2008/3 The Back To Jerusalem Movement: A Reformed Perspective
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Back To Jerusalem (BTJ) is a missionary movement that began in China, and remains largely a vision of the unregistered house churches of that nation. Today, it is gaining the attention and support of Christians and churches in other parts of the world. How did this happen? What is this movement? Wherein lies its strengths? Wherein lies its weaknesses? How are Reformed and conservative Christians to respond to it? Here, we seek to answer these questions by giving a brief sketch of the history of gospel work in China, explaining the emergence of the BTJ movement, offering observations of its strengths and weaknesses, followed by making suggestions of a response to the BTJ movement..
I. A sketch of gospel work in China.
A Christian sect, called Nestorianism, spread overland to China around AD 635.1 Adherents of Nestorianism called themselves the Assyrian Church of the East. In China, Nestorianism was known as Jingjiao, or the Luminous Religion. They fluorished until the ninth century, when the later Tang emperors suppressed it. They multiplied again during the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368), when the Mongols ruled, and was finally suppressed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
During the Yuan dynasty, the emperor Kublai Khan, delivered an invitation by the hands of Marco Polo to the Roman Catholic Church to send teachers of science and religion to China to reinforce the Nestorian Christianity already present there. In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV sent the Franciscan, John of Monte Corvino, to China. The latter arrived in China via India in 1294. He was the first Roman Catholic missionary to China and had considerable success there.
The first Protestant Missionary to arrive in China was Robert Morrison (1782-1834). He was raised up a Scottish Presbyterian, ordained a Congregational minister, and sent out as a missionary by the London Missionary Society. He arrived in Macao in 1807. Due to imperial edicts against the learning of Chinese by non-Chinese as well as the printing of books on Christianity in Chinese, Morrison and his colleague, William Milne, moved to Malacca, Malaya (now Melaka, in Malaysia). There, he completed the translation of the Bible in Chinese. He died in Canton, and was buried in Macao.
James Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), an English missionary to China, founded the China Inland Mission, which later became the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. He arrived in China in 1854 and quickly moved inland from Shanghai to evangelize the interior of the country. Despite severe criticism from other western missionaries, he adopted the Chinese way of dressing and developed the China Inland Mission into the largest missionary agency in China. Dixon Edward Hoste (1861-1946), the successor to Hudson Taylor, first expressed the self-governing principles of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement when articulating the goal of the China Inland Mission with the view to establish an indigenous Chinese church that was free from foreign control.
Japanese invasion and civil strife
Sun Yatsen (1866-1925) founded the Republic of China in 1912. The warlords, however, agitated for power. Sun Yatsen died in 1925. In the midst of the chaos, the Nationalist government was established by Chiang Kaishek (1887-1975) in 1928. The Japanese invaded China in 1937 and controlled parts of the country until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Chiang Kaishek emerged as the hero in China. The ensuing struggle between the Nationalist government and the Communist Party ended with Mao Zedong having the victory. The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, with Mao Zedong (1893-1976) as Chairman.
Throughout the long period of civil unrest, foreign missionaries and local Christians continued faithfully to proclaim the gospel. Notable advances were made in various parts of China, in the midst of much sufferings and personal sacrifices. In 1966, Mao Zedong began the Cultural Revolution, which lasted a decade, to perpetuate revolutionary enthusiasm among the youth. Red Guards were sent out to rid China of western influences and capitalist affluence. The clamp-down on religions meant that countless Christians had to suffer for the faith. The persecution was so severe and thorough that many western observers believed the church in China had been wiped out.2 After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, a short period of tumultous uncertainty followed until Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. Stability was restored and an open policy was adopted. World religions, religious doctrines and religious rites were allowed, but not “feudal superstitions” such as witches, wizards, fortune-telling, divination by lots, divine medicine, etc. Christian churches were placed under the control of the Three Self-Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which holds to the principles of self-support, self-government, and self propagation. These principles had been proposed by Christians with the view of developing an indegenous church in China, but they were now used by the Chinese government to justify cutting off western influence and support. The TSPM became an instrument of Communist propaganda, so that only church leaders who were prepared to compromise their beliefs joined it. The majority of churches went underground, sensing the danger of registering themselves with the TSPM.
II. The Back To Jerusalem Movement
Revival in China under Communism
When China opened again to the world in 1978, it was revealed that Protestant Christians had multiplied more than fourfold since 1949, from 700,000 to three million.3 Far from becoming extinct, the Chinese Christians were multiplying at a rate faster than any time previously - and that under a Communist regime! In the two decades that followed, the number increased phenomenally. The official figure given in recent years is 16 million, but a competent estimate shows that there are 21.2 million Christians in TSPM churches alone, not counting those in the unregistered house churches.4 Another estimate puts the figures at between 80 and 100 million Protestants and at least 12 million Catholics in both registered churches and illegal house church gatherings.5 In the providence of God, the attempts of the Chinese government to wipe out religions actually prepared the ground for the revival of Christianity. The factors that providentially have favoured revival include the following:6
* Much of China’s idolatry was removed during the Cultural Revolution, while the cult of reverence for Mao brought disillusionment, creating a spiritual void in the hearts of hundreds of millions of people.
