Xiaxia preaching at Taipo Baptist Church in Hong Kong

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:18

Fifty years ago, millions of Red Guards – a ruthless cadre of radicalized students – waged war against tradition and religion, the twin threats to Maoism, during modern China’s darkest decade: the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Heritage sites, temples, shrines, mosques, churches, monasteries, libraries, museums, and even burial grounds were looted, ransacked, and demolished. Bonfires across the country consumed ancient artworks, rare books, and priceless relics. Several thousand years of Chinese history were thus reduced to rubble and ash.

The intellectual elite – scholars, teachers, clergy, scientists, and artists – faced the most severe persecution. Hundreds of thousands were publically humiliated, tortured, imprisoned, banished to hard labor camps, and murdered or driven to suicide. Millions were forcibly displaced.

Farm workers reading Mao’s “Little Red Book” during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

Religion, in particular, was targeted as the insidious instrument of class enemies and foreign saboteurs. In striving to systematically eradicate religion, the People’s Republic of China became the first country on earth to attempt such a purge. Only one other regime, Socialist Albania, has ever followed suit.

Within a decade, the need for an alternative strategy became clear. What it could not extirpate, the Chinese Communist Party endeavored to contain, control, and co-opt. The restoration of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in 1979 represented an effort to domesticate the Gospel, to align biblical tenets with state doctrine, to counter the underground house church movement, and to monitor Christian activities in the public square.

Remarkably, the half million Christians present during the Communist ascension have multiplied into 67 million, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2010 “Report on Global Christianity.” By comparison, the Communist Party of China reached 80 million members the same year.

Removal of a church’s cross in Zhejiang Province

Based on conservative estimates and current growth trends, Fenggang Yang, Professor of Sociology at Purdue University, projects that by 2030, China will almost certainly surpass the US in becoming home to the world’s largest Christian population.

Some in the Chinese government are less than enthusiastic about this impending distinction. The past two years have witnessed the removal of over 2,000 crosses and the destruction of over 200 churches – reportedly on account of building code violations – in Zhejiang Province, where many Protestants live. Noncompliant Christians have faced arrest, detention, heavy fines, and even prison sentences.

At the National Conference on Religion in April 2016, the Communist Party reasserted its determination to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists.” Religious groups are to “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture” and “contribute to…the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”

The Scarcity of Shepherds

River of Nine Bends in Wuyishan, Fujian Province

Xue Xiaxia grew up in a rural village in Fujian Province near the southeastern coast of China. Missionaries had settled there in the early 1850s and a sizeable Christian population endures as a legacy. “In my hometown there are many church buildings,” she says. “It’s normal to be a Christian, whether you’re serious or not.”

Xiaxia was ten when her faith took a serious turn: “At that time, I believed there is one God in this world. Otherwise, there is no meaning for life.” Her faith would be tested not long afterward.

“In my elementary school, we had sixiang pingde ke [philosophy and ethics classes],” she explains. “We were told, ‘don’t go to church’ or ‘don’t believe such and such thing because it’s a superstition.’ I got confused by what the school taught and what the church taught. There were lots of struggles during my school years.”

Xiaxia sought counsel from her English teacher, who happened to be a Christian. “She graduated from university, so she was more open-minded to guide me through this,” Xiaxia recalls. Other spiritual mentors also provided invaluable support during her high school years. “I asked all my questions and I’m really thankful they gave me guidance to see the philosophy or logic behind the textbooks.”

Having benefited directly from the insights and encouragement of knowledgeable, mature believers, Xiaxia recognized the value of pastoral care: “I came to realize that there were too few pastors to nurture our congregation – to help them bring faith into daily life.”

“For example, in my home church, we have more than 1,000 members, but we have no fulltime church workers, no pastors, and no administrators. All are volunteers without any training in theology,” she points out. “So, we invite pastors from a nearby town to preach every Sunday. In other words, we have problems even providing Sunday sermons, not to mention discipling members.”

