Review: Wang Yi, Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement, eds. Hannah Nation and J. D. Tseng (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022).

With the rise of China’s current paramount leader, Xi Jinping, over the last decade, Christians in China have had to face an escalating deprivation of rights, a turning point that has marked the end of the easing of the enforcement of religious regulations which were progressively occurring in the noughties. Contemporary treatment finds a sad and ready parallel in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The house—or underground—churches had only just started to emerge from the shadows, especially after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, where many such churches bounded together publicly to provide humanitarian aid to those who needed it most. For a brief time, Christians who attended these churches were able to start to engage in the public square with their faith, but this was not to last. From 2014 onwards, there has been the destruction of churches, the imprisonment of pastors and other Christian leaders, and, allegedly, an undertaking to rewrite the Bible through a Communist lens.

Yet, despite the grimness of the situation, not all is bleak. The house church movement still flourishes, and while it has returned to its covert roots, it has done so in a way that is much more assured of its place and confident in the providence of God. The short-lived period that facilitated being able to speak into the public square has reinvigorated the church theologically, with pastor-theologians, like Wang Yi and Jin Tianming, writing several treatises and sermons that have contributed to the discourse on how the house churches ought to engage within the public square and, specifically, in light of an antagonistic and persecuting government.

The December 2022 release of Faithful Disobedience is the translation of many of these important works, containing a collection of essays, sermons, and letters – most notably by Wang Yi, but also by other leaders from within the house church movement, written over the past decade. Wang Yi’s views are not necessarily those held by a consensus of house churches, but they are undeniably important. A former legal scholar turned pastor, his works evidence a thoughtful, succinct, and expositional manner around subjects of contemporary pertinence. His outspokenness in his allegiance to Christ would lead to his imprisonment in 2018.

While many of the works cover interconnected subjects, Faithful Disobedience is divided into three parts. The first section contains several works which provide an immensely helpful backdrop to the contemporary house church movement, as well as some of its core beliefs. A particular recurring theological motif in Wang Yi’s writings here is his clear emphasis on the right of the Church to be free of the interference of the State, with an understanding of the civil magistrate’s role as being that which upholds and promotes societal good, including the religious freedom of its citizens.

Indeed, Wang Yi’s position is a Two Kingdom theology, similar in many points as that espoused by David VanDrunen and Matthew Tuininga. In his authored 95 Theses (pp. 104-124) – that Early Rain Covenant Church published in 2015, Wang Yi refers to the historical view of the dual kingdoms — earthly and spiritual, and while noting the supremacy of the spiritual kingdom, comments that it refrains “from the use of coercion or forceful action to enforce its rule on this world. Rather, through great love and mercy, it allows the political powers of this world to exercise the power of the sword” (p. 113). The spiritual kingdom is to be advanced, not through the declaration of rights but by the proclamation of the gospel – this being the church’s commission. This means that while the church does not belong to the State, it will be obedient to the authority granted to the State in all areas that do not inhibit worship or flagrantly oppose the Word of God. The treatise further qualifies that this does not mean individual believers cannot oppose injustice by any and all legal means on an individual level, but rather that the role of the church is, first and foremost, the advancement of the kingdom of God, through both corporate worship and gospel proclamation.

However, Wang Yi should not be mistaken as believing that the church ought to be passive. The works contained in the second section of Faithful Disobedience shine a light upon his ecclesiology, unpacking his understanding of the nature of the church, and particularly in the active and prophetic role that it is called to play in society in reflecting and pointing people to Christ, rebuking public sins – including the sins of the State – and lovingly calling all to repentance. This was to be a controversial position, as many house church leaders, having long been familiar with the movement being supressed, have argued against such public engagement, preferring instead smaller-scale, personal, interactions. While Wang Yi does not deny the importance of these – quite the opposite in fact – he emphasises the need for the church to be much more publicly engaged, noting that “if we do not advocate for our freedom to proclaim the gospel and the church’s right to doctrine, church property, and ordination, then woe to us pastors” (p. 100).

The third, and last, section of the book is particularly focused on the theme of persecution in light of Wang Yi’s impending arrest. Indeed, much of Wang Yi’s work touches on upon this motif, and it is clear that he views persecution as a divine method of strengthening the church. Living under a hostile regime will mean that persecution is guaranteed for those who faithfully follow Christ. Governmental interference in the faith of Christians must be actively resisted, but it needs to be done in a manner of love and peace. Such peaceful, yet principled, disobedience will, Wang Yi believes, reflect and honour Christ while also avoiding worldly ensnarement: “Peaceable disobedience is the way in which we love the world as well as the way in which we avoid becoming part of the world” (p. 226). For those that are persecuted for Christ, they will be further refined, developing a further dependency upon God’s providence and experiencing a greater union with Christ, through the suffering they endure. This is a reality that Wang Yi is now living out.

Hannah Nation and J. D. Tseng (Pseudonym) have done a wonderful job in translating these works and compiling them together in such a helpful volume, with additional supplementary references and notes. Having read – and listened – to a number of Wang Yi’s works over the years, I have become deeply appreciative of his faithful exposition of Scripture, his steadfast and unmovable trust in Christ, and his commitment to Reformed theology. His treatises – many contained in Faithful Disobedience – have often articulated a robust framework of theological practice, which he has consistently lived out. In light of our own challenges in the West over the past several years, as insignificant in comparison as they are, many pastors and thinkers will find these treatises relevant and stimulating in their own thinking on Church-State relations, whether they agree with Wang Yi or not.

While Hannah Nation misses the mark on a few of her theological assessments, she is surely right to note that “Reformed evangelicalism in America [although, the same could be equally said for Australia] has yet to seriously turn its ear to counterparts seeking to engage a Reformed understanding of the city from positions of powerlessness” (p. 237). Indeed, we would do ourselves a fine service to pick this book up and thoughtfully consume it, as it will undoubtedly prove itself to be one of 2022’s most important releases. Above all, it provides a needed exhortation to those in the West as to whether we are really willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel or are only paying lip-service, due to a determination to keep ourselves comfortable.

– Brett Lee-Price