* Trains, roads and air routes were established enabling evangelists to easily travel to areas that were formerly inaccessible.
* Mandarin was adopted as the official language of China, providing a means to reach the people who originally spoke many dialects.
* Large-scale literary projects were undertaken, resulting in multitudes of people being able to read God’s word for the first time.
* Control of the media resulted in a hunger for the printed word and for radio broadcasts, so that Bibles, Christian books and gospel messages were eagerly sought after.
* During the excesses of the Cultural Revolution people were forced to denounce their wrongdoings and reform their lives, creating a “culture of confession” which made repentance and confession of sins to God an easier concept to grasp.
Beginnings of the Back To Jerusalem vision
The Back To Jerusalem movement took shape in the midst of the revival in China after the Cultural Revolution. The roots of the movement, however, go farther back to two significant developments - one in the 1920s, and the other in the 1940s. In the 1920s various groups of Christians from Shandong Province began to take the gospel to the Muslims who were concentrated in the western provinces of China. The first group was the Jesus Family, founded in 1921 by a man named Jing Dianying. The members believed in selling all their possessions and distributing their wealth among the other family members. The group’s five-word slogan encapsulated their commitment to Christ: Sacrifice, Abandonment, Poverty, Suffering, Death. The Jesus Family preached everywhere, but their main thrust was towards the Muslims in the west.
A split occurred in the Jesus Family, and a new group known as the Northwest Spiritual Movement emerged. Most of the leaders of this group hailed from Shandong Province, including the founder, Zhang Guquan. The movement concentrated solely on evangelism and soul winning, and did not spend any efffort on establishing local congregations. They won many people to Christ among many ethnic groups including Muslim Uygurs, Hui and Kazaks. The Northwest Spiritual Movement was not a large spiritual army marching across the nation. The leadership consisted of just four or five individuals, plus a few dozen other workers. But despite their small numbers the movement was effective because their vision was focused. In contrast, by the late 1940s, the Jesus Family grew to some 20,000 Chinese believers enlisted in more than 100 different groups throughout China.
In the early 1940s, the vision to take the gospel to the Muslim nations west of China was given to a band of people based in the Northwest Bible Institute in Shaanxi Province. This institute had been founded by James Hudson Taylor II (the grandson of the world-famous pioneer) and his wife Alice when bombing during the Japanese invasion of China forced them to leave Henan Province. The vice-principal of the Institute was Pastor Mark Ma, a native of Henan Province. Together with a group of students, Mark Ma at first focused on evangelising the Muslims in Xinjiang Province. As he prayed about finding a name for the evangelistic band, Mark Ma was led to the understanding that the gospel should be preached all the way back to Jerusalem. The focus was upon the Muslim countries west of China. The group settled on calling themselves Bian Chuan Fuyin Tuan, which literally means the “Preach Everywhere Gospel Band”. The western missionaries agreed that the English name of the movement should be “Back To Jerusalem Evangelistic Band”.7 Mark Ma travelled throughout China to call for prayer on behalf of the Back To Jerusalem Evangelistic Band, and to enlist volunteers for the task. He wrote,
“My hope is that our Chinese church will with determination and courage hold fast this great responsibility and, depending upon our all victorious Saviour, complete this mighty task, and taking possession of our glorious inheritance, take the gospel back to Jerusalem. There we shall stand on top of Mount Zion and welcome our Lord Jesus Christ descending with clouds in glory.”8
All three groups - the Jesus Family, the Northwest Spiritual Movement, and the Back To Jerusalem Evangelistic Band - sent Chinese missionaries westward, preaching as they travelled. Apart from these, there were other smaller initiatives by various Chinese church groups. Their attempts to enter Xinjiang Province were marked with difficulties. None were able to preach beyond the borders of Xinjiang Province. The Communist takeover of China resulted in the missionaries being imprisoned and put to hard manual labour. Many died. A few survived. One of those who survived was Simon Zao who originated from Shenyang in Liaoning Province, northeast China. He was in his early thirties when first appointed to lead a team of the Northwest Spiritual Movement to enter Xinjiang Province. When arrested in 1948, China was a republic in the midst of civil war. Imprisoned for forty years, he missed the entire reign of Mao Zedong, the insane Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and the death of Mao in 1976. His body was damaged from decades of beatings, torture and hard work. He was to be the link to the restoration of the Back To Jerusalem vision of recent years.
