Hannah Nation is the communications and content director for China Partnership. She is a graduate of Covenant College (BA in History) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MA in Church History), and is the author of Grace to the City: Studies in the Gospel from China.
In his recent article, “Chinese Christians Deserve a Better Label Than ‘Persecuted’,” Brent Fulton argues that the West needs to move beyond the narrative of persecution when considering the Chinese church. This is an argument he has made before on the ChinaSource blog and there is much in it worth considering. Fulton correctly argues that to limit any group to one identity does it a disservice and reduces our ability to listen to it as a peer. For several years, my colleagues at China Partnership and I have sought to encourage our partners and followers to move beyond the stereotyped image of the persecuted Chinese church. I therefore appreciate Fulton’s similar efforts to do the same, as well as his important point that we in the West have much to learn from China.
I would, however, argue that there is more to the story. After explaining four common stereotypes of the Chinese church, one of which is persecution, Fulton writes, “Again, these storylines contain elements of the truth. Yet each is incomplete. At best, they approximate something of the complexities of China’s church. At worst, they become caricatures, distorted pictures that would be largely unrecognizable to those whom they purport to describe. At the end of the day, they are still our narratives. As such, they say as much about us as they do about the church in China.” While I appreciate his desire to correct us of our faulty understandings of the Chinese church, I cannot agree with the idea that persecution is a narrative of the West’s creation and hence one to leave behind when understanding China’s churches. To be sure, persecution is not the only narrative and the persecution taking place today is very different from what happened in the 20th century; but to claim that it is a narrative constructed simply by Westerners entangled in church-state politics and then read onto the spiritual environment of China is problematic.
Persecution is a Part of the House Church’s History
To begin, this position disregards the identity the house church has largely chosen for itself and to which it remains loyal. In my work translating the sermons and writings of Chinese house church pastors into English, I have frequently wrestled with the correct English terminology for churches in China who do not submit to the authority of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the government-sanctioned church in China. “House church” has long felt like a misnomer for congregations of hundreds that meet in rented commercial space. And yet, after speaking with dozens of house church pastors from almost every region of China, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the correct English term to use because it is their chosen identity. They continue to calls themselves house churches, not because they actually meet in private homes in secret, but because they view themselves in a particular historical lineage that traces back to the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party’s persecutions of the church. “House church” has developed into an identity with particular historical, theological, and ideological roots. To explain this, Jin Tianming, a persecuted pastor from Beijing, has written, “Since house churches refuse to compromise with the government, if history is a guide, they will walk in the way of the cross, giving up everything without hesitation, including their lives and families. Therefore, suffering will become the mark of the Chinese Christian during this unique historical time.” Though our narratives in the West do need increased nuance as Fulton points out, to imply that persecution should no longer be central to the house church identity is to tell an indigenously led movement to leave behind the history that birthed its existence.
Furthermore, Fulton writes, “In a similar way, as they acknowledge the reality of China’s repressive religious policies, Christians outside China need to stop seeing Chinese Christians merely as ‘persecuted.’ By putting too much emphasis on politics, the familiar persecuted church narrative keeps Christians outside China from understanding the other dynamics at play in what has become arguably one of the fastest-growing Christian movements in history, accounting for one of the largest concentrations of believers in the world. Rooted in Western assumptions about the relationship between church and state, this narrative sees the church’s problem as primarily political. It paints believers as innocent victims or – in the case of those who dare to speak out against the regime – as tragic heroes.”
Would You Pray With Us Today?
I appreciate Fulton’s desire to keep the Chinese church from falling prey to the current political divides and obsessions of the American church during this time. But the situation of the house church in China is not dissimilar to the churches which came out of the European Reformation. Today, Reformed theology is associated more with a set of doctrinal commitments regarding soteriology, ecclesiology, the sacraments, etc.; however, 500 years ago, this theology was birthed from theological commitments that developed into socio-political conflicts. “Reformed” directly referred to a conflict with the ruling powers. This is the situation today in China. The house churches were birthed from theological commitments regarding who the head of the church is that brought numerous pastors and congregations into conflict with the state. Though their politics are not ours, their theological identity informs their resistance to submit to the CCP. To better understand the actual persecution and suffering of the Chinese church, the answer is not to gloss over politics, but rather to seek to better and more accurately understand the very different political and cultural context of the Chinese church and how the various theological commitments and beliefs of Chinese churches inform their stances. Like the Reformed churches of the West, I believe that one day “house church” will have largely lost its political meaning and simply be remembered for and understood according to its theological distinctions.
Persecution is a Part of the House Church’s Current Reality
In the end, though, the most important reason not to abandon the narrative of persecution of the Chinese church is because if anything, persecution is exactly what the Chinese churches are gearing up for. In my connections to hundreds of house church pastors across the country, I do not know any who would say discipling their members to prepare for suffering is not heavy on their minds. In February 2020, thousands of house church leaders spent a week attending a conference specifically focused on the topic of suffering and persecution in order to prepare their congregations for what is to come. Just today I learned of yet another spiritual retreat organized and hosted entirely by local church leaders that focused its entire schedule on the topic of preparing for persecution. From my work, this is representative of house churches in every region of China.
Perhaps this is where the nuance Fulton asks for can be found. For the contemporary, urban house church in China, suffering remains integral to its identity; but unlike in the West, there are no sharp divisions between political suffering and the suffering that has been brought to this world through the Covid-19 pandemic. In the theological legacy of Wang Mingdao, the house church generally believes that suffering and walking the way of the cross is integral to our union with Christ. Precisely because the Chinese church believes suffering is a foundational part of Christian discipleship, it does not make persecution by the state a bigger deal than it is. The Chinese church believes itself to be persecuted and openly talks this way; the difference is that it anticipates and prepares for this suffering as part of its primary identity as disciples of Christ. In fact, I regularly hear house church pastors declare that the greatest challenge to discipleship in today’s China is the lack of persecution. As one pastor has said, “I think a big crisis will be the next generation. Because [the younger] generation has never experienced persecution as the previous generation did and they never had the spiritual battles; they are very greatly influenced by secularism.” And another, “I don’t think persecution is the main difficulty for the Chinese churches. The more persecution, the more revival for the Chinese churches.”
In conclusion, Fulton is correct that we need to be careful not to read our political narratives onto China, but that does not mean the Chinese house church needs a new label. Instead, I would suggest that we in the West need to respect its historic, theological, and chosen identity of suffering and persecution, learning from it rather than rewriting it.