was converted at the age of 12 at a revival meeting held by the famous Chinese evangelist Andrew Gih during Gih’s evangelistic tour of Southeast Asia, and like the man who converted him, Tong has an exemplary gift of preaching.
He was one of the first ethnic Chinese Christians in the modern age to embrace strongly conservative Calvinist Reformed theology; he founded the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church in 1989, with a strong focus on the Indonesian Chinese community. He strongly challenges both liberalism and Charismatic or prosperity gospel theologies in his captivating sermons.
Stephen Tong taught, just like the new Calvinists in America, that Christianity should challenge and engage the culture. Tong also coined the phrase “归正宗”as the translation for “Reformed Faith”, and introduced the Chinese audience to many Calvinist writings. He combined Calvinist teachings with modern-day evangelical activism. His sermons in perfect Mandarin were straightforward, easy to understand and transformative.
However, this highly successful pastor — whose congregation is now a megachurch at the glitzy 8,000-seater Messiah Cathedral, complete with a seminary and a concert hall in Jakarta (which is one of the very few megachurches in Asia which is not Pentecostal and does not teach the prosperity gospel) — found his greatest success and influence not in Indonesia, but his birthplace China.
Tong has long wanted to preach in China, having done tours of Taiwan and Hong Kong many times, but of course China would not let a strongly anti-Communist conservative overseas Chinese preacher cause drama on the Mainland. But then something magical happened — piracy and the Internet in the early 2000s.
Black Market Bibles
Tong’s sermons were smuggled into China en masse in those times when China did not have the all-encompassing control on information it has today. In coastal parts of China back then, satellite dishes were on every house roof transmitting the television signals of Hong Kong.
Everything from pop music to pornography to religious sermons, which were all strongly discouraged on the Mainland, flooded the black markets and greatly enticed the youth, through pirated cassettes, pirated DVDs and smuggled audiotapes of sketchy recording quality. Even unauthorised Bibles were smuggled in by the hundreds of thousands.
China in the early 2000s also did not have the Great Internet Firewall it has today. As recently as 2009, Chinese Internet users could access Facebook, Google and Twitter without any need for VPNs. Information was still restricted, but the floodgates were still opening, and in with them came Pastor Tong’s sermons and writings.
Religious and Political
Tong was revolutionary in that he was, and still remains, one of the only prominent proponents of Calvinism in Chinese Christianity. This theology suited persecuted Chinese Christians particularly well, because Calvinism is a theology of resistance.
Calvin was a political philosopher and Chinese intellectuals, who were crushed after 1989’s abject failure at making China a democracy, viewed Calvinism’s direct contribution to the ideas of modern democracy, constitutionalism and civil society as particularly attractive in the Chinese context. Calvinism inspired many political activist movements across the world in the past from abolitionism to female suffrage, and China would be no exception.
One of the greatest contributions Tong made to Chinese Christianity is that his sermons organically created the urban house church movement, nourishing the movement’s leaders. One of the intellectuals disillusioned with the future of China at the time was Wang Yi, who became a Christian and a pastor partly because he discovered Stephen Tong’s sermons. Many Chinese Christians discovered the Gospel by listening or watching pirated Stephen Tong material.
For many house church pastors, Tong’s material was sometimes the only theological training they had in a country where all the theological seminaries were controlled by the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic movement. Tong inspired them to create their own churches, often in cities, and forge a distinctively different route from traditional underground churches in China.
From Rural to Urban
Before the rise of this revival movement, Chinese house churches were overwhelmingly rural and had preserved the faith in the harshest of conditions. Rural believers braved the harshest of persecution and conditions to worship in places like caves and forests, and kept an extremely low profile. Someone would always be standing guard and alerting all the worshippers for any danger.
Following the thaw after the Mao era, house church movements which were Charismatic in nature made huge revivals in deeply rural Chinese provinces like Henan and Anhui, but following the massive urbanisation shift that followed China’s economic boom, most of these rural churches failed to get a foothold in the cities.
