Why Theologians Aren’t as Excited About Chinese Christianity’s Growth as Sociologists

Success for the church looks different depending on your discipline.

On March 1, the Chinese government enacted wide-ranging restrictions on religious communication, teaching, and evangelistic efforts conducted online. Now, only religious groups with government approval can carry out such activities.

Various media outlets around the world shared this news, which is unsurprising. When we think or talk about Christianity in China, its social impact and implications for issues such as human rights and China’s international relations—rather than its pastoral and theological developments and challenges—have received disproportionately large attention in the Western press in the recent decades.

There are many methods and approaches we can apply in observing and interpreting Christianity in China. But this leads to a larger question: How do we read Christianity in general? Religion is a complex social phenomenon, and different disciplines can draw varying—even opposite—conclusions about it. More issues arise when scholars in one discipline begin to cross the boundaries of other fields of study and claim universal applicability for their conclusions.

Church and state relations in the West

A good example of this is how differently theologians and sociologists approach and evaluate the establishment of classical Christendom in the West.

Traditionally, theologians have viewed the church’s transition from a persecuted minority to the state religion as a great triumph. However, in recent decades, they are increasingly considering it a tragedy and betrayal of the vision of the early church.

On the other hand, certain sociologists’ growing interest in early Christianity has led to assessments of the church’s transition from minority to …

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