Over the past year, prominent house churches such as Zion Church in Beijing, Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, and Rongguili Church in Guangdong were shut down by government authorities. The closing of such churches has again stirred up questions about how the church and state in China should interact. How can the church be the church in this environment? Where is the line between the church and the state?
In this article from the journal ChurchChina, Jiang Dengxing sketches what that boundary should look like in China and argues that the future of the church in China depends on holding that line. Because of its length, we will share excerpts of this article in four parts. This is part one.
Searching for the Boundary between State and Church in the East
The Question of the Boundary between the Chinese Church and State
China today faces a question, that is, the question of the boundary between church and state. Our practice and our holding fast in this current age will have lasting influence.
Over 60 years ago, the forefathers of the Chinese house church, peers of Mister Wang Mingdao, preserved the truth and held fast to the true faith, even in the face of political remaking of religion. Today, we face a new situation, and our faithfulness to the true church will be determined by how we hold firm.
In current democracies, the principle of separation of church and state (now often “division of church and state”) is commonly recognized. The responsibilities of the government, and the existence, identity, rights, and responsibilities of religious bodies are clearly defined.
But in China, to use the terminology of official academics, it has historically been a case of “government leads, religion follows;” or to use the words of popular scholars, we are “authoritarianists.” The government guides all aspects of societal life. In principle, it would not allow any social community or religious body—especially not a religious body demanding a high degree of commitment—to be independent from government control.
We are also a society focused on ideology, and on principle we would not allow a religious faith that could influence the lives of many people. The “five enters and five localizations,” (wujin wuhua) or the “Sinicization of Christianity” of recent years are attempts to ideologize religious faith, and so soften the government’s current worries concerning the Christian faith.
But the Christian faith pursues purity of doctrine and purity of the church. And therefore the house church that holds fast to the truth will not be politicized, will not allow doctrine to be remade by ideologies, and will not accept “government leads, religion follows” in church administration. From the perspective of political administration, this is the root of long-term tension between church and state.
For the past 40 years, the government has shifted towards leniency in their control of society, and there has been a trend of weakening ideology. But now the pendulum has swung back. The new “Regulations on Religious Affairs” is simply the product of this political pendulum. And so, the church cannot avoid having to face ideological pressures. Article 35 of the new “Regulations on Religious Affairs” seems to offer a break, so that religion outside the system can register as “temporary venues of activity.” But rules were later released concerning application for temporary venues of gathering, and stated that temporary venues of activity must remain under the guidance of “religious bodies.” This means that if a house church were to apply to be a temporary venue of activity, they must accept the guidance of the Three-Self Church.
As this regulation seems to erase any space for the existence of unregistered churches, the church is nakedly displayed in the public sphere. Therefore, when we face the government, there is really only one posture we can take: the posture of carrying a cross. If we say that the church forefathers in the Fifties mostly carried their own individual crosses, then this time it is the church as a community carrying its cross. In the East, we need an ecclesiology defined by theology of the cross, so as to face the tensions between church and state over the next 10, or even 50 years.
Translated, edited and reposted with permission. This article is an excerpt from the original. Please refer to the original for the full context. The full English translation will be available for download at the completion of this series.
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