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Crossing the Great Wall into China

by Julie Lyons on September 5, 2014 in Articles

“DTS has had an unprecedented role in shaping China’s view of what defines a real Christian at the highest levels of government and church leadership.”

Bringing the Bible to Beijing

The morning began auspiciously enough: Dr. Mark L. Bailey attended church with President George W. Bush and members of his family who were in Beijing, China, for the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympics. But afterward Dallas Theological Seminary’s president was ushered across town to an event that, while less publicized, bears historic significance and had an even deeper spiritual impact.

Dr. Bailey took the pulpit at Haidian Christian Church—the largest in China and part of the China Christian Council (CCC), the nation’s registered, or official, church—and preached the gospel to a congregation of two thousand. As international media watched, Dr. Bailey presented the supremacy of Christ through the words of Colossians 1:15–20, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…” (v. 17). From that passage he urged those who hadn’t trusted Christ to trust him that day.

After the service Dr. Bailey mingled in the aisles with Chinese believers and interacted privately with church leaders, having, as he puts it, “a wonderful time.” What many observers didn’t know is that his message was the culmination of a long and delicate dance of trust between Chinese authorities and DTS, which, eight years ago, had launched a groundbreaking program to train Chinese-speaking ministry leaders through online courses available worldwide.

Chinese Online Program

Four people have graduated from DTS’s Chinese online program so far in 2014—two students in mainland China, one in Taiwan, and a Chinese-speaking student in Dallas—leaving with a Master of Arts in Christian Studies degree. Some 120 students in China, Taiwan, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Ukraine are studying in the Chinese program, viewing online classes taught by DTS professors and relayed in Mandarin Chinese via subtitles. Another forty or so men and women are enrolled in Chinese courses in the United States. The students also meet in Asian locations such as Hong Kong to participate in “hybrid” classes with Chinese-speaking professors.

The Seminary’s opportunity to host the Chinese program is a miracle of sorts. “The reason we’ve been granted access really came out of a God-led moment,” Dr. Bailey said. DTS realized that no one obtains freedom to evangelize and minister in China without a formal invitation from a recognized church—of which there is only one, the China Christian Council—and agreed to work within those constraints. Dr. Bailey told Chinese authorities that “without compromising our mission or theological stance, we would welcome an invitation to contribute to the theological and ministry training among Chinese people.”

China's Christian Movement

That invitation came through in 2005. Since then, DTS has had an unprecedented role in shaping China’s view of what defines a real Christian at the highest levels of government and church leadership.

“The Chinese authorities are afraid of cults,” said Dr. Mark Yarbrough, vice president for Academic Affairs. “So what we talk about is authentic biblical Christianity… and the fact that authentic biblical Christians should make very good citizens. That resonates with them.”

The image of Chinese Christianity among American evangelicals has centered on the house church movement, which operates outside of Chinese regulations and has experienced explosive growth, along with waves of government oppression. Though the Seminary has had to weather some criticism for operating in China with the blessing of the official church—whose leadership is in great need of advanced theological training—Yarbrough offers a balanced perspective. “Everything you hear about persecution is true somewhere, someplace, sometime in China,” he said. “It’s that big. Are there great pockets of freedom? The answer is yes. Are there moments of persecution that occur? The answer is yes.”

Christianity in China is much more complex than the stereotypes, with heretical teaching and charlatans emerging in the house churches alongside courageous, uncompromising believers. And in the registered churches, Dr. Yarbrough has found “an authentic genuine worship, people striving to embrace what the Lord has revealed in his Word, and authentic followers of Jesus Christ.”

“Do they have some unique struggles? Sure they do,” he added. “Are they understaffed? Incredibly. You’ll have churches that have five thousand people and three pastors.” Choosing to support the whole body of Christ in China, DTS leaped in and got involved with training more men and women for ministry.