The Back To Jerusalem vision revived
Liu Zhenying, more commonly known as Brother Yun, and nicknamed the Heavenly Man, was born in the south of Henan Province in 1958. This was the sphere of the profound ministry of Marie Monsen, a Lutheran missionary, from 1901 to 1932. In 1932 she returned to Norway to take care of her elderly parents. She never returned to China, but her faith, zeal and commitment to Christ lives on in the Chinese church. When she came to southern Henan Province, there were few Christians and the church was weak. Today there are millions of believers, of which Brother Yun is one.9
Brother Yun came to faith under unusual circumstances, and suffered much for the faith. In China, he was imprisoned four times for the gospel, and was arrested on more than thirty occasions. In 1995, he was speaking at a house church gathering in central China when he met Simon Zao. Simon Zao had been persuaded to come out of self-imposed exile in Xinjiang Province after his release from prison. By this time, Brother Yun had been burdened about taking the gospel to the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu nations of the world. The meeting between Brother Yun and the aged Simon Zao under very moving circumstances was like the passing of the torch of the Back To Jerusalem vision from the older generation to the new.
At the same time that he was burdened about taking the gospel to the nations, Brother Yun was given the vision to unite the various house church networks. In prayer and with trust in God, he was able to bring five big house church networks together in fellowship in 1996. Since then, other house church networks have joined the fellowship. All these networks are committed to the Back To Jerusalem vision. At a special meeting in January 2000, the leaders for the first time estimated the number of believers in their networks. The combined total was 58 million.10
In 1997 Brother Yun miraculously escaped from prison and was allowed to come out of China. Friends arranged for him to settle in Germany. In 2000 he went to Myanmar to receive his wife and two children who had escaped from China overland. While in Myanmar, he was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was released in January 2001, after serving seven months and seven days of the seven-year sentence. Today, he resides in Germany with his family and exercises a worldwide ministry, on behalf of the Back To Jerusalem movement.
III. An assessment of the BTJ movement
The BTJ movement today
We have traced the rise of the BTJ movement from its beginning among various house groups in the 1920s, to the those in the 1940s, and on to those in the 1990s. In the 1920s, the vision was to take the gospel to the Muslims in the provinces of western China. House church groups from Shandong Province played a major role. In the 1940s, the vision was extended to the Muslim countries west of China, but now included the concept of preaching the gospel all the way back to Jerusalem, from where the Great Commission began. Mark Ma of the Northwest Bible Institute played the key role.11 In the 1990s, the additional idea of preaching the gospel in Buddhist and Hindu nations, as well as Muslim ones, was included. Brother Yun played the pivotal role.12
With the escape of Brother Yun to the West, and his alliance with western Christians, additional dimensions come into the picture. The involvement of Paul Hattaway and the organisation of which he is director, Asia Harvest, is significant. Paul Hattaway is a New Zealander who has been involved in gospel work in Asian countries for many years. Asia Harvest declares itself to be “an inter-denominational Christian ministry working in various countries throughout Asia to see effective churches planted among unreached people groups.”13 With his heavy involvement with the BTJ vision, Hattaway has been declared “the director of Asia Harvest, a Christian ministry committed to serving the Chinese church and the Back to Jerusalem vision.”14 Through his writings, he acts as a powerful advocate of the BTJ movement to western Christians and the many English-speaking churches throughout the world.
Paul Hattaway seems to have introduced the idea of the 10/40 window of modern missiology to the BTJ movement.15 This refers to the areas of the world that lie between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north of the Equator, in which are found fifty of the world’s least-Christian and least evangelised countries. Another advance in the vision of the BTJ movement is to take the gospel to the ethnic minorities in Southwest China and the nations of Southeast Asia. The discovery by Chinese church leaders that there were many Silk Roads, not just one, which linked ancient China with other nations, is supposed to have triggered this broadening of the vision.15 However, external influence in this cannot be discounted. It has been noted that the movement which revolved around Mark Ma of the Northwest Bible Institute in Shaanxi Province was influenced by western missionaries to a considerable extent:16 the name, “Back To Jerusalem Evangelistic Band”, was given by western missionaries; its theology was strongly premillennial (which was the common theology among conservative western missionaries at the time); its vision for evangelism was stimulated by fervent expectation to fulfill the Great Commission before Christ’s return; in the tradition of the China Inland Mission, it declared itself to be a “faith mission” which looked to the Lord for financial supplies. Today, the BTJ movement continues to be a “faith mission”.17
Quite independently, a group of Chinese Christians who call themselves China Soul for Christ Foundation, based in California, has in recent days produced informative and soul-stirring VCDs on Christianity in China.18 Their portrayal of the house churches, and the hymns which they sing, to Chinese folk tunes, has made a significant impact upon overseas Chinese churches. Brother Yun has travelled to speak at meetings all over the world, including the nations in Southeast Asia. There are now groups of supporters of the BTJ movement in various parts of the world, who meet in prayer and carry out business and community projects in foreign countries to facilitate the travels of missionaries from the house churches in China.
