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China’s House Church dilemma

HONG KONG (SE): “Legally registered, Three-Self Patriotic Churches are under attack, while the illegal House Churches are invited into an official dialogue,” David Ro wrote in the January issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis, saying that this appears to be a season of mixed messages from the government of China.

Ro points out that the primary targets of the cross removal campaign, which raged in Zhejiang province for over 15 months until towards the end of last year, were the Three-Self Movement registered Protestant Churches and Catholic parishes registered with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

In all, he says that around 1,500 crosses were removed, some even burned, in the campaign, which reached a crescendo in July last year. Pastors were also arrested and, although a few have been released, over 20 remain in custody.

Ro notes that as dark clouds hovered over Wenzhou, the National Security Commission met with a group of House Church leaders in Beijing, a first for such a gathering in China.

“Officials asked for information on the size of the House Churches, differences with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Churches, indigenous theology, revivals, the gospel heading westward, minority groups, cults, social responsibility, urbanisation—and for suggestions for House Church legalisation, bringing a glimmer of hope for the legal recognition of the House Churches,” a pastor who attended the meeting told Ro.

Ro says that there are varying interpretations of the all-out campaign against government-registered Churches. Some believe that it was a testing of their strength ahead of a campaign to indigenise Churches, giving their theologies Chinese characteristics, or what is being called Sinicisation.

Others say that it is the size of some of the buildings, with their huge red crosses that resemble a western cathedral that are the problem, but there are also those who believe that government officials may be of the opinion that the House Church model is more appropriate for China.

Yet others say that it is just a mechanism for the president, Xi Jinping, to continue his reform campaign, giving him the opportunity to re-organise the United Front Department and the State Administration of Religious Affairs, as well as the Three-Self Movement and Patriotic Association.

However, Ro believes that the most likely scenario is that there is a move towards a conservative Neo-Maoist ideology, which liberals are resisting and, since registered Churches appear to have aligned themselves with the liberals, it is interpreted by the Neo-Maoists as being anti-China.

Nevertheless, he says that the Three-Self Movement has been strengthened by its resistance to the cross removal campaign.

Also on the more likely side of the equation, Ro is of the opinion that because of the burgeoning size of the House Church movement, Xi wants to find a way of recognising what now constitutes millions of Chinese citizens.

He quotes one pastor who attended the meeting as saying, “From the receiving communication, content and signals given, the upper levels want to solve the problem… for the House Churches to truly have a legal status within Chinese society.”

The pastor then added, “They have high hopes for the House Churches… They want the House Church Movement to be established, based upon the bible and eventually want to move toward a separation of Church and state.”

Ro says that he thinks there are four possible scenarios that could come out of the meeting.

One is persecution, in which the Three-Self Movement and the Patriotic Association would come under attack in a national campaign—although he does not think this would equate to all out persecution.

Another possibility is a continuation of the status quo, where the House Churches could become legal and continue to exist under pressure within prescribed limits, but the least likely of all is the separation of Church and state.

He says that while in many ways separation would be wonderful, it would also pose the challenge to Churches to avoid the temptation to materialism and consumerism.

But of all the four, he thinks that maybe the most desirable circumstance would be registration and settlement of legal status, as that would give House Churches operating space and keep enough pressure on them to remain sharp.

But Ro believes that whatever eventuates, it could cause internal division similar to what happened in the Catholic Church, as elements that have endured persecution in the past may opt to remain hidden and any involvement with the government would be regarded as compromise.

He then notes that while some believe that too much freedom is bad for the Church, he thinks that China is more likely to follow the model of South Korea of the 1980s, where consolidating local Church growth was matched with a growing movement of sending out missionaries, but it must also learn the lessons of increased wealth and influence from Korea.

Ro adds that while legalisation may see underground seminaries come into the open and an increased scope for the development of specialised social outreaches, the most significant would be involvement in the international Church through the sending out of missionaries, an area in which China would have to adopt a learning posture, as the country’s size alone could either enhance or greatly damage the global Church.

He believes that it may also serve to purify the Three-Self Movement Churches, as well as cut their reliance on government handouts.

But the move from the government to legalise House Churches could have a similar motivation to its push for the registration of non-government organisations, which, while it would undeniably fill a legal vacuum, has left the organisations themselves wary.

China Analysis notes in its November 2015 issue that the purpose of the proposed legislation is not to help the organisations fulfill their objectives, but as with many situations in China, the law will set the framework, but the implementation will reflect the politics.

Although Ro believes that things may get worse before they get better, he says that there is hope, not because of the favourable legal status, but because God is answering the prayer of the global Church for China.

He says that there is reason to believe that there really is a change of heart in some of China’s top leaders, as in this current political climate, what has been happening simply does not make political sense.

However, the fact that little has been said publicly about a change in the status of House Churches, may just indicate how fettered their leaders are.


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