An Orientation to China's Reforming Churches

Article by   January 2013
Part I: The Chinese Context

"[M]ore people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe."(1) China is now home to more evangelical believers than any other nation, and the church continues to grow and make inroads in every level of Chinese society. Today, tens of millions of Chinese profess faith in Jesus Christ. Such dramatic growth, against the backdrop of modern China, has produced profound and urgent church development needs. As faithful Chinese ministers strive to meet these needs, an increasing number are discovering the rich biblical and theological resources of the Reformed tradition and Presbyterian polity.

The turn toward Reformed theology and church polity is geographically widespread but far from enveloping the majority of congregations. Arising out of the practical demands of pastoral ministry and the church's mission, this movement is as vibrant and vigorous as it is young and tender. Critically, it is an actual reformation of the church.(2)  We are not talking about a pocket of evangelicals who have just discovered Reformed soteriology, as good as that sort of thing is.  What is happening in China is of a different order, embodying a clear ecclesiastical form with concrete confessional and institutional dimensions and this, in turn, is reshaping the nature and scope of the Reformed and Presbyterian mission to China. It is likely to have deep and long-lasting influence on Chinese and, in time, global Christianity. Perhaps some orientation to this nascent reformation will prove helpful.

A Fast-Changing Cultural Context

China's population, now roughly 1.35 billion people despite numerous enormous setbacks since 1839 and the current one-child policy, has impressed Western observers for centuries.(3)  Recently, they have been even more impressed by the spectacular rate of cultural change taking place: China is arguably changing faster than any national culture in history not at war.  Cities are bulging, skylines are soaring, industry is booming, money is flowing, demand is growing, and her global influence is rapidly rising. China is already the world's second largest economy and predicted to overtake the United States in a decade or two. The standard of living in Shanghai has surpassed some EU capitals, and the masters of this growth continue to invest heavily in domestic and international infrastructure, export-driven manufacturing sectors, military modernization, and in securing and developing the world's natural resources. Though tens of millions of her citizens still lack basic modern conveniences and live on less than $1.25 a day (the international poverty line), World Bank figures indicate that China's economic boom accounts for most of the reduction in global poverty levels over the past three decades.

Any predictions about China's future, however, may soon appear naive. But predictions disclose present perceptions which, though far from self-fulfilling prophecies, are forceful realities in their own right. Consider, for example, the dynamic language commentators consistently employ: China has "already" or "will soon;" China has "awoken" and is "on the move," "rising fast," and "overtaking." Whatever the future may be, itís coming fast - that, at least, is the perception.  And this is not just a remote view of the situation, either, but the word on the streets of China's great cities, a refrain among a mostly sober-minded people far from naive about the profound problems plaguing their society. "Things are changing so fast," they say, "and China is opening up so much."

Living with Contradiction

The post-Mao opening up of China accelerated rapidly under Deng Xiaoping's influence. That Deng is a hero of Chinaís transformation and the tyrant of Tiananmen is just the sort of contradiction that is modern China.  As one commentator recently mused:
For those who have never visited China, the country offers much more freedom than you are probably imagining. For those who've visited for quick trips, China is likely far more restrictive than what you've experienced. For most people in China, the lack of freedom only occasionally asserts itself as the veneer of "reform and opening up" gives way, exposing the fact that in many ways, China is still a police state.(4)

The contradiction is not just between rhetoric and reality but between two kinds of realities or conditions of practical life that collide daily.(5) The conflict between them has many faces, and is the object of perhaps the central political debate among China's intellectuals: is today's party line of reform and opening up substantive or just a ruse?(6)  Or, to ask the same question, which condition will define China's future?

While surprisingly open today, China remains a single-party police state that continues to fall far short of a rule-of-law society (though, like the air pollution, foreign visitors are not supposed to notice). The primary contribution China's citizens are expected to make to a harmonious and prosperous society is to live quietly under party rule. Many of the new freedoms they enjoy daily are not codified or protected, but exist only as current and frequently unofficial administrative policies. So, although the unmistakable if uneven trend has been toward greater openness, officials retain the legal right to crack down upon whomever they want whenever they choose.  The selective, arbitrary enforcement of laws and regulations generally ignored - and the ability of officials to go beyond what the law permits with little to no accountability - leaves a wide opening for the sort of predatory political corruption for which China is notorious. Party leaders have persistently and publicly pointed to this kind of corruption as among the greatest threats to their hold on power, yet they have so far failed to correct a system that creates an environment of uncertainty, fear, and frustration punctuated by real and at times unspeakable human rights violations.(7)

Conforming and Non-Conforming Churches

This contradiction creates uncertain conditions for the work of the ministry, too, and divides the mainland Christian community in multiple ways. Most notably, a deep and long-standing division exists between the congregations of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the vast number and great diversity of "house churches." The TSPM is an umbrella organization for officially recognized - that is, registered - Protestant congregations. It answers to the Communist Party's United Front Work Department and functions as an arm of the government's State Administration for Religious Affairs. Not surprisingly, this is an unacceptable arrangement for most Chinese Christians. Still, there are signs of independence and spiritual vitality among congregations throughout this network as believing pastors and members within the TSPM system take advantage of a less intrusive, or at least less domineering party to pursue biblical ministry.

