Healing in a Chinese Context

by Mar 13, 2023Christian Living, Ecclesiology, Spiritual Gifts0 comments

In Chapter 15 of “Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing” put out by Oxford University Press, in 2011, Gotthard Oblau writes on his research into the role divine healing had in the rapid growth of Christianity in China. 

From 1985 to 1997, Oblau was employed by a state-approved Chinese medical agency, the Amity Foundation. His job gave him a chance to travel the country far and wide, affording him the opportunity to gather stories and testimonies of divine healing in China. 

At the time he was in China, Christian believers accounted for 3–5 percent of the overall population. Yet Protestant communities were growing like someone put fertilizer in their shoes. The growth was so rapid that the majority of all Protestants were first-generation Christians. 

The question for many was, why were so many Chinese people deciding to become Christians? The answer among academics was that it was the result of the moral and ethical fruits of Christian religion. Yet, on a grassroots level, the answer was radically different. After reviewing his research, Oblau concludes:

Divine healing, understood as both the restoration of physical bodies and in a more holistic sense as the transformation of individuals and communities, may be the single most important factor explaining the extraordinary growth of Christianity in China. [1]

Oblau recorded many stories about healing experiences, and prayers for the sick. His observations were not isolated but were collaborated by other international observers and many Chinese colleagues. Some of the conclusions made in his chapter: 

    • Divine healing in China is in a context of poor medical care and Daoist-inspired preoccupation with health. 
    • Divine healing in China is seen as holistic transformation and not just healing of the body. 
    • Divine healing in China is often an entry point into Christian faith   

Two key theological factors related to divine healing in China: 

    1. Everybody does it! Prayers for divine healing are a universal practice among Christians in China. The practice of divine healing prayers is not exclusive to one group or denomination. It cuts across the urban-rural divide as well as denominational lines. Testimonies about divine healing experiences are a regular and widespread phenomenon among Protestant Christians in China. In China, it permeates protestant Christianity as a whole, registered and unregistered congregations, in rural and urban communities.

The universal practice of divine healing across denominational lines has led many to point to the influence of the Pentecostal movement. While it may be fair to claim that China’s Christianity as a whole does carry a pentecostal flavor, this flavor can’t be attributed to some doctrinal distinctive, but to the fact that committed and ardent passion for God looks the same no matter the creed or confession.

2. The democratization of prayer for divine healing. In China, the practice of divine healing prayers has been democratized. The Chinese understanding of the classic Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers includes the practice of healing prayers. Any Christian can say a simple prayer for somebody else’s recovery, while the actual miracle is expected from God’s supernatural power. The faith needed is considered implicit in the act of praying to the Christian God. Thus, faith is defined as going to the only one who can actually help. 

Prayer for divine healing as a function of the priesthood of all believers has support in scripture. The command for such a practice is located in the commissioning of the 72 disciples. In Luke 9:1-2, Jesus commissions the twelve apostles and “sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” Then again in Luke 10, Jesus sends out a larger group to do mission work. Luke writes, “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few…. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’” . Among the instructions he gives to them, Jesus states, “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”(Luke 10:9). 

It seems clear in Luke, that not only are the twelve apostles commanded to heal the sick, but a similar command was also given to the seventy-two “ordinary” disciples as they were sent out. The command in Luke 10 is often taken to be a universal command and in harmony with the great commission. This commission is applies to all believers as part of their priestly service before the Lord. Further, it is commonly held that every believer has  priestly access to God in prayer.  Any christian may come before the Father as a holy priest of God, and make a request, be heard, and stand in hopeful expectation of receiving an answer. 

So, as stated above, among Christians in China there appears to be a common conviction that any single believer can pray for the sick and expect healing. Countless testimonies like the one below reflect this fact: 

“When my son started to get worse, I became more and more desperate…  but there was an old woman in the hospital who believed in Jesus. Pretty soon she kept coming and praying with me for the child. And then he started to get better.”  [2]

As international observer Claudia Währisch-Oblau concludes:  

It cannot be stressed enough that prayers for the sick in China take place “democratically,” i.e., without any one person specifically assigned to this role and with virtually no fixed ritual applied. Illiterate peasant women as well as university professors and pastors ordained decades ago, as well as newly converted Christians, all pray for those who are sick, without any sense that a special gift or training is needed for this. This is possible because of the extreme simplicity of procedures: There is rarely any laying on of hands, no anointing with oil, no ecstatic prayers, no falling and “resting in the Spirit,” no holy water, no specific place or situation for healing prayers. [3] 

They just pray and leave the rest to God. Thus, the practice of healing prayer is low key (as the kids say). 

