“TSPM or house church?”
This is often the first question asked in discussions about a particular church congregation, or a particular pastor, in China.
Broadly speaking, this division of the church into “official” and “unofficial” makes sense. It has been the common shorthand of those observing the church since Christianity’s resurgence in the 1980s. Yet, by categorizing China’s Christians in terms of their relationship to the government, this terminology immediately politicizes the church.
Writing in the Catholic publication UCA News, Michel Chambon, a Boston University doctoral student focusing on religion in China, urges a deeper look at the very real divisions within China’s church. Chambon observes that the strongest voices constructing the narrative about the church in China are often those of social scientists.
“Therefore,” says Chambon, “They have a tendency to focus on political aspects and leave aside theological or ecclesiological questions. This reality of the research reminds us that speakers shape debates.”
Rather than accepting the political narrative as definitive, Chambon suggests observers of China’s church need to take into account other differences.
“Relying on only academic scholars, or on clergy members, is not enough to recognize the mystery of the divided body of Christ. Only one type of speaker and only one kind of criterion do not serve Christian unity. The torments of Chinese Christians invite us to [be] more analytical.”
Chambon points out the uniqueness of Wenzhou churches led by “boss Christians,” along with Calvinist-leaning middle class urban churches and the existence of quasi-Christian cults as evidence of the wide diversity within China’s church.
One could go further and look at the vast differences between charismatic groups with roots in China’s countryside and the more traditional theological stance of conservative urban house churches or congregations under the TSPM. China’s urban migrants have their unique church culture as well.
Scratch the surface of the neatly divided “official” and “unofficial” churches, and one quickly finds that Christians in China—like those in most countries around the world—are not easily put into boxes.
As Chambon says, “Everything may be political but is not exclusively political. . . . Chinese Christians teach us that only one factor is never enough.”
The title of Chambon’s short article, “What can be learnt from divisions among Chinese Christians,” suggests that understanding these multiple factors is necessary to, as Chambon puts it, “truly measure all the struggles and tears that divide Chinese Christians.”
In so, doing, says Chambon, Christians outside China will be better able not only to understand their Chinese brothers and sisters, but also to intercede on their behalf:
“Christians are constrained in this world by numerous challenges. Praying for their communion requires us to embrace the complexity of their incarnated situations.”
Image credit: The Village Church by Christopher via Flickr.
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of... View Full Bio