With the rapid growth of China’s house church (especially so for the newly emerged city house churches) in recent years, the topic of China’s house church’s legalization and publicizing has been widely discussed among the overseas Chinese churches and religious scholars. Some thinks that house churches should actively press the government for recognition, while others believe that a more conservative approach would better suit the current situation.
Presently, those who are actively promoting for the publicizing and legalization of the house churches are the minority but among them are the house churches with influence - Beijing Shouwang Church in an example.
In April of this year, Shouwang Church began holding outdoor worship services in protest to the government for the right to use public spaces to engage in worship and religious activities for the church, which stirred up an international outcry and rally for support especially from the overseas Christians.
The supporters believe that the insistence of having outdoor worship services is a symbolic event in China house churches’ becoming publicized and legalized that may go as far as influencing the citizen’s rights to religious liberty and the future for China’s society developments.
Meanwhile, various Shouwang Church pastors have resigned and members have left the church, because they disagree with the church’s approach in using protests to oppose the government. These “obeying ‘authorities’ faction’ individuals think that if the government prohibits the house churches to hold public worship in large-scale, then it would be better to simply hold separate gatherings, for there is no need to use outdoor worship services as a means to pressure the government for greater religious liberty.
How should Christians objectively view the publicizing and legalizing of the house churches in China? Does the Bible support Christians using protests as a means to seek after greater religious freedom? Or should believers be exhorted to yield when oppression appears, obey those in authorities, and silently wait upon God?
Meanwhile, some ministers believe that the greatest challenge facing China is not the limitation on religious freedom, but the temptations of secularization (greed, power, and lust). Even if the status of house churches are legalized and widely publicized in China, house churches will be faced with even greater degree of secularization, so they must start making preparations in this regard.
A Chinese pastor who has ministered for many years in the States, pushed for Chinese theological education, and served extensively in house churches throughout China shared with The Gospel Herald his thoughts on this issue. Using the Bible as the basis, Reverend John gave an objective and insightful analysis of various controversial topics, including the legalization and publicizing of China’s house churches.
Using Resistance techniques to fight for religious liberty lacks Biblical support
In discussing about the publicizing and legalization of China’s house churches, Beijing Shouwang Church’s outdoor worship incident is often used as a representative case model. John expressed his reservations and disagreement with Shouwang’s use of resistance techniques to seek for religious freedom.
Pastor John then explained that if you flip through the New Testament in the Bible, you won’t find any recordings of the early church apostles resisting the government, nor did any of the apostle’s letters encouraged believers to engage in public petitions, protests, or other extreme forms of opposition to pressure the government in seeking a looser religious environment.
In contrast, Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 13:1-5 for the believers to “obey those in authorities.” Pastor John further explained that when the apostle wrote Romans it was when Emperor Nero was in authority; Nero was infamous in history as a tyrant, and his ways of persecuting the Christians were cruel and unusual, for he would not give up until all the Christians were expelled or slaughtered.
Despite experiencing the fierce and cruel persecution, Apostle Paul never encouraged believers to pressure the government through protesting or using violent revolutions to overthrow the government’s rule, said John. The reason is because Paul acknowledges that the government’s authorities came from God, which is why he encouraged the believers to obey and pray for those in authority.
From the Perspective of Separation of Church and States
While researching on the Shouwang Church incident, the topics of separation of church and state and the union of church and state are inseparable, so Pastor John quickly gave the purpose for speaking of separation of church and state. Simply put, the separation of church and state means that neither parties interferes with one another, and its principles are beneficial to the health growth of churches.
The opposite of separation of church and states is Caesaropapism – union of church and state, which originated from when Romans Emperor Constantine set Christianity as the state religion and himself as the highest authority of the church. As a result, Christianity was changed from a persecuted religion to one with ruling authorities in Europe, from which the union of church and state governing system was passed down.
However, history tells us that the union of church and state not only confines the healthy growth of the church, but also led Christianity into decadence, for political corruption leads people astray. The European ruling hierarchy that practiced the union of church and state often used religious powers to protect and tighten their rule, and because religious leaders wanted to increase their influence, they’ve join with the rulers in doing evil.
After 1,300 years of the rule under the union of church and state policy, despite the hardships they would face, a group of sincere puritans from England traveled on the Mayflower ship across the Atlantic Ocean, landing in America, in order to escape from the persecution from England’s state church.
Upon landing, the Puritans signed the “Mayflower Compact” and confirmed the principles of the separation of church and state – this made a decision influence towards the drafting and ratification of the principles of separation of church and state in the United States Constitution.
The separation of church and state is the quintessential premise to religious freedom, and the guarantor of religious freedom. In reality, religious freedom is the basic human rights –every person has the freedom to worship God, and true religious freedom should ascertain this basic principle.
However, in many countries today, religious freedom is more or less restricted, and for the Christians living in those regions, John encouraged them to follow the exhortation of Apostle Paul in “obeying the authorities”, learn to pray and endure.
On “obeying the authorities”, the Chinese pastor said that Christians should hold an attitude of “obedience” towards the governing authorities, for it is indirectly obeying God, since he has setup the governing authorities to maintain a proper social order, ensure the welfare of the people and the state.
