Resource Corner

The Registered Church in China

Flourishing in a Challenging Environment

A Book Coming Soon by Wayne Ten Harmsel

Soon to be released by Wipf & Stock Publishers (Pickwick imprint), Wayne Ten Harmsel’s new book, The Registered Church in China: Flourishing in a Challenging Environment, looks at a variety of issues and ties that the registered church deals with due to its relationship with the Chinese government.

The Table of Contents

Chapter 1: We Are Christ’s Church!
Chapter 2: Change and Challenges
Chapter 3: Church-State Relations—Who’s in Charge?
Chapter 4: A New Reality
Chapter 5: The Debate Over Sinicization
Chapter 6: The Great Divide
Chapter 7: Strengths and Weaknesses
Appendix: Religious Affairs Regulations

An Excerpt from Chapter 3

In the early 1950s an agency was established in China to register and keep account of all churches. The agency is called the Lianghui, which, roughly translated, means “two councils” or “two committees.” The two councils are the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the Christian Council (CC). While the Christian Council is concerned more with internal church issues, the TSPM focuses more on external affairs. Because it relates directly with the government, the TSPM gets most of the attention and criticism. The churches belonging to the Lianghui are commonly referred to as Three-Self churches, a negative identifying marker implying that the Three-Self churches are completely controlled by the government.

Registered church leaders have to live with the name, but they refuse to acknowledge that the TSPM controls them. For them, the TSPM refers not to a dominating structure, but rather to a bridge-like structure between the church and the government. The truth is, however, the TSPM is more complicated than a simple bridge-like organization. When I asked specifically what the TSPM does, most pastors and lay people used words like “be responsible for,” “manage,” or most often “guanli” meaningto oversee.” One pastor said the churches “are under the supervision of the TSPM.” At the same time, these same pastors insist that the churches do what they want and are not controlled by the government. Maybe it is simply a matter of semantics or maybe a case of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Pastors registered in this system on the whole are a practical, realistic bunch. They are aware of their situation and realize that at any time it could deteriorate. In the meantime, they simply need to do what they can. One pastor reflected on this reality:

Since the revolution, the Communist party has been in charge. The party ideology and the government ideology are communist. That’s the reality! But we give thanks to God that in this kind of society he is calling and gathering his people. There will necessarily be conflict. In this situation, the most important thing is prayer. God loves his people and will hear their prayers. In this society, temptation is very strong. There are temptations like power, money, and position, and many people dance to their tunes. This leads to many Christians’ downfall. But if you don’t give in and know you are a child of God, he will certainly lead you and see you through. With the government, you need to be able to distinguish what is important and what is not important. Faith must be held on to strongly. Administrative things we can compromise about and negotiate. We have had good relations with the government.

Framing the issue, another pastor said,

The church is not free to protest in Tiananmen Square, but it is free to preach the gospel in church. Likewise, the government cannot preach atheism in church. We cannot go to the Great Hall of the People and say that atheism will certainly be destroyed. But we can preach in church that those who believe in Jesus will go to heaven and those who do not believe in Jesus will certainly go to hell.

Echoing this sentiment, another pastor said that, “There’s freedom to do anything on church property, but there are things you cannot do in public places.” These comments reflect the government’s unique interpretation of religious freedom: people are free to believe any way they want, but they can only express that belief on church property. This of course impacts most heavily on evangelism and social justice, things which are not allowed outside of church grounds.

Registered church leaders tell me that they can compromise on non-essentials while holding firmly to the fundamentals of the faith. They believe that silence regarding political and social justice issues buys them the ability to continue preaching and teaching the basic Christian gospel. The things they are giving up allow them to hang on to what they most cherish. Up until 2015, this approach seemed efficacious, but now, the churches are watching and wondering.

I am paraphrasing another pastor who said that the church should be separate from the government. Scripture says we can honor the government and those in power, but we have no obligation to be involved in politics. If you are concerned about flags in church, your thinking is a bit narrow. If you go to a church in the US and see a national flag, you will not automatically conclude that there is no faith in that church, so why come to that conclusion about Chinese churches? Whether to have a flag or not is not an issue of fundamental belief. Actually, it is strange for Christians in China not to support the government. When Jesus came, he did not recruit people to rebel against the Roman government. In the face of the injustices of the Roman government, Jesus said that we are to love our enemy. Opposing the government is a matter of personal opinion, not a matter of faith.

Registered church pastors know how to survive, and they have a strong sense of priorities. One pastor said:

The amount of religious freedom in the US is dangerous, while the situation in China is not bad. Christians do not need to be concerned about the government, but they need to worry about living in a way that honors God and helps spread the gospel. Some pastors are more concerned with the government than they should be. As a church, we are here to worship God, not to change the government. The government will always be here and we should just ignore it. Our focus should be on Christ’s return rather than political ideology.

He added that, “Christians need to keep their priorities straight, focused on Christ and his return,”—an interesting statement from a pastor who supposedly cannot talk about the second coming.

Watch for this publication, which should be available later this year.

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ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

Written, translated, or edited by members of the ChinaSource staff.          View Full Bio