The Registered Church in China: Flourishing in a Challenging Environment by Wayne Ten Harmsel. Published by Pickwick Publications, 2021, 148 pages. Available in print and as an ebook from the publisher and Amazon.
Wayne Ten Harmsel’s book, The Registered Church in China: Flourishing in a Challenging Environment, is a must read for anyone who wishes to work with the registered church in China. This book should be a required primer for all who consider cross-cultural work whether with the registered church or the house church. I will make it required reading for anyone traveling with us in the future.
The book has seven chapters:
- We Are Christ’s Church!
- Change and Challenges
- Church-State Relations—Who’s in Charge?
- A New Reality
- The Debate over Sinicization
- The Great Divide
- Strengths and Weaknesses
In the first chapter, Ten Harmsel provides an introduction to the registered church, addressing such questions as core doctrines, structure, and demographics. In chapter two, he looks at some of the challenges, such as cults, a shortage of biblical scholars, and what he calls “ecclesiastical isolation.”
He turns to the thorny issue of church-state relations, with a closer look at the Lianghui, the quasi-governmental body that oversees churches in China in chapter three. To say that church-state relations are complicated is an understatement. In chapter four, he gives an overview of the religious regulations that govern religious life in China.
In chapter five, he examines the issue of “Sinicization,” asking if it is an example of contextualization, or something more sinister. In chapter six, he looks at the difficult and complicated relationship between the registered and unregistered churches, pointing out that despite their differences, and sometimes hostilities, there is some cross-pollination taking place. In chapter seven, he poses the question, “how can a church be the church in a repressive and antagonistic setting? He closes the book with a consideration of the future.
The strengths of the book are many including:
- Ten Harmsel points out correctly that most information concerning the CCC/TSPM comes from house church/unregistered church leaders. Therefore, most of what has been published and shared with church congregations outside of China is overwhelmingly negative. Some of the common myths widely espoused and generally believed in the West include:
- All CCC/TSPM pastors and leaders are pawns of the Communist Party and many, perhaps most, are not true believers.
- The Bibles printed inside China are not accurate and omit some books (usually assumed to be Revelation and Daniel). Even if these books are in the Bibles CCC pastors are not permitted to preach from them.
- CCC pastors are in the ministry for the money.
- Sermons must be scrutinized and approved by the government.
- Most CCC/TSPM leaders are theologically liberal.
- The book contains a brief but helpful summary of the distinctions and similarities between the CCC and TSPM. In so doing he also attempts to explain how these two agencies interface with the Party-State apparatus. As this book is a primer it would have been helpful for the author to explain that China makes no pretense of separation of church and state. Such is a distinctly American perspective.
- Pages 95–120 provide a translation of religious laws in China. This section should be required reading for anyone even thinking about contributing to the religious community in China today. I have been astounded by how many people attempting to provide religious assistance to the church in China have not read these regulations.
- I found the author’s insight and prediction on yitang daidian, how the United Front may supervise the preaching points moving forward to be extremely insightful. He suggests they will make larger churches more officially responsible for the oversight of the many (sometimes over 100) smaller meeting points in their area. I suspect not only would the larger city churches provide guidance but also be made responsible for discipline and reportage.
While it is probably outside the scope of Ten Harmsel’s book, I wish he would have pointed out some the significant changes/differences from the previous regulations. For example, the draconian addition of cautions against “religious extremism,” “national security,” and “core socialist values.” Foreigners do need to be advised that inappropriate activity can bring severe consequences not only for themselves but for the Chinese people they are attempting to serve. If the goal is to avoid any divisiveness and espouse unity in a Socialist system could a person be prosecuted and found guilty for simply stating “Jesus is the only way to heaven?” The verdict is no longer out at the moment.
- I was intrigued by the new designation of tizhinei (“inside the system”) being applied to registered churches and tizhiwai (“outside the system”) being used to speak of unregistered churches. Therefore, one is inside the system and the other outside the system. “These have replaced the words dengji jiaohui and meidengji jiaohui or “registered church and unregistered church.” The names have thus gone from being based on something they do (register or not) to being based on something they are (“insider or outsider”). (p. 55) This could result in bringing cultural and civic disdain upon groups which do not register.
- The chapter on Sinicization is a tremendously helpful introduction to what is unquestionably the theme du jour of the Communist Party. It is the theme at the highest levels (for example in November at the Amity Press celebration of 200 million Bibles published) and at grassroots level throughout the country. Ten Harmsel correctly raises the question of where—as the government started promoting the sijin or “four advances“ in 2018: The Chinese flag, theological construction, principles of socialism, and traditional Chinese culture—will this lead? Is the ultimate intention to somehow amalgamate Marxist atheism with Christianity or simply to put a more Chinese face on a Chinese Church? The author does a fair and balanced job of presenting both possibilities. His conclusion is that should the Party demand the former, the CCC leaders will not accommodate and will ultimately refuse to compromise their faith and conservative interpretation of Scripture.
As I read the book, some questions and observations came to mind, particularly related to the significant changes that have been taking place in China in recent years, even in the time since this book was published in 2021.
The author was in China from 2006–2017. He spent some time there again in 2018–2019. His exit was, perhaps coincidentally, around the same time as an estimated 50% of Christian cross-cultural workers left China either under pressure or voluntarily. Some of us look back upon the years of 2000–2014 as peak years for foreign guests and even missional efforts. Unquestionably the growth of the church in China in that span of time was unrivaled world-wide.
However, shortly after President Xi came to office in 2012 the general attitude towards foreigners began to change alongside the removal of 225,000 political challengers in the anti-corruption campaign. The resistance to religious foreign presence has grown exponentially since 2017 until today. I wonder, if the author had been doing his interviews more recently, would he be quite so optimistic regarding:
- The benign nature of the Sinicization campaign. Perhaps the objective is more sinister than he suggests.
- Whether the Party will attempt to rewrite the Bible? We know today there is a committee working on a new Sinicized study Bible. Those working on it are not theologically conservative. What will be the outcome of this? Could it be a required hermeneutic/required interpretation for the CCC/TSPM moving forward?
- Is the church leadership in the CCC/TSPM as conservative as grassroots believers? As you move up the hierarchy are the CCC/TSPM leaders obligated to adopt a more liberal theology which embraces a practical universalism which provides the harmonious society the China dream demands?
- Given the recent shut down of all Christian publications for children and youth as well as content for Christian parenting along with the continued shut down of the Sunday School how confident is Ten Harmsel today with the enforcement of the government still shutting down Sunday School, VBS, and events in churches on Children’s Day. Is the author still confident these realities are merely a “pause” and the church will return to previous practices?
- If President Xi receives a third term and continues his program of strict ideological control, would the author remain as optimistic about the future of the CCC/TSPM to retain a conservative Christian witness?
It is not my intent to be harsh or critical. No one predicted the radical changes which have taken place since 2017. If Ten Harmsel is inclined, I would welcome a follow-up book to explore what is happening within the CCC/TSPM recently—perhaps a new book by the same author entitled The Post-Pandemic World of the CCC/TSPM.
Our thanks to Pickwick Publications for providing a copy of The Registered Church in China: Flourishing in a Challenging Environment for this review.
Image credit: Mike Falkenstine, One Catalyst.
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