There was an excellent broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last week in which Tim Gardam, Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford explores the role of “God in China.”1 A conservative figure for the number of Christians in China would now be 70 million.
That’s a lot.
It’s perhaps no wonder than that Christianity is still treated with suspicion by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whilst at the same time, there are many who call for increasing levels of acceptance. What Dr Gardam’s piece highlights well is the genuine tension in China between the official Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches and the ‘underground’, unofficial house churches.
Interpreting the TSPM is both complicated and controversial. The demand from believers has been for a ‘space’ in society where the individual could “govern his whole life and thought by Christian ideas and principles.” The practical developments around the modus vivendi that is the TSPM demonstrates both the problem of continued government interference with this ‘space’ for religious activity, and the reality of how some Three-Self churches are able to avoid the more restrictive aspects of the arrangement in practice.
There is a real danger in viewing the official church with derision and contempt, and presenting them as a moribund organisation that has outlived its usefulness. There are some very real compromises without question (the forbidding of ‘evangelism’ amongst the populace by TSPM churches of under–18s springs to mind.) There are some very real failings of the TSPM, and memories of the betrayal of house-church Christians by their TSPM peers in the 1950’s and opening years of the Cultural Revolution die hard. Yet the there are areas where religious accommodation has afforded to the official wing of Protestant Christianity in China a negotiation of gradual freedoms that simply would not be possible without its legal, and necessarily compromised, status.
Yet the reality of CCP meddling in church activity, while an issue treated with some care, has not been met by all registered church leaders with a somnambulant conformity, where they have proven unwilling or unable to respond. In reality, the degree of control wielded by the state is uneven the regions and there are many examples of official and unofficial churches working closely together – even of believers attending morning ‘house churches’, only to join in worship with TSPM believers in the evening. It is also, incidentally, categorically not the case that TSPM churches and their pastors are not themselves subject to persecution.
It doesn’t have to be a case of either or. Religious accommodation in an atheist state and house churches that go beyond the boundaries of legality can both be legitimate and spirit-filled responses in my view.
The state of Christianity in China is more than a search for autonomous space for religious activity. Being a Follower of Jesus and sitting under his lordship can be seen as at odds with the communist state. But the ways in which the lordship of Christ – just as it did for Paul and his believers across the Roman Empire – can express itself in many different, creative and surprising ways.
Just a few thoughts.
Apologies if either the effluxion of time or the lack of UK residence prevent you from enjoying this ↩