The Historical and Social Shape of the Practice

The Chinese practice of divine healing prayers is drastically different from the expression in the West. The best way to observe the difference is by looking at what is absent from the Chinese church’s practice when compared to the church in the West. Below is a list of practices Oblau found to be absent from the church’s expression in China:  

    • A christian needing a spiritual gift of healing to operate in divine healing is downplayed. 
    • No particular healing ministries are relied upon as necessary.
    • Healing crusades are unheard of and utterly unfathomable in a Chinese context. 
    • Special church services for the sick are extremely rare. 

Given the “everyone participates” attitude, any sensational showmanship like we see in the West was unloaded for a more stripped down version. In the East, prayers for the sick are conducted with little fanfare and “spectacle”.  

The low-key approach to divine healing does have sociological origins and is not an indictment of the cultural practices in the West. The development of this low-key approach can be traced back to two factors within the social development of the Church in China. 

    1. A persecuted church produces a striped down liturgy.

The simplicity corresponds with the style of worship and liturgy. An average worship service involves hymn singing, praying, Bible reading, and some sharing of religious encouragement. Often all performed by leaders with rudimentary religious training. The liturgy developed during times of intense religious persecution. Times when church buildings were closed and pastors sent away for manual labor, often never to be seen again.

2. Continuing outside pressure reinforces simplicity of practice.

Legal and political pressure played a role in shaping the simplicity of the practice. The way they practice healing prayers may be seen as an act of self-protection. The communist government is firmly atheist, as their governing documents reflect. China’s constitution states that, “no person is permitted to use religion to conduct counterrevolutionary activities or activities which disrupt social order [or] harm people’s health.” The last clause is problematic for many influential party members, and political leaders count the practice of “exorcising spirits to cure illnesses” among the “feudal superstitious activities” that are incompatible with the progress of socialism as well as China’s modernization. [4]    

A Community of Prayer 

If everyone can pray for healing and prayers are practiced in a “low key” way, then what does it look like in the life of the community? The answer is surprisingly simple. The universal, democratized practice of divine healing looks like a community of faith that cares. Oblau gives us a description of love actualized within the church: 

Prayers for the sick, present or absent, are also common in midweek Christian meetings and in prayer and Bible groups, whether they convene in churches or in private homes. Church members pay visits to fellow believers who are sick at home or in the hospital. Many congregations organize rosters of people responsible for such visits. It is clear that Christians in China who fall ill will seldom have to suffer in isolation but will become the center of loving attention from their congregation. [5]

The love for those inside the church is not self-contained, turning back on itself but overflows and extends outward in prayers to those not of the flock. 

Healing prayers for non-Christians are not uncommon either. Individual Christians may pray for sick family members, neighbors, colleagues, or people who share their hospital ward. In praying for those unfamiliar with Christianity, Chinese Christians commonly disavow their own gifting and emphasize God’s agency in healing. [6]

In the next few blogs, we will look at the theology of healing in China and what we can learn from them. Also see our playlist on healing  found on Remnant’s  Youtube page.




[1] Gotthard Oblau,  “Divine Healing and the Growth of Practical Christianity in China, in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing”, Edt. Candy Gunther Brown (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011) 325.

[2]  Claudia Währisch-Oblau, interview, Zhejiang Province (Apr. 1991).        

[3] Claudia Währisch-Oblau, “God Can Make Us Healthy Through and Through: On Prayers for the Sick and the Interpretation of Healing Experiences in Christian Churches in China and African Immigrant Congregations in Germany,”  International Review of Mission: Journal of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches  [Geneva] 90.356–357 (Jan.–Apr. 2001): 89.     

[4]  Article 36, qtd. in  Donald MacInnis, “Religion in China Today: Policy and Practice”  (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1989), 35, 404. 

[5] Gotthard Oblau, “Divine Healing and the Growth of Practical Christianity in China, in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing”, Edt. Candy Gunther Brown (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011) 312.

[6] Gotthard Oblau,  “Divine Healing and the Growth of Practical Christianity in China, in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing”, Edt. Candy Gunther Brown (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011) 312.