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The Chinese Church May Be More Complex than You Thought


As the 2020 autumn issue of ChinaSource Quarterly (CSQ) implies, when it comes to Christianity in China today, the predominant approach and perception in the West tends to be about one issue—persecution and the related division between the so-called official (registered) church and the underground, persecuted house church. In many ways, this perception has been reinforced in recent years by Beijing’s tougher stance on Christianity. In this worsening climate, the leading essays in the recent issue of CSQ courageously make a badly needed call for a more balanced assessment of the church in China today. These essays once again remind us that the dominant, popular approach and perception are one-sided and simplistic, reflecting an either/or mentality. The reality of church life in China is much more complex. Yes, “complexity” is the key word I would like to highlight.

The Complexity of the Chinese Church

When we talk about Protestant Christianity in contemporary China, at least two trademarks stand out: dual networks or segments (Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and house church movement), and strong governmental oversight or control of the church. However, they also point to a reality of great diversity, richness, and irony.

Specifically, first of all, the Chinese church has never stopped evolving, and has never been static. From 1949 to 1966 the church survived, struggled, and declined under growing political and social pressure. From 1966 to 1976 the church was wiped from public life by the storm of the Cultural Revolution, yet persevered and even grew clandestinely. From the late 1970s to the present the church has made an amazing comeback through waves of revival. It has flourished in the countryside as well as in cities, and has diversified considerably in its theology, polity, and relationship with the larger society. Albeit the fundamental make-up and dynamics of the church and its relation with the state remain the same, the church in China today is significantly different from the church of the past. Therefore, it is not right to simply look at the church today through the lens of the past.

Secondly, as the country and church have been transformed, church life in China today is full of contrast and paradox. To name a few:

The tension and gap between the registered church and the house churchis real particularly on the national level, whereas considerable overlap and collaboration can be found especially at the grassroots level. Some of the top TSPM leaders and theologians may be more progressive theologically, whereas the majority of the churches from both segments share the same evangelical or even fundamentalist theological root and outlook.

Some local governments can be very oppressive and heavy handed in dealing with the churches, whereas other local authorities can be more friendly and tolerant, and thus enjoy a rather harmonious relationship with the churches.

The lines between the registered churches and unregistered ones in some regions can be clearly drawn and identified, whereas the lines are blurred in other regions where a third category—churches registered with TSPM, but completely autonomous—has emerged. (This phenomenon makes some observers question whether “registered church” is the best term for the TSPM segment.)

In any case, the complexity of the Chinese church is beyond question, and defies any simplistic grasp or stereotyping. This should not come as a surprise. After all, we are talking about a vast country with 1.4 billion people and one of the largest Protestant communities in the world. Think about the church in the United States. Do we believe that evangelicals in New England are the same as evangelicals in the Deep South? Of course not! So neither should we think the church in China is as simple and monolithic as is commonly presented. In other words, complex church life and church-state relationships should be perfectly normal, whereas a one-dimensional / monolithic church is abnormal in the Chinese context.

With the complexity of the Chinese church in mind, we stand a better chance of seeing a true picture of reality. Otherwise, we perpetuate highly polarized approaches to the church in China such as we see within the North American church. Two different groups hold two different sets of stereotypes. One group tends to idealize or even idolize the house church, but demean or even demonize the registered church. The other group does the opposite. The former seems to have the louder voice right now. So I would like to offer a few words of caution especially to them.

Let Us Not Idealize, or Even Idolize, the House Church

The house church movement commands high esteem among Christian communities in the West and for good reason. It is fair to say that the house church is attractive and popular largely because of its history of suffering for Christ, its spirit of bearing the cross, and its tendency to foster a family-like church life under difficult and primitive conditions—all of which resemble the early church in many ways. The house church has gained even more popularity and admiration in recent decades, as the church in the West found itself increasingly marginalized in so-called post-Christian societies, and seeks to be missional. In the eyes of many church leaders, the house church is nothing short of a contemporary embodiment or model of the early church’s missional spirit, and therefore, can teach the church in the West a great deal about how to witness as a minority in a hostile environment.

Overall, I am happy to see the international influence that China’s house church currently has; this spotlight from the global church is well deserved. On the other hand, frankly, the more I know the house church in China, the more I feel its newly found fame is a bit too much, even embarrassingly so. Because once again, it is simplistic and thus idealistic, and fails to pay adequate attention to its other (“dark”?) side—its complexity.

