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Interview with Pastor Jin Tianming of Beijing Shouwang Church

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Interviewer: Yikun
Time: October 28, 2011
Location: Pastor Tianming’s apartment

Editor: Since April 10, three pastors, three elders, and one minister of Shouwang Church have been under house arrest for the past few months. During this special period of time, what are the changes and challenges for them in their daily life? What a typical day look like for them? How do they pastor church? This series of “Interview with Pastors” will bring you to their lives under house arrest, so that you will be able to look at this period of having outdoor service from their perspectives, and to count abundant grace of God in the midst of sufferings. The current issue presents you the interview with pastor Tianming.

Life of Washing Dishes

Network Journal of Shouwang Church (NJ): We are very concerned of your life in this period. How are you doing? How’s your health? Do you have time to work out or do exercise?

Pastor Tianming (TM): I am doing well, and I am in good physical condition. I actually did not do much exercise before this period of time. Long time ago in the past, I enjoyed working out, but I stopped later. And I even did not make plans to work out any more a few years ago. It is not good. I feel like that I am getting old and my body starts to deteriorate.

NJ: What’s a typical day look like for you? What’s your weekly plan?

TM: I usually have quiet time when I get up, and then I will read some books after breakfast. We have Church Governing Committee meetings in the mornings of Tuesday and Friday. I usually write sermons on Thursday. And on Sunday and Monday, I keep up with believers who attend the outdoor service.

NJ: So for a sermon, you usually write it down and then read it, right?

TM: Yes, I first write it down. I once tried to preach it, record it, and then reorganize it, but I found it more difficult since I did not have audience. So I started to write it down before I read it.

NJ: When do you usually record your sermon?

TM: Friday.

NJ: How do you spend your Sunday?

TM: I usually worship together with my wife. We follow the program to sing hymns, read the Scripture, and listen to the recorded sermon. Then we respond to the sermon and pray together. After our worship, we start to follow up with believers who attend the outdoor service.

NJ: Do you have time to do household chores?

TM: You should ask my wife this question. I have changed a lot; I started to wash dishes. I rarely washed dishes in the past—less than ten times a year. Now I wash dishes everyday. So it is a big change for me. However, I did not start to wash dishes until the middle stage of this period, a few months after we began to have outdoor service.

NJ: You must be too busy to do household chores before, right?

TM: I should not say that I was too busy to do it. The thing is that I was not concerned about it; I was concerned about other things. When I was too tired, I would say, “I will wash it tomorrow,” trying to put it off.

Several months later after we started to have outdoor service, my wife told me that I should do some exercise, or wash dishes. I agree with her, and I cannot escape from washing dishes any more since I stay at home all the time. So now, it is my job to wash dishes everyday.

NJ: It is rare for Korean men to do household chores, right?

TM: Yes, in our tradition, men rarely do housework. When I was young, few men of my father’s generation do housework. But when I went to high school, things started to change; some husbands would help their wives with housework. Now there are more men doing housework. However, in my hometown, wives still take care of main things like cooking, washing dishes, and mopping the floor. If boys go to the kitchen, elder women like my grandma would drive you out, since they think it is not building up for a boy to work in a kitchen. However, I think that a husband should help his wife with housework.

NJ: What are you reading in the Bible?

TM: I am reading Second Corinthians for my quiet time; I have read it for two times. Before this, I read Psalms, focused on the second book where many experiences of David are described. I feel the urgency to read since Christmas is approaching. I just finished Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, I am reading Moral Treatises of Augustine now, and I plan to read Theological Orations of Augustine. I really enjoyed reading Ecclesiastical History, and found many parallels between Chinese church history and the early church history as the early church both suffered persecutions from outside and had many challenges from inside. And I really like Moral Treatises of Augustine. I was not good at reading before and was a slow reader, but now I read better and faster. I prefer books that extract information directly from the Bible, rather than books with a bunch of annotations.

NJ: How long is your quiet time?

TM: It usually takes half an hour. I pray, read the Scripture and meditate on it, and then read some reference books and organize my thoughts. For different books, I have different ways to read. For example, when I read the prophets, I would read several chapters to gain an overall understanding of that era, of the people, and of the destiny of a country and a nation. But when I read Psalms, I would read it together with stories of David, and mediate on it.

A Family with Freedom

NJ: During this period of time, is there any tension in the family? Is there any quarrel between you and your wife as you have to spend all day together?

TM: We rarely had a quarrel. One reason is that I was greatly relieved after my sermon on March 27. Although I was under house arrest, I feel the freedom as I entrust myself to the Lord. The physical confinement does not affect me emotionally. Another reason is that we are still have different roles and different work to do even we spend more time together.

NJ: What about the two children? How are you doing?

