Wang Mingdao was born in 1900 in Beijing within the Foreign Legation, where his parents had taken refuge during the Boxer Rebellion. The Wangs were in mortal danger, because they had associated with the Western missionaries. Terrified, Wang’s father killed himself shortly before his son was born. Mrs. Wang named her new boy “Iron” which, because of his strong personality, soon became Tie-zi, “Iron son,” a name that foreshadowed his courageous life.
Wang’s mother hated to cook and was quarrelsome, so he grew up with many fights and little food. After what he later considered a wicked childhood, he became a Christian at the age of 14. Educated and baptized in the church run by the London Missionary Society in Beijing, like most young intellectuals of his generation, he felt the obligation to participate in the task of national salvation.
Wang was immersed in Confucian teachings from an early age. The Four Books and books about Chinese history were especially prominent in his education and lifetime study.
He did not aspire to be a Christian minister, partly because pastors received low salaries and were not greatly respected. But in 1918, threatened by a serious illness, he promised God he would give up politics for the Christian ministry if he survived. Wang did recover and was faithful to his promise. Deep spiritual struggles followed until he understood that Christ demanded complete obedience. He finally gave up his dream to become a politician. In 1920, he changed his name to Mingdao, which means “understanding the word.” He even renounced a secure position at a Christian school when he insisted on being baptized again as an adult believer. He and five friends broke the ice at a creek in January and plunged themselves into the frigid water in obedience to their consciences. Retreating to Beijing’s Western Hills, he read the Bible 6 times in 62 days. After several years in which he believed God had trained him through various experiences, Wang was asked to preach. His message was solidly grounded in the Bible, and he put great emphasis on repentance, conversion, holiness, purity and truth. In 1928, he married Liu Jingwen, a pastor’s daughter.
Wang is widely recognized as one of the most influential and respected Chinese Christian leaders who worked to build an indigenous church upon the threefold principle of self-propagation, self-government, and self-support. His congregation began as a household gathering in Beijing that a few people attended for Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. Later, so many people came to hear him that he needed a bigger place for meetings. In 1937 the Christian Tabernacle was built. Visible spirituality was the criterion for membership: No one was baptized without first showing real fruits of salvation. This requirement kept the size of his congregation small at first.
The church grew steadily after 1949, however, when mainland China came under Communist rule. Before long the Christian Tabernacle had a membership of about 570, making it one of the largest evangelical churches in Beijing at that time. Although Wang’s primary ministry was to his local flock, he also published a quarterly magazine, Spiritual Food, and frequently spoke at conferences across China. He became widely known as an independent evangelist and an editor of the Spiritual Food Quarterly in the 1930s and 40s.
It was his ideal that he should become a model for Chinese pastors and the Christian Tabernacle, a model church. He lived up to his own high standards. Even his worst enemies could find no fault in him except in his utter lack of compromise. Doctrinal purity was given first priority in Wang’s ministry. He did not often invite outside speakers to his pulpit, lest erroneous doctrines be taught to his congregation. For the same reason, not many outside contributors were welcomed in his quarterly magazine, Spiritual Food, which enjoyed a wide circulation.
From the time that Wang had abandoned his political ambition for a total commitment to the gospel cause in China, he took a firm stand against any form of political involvement. He believed that only the gospel could save his own kinsmen from sin and corruption. The church must be separated from the state because of the functional differences between the two. This principle of separation was closely followed in Wang’s response to the political situations in the 1940s and 1950s.
During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), Beijing fell under the control of the Japanese army, which sought to control the churches of North China. Wang was invited to join the Japanese-led Chinese Christian Federation of North China, but he declined on the ground that the Christian Tabernacle was already an indigenous church, not pro-British or pro-American. The Japanese threatened him so many times that he kept a coffin in his house for the possible consequence of his stance. Indeed, his refusal incensed the Japanese authorities, who, however, took no action against him. This amazing turn of events, interpreted by Wang as divine protection, confirmed his view of political non-involvement and strengthened his willingness to be a martyr. Undoubtedly, this prepared him for another crisis in the 1950s.
