“We are in the battle” were the concluding words of a message received from a Chinese colleague in June 2019. I knew these were increasingly turbulent times in China and that our friends might encounter strong opposition. Since new religious regulations1 officially went into effect in February 2018, Christians, and other religious groups (especially Muslims), have faced increased restrictions and growing government oppression. The news I received was simply one expression of a concerted government effort to control and reshape the church in China. For me, it represented much more than that. It was a call for prayer on behalf of and solidarity with our Chinese brothers and sisters in Christ.
The email noted above described how, on a June Sunday morning, just as the worship service was preparing to begin, approximately 15 officers representing security, religious affairs, and local police, burst into the large, rented room that had housed the church for several years. The police took charge and commanded everyone to provide their name, phone number, address, and ID card. Then a leader from the Religious Affairs Bureau read China’s new religious regulations and announced the Christians must immediately stop meeting as a “house church” and worship at the local, government-recognized, (TSPM2) church. Finally, the officials demanded that Pastor Timothy end the service and send the congregation away. The officials took Timothy to their office for five hours of questioning and interrogation before releasing him.
This was the fourth time since November 2018 that Timothy had been interrogated. Typically, the police asked, “Why was he not associated with the government-recognized church?” and whether foreigners were involved in the church meetings. They also asked him about denominational affiliation, why he had traveled to Hong Kong, and why he had signed a house church statement3 that was made public in August 2018? This document, eventually signed by 458 Chinese pastors, affirmed their responsibility as Christian pastors to proclaim the gospel and to challenge the government when it contravened God’s law, including the repression of Christians. The main drafter, Pastor Wang Yi, and over 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church were arrested in November 2018 in a highly publicized event. Pastor Wang is still in prison.4 The key themes Chinese officials consistently emphasized with Timothy were that contact with foreigners, denominational connections, and theological study abroad are all very bad.
A knowledgeable Sinophile and friend recently wrote, “Everything changed in 2015 when Xi Jinping was able to get total power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Everything we used to say and believe about China, and even Russia, is no longer true. These are times of closing doors, not opening doors.” Signs of this change are widespread and progressively more visible.
Life in Babylon
In 2018, I remember seeing posters that evoked images from the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), that terrible decade of chaos, mindless destruction, and irrational repression at the climax of Mao’s life and rule. These posters stretched across the front of my favorite noodle shop. Across the street at a public school stood a poster admonishing all who passed by to “Study the Lei Feng Spirit.” This was another Cultural Revolution icon. I marveled and wondered: How could the Chinese collective memory be so short? Had they already forgotten the horrors of this tragic period? Six or seven years ago, if you had described the current repression in China—similar to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution—I would have replied, “That is not possible.” But present-day reality cannot be denied. Evidence of the CCP’s desire to control and repress, along with its willingness to persecute, is everywhere.
Late in 2019, I stood outside a large church building in the Chinese city where I live. It was a TSPM church and the pastor who greeted me that Sunday morning is an old and dear friend. We had not met for some time, so we were both excited at this unexpected reunion. After warm greetings, the Chinese pastor pulled me aside and said, “Be very careful. It’s worse than it appears. I know, I’m on the inside. Even during this Christmas season, we are very limited in what we can do.”
Shortly after the conversation noted above, I received a message from ministry colleagues who had traveled to an area near the border of Yunnan and Vietnam. My friends were unexpectedly detained by the police in one of the towns and interrogated for six hours. Only one local brother was allowed to travel on to his home village. Three others were sent back by bus the next day. Before they were released, the authorities searched their computers and phones looking for Christian materials in the White Miao (Hmong) language.
Later I learned that in December 2019, the Chinese government prohibited White Miao Christians from reading the Bible in their own language and from preaching in their mother tongue.5
I recall in 2018 hearing that Chinese officials were forcing Christians, especially elderly believers in rural areas, to remove pictures of Jesus or other Christian subjects in their homes and, in their place, put up pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping. If they did not comply, officials threatened to withhold their retirement benefits. It all sounded a bit too sensational and draconian to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, when I met a good friend and rural TSPM church leader, I asked him if this could possibly be true. The reaction on his face shocked me, as did his reply. It was indeed true and happening in his area.
This all suggests that unless there is some radical change in the Chinese government and its restrictive policies, Christians in China will continue to experience significant suppression and persecution in the future. The “Golden Age” of relative openness and rapid growth for the house church movement (1995–2015) is over and we have entered a new era in which survival is now a central concern.
The recently concluded 20th Party Congress resulted in solidification of Xi’s position. Hope for more openness and less religious persecution is unlikely to be fulfilled. As my knowledgeable friend put it, Xi Jinping’s appointment to a third term at the Party Congress “will seal the end of the ‘open-door policy,’6 though due to economic reasons, China will still be much more open than under Mao.” My friend suggested that while “TSPM churches will be allowed to have meetings,” their activities will be significantly restricted. Sunday schools and ministry to youth will either be prohibited or highly restricted.
