China has a complex, confusing, and convoluted religious structure; however, it is having one of the greatest revivals in history. Chinese Christians have been crushed since the Reds took over (with the help of the U.S. State Department!) in 1949. Persecution usually produces fruit. Could the absence of persecution of U.S. churches be one reason we aren't seeing much fruit in our churches?
Could another reason be that most U.S. churches are also registered, in that they are incorporated and thereby are “creatures of the state”? Is a sovereign God pleased that His blood-bought church is a “creature of the state”? Are U.S. church leaders bowing down to the golden calf of tax deductibility, and how will church leaders and committed laymen react when that “privilege” is taken away?
The Chinese leaders are atheists and hate the churches but realize that it is impossible to wipe out all Christians, so they are trying to control them through registration. The Religious Affairs Bureau controls all religion and insists that all churches register with the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Three Self refers to self supporting, self propagating and self governing.
The Communist leadership permits registered churches to exist but doesn't permit worship outside of the approved churches and their designated hours. It is illegal to teach children the Bible in Sunday schools or youth groups before they are age 18. Preaching "excessively" about the Second Coming of Christ and other eschatological issues is also frowned upon. The TSPM has many dedicated Christians and many evangelical pastors; however, they are controlled in many areas of religious activities. And the control varies from city to city.
To qualify as a "registered" church they must have a committee of five to run the church and the committee must be approved by the Religious Affairs Bureau. All TSPM pastors must have the approval of the TSPM, are on the government payroll receiving better than average salaries.
Alex Buchan says there are three formal restrictions called the "three designates" that govern the churches. They are: "designated pastor, designated place of worship, and designated sphere of ministry." In some provinces an approved church must have a preacher's certificate, a baptism certificate and a registration certificate, all issued by the Three Self Patriotic Movement! They must also use only books that are government approved.
All thinking Christians would conclude that these restrictions are outrageous; however, Chinese Christians in the government-approved churches defend them as progress! They are quick to point out that official churches did not exist 25 years ago, and since 1990, they have increased from 6,000 to more than 13,000 under state control. Their membership during that time has increased from 5 million to almost 28 million. So what's the big deal about some state control? American and Chinese pastors seem to ask the same question! American pastors say, “Being incorporated doesn’t affect us—much.”
While there are many committed Chinese Christians in the registered churches (as there are in U.S. incorporated churches) there are still massive problems, not the least is the Scriptural position of Christ as Lord of His church. If the government (any government) is head of the church, it is impossible for Christ to be. After all, anything with two heads is a monstrosity and it never reproduces!
One pastor told of Religious Affairs Bureau officials who came to his church and sat in the front where they drank beer, smoked and talked while church leaders treated them royally and almost kissed their rings. As a result, numerous laymen left the church to join with illegal "house church" Christians.
Millions of dedicated Christians have done the same thing: They refuse to be identified with registered churches and have fled them to serve Christ and worship in illegal "house churches," and to suffer the consequences. Americans are following their Chinese brethren into house churches and unincorporated churches.
Many Chinese Christians attend an official church and an illegal house church and there are even incidents of TSPM churches permitting house churches to meet in their building. The illegal house-church movement has about 80 million worshippers nationwide, experts agree, more than twice those in the registered churches! That is one reason for resentment and suspicion between house churches and some state-controlled congregations. In fact, there have been many cases of TSPM pastors who have turned in their pastor/brethren across town who serve in illegal churches! WORLD magazine reported that "government crackdowns on local house-church networks often begins after a registered church official complains to local authorities about the underground worship activity." What a tragedy, but that mentality is prevalent today in the U.S.
Not only do unregistered church pastors get pressure from the Communist officials and TSPM pastors but evangelicals in the Free World are pressuring them to not be so "hard headed" and join the registered churches. It is said that the TSPM is not as bad as it used to be and Chinese Christians, especially the older ones, have been influenced too much by American hard-liners–Fundamentalists! It is interesting that the Roman Catholic Church also has registered and unregistered churches with comparable persecution to the TSPM churches.
The issue is not how bad the movement is or how bad the officials are. The question always comes back to, who is head of the church? Is it possible to serve two masters?
My research confirms that the registered churches in China (TSPM) are a caged bird. They only have the relative freedom that Communist masters (whip-wielders) are willing to permit for public relations purposes in the free world. Is that what is ahead of us in America?
Thousands of Chinese church leaders have been imprisoned in recent years, some for more than ten years. Samuel Lamb is a 70-year-old leader of an unregistered church in Canton who keeps a black case by his bed. It is packed with clothes and a toothbrush. He said, "If they want me to register, I just pick up the case and say, 'take me to jail, I'm ready….I will never register.' " In fact, these courageous leaders consider jail as their seminary training!
George Chen is almost 70 years old. After the 1949 Communist revolution, Chen's work grew increasingly dangerous. He was jailed for religious activities in the 1950s, and in 1960, he was sentenced to hard labor at a prison in Anhui Province in eastern China. His wife and son were still in Shanghai, and he saw little hope for survival. They tried to make things very bad for him by putting him to work in the cesspool. Timothy Morgan, in a Christianity Today article quotes Chen as saying, "I spent my days deep in human waste, turning it with a shovel to make compost. They thought I'd be miserable, but actually I was happy. It smelled so bad that no one would come near me, so I could pray and sing aloud all day." In 1978 Chen was finally released, and discovered that the churches he planted had grown to 5,000 from the original 300! He spent all that time in prison because he would not be controlled by the state!
Question: How soon will American churches be controlled through threat of losing tax exemption and being forced to adhere to “public policy”? How many pastors are willing to lose their pulpits and all the perks and be content, even happy, to stir human waste all day? Just asking?
Advice to U.S. pastors of registered churches: “Public policy” (refusing to hire homosexuals, not ordaining women, etc.) will be your undoing so keep a “black case” by the bed just in case or at least a tooth brush. And pastors of unregistered churches are also in the crosshairs of government control fanatics as they will use “hate” crime legislation to close you down if you don’t follow “public policy.” And the church moves on as it always has!
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon