Interview with President of China Christian Council - Rev. Cao Shengjie

The unprecedented China Bible Ministry Exhibition was opened at the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles on April 27. On the Exhibition, the Gospel Herald has an opportunity to interview the president of
( [email protected] ) May 01, 2006 08:03 PM EDT

The unprecedented China Bible Ministry Exhibition was opened at the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles on April 27. The Exhibition has given tremendous contribution to reinforce communication between Christianity in the West and in the East. On the Exhibition, the Gospel Herald has an opportunity to interview the president of China Christian Council (CCC) Rev. Cao Shengjie. While China has always faced severe critics against its policy in religious freedom, Rev. Cao has showed overseas Chinese a clearer picture of the Church in China through her decent and sincere explanation.

GH: Gospel Herald Reporter

Cao: Rev. Cao Shengjie, President of China Christian Council (CCC)

GH: Rev. Cao, during the last press conference for the China Bible Ministry Exhibition in Beijing, you have commented that there is a misunderstanding among Christians in the world about the church in China. Therefore, this Bible Exhibition intends to help foreign churches to understand more about the Church. Meanwhile, do you have any specific plan to work on the relations with foreign churches or how would you plan to help them understand the China church better?

Cao: The China church has had quite a lot of associations with foreign churches. The Exhibition is also part of the work that has been carrying on over the years. In order to make relations, it has to be done step by step. First of all, we must understand each other. This is the very first step in building friendship. After we come to understand each other, we can support and give advices to each other, or we can cooperate together in some ministries.

For example, the Amity Printing Company in Nanjing is a huge project with the United Bible Societies (UBS), which is an international organization. UBS is also associated with the American Bible Society and the Bible society in other countries.

As we work together, there are many problems that need to be discussed. Nevertheless, our principle is that we want to associate with as more churches as possible, but the way is very different from the past. Before the liberation of China, China was a mission field, but now we associate with foreign churches on the same level. Even though there are many differences between churches in different countries, I believe that we should try to understand each other and have dialogues.

GH: Churches in different countries have different forms and images, for example, in the U.S., they may enjoy more freedom whereas churches in other countries are under more restrictions. However, on this Bible exhibition, leaders repeatedly stated "Bible unites us all" in their speeches, how would you comment on the statement?

Cao: This statement is made by Bishop K. H. Ting, president of Nanjing Theological Seminary, when he was in Hong Kong. I think this is a very good statement because Christians in China, in the U.S. and in the world all read the same Bible. The Bible is something that we will all feel interested in our faith. In addition, we all feel very familiar with the Bible ministry. The exhibits this time may not be something new to us, but we all understand that our common concern that we are promoting the Christian faith. Even though the forms of our churches are different, we all concern about church growth and the Kingdom of God. "Bible unites us all" is a very great statement. We are all Christians, we have this common concern and we enjoy such fellowship in Christ.

GH: Now the Church in China develops very well under the grace of the Lord. Even though the Church has faced a lot of challenges from the history and politics, it has showed steady progress both quantity-wise and quality-wise. Many foreign mission organizations, especially those in the United States, said that "China will become the new force of world missions in this era," how do you think about this?

Cao: Although the Church in China has experienced tremendous growth, we still have to face a lot of problems and challenges. The Church in China is insufficient in many ways. For example, we have a huge number, but we must now raise the quality of believers in terms of their understanding on Christian faith.

For example, in some rural villages, someone came to believe in Jesus on sickbed because someone testified that "Jesus is a great doctor." There is no problem with this word, however, some people they misunderstood that they could just pray without seeing the doctor when they are sick. It all depends on the will of the Lord after we pray. If we can all recover from sickness by prayers only, that means Christians will never die. So this kind of faith is problematic.

And another example, some people believe that the dead can resurrect as the Bible says. Then they refuse to bury the dead bodies and want to pray until the dead resurrect. Also, in the Bible, it says there is the second coming of Christ, but it is also clearly stated that we cannot know the time and date. There was a Christian who claimed that he came to know the secret through God’s revelation in his prayer. Then his followers sold all their possessions and went to a place to wait for the second coming. Misunderstanding in Christian faith can lead to social problems.

Some people say that a church is doing well when there is growth in number, but we must check if the church is built up firmly on the foundation of the Jesus Christ. This is extremely important. We want to see people added to the church every day, but we are not only looking to the numbers, but the increase in number to go in parallel with the confirmation of faith of the church.

Jesus commanded his disciples before his ascension that they will become his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, to baptize the people with his name and to teach them to follow the words that he has spoken to them. Of course, it is up to the people whether they will follow Jesus’ words or not. Anyway, I think the path ahead is rugged.

Now many people speak about evangelism, I can understand their heart because all believers have the passion to share the gospel with others. There is no question on this point. However, we must first do our work. We should work on how we can truly build up the church. We are all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The awakening of China is totally different from others, people in China are different as well. However, God has opened a path for us. If we don’t have a way, we cannot come to this point now. So we do have a path to go, but the question is how we can walk well on this path. We must seek and pray, rather than following our own way. It’s not always appropriate for us to follow exactly what foreign churches do.

In the past, some foreign organizations smuggle Bibles into China, when others hear about "smuggle," they will not have a good impression. People smuggle drugs but how can the Bible go into the same category? Some people have really good heart, but they must come here and understand our situation. Without understanding, what they do for us is not necessarily appropriate and helpful.

Therefore, through the media, Christians must understand our situation. Whether you have any idea, or you want to donate money or you want to send Bibles, everything is good, but you must do it openly and legally with dignity. I think for all the things that Christians do, whether before God or before man, we should not do secretly, because you may be arrested and you may leave a bad impression when others hear about it.

