Chinese Church Voices

Solving the House Church Problem (Part 2)

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


Last week we posted part 1 of a proposal to resolve the status of house churches in China. In part 2, Professor Liu gets more specific as to how a house church documentation system could be set up and what would be gained by doing so.

Recommendations to Solve the Issue of House Churches, continued

‪III. The Significance of a House Church Documentation System

1. Achieve Peace

A house church documentation system would recognize the reality that house churches exist. By refusing to recognize house churches, the government is burying its head in the sand and lying to itself. Launching a house church documentation system would encourage house churches to transition from being "underground" to being "above-ground," and from resisting the government to dialoguing with the government. This will result in peacefully bringing millions of house churches into the government management system. Furthermore,   it will eliminate the risk of house church members becoming an anti-government force.

China’s economic growth and urbanization is likely to continue so the flood of farmers into the city cannot be stopped. The bulk of the house church is made up of farmers/migrant workers, and even though it is very difficult for them to blend into mainstream city life, they depend on Christianity to build their own society, their own culture, their own values, and especially their own organizational networks. They are no longer ordinary farmers/migrant workers. They are members of a tightly-knit religious group with a clear and strong faith; furthermore, they do not fear oppression.  

Over the past three decades, the house churches have grown into the largest institution in China that remains outside the control of the Communist Party. What political course the house churches will take in the next three decades depends on whether or not the government can integrate them into the management system. Prior to the introduction of actual laws on religion, this house church documentation system would be the most cost effective and lowest risk solution.

‪2. Grasp the Reality

How many Chinese Christians are there actually, and how many house churches are there? Strictly speaking, no one knows. If house churches were to enter into a documentation system all at once, the state could rather accurately grasp the reality of the house church situation. The state could have true and accurate information that would allow them to integrate house churches into the management system. In terms of safeguarding social stability and national security, this has extremely important significance for the positive use of religion to promote socio-economic development. At present, no person or organization has the ability to carry out this type of statistical research. 

‪3. Write off Historical Grievances with One Stroke

After decades of prolonged confrontation, there is bitter resentment between the house churches and the government over who is right and who is wrong. Serious conversation is difficult because of the severe antagonism between the sides.. There are differences of opinion on how to evaluate the history between the house churches and the government.

If solving the issue of the house churches first requires that we sift through these rights and wrongs, it will undoubtedly lead to opposing views and provoke new conflict. But, by documenting house churches through the Ministry of Civil Affairs, historical grievances need not be brought up, nor do critical questions about this history need to be raised. All government approval of house churches would occur at the junior level. There would be no need to tangle with historical questions, and no need to get involved in grievances over who is right and who is wrong. There is a great possibility to pull this off with little difficulty; it is likely to succeed.

‪4.Take Drastic Measures; Achieve Quick Results

Right now the focal point and crux of the conflict between the house churches and the government is the question of worship locations. House churches in such places as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Wenzhou have run into fierce conflict with their local governments over the issue of where to worship, even causing incidents involving religious groups in which believers have taken to the streets. After introducing a house church documentation system, the question of the legality of house church worship locations would be solved immediately. The relationship between house churches and the government would be greatly improved and the cause of the greatest source of conflict would be eliminated.

IV. Measures and Strategies

1. Pilot First

A. Transition will need time.

For the house churches, transitioning from underground to being documented would be an enormous change that would require some time for them to consider, investigate, and vigorously debate amongst themselves. Therefore, the introduction of the documentation system cannot be done in one fell swoop that simply strives for a high number of churches. A certain number of representative prefectural level cities should be individually selected out of the entire nation to act as pilot areas. These could include the following:  Nanyang in Hefei Province, Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, Fuyang in Anhui Province, Yanbian in Jilin Province, Wuhan in Hebei Province, and Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.

Pilot areas should establish pilot leadership teams for each district and county (or county level city) in the pilot area to act as documentation implementation units for the house churches. Experience gained in the pilot areas could then gradually be spread to other areas.

B. Pilot areas will act in two ways.

Pilot areas at the county level will act as pilot units, but they must act as regional leadership teams at the prefectural level. The purpose of this design makes it possible for another county level unit to be selected to continue the pilot program if the pilot unit first selected encounters an unexpected problem. At the same time, the county level pilot unit leadership can be strengthened to provide timely guidance during program implementation.

‪2. The Bottom Line: Respect

While implementing the documentation system in pilot areas, respect must be given to house church demands and their bottom lines. This is a pivotal point for the success or failure of the pilot program. The following are the bottom lines for all types of house churches:

A. House churches will not join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM).

Due to complex historical, political, religious, and social reasons, joining the TSPM is not an option for house churches. This is the fundamental reason why house churches exist, and compromise on this issue is not an option. Any thought of taking advantage of the documentation system to incorporate the house churches into the Three-Self system can only undermine the implementation of the system.