Strengths of the BTJ movement
The BTJ movement has many characteristics that may be said in its favour. Firstly, the Christianity of the Chinese churches is heart-felt and sincere. No charge of intellectualism and coldness can be laid at the Chinese Christians. They love the Lord and are fully committted to Him. Their faith has been forged in the fires of persecution and sufferings. Despite the new openness of China to the world, and the opening of many TSPM churches, the Christians are wary of the authorities. The majority of the Christians worship in secret house-church groups, and church leaders are still being harassed and imprisoned for their faith and Christian activities.
Secondly, the courage of the Chinese Christians is such that they are willing to die for their faith. Meeting in secret has meant willingness to bear the liabilities of associating together and the possibility of suffering for the faith. The fear of suffering and death is always a great setback to aggressive and effective missonary endeavours. The Chinese Christians appear to be well-prepared with the courage to suffer and die, to bring the gospel to Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist nations.
Thirdly, the mission-mindedness of the Christians has been sustained and, in fact, strengthened, in the many years of trials and difficulties. As the world gets globalised more and more, and as transportation and communications connect many parts of the world, the mission-mindedness of the Chinese Christians is poised for great practical advance.
Fourthly, the numerical strength of the Chinese Christians have rightly been looked upon with awe. China has such a large population, and 50 to 100 million Christians is only a small percentage of its 1.3 billion people. Yet, the number of Christians in the one country is impressive. The Chinese are well-known for being intelligent, hard working and tenacious. With the added dimension of spiritual fervour and morality, we can expect happy things to arise out of this big pool of believers.
Fifthly, the worldwide support that has been providentially forged is to the favour of the BTJ movement. Overseas Chinese churches have a natural and spiritual affinity with the Christians in China. Non-Chinese churches, notably those in the West, are being challenged by the vision of the BTJ movement and will play a significant role in forwarding its cause. Paul Hattaway’s writings, which is translated into Chinese, will contribute towards consolidating the movement. He has begun a mammoth project writing on the history of the church in China, which when completed, will consist of more than 30 large volumes. These volumes will fill a glaring gap in the literature on church history.
Weaknesses of the BTJ movement
We must now consider some weaknesses of the BTJ movement which, if not addressed, will possibly lead to its own undoing. The first weakness is associated with its extra-biblical name, “Back to Jerusalem”. In 1949, Phyllis Thompson of the China Inland Mission wrote, “The thing that has impressed me most has been the strange, unaccountable urge of a number of different Chinese groups of Christians to press forward in faith, taking the gospel towards the west... It seems like a movement of the Spirit which is irresistible. The striking thing is that they are disconnected, and in most cases seem to know nothing of each other. Yet all are convinced that the Lord is sending them to the western borders to preach the gospel, and they are going with a strong sense of urgency of the shortness of the time, and the imminence of the Lord’s return.”18
The suggestion of an impulsion of the Spirit lends questionable justification to the movement and enshrouds it with an aura of mystery when, in fact, the westward direction of the missionary vision is not inexplicable. In the first place, western missionaries had concentrated their efforts along the coastal cities of China. Hudson Taylor’s ministry was unique in that it was the first major effort at evangelising the inland of China. Secondly, to the east of China there is only a vast expanse of water. The islands of Japan were hardly significant in comparison to the vastness of the ocean. Furthermore, Korea had been evangelised, and the revival in Korea in the early 1990s had meant that it was a buffer to Japan, as well as a source of missionaries sent out to China.19 Thirdly, the Japanese invasion, followed by the civil war and the Communist regime of Mao Zedong in the eastern parts of China forced attention to focus on the western provinces. Fourthly, the western provinces of China, and the outlying nations, consisted mostly of Muslim people who were known to be difficult to reach by the gospel and, therefore, constituted a challenge to missions. All these are contributary factors, used by God, to give rise to the urge to move westward. There is no necessity to posit some unusual, mystical, directing by the Holy Spirit.
The leaders of the movement are ever anxious to explain that Back to Jerusalem is not an organisation but a vision, that it does not mean the Chinese want to rush to Jerusalem with the gospel, nor are they rushing there to usher in the return of Christ. Rather, it refers to a call from God to preach the gospel and establish fellowships of believers in all the countries, cities, towns, and ethnic groups between China and Jerusalem. Despite these disclaimers, the premillennial influence seen in its founders continue to feature strongly in the movement. Mark Ma, an early founder of the movement, was clearly motivated by a premillennial outllook on missions. The present leaders of the movement are also motivated by a premillennial understanding of missions, as can be seen from this quote: “Pray that the church will know God’s heart and his will so that we will be willing to obey the calling to take the gospel back to Jerusalem and usher in the Second Coming of Christ.” Consider also this quote: ‘In China we sometimes say, “Let’s rush to the front line one more time for our King and Christ will come! We can have a holiday for 1,000 years when it is all finished!”’20 An intense premillennial outlook accounts for the fixation on Jerusalem as the end-point of the vision.
