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The Long History of Government Oversight and China’s Church

From the series Learning from Jingjiao, China’s Earliest Christian Church

When studying the current state of Christianity in the People’s Republic of China, Western observers often quickly fixate on the controls imposed by the current government. Only one Protestant church is legally recognized—the Three Self Patriotic Movement—and therefore many Christians have chosen to worship in house churches that are underground. The government regulates baptisms and prohibits or closely monitors contact with foreign Christians and churches. All of this seems so foreign to our Western concepts of religious freedom. But is it China or America that is the anomaly?

In the early third century it was still illegal in the Roman Empire for a Christian to practice his religion. However, Tertullian, a lawyer in Carthage, argued that “it is a fundamental human right in accord with man’s nature that everyone may worship in whatever way he wishes. The religion of one man can neither harm nor help another man. Nor indeed is it the business of religion to compel religious worship, for that ought to be done of a person’s free will, and not by force” (To Scapula 2). By the early fourth century, Christianity had become legal in the empire, and by the end of the century it had become the empire’s only legal religion. From that point on Christianity and the governments of Europe were inextricably linked.

Since the Reformation there has been a gradual disconnect between church and state on the Continent. The Age of Enlightenment contributed to this while outwardly promoting religious tolerance. Yet only in the newly confederated American colonies did a political vision win out that included the principle of not favoring a single religion but allowing all to worship freely. And this, as we experience still today, is an idea that has been difficult to fully put into practice.

To the east of the Roman Empire, the Christian church in the Middle East never experienced a “Constantinian turn.” While the church grew into a sizeable minority religion, its adherents did not hold political power. The Sassanids who ruled Mesopotamia and adjacent regions worshipped in their traditional Zoroastrian fire temples. Their Islamic successors allowed Christians to practice their faith but made evangelizing a capital offense. But this did not stop the Church of the East from spreading the good news to India, Central Asia, and, by the seventh century, to China. It perseveres to the present day, but through most of its history it has earned the name so aptly given it by historian David Wilmshurst, The Martyred Church.

When its missionaries arrived in the Chinese capital of Chang’an in 635, they understood that Christianity in the Middle Kingdom required government approval. They handed over copies of their sacred texts to the imperial officials of the ruling Tang Dynasty for translation, scrutiny, and approval for their dissemination. The application was successful, and a government edict allowed the new Luminous Teaching, as it called itself, to be spread in all China, including the building of a church in the capital city. Subsequent emperors gave honorific titles to church leaders and gifted imperial portraits and calligraphy to the church, asking its prayers in return. At one point the government even decreed that the church change its name to clarify its origin. From what we know, the Church of the East operated under the supervision of the Tang government bureaucrats quite harmoniously for some two centuries until it was banned in 845, caught in the crossfire of an anti-foreign edict directed at Buddhism.

But the Church of the East was not finished in China. Within a century of the ban, new Syriac-speaking missionaries were making converts among the semi-nomadic Turkic tribes of Central Asia and northwestern China. By the time Genghis Khan had melded these tribes into an empire, a significant Christian presence was to be found throughout his Mongol realm. When that empire was partitioned and Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan formed the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Turkic-Mongolian Christians, called Yelikewen in the Chinese sources, were to be found throughout his bureaucracy. The Christian presence in China was large enough that a government ministry was formed to oversee relations with the group, imitating the oversight of the other religions. The Mongol rulers, however, were always regarded as foreign occupiers, and this also tainted perceptions of the Christians, many of whom were in government employ. When the Yuan fell and was replaced by the Ming, Christianity seems also to have quickly disappeared.

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and its successor the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) both followed all their predecessors in regulating religious affairs. They also followed previous dynasties in trying to keep out foreigners and what they deemed to be foreign religions. The Jesuits succeeded in establishing a base of operation during the Ming period, and the disastrous outcome of the Opium Wars finally forced the Qing to unwillingly open its borders to Western trade and to Protestant and Catholic missionaries. The great rebellion that convulsed China in the mid nineteenth century and sought to establish a new Tai Ping Heavenly Kingdom was also viewed as “Christian” by many in the government. These historical realities meant that Christianity would be negatively viewed by many in modern China, invariably connected with instability and with Western colonialism. All the more reason for the government to ensure some oversight.

Thus, when the Chinese Communist Party declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, it was not just its socialist agenda that caused it to seek oversight of Christianity and the other religions, but almost two millennia of tradition and experience. After a brief attempt to abolish religion altogether, the CCP began its attempt to normalize relations with and “protect” the five official religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism), the policy that continues today. The fact of oversight is a historical and practical phenomenon. How this has been carried out, and what limitations have been imposed on the various faiths is another matter. Christians in China, as in the rest of the world, have followed the biblical injunctions to pray for its political leaders and to live moral lives as good citizens. Government supervision has not and will not change that.

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Image credit: Alexander Mueller via PxHere.
Glen Thompson

Glen Thompson

Glen L. Thompson received an MDiv from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary and MA and PhD degrees in history from Columbia University. He served as a missionary in Zambia, New York City, and Hong Kong, and held professorships at Wisconsin Lutheran College (Milwaukee) and most recently at Asia Lutheran Seminary (Hong Kong) …View Full Bio

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