B.  Preserve church independence.

This is the most important characteristic of the house church organizational system. The government should not interfere in the internal affairs of the house churches (including personnel, finances, educational matters, and church buildings). TSPM management methods cannot be used when it comes to handling house church documentation.

C.  Willingness to integrate into Civil Affairs management.

The antagonism between the house churches and the Religious Affairs Bureau has its roots in history. If the Religious Affairs Bureau is allowed to act as the agency responsible for handling house church documentation, the entire plan will fail because the house churches will refuse to participate. The house churches have no opposition toward the civil authorities, however, and would be willing to be integrated into the government management system through the Civil Affairs Bureau.

‪3. Establish a Platform for Dialogue

At present the only means of contact between house churches and the government is through the Public Order Administration of the Ministry of Public Security. Once they are documented, the government can build a stable platform for dialogue with the house churches. The two sides can upgrade their interactions from an administrative level to government agency level.

The specific means of doing this would be to set up a "joint state-church relations council" in the counties and districts (cities) of the pilot areas. These conferences will be made up of local house church representatives and government representatives, which would later form a liaison office.

The nature of this liaison office would be to coordinate the organizations. It would only serve to provide technical support and administrative services for house churches and government communication and would be devoid of any authority. It would not be the lead agency.

The government and house churches would assign workers of equal status to staff the liaison office with both sides sharing the cost. Either party can invite the other party to dialogue over a particular matter through the "state-church relations council." Every time they dialogue, the government may choose and confirm which government department (e.g. Civil Affairs, Public Security, Housing, Publishing, Education, etc.) will participate depending on the topic to discuss.

‪4. Establish Professional Associations

A.  Encourage house churches to establish first-class county and district (city) "Christian Unions."

A Christian Union is not in substance a religious organization, rather is it a professional association to support local house churches that can include all house churches that are willing to participate. Leaders of a Christian Union would be elected from each house church to serve a term. A Christian Union would later set up an agency responsible for handling relations between the house church and the government, relations between the house churches and other religious groups, as well as the internal affairs of the Christian Union. Expenses would be borne by each participating church.

B.  Establish "Christian Alliance Associations"

When the timing is right, in voluntary fashion, the Christian Union and the Three-Self Church in each area would establish a "Christian Alliance Association" to achieve Christian unity and become the region's unified Christian Professional Association. But for now the important thing is to establish house church professional associations. For the time being consideration should not be given to the question of merging the Christian Unions and the Three-Self Church.

‪5. Maintain the Status Quo with the Three-Self Church

A.  The TSPM system remains unchanged.

The existing TSPM system of churches and their subsidiary facilities, other real estate, assets, functioning seminaries, and charity organizations would remain unchanged. The state should encourage the TSPM to become self-supporting. Within three years the state should gradually decrease financial allocations for the TSPM, and at the end of three years completely cease financial allocations for the TSPM.

B. TSPM clergy positions remain unchanged.

The positions of TSPM clergy in the National People's Congress and the People's Consultative Conference would not change. The results in the subsequent general election would proceed as normal.

6. Implement the Principles of the Three-Self Church within the House Church System

‪House churches that participate in the pilot areas would implement the Three-Self principle of self-management in their internal affairs (personnel, finance, and education); the government would not intervene.

‪7. Negotiate New Regulations

Problems encountered in the course of implementing this plan by house churches that participate in pilot areas should be addressed according to each of its relevant laws. If there are no laws or statues, the government and the house churches should negotiate and come to a consensus on the solution for new legislation in the pilot areas.

‪8. Religious Legislation

The rule of law is the fundamental means by which an ultimate solution can be achieved for all religious issues, including the house churches. If there is no religious legislation, the house church issue can only be dealt with as a technical management issue. Therefore we must immediately begin to work on religious legislation.

A.  Form a drafting group.

Form a drafting group for the NPC Law Committee to write the "People's Republic of China Religious Law (Draft)" comprised of representatives from government departments, the religious world, the academic world, and people from all walks of life. This document will be open for nationwide public consultation (a draft for public citizens' recommendations).

B.  Solicit feedback.

Making use of democracy and extensively soliciting feedback, the drafting group will release a nationwide draft of the "People's Republic of China Religious Law" for expert advice and solicit feedback from the community.

C.  Submit revised draft

The drafting committee will summarize the feedback, and after revising the draft on religious legislation will report to the NPC for discussion.

Original source: Zhongjiao Fazhi (Religious Law) WeChat  Public Account.

Image credit: Keith Tan, via Flickr.
ChinaSource Team

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