“So when I was a teenager, I had a dream to be trained to become a pastor,” Xiaxia recounts. “At the time, I prayed to God: if this is your calling, I would like to study at a seminary after high school.”

An Expanding Vision

Xiaxia’s dream would be delayed, but not denied. Based on her academic record, she was recruited to study political science as an undergraduate. “I studied Mao Zedong’s theories on materialism, Marxism, that kind of stuff,” she recalls. “It was a struggle for me because sometimes they talked about atheism. But it helped me to know more about how young people have been educated and what they think. So I think it was God’s work, bringing me there.”

Soon, Xiaxia earned her BA in Law and MA in Philosophy. “I almost began my PhD in Philosophy at Renmin University when suddenly, my dream of becoming a pastor came to my mind,” she remembers. “There was a voice asking me when I would study theology. After I finish my PhD, have a family and a good job? Then, can I give up my career? Will I wait until my retirement?”

Xiaxia (bottom row, third from left) with CGST classmates in 2007

In 2005, Xiaxia moved over a thousand miles to Hong Kong to seek seminary training at China Graduate School of Theology (CGST). ScholarLeaders supported her education through the Liefeld Scholarship. Her time at CGST proved transformative.

“At CGST, all the students were mature. Some had already retired,” Xiaxia laughs, comparing herself to her older classmates. “I had just graduated. I had no work experience. My whole life was as a student!”

In contrast to her student life in Beijing, where she had shared a domicile with several roommates, Xiaxia lived by herself at CGST. “At that time, I read some Henri Nouwen books,” she shares. “One book that really had an impact on me was Reaching Out. It was about how to relate to oneself, to God, and to others. Since I was alone, I had more time for reflection, which made me know myself and God more.”

Xiaxia with Drs. Stanley and Wendy Porter at McMaster

As she pursued her childhood dream, Xiaxia realized God had bigger plans. “Before, I wanted to be a pastor, but during the next several years it became clear that I wanted to be a theological educator. In China, we have lots of need for pastors. If God gave me the chance, I knew I wanted to train more pastors, not just be a pastor myself.”

Rightly Handling the Word of Truth

When Stanley Porter, New Testament scholar and President of McMaster Divinity College in Canada, visited Hong Kong, CGST President Carver Yu (who serves on the editorial board of the InSights Journal) introduced Xiaxia to him. In 2009, with continued support from ScholarLeaders through the Liefeld Scholarship, Xiaxia began PhD studies in New Testament at McMaster under Dr. Porter’s mentorship.

Xiaxia’s doctoral dissertation, Paul’s Viewpoint on God, Israel, and the Gentiles in Romans 9-11, was published in 2015. Her research explores how the Old Testament features in those passages and compares Paul’s use of Scripture to that of his Jewish contemporaries.

Xiaxia with her published dissertation

“I chose Biblical Studies due to my observation that many Christians, especially in my hometown, read the Bible on a very literal or superficial level,” she explains. “For example, 1 Corinthians 11:15 says that if a woman has long hair, it will be her glory, right? So then the church leaders asked all the sisters to keep their hair long to glorify God!”

“That was how I was taught in church when I was a child. We read the Bible without regard for its original context, background, or literary genre,” Xiaxia exclaims. “So I have a burden to help myself change, and then to help train other Christians to read the Bible appropriately and apply the message accordingly.”

Xiaxia’s focus on Biblical Studies also addresses a gap in Chinese Christian scholarship: “In China, we have scholars who study Christianity from historical, cultural, or philosophical perspectives, but not so many Christians work on biblical studies because of obstacles like having to learn Greek and Hebrew.”

“I firmly believe that God’s Word has the power to transform our human heart and atheist culture,” Xiaxia emphasizes. “What I received from my studies is training to read the Bible in its original languages and grasp the fruitful meaning of these words, which will have an impact on my life and teaching.”

