Chinas Three-Self Church Tool of God, Tool of the Party
Xu Yongzhe, an itinerant evangelist from Central China, might not have noticed the four unmarked cars parked outside the house in Beijing where he was staying. Perhaps he did see them, yet felt it was worth the risk to stay in Beijing until he could see Dr. Billy Graham, who was scheduled to preach in Chinas capital that weekend.
A fugitive for nearly five years, Xu came to Beijing on April 15 at the invitation of a fellow house church leader. He hoped to share with Graham news of the house churches in rural China with which he had been involved and which, despite government persecution, had grown from 200 house groups to more than 3000 in the past eight years.
Xus first day in Beijing passed without incident, but the following afternoon, agents from the Ministry of National SecurityChinas equivalent of the KGBconfronted him in a Beijing park, and his hopes of seeing Billy Graham quickly faded.
On April 17, a Sunday, Graham preached to a capacity crowd at Beijings Chongwenmen Church. Meanwhile, government agents in central China were apprehending several of Xus co-workers, indicating that Xus arrest was part of a larger crackdown.
Two Faces of the Church in China
Officials of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), Chinas government-recognized Protestant organization, paint a picture of a small but growing Church which enjoys full freedom of worship. The church is able to raise all the leaders it needs, and it desires no assistance from abroad except for prayer and some small material contributions given through TSPM channels.
Reports from Christians in China and internal TSPM documents, however, reveal that the Church may be 10 or more times as large as the TSPM admits. Not everyone who does the work of the Gospel is within the TSPM fold, and the needs for theological training, Bibles, and other forms of spiritual help are greater than the TSPM is willing to acknowledge.
Faced with a growing Christian population too large to contain, the TSPM minimizes the true situation of the Church in China in order to restrict church growth in accordance with the Communist Partys religious policy.
Three-Self Patriotic Movement: The Early Years
On the surface, the TSPMs admirable task was to bring about the selfhood which the Chinese Church had thus far been unable to attain. The movements main function during its early years, however, was more political than spiritual, as suggested by its original name, the Oppose-America, Aid-Korea Three-Self Reform Movement. This movement spearheaded accusation meetings against believers who had worked too closely with foreign missionaries and rallied support for Chinas fight against American forces in Korea.
During the 1950s, TSPM leaders consolidated Chinas many churches and ordered them to sever any remaining ties with foreign missionaries. Christian leaders who did not cooperate with the movement became targets of persecution, and many ended up in prison.
The TSPM ceased functioning during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong declared China a religionless state. Young Red Guards under Maos direction ravaged the churches, pulled down crosses and burned Bibles. The chaos continued until Mao died in 1976, at which time Chinas new leaders began the difficult task of restoring normalcy to Chinese society.
Tool of God
The TSPM and China Christian Council have since made significant progress in restoring public Christian activity. Believers in China are free to worship in over four thousand open churches. Related to these churches are several thousand meeting points under TSPM supervision.
The China Christian Council has also made progress in the area of theological training. To train a new generation of pastors for the open churches, the Council has established twelve seminaries along with a program for theological education by correspondence.
Most of the seminaries, the largest of which has less than 200 students, offer a two-year degree. After these two years, students either return home to assist in open churches or go on for two additional years of study in one of the larger seminaries.
In an effort to ease the shortage of Bibles in China, the Christian Council has printed 2.7 million Bibles since 1980. Recently the United Bible Societies donated a modern printing press to the Amity Foundation, a secular organization which TSPM leaders founded in 1985 to promote outside Christian participation in Chinas social and educational development.
Tool of the Party
Document 19" goes on to say, however, that safeguarding normal religious activities implies resolutely attacking all those illegal and criminal activities, and counterrevolutionary and destructive activities which go under the guise of religion . . . .
