Why do Chinese Christians today hold such starkly different views of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) association and its official churches? Are the TSPM and its churches “compromised,” as some house church leaders claim? To answer these questions, it helps to return to the origins of the Three-Self idea, sketch how Communist victory led to the creation of the Three-Self association, and look at how grassroots official churches operate today.
The idea of congregational autonomy—self-propagation (or evangelism and church planting), self-governance, and financial self-support, the “Three Selfs”—was first raised by a nineteenth century missionary, Henry Venn,1 who worried that foreign missionary boards had too much control over Chinese churches. The concept gained support in the 1920s during the Anti-Christian Movement, in the aftermath of the May 4th movement against foreign imperialism. It gained real institutional form when Protestant elites, who had been selected by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for their loyalty, established a national association in the early 1950s (alongside official religious associations for the four other “official” religions; Catholicism was deemed a separate religion).
From the founding of the TSPM in the early 1950s, clear signs indicated that the CCP was concerned about the political loyalties of Chinese Christians, Protestant and Catholic, because lay and professional religious people had strong friendships and financial ties to its enemy countries, the United States and European powers. In fact, archives from the 1940s note how a few outspoken Protestant pastors and Catholic priests then had vocally criticized the Communist takeover. So, when the Communist Party set up the five national religious associations, only the Christian associations were compelled to include “patriotic” in their organizational titles. This added to suspicions toward the newly formed TSPM among grassroots believers, congregations, and their church leaders, who faced hard decisions. Church leaders could choose to affiliate with and fall under TSPM (and thus CCP) authority or cease public worship or face imprisonment. Some chose imprisonment, such as house church “father” Wang Mingdao, who rejected the TSPM as compromised by its political alliance with the CCP. Others hoped for accommodation with the new regime and willingly signed on. Still others faced the intense public pressure and affiliated only after China entered the Korean War to fight the United States, when wartime rallies publicly compelled Protestants to sign loyalty oaths to the regime and the TSPM.
By the mid-1950s, however, TSPM-affiliated churches (or official churches) became increasingly politicized as Maoist rhetoric replaced traditional sermons and multiple churches were forcibly merged into a handful of congregations and denominational identities erased. For example, Beijing had more than sixty churches before the mergers; afterwards, fewer than five survived. Public worship attendance dwindled.
Internally, party-state officials staffed positions in the Three-Self association and closely monitored (and reported on) TSPM leaders, who organized conferences to pressure grassroots pastors to toe the shifting national CCP line. By the Cultural Revolution’s outbreak in 1966, all churches were shuttered and Three-Self pastors, like other party-state officials, were forced to criticize each other and then were sent to the countryside or factories to do manual labor.
This brief history explains why older Protestants in the reform era view the TSPM with a range of attitudes—from hope to skepticism to fear—because it had served as an instrument of CCP repression among Protestants for the previous three decades. That legacy of persecution continued to haunt the memories of these Protestants for several reasons. First, despite the new Deng Xiaoping era’s promise that the CCP would now accommodate religion, there had never been a reckoning with the past, much less a “truth and reconciliation” process to heal old wounds. Also, it was the same TSPM leaders who had led the Mao-era persecution (as well as suffered themselves) who regained their former positions. The older Protestants, outside the official churches, passed on their memories, of course, to new generations of Protestants in the house churches, sustaining a narrative of the TSPM, its churches, and its leaders as fatally compromised by political power.
TSPM Church Autonomy? Bureaucratic Structures and Current Realities
Is the TSPM and its affiliated churches a “tool to extinguish Christianity” as some house church leaders claim? Through this lens, a house church leader interprets every action taken by a TSPM leader that leads to inconvenience, hardship, or worse as evidence of the infidelity of the TSPM association or leaders to Christ. In reality, it is sometimes simply envy and congregational competition that spurs TSPM leaders to report a house church to authorities, resulting in harassment. Other times, TSPM pastors are implementing national directives—such as the 2002-2003 ban on all public gatherings during the SARS epidemic—which house church leaders cite as going against the Bible’s injunctions to keep on meeting, further proof in their eyes of the compromised, political nature of official churches. More often, as I point out in my book, house church leaders mention the theological reform campaigns launched by TSPM leaders in response to CCP directives as evidence of their infidelity.2 As Barthel notes in his thesis, in the 1990s and 2000s it was called “theological construction” to emphasize the possibility of reconciliation between the socialist system and Protestant theology, whereas by the late 2010s and into 2020 and beyond it is taking the form of “Sinicization,” the harmonization of Christian theology with traditional Chinese culture, as a way to channel and tame Protestant zeal.3 Nearly any TSPM effort to promote theological change sparks suspicion and harsh criticism from some parts of the unregistered house church communities.
At the same time, the realities of the party-state and Chinese Protestant Christianity prevent the worst kind of regime intervention and monitoring. For one thing, there are far too many Protestant Christians for authorities to oversee all of them (this is one reason that TSPM leaders are tasked with such oversight). For another thing, the very bureaucratic structure of the regime’s religious oversight and of the TSPM association makes strict control difficult. For example, religious affairs authorities are some of the lowest paid and hence least-motivated personnel in the party-state hierarchy. With low pay and morale, these officials have little incentive to carefully study religious policies that require making distinctions between traditional and cultish groups. Furthermore, they quickly find that strict policy enforcement can backfire because recalcitrant believers can generate public attention—even worse, international media attention—that gives China a bad name from any religion-state conflict. All of this means that religious affairs authorities prefer a laissez-faire attitude.