TM: They are doing well. Although they will see policemen in front of our apartment everyday when they go to school or come home, they have good attitude. They have heavy schoolwork, but they still have positive attitude when they talk about the number of guards watching us.

I do not think the fact that many policemen guard us affects them. They do not receive as much restriction as we do. And they already get used to this kind of environment from a very young age. The key is that us being parent should have a positive attitude. If we do not have the freedom inside, but hold bitterness and fear, then we will have negative influence on them.

NJ: What do they usually do after school?

TM: They are very busy after school with a heavy load of schoolwork. They usually start to do homework right after dinner, and sometimes even have to work till midnight.

NJ: What are your expectations for them?

TM: My expectations are more general. First, they have strong faith and good health, and then they have good characters. I won’t expect them to have big achievements since gifts and wisdom are from God. I hope that they can become missionaries, but I won’t be able to decide for them.

NJ: Their teachers and classmates should know about their faith, how do they view it?

TM: Our children, especially James, are facing challenges in school. When James was in 8th grade, his teacher and classmates expected him to join the Chinese Communist Youth League. But after we talked to him, he decided not to join it. However, the whole class voted and recommended him to join it later, which was a big challenge for him. So we prayed with him and shared with him together, and he finally made up his mind not to join it. His teacher called several times trying to persuade him, but James told him that our whole family believed in Christ. The teacher stopped doing it as he understood our position.

God’s Blessings

NJ: You mentioned about the sermon on March 27, could you share more about your thoughts at that time?

TM: The Friday before March 27, I came home with sober mind and determination after the co-worker’s meeting. I still had struggles before that Friday. From the bottom of my heart, I did not want to hold outdoor service: it is not good for the church, and I do not want our church to present itself in this way in public, being misunderstood as a human rights group. From this perspective, I would try my best not to have outdoor service.

I was tired and weary. There are already many challenges in the church, and here comes another big one. Many would think that the church is “trying to commit suicide” by holding outdoor service. And I know that it would be impossible for man to make this decision unless it is from the Holy Spirit. As it is from the Holy Spirit, I am not worried any more; I feel safe in abiding in the Lord no matter how big the wave is. Therefore, I was convinced that I would wait for God to open a way for us. God will make a way when we are in desperation.

As I was released from being controlled by the environment, I had the great relief when I preached on March 27. I took my bag with me to the podium, and I knew that I would actually escape from my responsibility if I were arrested on that day.

NJ: Since Shouwang’s outdoor service, have you changed the focus of your sermons?

TM: At the very beginning, we focused on outdoor service; we talked a lot on the church-state relationship, on our standing, and on spiritual warfare. Now I think we have communicated a lot on that topic, so I start to share more on the life building of a Christian, and on what a new life looks like for a Christian.

NJ: Do you see any changes in believers’ life during this period?

TM: The pressure from outside as well as the tension from inside, both have brought a big strike to believers, and have caused much pain. It is a big challenge. However, as we gradually process it, we have seen that this challenge actually builds believers up.

Sometimes I wonder why God is being so “cruel,” since many believers are experiencing persecutions that many pastors have never confronted. However, I believe that, though the process is difficult, it will build them up. It is not easy for them to persevere to the end. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance is the ability for us to bear the pressure; God enlarges our ability to endure persecutions and pressure, which is a huge blessing.

NJ: So your most urgent prayer for now is to pray for the issue of purchasing a church building?

TM: Actually I have three prayers. First, I pray that we can successfully move into the building we purchased. Second, I pray for our directions after Christmas, which is related to purchasing the building. Third, I pray that conflicts and disputes among believers brought by different perspectives on outdoor service will be removed. These are the main things I am concerned and I am praying for.

NJ: In this process, you must have confronted misunderstandings and criticism, have you ever felt sad?

TM: What makes me sad is not that people do not understand our decision, for God’s guidance is very clear for us. I feel sad on the fact that it is hard for us to have unity. I am clear on God’s guidance, but I did not expect that the process has been so hard and so challenging, which is painful if we do not have unity.

Seeing God’s Guidance

NJ: How do you view “vision”? People agree on the vision when things go smoothly. However, when in adversity, some would say that this is not my vision, but is the vision of the Church Governing Committee. In small groups, many believers take the vision of Shouwang as a remote and big thing, which is not as tangible and relevant as marriage and work, so they think the task of pastoring would be delayed if the church focus on purchasing a church building.

TM: It is common for people to agree on the vision in good times, but disagree in adversity. Vision is what God sees. When we say that we see the vision (of course God already sees it), it is rather abstract and is about an overall direction. Therefore, it should be received as the direction for the whole church. It would not be the vision for the church if it were only seen by the five members of the Church Governing Committee. Just as Exodus, it would be meaningless for one person to get out of Egypt.  