The majority of Protestants, however, practice their faith outside the TSPM apparatus and make up China's house churches (also called underground or unregistered churches by some). To be clear, many of these congregations do not meet in households or operate as clandestine bodies.  Although most maintain a low profile out of respect for civil authorities and a desire to live peaceful lives, it would be a mistake to think of these congregations as impoverished and isolated cell groups. Large numbers of house churches are finding some room to transform loose, informal networks into better-ordered ecclesiastic connections and a few congregations have even petitioned the government for the right to register as non-TSPM churches.

So far, party and state officials continue to insist on membership in the TSPM in order to be officially recognized or legally tolerated. By doing so, they continue to assert a right to control Christ's church in China and unnecessarily place millions of her citizens in a difficult situation.  This hardline party position is the fundamental issue dividing Protestantism between conforming TSPM congregations and non-conforming house churches.  

The issue is, at bottom, theological - and a familiar one to those acquainted with church history.  Non-conforming congregations and church leaders, while ordinarily highly respectful of civil authorities, refuse to compromise the gospel and their conscience by acknowledging another head of the body who denies the reality of the risen Lord and attempts to usurp his authority over his church.(8)

What's to Come

This is a rough sketch of the context within which a real and surprising reformation of the church is beginning to unfold in our day. In the next installment we will consider how the church in China has arrived at this moment, and in the final installment we will consider the moment itself.

Dr. Bruce Baugus is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

NOTES:
1. Tim Gardam, "Christians in China: Is the Country in Spiritual Crisis?," BBC News Magazine, Sept 11, 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14838749 (accessed on May 26, 2012). 

2. As I will note in part three below, there is another significant driver of interest in Reformed theology in some quarters that is less churchly in its concerns and objectives.

3. For perspective, the United States, the world's third most populous nation, fits comfortably within the .35 part of that figure. China has hundreds of millions more people than any continent but its own - more people, for that matter, than North America, Europe, and Australia combined; or than the entire Western Hemisphere.  As early as1865, in "Chinaís Spiritual Need and Claims," Hudson Taylor reported a population of 400 million and asked, "What mind can grasp it?"  Many others have also argued that Chinaís population renders this nation not just the world's largest market but a uniquely strategic mission field. See, for example, Kurt D. Selles, A New Way of Belonging: Covenant Theology, China, and the Christian Reformed Church, 1921-1951 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), pp. 33-41, which also discloses the sometimes strong racial dimensions of mission discussions of the time. 

4. Tom, "China Is Still a Police State(?)," Seeing Red in China, March 26, 2012: http://seeingredinchina.com/2012/03/26/china-is-still-a-police-state/ (accessed March 30, 2012).

5. For an insightful exploration of this complicated and conflicted culture and how these contradictions shape vernacular life in China, see Rob Gifford, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (New York: Random House, 2008).

6 See, for example, Hu Pingís response to Yu Jie: "Does Wen Jiabao Really Wish to Redress June 4th?," Seeing Red in China, March 28, 2012: http://seeingredinchina.com/2012/03/28/hu-ping-does-wen-jiabao-really-wish-to-redress-june-4th/ís (accessed November 23, 2012). Yu Jie dismissed a suggestion in the Financial Times on March 20, 2012, that (now former) premier Wen Jiabao might finally be prepared to speak to the brutal suppression of unarmed Tiananmen Square demonstrators on June 4, 1989. Conventional wisdom maintains that in post-Tiananmen China party leaders trade economic freedoms for political stability. But Ezra F. Vogel reminds readers that the reform and opening-up trajectory was well-established before the protests in the Spring of 1989 (in the wake of the reformist Hu Yaobangís death). Although Tiananmen Square protestors may not have started a revolution they did expose deep divisions extending to the highest levels of a conflicted party and their actions haunt party discourse and policy to the present.  

7. While still in office, former premier Wen Jiabao, for example, was quoted by the official Xinhua news outlet as saying "corruption is the most crucial threat to the ruling party," explaining that if this problem is not addressed adequately it has the potential to undermine the government's legitimacy in the eyes of the people (reported March 27, 2012). This has been a steady theme throughout the recent, once-per-decade transition in power at the 18th Communist Party Congress. An insightful analysis of predatory corruption is offered by Andrew Wedeman, Double Paradox: Rapid Growth and Rising Corruption in China (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), who primarily deals with the political corruption involved in the privatization of state property.

8. For this reason, drawing on categories more commonly associated with English church history, Wang Zhiyong refers to the non-TSPM churches as "nonconforming" churches. 
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