When it comes to relations between registered churches and the state, the old real estate mantra, location, location, location—which has been the default way of explaining most any church/state relationship situation in China—does not necessarily apply today. Ever since new religious regulations were unveiled by the government in mid-2017, people have been speculating as to how these regulations would affect the churches.
Now, about two years later, we’re beginning to get answers. Based on what I observed in a recent trip to China, I’ll briefly describe what is happening in the areas of Sunday school, flags, and crosses in several churches in Beijing, Kaifeng and Anyang in Henan, and Baoding in Hebei. While not always terribly important in and of themselves, these three issues do often indicate possible future directions in government policy.
And we will see that the level of government meddling does not always depend on who and where you are.
In Beijing, I talked with about a half dozen pastors from three different churches and several lay people from one of these churches. For the most part, as might be expected in this showcase city, virtually everyone said that things are normal.
They are carrying on ministry as they always have. The pastors had to attend training regarding the new regulations and the Sinicization campaign—but lots of meetings are normal for Beijing pastors.
There were a couple of telling exceptions to this normalcy. One was the issue of Sunday school. At two of the three churches I visited, Sunday school was going on normally. There were no changes. In fact, one of them had just built a new wing of classrooms. These two churches were in Beijing proper. The third church I contacted was in a far suburb. At this church, local officials had ruled that Sunday school must stop. The church responded to this by changing the name from “Sunday school” to “culture classes.” This satisfied the officials. But the attempt to eradicate Sunday school in a Beijing suburb is a bit troubling. To me it indicates that the Beijing government is under pressure to enforce the new regulations more strictly than before.
Flags were not an issue in Beijing. The suburban church did not have a courtyard, so there was no place to put a flag. The two city churches put flags up as requested by the government, but did not see that as a problem. They simply pointed out that in many countries there are flags inside the churches. Crosses also were not a problem. None of the churches had had their crosses messed with.
Baoding, perhaps because of its proximity to Beijing, or possibly because of good relations with local officials, was operating normally. By way of explanation, the pastor I talked with simply said that things are different everywhere.
That was certainly true in Henan. At the West Gate church in Kaifeng I talked with an elder. She mentioned that government regulations were getting tighter. Although the cross and flag were not issues here, Sunday school was. The government strictly enforced the rule that no one under 18 may be allowed on church grounds. The church got around this by holding Sunday school at a rented location off church grounds.
The Jesus Church in Anyang was dealing with the most government interference of all the churches I visited. They were required to fly the flag, had the crosses removed from the church, and had their Sunday school closed. With the Sunday school being closed, the church had started a class for parents, teaching them the Sunday school lesson so that they could then teach their children. The pastor and elder with whom I met were quite upset with the government because of this situation. The pastor explained that the government was cracking down on churches in Henan simply because there were more Christians in Henan than other provinces.
These examples of course are based on a minute sample of registered churches in China. But they are troubling because I believe they are representative of most registered churches. These are supposed to be open, government recognized churches, and yet they are finding their ministry increasingly interfered with by that same government. This does not bode well for the future.
Wayne Ten Harmsel
Wayne Ten Harmsel is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lived for a dozen or so years in Beijing, working with Chinese churches and pastors.View Full Bio
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