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“Sinicization” of Christianity—Understanding the Contexts

Earlier this month Christianity Today asked ChinaSource for an article about the current campaign to “Sinicize” Christianity, that is to make Christianity more Chinese (as defined by the government). The result was an article published under the title “China Tells Christianity to Become More Chinese,” written by myself and our new president Kerry Schottelkorb.

Our goal in the article was not to re-cap the various disturbing reports coming out of China, but to provide an overview of what we believe to be the necessary contexts to help readers understand what is happening.

There is a political context:

This task is part of a broader Communist Party campaign to reassert control over all aspects of Chinese society. One area of particular concern for the party-state has been what it sees as the growing influence of Western culture and ideas. Since Xi came to power in 2012, similar crackdowns have been directed against other sectors, such as media and education.

While religious activities are seen as a normal part of civil society in the West, they are increasingly viewed in China as a threat to national stability, particularly if there is any foreign involvement. The push to sinicize religion is not confined to Protestant Christianity. All five government-sanctioned religious bodies—Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—have been required to work out sinicization plans.

There is a rhetorical context:

In China, there is often a gap between rhetoric and reality, something its citizens are also keenly aware of. As Westerners, we tend to take official pronouncements at face value, assuming that implementation will immediately follow. Those engaged in “China-watching” need to pay more attention to what actually happens more than what is said.

Still, the trends are worrying, and there’s evidence that some local officials are translating the rhetoric into reality. 

There is a historical context:

The sinicization of religion is not merely a Communist goal; the desire to free religious practice from foreign influence has been a theme in Chinese society since its earliest encounters with the West. Throughout its history, every Christian or religious advance into China was supported, tolerated, or prohibited depending on how it aligned with imperial objectives. Religions that did not fit were proscribed and persecuted.

You can read the entire article here.

On the same day the article was published in Christianity Today, Jackson Wu tackled the theological context in a post titled “Sinicized” Christianity is NOT Christianity.”

Most of “Sinicized Christianity” (as proposed by government officials) stands in contrast to biblical Christianity; yet, we can learn from certain criticisms they press against the church. For sure, Chinese Christians have not contextualized biblical sound theologies to the extent that is possible. Most believers simply accept teachings inherited from Western scholars and missionaries without thinking about what else they themselves could contribute to the global church.

Western missionaries certainly share in the blame. They have not always reflected critically on the influence of the West on their own theology and methods. Missionaries have not always made a concerted effort to contextualize the gospel and train Chinese believers to develop their own contextualized theologies and expressions of Christianity.

Also, much theological training focuses on passing along the right doctrine. However, less attention and labor are dedicated to fostering people’s ability to think critically. Such a task is far more painful for both students and teachers. It is time intensive. It requires more homework and credentialed teachers. However, such growth is necessary for the church in China to reach its full potential.

As we watch this sinicization campaign play out, or, perhaps fizzle, as has often happened in the past, it will be interesting to see if, despite the political aims of the government, more theologically-driven expressions of Christianity emerge. It is to that end that we pray.

Image credit: Joann Pittman via Flickr.
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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