As Xiaxia reflects on the value of her theological education, she also expresses her deep gratitude to ScholarLeaders and Dr. Walt Liefeld. “I am really thankful for all those years ScholarLeaders has supported me,” she says. “And Dr. Liefeld, he’s so kind and so caring, even sometimes emailing me to ask how I’m doing and to pray for me. I’m really grateful for all this support from ScholarLeaders, particularly from Dr. Liefeld.”

An Ambassador among Academics

Currently, Xiaxia teaches the New Testament and Koine Greek at China Graduate School of Theology. She also serves as a volunteer pastor and Sunday School teacher at Taipo Baptist Church. In her role at CGST, Xiaxia gets to train pastors from all parts of China, including remote and under-resourced regions.

Xiaxia with Chinese pastors who have completed an intensive winter course at CGST

“Why I serve at CGST is because we share the same vision,” says Xiaxia. “Do you know why we are called China Graduate School of Theology? It’s because our seminary has a passion and burden for Christians in Mainland China. CGST has lots of pastors from all over. We have intensive courses every winter and summer, so it is a good opportunity for me to help pastors from different regions.”

As a scholar, Xiaxia also seeks to facilitate theological conversations between the East and West, and to communicate and defend the Christian faith to Chinese intellectuals. “One of my hopes is to bring the Christian situation and what we struggle with [in China] to the West – to increase communication between the two,” says Xiaxia. “I also want to be a bridge between the Church and the Academy.”

“In most universities in China, we have Religious Studies Departments with Christianity Studies, but these are not led by Christians. My doctoral training has equipped me to communicate God’s Word, particularly to nonbelievers who are educated,” she explains.

Xiaxia teaching at CGST

“China has an atheistic culture. Most believe that only people who are in need would want a ‘Western’ faith,” says Xiaxia. “They think that the uneducated, the old women, and the disabled men believe God because they are very vulnerable. So these intellectual nonbelievers sometimes regard faith as superstition.”

The impression is not entirely unfounded. “In remote areas, we have many Christians who are uneducated, so they have many misunderstandings of the Christian faith,” Xiaxia admits.

Ancient Roots

The Nestorian Stele in Xi’an, China (ca. 1892)

Many educated Chinese professionals regard Christianity as a religion for the weak, the superstitious, and the gullible. Worse yet, some continue to associate the Gospel with Western imperialism. “They think Christianity is a Western religion that came during the 1860s with the people who attacked China,” Xiaxia sighs. “They think Christians want to bring their Western ideology into China.”

Intellectuals in China therefore encourage their spiritually thirsty compatriots to draw from Eastern wells instead. “If we want religion, maybe we’ll go to Daoism or Buddhism,” says Xiaxia. “Recently, our President Xi Jinping also promoted Buddhism, yet we have very strict rules for Christianity.”

Despite the common misperception of Christianity as a foreign religion, the Gospel has been present in China since the 7th century. The earliest documentation of Christianity in the Middle Kingdom comes from the 8th century Nestorian Stele, which records Persian Christian missionaries reaching the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) via the Silk Road. There, they obtained permission from the progressive Tang Emperor Taizong in 635 CE to freely preach the Gospel, translate Christian literature into Chinese, and plant churches.

Although persecution in the 9th century wiped out most Christian communities, the religion gained prominence in the 13th century under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, as several influential Mongol tribes practiced Nestorian Christianity. The Mongol emperors even welcomed several Franciscan envoys from Rome to Khanbaliq (modern-day Beijing).

Portrait of Matteo Ricci by Brother Yu Wenhui (ca. 1610)

And before Marco Polo set foot in Asia, Chinese-Turkic monks Rabban Bar Sauma and his disciple Rabban Marcos would undertake an ascetic pilgrimage to the West, visiting Nestorian communities along the way. Bar Sauma eventually became the first Far Eastern ambassador to the West, touring the Hagia Sophia and St. Peter’s Basilica as he visited the Byzantine Emperor, the Pope, and several European kings.

