What an Imprisoned Chinese Pastor can Teach Christians About the Limits of State Power
Recently, in China, over 100 Christian pastors were imprisoned, charged with “inciting subversion to state power.” Among those jailed was pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Juang Rong. Yi is a prominent evangelical leader in China and the pastor of Early Rain Covenant in the city of Chengdu. His arrest sparked outrage and drew attention to China’s recent campaign of hostility and aggression toward religious minorities within its borders.
“Faithful Disobedience” is the term Pastor Wang Yi is using to describe his situation. Pastor Yi instructed his congregation that if he was held by the Chinese authorities for more than 48 hours they should publish his Declaration of Faithful Disobedience. Yi roots his declaration in the biblical understanding that Christians have an obligation to submit to rulers and authorities because “God deposes kings and raises up kings.” Yet, Yi rightly states that it is a traditional Christian understanding, when human law run contrary to God’s law, God’s law trumps human law.
Yi wrote in a statement,
“I believe that this Communist regime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God. My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.”
In the ancient world, and the modern world for that matter, no other religious tradition has a God that blesses faithful disobedience. It is the God of the Bible that blesses the Jewish midwives in Egypt who refuse to kill the baby boys. It is the God of the Bible who miraculously preserved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in a fiery furnace when they refused to bow down and worship the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar. It is the God of the Bible who rescued Paul and Silas after they were imprisoned for breaking the law by preaching the gospel in Philippi. In the examples given, the law of the ruling authority is being challenged by an appeal to a higher authority. It is here that the limited authority of the State is most acute.
All societal institutions have limited authority and yet because of the taint of sin, all societal institutions do not like to have their authority limited. The greatest competition to the authority of the State comes from the Church because the primary message of the Church is that there is an authority that transcends the authority of the State.
Pastor Yi continues by eloquently describing the role of the church in China,
“As a pastor, my firm belief in the gospel, my teaching, and my rebuking of all evil proceeds from Christ’s command in the gospel and from the unfathomable love of that glorious King. Every man’s life is extremely short, and God fervently commands the church to lead and call any man to repentance who is willing to repent. Christ is eager and willing to forgive all who turn from their sins. This is the goal of all the efforts of the church in China—to testify to the world about our Christ, to testify to the Middle Kingdom about the Kingdom of Heaven, to testify to earthly, momentary lives about heavenly, eternal life. This is also the pastoral calling that I have received.”
There is an official and licensed church in China whose pastors are not being targeted. The conflict between the official Protestant church, known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the house church movement has been going on for decades. The pastors of the official church are trained at official seminaries, while pastors from the house churches are often trained by missionaries and outside organizations. There is an ebb and flow to the persecution in China and it seems that the current climate is difficult for the unregistered church. According to Pastor Yi, it’s because the unregistered church is no longer afraid of the state.
Finally, it is important to note that the Christian civil disobedience is not without cost. The history of the church is filled with martyrs–men and women who refused to submit to the ruling authority and it cost them their lives. Hopefully, Pastor Yi will not be counted among them, but he has made clear his position. “Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family – the authorities are capable of doing all of these things. However, no one in this world can force me to renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life, and no one can raise me from the dead.”