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Global Times: Estranged Brethren

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Global Times

Oct. 10, 2013
By Liu Dong
A church in Longchuan, Yunnan Province. Photo: Courtesy
of Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of Protestant
Churches in China

They are all brothers and sisters, but some believe God would rather be worshiped in their churches than in others. Among China's millions of Protestant Christians, many refuse to go to the official churches affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of Protestant Churches in China (TSPM).

Amid the rapid development of Protestantism in China over the past decade, there is a unique phenomenon. Protestants are divided into two groups, those who go to government-authorized churches and those who attend underground churches. The groups have had little communication for decades.

However, an open letter to all Protestants in China released last month by the Ninth National Chinese Christian Congress (CCC), the top Chinese official Protestant authority, stated that Protestants who currently choose not to attend churches under the official system are welcome to join, and called for unity for all Protestants in China.

It seems the authorities are trying to bridge the gap between "official" and "underground" believers that has seemed irreconcilable for a generation.

The division of history
According to a report from the CCC last month, more than 2.4 million people converted to Protestantism in official churches while 5,195 new churches were built across the country over the past five years.

When the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, China had less than 700,000 Protestants while today the number has surged to at least 25 million, according to official statistics.

However, many people believe the number of Christians in China is still seriously underestimated since large numbers of both Protestants and Catholics prefer to attend unofficial, underground churches rather than government-authorized churches.

The division started in 1954 when some pro-government Chinese Protestant leaders set up a national church organization, the TSPM, under the leadership of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) and the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China, to remove any Western influences from the churches in China.

But some other Christians did not accept the principle of the Three-Self doctrine and began worshipping at small and clandestine venues which were not registered or licensed. Such churches were generally called house churches or underground churches.

Many house churches' leaders and those who refused to join the TSPM were persecuted and even put in jail at the time. However, house churches did not disappear. Instead, they boomed rapidly after the Culture Revolution (1966-76) was over.

Liu Peng, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has paid close attention to the development of Christianity in China, said although it is hard to say precisely how many Christians there are in China today, he thought more than half of them are in house churches.

A forceless amnesty
Fu Xianwei, chairman of the TSPM, told the Global Times that the open letter expresses the message that any Protestants who are law-abiding and have the same faith are all welcome, and the TSPM would like to communicate with them and serve them.

Fu said that if any house churches want to join the Three-Self church system, they must have qualified ministers who had formal theological training and special training to adapt to Chinese people's thinking and culture, even if they had already trained in an overseas seminary. Meanwhile, the church must have a management team recognized by all church members.

China now has 21 government-approved seminaries across the country and has trained some 10,000 graduates so far. Most seminaries only recruit students recommended by local Three-Self system churches.

According to Xie Bingguo, the principal of East China Seminary in Shanghai, besides theology courses, students also need to learn Marxism as one kind of philosophy in required courses.

But Sun Yi, elder of the Beijing Shouwang Church, one of the largest house churches in Beijing, told the Global Times that the main reason Shouwang would not join the TSPM was because they thought the TSPM was the product of a special historical period and from their perspective, it can't represent the position of the majority of church members and is unqualified to be a leadership organization of the churches or appoint church leaders.

"We think the TSPM is the extension of government and true Three-Self churches should not only get rid of the influence from the West, but also break away from the government, which is a universal principle in churches of many other countries," Sun said.

Initially springing from a Bible study group at a young Tsinghua graduate's home in 1993, the Beijing Shouwang Church was in Haidian district before it was forced to move to outdoor worship in April 2011. Their church members include students and staff from nearby universities and many intellectuals and white-collar workers.

As early as 2006, Shouwang submitted their registration as an independent religious group to Beijing's religious authorities. But the authorities turned them down and claimed they could only be legal after they joined the TSPM.

In fact, Chinese religious authorities had already envisaged persuading Protestants worshipping at unregistered churches to join official churches. In a 2011 priority agenda publicized on its website, SARA said the move will help the activities of Protestant churches proceed in a normal and orderly way. But the agenda did not detail how SARA will conduct such "guidance."

"In our view, the gap between the TSPM and house churches will be difficult to bridge if the TSPM doesn't want to face problems caused by the complicated historical reasons first," Sun said.

After Shouwang failed to be recognized as an independent church by the authorities, they were unable to get the key to a property they had purchased and paid for as their church building due to actions by the government. At the same time, several landlords of their current worship venues asked them to move out.

Call for policy change
But not all house churches choose to speak out like Shouwang. Because most other house churches grow in popularity, they usually split into two or more small churches so as not to draw the authorities' attention. They try to focus on religion, and avoid getting into political matters.

A Protestant leader from a house church in Shanghai told the Global Times that some newly emerging house churches in big cities did not have a historical grudge with the TSPM. Rather, they had become used to worshipping in intimate, small churches, and do not want to join the big churches run by the TSPM.

"Besides, we think the relation among all churches is independent and equal and it is difficult for us to accept that we must join the TSPM to be legal," he said.

Yang Fenggang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, told the Global Times that China's current religion policy is the legacy of old times, and had seriously disconnected with today's social reality.

"The government needs to update its objective understanding and knowledge on all kinds of emerging religious phenomenon and adjust its outdated policy to keep up with the changing times," Yang said.

"The government should allow different churches to be able to legally register and develop naturally, which is helpful for building a harmonious society," Yang said.

TSPM Chairman Fu: Govt more open on religion
GT: What is the current status of Christianity in China?

Fu: China has 25 million baptized Protestants in more than 60,000 churches and 21 seminaries across the country as of 2012. And if we are counting those who have been to the church for worship, the number might be more.

GT: How do you understand the government's attitude to Christianity and religion policy?

Fu: The Chinese government is more and more open-minded on religious development which is very different from the past. I think China's current policy is to carry out freedom of religious beliefs firmly but it will neither promote religion development nor limit it.

GT: What are the relations between the TSPM, CCC and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA)?

Fu: SARA actually is a government organ to help churches to stand up for their legitimate rights and interests. For example, in the past churches had many obstacles doing charity activities due to policy restrictions. Last year SARA coordinated related central government departments to release a document to clear barriers for religious groups to engage in charity affairs. And such results could never be achieved if the churches argued for them alone.

GT: Some people overseas said the pastors in TSPM and CCC are Communists and they were appointed by the government, and what they preach is censored and that churches' funds come from the government. Is that true?

Fu: There are some misunderstandings among those who don't know us. First, Three-Self is a principle under which we run the church but not our faith or doctrine. We never called ourselves Three-Self church but the church of Christ. Second, none of the pastors in our churches are Communists. How could it be possible for a Communist to become a pastor? But we will not reject anyone who comes to church.

We had a strict system on pastor appointment. One of the requirements is that he or she must have undergone formal study of theology. And what they preach has no limitation. It is not true that as some people have claimed pastors can not talk about sin or revelation in China. And all the expenses of the churches are paid from believers' donations.

GT: What do you think of the underground churches phenomenon in China ?

Fu: Some problems were caused by the unreasonable distribution of churches during China's urbanization process, so in some areas that have many Christians but only few churches, they might go to a closer house church in their neighborhood; some cases were due to pastors' preaching being unattractive, or pastors being unable to take care of everyone's feelings due to large congregations. Some other cases were caused by internal conflicts within the churches and subsequent splits.

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