Thus the TSPM is responsible not only to conduct religious activities but also to stop any activities which may threaten the Partys control over society. A look at the broad manner in which TSPM leaders fulfill this mandate provides a clearer picture of the true Church situation in China and helps to explain the discrepancy between evangelist Xu Yongzhes arrest in Beijing and Billy Grahams historic sermon in the same city one day later.
While the China Christian Council operates twelve seminaries for the training of church leaders, the ultimate goal of these seminaries, according to Document 19, is to equip a new corps of pastors to guarantee that the Church will in the future operate under the leadership of the Party. Entrance to these seminaries is extremely limited, and students who lack the proper political qualifications or who have had connections with unofficial house churches cannot gain admission.
One prospective student bypassed normal application procedures after local TSPM and Religious Affairs Bureau officials refused to grant him a letter of recommendation to Nanjing Theological Seminary. When the seminary accepted his application without the local letters of recommendation, the TSPM authorities advised the seminary to revoke its acceptance and had the man arrested and put in jail.
A university student who applied to Nan?jing was similarly prevented from enrolling by local Religious Affairs officials, and, having prevented her enrollment, they singled her out for public criticism in front of her fellow students. Several students at Wuhan Seminary, another China Christian Council school, have been expelled because they conducted outside or unauthorized evangelistic activities.
Were Chinas need for trained Christian leaders limited merely to the need of the open churches and TSPM-affiliated meeting points, the Christian Council seminaries might be sufficient. However, the level of response to theological broadcasts from outside China, which has risen steadily over the past several years, suggests a much greater need.
One such broadcast grew out of the work of Jonathan Chao and his staff at the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong. Chao began studying the condition of the Church in China in 1978 and concluded that the greatest need among Chinese believers was for leadership training. To help meet this need, he launched the Seminary of the Air broadcasts, which provide daily theological training on a level that rural lay leaders can understand.
Other broadcasting organizations have followed suit, and today these nurture programs account for about half of the Christian programming beamed into China, the other half being evangelistic or pre-evangelistic in nature.
In addition to radio programs, cassette tapes and literature from abroad also help meet the need for leadership training in China.
The Chinese Church Research Center has published one of its Seminary of the Air courses for use by rural pastors and evangelists and plans to do the same with other courses when funds become available.
The Far East Broadcasting Company, a major shortwave broadcaster to China, and Christian Communications Limited, a publisher of Chinese Christian literature, have also recently announced a combined effort to provide both spoken and written instruction for Chinese pastors and lay leaders.
Blocking Outside Interference
Its next to impossible to enforce restrictions on listening to Gospel broadcasts from abroad, but the TSPM has instructed believers in some provinces not to tune in to the programs, and Christians whose homes have been searched by the police have had radios and tape players confiscated.
Another example of foreign infiltration which Document 19" specifically mentions is the importation of Bibles from abroad.
It is true, if the church in China were only as large as TSPM officials report it to be (last years official figure was 3,386,611 Christians), then it would seem unnecessary to continue bringing Bibles into China from outside.
In addition to the 2.65 million Bibles which the China Christian Council has already printed, and the 2.5 million which have entered China from outside sources, the new Amity press, with a rated capacity of 10 million paperback books per year, will greatly increase the efficiency of the Councils Bible production. There is no reason the TSPM and China Christian Council cannot meet the Chinese demand for Bibles.
Yet the Amity Foundation has said its goal is to produce merely 250,000 Bibles each year on the new press (fewer than the CCC has printed on average each year for the past eight years). Remaining press capacity will be used to produce educational materials and other literature of use to society.
And while the press may indeed produce 250,000 Bibles, Christians outside the TSPM have been regularly denied access to TSPM/CCC materials. They are thus forced to rely for Bibles on sources outside China.
And so requests for Bibles continue to flow from the country. One believer in Guangxi province wrote last summer, When we gather to study we only have five Bibles. This, of course, is way below our need for Scriptures. . . . Thus, I write with earnestness, even begging you, to send us Bibles in order to help us in our Bible study and to help us grow spiritually.