When the Communists came to power in 1949, the Christian church in China faced the problem of survival under an atheist government. In order to purify the church of “imperialism,” all foreign missionaries were asked to leave the country by the new government. Chinese Christians were instructed to make their contribution to the socialist reconstruction of the nation. Under the guidance of, and supported by, the Communist Party, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) was organized to direct the nationwide Christian church.
Confronted with the unfavorable religious policy implemented by TSPM, Wang continued to stay away from politics and refused to join the TSPM. His reasons were not political but theological, for he was an inflexible opponent of biblical modernism, which he thought characterized the leaders of the TSPM. At the height of the political pressure, his article, “We Are for the Faith,” created a moment of crisis.
In September 1954 an accusation meeting was called by authorities, with attendance required from all churches of the city. Many were incited to criticize Wang, making ugly charges against him. He sat calmly, eyes fixed on the ceiling, refusing to answer a word. Many in the meeting wept. Despite speech after speech of denunciation, popular feeling was on his side, and he was freed.
He went home and his attacks on the Three-Self Movement continued. Knowing he would be arrested, he wrote articles showing that the “Imperialist poison” of missionaries was for the most part the truth of the Bible. “We are ready to pay any price to preserve the Word of God… .Don’t give way, don’t compromise!” Such nonconformity was hardly acceptable to the new regime and led to his imprisonment in the summer of 1955. Wang preached his last sermon at the Tabernacle on August 7, 1955. The title was, “The Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” Afterward, he handed out copies of his spiritual manifesto. Around midnight, Wang, his wife and eighteen young Christians were arrested at gunpoint, tied with ropes, and taken to prison.
Wang was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for what was called “resistance to the government.” After being confined in a cell for a period of time, he cracked and signed a confession. He was released, but he had a guilty and grieved conscience and likened himself to the Apostle Peter, who had denied Christ three times. When his mind returned to normal, he and his wife agreed that he must tell the authorities that his statement had been made under duress and did not represent his true feelings. He finally revoked the previous confessions in 1958 and was immediately returned to prison for 22 years; his wife was sentenced, too. They were both tortured repeatedly during their years in prison and in labor camps.
Mrs. Wang was released in 1973, blind in one eye, and Wang in the end of 1979, old, toothless and nearly blind and deaf. They lived in Shanghai with their son, and regularly held meetings with Christians in their small apartment until Wang died on July 28, 1991. Mrs. Wang followed him on April 18, 1992. Their ashes are buried in the Dongshan Cemetery beside Lake Tai, about 40 kilometers southwest of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.
Wang is considered an outspoken fundamentalist in Chinese churches today. He had a good understanding of the Bible, believing in the inerrancy of the Scriptures and the depravity of fallen man. He distinguished the justification and sanctification phases of salvation, preaching that man is justified by faith, but the integrity of the believer is demonstrated by the fruits of his sanctified life. “Our first concern is to manifest the Lord in our lives, to conduct ourselves so that whenever people watch us they will see how they should live.” (Spiritual Food, 84) Wang emphasized values that are not of this world, like building treasure in heaven instead of on earth. His theology was close to that of Calvinism, stressing God’s sovereignty and the depravity of man. Wang divided the moral and spiritual world into believers vs. non-believers, God vs. Satan, and light vs. darkness. The interaction between believers and non-believers should be kept to a minimum, except for the preaching of the gospel. In particular, Wang spoke out against the widespread practice of Christians marrying non-Christians, a stance directly at odds with the unifying goals of the TSPM.
Christians with this approach can easily be regarded as self-righteous people who consider themselves to be not of this world. In both preaching and writing, he was a strong opponent of the theological liberalism that was gaining popularity in some denominations in China in the 1920s. He mainly opposed those who believed neither in Jesus’ resurrection nor in any supernatural miraculous events that might occur. The central doctrine of Wang’s theology was regeneration in Christ, upon which Christianity stands or falls. Whereas the liberals preached an earthly kingdom of God to be established through human effort, and whereas the Communists envisioned a utopia through revolution, Wang affirmed that only a changed person through genuine rebirth could change society. This teaching has significantly affected the Chinese church today in its outlook on world mission and social involvement.
He emphasized the moral teaching of the Bible, believing that this provided evidence of its divine origin. His own ethical teaching highlighted simple obedience to the Bible’s commands.