After the Ming Dynasty expelled foreign missionaries in 1368, little is known about Christianity in China until the 16th century when maritime relations between China and European nations commenced, and when Francis Xavier founded the Society of Jesus in 1540. By learning the Chinese language, adopting Chinese customs and attire, and engaging Confucianism skillfully, the Jesuits enjoyed relative success among both the common and educated classes. In 1601, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, was invited by the Ming Emperor Wanli to the Forbidden City, where he introduced Western astronomy, science, mathematics, and art to other court advisers, several of whom became Christians.

The Opiate of the Masses

Foreign missionaries arrived steadily throughout the reign of the Manchu Qing dynasty, between the 17th and 20th centuries. They established hospitals and schools, advocated for ill-treated servants, aided poor farmers and migrant workers, fought to abolish foot binding and the opium trade, and provided treatment for addicts. Between 1807 and 1834, Robert Morrison pioneered Protestant missions in China, contributing a Chinese translation of the Bible and a Chinese dictionary for Western missionaries.

Satirical cartoon by French artist Jean-Jacques Grandville depicting a British official ordering the Chinese emperor to “buy the gift” of opium (ca. 1840)

Amid a surging addiction crisis, China’s attempts to curtail the illegal drug trade led by British and other foreign merchants devolved into the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). The loss of the First Opium War in 1842 marked the beginning of what some historians refer to as China’s “Century of Humiliation” under Western and Japanese imperialism. The resultant “unequal treaties” saw China ceding Hong Kong Island and control over five ports, abolishing trade tariffs, paying a heavy indemnity, and relinquishing the right to prosecute foreigners who violate civil or criminal laws on Chinese soil.

Opium addiction in China doubled in the aftermath. Due to the protections and privileges afforded to foreigners, missionary activity also soared during this period. It is not hard to imagine how some Chinese could conflate the religion proffered by one group of Westerners with the poison peddled by another. In their eyes and in Marxist terms, both were “the opiate of the masses.”

To make things worse, between 1850 and 1864, a millenarian sect combining aspects of Christianity, Daoism, Confucianism, and traditional spirituality conspired to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and establish the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace. At least 20 to 30 million died, with millions more displaced, during the Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest civil war in history. Although the sect drew from multiple religions and was considered heretical by Christians, its dramatic rise and fall only furthered the Gospel’s disrepute in China.

James Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) (Photo Credit: OMF International)

By All Means

As civil war raged, James Hudson Taylor arrived in Shanghai in 1854. Despite providing medical services, his initial evangelistic efforts were not met with overwhelming success. He did discover though, like the Jesuits before him, the importance of adopting Chinese language, dress, and even hairstyle in winning trust and acceptance among the people. In the manner of 1 Corinthians 9:22, Taylor would later urge his fellow missionaries, “Let us in everything not sinful become like the Chinese, that by all means we may save some.”

During a furlough in England, Taylor founded the China Inland Mission (now OMF International) in 1865. The following year, Taylor and his wife Maria set sail again for Shanghai with 16 other missionaries, the largest cohort to arrive in China at the time. Eventually, Taylor would work with over 800 missionaries through the China Inland Mission, famously relying on bold prayers and refusing to solicit funds, to bring the Gospel to unreached peoples deep within the heart of China.

Historian Ruth Tucker maintains that “no other missionary in the nineteen centuries since the Apostle Paul has had a wider vision and has carried out a more systematized plan of evangelizing a broad geographical area than Hudson Taylor.”

“Taylor’s strategy was to approach the working class – uneducated persons, the poor, and the disadvantaged people in need,” Xiaxia observes. “So he had a great influence in China and evangelized thousands and thousands of people. I think that is why people still think that all Christians are vulnerable and disabled.”

