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The TSPM—Seeing Beyond History

From the series Our China Stories

Writing in the 2020 autumn issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, Loyola Maryland University professor Carsten Vala discusses the checkered history of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, the officially sanctioned entity charged with overseeing Protestant Christianity in China. Its roots in political struggle and its complicity in the persecution of many pastors in the 1950s continue to color perceptions of the movement both in China and abroad. As Vala notes, “The older Protestants outside the official churches passed on their memories, of course, to new generations of Protestants in the house churches, sustaining a narrative of the TSPM, its churches, and its leaders as fatally compromised by political power.”

This enduring narrative of the TSPM is an integral part of the larger Persecuted Church narrative that continues to dominate conversations about the church in China both in Christian and secular circles. As I have written elsewhere:

Much commentary on the relationship between these two segments paints a picture of a pitched battle between the TSPM and the house church. Liberal theology, political control, and collusion in persecuting believers are seen to characterize the TSPM, while the ‘real Christians’ are to be found only in the house church, a bastion of evangelical faith set amid an atheistic state that is out to destroy it.1

The TSPM was birthed in the heat of the fundamentalist-modernist debate taking place among Christians in the first half of the 20th century, which ultimately gave birth to the contemporary evangelical movement. This same debate was carried into China by missionaries whose passionate deliberations over strategies and methods were colored by an ever-sharpening divide between those who favored social engagement and those who emphasized personal evangelism. Rather than seeing the two as opposite sides of the same gospel coin, the missionaries divided into camps that reflected the denominational differences emerging in churches outside China.

Missionaries viewed the genuine struggle for national identity taking place in China during the early 20th century in terms of their own familiar categories, the contours of which were becoming ever sharper as theological debates heated up in the West and spilled over into China. The eventual formation of the TSPM symbolized the victory of the modernist, rational approach to scripture, which discounted the miraculous and viewed the teachings of Christ as a blueprint for social reform, over against the fundamentalist insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible and the necessity of personal salvation.

The impact of this debate upon the emerging Chinese church brings to mind the words of missiologist Andrew Walls: “All too often those who have been the means whereby the Christian faith has spread across culture frontiers have wanted new Christians to regard as important the things that have been important to themselves.”2

As the missionaries’ theological presuppositions prevented them from seeing clearly the situation facing Chinese believers, so our narratives today are often shaped by our own rigid categories. In the case of the TSPM, seeing the movement only in terms of its history causes us to lose sight of the genuine faith of believers within the movement and the fruitful ministry flowing from China’s “official” church today. In the pages of the 2020 autumn ChinaSource Quarterly  you’ll find valuable insights into this history, but also encouraging—perhaps surprising—reports of the kind of innovation taking place within the TSPM sphere. These creative expressions of the gospel have become a blessing, not only to those worshipping in TSPM churches, but to the Chinese church as a whole.

Editor’s note: The original article mistakenly identified Carsten Vala as being a Loyola Marymount University professor. It has been corrected to read Loyola Maryland University. September 30, 2020.


  1. Brent Fulton, “China: A Tale of Two Churches?” in Bruce P. Baugus, ed., China’s Reforming Churches (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 178.
  2. Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian Story: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 51.
Image credit: Hanson Lu on Unsplash.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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