Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Evangelical Kingdom of God Cannot be an Empire

Written by: on February 1, 2018

One of the most important and transformative experiences for me in my study to become a minister was (of all things) my seminary class on Church History.  The class was so important and such a defining experience for me was because it was, intentionally, designed to be very different than the church history courses that are taught and taken in most Western seminaries.

The textbook for the course was entitled,  History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453 , and it’s companion book, Readings in World Christian History, are two of the very few texts books that have remained on my bookshelf and have even gotten use post-seminary.  They attempted to tackle the history of Christian faith not from a Western or Eurocentric viewpoint, as many Christian History texts tend to do, but to truly give a holistic and broad view of how Christianity developed all around the world.  The class served to broaden my horizons and help me understand the wide variety of perspectives within Christianity and reminded me of the importance and value in gaining a fuller picture of history, not simply the most dominant voice.

The class was taught by a very demanding and yet wonderful professor by the name of Dr. Scott Sunquist (who also edited the textbook)  – I approached his class with some fair measure of trepidation, in part because of his reputation as a very tough grader, but also because I was at the time his youngest son’s youth minister and I was anxious of being judged ‘unworthy’!

So, all of that to say, when I saw that Dr. Sunquist has written on of the essays in the book we were assigned for this week, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective edited by Donald Lewis & Richard Pierard,  I was excited to read what he had to say about Evangelicalism in the world, particularly Asia, where he spent a decade teaching and where he is particularly interested and knowledgeable about Evangelicalism specifically and history more generally.

What stood out to me in Dr. Sunquist’s essay was the resounding nature with which it speaks to the prominence of ‘local’ leadership of the Evangelical movement in China particularly, but in all of Asia as well.

This is important because it means that the gospel – and the Evangelical movement – spread on it’s own terms.  The growth and prominence of Evangelicalism in Asia is not the result of coercion or conquest or even (the deeply powerful) cultural pressure.  Being an Chinese or Indian or Korean Evangelical was historically and still is today, very much tied up with the particular cultural identity that the person and/or church rests in.

[side note: this may go some way to explain the significant number of Korean churches in my denomination – almost all of which would be termed Evangelical – while there are many multi-cultural churches in our denomination, the Korean churches tend to be only 0r almost only Korean.  This essay certainly gave some perspective on that]

Why did this movement grow and what did this tend to look like?

The answer to that first question, I believe, has a great deal to do with the Evangelical focus on Bible translation.  Sunquist writes about that focus and the resulting outcomes at great length in his essay, including this statement: ‘One of the most dramatic results of this translation priority was the early contextualization of evangelical Christianity in Asia , which produced a great diversity that remained centered around evangelical piety and theology’ (Miller, 207).

With the Bible in your own language your faith is able to be contextualized.  This is an essential element of what it means for us to have real and lasting faith, the Words and the beliefs have to become truly ours.  Christianity is not a religion of rote memorization but of relationship and experience.  Being able to hear and read and understand the Word of God written in your own primary language allows for that.  As my confirmation teach told us: ‘No one is born into Christianity and no matter how much your parents or grandparents hope or want it for you, they can’t make you a Christian.  That only happens when you enter into relationship with Jesus.

So, for Evangelical Chinese Christianity to thrive and grow, it has to be ‘Chinese’ – it can’t be Western Christendom, but for Asia.  Sunquist catalogs the efforts to contextualize Christianity and to take hold of it’s style, emphasis and trajectory – local leaders are consistently raised up, seminaries teaching only in Chinese are started, etc.

Sunquist writes:

These indigenous movements of Christian renewal were further promoted by revivals and mass movements in the early twentieth century , all of which furthered Chinese resistance to Western imperialism and ideologies . . . . .
Other Chinese evangelists , church planters and missionaries — such as John Sung ( Song Shangjie ) and Wang Mingdao — followed in this same evangelical stream : deeply engaged in biblical texts , passionate for evangelism , and resistant to Western imperialism , denominations and theology . Their evangelical faith was expressed only in the Chinese language , and it was strong enough to endure great suffering.(Miller, 209)

Can their be any serious doubt that an ‘imperial’ or imposed upon them faith would have faltered  under the kind of suffering that came for these Evangelical believers?