Furthermore, the observation that from Pentecost, the gospel has largely spread westward, from Jerusalem to Europe, from Europe to America, and from the West round the globe to the East, thus giving rise to the idea that the gospel should now be taken all the way back to Jerusalem to complete the circuit, is nothing but a novelty. It skips the centuries between Pentecost and the Reformation, failing to take into account the extensive spread of the gospel eastward into China, India and other countries in Asia during, and after, the apostolic age. The BTJ movement fail to see that Christianized nations can apostasize, and will need to be evangelised again. Put another way, the BTJ movement is focusing on the spatial aspect of the Great Commission without taking into account the temporal aspect. The gospel is to be preached to nations that have not heard the gospel, but the gopel is to be preached to the subsequent generations in Christianized nations as well. “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:29). It is likely that once the circuit is complete, up to Jerusalem, the gospel will still need to be preached to Christianized nations that have apostasized, as has happened to the nations around the Mediterranean. What we are saying is that the name, “Back To Jerusalem”, is based on a questionable understanding of how the gospel has spread in history, and on a questionable understanding of the second return of Christ.
Another matter concerns the scope of the BTJ vision. It began with wanting to preach the gospel to the Muslims in the western provinces of China, then to the Muslim nations west of China, then to the Buddhist and Hindu nations as well. It claims to want to cover the nations between China and Jerusalem, then expands to cover all nations in the 10/40 window, then to the nations in Southeast Asia and farther afield. In short, it now wants to cover the whole world! That is actually the scope of the Great Commission - the gospel is to be preached to all nations of the world, until all the elect are called in, when Christ will return. Now that the scope of the vision has extended to coincide with that of the Great Commission, would not a better name for the movement be “On To All Nations”?
We are not interested merely in the name of the movement but, rather, in what we perceive to be its weakness in relation to its name. Despite the hype and enthusiasm generated by the BTJ movement, there is now ambiguity in its vision. Is the BTJ movement supposed to concentrate on the nations between China and Jerusalem, or is it to cover the whole world? Is it to reach out to the Muslim nations only, or to Buddhist and Hindu ones as well? Are ethnic minorities to be included now? And materialistic atheists in many of today’s cities as well? Would not the movement be more effective if it focuses on the Muslim nations only? Would it not be more effective if the focus is upon the nations between China and Jerusalem? Now that its vision has extended to all nations in the world, is “Back To Jerusalem” an appropriate name? If Chinese Christians want to be involved in world evangelisation, would not a change of name be more appropriate, as has happened with the China Inland Mission?
The second weakness of the BTJ movement, as we perceive it, is in the area of doctrine. Like much of modern evangelicalism, the movement sees soul-winning as all that matters in the Christian life. Emphasis is placed on carrying out the Great Commission. Churches are to unite in this one supreme objective, while differences in doctrine are to be overlooked. The movement insulates itself against criticism by using intimidating language against those who might not concur with them, while paying passing acknowledgement of others who might be equally zealous in missions.21 It is clear that the original desire for unity among the house groups was a commendable one, directed against narrow-mindedness, ill-will, and sectarianism.22 The Bible warns us against such sectarianism and ill-will (e.g. 1 Cor. 3:3-4, 19, 21). The best of Christians can be guilty of this. However, the BTJ movement has failed to take into account the overall teaching of the Bible.
While soul-winning is an integral and important part of the Bible’s teaching, the bulk of the New Testament is about matters other than soul-winning. It covers doctrines on sanctification and church order, warnings on false teachers and false doctrines, admonitions to exercise corrective discipline and to edify one another, instructions on family life and holy living, and much more. The Bible warns us against false teaching and false teachers (e.g. Titus 1:10-11; 2 Pet 2:1; Jude 3-4). It warns us of the need to separate ourselves from purveyors of wrong teaching (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14; 2 John 7, 10-11), of the danger of being tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14), and of the seriousness of being wrong in the message of the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). The BTJ movement emphasizes unity among all who profess to be Christians without showing any concern for the need to separate from false teaching and false teachers.