He believed that moral change could only come from regeneration by the Holy Spirit. In other words, faith preceded, and produced, Christian virtue. His divergence from liberal Christianity is particularly sharp at this point.
In Wang’s view, the church is an alternative society that reflects the presence of God and the values of the kingdom of God. It should offer an alternate social life that contrasted God’s way with the way of the world. His passion, therefore, was to reform the church, that it might fulfill its destiny.
At the same time, his journal did speak to social issues, as he sought to guide believers into a righteous way of living.
He also saw the imminent return of Christ as a powerful motive for living a virtuous life. The world is dying, so we should forsake it.
An article in the Spiritual Food magazine on Galatians 1:6-10 declared, “in the 19th century there also arose another gospel. It was a different gospel that quickly spread to many churches …[Its propagators] called it the ‘social gospel’ … [They say] that to preach that Jesus atoned for men’s sin, and to urge people to repent and believe is Jesus in order to inherit eternal life, is a system that caters only for individuals. What we want to do now is to preach a broad gospel that brings benefit to others … [W]e are in a position now to transform society and to eliminate all war, and murder, and violence, and robbery, and pain and disease. Society as a whole can thus be saved and the world will then become the kingdom of heaven.” (Spiritual Food, 119-120)
To this, Wang replied that these preachers “do not accept the gospel of Jesus according to which He shed His blood to atone for sin, or do they believe the promise that those who repent and believe inherit eternal life. They regard those who have such beliefs as ignorant and superstitious… Obviously, we cannot do other than to recognize the need to eliminate killing and violence [and such evils]. But we ought also to understand that all these calamities are ultimately and totally the results of sin. So long as you do not solve the question of sin you cannot even begin to talk about anything else.” (Spiritual Food, 12-12)
“Those who preach the social gospel assert that they want to use their gospel to change society. We are very willing to be shown the societies that they have transformed. We are even more willing to be shown whether or not they themselves have been transformed.” (Spiritual Food, 122)
In short, “the social gospel is a counterfeit medicine conjured up by the devil… . Here then is the reason that we must not only preach the genuine gospel but that we must exert all our strength to oppose the false gospel… For the sake of the commission that God has entrusted to me, for the protection of the church, for the good of mankind, and for the glory of God – for all these reasons I oppose the social gospel and warn those who preach it,” lest the curse that Paul pronounced upon preachers of “another gospel” fall upon them. (Spiritual Food, 127)
Wang called for true Christians to separate themselves from those advocating modernist theological views.
He vigorously opposed any evils or injustices that occurred in society and he insisted that Chinese Christians should live a holy life. Critics have charged him with teaching that Christians should not enter into society, but he only meant that they should not seek for wealth, fame, and power as unbelievers did. Always, he exhorted Christians to do the best they could in their positions in society, to serve as “salt and light” to the world.
For instance, in an article on ‘Understanding and Doing the Will of God,” he gave the example of a Christian who has recently left college and is seeking employment. “He receives two offers at the same Time. By accepting the first he would enjoy a substantial income, but it would mean sacrificing his integrity – telling untruths, deceiving, and acting in an underhanded way. If he accepts the second offer, however, the work would be law-abiding, honest, and of benefit to society. Yet although the salary would be adequate, it would be lower than he would get in the first position, and he would have little to put into savings.” (Spiritual Food, 104)
Naturally Wang says that the man should refuse the first offer, and not covet “the pleasures and wealth of the world.” That is what he means by coming out of the world. More positively, he exhorted his readers to do what is “pleasing to God – being filial children, loving their brethren, having compassion on the poor, being merciful to enemies, acting honestly in business, being chaste in all relations with members of the opposite sex, and not being covetous of other people’s property.” (Spiritual Food, 107)
Critics have falsely charged him with exhorting believers not to care for society, but this statement, and many more like it, demonstrate his belief that Christians should “care for society.” He just did not believe that they should support violent revolution or put their hopes in state action – that is, socialism - to create the ideal world on earth.
