A common goal of both the house churches in China and churches overseas is to allow the church to raise its head above the surface, like a lamp on a pedestal, and so allow the idea of the church and its activities to be made obvious to the general public in appropriate ways.
Actually the new generation of church leaders places the obligations of the church as their top priority; and while taking up the mission and responsibilities of the church, they elect to take a mature, logical, and pragmatic approach in dealing with their current situation, rather than an idealistic one.
Sun Ming Yee
One bright mid-summer afternoon, I attended the Sunday service of a Chinese church in the US Mid-west. Following the service I chatted separately with two of the older brothers in the church.
One elderly brother was aware that I was from China. He reminded me with great concern that we needed to be careful, as he had seen in the newspaper that some house church Christians had been arrested recently. It was clear from his language that he was sympathetic to and supportive of the Chinese house churches, but at the same time he was critical of the government.
Afterwards another well respected church elder came over to talk to me. He asked me directly about the house churches’ attitude towards the Three-Self church. He mentioned that when he was back in Shanghai he had attended the activities of a few Three-Self churches, and he had been quite impressed by them. He had also gathered that the Three-Self Church was taking the initiative in approaching house churches and was accepting of them, but that house churches seemed reluctant and unwilling to reconcile with the Three-Self Church. It was also clear that while he acknowledged and was sympathetic to the Three-Self Church he had some negative feelings towards the house churches which he characterized as ‘underground’, ‘closed’, and ‘uncooperative’.
I.Two common attitudes
In speaking of my experiences with both Chinese and Western churches over these last two years, I have begun to realize that these two polarized attitudes are quite common and typical. This becomes evident whenever the topic of house churches comes up. If the person is not a recent arrival from Mainland China, then their attitudes towards the Chinese house churches can be divided into two groups:-
The first is a concern for the current situation of the Chinese house churches. Overseas, it is easier to hear news like the arrest of certain preachers, or of the interference into the activities of certain house churches by local government bureaucrats.
Actually, incidents like these have indeed occurred quite often in Mainland China, and not just in remote areas but also in big cities. When they happen, the news is immediately reported to overseas agencies in order to seek their support. If the information reaching overseas news agencies consists mainly of such items, churches overseas easily form the opinion that the main issue facing house churches today is political persecution, exactly as it was decades ago.
Maybe it is due to these impressions that some overseas Chinese churches and organizations consider that the best way to help the house churches in China is to try to protect the rights of certain churches, by joining forces with them on the broader issue of human rights, and urging the US government to find effective means of resolving the difficulties faced by house churches in China.
A second attitude is expressing our concern for churches in Mainland China from the point of view of church unity. Over the last few years the Three-Self Church has been quite active overseas, and they have managed to bring about some changes in the way they are regarded by the church overseas. Furthermore, some overseas Chinese have paid brief visits to the ‘open’ churches during short stays in China visiting relatives, because they have found it difficult to find a practical way to visit a house church. From the nineties of last century, there has been a rapid growth in the number of Christians in the cities, and this has resulted in overflowing attendances at the smaller numbers of open churches in big cities. The impression received by the casual visitor is that the open churches are popular and prospering..
As a result, some overseas organizations contend that the greatest help they can provide to churches in mainland China is to actively assist the Three-Self Church to expand her national organization, along with her ministry and influence.
These two attitudes are diametrically opposed in their attitudes to the house churches. However, both sides subconsciously have a common desire – to find a way or channel to help the churches in China..
Of course, we believe that both these groups genuinely share a deep and sincere concern for the welfare of the church in China and want to do all they can to help it grow and prosper. Yet are these attitudes and actions truly constructive as far as the Chinese church is concerned? This is a question worth considering by everyone, especially by churches and organizations overseas.
Subconsciously, we all look at things through our own tinted spectacles, without necessarily grasping the true issues and needs facing the churches in China. Over the last few years, several major events affecting the house churches in mainland China have demonstrated that some of the ‘assistance’ extended by churches overseas, which was intended to help the house churches, has actually caused them greater difficulties.
A major factor bringing in this situation is that no normal, public, inter-church communication channels have been developed between the house churches and overseas churches, nor indeed between the house churches themselves. Those that do exist are limited to individual or indirect contacts, often only through e-mails
It would be desirable to have publications or web-sites which can present the standpoints, situation and needs of the house-churches more accurately Then, maybe, churches and organizations overseas reach a more comprehensive understanding of the house churches.
