The Chinese Church Under Pressure – A Special Series from Our President

A Historical Review, Part 1: “Who Do You Love?”

Editor’s note: Yang Mingdao is the pseudonym used by Chinese staff within China Partnership. This important eleven-part series is from a recent lecture given by China Partnership’s president. It has been edited from the original transcriptions.

The first five posts of this series focus on Chinese history in order to grant a greater understanding of contemporary issues facing the church. As the gospel penetrates Chinese culture, deeply rooted historical and cultural idiosyncrasies impact Christianity’s contextualization. The pressures the church is now weathering are greatly influenced by these historical realities. To understand the current challenges, one must be familiar with traditional Chinese governance and the trajectory taken since China first encountered Christianity.

Read the whole series below:

Synopsis: The current round of religious persecution in China is fundamentally an issue of ultimate allegiances. “The government used to be laissez-faire, but now they need to hear everyone say: ‘I love you.’”

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Synopsis: Modern day China is the result of a clash between cultures. Before its engagement with the West, China viewed the world according to two categories – its kingdom and the barbarians outside. 

Synopsis: A discussion of the authority structures that exist in China due to the long legacy of Confucianism. Authority belongs to the emperor as given by heaven and total loyalty to superiors is necessary for the Chinese system to function. 

Synopsis: A two-millennia old system of governance does not easily change overnight. “Yuan realized the universal and interconnected Chinese system could not be transformed into a republican or parliamentary system simply by changing it on paper. In a public discussion in America, he said: “If we do not even have citizens, how can we have a republican system?”

Synopsis: In the past, while China was busy getting rich, the government had confidence in its full legitimacy to rule and there were fewer questions of loyalty. But now, in this time of reconstruction, they ask: “Do you love me? If you do, you must raise the national flag. If you love me, you will register [your churches].

In this second half of the series, we now turn to the ecclesiology (theology of church) developed and deepened by Chinese believers as they face trying times of transition in mainland China. The Chinese church’s understanding and experience of union with Christ, their theology of suffering, and their articulation of the mission of the church are an encouragement and fierce challenge to their Western brothers and sisters.

Synopsis: When a culture desperately needs the message of the cross (not the prosperity gospel, but the central message of Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection) and it is given, the gospel not only crosses and transcends cultural boundaries, it produces long-lasting fruit. 

Synopsis: Chinese pastors are asking the question, “What is the church?” The answer is crucial for determining their response to the government. As they try to define their theology of the church, these pastors are going beyond considering its attributes, to trying to understand the very nature of the church.

Synopsis: In the light of Genesis 3, the most important question to ask is not, “How can we be saved,” but rather, “How can the creative will and plan of God to make a perfect humanity be fulfilled?” The answer is the one-and-many humanity God is calling to himself to make up the church.

Synopsis: Today’s church is the construction site for the new creation God is building and which will be revealed in the final day.

Synopsis: The persecution and challenges the Chinese house church currently faces are no different from those faced by the early church in Acts. The authorities of this world always challenge the church with the same question: “Who do you love?” The extent to which the church’s response to this question is informed by its union with Christ will determine its faithfulness to the Lord in the face of persecution.

Synopsis: Moving forward, we must ask: are we protecting ourselves, or are we doing it for the gospel? A lived-out ecclesiology will inevitably encounter suffering.

How do we view the Chinese church under pressure? There are many perspectives: some focus on whether the church can continue to exist – should we first preserve the remnants? Should we view the church from a more traditional, pragmatic perspective? Others view the church in China as the rise of the greatest private self-governing body. Those who hold this view have high hopes for the church and expect the church to drive China to change.

The lens we look through will help us discern the concrete situation of the Chinese church. Once we have clarity of vision, we can formulate strategies which are in line with the will of God, and also realistic. We should start with reflection and finding the right perspective. How should we approach and understand the current problems? How do we respond to the situation biblically? 

First, we must see contemporary China from the perspective of modern Chinese history. 

Second, we see China through the lens of missiology, particularly the relationship between the church and Chinese culture from the cross-cultural perspective of the gospel. 

Finally, we look at the situation through the lens of gospel theology, especially focusing on Christ’s resurrection and coming reign. The identity and calling of the Chinese church are defined by the eschatology of the kingdom of God.

Let me explain the current situation. The New Regulations on Religious Affairs have been in force since February 1, 2018. These new regulations come down hard to control places of worship and the pastoral staff. If you are at a certain place of worship and you are a pastor, you face two problems: first, this place of worship is illegal; and second, you are not qualified to be a pastor or to preach. The desired outcome is for all churches to officially register with the government. If this does not happen, restrictions come down on the place of worship and the pastoral office. Official punishment and possible fines are threatened.

If you are in an illegal place of worship or are an “unqualified” pastor, you may be issued a summons. Following that, there will be administrative detention – we have seen several cases of this. In Henan and Guangzhou, official detentions have already begun. But because the New Regulation is an administrative regulation, the most it can do is to issue a summons or an administrative detention. In the legal system of China, the longest one can be detained under such a rule is 15 days. If a pastor is willing to be detained for 15 days, that should be the end of enforcement.

Some high-profile churches and leaders who have clearly resisted these regulations now face legal persecution. We hear charges such as “inciting to subvert state power,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and “illegal business operations.” It is not clear what will happen next, but some of these leaders will be sentenced through these charges, and some are definitely going to prison.

On December 9, 2018, Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) – after the issuing of summons and detention – entered another level, the legal level. Once on this level, they may be criminally charged. Many of the ministry team members of ERCC have been legally detained; as such, the longest they can detain a person is 37 days. At the end of 30 days, they decide whether to authorize an arrest, when a prosecutor officially files charges against detainees.

The opposite of such persecution can be seen in models that show us the purpose of this regulation. They display what is “good” [behavior.] Have you seen the pictures of monks in the Shaolin temples raising Chinese flags? It has been fifteen hundred years since the monks raised a Chinese flag. Now, it is not just temples raising Chinese flags, but churches are doing the same. The government hopes for mature and developed civic organizations, including religious organizations, to express nationalistic loyalty. Raising the flag is a metaphorical symbol akin to kowtowing to the emperor; it is a sign expressing where your true allegiance lies, like a shout-out saying, “I love you.” The government used to be laissez-faire, but now they need to hear everyone say: “I love you.” 

We often think of these regulations as merely destroying Christianity, but actually, they are not only targeted at Christianity, but are an expression of central control. The regulations target every religion, including Islam and even Buddhism. Every religion must come under this umbrella. It is a systematic expression of self-ideology. For the first time since China’s reform, this is a sign of authoritative control over all institutionalized religions. 

The perennial question of whether Chinese ought to celebrate Christmas has been debated ever since Christianity entered China. This is a popular level question of the deeper questions, “Where is your true allegiance?”, “Who is your boss?”, and “To whom do you report?” These questions are manifesting themselves acutely in the present persecution, leading house churches to existential crises: “To split, or not to split? To go, or not go?” 

When viewed from two thousand years of church history, these are missiological questions that span culture. With the lordship of Christ who died and rose again, the gospel inevitably creates impact, a stir, when it collides with three thousand years of Chinese culture. This not only concerns questions like whether to celebrate Christmas, but it shakes the core of the culture. Asking, “Where is your true allegiance?” is an essential part of the cross-cultural evangelism process.


Translation provided by Moses, Jane, Ryan, and the China Partnership translation team.

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