The Meekness and Gentleness of Christ

A confluence of factors – including drought, famine, and flooding; economic depression and widespread unemployment; the various legal, territorial, and commercial privileges and immunities granted to foreigners; and long-festering anti-Western and anti-Christian resentment – erupted into several months of bloodshed and vandalism across the North China Plain in 1900. A clandestine proto-nationalist movement known as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, which had been gaining ground since the late 1890s, intensified their attacks against foreigners and Chinese Christians.

Foreign troops within the Forbidden City in Beijing (ca. 1900)

Nicknamed “Boxers” on account of their kung fu moves and vigorous rituals – through which they believed the ensuing spirit possession would bestow invincibility and supernatural martial prowess – the peasant fighters reached Beijing in June 1900, burning churches, executing suspected Christians, and laying siege to the Legation Quarter, where foreigners and Chinese Christians had taken refuge. Instead of rescuing the trapped civilians, the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi seized the opportunity to declare war against all foreign powers in China.

On the 55th day of the siege, a 20,000-strong army organized by the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, and the USA) defeated the Boxers and freed the besieged, though not without also falling into unrestrained plundering of the Chinese capital.

Over 200 foreign missionaries and 32,000 Chinese Christians were massacred during the Boxer Rebellion, and at least as many Chinese were killed by foreign troops. Despite losing more members (58 adults and 21 children) than any other organization, the China Inland Mission deeply moved the Chinese people by refusing payment from the Qing government – which had been fined 450 million taels of silver as war reparations – in order to demonstrate “the meekness and gentleness of Christ.”

Toward a Chinese-Led Church

Dr. Sun Yat-sen (ca. 1924)

Over the next two decades, considered a “golden age” for Christian missions, the number of Chinese Protestants multiplied swiftly, several members of the Chinese elite came to faith, and Christian schools gained prestige. In 1912, the Qing Dynasty fell to the Republic of China, led by Sun Yat-sen, a baptized believer.

Yet, gilded years would cede to dimmer days. Calvin College historian Daniel Bays writes in Christianity Today that “practically all missions in China failed to sufficiently cultivate a Chinese leadership in their mission structures and to permit that leadership to shepherd the flock into independent and self-supporting local churches.” Underrepresentation of Chinese leaders at missionary conferences and foreign control of funding reinforced the impression that Westerners viewed the Chinese as underlings.

The special privileges and legal immunities enjoyed by foreigners, including missionaries, since the “unequal treaties” of the mid-1800s were denounced not only by the rising Chinese Communist Party, but also by the Kuomintang Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, a Christian himself.

“The most radical elements of Chinese opinion,” writes Bays, “considered missionaries, and for that matter Chinese Christians as well, lackeys of foreign governments and of ‘world capitalist exploitation.’”

When Japan invaded China in 1937, prompting the Second Sino-Japanese War, most foreign missionaries fled. Among those who remained, approximately 1,000 were condemned to internment camps, where many died, including former Olympian-turned-missionary Eric Liddell. Chinese Christians rose up to assume full responsibility for churches and mission agencies during this period, which enabled independent denominations and the leadership development that would soon prove critical.

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Dali, China

In 1949, the Communists defeated the Nationalists (who retreated to Taiwan) and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). When the Korean War broke out in 1951, the PRC expelled all foreign missionaries from China. Jesus’ movement would be hence be carried forward by notable Chinese evangelists such as John Sung, Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, and Mary Stone (Shi Meiyu).

Though hostile toward religion, the Communist Party permitted Christian practice, so long as believers would abide by government policies. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church (wholly independent from the Vatican) were established to ensure submission to Communist ideology and policies. Three-Self Churches were to practice self-governance, self-support (without reliance on foreign funding), and self-propagation (apart from Western missionary endeavors) – self-sustaining principles originally articulated by foreign missionary societies and practiced by the China Inland Mission in their efforts to promote indigenous leadership.

The House Church Movement

Even Three-Self Churches, however, would be banned during the Cultural Revolution – when Christians faced imprisonment and torture as Bibles were burned, and churches and homes pillaged – and would not be reinstated until after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the late 1970s. As of 2012, there are 53,000 Three-Self churches and registered Christian meetings, as well as 21 Three-Self theological seminaries in China.