The current perception of the house church in China is more accurate for the church of the 1980s and 90s, but questionable for the church of the 21st century. The house church today is more urban, middle-class oriented, and diverse than two decades ago. It has both achievements and problems. It is true that most of the house churches have suffered, and are willing to bear the cross even more, but different churches have different ways to put that spirit into action. While some churches choose high profile confrontation with the authorities, others prefer a low-profile, less confrontational stance.

There are also some churches who embrace and preach the prosperity gospel, and substitute “cheap grace” for bearing the cross. For the house church in China, the threat of consumerism and materialism is real and growing. In addition, there are plenty of stories of internal fighting, church splits, incompetent leadership, financial accountability issues, and abuse of pastors and members within house church circles.

A couple of years ago I accompanied a group of young American pastors on a tour of China. One Sunday some of them went to worship in a good-sized, well-known house church in Beijing. They were very much looking forward to experiencing a house church; they came back feeling a bit disappointed. I think they were expecting to visit a group of believers huddling together in a small apartment. But what they experienced was a pretty standard worship service in a spacious facility, everything appearing familiar except that the language of worship was Chinese. Yes, many house churches in China could be just like their counterparts around the world. They also have their ups and downs; church life can be love-filled, vibrant, and inspiring, but also as messy as churches in America. And yet, the gospel spreads through the churches with all their issues and complexity. Along with our appreciation of the Chinese house church and the lessons they can share with us, let us not forget they are also “earthen vessels.”

Let Us Not Demean, or Even Demonize, the Registered Church Associated with TSPM

The internal and external problems of the TSPM are well publicized in the West. For the critics of the TSPM, its liberal theological orientation, collaboration with the communist regime, bureaucracy, corruption and abuse of power, callousness towards the needs of grassroots congregations and believers are just some of the items on the list of the TSPM’s sins. The list can go on and on.

Some of the harshest rhetoric against the TSPM simply labels it as apostate and an instrument of Satan. This harsh rhetoric may be less popular today; a more common negative term is perhaps “compromised.” All these sins and accusations may have some basis, but if that is all we say about the churches under the TSPM umbrella, then we are not doing justice to thousands of congregations, pastors, and believers.

It is not hard to name solid congregations and church leaders who are faithful to the gospel, ministry-centered, mission-minded, caring for and loving their flocks, self-sacrificial, wise in handling relations with governmental officials and society, and cooperative and reconciliatory to their house church brothers and sisters. If they are called to suffer for Christ, they have no hesitation to do so. Indeed, some of them have faced mounting governmental pressure and even ended up in jail in recent years. In fact, some of the local registered churches are doing such good jobs that there is not much need or room for larger house churches in those areas.

When the group of young American pastors mentioned above attended a worship service, without prior notice, at a packed registered church in Beijing, they were impressed by the solid preaching and vibrant atmosphere in the church. Instead of a message urging believers to be positive about society (therefore toeing the Communist Party’s line), they heard a compelling sermon calling for believers to pay the price of being a witness in the world. It was an eye-opening experience for them, and they walked away with almost a “wow” experience.

In my view, even the idea that the churches are “compromised” should be put in perspective, and re-considered. If the gospel message is compromised, that cannot be defended. But when we come to other “compromises,” it may depend. After all, in two thousand years of Christian history, countless churches in numerous contexts have made countless “compromises.”

Think about how the church in the West negotiated and struck deals with worldly powers in the “Constantinian Settlement,” medieval Christendom, and the Magisterial Reformation in Europe. We never deny that the church continued to witness and serve throughout the ages, even though they made tons of mistakes. If we can acknowledge that about the global church, can we do the same with the Chinese church?

Back to the story of the Chinese church, even after Watchman Nee rejected Wang Mingdao’s confrontational approach to the rise of the TSPM, and joined it in the early 1950s, we still consider Nee as one of the great evangelical leaders in China. If we can respect such evangelical leaders of the past, can we do the same with today’s church leaders in China?

Of course, that does not mean we should ignore the fundamental differences between registered and house churches especially in how they relate to the authorities. Neither does it mean that we do not say what is right and what is wrong. All I am trying to convey is that we must be aware of the complexity of the Chinese church.

If we are aware of that, we will be able to avoid reckless criticism and sweeping denunciation before doing careful investigation and putting ourselves in their shoes. It is not too difficult for us to discover that the either/or approach won’t work in the Chinese context today. I believe this is one of the key lessons we can learn from the autumn issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly.

Image credit: Mike Falkenstine, One Catalyst.

CHEN Jing

CHEN Jing (pseudonym) is a theological educator teaching in North America and extensively involved in theological education for the church in China since the beginning of the 21st century.View Full Bio


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