The Lianghui is one of those things that falls into the category of “church with Chinese characteristics.” If one considers the registered church to be a denomination in the Western sense, then one could conceive of the Lianghui as the local, regional, and national organization of the church. But the registered church is not a denomination and the Lianghui is not exactly a church organization.
In English, the closest we get to the Chinese Lianghui is probably “Two Committees” or “Two Organizations.” The Lianghui is made up of the China Christian Council (CCC) and the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Each of these groups has incarnations at the local, provincial, and national levels.
Using Qingdao in Shandong province as an example, on the local level there is a Qingdao Christian Council and a Qingdao TSPM, together making up the Qingdao Lianghui. At the provincial level, there is a Shandong Christian Council and a Shandong TSPM, together making up the Shandong Lianghui. Above that is the national Lianghui, with offices in Shanghai (pictured in the image above).
This sounds a little bit like my own denomination, in which there is a regional Classis and a national Synod. But there are many differences. The people who make up these organizations are not, as in my denomination, nominated from among elders, deacons, and pastors at the local level, who in turn elect representatives to the next level. Rather, the personnel are chosen by the Lianghui at each level.
In terms of personnel, the members of the CCC are mostly pastors and all are Christians. The TSPM members are chosen and appointed by the government and may or may not be Christians, although most are typically local pastors. While the membership of the two bodies is mostly different, the top three or four posts in each of the two are often held by the same people.
The TSPM is a part of the government bureaucracy. It answers to the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), a government agency. At least that had been the case up till now. With the new regulations, SARA ceased to exist and the TSPM is instead under the United Front Work Department (UFWD).
This body with the peculiar name is part of the Communist Party rather than the government. It is charged with oversight of all non-Party organizations and is known for its hardline approach. It is a favorite of President Xi Jinping. Most agree this cannot bode well for the churches of China. One pastor said the oversight by the Communist Party, particularly the UFWD, rather than the government, is the most serious problem facing the church today.
The functions of the two groups are also different. The CCC deals with “inner” affairs, things that apply strictly to the issues and concerns of the church. This would include things like the publishing of hymnals or relations with and cooperation between churches, or continuing education of pastors. The TSPM, on the other hand, is concerned with “outer” things such as relationships between church and state, or relations with foreign churches. At least this seems to be the case. It is often quite opaque.
On the local level, the Lianghui could be seen as the thorn in the flesh of the churches. Although it provides certain services, it also is the source of difficulties, or at least it is a nuisance in the life of the church leadership. It keeps a close eye on the churches. Any time a church does something slightly different, it needs to report this to the Lianghui and get its approval (although at least one pastor said they usually don't bother with reports and approval). For example, whenever we did Vacation Bible School or summer camp at churches, they needed to report this to the Lianghui and get approval, as well as whenever I preached or taught. The VBS and summer camps were reported and approved as English Camps. I will likely never know how they got approval for my preaching and teaching, which, strictly speaking, were illegal. If I were to try doing those things today, it is highly unlikely they would be approved.
Critics of the registered churches point to the Lianghui as proof of the government’s control of those churches. But based on what I heard from pastors, “control” is not exactly an appropriate word to use. Most would describe the situation as a sort of reluctant cooperation. In this cooperation, the churches pay lip service to the legitimate rule of the Communist Party, while the Party allows the churches to function pretty much as they want. There are of course restrictions, like the ban on church activities off church property, the growing ban on Sunday School, and the impact of the role of the Lianghui in church governance. But for now it appears that the churches are doing their best to carry out the basic activities of their faith in spite of government interference.
Image credit: Flsxx - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
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