Second, organizationally, top TSPM leaders have limited power to enforce policies on grassroots congregations. From the outside, the TSPM association appears to be a strongly integrated, top to bottom organization in which national leaders can compel churches to implement new policies. In reality, the TSPM association is highly fragmented, with national leaders only able to pressure provincial- or city-level leaders who themselves are so busy that individual pastors under their watch often enjoy considerable degrees of freedom.
A third factor is that the lower one goes in the Protestant leadership hierarchy of the TSPM, the more leaders share values and perspectives that are similar to those of the house church leaders. This shared outlook is even more true among the younger generation of thirty- and forty-something church leaders, who never lived through the Maoist period (nor bought into its claims about foreign Christians’ exploitation of China). This rising generation of leaders more frequently sees Christian foreigners as “brothers and sisters” of one faith.
This does not mean that grassroots pastors of TSPM churches do not experience official pressure at all. Indeed, on major holidays or other key events, local authorities may compel TSPM leaders and prominent church pastors to publicly demonstrate their loyalty and gratitude to the party-state. On such occasions, they dutifully parrot communist declarations, such as one leader did by announcing at a new church opening that Christians should “study the spirit of the party Congress.” On another occasion, one after another Protestant leader echoed formulaic denunciations of American imperialism at an event celebrating the TSPM’s founding. However, these are merely public performances, part of a “public transcript” that both authorities and church leaders know must be followed in public arenas. These performances should not be taken as proof of deep-seated convictions among TSPM Protestants (even if house church leaders insist that they reveal the “false” nature of the TSPM). Instead these savvy Protestants are merely satisfying the outward demands of party-state officials in spotlighted events, and by doing so they are mostly let alone to go about their business. So while the authorities bristle at public resistance to their power, they have long closed their eyes to the daily, private actions by such Protestants. In these ways, official church pastors have learned to satisfy local authorities’ demands and continue with the core operations they deem essential: pastoring congregations, teaching and baptizing new converts, and training essential staff.
Thus, it is mainly in large cities, or in the most prominent official churches that pastors complain about persistent monitoring by TSPM superiors or state authorities (especially on particularly important holidays like Christmas or Easter), about control of congregational funds by TSPM association leaders, or about political background checks (for house church or foreign missionary ties) that hinder eager Christians from enrolling as state seminary students.
So what do TSPM (or official church) pastors do? After gaining entry to and graduating from an official seminary, they need to pass a second background check to be installed and ordained as a leader in a grassroots church. At that point, pastors are able to do a wide range of things: preach sermons, baptize new believers, organize church services, and so forth. Outside the public eye, many also train house church believers in their own training sessions, or collaborate with leaders on sending out missionaries (something that is strictly illegal but has expanded the church both inside China as well as across borders into Central Asia and elsewhere ), or even by baptizing new house church believers. When government campaigns announce a new crackdown on cults or religious groups, these pastors have also sheltered house church leaders and their congregations from being rounded up by telling local government officials which house churches have orthodox beliefs. Local authorities typically trust TSPM pastors to distinguish orthodox (and politically “trustworthy”) believers from “cultic” groups.
In very recent times, however, in the Xi Jinping era, this status quo has begun to breakdown. With the anti-cross campaign launched in 2013 to 2015 in coastal Zhejiang Province, the increasingly restrictive 2018 national regulation, and reports in recent months of TSPM and house church congregations being harassed and shut down, the Xi Jinping era constitutes a “new normal” in harassment and persecution. House congregations used to occupy a gray zone between official TSPM churches that were approved, and banned groups. But what we are seeing now appears to be concerted official pressure on both official churches and house churches. Not only is the Xi government attempting to forcibly implement religious policy by eradicating house churches, it is also constricting the number of public worship spaces in Three-Self churches, and even announcing efforts to transform the meaning and practices of traditional Protestant worship through the “Sinicization” campaign.
The future looks rather uncertain for the popular support of the TSPM and its official churches, as well as for house churches, as local authorities face increasing pressure to constrain official church activities and actively ban previously permitted house church groups.
- Henry Venn, Memoir of the Rev. H. Venn : the Missionary Secretariat of Henry Venn; prebendary of St. Paul’s, and honorary secretary of the Church Missionary Society, London: Scottiswoode & Company, 1880, https://archive.org/stream/memoirofrevhvenn00knig/memoirofrevhvenn00knig_djvu.txt, accessed on July 15, 2020, 316.
- Vala, Carsten T. The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God above Party? (Routledge, 2017), p. 90. Or see here: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C21&q=carsten+vala+politics+of+protestant+churches+and+party-state&btnG=.
- Anthony Barthels, “Sinicization: Political, Social, and Doctrinal Implications,” 2020, Asia Lutheran Seminary, Master’s Thesis.
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Carsten T. Vala is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. He published a book on the rise and fall of public house churches like Beijing Shouwang church in 2017 (The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God Above Party?), and …View Full Bio