“But there are rules for official churches,” Xiaxia points out. “Local pastors can only preach locally – they cannot go to another province to preach, so it is difficult for them to do missions. Also, they cannot accept support from foreign countries or from other provinces.”

Yet, restrictions on the Three Self Church – which cannot appoint pastors without government approval, preach on potentially seditious topics, or evangelize to children under 18 – have spurred a burgeoning house church movement across China, especially amid the spiritual revival of recent decades.

Technically illegal, house churches with fewer than 25 members are tolerated by officials unless they draw attention to themselves. Today, persecution against Christians is sporadic and enforcement of restrictions varies widely from province to province. “It’s very complicated in China,” Xiaxia stresses. “Different regions have different policies.”

Xiaxia in her office at CGST

Reaching China’s Intellectuals

As Xiaxia notes, many among China’s Protestant population are illiterate or semiliterate, elderly, or women. A relatively high proportion of believers are ethnic minorities and, compared to adherents of other religions, Protestants are least likely to be Communist Party members. But that doesn’t mean other sectors of the Chinese population aren’t hungering for the truth.

“In China, we all have been taught Marxism, atheism, materialism, and Mao Zedong’s theories,” Xiaxia explains. “All these theories deny life after death and the existence of a supernatural being. Without an eschatological perspective of life, we can only hope for a good job, a big house, a nice car, more money, and entertainment. But all of these things will eventually result in the feeling of meaninglessness.”

With her rich educational background and scholarly sensibilities, Xiaxia hopes to reach China’s intellectuals and dispel the prevailing stereotypes against Christianity as a ruse for the superstitious or as an invasive Western ideology.

“Intellectuals think about pursuing a meaningful life. So how can the Gospel be delivered to bring real value and meaning?” Xiaxia ponders. “This is our great chance to transform the situation in China, to deliver the Gospel to university students, to bring them to church.”

Chinese Christian parents also have a critical role in instructing their children in the faith. “When we are educated in schools, it is like atheism education. Materialism is in the first position,” says Xiaxia. “But in our families, we can educate our children and build up their spiritual lives. Then, they can even share the Gospel with their peers!”

In different regions of China, Christians are seeking creative ways to reach their neighbors. “For example, in Zhejiang province, Christians pay to build roads and do lots of these kinds of things, so we are so welcome in the community,” says Xiaxia. “In some remote areas, we have lots of liousou ertong (latchkey children), who are left at home and nurtured by their grandparents. Their parents have all gone to big cities to work, so the church will approach these children to help them in their studies, like provide summer intensive courses or get them together to teach them the Bible.”

Xiaxia on a dessert outing with CGST students

It is not always easy for Xiaxia to minister where God has called her. She is a Mainlander teaching in Hong Kong, where tensions between progressive younger generations and the Chinese government are brewing. At CGST, she teaches in Cantonese, even though her mother tongue is Mandarin. And as a junior faculty member, she must balance preparations for new courses with her responsibilities as a volunteer pastor.

Joshua 1:9 has provided great encouragement in uncertain times. “Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go,” recites Xiaxia. “Especially in this current situation in China, with lots of pressure from the government, sometimes, I don’t know when I go back to Mainland China, if I will attract attention from the government. Then I’m not sure if I still can come out to Hong Kong to teach, but the promise is that wherever I go, the Lord my God is with me.”

Another key verse for Xiaxia is Joshua 1:6. “Be strong and courageous, for you shall put these people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them,” she smiles knowingly. “This is God’s promise. God’s at work in China.”

If you would like to learn more about Xiaxia’s research or ministry, please send a message to

Bonnie E. Lin

Bonnie has worked with ScholarLeaders since 2015. After managing communications, she stepped back in order to begin a PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary. She loves the ScholarLeaders fellowship and continues to support the ministry by guiding the prayer community.