Clarifying Some Misconceptions about the “Three-Self”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

By Anonymous | Translator’s note: material in brackets was added for clarification.
bibleexibition300The National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (hereafter, the Three-Self) on October 16 brought to the Chicago mega-church Willow Creek Community Church a Chinese Bible exhibit that had earlier been on display at First United Methodist Church.  This is the second time the Three-Self has sent its Chinese Bible exhibition on tour in the United States, and, as I was writing this essay, the exhibit had just closed in Dallas, where it was enthusiastically supported by Bible Study Fellowship International and Dallas Theological Seminary, and was on its way to Charlotte, North Carolina.  I only learned that such an event was actually being held on the day the exhibit opened in Chicago.  When some other brothers and sisters from China heard about it, they were all very angry and planned to go together to Willow Creek Community Church to pass out leaflets and protest as a way of telling American brothers and sisters about the real nature of the Three-Self and this Bible exhibition.  To my great regret, because I have not yet bought a car and because public transport in the Chicago area is not well-developed, I was not able to go.  I even had my protest signs all printed up.  But I thought I could use my time in my Spiritual Life Cultivation small group to give my fellow students a clear understanding of church-state relations in China and the true nature of the Three-Self Movement and the patriotic churches.  In our Spiritual Life Cultivation small group, we all take turns doing the teaching, and next week happens to be my turn.

I recall that two years ago, when I was taking summer classes at Alliance Bible Seminary, my dorm mates and I would lament the fact that today’s Chinese house church Christians do not have a clear understanding of the Three-Self.  Some brothers and sisters think that criticizing the Three-Self is the same as criticizing the local churches that belong to the Three-Self (e.g. [Shanghai’s] Mu En Church, International Church), and fly into a rage when they hear such criticism, regarding it as criticism of the saints and sowing discord among the churches (many Chinese Christians do not like criticism and debate, regarding it as “not loving,” but they are ignorant of the fact that many pure teachings and truths throughout history were all clarified through debate and criticism).  There are also those brothers and sisters who consider the Three-Self on par with the government, and think that to criticize the Three-Self is to criticize the government, and further that to criticize the government is to disobey the government.  And there are also many house church brothers and sisters who have suffered greatly at the hands of the Three-Self who indiscriminately heap onto the Three-Self’s head a bunch of biblical terms―like prostitutes, tares, etc.―or are at loggerheads with brothers and sisters from Three-Self churches, refusing to have anything to do with them, which gives outsiders even more reason to think of the house churches as “narrow-minded” and “combative.”
Although there are already many articles criticizing the Three-Self, and no shortage of them on the Internet, still, I wanted to write this short essay because many articles go back to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in the 1950s to expose the real nature of the Three-Self, but this also leads to a lot of misunderstanding about house churches refusing to let go of historical issues and refusing to forgive their enemies.  I want to look at the modern Chinese church today and clarify some myths.  It is my hope that Christians of this generation can, on the one hand, proceed from history, learning from history to understand today (see Endnotes for some recommended reading), while on the other hand, put aside the illusions before them and see the truth.  In this essay and this lecture, the points I want to clarify in particular are the following five:
1.    Is criticizing the Three-Self the same as criticizing the church and acting out of unity with brothers and sisters in Three-Self churches?
References in this essay to “Three-Self” are to the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, also known as the China Christian Council, and not to the churches that belong to the Three-Self.  In my view, in these churches that are under the umbrella of the Three-Self are many members of the body of Christ who are under the control of and in bondage to the Three-Self (some house church brothers and sisters might not share my view; they view all churches under the Three-Self to be degenerate churches which do not have Christ as their head and which cannot therefore be regarded as churches), among them are many of our brothers and sisters, as well as many loyal servants.  So my criticism of and opposition to the Three-Self is not necessarily criticism of and opposition to these churches, nor am I criticizing or judging the brothers and sisters and preachers in these churches.  Of course, in their midst there most assuredly are those who are traitors, willing to play the jackal to the tiger, but it is not my job to figure out who is who, nor am I able to do so.  It is also my belief that, once the religious policy in China loosens, a great number of local churches will separate from the Three-Self and raise high and glorify the name of Christ.
