In this article Brother L, a house church pastor in Shanghai, candidly shares his opinion on challenges facing the church in China. Brother L puts much of the blame on the church itself for finding itself in its current predicament. Brother L does not feel the church has done a good job during the past ten years of relative freedom, either in presenting a good public image or in getting its act together internally. As a result, neither the state nor the society at large can accept the church but rather sees it as a threat.
Brother L’s views are somewhat controversial and have generated dissenting opinions. The Chinese Church Voices team has gathered two alternate views on the church’s current challenges, one from a reformed house church pastor in a tier one city and one from a Three-Self pastor. This week we publish Brother L’s article in its entirety. In the next two weeks we will publish the two alternate views.
The Current Challenges and Reflections on Christianity in China
Christianity in China is entering a new stage in the church-state relationship. House churches, especially, currently face an important time of transition.
Since 2005, when the Regulations on Religious Affairs was first implemented, and especially since early 2008, Chinese authorities had begun forming a new understanding and decision regarding house churches: tacitly recognizing their relatively legal existence, and allowing a certain amount of freedom. In the following ten years, house churches in the mainland entered a stage of relative freedom of activity.
However, since 2014, the church-state relationship on the mainland has entered a time of tension. First, authorities severely reorganized the Zhejiang Three-Self Church, as represented by the Wenzhou Three-Self Church. This was also known as the cross-removal incident. And then since 2017, authorities have demanded that all house-churches in the country be registered and undergo sensitivity screenings. This prompted Wang Yi to lead the Early Rain Covenant Church in resistance against authorities in Chengdu, causing yet another notable conflict of church and state after the incident of Beijing Shouwang Church’s “outdoor worship.”
Why has the relationship between Christians and authorities on the mainland become so tense after nearly ten years of relative leniency?
The key reason is that over the past ten years of relative leniency, the performance of Chinese Christians has not been satisfying, and their influence on society has not been truly realized. Christianity in China has not fully utilized the advantages of close to ten years of relative leniency to participate in social services, social care, and charity organizations, so as to build a healthy, beneficial public image. Instead, Christianity in China fell into the trap of focusing on the preacher’s benefits as a means to expand one’s own influence; it floundered in organizational structures controlled from within by preachers and strengthened the authority of the pastor.
These are mainly reflected by the following:
- Emphasizing the pastor’s authority and clarifying the pastor’s authority through church processes, clearly a continuation of the traditional patriarchal system.
- Continually strengthening the pastor’s control over believers, and therefore greatly emphasizing the division of sacred and secular, especially emphasizing being “set apart.” The church did not aid Christians in entering society and growing in society, but demanded that Christians leave society and be completely limited to the church. This is for ease of control over believers, especially through marriage. In many churches, young couples wanting to be married need to accept the pastor’s arrangement, supervision, and consent. A classic example would be the “century wedding” held by the Timothy Fellowship of Wuhan Morning Light Church in May, 2015, which attracted much criticism.
- Increasingly emphasizing tithing, causing great financial pressures for believers (especially young believers). This is especially noticeable among Reformed churches.
- Whether among Three-Self churches or house churches, some congregations are using almost all their finances to build a church building, turning the church into a mere building. Wenzhou Sanjiang Church spending 30,000,000 RMB, or Shouwang Church raising 27,000,000 RMB to purchase an office building for their central meeting place are both typical examples. This caused the Chinese church to fall into blind competition over church buildings and wasted a great amount of resources.
- In order to claim orthodoxy and authority, endless conflicts have erupted between denominations over correct doctrine, causing great internal friction. This is especially apparent among Reformed churches today. The Reformed churches basically only recognize themselves, and view everyone else as heretics.
- Many influential pastors are marking off their own circles of influence—passionately setting up seminary classes, training courses, competing for members, planting and building churches, attempting to establish their own circles of influence, but they are not working toward spreading the gospel.
- Because of the continual conflict over church-state relationships, house churches believe that only they are correct, and because they represent the true faith, their many flaws can be ignored. As a result, house churches fall deeper and deeper into political currents and cannot withdraw.