Of course, in the prevailing situation on Mainland China such a wish is not easily realized. But it is a common goal of the house churches in China and churches overseas for the church in China to to be able to raise its head above the water, like a lamp on a pedestal, and thus permit the vision of the church and her daily activities to be made obvious through appropriate channels. And, furthermore, to do this in a positive and normal manner acceptable to the public. This is why some churches in Beijing, as well as in other places, wish to register with the government.
II.The issue of registration
It is true to say that, unless you are aware of the divergence of opinions on the issue of house churches registering with the government, then you do not truly understand the current situation of the house churches. Whether or not to register with the government is an issue faced by most house churches today. Their opinions on this reflect how differently churches regard their current situation and their understanding of how to conduct their mission as a church.
Regarding this issue of registration, there are three representative (although not exclusive) responses:
The first tendency can be identified, somewhat inaccurately, as ‘separatist’. House churches with this tendency stand their ground on the question of separation between the church and the world. They consider that registration with the government would be compromise with the world, and puts the church in danger of departing from its only true foundation in Jesus Christ.
Churches with these views usually have a longer history and denominational traditions dating back to the twenties or thirties of the last century. Theologically, they have inherited an earlier Puritanism; some are influenced by the Pentecostal movement, and all of them have suffered under the many political movements of the fifties and sixties. Given their theological background and history, their tendency to separatism is understandable. There are a good number of such churches not only in the countryside but also in the cities, and the term ‘house church’ generally refers to churches with these tendencies.
However, we should also note that from the nineties of last century, the rapid growth of new house churches in cities has challenged these churches’ position as the dominant branch of house churches. In fact, the number of new churches formed since the nineties has exceeded the older churches, and there are clear differences in their composition, leadership and visions.
These newer churches are mainly made up of intellectuals who, after the fiasco of 1989 found meaning for their lives in the Christian faith, while still retaining a certain sense of obligation towards their country and society. These groups can be differentiated from the earlier generation in their vision, mission, and views on how to lead the church forward; accordingly, they do not consider themselves to be ‘house churches’. However, currently, as far as the outside world is concerned, there are only two categories: if you are not Three-Self, then you must be ‘house church’.
It is essential to be aware of this group of churches if we are to understand the development of the house churches.
The second tendency can be defined, again not wholly accurately, as ‘upholders of human rights’. Their response to the issue of registration is that their human rights must be respected, and this is their basic standpoint. Based on this stand, these churches are also opposed to registration with the government, particularly because of the ‘Religious Affairs Ordinances’ as well as other ordinances issued by the Department of Religious Affairs.
Their chief argument is that these ordinances contravene the religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. To register in conformity with these ordinances is to acknowledge the legitimacy of these unconstitutional laws, and this is tantamount to tampering with the freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitution, and thus to be in collusion with the government.
Most churches with this tendency belong to a grouping of urban churches which sprang up during the nineties, and they are mostly young churches which have come into existence within the last few years. It can be observed that while their numbers are not large, their influence in society, and particularly internationally, is significant. This group has the support of overseas churches and organizations who share the same views.
A characteristic of this tendency is to link a church’s right to exist with other human rights, and thus it is an attempt to resolve the human rights issue with the Chinese government once and for all. In the opinion of this writer, their reasons for opposition to registration are legal, rather than theological.
This trend has produced a rather complicated situation for the house churches in China. First of all, to align church matters with domestic and international politics undoubtedly bring s the church into a very complex situation. As we reflect on what the church has gone through during the last century, we may ask,: “is it possible to resolve the situation of the church by political means?” Have the sufferings and struggles of the last half century not been enough to make one to see and grasp this point?
Secondly, if our response to the issue of registration comes from a political point of view only, it must force the church to make decisions from a broader, legal rights approach, with it ending up simply as an instrument for upholding its own rights. Thus the church’s responsibility to the nation and to society is greater than that to herself. It is legitimate for us to question whether such an approach is truly in the best interests of the church, and whether we are really showing an understanding of the current mission and responsibility of the church in Mainland China.