Working with the Government

By providing in-depth biblical studies and consistent theology, DTS works to counter the heretical, revolutionary teachings of sects that the government sees as a threat to peace. “I can tell you that with the growth of the church in China, there is a fight for orthodoxy,” Dr. Yarbrough said. “Which is why we have chosen, based upon the Lord’s opening the doors, to be involved in this discussion.”

The Seminary has garnered unlikely praise from Chinese officials, who appreciate the school’s academic excellence. According to Dr. Bailey, DTS has stayed “public and forthright” with government and church authorities, encouraging them to monitor the content of the online classes. “My sense of the governmental leaders of China is that they genuinely have a deep sense of responsibility to the massive number of people they are asked to lead,” Dr. Bailey added. “They know the church is growing rapidly. They recognize there are millions of people who claim to be Christians, and they want them taken care of carefully.

“We have nothing to hide,” Dr. Bailey said. “We’re not trying to start a rebel movement. We obviously want people’s lives to be affected by Christianity.”

Oddly enough, the Seminary’s interest in China led to the launch of its first domestic online classes. In 2001, Dr. Bailey and DTS professor Dr. Stanley Toussaint met in Dallas with a Hong Kong businessman who “had great respect and regard for DTS training,” Dr. Bailey said. At first he proposed a seminary branch in Asia, but eventually the conversation turned to online education, which was just getting its start in American universities. The businessman gave a substantial gift that allowed DTS to launch its first online course, Dr. Dwight Pentecost’s Life of Christ on Earth, with a group of hand-picked distance learners in 2002. “While he did not know technology,” Dr. Yarbrough said of Dr. Pentecost, “he knew enough to know that this was an opportunity to reach new students. And that’s where his heart was.”

That course enabled DTS “to get our feet under us,” Dr. Yarbrough said, before moving into the Chinese language. In 2008, the Seminary brought respected scholar Dr. Samuel Chia (ThM, 1994; PhD, 2003) on board to direct the Chinese Online program from Dallas. Born in Malaysia and educated in Canada and at DTS, Dr. Chia oversaw the translation of courses into Chinese. At the same time, the Seminary devised several contextualized courses, such as Introduction to Biblical Communication in the Chinese Context, and offered a thirty-hour Certificate of Graduate Studies. When US accrediting agencies opened the door to obtain academic degrees online, DTS launched the sixty-two-hour Master of Arts in Christian Studies (MA[CS]).

Equipping Chinese Servant-Leaders

The first few Chinese students to take DTS courses overseas “thought it was pretty cool—where you could see the professor teaching, and then you had the Chinese scripts coming in,” Dr. Chia recalled. “It was like watching a movie.” That wasn’t all, of course; the students interacted in forums (one ground rule: no politics) and gathered for live courses—a life-changing event for some students—who met fellow Chinese speakers in ministry from all over the world.

Joseph, a thirty-nine-year-old senior pastor of a very young (average age: 22.6) five-hundred-member church in mainland China, was one of those, calling the intensive Hong Kong course “one of the most memorable experiences in my life.” He lauds the Chinese program for its “solid biblical foundation for my personal study and ministry. It has cultivated in me the passion for the truth and the passion to share the truth.” In the United States, Dallas-based Jeff Cheng—who graduated this summer along with Joseph—said the MA(CS) has better prepared him for his marriage ministry to Chinese couples.

In the courses unique to the program, students learn about ministering effectively in the Chinese context, such as “how you defer to a person who has more seniority,” Dr. Chia said. “You really need to minimize conflict.” DTS hopes to slowly increase enrollment to two hundred, though funds are needed, as nearly all of the overseas students require financial aid. Interest far outstrips capacity; DTS has received some two thousand applications to date for the Chinese program.

That’s because it is “a very precious chance for mainland people who cannot leave their service but who really want and need to get trained and equipped,” Joseph wrote via email. “You can still serve while you study, and you can receive all these wonderful teachings in Chinese.”


Julie Lyons (spouse, Larry Lyons [ThM, 2001]) is an author and award-winning journalist.

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