Handicapping the Church for Slower Growth
The first Designate sets limits upon who can become a church staff member. It limits church personnel to those who are approved by the TSPM and the State Religious Affairs Bureau. Evangelists like Xu Yongzhe who choose to remain outside the TSPM do so at the risk of arrest and imprisonment.
The second and third Designates suggest why Xu and others like him have chosen to remain outside the TSPM.
Under the second Designate, Christians may worship and conduct evangelism only within the four walls of a church building.
Document 19" clearly states that no religious organization or believers should do missionary work outside places of worship. This policy renders illegal the work of Xu Yongzhe and his co-workers, who began organizing evangelistic teams during the latter years of the Cultural Revolution to take the Gospel across county and provincial lines.
Believers are allowed to have a witness through their presence among unbelievers, but those who go further and conduct evangelistic activities without TSPM permission do so in violation of the law.
TSPM and Religious Affairs officials have found it difficult to enforce this second Designate, and at times have adopted a rather loose interpretation of it due to the inadequate number of open churches and the widespread practice among Christians of meeting in homes.
Last year, however, there was a marked tightening as TSPM officials in Shanghai, Fuzhou, and other areas in eastern China ordered house churches which had previously enjoyed limited freedom under the TSPM to disband; their members were to worship only in the open churches.
Earlier this year TSPM leaders from the provinces of Henan and Anhui, both scenes of great revival, held a joint meeting at which they discussed what to do about the chaos that has resulted from rapid church growth in the rural areas. They decided to implement strict measures banning house meetings not registered with the TSPM.
The third Designate limits how far an open church pastor may travel in order to minister. It restricts contact between church leaders in various areas and prevents pastors from carrying on pioneer evangelism in unreached areas. Were Xu and his co-workers to register with the TSPM, they would be forced to cease their cross-county and cross-provincial missionary work.
Recently, the pastor of a large open church reported that a fourth Designate, designated time, has been used to restrict evening worship and midweek meetings at his church and other meeting points in his area registered with the TSPM.
If local TSPM officials apply this restriction on a broad scale, it will serve to further contain the activities of Christians, particularly those of itinerant evangelists who may preach in a different location every night of the week.
Pastors in the open churches are allowed to prepare their own sermons, but are told which topics they may or may not discuss. The return of Christ, suffering for Christ, and separation from the world are a few subjects pastors must avoid teachingthey might call into question the Partys authority over all aspects of Chinese life.
TSPM restrictions also prohibit praying for divine healing and the casting out of demons, both of which are common practice among rural believers and have resulted in many coming to faith in Christ.
At last years national TSPM conference, pastors were told that they could only baptize believers over the age of eighteen, and then only if they had first been examined by the local Three-Self committee and Religious Affairs Bureau officials. Communist Youth League and Party members are ineligible to receive baptism. And in two provinces, at least, Shandong and Henan, TSPM directives forbid youths under eighteen from even entering open churches.
Toward a Balanced View
Still, there is another side to the Church in China, as the same organization responsible for cultivating Christian activities is also responsible for controlling such activities when they go beyond certain limits.
The challenge facing believers outside China who are concerned for their Chinese brothers and sisters is to search out the truth of what God is doing among His people, whether within the walls of the open churches or among rural believers in secret home meetings.
If we come to truly understand the Church in China, we will be able to identify with our Chinese brothers and sisters and labor with them in prayer. If we are to identify with the Chinese Church, it means we will assist our brothers and sisters in China as they have need.
Believers in China covet the support of their brothers and sisters overseas. Through radio broadcasting and the supply of Bibles and other Christian literature, Christians abroad can encourage those in China, such as Xu Yongzhe, who have given their lives for the spread of the Gospel. n
For helpful information on praying for the Church in China, please write for your free subscription to the China Prayer Letter, published by the Chinese Church Research Center. Write to China Ministries International, 1605 Elizabeth St., Pasadena, CA 91104.