A third tendency can be described, somewhat inexactly, as ‘conversationist’. The position held by these churches is that while the church has her own basic standpoint, at the same time as she insists on holding firm to her position, she should still be able to engage in constructive conversation with the secular government. Her response to the registration issue based on this standpoint, can only be that the church ought to register.
Registration does not affirm the legitimacy of a church, but is rather registering it with the government as a social grouping.
The process of registration is a process of dialogue with the government. Obviously it is not possible for this process to be smooth sailing, but rather it is part of a long journey. But there is still a large gap between the prevailing religious ordinances and the religious freedom stipulated by the Constitution. However, the prevailing ordinances can still be a starting point or platform for entering into meaningful conversation with the government. On the basis of this platform (even though it is one provided by the government) and such conversations, there is a hope of eventually reaching an appropriate relationship between the church and the government.
According to my understanding, this trend is encouraged by the majority of the Mainland city churches which arose in the nineties. It demonstrates that the new generation of church leaders see their duty to the church as their top priority; and that, as they shoulder the mission and responsibilities of the church, they are more likely to take a mature, logical, and pragmatic approach in dealing with their current situation, rather than an idealistic one.
Unfortunately this tendency is not widely understood by churches overseas.. One reason is that these churches have a shorter history and have not yet developed adequate links with overseas churches. Secondly, these churches have a rather independent local church mentality, and their vision is to first meet their own obligations by fulfilling their responsibilities by building up the church as well as to society in general.
However, this does not mean that these churches do not need help. On the contrary, if churches overseas can come to a true understanding of this church grouping, and take into account God’s guidance of churches in the cities of mainland China at this time, and can assist them in a variety of ways to fulfill their vision, they will certainly make a significant contribution to the healthy growth and prosperity of the urban churches in mainland China..
III.A light on a lamp-stand
The current situation in Mainland China is that it is not easy to register as a house church. As I understand the situation, apparently no churches have yet successfully registered. Is seeking registration just spinning one’s wheels and asking for trouble?
According to my knowledge, for churches seeking registration, it is not the act of registering which is the most important thing. This is not to say that whether or not registration has been successfully accomplished has no effect on the functioning of the church; rather, that they do not consider registration to be an isolated action but rather it is part of a process, which may take up to several years to accomplish. Registering provides an opportunity, a platform, and a channel for entering into dialogue with the government. For present-day Mainland churches, such a dialogue in itself is very significant. Registration is symbolic of the awakening of the church to her situation and mission. A considerable number of city churches contend that it is time for the house church to raise its head above the surface. Whether or not registration is successful, the church has to appear clearly above the surface, and place herself on a lamp-stand where others can see her, building the city of God on a hill as a witness to all.
This re-emergence can also demonstrate the church’s awareness that it already exists as a social group and a part of society, and thus that it has a dual obligation to spread the Gospel to people as well as to be responsive to society at large. Yet this is not to put her responsibility to society above her core mission as church, but to regard herself as one of the many social groups in a still developing society. Her role as one of many social groups is neither in order to carry out social reforms nor to save the country, but to conduct constructive dialogue with other groups, including the government..
So, whether or not she can successfully register, the church must first establish her ‘self-legitimacy’. First and foremost, no church need consider herself illegitimate; from a theological standpoint: the legitimacy and authority of the church comes directly from the Head of the church – Jesus Christ, and His holy word revealed through the Bible. Thus any social group that truly preaches the word of God and accurately administers the sacraments derives its legitimacy directly from Christ Himself.
Furthermore, this self-legitimacy can overcome a mentality that has subconsciously constrained house churches over these last 50 years, a mentality of fear, of closing themselves off from their surroundings and self-marginalization. The causes of these fears are obvious; they are known as ‘political fear syndrome’. People can respond to such a syndrome in two extreme ways: they disappear or act directly to cancel out the disappearance ! .
But now, I am pleased to state that this ‘fear syndrome’ which may have pre-occupied the Chinese house churches for over half a century has been finally overcome, and been replaced by a mature awakening of the church’s self-consciousness. This self-consciousness is neither focused on hiding oneself away nor on entering directly into conflict, but to follow wisely chosen steps and to step out judiciously onto the stage of history and to correctly assign to herself an appropriate role.
