At first glance the theological debate occurring within China’s official church may appear to be primarily a matter of disagreement over doctrine. However, as with most everything in China, there is also a political side to be considered. It is important to understand this political angle in order to keep the theological debate—and its effect upon the church—in proper perspective.
Events during the last decade of the 20th century—including the demise of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, Western pressure on China to increase religious freedom, and the dramatic emergence of Falungong as a significant social movement—have deepened China’s leaders’ mistrust of religion. As Chinese society continues to become more fragmented and complex, China’s leaders fear that religious groups could organize to destabilize the already delicate balance between political and social forces, as has happened repeatedly throughout China’s history.
The proliferation of groups such as the Falungong sect have only served to reinforce the conviction of China’s leaders that religion, while it cannot be eliminated, must at least be brought firmly under Party control. President Jiang Zemin’s dictum that religion must serve socialism is the means of achieving this end. The desire of Jiang and other top leaders is that religious activities in China contribute toward national unity and economic development rather than fostering social division or the development of autonomous social organizations that could be viewed as competitors to the Party-State.
To carry out this mandate, the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) has in recent years stepped up measures to close unregistered religious sites—seen most vividly in the demolishing of at least several dozen unauthorized churches in the heavily Christian city of Wenzhou just before Christmas of last year. The RAB has also launched an offensive aimed at cult activity in China, taking it upon itself to define what is or is not a cult.
By taking on this question of what constitutes orthodox religion (as opposed to cult activity), the RAB is venturing into uncharted territory, for up until now it has not concerned itself with the actual beliefs of the religious groups it is charged with supervising. This step into the theoretical realm may be seen as a move by the RAB to raise its stature in the eyes of the Party by attempting to answer the question of how religion can truly serve socialism. Although the RAB has not enjoyed much prestige in past years, its current leadership appears rather ambitious in their efforts to enhance the status of the organization and thereby enhance their own opportunities for advancement within the Party system. However, as a political organization staffed by unbelievers, how could the RAB expect to make a legitimate contribution to the development of religious doctrine? Any attempts to do so would likely be met with much resentment and be rejected by Chinese Christians.
This gap between the goals of the RAB’s atheistic leaders and the Christian church in China is conveniently bridged by Bishop Ding Guangxun, the long-time leader of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and China Christian Council. Although technically retired, Ding still has considerable influence within China’s official church. In these final years of his career, Ding would like to shed his political image, preferring instead to be remembered as one who made a significant theological contribution to the Chinese church. Herein lies the convergence of agendas between Ding and the RAB: Ding’s desire to construct a “Chinese” theology fits perfectly with the RAB’s need for a theoretical basis for shaping religion to suit the demands of socialism. The result of this symbiotic relationship between Ding and the RAB is the campaign of “theological construction” currently taking place on China’s seminary campuses.
Yet how much real “theology” is there in Ding’s prescriptions for the Chinese church? Prior to1949 Ding and other early leaders of the TSPM were heavily influenced by the YMCA, which promoted an agenda that was much more political than spiritual. Meanwhile, independent church leaders such as Watchman Nee and Wang Mingdao were in fact making strides toward the development of a theology that could truly be called indigenous. But their voices were silenced after 1949 as the church was increasingly politicized. Ding’s concern then, as now, was not with the church’s faithfulness to the requirements of Scripture but rather its conformity to the social conditions of China and the demands of its communist leaders.
China needs a real Chinese theology. We don’t know when this will come about, but we do know that it will not happen until the church situation in China is normalized, that is, until Christians are no longer discriminated against and the voice of real believers in China is able to rise up from the grassroots and be heard. If Bishop Ding were to foster this type of communication, this would aid him in attaining his goal of being remembered for his theological contribution to the Chinese church.