Nestorian Missionaries in Ancient China

In AD 635, Alopen, a Persian missionary from the Nestorian Church, arrived in the T’ang dynasty’s capital city, Chang’an.[1] According to a monument erected in 781 telling of Alopen’s arrival, he subsequently translated the Scriptures into Chinese in the T’ang dynasty’s imperial library. The emperor then investigated the Scriptures in the privacy of his palace and being convinced of its truth ordered the Christian faith to be propagated throughout his empire. Thus auspiciously began an obscure era of the church that has almost been forgotten. It’s almost been forgotten because the Nestorian Church in China disappeared. By 987, it was reported that there was only one Christian left in China. Even though the Gospel was freely propagated and many churches established from the steppes of Mongolia to the very heart of the T’ang dynasty, the Christian faith failed to be handed down from one generation to the next. In fact, centuries later when missionaries set foot on Chinese soil, there was no longer any memory the faith had once been there.

How could this happen? Some missiologists might suspect that the Gospel was never adequately contextualized in China by the Persian missionaries; the Gospel never found a home, they might say, in Chinese idiom and thought. But, this seems to be contrary to the evidence. Not only were the Scriptures translated into Chinese (something never done, for example, in Arabic before the rise of Islam), but there is good evidence that the Gospel was overly contextualized leading to syncretism. For example, in the twentieth century four documents called the “Tun-huang documents” were found in caves along the Silk Road. These documents are thought to have been written by the church in China during the eighth century, and show a blending of Christian and Taoist thought.

Also, one of the earliest Chinese Christian documents has the name Buddha being used for God. This syncretistic trend continued throughout the Nestorian Church’s existence in China. By the end of the eighth century, a Nestorian priest named Adam was helping a Buddhist monk from India translate Buddhist Sutras into the Chinese and Uighur languages. The Christian faith in China increasingly became a murky river of Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian thought. It was in this way that the heart of the Gospel was lost, and it goes without saying that the church can’t pass on from one generation to the next something that it doesn’t possess. When the Gospel is lost, or twisted, or mixed with anything else it becomes something entirely different and powerless, as ancient China’s Nestorian Church demonstrates.

The history of Christianity is replete with many other examples. In each instance where the church loses ground and disappears, there are unique political, sociological, and cultural factors at play. But, an understanding of the historical process informed by the Bible must conclude that in reality there is one ultimate reason why the church would exist in one place, even for centuries, and then vanish. At the root of all these historical twists and turns, risings and falling, is the One who stands as Lord of history and the church. Jesus not only promised He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18), but He also promised that He would take away the lamp stand of those who do not hold fast and endure in the faith that has been once for all delivered (see Revelation 2-3). As Lord of the church, He gives and takes away; He builds and He destroys.

Take Care How You Build

This is, in many ways, a frightening truth. But, it should be a sober reminder to pastors and missionaries alike that we need to be careful how we build upon the foundation of Christ. This was precisely the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to those in Corinth. He called the church “God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9). As God’s temple, it is the dwelling place of His Spirit. Missionary activity is given life by the living God as He uses men like Paul and Apollos to plant and water (3:7). As God’s fellow workers, people are given the responsibility to lay the foundation of Christ and build upon it. Paul laid the foundation of Christ like a skilled master builder in Corinth and other places. He penetrated the unreached terrain of the pagan first-century Roman empire and proclaimed the Gospel. This good news became in truth the power of God for the salvation of those who recognized in Christ a king far superior to Caesar.

Through Paul and others, the foundation of Christ was laid in the first century in places previously unreached. This same phenomenon has been repeated countless times in the last two thousand years. James Fraser’s ministry to the Lisu people in the hinterlands of Western Yunnan at the beginning of the twentieth century readily comes to mind. Fraser, too, like a skilled master builder laid the foundation of Christ after years of persistent labor among those sin sick people. Fraser’s pioneering labor, as well as hundreds of other missionaries used by God, makes exciting reading for any who have a heart for Christ’s kingdom. However, the Scriptures as well as history both demonstrate that it’s faithfulness in the mundane ministry which follows – shepherding, teaching, and persistent prayer – or the neglect thereof that makes the church, God’s building, either strong and mature or weak and debilitated.

Auspicious beginnings make good biographies, but far too often the necessary effort required to help Christ’s church grow in maturity is relegated to footnotes in the annals of church history. But, the Apostle Paul emphasized the vital importance of this hidden endeavor. He cautions, “Let each one take care how he builds upon [the foundation of Christ]” (1 Corinthians 3:10). Although these words are directly applicable to pastors, in the context Paul was making reference to Apollos’ itinerant missionary labor. Apollos-type missionaries must take care how they build because only a certain kind of labor will endure. According to Paul, judgment day will reveal what each person has done as their life’s work is put through the fire of God’s judgment. Metaphorically, only those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones will see their labor survive the all-seeing scrutiny of the omniscient God. In fact, the fire of God’s judgment, far from destroying, will purify this kind of labor. But, those who build with wood, hay, and stubble will see everything their hands have touched burned up before their eyes. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that the missionaries’ syncretism in China’s Nestorian Church was wood, hay, and stubble. God’s judgment on the last day will seal that fact, a fact already proven to a certain degree in history.

[1] All historical details related to the Nestorian Church in China come from Samuel Hugh Moffat’s A History of Christianity in Asia volume 1.