At the same time, he took every opportunity to point out or criticize any shortcomings of the Chinese church and society. For example, he identified “dangers in the present-day church” as the worship of wealth; conforming to the patterns of the world by honoring those with wealth and position rather than godly character; and toleration of sin among professing Christians. (Spiritual Food, 36-50) He identified a root problem, namely, baptizing people just because they possessed some knowledge of the Bible, without inquiring into whether they had truly repented of their sins and had undergone a radical change in life direction by the power of the Holy Spirit. (“Repenting and Believing,” Spiritual Food, 21-26)
He likened himself to the prophet Jeremiah, since Jeremiah attacked the corruptions of society and all the false prophets during his time. Nevertheless, he had made lasting friendships with pastors of all denominations, including many of later joined the TSPM. These relationships probably delayed his arrest and denunciation for a while.
Lest we think that Wang preached Christian legalism, however, we should note that he always emphasized the grace of God in forgiving those who repent and trust in Christ. This truth applies to those who first commit themselves to Christ and to believers who have fallen into sin. In a powerfully pastoral article on the gentle way that the risen Lord Christ dealt with Peter after he had denied Jesus three times and had bitterly repented of his betrayal, he teaches Christians that “what [repentant believers] need now is not rebuke and warning; they need sympathy and comfort… . What they need is to be reminded that ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9)
Though he sharply distinguished between those who are born again and those who are not, he warned Christians against the sin of pride. “Do not assume an attitude of superiority … . Pride is the pathway to shame… [D]o not overlook the fact that you also have shortcomings.” (Strength for the Storm, 113)
As we have seen, some have found an underlying Confucianism in Wang’s ethical teaching, and have accused him of preaching a “baptized Confucianism.” No doubt, his early education and adult reading of Confucian classics influenced him. His preaching often featured studies of biblical characters, who served as good or bad examples for Christians today. Some have commented that his sermons were, in a certain sense, moralistic, focusing more on obedience to God’s commands than on nurturing a vital relationship with Christ through ongoing faith and performing good works by reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Wang did believe that there were great similarities between the two systems of thought. For example, he saw significant convergence between the Bible and The Great Learning.
From a study of his sermons and articles, however, others say that Wang grounded Christian conduct in a sense of God’s unmerited love for us, his ongoing grace to us in Christ, our gratitude to God for what he has done on our behalf, the guidance of the Scriptures, prayer, and the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
He taught his congregation that, other than reading the Bible, Christians should also “Study texts, study events and study characters,” which means that people should also have a good knowledge of books, including both past and present events. He emphasized that the character of prominent governing leaders be examined carefully to see if they are good role models worthy of the people’s respect and imitation. Wang received no theological education, believing that both the Scripture and the Holy Spirit were adequate in the formation of God’s servant. His preaching was practical and powerful, and throughout his itinerant ministry he unreservedly attacked the worldliness of Christians and the perceived apostasy of the churches.
Wang emphasized simplicity in Christian life and service to the extent that anything not mentioned in the Bible should not be done. There were no traditional liturgy, no choir, no offering bags, and no celebration of Christmas. The leaders of the church should not be called “Pastor,” and “tithe sermons” should not be preached on the pulpit. Wang also said that Christmas was not to be celebrated because it “had no meaning.” His church did not contribute to any charitable works for society and he refused to join in any ecumenical church movements.
Wang clearly stood for a simple gospel and a church free of outside control, and held that the affairs between Church and Government be separate. A stubbornly independent church leader, Wang acted as a thorn in the side, first to missionaries in pre-revolutionary China, then to Japanese invaders, and finally to the Communist government and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. As a result, he received a fair share of threats and experienced many hardships. We must note, however, that Wang never criticized Communism as an ideology, as some have averred, and he never opposed the government or called for it to be overthrown, though he was falsely accused of being a “counter-revolutionary.”
After Wang’s release from prison, he told people that he had fallen into the sin of lying in 1955 when fear of prison overtook him and he falsely confessed that he was a criminal for not joining the TSPM. While meditating on Micah 7:7-9, his sense of fellowship with Christ was restored, and his spiritual life was completely revived. From then on, he set himself a high standard of absolute honesty and truthfulness, not tolerating even a trace of falsehood. He resolved that it was better to die in prison than to lie. The story of his falling away had been hidden by prison walls. The outside world knew nothing of it, and it would have been very easy for him to let the church remember him only as an heroic man of iron. His commitment to truth would not allow this. He was indeed an honest man and is widely regarded as a true Christian hero
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