Many informed observers have noted the lack of trained leadership among Christians in China, while heresies and cults have arisen in abundance. The cults and heresies are not merely those that have come from abroad, but include many home-grown ones. So much for the emphasis on establishing an indegenous church! Indegenous cults include the Established King, the Shouters, the Eastern Lightning, the Disciples (or Mentuhui), and many more.23 The large number of believers who are full of emotional energy, but lacking in Bible knowledge, constitutes a large pool of potential recruits for the cults. The doctrinal weakness of the BTJ movement also raises the question of the integrity of the gospel that is being propagated by its members. Are they preaching the Christ of the Bible, or the Jesus of their dreams and visions? Is the message of “Christ and Him crucified” being proclaimed at all? Is “justification by faith alone” their gospel, or is it “Jesus and miracles”? These are no pet doctrines. They are the gospel itself. This problem of doctrinal weakness in the movement is compounded by its next weakness, viz. its subjectivism.
The third area of weakness of the BTJ movement is its subjectivism. If subjectivism among the leaders of the BTJ movement is obvious, what more among the members! Instead of trusting in the sole authority of Scripture, there is heavy reliance on feelings, premonitions, dreams, visions and supposed miracles. We have seen that the BTJ movement has been influenced by western missionaries in its name, ethos, and eschatology. The influence of missionaries of the charismatic persuasion is quite obvious in the manner of worship seen in many house churches. We have referred to Marie Monsen, a missionary from Norway who ministered in southern Henan Province. She was obviously a committed and zealous follower of Christ, who has been described as used by God “in a powerful manner, so that many miracles, signs and wonders followed her ministry.”24 The leaders of the movement freely use expressions that are characteristic of the charismatics, for example, “the Lord spoke to me”, “the Lord called me by name and in a vision showed me”, “the Lord suddenly touched my heart”, “he had a discussion with the Lord”, and “I felt someone tap my shoulder”. The movement claims that signs and wonders are an integral part of the gospel, and that an estimated 80% of believers in the house churches “first come to Jesus because they receive a miraculous healing or deliverance from the Lord”.25
We recognise that in a pioneering situation in which there is a scarcity of copies of the Bible, believers who come from pagan backgrounds are liable to rely on subjective experiences and to read too much into unusual phenomena. The wise missionary will not encourage such tendencies but will, instead, direct the attention of the people to the Scripture. We have seen that the apparently inexplicable desire of many church groups to want to go westward preaching the gospel is capable of natural explanations. This in no way denies that it is God’s will for the Chinese Christians to take the gospel westward. All we are saying is that God does not need to work in dramatic and supernatural ways, although He is able to do so. The escape of Brother Yun from prison in 1997 did not involve any element of the supernatural, yet we would acknowledge that it was a miracle of God all the same. The miracle lay in the control of God over the thoughts, moods, actions, and timing of events such that Brother Yun could escape.26 I have no problem believing the testimony of Enoch Wang, a leader of the BTJ movement, concerning how the Lord restored his baby daughter to life and health after falling from a four-storey apartment.27 It was a miraculous healing which showed God’s power, mercy and grace. It calls for thanksgiving, praise and worship. Our God is able to heal miraculously, and to intervene in supernatural ways, if He so wills. Those who have experienced God’s mercy of healing can truly say, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not share its joy” (Prov. 14:10). Having said these, we need to say that the unusual experiences of Brother Yun in the earlier part of his Christian life, recorded in his biography, could be explained naturally without the need to invoke the supernatural and the mystical.
Accepting the ability and sovereignty of God is one thing, believing that signs and wonders will follow us when we preach the gospel is another. We have not ruled out the occurrences of real miracles in a situation of revival in China - in which was severe persecution and sufferings to a people coming out of paganism, compounded by the lack of copies of the Bible and of trained teachers of the word of God. The influence of just a few missionaries of charismatic persuasion would have tipped the balance to influence the masses to the direction of charismatism - with its typical subjectivism, mystical interpretation of events, and claims of miracules. The BTJ movement’s non-cessationism is based on typical charismatic understanding of passages like Mark 16:17-20 and 1 Corinthians. 2:4.28 We beg to differ from them. We hold to the old evangelical teaching of the sole authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice. We believe that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). We believe that the gospel of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” must be preached “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”, without the need, nor expectation, of miracles following. This is why we wonder whether the masses of the BTJ movement has grasped the true gospel message, when there is a dearth of teaching, and an abundance of subjectivism, among them. The thought of a large number of missionaries being sent out to preach a distorted gospel would cause any concerned Christian to be distressed!
