Home Grown: Church and State in China

By Yeo, K. K. | The Christian Century, January 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Home Grown: Church and State in China


Yeo, K. K., The Christian Century


IN ANTIQUITY China acquired a beautiful name, Shen-zhou, which literally means "state of God." Unfortunately, the title probably was used as a political term meaning that God had given the elite the divine right to rule rather than that Yahweh claimed China as the chosen land and the Chinese as a chosen people. From its seventh-century beginnings, Chinese Christianity has never been able to detach itself from its political context.

The current state of indigenous Chinese Christianity is shaped largely by very recent developments, including the dark days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when churches were closed by the government. It comes as something of a surprise, then, that in the past two and a half decades the number of Chinese Christians has grown from an estimated 1-2 million in 1979 to between 21 and 80 million, and the number of converts continues to increase staggeringly.

Over the past ten years I have made a number of trips to China, and I have been amazed at the religious and political freedom I have seen there. Still, China is ruled not by law but by people, and the degree of liberty varies from place to place. While religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution, whether that guarantee is recognized depends on who is interpreting the law. The communist government still has absolute power to come up with new policies, and sometimes it restricts religious activities.

We can see the sociopolitical realities of Chinese Christianity by considering three enterprises: the Three-Self churches, the independent churches, and the institutes of Christian research.

Three-Self and the China Christian Council. In the years following World War II, Western powers dominated China in critical ways. After the communists came to power in 1949, Christian leader Wu Yao-tsung and the premier, Chou En-lai, prepared the Christian Manifesto, which called Chinese Christians to heighten their "vigilance against imperialism, to make known the clear political stand of Christians in New China, to hasten the building of a Chinese church whose affairs are managed by the Chinese themselves." It stated further that Christians should support the "common political platform under the leadership of the government." To this end, the government worked with Protestant leaders to establish the Three-Self (self-government, self-propagation, self-support) Patriotic Movement.

Now the TSPM, together with the China Christian Council, formed in the early 1980s, serves as official overseer of Protestant churches. (Catholic churches operate under the Catholic Patriotic Association. The government has prohibited Chinese Catholics from maintaining official ties with the Vatican.)

There are about 45,000 such Protestant churches in China, plus 200 "meeting points," places where Chinese Christians may gather, such as church buildings, homes, offices or universities. The meeting points are divided into two groups: those with 20 to 40 members and those with more than 40. Any gathering of believers with more than 40 people is required by law to register with the government, meaning the government can monitor and maintain social control of such gatherings.

The CCC also partners with the Amity Foundation to advance works of mercy and to oversee the publication and distribution of Bibles. Since the 1980s, Amity Press has printed more than 28 million Bibles. (By law, publications of the CCC are sold in its bookstores or churches, not in public book stores.) The CCC also seeks to provide Bible translations for eight ethnic-minority groups. The Amity Foundation has a broad goal of "serving society and benefiting the people." The CCC and Amity conduct work in rural areas, where 60 percent of the people remain illiterate and impoverished. Other objectives of the Amity Foundation include improving health care, contributing to Christian modernization and development through education, better familiarizing Chinese with Christianity, and sharing ecumenical resources among churches. …

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