The vision might not appear very clearly at the very beginning; we might not be able to take the next step with clear guidance. However, it is clear for us to see the vision in the progress, and it gets clearer. It is difficult and challenging, but we need to have faith.

The vision is not wrong in terms of our direction. At the end of 2005, we decided to have public gathering, which is recognized by many pastors later. Of course, it is not the only way for God to lead house churches. However, it is a direction for God to lead us from semi-underground to go public in mainstream society. The key question is not where we should gather, but whether God’s church should go public. Then not only go public, but also have positive influence on Chinese society. As there are already seventy to eighty million Christians in China, the church should have its own direction.

In addition, as we are in current situation, we find that God’s guidance is right. Who is the head of the church? Who should be the head of the church? Who should govern the church? It is not decided by the government, but should be governed through the order in the church. This issue is exposed in this spiritual warfare. Not everyone is ready for this battle; not everyone is ready to see that the church has to pay such a price.

NJ: Is your wife especially supportive in such a hardship? Some say that the older generation of ministers went to prison with the support of determined wives.

TM: I should say that she is not especially supportive this time, since she has been always very supportive. She serves the Lord wholeheartedly, and never thinks of herself.

Submit to the Truth

NJ: How to shape our life in terms of submitting to authorities in the church?

TM: We can talk about it from two aspects. For church leaders, in order to establish this authority in Christ, one needs to do it according to biblical teachings as well as to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But how to make people know that the authority is from God and from the Holy Spirit? The answer is to serve. As you serve more, you have more authority. And when you rarely serve and rarely sacrifice for others, you have less authority. The leaders have the responsibility to establish authority in truth and love.

For believers, there is a lesson of submission. It is not about submission to a pastor, but about submission to the church order; the church belongs to God, not to a person. Is the church governed through an appropriate means, and in a recognized order? When we question about it, we need to ground it on biblical teachings, but not on personal opinions.

Believers should not criticize it as if he or she were a prophet (above the church), or an outsider (outside the church). God never sets an individual as the prosecutor of the church. When we criticize Shouwang, we need to remember that we are members of Shouwang, but not outsiders. We should not say, “You are wrong.” Rather, we should say, “We are wrong. What shall we do?” And then give suggestions through an appropriate way.

Many of us have interpreted the doctrine of “priesthood of all believers” wrong. No matter in 1 Peter, or in the understanding of the reformers, it is not about church governance. It means that each believer can come before God in Christ, but does not mean that each believer can govern the church. This kind of misunderstandings can easily bring the concept of civil rights into the church. To submit to authorities in the church, is not an issue of submission to church leaders, but an issue of submission to the truth, to God’s appointed, and to the church order.

A Better Tomorrow

NJ: Have you ever thought about the future of Shouwang church and Chinese house church after Christmas, and in the long run?

TM: Certainly there will be difficulties, but certainly a better tomorrow. It is not accidental for us to experience this stage. No matter in rural areas or in cities, churches are growing, and churches are holding to the unchanging and uncompromising stand. Kings will change, but the truth stands, and the church stands.

Now the church comes to a critical point, from the tradition of gathering indoors to a point which is close to protecting civil rights. However, I do not think that the church is protecting civil rights; we are holding on to our faith, which has never changed, but only from indoors to outdoors, and from underground to public.

It is inevitable to have controversy when we come to this point. It seems like that the church has become a strong force, which is unacceptable to some people. It is too much if we cross the boundary. So it is normal to be criticized or to be doubted at this point. Chinese house church has the tradition of pietism, but we have a different kind of church-state relationship now. Actually, we have broadened this border, and won’t be able to retreat. In the space from the original boundary to the current one, church grows. If there is no space through the expansion of the boarder, the church won’t be able to impact the society, and then won’t be able to do mission like apostles. Therefore, this process is good for the spread of the gospel.

NJ: How do you view the special way of sharing the gospel during this period of time?

TM: This is not our purpose of having outdoor service, but Shouwang has shared the gospel with many policemen. Till now, believers have visited more than a hundred police stations. We find that many policemen have changed their attitude and gradually come to know more about Christianity, as we communicate with them. Just as Paul said, that the whole city got to know Jesus Christ because he was arrested. Though he did not go there for this purpose, the emperor’s army heard the gospel. It is God’s grace for Shouwang to share the gospel with policemen, this special people group; it is a huge testimony for them to know about church and Jesus Christ.

In addition, someone criticize me for being tough and inflexible. In fact, I am the most active minister who is willing to communicate with policemen and the government in the past six or seven years.

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"Bob Fu has dedicated his life to bringing freedom of religion to the Chinese people. His story is a testimony to the power of faith and an inspiration to people struggling to break free from oppression."
—Mrs. Laura Bush

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