2.    Is opposing the Three-Self the same as being disobedient to the government?
In essence, the Three-Self was formed by a bunch of liberals (that is, atheists who do not recognize the authority and the inerrancy of the Bible, and who see Jesus as a great moral teacher) who, acting on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party and its aim of “restricting and eradicating religion” that was copied from the Soviet Union, infiltrated Christians groups in the 1950s.  Their purpose was to reform, restrict and wipe out Christian groups (see Li Ke, “The Laws of History Cannot be Violated—Insight on Sixty Years of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement,” Universal Social Science Research Network 历史规律不可抗拒——三自爱国运动六十年的思考).  The Three-Self claims that it is an “autonomous” non-government organization “to provide service for the good management of China’s churches.”  The Three-Self is not a church, rather it is more like a trade association whose purpose is to “manage” the church for the government’s religious affairs agencies.  In addition to the other “patriotic” religious groups, other similar organizations include the bar association and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, etc.  In essence, it is a mass organization to establish a monopoly in this sphere.  Since it is acceptable to expose the China Red Cross Society’s embezzlement and corruption and its monopoly of charity work, so we can likewise criticize the Three-Self for being politicized, for not being separate from the state, and for controlling and restricting the church.  Criticism of the Three-Self is not the same as criticizing the government or criticizing the church.  In any case, when the government violates biblical principles, the church, as the vanguard of society and its conscience, has the responsibility to criticize and to bring up biblical truths.
3.    I have been to many Three-Self churches and they are thriving.  The Three-Self has also done a lot of evangelism.
First, our opposition to the Three-Self is not necessarily opposition to those churches that already belong to the Three-Self.  Rather, we are opposed to the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, this freak that is neither church nor state.  To establish a new church that can meet openly under the Three-Self’s administration and in line the irregular and politicized religious policy of China requires going through multiple approvals by the local Three-Self chapters and the religious affairs agency of the local government.  Furthermore, according to the regulations of local religious affairs agencies, “generally speaking,” only one Christian church is allowed in one area (regardless of the number of people living there); only the “patriotic” religious group can initiate the application process; and the clergy must be approved and dispatched by the Three-Self (can you imagine if the general manager of a company had to be trained and approved by the All-China Chamber of Commerce?).  Hence, the Three-Self church is the only church in each area that can meet openly, and in China’s current social circumstances, it’s nearly impossible for the church not to be packed with people.  Just imagine if in all of Shanghai (or Chicago), there were only five gas stations.  Each would be jammed with customers and filling up would still require “going through the back door.”  So the fact that there are so many people at these churches that meet openly isn’t because they are doing such a great job but rather it is due to the irregular religious policy and the Three-Self’s control and restrictions.  In Shanghai, believers have to sit outside the church or even on the grass on many Sunday mornings.  If not for the Three-Self and these religious policies designed to restrict and eradicate religion, there would be more thriving churches.
4.    The Three-Self has printed a lot of Bibles, which the house churches also use.  Isn’t that good for everyone?  Why oppose their Bible exhibition?
The paper that the Three-Self uses to print the Bible is donated by overseas brothers and sisters and the Chinese Union translation of the Bible has no copyright, so the Three-Self has a lucrative monopoly.  To date, the Bible in China is available for sale only in churches belonging to the Three-Self.  You will not find a Bible in any bookstore; and if you did, it would only be because the bookstore owner doesn’t know the law (I once saw one in the Beijing Normal University bookstore, a 20 RMB Chinese-English version priced at 50 RMB).  Some publishers reportedly won permission in the 1990s to publish the Bible and sell it in bookstores nationwide, but their plan was blocked by the Three-Self.  Because this story is just hearsay, I’d like to get a denial (or confirmation) from a Three-Self insider.  On display in this Bible exhibit are Bibles that Chinese Christians had resorted to copying by hand during the Cultural Revolution and at other times when the church was being widely persecuted, as well as various versions of the Bible printed by the Three-Self.  Yet no mention was made anywhere of who was persecuting the church and had made it impossible for Christians to buy Bibles, or who helped the government to forcibly take over the church, or the fact that the Three-Self has a monopoly on Bible distribution and brooks no interference.  Not to mention the fact that if you bring in multiple copies of the Bible to China today, they will be seized by Customs, or the fact that the imprisonment in recent years of several pastors and preachers for printing the Bible and Christian literature was totally ignored.  What they are trying to do is to dress up a religious policy that is wrong and not free and the Three-Self’s history of controlling and persecuting the church so as to create the illusion of religious freedom in China and of the Three-Self as an organization that loves the Lord and loves the church.  This kind of false propaganda will only result in more overseas members of the body and churches being trapped by this fraud, putting money, resources and material into the Three-Self’s hands to waste, to no good purpose.
5.    Why object to overseas churches cooperating with the Three-Self?  What’s the problem, so long as the Gospel is spread?