Rural youths who emigrated en masse to the cities soon lost touch with their faith. The urban areas of China were a barren wasteland to Christianity, and they soon sucked the rural churches dry. Many rural Chinese churches today are overwhelmingly comprised of the elderly, women and children. In turn, this created a hidden crisis behind the façade of revival — many churches are losing their young members.
Rural churches also lacked organisational capability and were often led astray by “heretical movements” which diverged significantly from the original Gospel. Thus, it was clear by the year 2000 that Chinese Christianity needed a new direction.
Intellectuals and pastors that discovered and studied the sermons, writings and lectures of Tong began transforming the house church movement in China. They were far more organised and aggressive in proselytising, with many house churches in urban areas preaching to university students, urban white-collar workers and even converting Communist Party members, unthinkable in the rural areas. They were also far more vigorous in Christian intellectual thinking and worshipped openly, directly challenging the rules set out by the regime.
The churches also established a Presbyterian church governance system, formed alliances across the country, created at least two to three hundred independently operating Christian schools using textbooks based on the American Christian homeschooling system and at least four seminaries of their own, training many much-needed pastors to plant churches across China. They began to build an entire society independent of government control.
They became one of the only NGOs that operate independently and sufficiently. They also took in dissidents and the marginalised, such as single mothers and prostitutes. These churches ran pro-life ministries, published their sermons online openly and even communicated with foreign conservative churches, a big taboo since the whole premise of state-controlled Christianity in China was the principle of “Three Self”, as in self-independence from foreign influence from the outside.
These Calvinist Chinese churches replaced the rural churches which were strong in faith but lacked organisational structure and consistent theology. This made the Communist government nervous — far more nervous than the rural churches ever could. These urban house churches were everywhere, from Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu to Zion and Shouwang Churches in Beijing. Some churches had thousands of members, most of whom were young people.
There is even diversity in the Chinese Calvinist movement. Some are nearly identical to Stephen Tong’s approach, combining neo-Calvinism with evangelicalism, whilst others such as the Wenzhou Reformed churches led by Zhou Dawei are far more similar to the fundamentalist orthodox Reformed churches in the Netherlands, banning television and practising exclusive psalmody (only singing hymns found in the Book of Psalms, a practice foreign to China).
All of this organic growth, of course, is anathema to the Communist government. After Xi came to power, the short-lived tolerance for these increasingly confident churches quickly evaporated. One by one, famous Chinese urban house churches were suppressed. Zion Church, led by Korean-Chinese pastor Ezra Jin, was banned in 2018. Pastor Wang Yi has now been sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion of state power.
Churches everywhere from Xiamen to Guangzhou were shut down, dispersed and the pastors arrested. This time around, the Communists focused particularly on the urban churches that have proper organisational leadership, instead of the usual crackdowns on the rural churches. They know these Calvinist influences congregations are far more dangerous to their rule.
In 2009, The Guardian predicted that the most conservative estimate for the converts won over by the Calvinist revival was at least 500,000. This was even before the heyday of this revival, which was in the early 2010s before Xi came to power. The Gospel Coalition estimates go up to two to three million Reformed Christians in China in 2017. To put that into perspective, the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the United States, the Presbyterian Church in America, only has around 380,000 members.
This means China may well have had the largest number of conservative fundamentalist Reformed Christians in the world at some stage in the 2010s. And whilst Xi might think he has nipped them in the bud, I will finish this article with this story.
Guangzhou pastor Huang Xiaoning of the Bible Reformed Church returned to his church from detention in January 2019. He found the doors of his church locked, and public notices pasted on the doors declaring his church has been officially closed. So what did Pastor Huang do? He sawed off the lock and tore down the public notices, whilst being recorded on video by policemen.
If Xi thinks he can eradicate these people and their religion, he should think again.