Ryan moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China, at the age of twelve. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as an Assistant Pastor at New City Presbyterian Church in his US hometown of Cincinnati, OH. He also serves as the China Partnership Translation Manager.
If you have been following the news or the reports from China Partnership, you may be familiar with the heightened persecution and pressure confronting the house churches in China. Some churches, like Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, have been publicly banned and had their leaders arrested. More and more churches are receiving notifications from the government to cease operation. The penalties for disobeying these orders range from imprisonment to large fines. While some house churches have not yet received official notifications from the government, they are receiving eviction notices from landlords, visits by police officers, and many of their members have had their jobs taken away. Under these circumstances, some urban house church leaders have felt an increasing urgency to meet, share experiences, and encourage one another. I had the privilege to join them in a closed-door meeting. Here are some observations I took away after spending a few days with them.
Guided by a theological vision.
Under these tense circumstances, some house church leaders naturally respond by asking practical questions: “What is the best place to meet? How will we come up with the funds to pay the fines? When should we split into small groups and when should we hold large-group worship services? How can we defend our legal rights?”
While these questions are important to consider, most house church leaders are much more concerned with a theological question: what is the church? Therefore, before devising any practical strategies, they look to scripture and their theological commitments to formulate a vision for the church. Their vision was especially guided by their reflections on ecclesiology and eschatology (the doctrines of the church and of the end times): what will the church look like in the new heavens and the new earth, and how can they move their congregations and their cities toward that end? Despite increasing pressure from the government, house church leaders continue to plant churches and gather for worship because they see the church as the scaffolding of the kingdom of God. One pastor even said to the police officers, “The church belongs to God, I don’t have the courage to shut it down. If you have the guts, you can do it yourself.”
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Persecution is ordained by God.
The theological commitment of these house church leaders has also given them a high view of God’s sovereignty. On the one hand, they are comforted by the assurance that those who persecute them will one day have to answer to God. On the other hand, they see persecution as a form of discipline. It is an opportunity for them to grow stronger in faith and in prayer. There is now a higher sense of urgency to train new leaders, deepen their theological understanding, and clarify their mission. Since some churches are no longer able meet in their usual worship space, they see persecution as an opportunity to plant new churches in other neighborhoods. Many pastors acknowledge that the biggest threat facing their churches is not persecution, but their own fear that prohibits them from moving the kingdom of God forward. One pastor even encouraged his church by saying, “Do not waste this opportunity that God has given us!”
Treat law enforcement with love and respect.
On any given Sunday, local officials may visit some of these urban house churches. These officials can come from a variety of departments: the local police station, the religious bureau, the public security bureau, the department of education, the department of cultural affairs, etc. These officials may come for a variety of reasons: to intimidate, to harass, to investigate, to observe, to confiscate properties, to shut down gatherings, even to arrest pastors and members. At the beginning, some of these officials could be very harsh in their tone and attitude in order to intimidate church members. But over time, as church leaders demonstrated their resolve and faithfulness to their calling, the tone of some officials has become softer and even courteous.
While church leaders and members want to stand firm in their faith, they have also made it a goal to treat officials with gentleness and love, thereby often earning their respect and courtesy. As some of the same officials have repeated interactions with these pastors and leaders, they are actually able to get to know each other very well. The pastors and leaders recognize that many of these officials have never heard the gospel before, and this may be the only opportunity to share the gospel of Christ with them. The goal was not to win the respect of government officials, but to win their souls for Christ.
The officials also have their fears.
While government officials seem to have the full support of the national government, they also know that religious freedom is a right guaranteed to all Chinese citizens under the Chinese constitution. To some extent, local officials know they are in the wrong legally. While they have to follow orders from above, they themselves are often uncertain about the proper legal procedures and standings. The number of agencies involved in some situations can also create a bureaucratic nightmare for people on all sides.
On one hand, the officials are afraid of pressure from the national government above. On the other hand, they are afraid of creating more trouble for themselves by doing something wrong. Most of the officials hope only to keep their jobs and please everyone involved in the situation. They harbor no personal animosity or professional interest in persecuting these church leaders, many of whom they have gotten to know quite well. Some of the officials may even have a haunting suspicion that they are offending the almighty God.
This does not mean that the persecution against the house churches is not serious; the national government appears quite determined to put an end to all house churches, and their strategies will only become more coordinated over time. But orders are carried out by humans, and humans are often weak. Sensing this, house church leaders see a higher sense of urgency to share the love of Christ with the officials persecuting them.
Human rights defense is a common grace.
While the church leaders trust that persecution is ordained by God, they also know God has given them certain legal rights under the Chinese constitution. Therefore, they are not afraid to employ legal counsel to defend their rights, because these rights are a common grace given to all Chinese citizens. They see legal action not as a vindictive measure, but as a way to protect the church. Their legal defense often exposes the hypocrisy between the government’s actions and the law of the land. Sometimes, the best legal defense can only buy them more time, but this has given the leaders opportunities to pray for guidance and protection.
But legal defense also comes with its own risks. As one pastor says, “We also must prepare for the worst when we actively confront the government. But the harder things get, the more we manifest the glory of the cross and experience real peace in Christ. On the other hand, the more we hide, the harder it will be for us to give an account to Christ and to understand the meaning of ‘counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.'”
As I listened to these house church leaders exchange stories and encouragement, I grew more and more grateful that God has continued to give such wisdom and courage to these leaders. However, I am also learning more about the difficult challenges they face. Their gatherings continue to be illegal in the government’s eyes, and finding a place to meet (or even to live) has become more and more difficult. Many of their members have lost their jobs; some have been sent back to their hometowns; some are under surveillance. All of these situations have created more work and anxiety for these church leaders. They not only have to come up with a proper course of action that is faithful to God, they also have to make sure the people of their congregation remain firm in their faith. Often, the offers and rewards of the opposition are very seductive. All these challenges will only become more acute in the coming months and years. This should remind those of us in the West to continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in China, and to support them with our encouragement and resources.