Church development over the past ten years has primarily been focused on building up the authority and influence of pastors and preachers. In name they emphasize the gospel, but in reality they are pulling people into Christianity to expand their own influences. The primary financial and human resources of the church have been wasted on this organizational establishment of authority. Not many resources or effort have been spent caring for and participating in social services or charity work. That is because from the perspective of churches, merely doing charity work does not spread the gospel but is the work of the “social gospel.” It is viewed as contrary to our own faith, and is a profitless ministry.
China is currently a transitioning society, and is facing great challenges and trials of urbanization, which causes many social problems: left-behind children, mental health, parent-children relationships, spousal relationships, aging population, caring for disabled people, the urbanization of migrant workers, etc. These urgently need the participation and action of non-governmental forces. Authorities were hopeful for the involvement of these popular forces, but also very wary. Currently Christianity in China has no interest in becoming involved, and is not able to become involved. Even if we did participate, it would be for spreading the gospel, which would cause the distrust of authorities and distaste of the public.
As a result, because the church has not been able to influence society and help others, there has not been much progress in terms of building a public image and public involvement. People might even dislike the church, feeling that Christians only focus on expanding their own influence and contribute nothing to society.
Especially in the past couple of years, Chinese Christianity has been heavily influenced by the American Religious Right. As the Religious Right opposes the equality of people, the equality of men and women, the equality of husband and wife, opposes tolerance and mutual respect, and blindly attacks and smears those they think are on the left, intellectuals in China who felt sympathetic towards Christianity have been greatly disappointed. The basic values promoted by the church greatly contrast with and conflict with the basic values accepted by Chinese popular society, and this has greatly weakened and even worsened any good image Christianity has built up in China.
As a monotheistic religion, Christianity’s inherent logic is in great tension with traditional Chinese culture, which emphasizes secular rationalism, secular culture, and secular living as goals. This tension cannot be ignored. Because Chinese people are more focused on the practical benefits and results of religion, and are not seeking the sacred transcendence of religion, they often view all religions on the same footing: converting if it is useful. They do not think that any one religion would be absolutely right, and so it is difficult to accept any exclusive religion. As for how Christianity in China solves this tension between the two, it seems that our efforts are far from enough. Churches strongly object to any other religion or folk superstition, and some churches even forbid believers from having a giant taro plant at home [since it shares its Chinese name with a Buddhist deity]. This appears both superficial and authoritarian.
And so, from authorities to the populace, there are many suspicions regarding Christianity’s development in China. Those in authority suspect that Christianity might become a political force that challenges government authority. Whereas the wider population suspects Christianity of weakening Chinese cultural traditions. The current controls and limitations authorities have imposed on Christianity, from Three-Self churches to house churches, is a rebound from the earlier leniency.
So, how can Christianity rebuild their public image? This is a key question of utmost importance.
We can imagine the following solutions:
- Enter society. Do what we can for a breakthrough in terms of social care and charity. Under the current framework, we can start small. Our small but consistent efforts can win the populace’s recognition and authorities’ respect. The key is not to do so for proselytizing purposes, but simply for the sake of helping others and caring for society. In practice, this means a renewal of our doctrinal understanding.
- Return to church building that is focused on the lay members, helping lay believers better grow their abilities and character, and so be able to find a foothold in society, and have a better personal witness and societal influence. Church is not for establishing the authority of the pastor, nor is it for building a bigger, more luxurious church building or meeting place, or seeking greater religious influence. Pastors much learn to control their desires and personal ambitions, and see themselves as helpers and advisors of lay believers, not overlords and masters.
- Leave the fortress of closed religion. Understand and respect China’s indigenous culture and cultural traditions. Do not be exclusive or negative towards other cultures. The church needs the perspective of general revelation and common grace, and to face the cultural traditions of their country with a Christian’s generous mind and manner.
- Remain independent and moderate in politics. Do not be sucked into political currents. Do not seek to use political power to broaden religious influence. Christianity seeks to change people’s hearts, and thus be effective in society. Constantine’s unification of church and state is neither Christ’s teaching nor his expectation.
In the current situation, the growth of Christianity in China, especially the house church, faces a great challenge, namely, how to rationalize the existence of Christianity in China. This must be solved with wisdom, and it calls for mutual understanding among authorities, the wider population, and Chinese Christianity, so that the Chinese church may overcome this great challenge in their growth.
Image credit: Cross-shaped window by Kai Sun via Flickr.
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