I have observed that through this self-legitimizing process the church has been locating itself less in people’s homes and more in office buildings shared by other social entities as a religious social group. Many churches even post nicely designed church posters in conspicuous places announcing to passers-by that this is a church. Churches publicize their sermon schedules on the Internet without being concerned about being discovered by government authorities.
Of course these churches are very aware that they are carrying out all these measures as natural expressions of their faith and for no other reasons, least of all political ones.
By this self-legitimizing process, the churches are conveying to the authorities through their reasonable and accountable behavior that what they are doing is within their rights and not out of bounds.
I have come to realize that religious freedom is neither an act of charity nor does it depend on the completion of some social revolution; sometimes it can be built upon constructive dialogue and active petitioning.
IV. Building up organizational systems
Some might ask, does occupying an office space and exposing oneself as a social group carry much significance?
As I have pointed out, the most important significance lies in the fact that as a religious and social group, the church has undergone a self-awakening. This awakening demonstrates, in particular, in the stress churches are placing on building up their own organizational systems.
Over the previous decades, the house churches in Mainland China, consciously or subconsciously, expressed a distaste for organization; and there were many reasons for this.:
Historically, house churches were forced to come into being during the fifties of last century, as unobtrusively as possible. The political climate of the time put limits on the number of members in gatherings, and there was neither need nor resources to build up an organizational system. This tradition was shared by most house churches, and it became regarded as normal.
The second reason was theological. From the eighties of the last century, the scale of the churches expanded rapidly while church administration stayed somewhat unchanged; this fact revealed that the absence of stress on systems had theological grounds. This may have been due to the long term influence of the Puritanical and Pentecostal traditions that house churches with a long history or tradition had inherited -:that building up church systems, in comparison to the edification of the inner life, was superficial and risked the church identifying with worldly organizations.
Thirdly, this lack of emphasis on organization had its roots in traditional Chinese culture. Chinese culture does not customarily have groups of people working together as equals or making decisions collectively. Behavior like this could be more conspicuous in churches, where equality among members is a given.
This issue is not apparent in Chinese churches overseas. Located in Western society, the organizational systems of Chinese churches have tended to follow those of the various denominations of Western churches. However, for Mainland house churches the situation has been entirely different. Over the last 50 years all denominational backgrounds have been obliterated. Mainland house churches have to build up their own institutional systems from scratch.
The building up of a system should not be carried out by several co-workers getting together to draft a document, nor by everyone following the same familiar constitution. Rather, it is a process by which each member agrees with others to work within a constitution to reach a state of renewal for the church. During this process, each member recognizes his or her role, and bonds within the group acknowledging that the support of other members is needed, and as a result, a heart-felt submission to one another will follow.
Unless the issue of setting up an organizational system is not resolved, the formation of a theology cannot proceed in an orderly and steady fashion, and the nurturing and renewal of believers’ lives will not be assured.
I have traced and observed a church in Beijing which has spent 2 to 3 years setting up an institutional system. What stands out are the struggles they went through in learning to work together, and the challenges which arose from their having to accept a range of different views and personalities. Some who had different views and vision found that they could no longer work together and ended up leaving, this caused pain to everyone who had been involved the process. However, it was through this process that the church eventually built up her own constitution, articles of faith, by-laws, and administrative details such as association, qualifications for membership, finance control, etc. Each member can now appreciate that as a gradually growing body, the church is now able to function in an orderly manner.
V.Concerns in the area of culture
The new generation of city churches has expressed a great deal of concern about society and culture. We have already mentioned that most of the members of these churches have experienced the collapse of their lifelong belief.. Faith in Christ brought new meaning to their lives, and through their faith they have acquired a new sense of obligation to society and to culture.
Yet whether this sense of obligation is able to positively influence society and culture depends on the maturity of the church groups, the degree of self-awakening on the part of the churches about their role as a group within society, and whether the church can function in an orderly fashion.
It can be said that the awakening of the church to her role as a social group is an awakening to her dual role: on the one hand, a faith-based group, a spiritual group rooted in Jesus Christ; and on the other, a social group whose existence and rights are based on constitutionally given freedom and rights.
The dual role of the church implies the she must have the dual obligations: to preach the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, and to be concerned for society at large. As stated in Chapter 5 of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, “Once again we repent our negligence and our sometime stand point that preaching the Gospel and social concern are antagonistic to each other. Although peace with men does not imply peace with God, and social concern is not equivalent to evangelism, nor political liberation the same as salvation, yet we believe that preaching the gospel and involvement in society are both Christian responsibilities.”
