Editor’s note: Pastor Gao Zhen serves the house church in Beijing. He and many other pastors are thinking critically and writing about issues related to the spread of Christianity in China, as well as the church’s relationship to the state.
In this post, Pastor Gao reflects on why he believes the house church, not the state church, is the true vehicle for gospel truth and proclamation. The thoughts he shares here represent one common perspective among house church pastors on the Three Self Church; however, there remains a wide diversity of views among house church pastors on the topic.
We can trace the history of the Three Self church back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, the early stages of when communist China became a nation. Chairman Mao wanted to destroy Christianity as materialistic and anti-Marxist. He thought Christianity would be a source of harm for China, so he wanted to weed it out. Mao Zedong wanted to become the god of the Chinese people. God is a jealous god; Mao was very jealous of God. Mao forbid the Chinese to have different gods and different beliefs. He wanted to be the god of China, so he wanted to destroy Christianity.
At this time, Wu Yaozong was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in the United States. After graduating, Wu went back to China. In the U.S., he learned we need to give people human rights to have their own faith system. When Wu came back to China, he met with Zhou Enlai [the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China], and told him, “This is the faith system in America. China should have a similar belief system.”
Zhou said, “This is impossible. You need to give me a reason for this. Why should we allow Christianity to survive in China?”
Wu returned home and tried to think of a reason. He tried to solve the problem, and think how he could give Christianity a reason to survive. He met with Zhou Enlai again, and Zhou told him, “We will always uphold Communism. The church can be a part of the building process of socialism in China. We should ask the church to always uphold the Communist Party.”
For us, this idea is very strange. But for Zhou Enlai, it was a good reason. So Wu wrote a statement on how to be a patriotic church. Of course, now we know this is a compromise of Biblical truth. But Christianity was seeking a way to survive, so they compromised Biblical truth.
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Wu said, “The Bible teaches to love God and love people. Loving God is primary. We will share that you love people by loving God. Through loving people, we will show we truly love God.”
This became twisted. It turned into a statement that we need to love first the nation of China, and then we love the church.
Many pastors were misled. At first, a lot of pastors joined the Three Self Patriotic Movement for the sake of survival. But those pastors who put all their faith in the Bible, those pastors who did not want to compromise Biblical words, they refused to sign these documents. They realized it was not true Christianity.
Today, there is a lot of twisted Christianity. We add words to Biblical truth. We change the word of God for the sake of survival. Some people call this refined Christianity. I call it heresy.
In its doctrine of faith, the Three Self church does not emphasize that people are sinners. They do not emphasize the salvation of Jesus Christ. They emphasize how to be a contributing citizen in order to build up China. This kind of teaching is not truly a religious teaching.
“Just be a good person”—is that truly the way? Just being good does not get you to heaven. You cannot even come to the U.S. by just being good! When you go to the embassy in the U.S., if you write on the visa application, “I am a good person,” they will reject your application. Being a good person is useless. You have to escape from sin, you have to become righteous. How can you have eternal life in Christ? This is the true calling God has for us.
But the Three Self church does not teach this. I believe it is refined Christianity. They have been bought by the government. They, like Esau, sold their firstborn privilege for the sake of a bowl of soup. If all the churches in China were like this, then I would say China does not have a true Christian church anymore.
The house church in China, that is our difference—we do not accept this kind of refinement. We do not accept this heretical Christianity. We say the church can only be built solely on God’s word. The church can only be built on the rock of Jesus Christ. He is the foundation of the church.
The Three Self church is built on the wrong foundation. Many people do not understand this. They believe we can partner with the Three Self church. I would say this is a major problem. We are studying how to support the church in China, and help it build a healthy and Biblical church.