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China and the Church

( [email protected] ) Sep 24, 2008 11:44 AM EDT
China is flexing its economic potential and showing the world it can compete, not only in the Games of the West but also in all the areas the West deems important. One glaring exception is China’s record on religious freedom.

Let’s vow to continue praying for China after the Olympics, especially for its government leaders and its Christians

The images of China broadcast during the recent Olympic Games were not the familiar ones. Gone were images of congested and often dirty markets teeming with people on bicycles and wearing drab grey clothing. These were replaced by state-of-the-art facilities, modern highways, pageantry, creativity and hospitality. We see Chinese tourists in fashionable clothes strolling peacefully through Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

What we were witnessing was a coming-out party of the world’s most populous nation. China is flexing its economic potential and showing the world it can compete, not only in the Games of the West but also in all the areas the West deems important. One glaring exception is China’s record on religious freedom.

China is a country where the church is dynamic and growing rapidly. While the registered churches claim between 10 million and 15 million members, the unregistered house church movement has an estimated 60 million members (estimates range widely from 45 million to 80 million). By these estimates, Christians comprise around seven per cent of the population, and much of this growth has taken place in the past 40 years. Communist Chinese authorities who see religion as a threat are deeply concerned.

But is the growing church a threat to the government? Chinese churches insist they are not. The government-approved Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement (self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating – a movement that emerged in the early 1950s and aims to be independent from foreign influence) and the Catholic Patriotic Association make it clear by their very names that they are not a threat to the authorities. Still, these registered churches face restrictions on what can be taught, and their pastors must be approved by the government.

The unregistered house church movement has attempted to confirm that it is not politically reactionary. In one statement, house church leaders expressed their support for the constitution of the People’s Republic of China and for the unity of the nation and its peoples. Their members are not political dissidents, nor are they a cult. They seek to assure the government they are not a threat.

House church leaders are advocates for religious freedom. Their refusal to register is for religious reasons. They believe the regulations imposed by the government on registered churches are contrary to the principles of Scripture. They do not believe it is for the state to determine the location, the pastor and the district in which a church can function. Contrary to government policy, they do not believe the state should determine appropriate doctrine. And they believe they should be permitted to preach to those under 18, pray for the sick, heal, cast out demons and be in fellowship with believers overseas.

These believers plead for the government to understand the nature and purpose of their faith, to affirm religious freedom and to stop the persecution. They have reminded the governing authorities that, wherever there are more believers, societies are more stable and peaceful.

They also affirm, and call on the government to recognize, the power of God and the ultimate authority of God’s will in the lives of people and in the life of a nation. This was the message of Jesus to Pilate. Governments have no authority apart from God, who alone is sovereign.

What can we do? Continue to pray that Christians in China will have courage, wisdom and discernment. Continue to press for religious freedom and the end of religious persecution in China. Continue to work out in Canada what a healthy relationship between church and state can look like – for showing the various benefits of a thriving church and its contribution to the society in which it ministers will help China. Above all, continue to proclaim (with all believers) the sovereignty of God to governments and institutions that may claim or presume ultimate authority in our lives.

Bruce J. Clemenger is the president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Read more columns at www.evangelical fellowship.ca/clemenger.

Recommended Reading

• Broken Promises: The Protestant Experience with Religious Freedom in China in Advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, EFC Religious Liberty Commission (www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/chinareport.asp)

• Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Changing the Global Balance of Power, David Aikman (Regnery, 2003)

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“Reprinted with permission of Faith Today, a magazine published by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada to connect, equip and inform evangelical Christians in Canada. Visit www.faithtoday.ca to order a free trial subscription.”