Reconciliation is essential to Christian faith. On the level of ministry, Christian unity and reconciliation between divisive parties within the church have always been valued and sought for in the church throughout the ages.
When we come to the Protestant church in mainland China today, the most profound division is between the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the so-called house church. Since the 1950s, these two segments of the Christian community have been dominant in the life of the Chinese church, and remains so today.
Generally speaking, even with some goodwill gestures, communications, and cooperation at the grassroots level, there is deep-rooted distrust, tension, and even the occasional skirmish between them. The reasons behind this troublesome relationship are multi-faceted and complex. Among all the historical, theological, and cultural factors, the church-state relation stands out as arguably the most decisive and critical factor behind this TSPM vs house church split. You have an all-powerful communist party and state that is determined to keep religions under its control.
As outside observers of the church in China, no matter how differently we may interpret and evaluate this split and the contrasts between these two different networks, we seem to all agree that there are numerous Bible-believing, genuine Christians and church leaders in each group. And we all recognize how undesirable and detrimental the current division is to the internal health as well as the external witness of the Chinese church. Our hope is that one day the believers from both sides can embrace one another, and become truly one body in Christ. A reconciled and united Chinese church will serve as a beacon of the Christian spirit of brotherly love.
It is no wonder that reconciliation has been one of the key words often discussed since the 1980s, as churches in the West and other parts of the world explored various ways to relate to these two major segments of the Protestant community in China. In fact, not a small number of the Western churches and their institutions have obviously treated the reconciliation of the TSPM and house church as one of the starting points and ultimate goals of their China ministries. Such churches and agencies would say: “Let’s not take sides between TSPM and house church, but open our doors to both of them. In so doing, we can bring people from both sides together, and thus facilitate reconciliation among them.”
As a person wholeheartedly committed to reconciliation, I have never doubted the sincerity and good intentions behind such an approach and its rationale. In fact, I used to be a believer in just such an approach. But after I saw—too many times—how, thanks to their hosts’ best wish for reconciliation, people from the two sides suddenly found themselves next to each other, but none of them felt comfortable and safe, I began to question this kind of approach’s theoretical presumptions and actual results into question, and I wondered whether this approach is grounded in a more or less simplistic grasping of TSPM vs house church division and underlying paternalistic attitude. To make my point clear, please allow me to ask a few questions.
1. Do we fully grasp the gravity and complexity of the TSPM vs house church split? Do we fully understand the root causes of the division?
In comparison with church divisions in the liberal, democratic West, in my opinion, the cause behind this primary church division in China runs deeper. Going beyond theological and relational issues, it is a direct outcome of the intervention of a certain political force, and is thus entangled with political interests and agendas.
Therefore, when Chinese church leaders and believers think about reconciliation, they most likely have to take into account very different and more complex factors than their Western counterparts, and perhaps have less autonomy in any reconciliation process. For them, a lot more is at stake. This explains why the mistrust and suspicion at both the individual and collective levels between the two camps seems so widespread, profound, and perennial with the result that we are often baffled and frustrated by their rigidity and hostility toward each other. It also means that it will take a lot more than just good will and theological consensus to heal the wound and construct a new relationship leading to meaningful reconciliation.
We must keep in mind that it is wrong for us in the West to naively assume that the nature and dynamics of church division and reconciliation in China are the same as in the rest of the world. And thus we cannot simply transplant formulas for reconciliation in the West to the Chinese context.
2. Who should be the initiators of Christian reconciliation in China? Who should be the primary movers of the process?
The answer seems obvious; it should be Chinese Christians themselves. If reconciliation is to be genuine, it must be initiated by them, rather than outsiders. And the former should always be the owners and movers of the process, and the latter simply walking alongside, humbly following the Chinese church’s lead, offering assistance if needed.
It would be a mistake for us as outsiders to take the initiative especially without a sincere invitation from our Chinese brothers and sisters and without a thorough investigation of the circumstance on our part.
If reconciliation is imposed on Christian Christians from the outside, it is not genuine reconciliation. If Chinese Christians are pushed to reconcile themselves with others, it won’t be a fruitful reconciliation, but most likely a bitter, forced marriage. If we do so, even with all our good intentions to help, we are actually telling them we know better than they do, and we can do something to fix their problems for them. That is a demonstration of at least insensitivity to the context of Chinese Church and even worse paternalism on our part. So, let us give full respect to the Chinese Christians’ rights to make their own decision and take the initiative, and do not take initiative to “facilitate” reconciliation for them, if they are not ready and willing.
3. Do we take reconciliation in the Chinese context too lightly? Do we have a well- thought-through, nuanced approach to reconciliation for such a hugely challenging setting?
If reconciliation is possible in China, what will it take for it to actually happen? What are the right social conditions for it to happen? Given the above-mentioned complexity of reconciliation within the Chinese church, many questions like these have to be asked.
In the current circumstances, Christian reconciliation at the national level appears very difficult. And yet there always seems to be space for grassroots interactions and practical collaboration between the two major Protestant sectors, at least in some regions. What can be done with respect to reconciliation in the short term, and what are some of the possibilities for the future?
No matter what the answers are for all these questions, my point here is to urge us to open our eyes to the fact that a genuine, nationwide reconciliation among Chinese Christians may be a very long and difficult process. If we want to be a good helper in the process, we have to do the hard work of: investigating the situation in the country carefully, listening to the voice of the church there humbly, and approaching wisely the whole issue of Christian unity in China. In any case, let us avoid hasty moves, and exercise patience.
As a Chinese church observer, I am always for Christian unity in China. A genuine reconciliation between the believers under TSPM and in the house church is one of my dreams. But I would like to point out it is never easy in the contemporary Chinese context. When reconciliation is done in a wrong way, it is not only futile, but also does more harm than good. There are plenty of hard lessons we can learn about this. There have been many unwise attempts by outsiders to “facilitate” reconciliation in the Chinese context that ended in embarrassment or even tragedy. Good-will gestures on the part of many Christian institutions in the West to embrace both TSPM and the house church actually failed to earn trust from either party, and thus lost opportunities to deepen relationships with either one of them.
Keeping the dream of reconciliation alive, we nevertheless have to face the reality of deep-rooted division of Protestant church in China. For those of us outside the country, we may have to live with the divisions, at least for now, and choose our major partners (take sides, if you will!) out of all the church groups there, and nurture the seeds of reconciliation humbly and patiently, until one day when the church in China is ready to take a major stride toward true Christian unity under the right circumstances in the country.
Image credit: Harold Schaevitz from Pixabay
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