Will China get the Christian spirit?

christians in chinaThere is a lot that could be said about Time‘s August 20 article on how Christianity is changing China. Clocking in at about 1,800 words, it’s not an especially long piece considering the breadth of the subject. But it packs a punch in explaining the complex ways that Christianity is changing China.

While the article does an adequate and much-needed job in explaining an incident of apparent government brutality against a group of Christian believers in Hangzhou, it was at its best in explaining the growth of the Christian church and how it is used in some areas as a buttress against the Communist government:

So far, the government hasn’t done much to halt the spread of such hothouses of faith. But that may be changing, as evidenced by the assault on the Hangzhou church. The mandarins in Beijing have always reserved special venom for groups they label xie jiao, or evil cults. The most famous is the brutally suppressed Falun Gong movement, but the authorities may be tempted to extend that label to the Christian sects that are growing the fastest — those practicing fervid forms of worship that stress miracles and personal inspiration through prayer. A number of cultlike, pseudo-Christian offshoots have sprung up in the Chinese countryside in recent years, apparently inspired by this ecstatic form of worship. Often spawned by the personal ambition of their leaders, these highly secretive groups usually espouse millenarian views that make the authorities profoundly nervous. Members of a sect called the Three Grades of Servants were convicted earlier this year in Heilongjiang province on 20 murder charges, involving attacks on its main rival, Eastern Lightning, a sect that relies on kidnapping and beating to make converts. One of its central aims is the overthrow of the “Great Red Dragon,” a thinly disguised reference to Beijing.

Although Christians tend not to see themselves as revolutionaries, house churches have become one of China’s few bulwarks against government power. In Wenzhou, a city in coastal Zhejiang province known among Chinese Christians as “China’s Jerusalem,” 15% to 20% of the population is Christian, a fact that gives the church leaders much greater authority in confronting local party officials. In 2002, for example, a campaign of protests and appeals to Beijing led to the reversal of a city government decision to ban Sunday-school teaching. In Hangzhou, local officials say the clash — about which Time was the first to hear eyewitness accounts — stemmed from the church builders’ long-running defiance of government regulations. The county government’s statement contends that three alternative sites had been offered to the Christian community’s representatives but were refused by church leaders.

chinese christiansThe section on pseudo-Christian offshoots is what interested me most and highlights an interesting situation that Christians in China face. Right now the only officially recognized church authority is granted through the state. If this sounds like the Middle Ages to you, consider the pseudo-Christian groups, which sound a lot like the groups that Paul of Tarsus worked so hard to put down in his ministry.

Also from a historical perspective, I found the article revealing in its “Christianity will change China” tone. The article’s subhead reads: “As Christianity begins to reshape the nation, Time learns new details about a crackdown on one church.”

What about China is not being reshaped these days? For a country with a government that attempts to manage everything, things are changing quite quickly and reporters should be on the lookout for how religion is changing the government’s relationship with the people.

Through a quote, the final paragraph in the article makes a dramatic claim:

In the long run, though, government attempts to circumscribe how people practice their faith seem unlikely to succeed — and could well spark more unrest. It’s telling that even in the face of such crackdowns, some Chinese Christians say they are confident that they will eventually win the freedom to practice their faith as they choose. Brother Chow (not his real name) is one. He is every inch the model of the modern Chinese Christian, a preacher who doubles as a businessman. Despite his pressed jeans, polo shirt and fancy mobile phone, he professes to believe in a deep, ancient faith, one that he says has carried many a Christian through persecution. “Why don’t I think it will be a problem? Because as time goes on, the government will get to know the Christian spirit and realize that God exists.” He smiles with the secret knowledge of a true believer. “And then,” he says, “they will become Christians too.”

Those of us who have heard from Christian Chinese missionaries, perhaps at a church function, know that Christianity could change China. We’ve heard it for years, over and over again. But we hear less about the pseudo-Christian groups. In what ways are they changing China? To what extent do missionary groups attempt to maintain some sense of doctrinal consistency throughout the massive country? Is that even possible?

I was also curious to know if anyone has figures on the effect of outside missionaries on the movement. Or is it largely driven from within?

Whether Christianity actually brings genuine change to the Communist government remains to be seen, but it’s certainly something reporters should keep their eyes on.

