Peter Hoover

For the vast majority of China's people the Olympic games in Beijing do not affect their daily life and work. Neither have they improved the status of "underground" believers.

A friend of mine (a conservative Mennonite whose name and origin I cannot publish for security reasons), spends a good bit of time among Christian believers, the “underground church,” in China. Several years ago he wrote to me about an old man, he met in that country.

The old man, whose name must also stay hidden as he is still alive and joyful in the Lord, told my friend a strange story (pieced together here from what he said and what can be corroborated from other sources). “When I was young,” the old man said, “I belonged to a Christian community in the province of Shandong. There were a great many communities like us at that time, thousands of brothers and sisters living like the early Christians, here and there in the villages of Shandong and further away.

We called ourselves nothing but Yesu Jiating (the family of Jesus). There were never any foreigners or missionaries involved in our movement that began in 1921. To the contrary, all our communities were led by Chinese brothers whom we knew as jiazhang (heads of the household) and we all lived and worked together as brothers and sisters.”

How did the family of Jesus begin at Shandong?

“Our community began when a man named Jing Dianying and his wife gave their lives to Jesus and began to follow him. This was around the time that Sun Yat-sen came back to lead the Kuomintang (shortly before 1920).”

Who was Jing Dianying and how did he know about Jesus?

Jing Dianying came from a wealthy family in Mazhuang village, of Tai An county, in Shandong. His father was a Confucian teacher and the family lived well. But Jing was not satisfied. For a while he was interested in Daoism. Then, at the age of 22 he enrolled in a Christian college (Methodist) at Cui Ying. There he got baptised. But he did not have peace in his heart. Nor was he happy with the Christian religion. The Christians said many good things but they did not live by the teachings of Christ. Some Christians were rich and fought to protect their wealth, while taking advantage of the poor. The Christian nations of the world were greedier and more wicked than the pagan nations.”

What did Jing decide to do about it?

“For some time Jing became very discouraged and ran away from home, abandoning the young woman he had married. He tried to forget everything he knew and just live a wild wicked life. But that did not bring him any happiness either. Then, in desperation, he turned to reading the Gospels of Jesus. In them he found the Truth and the Way. He found the Life he had always wanted.

As soon as this happened Jing came back. He went to the home of his wife’s parents and very kindly took her up again. She was of a wealthy family and could hardly walk because her feet had been bound. But he carried her all the way back to his house and cared for her. Everyone saw the difference in Jing and wondered what had happened. So he told them about the real Jesus (not the “Jesus” of the missionaries) and they believed in him too. His wife also believed and got baptised.”

What happened then?

“In 1921, Jing Dianying and his wife gave their farm in the village of Mazhuang to Jesus. From that time on, everyone that became part of the family of Jesus shared the place and what was on it, with them. They organised themselves as a Shengtu She (community of believers) and in 1926 they started what they called a Cansang Xue Daofang (Silkworm School) where many young people came to learn the Way of Jesus. So many came that the believers had to organise new schools and new communities in other villages.”

What did Jing Dianying and the rest of the jiazhang (community leaders) teach you?

“They taught us that we needed to leave our old families in the world to become part of Jesus’ eternal family. That is the first step. Then, as a second step, we should change to a new life of which Jesus is Lord. That meant a new lifestyle and a completely changed behaviour. It meant giving up all our possessions to become disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Were these the only steps to living this way?

“No, the third step followed right after it. That was, ‘Break down food, clothing and shelter.’ Taking this step we left our old habits of eating, clothing ourselves and how we lived. For example, if we liked to wear stylish clothes and eat rich expensive foods, or if we lived in luxurious houses, we gave them up and began to live simply to make our needs few and to stop exploiting the labour of others.

Then came the fourth step, ‘Fulfil food, clothing and shelter.’ This meant sharing what we had with everyone else on the farm. All the food we grew and all the money we made was for the good of everyone in the family. No one had more than anyone else, or more than enough. We even shared our clothes. Every time after laundry we just tried to pick out what fitted best!”

Did this way of life work for you?

“Yes, we lived very happily. It was easier for us to live in small villages and on the farms, than in the city. But wherever we lived we followed Christ and that is the best way. The fifth and greatest step we took was ‘Live and die for the Lord with all your heart.’ This meant that all of us became willing to live for Jesus and for each other as long as we lived, and to die for Jesus or for one another, should the need arise.”

How many people became part of the Yesu Jiating (Jesus Family) in Shandong?

“During the 1930s and 40s, Jing Dianying and others travelled widely and told many about the real Jesus. The Christian churches and foreign missionaries opposed them. They thought they were a dangerous sect and a heresy. Religious fanatics. But thousands came to believe in Jesus and by 1948 there were 127 communities established, mostly in northern and central China, but some as far south as Wuhan and Nanjing. Most of them were in rural or semi-rural areas. No foreigners and none of the missionaries ever joined them.”

What happened to your communities?

“For many years the Lord had been warning our people that trouble would come. The Lord spoke to us through visions and dreams. Then, in 1952 the police came to Mazhuang and broke everything up. They took Jing Dianying and threw him into prison where he died after five years of torture and deprivation. All the other communities were scattered, but we have not lost hope. Neither have we forgotten what our faithful leaders taught us. . . .”

During the 1980s a number of Yesu Jiating groups reappeared in China but they are still considered illegal and persecuted by the authorities. Will the time ever come that they may flourish again?

Only God knows.

And in a million years from now we may well remember what happened in the villages of Shandong while having forgotten completely about Beijing-2008. For God chooses “the lowly things of this world and the despised things, and the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Let us pray for—and learn from—the believers in Shandong.