However, if the government has decreed laws saying that Christians are prohibited from worshipping, then Christians should obey God who holds a higher authority than those on earth by insisting on worshipping and continue to gather – this aspect cannot be compromised at all. Yet, he also added that as Christians are seeking for religious freedom, they must ensure that they do not interfere with politics and not be affected by politics.
In the Shouwang Church’s incident, John thinks that the idealistic approach in dealing with this situation is to hold separate worship services, which will not only achieve the purpose of Christians worshipping God, and, at the same time, avoid confrontations with the government.
John disagrees with the pressure technique used against the government for seeking religious freedom, for it is not biblically-grounded. He believes that it is God’s will for Christians to learn how to obey and endure in an environment that is without absolute freedom.
He pointed out that the early churches had more reasons to protest and rebel against the government. Because the external environment was harsher for the early churches than it is today and the church internal was experiencing much revival, where many gifted and talented apostles and disciples were appearing.
If you peruse through the Bible more closely, then you know that the early churches did not use protest techniques to seek for religious liberty. On the contrary, the apostles who faced persecutions silently endured and prayed for the authorities. In addition, they’ve separated and continued to worship God and preached the gospel, leading many to the Lord. Therefore, the early churches can be viewed as the best objective example to resolve the Shouwang Church’s incident.
House Churches have no right to speak of the relationship between church and state?
Recently, someone suggested that prior to becoming legalized China’s house churches have no rights to speak about the relationship of church and state. Only when house churches first received a legal status in society can they have the same level relationship between the church and state.
Pastor John doubted this kind of biased statement. He said that when speaking of church and state relationships, there is absolutely no such problem with the so called “legalization and the equality of social status.” According to this kind of statement, then the early churches and the reformed churches that were founded by the religious reformation Christians would have no rights to speak about church and state relationships, for they are all outlaws and are rejected by the government.
Therefore, he believes that there is nothing wrong to use church and state relationship to analyze the problems facing the China’s house churches.
Improvements in China’s Houses are the results of prayers
Over the last three decades, China’s religious faith environment has made significant advances. In the past, if any house churches reached around 20 people in their gatherings, then the government would interfere, but the bottom line for the number of people gathered before government’s interference is around 100 people. (The situation differs according to region.)
On this topic, some pastors believe that the degree of China’s religious freedom development is completely dependent upon and the result of the continuous push for their personal rights to religious freedom.
Yet, John refuted, “I think that this is not achieved through rebellion, but it is the result of the long-term, extensive and persistent prayers and the unwavering faith of the believers.”
Brothers and sisters in China’s house churches have bared very beautiful testimonies, which allowed the government to gradually recognize that Christianity is a positive religion that benefits the overall well-being of the society and its people, not to mention, the rapid increase of believers in the house churches. These are the two major determining factors that caused the government to provide a certain degree of religious freedom.
Not supporting Shouwang Church does not mean the fear of communists
Since Shouwang Church in Beijing began receiving harassments from the government, the global Chinese churches began to pay attention and pray. Pastor John said that he would pray silently for Shouwang Church, but disagrees with using petitions and more extreme measures to call for help – this is not a sign of weakness or being afraid of the communists or losing the care for social events.
Just as aforementioned, the attitudes that the early churches had towards the government’s oppression was that of endurance and praying for those in authorities, practicing endurance and prayers. For this reason, John thinks that Christians should forsake the extreme form of seeking for help, which would be the proper method as taught from the Bible. This has no direct relationship to politics and social justice.
Addressing this issue, John said that those using petitions to support Shouwang Church are criticizing the ones who did not sign and labeling them as communist-fearing, which is absolutely unfair. In his opinion, these types of extreme opinions ironically would make Shouwang Church’s incident to be politically colored.
“Imagine if all the house churches in China follows the example of Shouwang Church in opposing the government, then wouldn’t the entire society be in a chaos? Furthermore, this kind of extreme method will only bring about more merciless persecutions, which would incriminate more house churches.”
House churches must be on guard against secularization
Pastor John reminded the house churches to turn their focus from legalization and publicizing to discipleship training, because the greatest threats facing the house churches in China is not from government’s suppression, but from secularization.
There are many western churches today that have gone astray because of being able to overcome the threats of secularization, Christians’ faith are deteriorating, and the spiritual condition is shocking. So if the house churches cannot be firmly rooted in the truth, then even if complete religious freedom is granted, it will also walk in the footsteps of the western churches.
Lastly, the Chinese minister gave a good-willed exhortation to the believers who are actively pushing for the legalization and publicizing of the house churches. The change in the country’s religious policies is not achieved through extremism, but it is through prayers and waiting for God to work and change.
“Therefore, China house churches should concentrate on spreading the truth, saving souls and building up the believer’s faith, and be able to pray and rely on God more and more in difficult situations, avoiding any direct confrontations with the government.” John believes that in the near future God will change China, and all Christians would be able to worship freely then, when the house churches can fulfill their dream of becoming legalized and publicized.
[Editor’s note: A fictious name was used for the interviewee since the topics addressed are sensitive in nature. Reporter Luke Leung translated the this report.]