Print Friendly

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Ironically, one of my former seminary classmates was called to serve in Russia as a missionary 13 years ago. It was actually a request by the Russian government–that American churches send people to teach the 10 Commandments! My friend remarked that in America, with freedom of speech and religion, we can’t have the 10 Commandments even posted in schools and public places. The Russian government begged Christian missionaries to do just that.

    Might the same not happen in China? The big story, not covered, is why people are attracted to a faith even in the face of persecution. This is an age-old story, going back to the Roman Empire and the early Christians.

  • Iris Alantiel

    Members of a sect called the Three Grades of Servants were convicted earlier this year in Heilongjiang province on 20 murder charges, involving attacks on its main rival, Eastern Lightning, a sect that relies on kidnapping and beating to make converts.

    Now honestly, if these were Muslim converts, the entire world would be making a big deal about how violent the religion is. Fanaticism of any persuasion is a dangerous thing.

    The big story, not covered, is why people are attracted to a faith even in the face of persecution.

    Now that’s fascinating. I’d pay money to read the explanation on that one. Great thinking, John.

  • Elliot

    What about the Taiping Rebellion? Hasn’t a quasi-Christian movement already had a huge impact in China? Might not the government be thinking nervously of that event?

  • http://hairouna.livejournal.com Discernment

    …but the authorities may be tempted to extend that label to the Christian sects that are growing the fastest — those practising fervid forms of worship that stress miracles and personal inspiration through prayer.

    Those pesky Pentecostals and Charismatics are everywhere, aren’t they? :P

  • Larry Rasczak

    Two quick points..

    http://www.cardinalkungfoundation.org/

    Second, “Right now the only officially recognized church authority is granted through the state. If this sounds like the Middle Ages to you…”

    It IS like the middle ages. Exact same political dynamic. Authoritarian government is unwilling and unable to recogognize ANY non-state authority because it is imposed by the eletes and does not have the necessary base of popular support.

    History is like Shakespeare plays, the stories are universal, on the names and set dressings change.

  • dpulliam

    I couldn’t agree with you more about China and the Middle Ages Larry. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear in the post.

  • halflight

    What about the Taiping Rebellion? Hasn’t a quasi-Christian movement already had a huge impact in China? Might not the government be thinking nervously of that event?

    EXACTLY! Most people in the West don’t know about the T’ai Ping Rebellion, and why any Chinese government may be leery of Christian enthusiasms. A short synopsis is here. Jonathan Spence has also written an excellent history God’s Chinese Son. In short, a failed scholar from southern China had brief contact with Christian missionaries, and, through his own study of scripture and a series of ecstatic dreams, determined that he was the younger brother of Jesus sent to rid China of demon worship. As a result, he led a rebellion against the Qing emperors.

    The T’ai Ping rebellion resulted in the deaths of nearly 30 million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, and continues to leave its mark on China. One of the reasons that Shanghai became a major Chinese city was that wealthy Chinese sought protection there under the European colonial guns after the T’ai Pings captured Suzhou, a then more important city to the east of Shanghai.

    Given that history, it’s not hard to imagine why the Chinese might be suspicious of charismatic and pentecostal Christian movements.

    The frustrating thing is that current government policy, by forbidding “foreign influence” within the Christian churches and forcing the unofficial churches to operate covertly, creates the kind of isolation in which dangerous heresies can breed.

    There are some Christians who have been quietly working with the Chinese government to loosen restrictions and allow Chinese seminarians (yes, there are seminaries in China) and pastors to study abroad and have access to imported Christian materials.

    Drawing media attention, however, could sabotage years of work, so they prefer to stay low-key. The last thing they want to do is publicly embarass government officials.

  • Andrew

    I attended a state sponsored church when I lived in Beijing, part of the Three-Self Movement that halflight alluded to. In a lot of ways the analogy to Middle Age state churches is apt, though the Chinese state is of course in no way subservient to the Church in the way that monarches in Christendom were. What we have is a state church ultimately answerable to a pagan government, with attending pitfalls that are easily imaginable I think.

    I sometimes wonder what would happen to the Chinese state Protestant churches under a more liberal regime. Within it right now are clergy and believers representing the range from Biblical fundamentalists to World Council of Churches liberals, circumstantially united by the current political situation. I wonder if it will last, and what effect more open relations between the Chinese church on one hand and American liberal mainline churches and conservative evangelical ones on the other might have.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X