This leads us to the fourth area of weakness of the BTJ movement, which is its reliance on numerical strength. Strategically, it is expected that the 100,000 or more missionaries sent out will swarm the nations and quietly nibble away the foundations of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, like an army of worms or termites.29 The training of the missionaries include such bizarre things as how to suffer and die for the Lord, how to free themselves from handcuffs within 30 seconds, and how to jump from second-storey windows without injuring themselves. We wonder whether they will be trained in kungfu (the Chinese arts of self-defence) and espionage next! We wonder if they will go the direction of the training of the Jesuits, which was supposed to have been rigorous, unorthodox, and even unethical. We wonder also if they have unwittingly adopted the “human wave” strategy of warfare purportedly used by Mao Zedong against the Americans in the Korean War.30 We fear there is a real danger of running into excesses in the direction of wasting lives foolishly and unnecessarily, contrary to the teaching on the sanctity of human life, good stewardship, and missions principles, found in Scripture.
Related to its reliance on numbers is the expectation that others should cooperate with the BTJ movement to complete the Great Commission. The Chinese Christians of the BTJ movement “want to partner and work hand in hand with Thai, Indian and Arab Christians... We need local believers to teach us their language and culture and many other things that will help us be more effective. We may be able to share some of the fire and vision that the Lord has given us in China with the local churches.”31 “We are thankful that there are many people who understand what this vision is about and want to be involved, even to the point of being willing to die for it! We want to partner with those around the world whom God has elected to join hands with us.”32 The BTJ movement has attracted a following from churches and individuals overseas. Overseas Chinese Christians are especially drawn to Brother Yun and his mission. Groups of Christians have formed in many nations to pray and contribute financially to the vision. They arrange for the house group leaders to hold conferences outside China. They establish community projects of various kinds to which Chinese Christians could be involved.
The community projects are what may be called “third level” methods of outreach, which aim to show forth Christian love and concern to the local people. Examples would include establishing a factory to process wheat or rice, opening a rural clinic, and operating an hotel. These methods are the least likely to meet with resistance from nations that are hostile to the Christian faith. The “second-level” methods, in which definite gospel proclamation is carried out in conjunction with community projects, will not be possible in many Muslim countries, let alone “first-level” evangelism in which the gospel is proclaimed directly without being tied to community projects. There is, of course, the intention that the third-level outreach will provide opportunites for first-level gospel proclamation, even though this has to be done on a personal level, and on a very limited scale. Third-level outreach, however, may end up as community projects which consume much money, effort and manpower, with little opportunity for gospel proclamation.
The reliance on mass need not necessarily translate to the evangelisation of the masses. We are reminded of the vast number of Chinese people who died in the Nanjing massacre, and in the genocide carried out in places like Singapore and Malaya during the Second World War, and the many who died every time that the Chinese were made the scapegoats in civil unrests across Southeast Asia. While it is regarded as more honourable to die for Christ than for other causes, or for no cause at all, do we need to encourage the Chinese Christians to die en masse? True revivals have always been accompanied by missionary outreach.33 This was the case at Pentecost, during the Reformation in Europe, in the Puritan movement following the Reformation, in the Great Revivals of the eighteenth century in Britain, North America and Europe, and in the revivals in Korea and other parts of Asia in the twentieth century. Missionary zeal and a readiness to die for the gospel is not peculiar to the Chinese Christians. The completion of the Great Commission need not be carried out in conjunction with the BTJ movement alone. The emphasis on the readiness to die, coupled with reliance on the vast number of Chinese Christians who are ready for it, cannot but cause one to shudder!
We consider the last area of weakness of the BTJ movement, which is its alliance with doctrinally weak evangelicals. Its alliance with weak evangelicalism overseas has influenced it farther in the direction of ecumenism and charismatism. Today’s evangelicalism may be full of zeal and appear to accomplish much, but it holds a deficient view of the authority of the Bible which is different from that of old evangelicalism. Today, the Bible is no more the sole authority in all matters of faith and practice. Since the sufficiency of the Bible is not recognised, there is ready acceptance of charismatic practices and willingness to co-operate with all and sundry, including the Roman Catholics, in gospel work. The BTJ movement seems not too concerned about the dangers of ecumenism and charismatism. Although tongue-speaking does not seem to feature much yet, it will be a small step to take to have that included as well. We have mentioned Paul Hattaway and his role as the de facto spokesman of the BTJ movement outside China. His writings are gripping and soul-stirring. However, he quite clearly puts forward the intense, dramatic, and subjective aspects of revival times as the norm of the Christian faith. He uses the book of Acts to support the unusual phenomena reported in times of revival. He fails to distinguish between the extraordinary office of the apostles and other Christians. He fails to distinguish between the extraordinary time of the apostles, when the Scripture was in the process of being completed, and subsequent ages. He fails to distinguish between true miracles and mere superstition and mysticism. He is implicitly giving his approval to the charismatic movement of today.
