Correlation between house churches and "Three-Self" Church in China has come into spotlight at a recent seminar hosted by a leading Taiwan-based Chinese mission and research organization.
Dr. Chan Yu, a researcher at the China Ministries International (CMI), was one of the speakers at the seminar entitled "The Transformation and Renewal of House Churches in China." In the light of the rift between house churches and so-called government-sanctioned "Three-Self" church in China today as well as the persecution faced by the house churches, Chan was asked to comment on what is the greatest need of the house churches.
"The most important thing for house churches today is to correct the misunderstanding of overseas churches, which usually consider them as ‘anti-government’ organizations," Chan replied.
"House churches have contributed a lot to the Chinese society. Christians have become the light and the salt at different places," Chan explained with some examples. In eastern China, a network of local house churches has organized some visits to old people, offering cleaning and catering services. Their work has touched many people. Some other house churches have also been making visits to hospitals, offering counseling to foreign students and helping grassroots workers.
According to Chan, some Christian intellectuals have taken initiative to serve the country by providing advices openly to the government concerning the problem of the current religious regulation in China. The regulation has contradicted the Constitution of China in terms of religious freedom. In addition, the intellectuals have tried to draw the government’s attention to some real cases of persecution against house churches, which should be well reported.
"Today the development of house churches is very diverse. It is incomparable to the past when people misunderstood that house churches were just merely organizations made up of ignorant rural villagers and heretics," Chan argued.
Chan admitted that heretics do exist in some cases, however, it is due to the lack of communication between house churches.
"Because house churches do not have communication, they are very vulnerable when heretics try to infiltrate their congregation. Therefore, house churches need a open platform," suggested Chan. She added that some house churches have started to form networks in 1995 to 1998 and declared the statement of faith in an attempt to protect themselves from heretics, but not to oppose the government.
Concerning the reasons why the house churches have refused to register with the government, Chan said that they refused to compromise with the limited religious freedom offered within the existing religious law in China.
"The government has not treated the religious issue according to the Christian principle. For example, house churches believe that Christ is the head of the Church, but in current three-self system, the government has become the head," Chan pointed out the key issue. In particular, Chan criticized the restriction on evangelism within the "Three-self "system.
"We are only allowed to evangelize people who come into the church, while evangelism outside the church is labeled as ‘interfering others’ religious freedom’," Chan complained. "The meaning of ‘Three-Self’ today is totally different from that defined in the history, it is being twisted intentionally."
According to the Constitution of China, citizens have the rights to enjoy religious freedom, however, the existing religious regulations have fundamentally contradicted to the Constitution. Therefore, Chan suggested, China must "return to the Constitution."
In response to the China Bible Ministry Exhibition underway in the U.S., Chan echoed the critics of many others, saying that it is nothing more than "propaganda".
"The Exhibition is being used by the Chinese government for the purpose of religious diplomacy. This is not the commission of a church," Chan commented.
"Basically, the Exhibition intends to show that there is religious freedom in China and no persecution, but this is totally false," Chan continued. "Personally I know many people who are being persecuted, can I just close my eyes and say there is no persecution?"
Lastly, Chan encouraged Christians to understand the history of house churches as it is part of the Church History of China. She wishes that the real situation of Chinese house churches can be made known to all people in the world.
Chan, serves at CMI, which is an organization formed with the vision to support evangelistic ministry in Mainland China since the country undergoes major reformation and launches opened policy after the Cultural Revolution. CMI was founded by Rev. Jonathan Cao in Hong Kong in 1978. Since the 1997’s handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government, the CMI international headquarter was relocated to Taiwan. The late Rev. Cao is known as one of the key contributors to the house church movement in China.
[Editor’s note: Christina Song in San Francisco has contributed to this article.]