The experience itself was remarkable. We flew into Beijing and flew immediately from there to Shenzhen; we then went to Guangzhou, then to Wenzhou, then to Hanzhou, then back to Beijing, then to Tianjin, then to Beijing airport for the flight home. We didn’t spend more than two nights in any one place. It was intense, and the meetings were incredibly diverse. We were involved with negotiation and/or planning for the first China/US joint television series, for developing hospice care and special education programs, for a university press to publish translations of books written from a Christian perspective for an online leadership program offered by a US Christian university, …. We also worked on collaborations with the person responsible for developing an e-commerce system for all of
And we met with Christian leaders. These were truly remarkable people, and I was humbled to make their acquaintance. I will tell some of their stories in later newsletters and articles, but for now, I want to focus on what they told me that they wanted the American people to know about the house churches in
First, they all universally and independently insisted that the situation isn’t as bad as is reported. Yes, the persecutions are happening, and yes, they are as horrific as reported. But they are at best sporadic and isolated, and often led by local authorities rather than the central government. In fact, the pastors all told me that they have a great deal more freedom than they’ve ever had in the past, and that is what they wanted me to emphasize as I talked about the house churches. Yes, there are restrictions: they can’t have more than 100 people (officially) at any of their meetings. But things are more open for them than ever. And it looks like they’re getting more and more open.
Second, the government’s attitude toward Christianity is complex. In a nutshell, they know that they need to deal with the problem of corruption in
The Chinese government is by its nature totalitarian, that is, it believes it has to have all aspects of society under its control. They started the Three Self Churches as state-backed churches, but those aren’t the churches that are growing; the independent house churches are. So that’s one group they can’t really control, and that worries them.
Frankly, they have good reasons to worry. First, if you allow one sphere to operate outside of government control, it opens the door to other spheres. This is what produced Western civil society, with its intermediate institutions (education, labor, business, family, etc.) that mediate between the individual and the state. If you allow one, it creates opportunities for others, and the government loses control of many areas of society.
Second, Christianity has been a revolutionary force in Chinese history. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was a massive civil war led by Christians (or a Christian sect) that left twenty million people dead—some estimates put it as high as one hundred million. The government doesn’t want to see a repeat of that, which may be one reason why they crack down on churches whose leaders seem to be growing too popular personally.
So the Chinese government is in a bind. They want the ethical benefits (as well as the ecological stewardship) of Christianity, but at the same time they want to control the church. I think that right now, they are trying to give the churches just enough freedom to influence the ethical climate in the country, but not enough to get out of the government’s control. I don’t think it will work in the long run, and I expect that the restrictions on the churches will be increasingly ignored and eventually lifted.