Thomas Alan Harvey, who teaches at Trinity Theological College in Singapore, has written a highly accessible account of a key figure in the recent history of Christianity in China. The book deftly weaves historical and theological issues, to give even those unfamiliar with Chinese Christianity a glimpse of how the current divisions in the Chinese Protestant churches have arisen. Wang represents a turning point, in that his stand against the communist leadership of China has led to the burgeoning of the underground "House Church" movement, which operates under the radar of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. The current number of Christians in China is anywhere between 30 and 70 million; the number is hard to know because so many Christians practice their faith without government sanction.
Wang Mingdao remains to this day a controversial figure. His strong stand against the "Three Self Patriotic Movement" (TSPM), a communist government-approved organization of Protestant churches in China, was motivated by his belief that the TSPM corrupted the gospel by capitulating to communist views of social order. His position gained the attention of the World Council of Churches, as did his later arrest and long imprisonment. To those outside China, the arrest of Wang represented the worst kind of governmental intrusion into religion. To members of the TSPM, however, his arrest was the consequence of treating the gospel in an isolationist way, and of refusing to join in the program of communist social renewal. While Harvey does not specifically use this term, I believe it is fair to say that the TSPM leadership regarded Wang as a kind of gnostic-that is, they regarded his refusal to join the TSPM as an elitist, egocentric corruption of the "social gospel" imperative for Christians to engage the society in which they are members. They saw Wang as one who wished to keep Christian doctrine hermetically sealed from the real world, and who failed to reach out in the Christian spirit of communion.
What is fascinating about Harvey's study is its ability to provoke fundamental questions about the nature of Christian living in the contemporary world. For those of us who live in the United States, Chinese Christianity is hard to understand. Our first amendment rights protect freedom of worship, and so the notion of having to pay heed to government demands regarding church membership is antithetical to the view which predominates both here and in other Western countries. The story of Wang Mingdao raises basic ecclesiological questions, which further raise questions about what it means to be Christian. For Wang, Christian doctrine as based in scripture ought not be determined by social structures, least of all government demands. But for members of the TSPM, as I have noted, Wang's basic principle leads to a kind of isolationism. The early leadership of the TSPM in the decade of the 1950's were highly influenced by the social gospel movement, which is based on the principle that Christian doctrine ought to function in a kind of dialectical relationship with culture. While reading Harvey, I found myself asking questions that challenge my own theological work: what is the proper relationship between Christianity and American culture? Do we too easily assume that there is no conflict between citizenship and our baptismal call? What about the notion of prophetic witness? How should Christians live in a pluralistic society, so as not to alienate themselves from others?
There is a Chinese proverb which states that one who wishes to see the mountain cannot be standing on the mountain. We in the Christian West are on a mountain; Harvey’s book invites us to climb down and take a look at it from afar. Wang Mingdao was a martyr for faith, but also a man of perhaps excessive pride. His story challenges us to ask critical questions about the relationship between religious faith and civic responsibility.