The sponsors of this Bible exhibition―Bible Study Fellowship International, Dallas Theological Seminary and Willow Creek Community Church―are all Christian groups that I greatly respect and even admire, and I can understand their reasons for supporting this Three-Self Bible exhibition.  Bible Study Fellowship International wants its Bible studies in mainland China to be accessible to Chinese citizens (currently only overseas Chinese holding foreign passports are allowed to attend).  Dallas Theological Seminary presumably wants to recruit students from China or be involved in theological training in China.  And Willow Creek Church probably also wants to take part in mainland ministries.  In this situation where the Three-Self has a monopoly on ministry that can be conducted openly and publicly, these groups have no option but to bow to power, thinking that in this way, they can be involved in mainland ministry and bear fruit for the sake of the Gospel.  They have, however, underestimated the potential consequences of helping the Three-Self conduct this deceptive propaganda, consequences that could harm and [negatively] impact the Chinese church.  Consider this: if the Three-Self wins the support of the overseas mainline churches (or if it simply says it has; it doesn’t make much difference whether it has or simply says it has), and then, in the name of “orthodox Christianity,” begins large-scale persecution of house churches (they have done this before; it’s just that in recent years they’ve taken a break: when I was in college, it still happened that Three-Self lay leaders reported house church activities to the religious affairs bureau), the harm to the work of the Gospel far exceeds the little bit of ministry that they [the foreign groups] can do.  So, my view is, if foreign churches want a part in the China ministry, they have many channels and ways—they can work directly with local governments, they can train house church preachers and translate good Bible teaching materials, they can even contact local churches (even churches that are part of the Three-Self) directly and establish a relationship of trust.  All these would be much better than helping the Three-Self in its propaganda efforts.  It is my hope that these Christian groups will not be solely concerned with statistics—“how many people attended the crusade or Bible study”—and experiences—“I have preached in mainland China.”  They should also understand the unseen cost and the harm caused, and look at the pros and cons from a higher perspective.
My reason for sharing this with the students in this group is that they are future pastors and missionaries.  I hope they would use their influence to help those around them understand the truth of the Chinese church.  But I’ve discovered that the students and faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago all have some awareness of this.  At a minimum they know about China’s Three-Self and the house churches and they all have a basically correct understanding of this.  If Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Church, been a serious student when he was here and graduated (he’s a Trinity dropout), he would not have committed a mistake in this regard.
To Christians reading this essay, including believers from churches that are part of the Three-Self, let me reiterate that I am not saying that all churches that meet openly and are registered [with the government] are fake churches, much less that those who worship at churches belonging to the Three-Self are not saved.  Whether or not one is saved is not a matter of which church one belongs to but rather has to do with whether one knows the Lord and is obedient.  Besides, how closely a church follows the Three-Self and even how open-minded the Three-Self is varies from place to place.  Therefore, one should not make generalizations.  It is not because they regard churches that belong to the Three-Self as enemies that house churches have no contact with them; rather it is a matter of self-protection:  there’s no telling if someone from your group will leave a “fellowship” dinner and go make a report to the authorities; after all, there was no shortage of the Three-Self doing this in the 1980s and 1990s.

To officials from State Security, Domestic Security Protection, and Religious and Ethnic Affairs who are reading this essay, I want to say that I am not necessarily opposed to you.  If the registration process of a religious group were to be completely separated from becoming part of the Three-Self ([that is,] organizations are allowed to choose to voluntarily join the Three-Self), and if the government did not interfere in the internal management of religious groups (such as appointing clergy and resolving doctrinal disputes …. Let me ask, do the tax authorities get involved in the internal management of enterprises, do they say, “Your way of doing business is wrong”?), and the best [improvement] would be if the discriminatory practice of “registration of a site for religious activities” was abandoned and replaced by appropriate management measures of the fire department for sites where crowds gather, many of China’s house churches, and including myself, would be happy to prepare to register, I think.  Although it might seem that this would greatly reduce your workload, in the course of time a lot of house churches will register; that’s good news for your departments’ budget and staffing needs [which will grow because of the increased workload].
For more in-depth reading on the Three-Self’s history and nature, see:
    “Kiss God”, 与神亲嘴 by Wang Yi
    “Where the Three-Self Went Wrong”, 三自错在哪里 by Epaphras
    “Tares, Prostitutes & Puppets: Analysis of the Three-Self”, 稗子、淫妇、傀儡——对三自的剖析 by She He
    “The National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China that I Know”, 我所认识的中国基督教三自爱国运动委员会 by Levi
    “The Cross”, 十字架 documentary (need to get past the firewall)
Link to the original version of this essay:

China Aid Contacts
Rachel Ritchie, English Media Director
Cell: (432) 553-1080 | Office: 1+ (888) 889-7757 | Other: (432) 689-6985