First and foremost, the social responsibility of the church is to allow people to understand Christian faith in many ways. This implies that the church must use culturally acceptable methods to communicate the pure truth of Christian faith. The conviction of the new generation of churches is that if one truly believes that Christian revelation is the truth and capable of changing everything, then he must be willing to express his concern for society and culture in ways that are acceptable to secular culture and within the bounds of the prevailing social order. This should be the main approach for churches wanting to fulfill their social obligations, rather than in belligerent or non-Christian ways.
To convey Christian truth in all its purity, in ways meaningful to the prevailing social structures is the most important task for churches concerned about social reform. There is so little understanding of Christian truth, and such an accumulation of negativity inherited from the days of the Cultural Revolution, which shows up whenever anyone opens their mouth, even for Christians. Whether it be the ideas, language we use or our lifestyle, the truths of Christianity are far from becoming part of our social system and consciousness. This should be the first task of the church’s attempts to make a social impact. . This would give meaning to the link between evangelism and social concern.
Maybe it is due to this conviction, I have observed that while the new generation churches have a strong social consciousness, they have deliberately differentiated themselves from the ‘rights upholders’. From the stand point of a righteous society, to be involved in claiming one’s rights is constructive and consistent with Christian faith. The church can encourage her members to be involved as individuals; but as a social group, upholding her rights should not be her main expression of social concern.
This new generation of churches pays more attention to carrying out its activities using current systems such as publications, Internet postings, lecture series, etc in order. to deliver a more comprehensive picture of Christian truths, especially those affecting the many different facets of society. For example, through literature, lectures and visitation, Christian teaching on marriage and family has influenced many families within and outside the church.
In addition, the publication of books that reflect orthodox Christian faith allows people, particularly the younger generation, to better understand Christianity in a positive way.
When it comes to works of charity and caring, Mainland house churches are still uninvolved. There is much to be done.
It is not how far the rights-upholding movement has progressed that determines how the church should provide social services; these should be based on Christian love and carried out with the courage that comes from Christ himself.
This article can be summarized by the following points:
1.Churches overseas should be aware that while there are some house churches which are being requested or forced to register with the government, with a corresponding refusal by church leaders to comply, there are now a number of house churches which are taking the initiative to register, but are being denied registration by the authorities in charge using various excuses. While writing this article, I heard of a church in Beijing which requested registration but was refused by the authorities. Overseas churches should be made aware of the true cause of denial of legitimacy to many city churches.
2.As far as Mainland house churches are concerned, the concept or picture formed by churches overseas should no longer be one of groups in homes with closely shut doors and windows, constantly playing hide and seek with government security personnel. The age of hiding or hostility is over. A new generation of city churches has gone public, and with growing confidence, are entering into constructive dialogue with the government. Overseas churches should help Mainland churches to encourage such constructive dialogue on a legal platform, rather than reprimanding them or being hostile to them.
3.Overseas churches should not be concerned mainly about preachers being imprisoned. The most urgent task for today’s house churches is the establishment of church structures; overseas churches should help to foster this. An organization in Hong Kong has added courses on church administration and structural development to their communication and training classes for Mainland preachers.
4. The greatest need for house churches is not ‘rights-upholding’ at the political level. Without insisting on upholding their rights, churches can still grow and function and can perform social ministry in many areas. Church outreach to culture and society should not be limited to politics. When overseas churches and organizations observe Mainland churches, they should take off their politically tinted glasses ; then they may discern more clearly what local churches can be doing in caring for the poor, providing education on marriage and family through publication of books, and other socially caring activities.
It is my hope that these observations may allow overseas churches and organizations to better understand house churches in mainland China, especially the new generation of city churches; and have a better appreciation of their current situation, their vision and mission; and not to limit themselves to looking at their needs and situations from a purely political stand point.
As you pray for these needs of Mainland churches and provide corresponding help, then the support provided by overseas churches to Mainland churches will not stay at its previous level, but move significantly forward.
The writer is presently living in China .and he writes from his personal experience on these points and suggestions for churches overseas. He has agreed to publish this same article in the “Times Forum(?)” in Hong Kong (the content has been edited with this in view )