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The Death of Jonathan Chao

Category Articles
Date February 4, 2004

Gary North

[Forty years ago Gary North, Jonathan Chao and Geoff Thomas were students living together in Machen Hall at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia.]

Jonathan Chao has died of cancer at age 65. This will mean nothing to most of you, and even less to the "New York Times," which, I predict, will not publish his obituary.

I have known very few truly great men. Jonathan Chao was one of them. His career stands as an invisible testimony to the fact that greatness need not be connected to either fame or wealth. Jonathan Chao was a smuggler. No other word does him justice. Like the more famous Brother Andrew, he smuggled Christianity into Communist China. He did this for at almost four decades. Before him, his father had plied the same subversive trade.

I was told of his passing by one of his American associates, whose name I will not mention. He told me that Jonathan’s influence with a network of Chinese mainland pastors, mostly operating underground, indirectly influenced hundreds of thousands of people, and possibly millions. Yet his name is not known to the general public, either in the West or in China.

When he and I got into an old car and drove across the United States in the late summer of 1963, heading for Seminary, I had no way of knowing that his family was involved in the work of smuggling. I had no way of knowing that he would become the heir of his family’s specialty. If he had any foreknowledge of the influence that he would have two decades later, he gave no indication of this.

Because of the nature of his calling, he sought no publicity. He could not call attention to his successes. He had to operate in the shadows. Yet he had more influence over men of influence in the lives of their followers than anyone I have personally known.

Go to Google. Search for "Jonathan Chou" and any related word such as "evangelism," "China," or even his alma mater, "Westminster Seminary." Nothing pops up about him. Only because I know of one ministry in the United States with which was associated could I even prove that he existed.

Jonathan Chao was an invisible man. By all of the conventional standards of success, he left no proof of success. He did not attempt to. If anything, he sought to keep such evidence unavailable. A future historian in search of influential men of the twentieth century would overlook Chao. He would find no public records to prove his case. Chao’s institutional heirs would not be interested in sharing such in-house evidence as may exist. Yet I am convinced that he had enormous influence, despite the fact that I could not prove this if I were called upon to present my case.

This should remind us of a simple truth. When we stick to our knitting, doing whatever it is that is most likely to leave a positive legacy after our death, we have spent our time well. Few people leave much of a legacy. Those public people who appear to be leaving a legacy rarely do. Think of governors of large states, who in their years of power command deference and front-page newspaper stories, but who disappear at the end of their terms without causing so much as an institutional hiccup. Easy come, easy go.

Had he sought fame, his influence would have eluded him. Had he sought wealth, his time would have been used up less productively. Instead, he took on the Chinese Communists. He worked from Hong Kong and then Taiwan to undermine their government’s institutional commitment to atheism. I suspect that he inflicted great injury to that system of ideological rule. He provided ideas and strategies for Chinese pastors to use in the battle against Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. He did this all his life.

He deserves an obituary on the front page of every newspaper. By the grace of God, he will not receive one. He did his work that well.

Institutionally, I cannot imagine who will replace Jonathan Chao. Someone will, but I probably will not know who he is , not if he does his job as well as Jonathan Chao did.

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