I concur with his assessment that this is part of Xi’s hardline policy to restrict and eventually wipe out religion. The CCP leaders have a long-term perspective and believe that if the children and youth are not reached in the next 40 or 50 years, there will no real Christian church, only a few that will operate as window dressings.
However, my friend perceptively noted, “What they do not realize is that persecution cannot stop the work of the gospel, and as in the Cultural Revolution, this might even result in a revival in the church.” House churches will still operate for the foreseeable future but will be forced to keep the meeting numbers to no more than a few dozen.
The Future: Hope in a Foreign Land
Life in “exile” is, of course, challenging. The challenges come from two directions. First, there is the obvious external pressure. One friend of mine was recently interrogated from 8:00 am until 9:00 pm. When he said he needed to pick up his children at their school, the officers replied, “You need to answer our questions, or you may never see your children again.” This external pressure is visible, expected, and may take different forms. Recently, a Chinese friend told me, “At the beginning of this investigation, the police were very tough and strict, but now they try to be friends and create a friendly atmosphere for each conversation.” He noted the police often bring gifts and seek to manipulate him by using various psychological ploys. Whether through high-tech surveillance, sophisticated psychological maneuvers, or brute force, external persecution can be anticipated and recognized for what it is. The end result is also predictable. As Paul declares, “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:14). Faithful perseverance is required. But, as the Holy Spirit gives strength, the church will grow (Acts 4:31).
There is, however, a second source of pressure: internal pressure. This, too, is noted by Paul: “some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry” (Philippians 1:15, cf. 1:18). This internal pressure afflicts the church as its leaders and congregants face the inevitable questions that arise when one lives in a context of persecution. How bold will we be in our witness? Where can we meet and how many should gather together at one time? What if a member of our church is implicated by the police? These and countless other questions must be faced and have the potential to foster tension and division.
I recently sat and prayed with a Chinese pastor who had been “visited” by the police who knocked on his door and, asked, “Do you pastor a house church?” My friend responded forthrightly and, as he did, he felt a strong sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence. He said the experience served to confirm his call to ministry, feeling that Jesus’ promise in Luke 12:11–12 was fulfilled in his life in that moment. Yet, while he sat on our couch, he received a text message from a leader in his church questioning whether it was wise for him to continue to serve as the church pastor. His presence might cause unwanted scrutiny and be too risky. It was a painful moment, a hard blow to handle. Would his church now abandon him after he had refused to deny Christ?
Fortunately, this story ended well; my friend continues to serve as this church’s pastor. This cautionary tale reminds us that persecution often brings pressure that can only be resolved as the church faces challenges “with one heart and one mind.” Perhaps this is why I love the prayer in Acts 4:23–31 and find it filled with meaning for every church, but especially those facing persecution. When the church has a clear sense of mission—a clear purpose—it is united. Thus, the Christians are described in Acts 4:24 as raising their voices “together” (ὁμοθμαδὸν) in prayer in response to their first experience of persecution. It is no coincidence that the book of Acts contains 10 of 11 occurrences of ὁμοθμαδὸν found in the New Testament (note especially Acts 1:14; 2:46), for this term speaks of the rich unity and sense of purpose that marked the early church. This term is beautifully translated in the Chinese Union Version (CUV) with the expression “同心合意” (“with one heart and one mind”).7 Persecution has a way of focusing the church’s attention on its central purpose.
May this Spirit-inspired sense of unity and purpose mark the Chinese church as it seeks to live as disciples of Jesus in a “foreign” land.
- ChinaSource Team. “Churches Prepare for New Regulations.” ChinaSource Blog, October 03, 2017. Accessed October 3, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinese-church-voices/churches-prepare-for-new-regulations/.
- TSPM stands for Three Self Patriotic Movement. The TSPM was created in the 1950s to bring all China’s Christians and churches under government control. References to the “open church” or “government-recognized” church are churches that are part of the TSPM system.
- SCI China Correspondent. “439 Chinese Christian Leaders—and Counting—Sign Joint Statement Affirming Religious Freedom.” The St. Charles Institute, September 5, 2018. Accessed October 3, 2022. 439* Chinese Christian Leaders—and Counting—Sign Joint Statement Affirming Religious Freedom — The St. Charles Institute (stcharlesinstitute.org).
- “Who Is Wang Yi?” China Partnership. Accessed October 3, 2022. https://www.chinapartnership.org/who-is-wang-yi.
- “China Imposes Restrictions on Hmong Christians.” ChinaAid, December 8, 2019. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://chinaaid.org/china-imposes-restrictions-on-hmong/.
- The “Open Door Policy” is shorthand for the “Open and Reform Policy” (改革开放) which was announced in December 1978 and has been a guiding policy for China’s development since then. The vast improvements in the livelihood of the Chinese people since then are usually attributed to this policy.
- The Chinese Union Version (CUV) is the main Bible translation used by Chinese churches around the world. See Mark A. Strand, “The Origins of the Chinese Union Version Bible.” ChinaSource Blog, September 10, 2018. Accessed October 3, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/the-origins-of-the-chinese-union-version-bible/.