A large constituency of Reformed Christians today believe in revival and pray for genuine revivals to come. Reformed Christians have been on the forefront of major revivals in times past. Subjectivism, mysticism and superstition were never encouraged by them. Reformed Christians have also been concerned for soul-winning, and were ready to suffer and die for their faith. Consider Hudson Taylor and his link to a Reformed missionary, William Burns. The Chinese churches, including those in the BTJ movement, acknowledge their indebtedness to Hudson Taylor.34 However, Hudson Taylor was not known to have cooperated with the Roman Catholics in gospel work. He was, of course, not hostile to the Roman Catholics. Furthermore, Hudson Taylor found sweet fellowship with William Burns, a missionary of clearly Reformed persuasion, and learned much from him.35 There seems to be no similarly affinity of the the BTJ leaders with Reformed Christians today. How could they, since their ethos and theological inclination are toward charismatism?
How should Reformed Christians respond to the BTJ movement? The BTJ movement is unwittingly shackled with many weaknesses and potential dangers to itself. It will not be possible for us to co-operate with, or be involved in, the movement due to our theological convictions and the scarcity of our resources. As opportunities present themselves we would teach, admonish, and learn from, the individuals who are involved. In short, our interaction will be with individuals, and not with the movement per se. It has come to our attention that Brother Yun of the BTJ movement has in recent days come under serious attacks with regard to his character and ministry. We play no part in those attacks, and do not want to be involved in such attacks. We may not see eye-to-eye with him on every issue but, speaking for myself, I have the highest regard for the man and thank God for him and his testimony.
On the wider front, we should be truly thankful for the revival in China, and for the vision of the Chinese Christians to want to take the gospel to other nations. It needs to be noted that a sizeable proportion of the church in China, consisting of believers in the TSPM churches as well as in the house churches, is not affiliated with the BTJ movement. We must pray that the revival will continue, and not be weakened by the pressures of materialism and the growing openness of the country to the world outside. We should attempt to help the church in China with teaching and training whenever and however possible, including the translation of books and the production of electronic teaching materials. We must learn from the Christians in China concerning the reality of persecution, sufferings, and death for the gospel’s sake. We want to nurture in our people a love for our Lord such that they would seek personal holiness, have a burning concern for soul-winning, and have a martyr’s heart. William Burns, whom we have referred to, wrote, “Oh, that I had a martyr’s heart, if not a martyr’s death and a martyr’s crown.”36 We should not be lax in maintaining a zeal and commitment to missions, as we play our role in the Great Commission.
In all things, may God have the glory!
1. Nestorianism believes that Christ is two Persons, human and divine, united together in a mysterious way. This is on contrast to the teaching that Christ is one Person with two natures, the human and the divine.
2. “The Resurrection of the Chinese Church”, Ch. 2, Tony Lambert, Hodder & Stoughton Pub. (1991).
3. Ibid, p. 10.
4. “How Many Christians In China?” by Tony Lambert, China Insight, Aug/Sep 2005.
5. “Back To Jerusalem”, p. 16, Paul Hattaway, Piquant (2003).
6. Ibid, pp. 15-16.
7. Ibid, pp. 31, 32.
8. Ibid, p. 34.
9. “The Heavenly Man”, pp. 15, 16, Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway, Monarch Books (2002).
10. Ibid, p. 240.
11. Ibid, pp. 31, 32.
12. “Back To Jerusalem”, pp. 64, 68.
13. Asia Harvest, .
14. “Back To Jerusalem”, p. 178.
15. Ibid, p. 96.
16. “Back To Jerusalem: Origins of a Missionary Vision (Part II)”, Tony Lambert, China Insight, Mar/Apr 2003.
17. “Back To Jerusalem”, p. 102.
18. Ibid. pp. 49-50.
19. “Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings Which Followed”, William Blair and Bruce Hunt, Banner of Truth.
20. “Back To Jerusalem”, pp. 31-32, 134-135.
21. Ibid, pp. 79, 101, 118.
22. “The Heavenly Man”, Chap. 20.
23. “Heresies and Cults in China Today”, by Tony Lambert, China For Jesus, http://www.chinaforjesus.com.
24. “The Heavenly Man”, p. 15.
25. “Back to Jerusalem”, p. 123.
26. “The Heavenly Man”, Chap. 22.
27. “Back To Jerusalem”, Chap. 7.
28. Ibid, p. 123
29. Ibid, pp. 107-112.
30 “In a human wave attack there is no attempt to minimize casualties; on the contrary, part of the tactic involves presenting the defender with the shock value of overwhelming numbers of attackers.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_wave_attack.
31. “Back To Jerusalem”, pp. 128-129.
32. Ibid, p. 134.
33. “Back To Jerusalem: A Chinese Vision For Mission (Part I)”, Tony Lambert, China Insight, Nov/Dec 2002.
34. “Back To Jerusalem”, p. 75.
35. “Biography of James Hudson Taylor”, by Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, pp. 156-176, Hodder and Stoughton (1973).
36. Ibid, p. 161.
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