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When “Apolitical” Is Not an Option

Echoes from the Church’s Past


The Communist Party’s renewed emphasis on “Sinicization” of religion portends a more hands-on approach in dealing with matters of faith.

Current rhetoric from President Xi on down highlights what are viewed as contradictions between the socialist worldview espoused by the Party and certain aspects of religious life and doctrine. For China’s Christians these contradictions include the church’s historical and contemporary association with Western leaders, ideas and institutions, as well as biblical concepts such as original sin, the sanctity of life, and the inherent worth of the individual.

This development raises the worrying possibility that church life in China could become much more politicized in the future, should Christians be expected not just to stay out of the Party’s way but to actively demonstrate their acquiescence to its demands. Not content with simply keeping China’s Christians in check—whether through direct supervision of those within the Three-Self sphere or close surveillance of unregistered groups—the Party may now be edging toward making loyalty to the state a prerequisite.

While such a move may seem an abrupt departure from the Party’s stance over the past couple decades, this is not altogether unfamiliar territory. China’s church has been here before.

In his dissertation entitled The Search for the Identity of the Chinese Church: Ecclesiological Responses of the Chinese Church in 1949-1958 to the Political Changes, (Hong Kong: WEC International, 2016) Nan Pin Chee detailed the struggle of Christian leaders who were faced with a regime that demanded complete loyalty.

In the early 1950s, as pressure upon Chinese Christian leaders mounted, it became obvious that simply staying clear of politics was not an option. By adding the word “Patriotic” to its name, the Three-Self Reform Movement—the organization initially established to bring China’s Christians together in support of Party goals—drew a stark line in the sand.

“Under the new name, patriotic, any unwillingness to go along with the movement could be construed as unpatriotic, which was a serious offense against the new regime” (196).

Demonstrating patriotism meant cutting off foreign ties, dispensing with denominational identities, surrendering property and other resources, ceasing evangelistic activities, and, ultimately, adopting the Party’s revolutionary program as the mission of the church. It also meant being willing to openly condemn other Christians who refused to do so.

China’s Christians were divided in their response. Some embraced the TSPM as the instrument for advancing God’s purposes in China under the new regime. Others actively resisted or quietly disappeared into what would later emerge as a vibrant house church movement.

According to Chee, these varied responses were not simply reactions in the moment to the political changes taking place. They had deep roots in Christian leaders’ understanding of the church and its role in society. As Chee’s subtitle suggests, their ecclesiology played a significant role in their decisions about how to serve God under the new atheistic government.

Writing his dissertation in Hong Kong in the early 2000s, Chee reflected on the historical experience of the Chinese church while pondering its current role in a very different era. China’s market-oriented economy was reshaping the nation, and a rapidly growing church was experiencing a new season of openness and opportunity.

Chee contracted the SARS virus in 2003, along with his wife, Eleanor, and one of their children. Although his wife and son recovered, Chee did not. His doctoral degree from the Australian College of Theology was awarded posthumously. More than a decade later, through Eleanor’s diligence and the help of several of Chee’s friends and colleagues, the dissertation was published as a book in Chinese and English.

While today’s church is, in many respects, a long way from the tension and turmoil of the early 1950s, Chee’s book provides a timely reminder of where it has been. In doing so he offers a meaningful framework for dealing with questions that the church may be called upon to answer again in the not so distant future.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  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 China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio