Chinese House Church Attitude toward Government

November 26, 1998

The belief that all Christians should be allowed and actually have a religious responsibility to “preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth” is one of the main responses from the house church leaders when asked why they do not register with the government and why they do not join the TSPM.  In the additional statement that was also drafted during this meeting, the authors attempt to answer these questions on behalf of all underground church members in China.

In Section II of this statement, a five-fold answer is outlined as a response to the question “Why do we not register with the government?” The first two parts of this answer deal specifically with the issue of evangelism. The authors state that the governmental ordinances and regulations concerning evangelistic activity such as the “three-designates” policy are “contrary to the principles of the Scripture.”

Their views on the “three-designates” policy are as follows:

  1. Designated location: only in registered places we are allowed to conduct religious activities, otherwise such activities are considered illegal religious activities. But the Scriptures tell us that we meet anywhere and that so long as we meet in the name of the Lord, He will be with us.
  2. Designated personnel: only those who have been issued preaching licenses by the Religious Affairs Bureau are allowed to preach. But according to the teachings of Scriptures, so long as preachers are called by the Lord, recognized and sent by the church, they may preach.
  3. Designated sphere: preachers are limited to preach only within the district for which they are assigned; they may not preach across villages or across the provinces. But the Bible teaches us to preach the Gospel to all the Peoples and throughout the ends of the earth, and to establish churches.

These regulations concerning who may preach and where they may preach are, according to the house church leaders, in obvious conflict with their personal religious belief that the Gospel must be preached by all Christians “to the ends of the earth.”

The second part of this five-fold answer deals with yet another issue concerning the restrictions on proselytizing: to whom one may preach. According to the authors, even if a preacher were to meet all of the requirements of the “three designates” policy (i.e. he possessed an RAB-issued license to preach and was on the property of a registered church within his own government-assigned district) it would still be illegal for him to preach to a minor.

The state policy does not allow us to preach the Gospel to those under 18, or to lead them to Christ and be baptized. But Jesus said, “Let the children come unto me and forbid them not.” Therefore, those under 18 should also have the opportunity to hear, and to believe in, the Gospel.

In addition to their objections to the lack of freedom to preach the Gospel, the authors also find contention with state policies that do not allow Christians to pray for supernatural healing, to “receive fellow believers from afar,” nor to have contact with foreign Christian organizations.

Despite the fact that the majority of this statement is a declaration of the their refusal to register with the Chinese government and the RAB, the authors also hope to clarify that they are not opposed to the PRC government per se; they simply object to any secular body controlling matters of religion.

By offering a detailed explanation of why they refuse to register with the RAB, the authors hope to dispel any notion that Protestants who refuse to register with the government are less patriotic or less “Chinese” than those who do register.

In Section I of the statement, they write:

  1. We love the Lord, the Chinese people, and the state; we support the unity of the peoples.
  2. We support the constitution of the People’s Republic of China and the leaders and the government of the people that God established.
  3. Even though we are often misunderstood and persecuted by the government, yet we do not show a reactionary attitude, nor have we taken any reactionary action.
  4. We have never betrayed the interest of the Chinese people; we only do what is beneficial to the people.

Throughout this statement, the authors are careful to clarify that they will “obey the state when such obedience is in accordance with the Scriptures,” but that their religious views dictate that they must always choose obedience to God when the demands of state and the demands of Scripture are in conflict, especially when “the great commission on preaching the Gospel and planting churches” is concerned.

It is tempting to assume that, because the majority of Protestants who refuse to join the TSPM do so out of a conviction that the church must be evangelical, there must be an absence of Evangelicals within the Three Self churches. This, however, is simply not true.

In case studies of individual “Three Self churches”, some authors have stated that, aside from the name, there is actually very little to distinguish these churches from evangelical churches in other parts of mainland China or Hong Kong.

Although the Communist government is ultimately at the head of TSPM run churches, many of these churches are in the immediate control of pastors and preachers who are surprisingly evangelical in their theology.

Gangwashi Church, one of the four “open” churches in Beijing, for example, has been described as being, “firmly, almost defiantly evangelical.”  One American who regularly attended Gangwashi while living in Beijing has said that the senior pastor often urged the congregation to “pray that everyone in Beijing knows Jesus and that Jesus will be known in the whole country and that China will be a country from which the Gospel is spreading to the rest of the world.” 

Although there are such reports of Three Self pastors who openly preach evangelical messages, there are also reports of other preachers, like the pastor of Beijing’s Chongwenmen church, who have been removed from their positions for being “too evangelical.”

A Christian community that is vibrant with growth and enthusiasm is still deeply threatening to some Three Self officials and the Religious Affairs Bureau apparatchiks; one may wonder how so many evangelicals can openly exist within TSPM churches.

One possible answer to this question may be found in Paul Freston’s study of evangelicalism and politics in China. Within this study, he asserts that the official and unofficial Protestant churches are actually more closely connected than one might assume. Freston argues that the relationship between the “Three Self Churches” and the government is actually dependent upon the relationship between the house churches and the government, and vice versa.

He writes, evangelicals and politics in China include the dynamic and fuzzy relationship between the TSPM, whose authority is based on state power, and the house churches. Rhetoric apart, the official and house churches live a symbiotic relationship. Neither would be what it is and able to do what it does if the other did not exist.

Existence of house churches, and the possibility that tighter repression might backfire by making more believers go underground, means the TSPM has a greater margin of maneuver vis-à-vis the government than it would otherwise. And the TSPM’s existence gains concessions for believers that house churches alone would not obtain.

By restricting evangelicalism within the official church, it seems the Chinese Government may actually drive Evangelicals within the TSPM to go underground. Freston asserts that PRC officials are acutely aware of this possibility and, as a result, are often more tolerant of evangelical preachers than they would be otherwise.

It has often been speculated that the growth of underground Christianity in China can be directly linked to governmental persecution. Members of house churches that suffer arrests and other hardships often view such persecution as a form of martyrdom; as a result, they are  actually more zealous to openly preach the Gospel and to make converts.

As the 1998 statement that accompanied the “Confession of Faith of House Churches” shows, members of unofficial church movements refer to being “willing to pay the necessary price” of obedience to God in the face of persecution as “walking the pathway of the cross.”

The authors of this statement also proclaim to the government that, “although persecuted, the number of believers has increased rapidly, a force that cannot be resisted.” Although they seem to be stating that the church is growing in spite of persecution, the government seems increasingly aware of the fact that much of this growth actually occurs, not in spite of persecution, but because of it.

It seems that, during the past few years, the government has tended to lessen its restrictions on Three Self churches in order accommodate an increasing interest in Christianity. The government has recently called for the building of more official churches and has even allowed minors to participate in some religious activities.

With Christianity spreading, China is trying to broaden the appeal of the state churches it has long used to monitor worshipers. An aggressive campaign to build more state churches is under way. Last year, Beijing broke ground on two churches, the first to be erected in the capital in 50 years. The government ban on worship by children and teenagers is being relaxed.

Although the loosening of restrictions on worship and preaching within “Three Self Churches” seems surprising, it is actually quite logical. As long as Christians remain within the state church, their religious activity can be monitored. If they are driven outside of the official church groups, however, the government will no longer have control over their religious activity.

Yet, for many Christians in China, the loosening of governmental restriction within TSPM led churches is still not enough; and many continue to “shun State churches, which they say preach too liberal a theology and obey a state ban on proselytizing.” The Protestant faith in  contemporary China, it seems, is marked by a number of ironies.

In its attempt to create a truly indigenous form of Protestant Christianity, the Chinese government has striven to implement a state church that meets the so-called Three Self ideals—self-support, self-propagation, and self-governing. Ironically, however this very concept of the Three Self ideals is distinctly foreign: Two Westerners, Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, created it without ever so much as setting foot in China.

Although the Three Self Patriotic Movement derives its name from this concept, one could argue that churches within the TSPM do not actually meet the goals of self-support, self-propagation, and self-governing because the churches themselves are in reality states supported, state-governed, and can only propagate with the state’s permission.

In fact, Religious Affairs Bureau officials, who are members of the Communist Party, “and thus are not permitted to adhere to any religion”, are the ones who are ultimately in charge of the Three Self churches. Although there are a number of Protestant churches that do actually meet these goals, such as those that were started by Wang Mingdao and Watchman Nee, these groups have historically refused to join the TSPM; and have, as a result, been persecuted by the government.

Among the many Chinese Protestants who refuse to join the TSPM, the majority of these do so out of the conviction that the RAB’s restrictions on evangelism and Evangelical theology conflict with Christians’ religious obligation to openly preach the Gospel; yet, a large number of Evangelicals can be found even within the TSPM.

In fact, although there still remains some persecution of Evangelicals within the official church, such as the removal of any pastors who RAB officials consider “too Evangelical”, the Chinese government has recently become increasingly tolerant of Evangelicals within Three Self churches in an attempt to keep them from joining the underground church movement, which actually appears to flourish in times of persecution.

The Chinese government’s desire to control religious expression to ensure that adherence to a particular religion does not undermine the authority of the Communist party in the lives of the citizens of the PRC can be seen throughout modern China.

Although the names of individual leaders are included as the signatures on the confession of faith, this second statement is simply signed “By the representatives of the House Churches in China.”