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Beyond “Two Camps”: The Complex Relationship between Official and Unregistered Church in China

Attempts by China watchers to unravel the complexity of China's Christian community often result in a bifurcated view depicting a pitched battle between the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the house church. Liberal theology, political control, and collusion in persecuting believers characterize the TSPM, while the "real Christians" are to be found only in the house church, a bastion of evangelical faith set amidst an atheistic state that is out to destroy it.

However, the complexity is not so easily unraveled. While this characterization may have been accurate in previous decades, the current situation is far less clear-cut. With China's reform and opening have come significant changes in the TSPM's role, in China's religious policy, and in the unregistered church community, all of which have brought, and continue to bring, a new level of complexity to the relationship between China's official and unregistered church streams.

These developments have resulted in a tense yet synergistic relationship between these two main segments of the church. The Chinese Communist Party is still officially atheist; nevertheless religious policy of the past thirty years has stressed the positive contribution of religious believers to China's national reconstruction rather than the Marxian characterization of religion as the "opiate of the masses." Within this framework the TSPM's role has shifted from an anti-imperialist program of curtailing the church's influence to a focus on ensuring "normal" church development. The need to distance itself from its anti-imperialist past prompted Ding Guangxun, then head of the TSPM, to ask in 1987 whether it wouldn't be better to eliminate the TSPM altogether and entrust the work of China's official church to the newly created China Christian Council. (In the wake of subsequent events toward the end of that decade Ding's proposal was shelved.)

As the TSPM's sister organization, the China Christian Council resources the church with Bibles, pastoral training, literature, and other forms of support, all of which indirectly benefit the unregistered church as well. Not a few pastors trained in the TSPM/CCC system have left to serve the unregistered church. In both the registered and unregistered communities, there is emerging a new generation of believers who are largely evangelical in conviction and generally apolitical, with little interest in perpetuating the kind of heated debates that characterized relations in the 1950s and 1980s. More than a few of those in TSPM pulpits today grew up in house church families in the latter years of Mao's reign. Meanwhile, most of those in the emerging "third wave" or urban professional church have ties to neither the TSPM nor the traditional house churches (although their sympathies would lie with the latter).

Significant tensions remain, however, not the least of which is the enduring question that has been at the center of opposition to the TSPM since its inception, namely, "Who is head of the church?" China's political structure puts the TSPM firmly under the control of the United Front Department, a branch of the Party responsible for supervising non-party elements in society. Furthermore current regulations create a legal framework for the church that ultimately gives the government a strong hand in matters including leadership selection, church decision making, acquisition of property for church facilities, relationships with Christian groups overseas, and evangelistic activities.

As in the unregistered church, believers operating within the TSPM structure have shown remarkable creativity in the face of these restrictions, not only in maintaining church activities but also expanding the church's reach. The difference of course is that those under the TSPM umbrella can push the envelope with at least some assurance of official cover. The unregistered churches have no such guarantee unless they are willing to come into the TSPM system, the de facto requirement for official registration in most places. This puts the two on very different footing and creates the current untenable situation in which the government tolerates the proliferation of house churches but refuses to grant them legal status.

How this situation will resolve itself remains to be seen. While streamlining the entire system and allowing all churches to register legally would seem a very straightforward direction to take, few things in China are straightforward. (Just ask those who began holding their breath following Ding's premature announcement in 1987.)

Image credit: Makzhou, via Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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