Review: Bruce P. Baugus' China’s Reforming Church

Among Christians with a passion for missions, China is on center stage. We certainly recognize the strategic mission field that is this nation of approximately 1.35 billion people, and tremendous evangelistic fruit is being seen as a staggering number are daily becoming Christian. While focused evangelistic efforts must continue (especially since many of China’s minority groups are considered unreached or unengaged), the astounding growth rate of the church poses critical and urgent needs in relation to church development. Because of this, China’s Reforming Churches is a unique in that it focuses more on ecclesiology than missiology, more on building up the church than on evangelism (though of course these are connected).

“Indeed, the proper goal of the church’s mission has never been just to announce the good news to those who have not heard or to call unbelievers to faith and repentance; the church’s mission also includes establishing a well-ordered church in every land for the welfare of God’s people and perpetuation of the ministry” (17).

Even more specifically, the particular ecclesiology espoused in this book is the presbyterian1 variety. China’s Reforming Churches is written from the conviction that the need for church development in China is largely the need for the development of a healthy and robust presbyterianism through an understanding of a biblical theology of the church as articulated within the Reformed tradition.

As such, this book has a more narrow focus and target audience. I’ve read some reviews criticizing this narrow focus and asserting that this book would be more helpful and have a wider audience if it were not written from this perspective; however, this focus and perspective was intentional and, therefore, the criticism I’ve read appear narrow in reading the author’s purpose. This narrow focus is actually what drew me to this book; general books about missions work in China abound, but I am not aware of any other book that looks at the reformation that is going on in China from ecclesiological perspective. In fact, I didn’t even know that such a reformation was underway!

Reformed theology is being disseminated and embraced throughout China; Reformed confessions of faith are being translated or written and adopted; new attention is being paid to worship, preaching, and leadership; local congregations and in a few cases entire networks are being organized or reorganized along presbyterian lines; Reformed seminaries are being established throughout the country; a Chinese presbyterian polity has been drawn up; presbyteries are being formed in various places and are in communication with one another; ministers are being trained, examined, and ordained; and the great works of the Reformed tradition are being brought into open circulation. All of this is just the beginning of an attempt by Chinese pastors and church leaders to meet the needs of God’s people and lay a firm foundation for the future. Despite their vigorous efforts, every one of them “would agree that the church is struggling to keep up with the demand for trained leaders and other resources” as the gospel continues to spread and grow in the world’s largest mission field. (22-23)

The above quote is likely to have shattered most of your conceptions of Christianity in China. We typically think of the Church in China as a persecuted church, where non-registered house churches have no freedom to congregate and to practice their faith and where unthinkable physical persecution is the norm and not the exception. This is why many of us don’t see presbyterianism (or any highly formalized training or organization, for that matter) as possible in China. However, China’s Reforming Churches frequently corrects that erroneous presupposition and reveals that within China there is a surprising amount of freedom for Christians and even for the officially illegal unregistered churches. It’s an entirely different story when foreigners are involved, and the book goes into more detail about this.

China’s Reforming Churches is an excellent survey of presbyterianism in China—from its history (part 1) to the current landscape (part 2) to current challenges and opportunities (part 3) to how China’s reforming churches are appropriating the Reformed tradition to their context (part 4). Birthed out of a conference of Presbyterian and Reformed Christians interested in presbyterianism in China, the content in this book is from a combination of fine American scholars and Chinese reforming pastors. China’s Reforming Churches provides much valuable insight into China in general, as well as what God is doing there in a general sense. With the awareness that this book is from a presbyterian perspective, any Christian with an interest in the Church in China would benefit from this book, though non-presbyterians will disagree with the fundamental driving conviction of it.

However, if you identify with the Reformed tradition in any way, you shouldn’t neglect read this book. Though I’m not Presbyterian, I was incredibly encouraged by this book and the reformation sweeping through the Church in China. I had been aware of small pockets being exposed to Reformed theology and publishing efforts like the Robert Morrison Project, but I did not know that there was any type of widespread reformation going on. My conception of the Church in China, to my shame, was one that largely consisted of low ecclesiology and bad theology (through no fault of the believers, but due to persecution, lack of theological resources and training, and overwhelming growth). I am tremendously encouraged by this book and by what God is doing in China’s reforming churches. Soli Deo Gloria!

1. Presbyterianism is written with a lower-case p in this review because of the distinction made in the book between the simple institutional form of church outlined in Scripture and particular Presbyterian traditions/denominations (indicated by capital P) that apply the basic principles of presbyterianism.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Jennifer Guo is a bean counter by day and a book eater by night. She is passionate about the gospel and loves biblical and theological studies. She also loves the arts and is part of a performing arts ministry that uses a variety of mediums to communicate the gospel, God’s heart, and His design for sexuality, relationships, and marriage. Jennifer also loves running and cooking (and not because running allows her to eat more). You can follow her @JenniferGuo or read more reviews at her blog Jennifer Guo.