And again, Sunquist provides an example, this time of an Indian Evangelical leader, Sundar Singh:

Upon his conversion after this vision , Sundar Singh was persecuted by his own family , and so he escaped and became a wandering pilgrim , studying the Bible as his own sacred book . He attempted to fit into Western Christian norms by studying at St . John’s Seminary in Lahore , but it was too confining for him . Instead , Sundar Singh became an Indian Holy Man , called a Sadhu , wandering in bare feet throughout India and even into the mountains of Tibet as a witness to Jesus Christ . His rejection of Western theology for Indian spirituality was his strength and the secret to his very important and influential ministry . Other indigenous Asian evangelical leaders began to arise in the twentieth century , and in each case resistance to Western models , structures and theology was a major push factor in their development.  (Miller, 210)

This is such an essential point for all of us as leaders and evangelists, our role is not to impose anything – no matter how important and worthy it might be – but rather accepting the invitation into the kingdom of God comes not through coercion, but through relationship.



About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

8 responses to “The Evangelical Kingdom of God Cannot be an Empire”

  1. Mary says:

    Chip, so many great observations as usual.
    I am happy that you had such a wonderful church history course. My “church history” course was really a tracing of how theology changed over the years.
    Most people don’t live on that level. And I agree with you – it’s about relationship not coercion.
    I went to Beijing to visit my daughter when she was a missionary over there and was so happy to see how many Christians there were. Somehow in the US we get the idea that the only Christians are here or in Europe. Is it part of our white privilege thinking?

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    Chip, you had a lot to say and I appreciate your sharing. There are Korean churches here in Houston even Baptist. (smile)
    I found each essay interesting read and also zoomed on what was familiar.

  3. Katy Drage Lines says:

    First, sorry to hear about Giroud leaving for Chelsea. 😉

    Also, like you, my seminary professor also has a seminal work on global Christian history: https://www.amazon.com/Christianity-Global-History-Frederick-Norris/dp/1851682961/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1517601324&sr=8-2&keywords=frederick+norris It’s nice to know we sat (and are sitting) under some excellent folks.

    Finally, Sunquist is spot on in how translation of scripture helped grow local theologies and contextual expressions of the faith. Lamin Sanneh articulates it well in TRANSLATING THE MESSAGE: https://www.amazon.com/Translating-Message-Missionary-American-Missiology/dp/1570758042/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517601756&sr=1-1&keywords=translating+the+message

  4. Jim Sabella says:

    Chip, I appreciate your mentioning the Koren churches in the Presbyterian denomination. Even though they are mostly or only Korean, from what I can tell the churches are really quite strong and growing quickly. I drive by them in many towns when I travel. There is one large church in Nixa, Missouri of all places! The study of their growth would make for an interesting study.

  5. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Chip, I enjoyed your post. The history of the Church in East Asia is something that I have read a lot about (and experienced).

    One of my favorite books is HEAVENLY MAN by Brother Yun, and he follow up book LIVING WATERS.

    Yun gives us a front row seat view of how the church in China grew in the 1970s and 1980s. This happened with very little guidance or resources from the West, and amidst intense persecution.

    In fact, when you count the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, The Communist Takover, the Cultural Revolution, and modern persecution…it is pretty clear that there is not a country on this planet where more Christians have been killed for their faith than China.

    Christian leaders in China see arrest, torture, and imprisonment as “normal.” They jokingly refer to their prison time as their “seminary” where their faith is tested.

    Some of them have been praying that persecution of Christians in the West would increase so that we would keep our hearts focused on Jesus.

  6. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Yep- there it is again, relationship: “Christianity is not a religion of rote memorization but of relationship and experience.” And again: “but rather accepting the invitation into the kingdom of God comes not through coercion, but through relationship.” Great statements Chip.

    Here’s what I struggle with in working with marriages/families and churches. How do you teach relationship to a culture who struggles to attach? It is estimated by social scientists that over 55%-75% of our culture has “disorganized attachment” and they struggle to attach to one another in a healthy manner. This is having a dramatic impact on our churches as leaders are also struggling to attach and leading in a disorganized attached manner which is further perpetuating the problem. My favorite model for attachment work that is critical in forming healthy relationships is securitycircle.org. Since relationships are so key to forming a healthy community and connection with God, it seems it would be beneficial for seminary students to have a class or two on how to form healthy relationships so they can foster this for the church community. What do you think?

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Chip, those two books, as well as The Story of Christianity have had a major impact on my life as well! How cool that you were able to interact with Sunquist as a prof.
    You said, “With the Bible in your own language your faith is able to be contextualized. This is an essential element of what it means for us to have real and lasting faith, the Words and the beliefs have to become truly ours.” This is crucial for other languages as well as for our modern cultural language. I once heard Eugene Peterson say essentially this same thing as a major part of his reason for creating The Message.
    I am in awe of the people who have translated Scripture into native languages and dialects. My grandmother hosted a translator working in India on her homestay when I was in junior high. When I asked her what the hardest part of translating was, she said, “Forgetting what I think I already know.” That has stuck with me, especially throughout this program. How do we forget what we think we already know so that we can “translate” the good news to even our own communities?

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