China is cracking down on Christians who consider God, not the Communist Party, the head of the church
by Dr. David Aikman
"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill," Puritan John Winthrop famously preached to fellow immigrants to America aboard the Arbella in 1630. At least two American presidents in the 20th century, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, have quoted him, and his words have resonated for many Americans ever since, reminding them of their spiritual obligations, not just to each other, but to the whole world.
If Winthrop were alive today, he would undoubtedly be heartened to see his words quoted in the quarterly magazine of Shouwang Church, one of Beijing's largest unsanctioned "house" churches (shouwang means "keeping watch" in Chinese). He would share, too, the anguish of the church members at their continued intimidation by the authorities. Since early April, police have prevented church members from gathering for normal Sunday worship services — albeit at an outdoor plaza and not a church building. Hundreds have been detained for short periods, and the entire church leadership has been under house arrest since April.
Ironically, Shouwang Church, whose 1,000-strong congregation is mostly upscale professionals, actually paid $4 million for meeting space in a Beijing office building. But under pressure from the authorities, the sellers refused to hand over the keys, leaving the church with no place to meet.
China tolerates Christian church services, but only within the narrow boundaries of theology and church life dictated by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which oversees two church umbrella groups, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and, for Protestants, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Estimates of the number of Christians in China vary widely, ranging from the TSPM's figure of about 20 million for its own churches to that of outside observers who say the total is as high as 130 million. The reason? Most Chinese Christians belong to unofficial house churches like Shouwang, which reject Communist Party-controlled TSPM theology and consider God — not the Communist Party — the head of the church. The number of house-church Christians, while hard to estimate, is likely more than 60 million.
The recent crackdown on house-church Christians is the outgrowth of a Communist Party initiative launched last December, called "Operation Deterrence," to force all house-church Christians to be incorporated with the TSPM or suffer persecution. In light of the savage treatment of practitioners of Falun Gong, a meditation group brutally repressed since 1999, the implications of "Operation Deterrence" are alarming.
Shouwang Church was founded in 1993 by Jin Tianming, a graduate of Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University. Its steady growth is partly due to the increase in recent years of Christian converts among urban professionals, but it's also due to skillful self-administration. Its literary quarterly "Almond Flowers" recently published a detailed explanation of why Shouwang refused to join the TSPM.
Explaining that the TSPM was an outdated product of the Cold War, "Almond Flowers" asked, "Is there any reason for such an agency to exist today?" It pointed out that "the faith that the TSPM adheres to is what church history calls liberal theology, while the faith of the house churches is evangelical theology."
Evangelical churches around the world, of course, have always stressed the need for Christians to share their faith. The TSPM, however, forbids its members to evangelize. Last autumn, that ban meant the TSPM was not able to attend the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelism because its representatives could not sign the mandatory Lausanne pledge to promote evangelism. It then stood back as authorities blocked some 200 invited Chinese house-church representatives who were willing to sign the pledge from leaving China.
The crackdown on Christians is part of a rising tide of repression against dissent that's often accompanied by interrogations and torture. Recently, the wife of blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng said that she and her husband were beaten and tortured for several hours by a gang of plainclothes thugs led by the village Communist Party secretary. Worryingly, some of the Shouwang church detainees found TSPM representatives taking part in the police interrogations, "educating" and "rebuking" the Shouwang Christians. Incredibly, TSPM Chairman Fu Xianyou denies that house churches even exist.
Sadly, the TSPM is often hosted in the United States by churches and organizations such as the World Evangelical Alliance and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which ought to know better. It was the Rev. Graham himself, during a 1988 visit to China, who took great pains to visit privately with one of China's most revered house-church heroes, Rev. Wang Mingdao. Wang had spent two decades in prison for his refusal to join the TSPM.
If America's churches are truly to be "as a city upon a hill," they should follow the Rev. Graham's example and help to shed light on the ongoing repression of their brethren in China.
David Aikman is a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine and author. He is a Professor of History and Writer in Residence at Patrick Henry College. Reprinted with permission of the American Roundtable and Patrick Henry College.
Published, August 2011