I think we have learnt a lesson in the history. Christianity is brought into China through western missionaries, however, it came in together with political agenda. This has a huge and long-term impact on our history. More than the immediate impact, we must look at the long-term one. Even though the door was opened wide with such method, not everyone is happy about that. Now the Chinese have a hard feeling towards Christianity, that’s why we have the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). We must tell them about Christianity, but to change the face of the foreign religion is not easy. After a few decades, it has finally begun to change now. Why the Bible has brought into China for 100 years, but still there are not a lot of Christians? The CCC has just been here for a few decades. But of course, there are many reasons.

GH: Do you mean that sometimes the foreign organizations or churches have caused problems in China even though their motives is to help China?

Cao: Some missionaries come in China secretly, hide themselves and evangelize. This is illegal, and that’s why they are arrested. People come with the news on the newspaper and ask me about that, but I really don’t know what has happened. I think this is all about propaganda of the press. Someone told me that it is not a piece of news if a dog bites a man, but if a man bites a dog, it’s what is called news. Anyway everything got reported, but I hope that people the press can report on the entire story. I am not saying that the church in China is perfect, the Church is still very insufficient. As we are carrying out the work of the Lord, we are developing. But some people preach about the opposite way, saying that it is getting worse and it is attacked. Thus, I wish that we can reinforce mutual understanding, and everyone should do things openly and legally.

GH: Actually is there must be a reason why the foreign organizations are taking risk to carry out their purposes secretly?

Cao: I cannot represent them to answer this question but I just hope that they can understand more. If they understand the situation fully and they still go like that, that is really hard to explain. Some people smuggle the Bible into China, but actually in our country, we do have small Bible sold for just one US dollar each, and even for the bigger one, it’s just 1.5 US dollars.

GH: Just now you have mentioned that Chinese have a hard feeling towards Christianity because of the political agenda behind as it was first brought into China. In your opinion, how can the Church in China can really become a church for the Chinese?

Cao: That’s why we have the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). I think it is most important for Christianity to be laid on the root of Chinese culture. The expression of the church in the U.S. is very different from that in China, their mentality and culture are also different too.

GH: In all aspect, how would you educate Chinese believers so that they can truly make the church in China a church for the Chinese?

Cao: We have Chinese praise songs, we accept the foreign ones also, and we learn from each other. We still have a lot to work on. For example, since Chinese emphasize on respecting the elders, we have elders’ day. On Chung Yang Festival, the Church will have special "respect the elders" service. The young people will present flowers to the senior members of the church. I think we still have a lot to work on. I believe that as Christianity is being promoted closer to the Chinese culture, the Gospel can be spread out more easily.

To set up the model of Chinese Christianity takes time and experience. Now is just a beginning. After the Cultural Revolution, we have been focused on reestablishing the Church. We also emphasize on nurturing of Christians. If the Christians are not trained well, there will be problem afterwards even if we have the church. I hope that Christians in China can set up solid foundation on God’s word and faith.

GH: Have you ever thought of cooperating with Hong Kong or Taiwan for they have a similar culture background?

Cao: We do exchange our ideas. Indeed, the situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan are totally different. In Hong Kong, people generally have higher cultural background than in China. In China, if you ask people to do this, they will follow immediately, so they are quite naïve in some way. There is a cult named "Eastern Lighting" in China, once they have tempted a church leader, and then the entire church were tempted and joined the cult. So you can see we do have a lot of work to do for now, for example, training. We also work with a lot of overseas organizations as well, but first I wish they can understand our situation first. If they fail to understand our situation, it is hard for us to continue our dialogue. In these two years, we have been working quite closely with the Fuller Theological Seminary.

GH: In the exhibition, I saw a piece of information saying that the CCC/TSPM distributes the Bible to meeting points and unregistered churches, in terms of this, do you have any specific plan?

Cao: Just if they contact us and tell us about their needs, whether it is the Bible or hymn books, but if they don’t contact us, how we can know their needs. There are some people saying something that are not evident at all. They said that people must leave their names when they buy Bibles. There is a bookstore next to our headquarter building, you can purchase Bibles there. Sometimes, people come to purchase like 50 to 70 Bibles all at once, we may ask where they come from. This is because the Bible is sold in a very low price, some people they purchase in bulk amount and resell them with a higher price to earn money for themselves; we must prevent this kind of activities.

GH: So what is your viewpoint towards the meeting points and unregistered churches?

Cao: If they have true Christian faith, and they are not cults, and do legal works, we are very willing to get in contact with them.

GH: What is you expectation to the future of the church in China?

Cao: China is very big. Even though we are developing very quickly, I hope that the growth is healthy. For example, in my church- Shanghai Grace Church- there are around 200 to 300 people baptized every year, which is not very easy. We always make sure the seeker to listen to the word first before they receive baptism. And we also ensure the decision is made by the individual without influence by others and the application form must be filled in person. After they fill in the form, they have to attend Seeker Class. Then they will have an interview with a pastor. The process is actually very formal and serious. If you fail to show that you understand Christian faith during the interview, you will be asked to attend more Seeker Class. In addition, for the believers, we have meetings specially designed for evangelism, and we have training courses and other kinds of fellowships.

Rev. Cao Shengjie was born in Shanghai, China. She grew up in a family with strong Christian influence. After she finished high school, she pursed further studies at the Central Theological Seminary. Central Theological Seminary is part of the St. John’s University, Shanghai, founded by the Anglican Church. In 1952, Central Theological Seminary merged with the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. Rev. Cao decided to pursue theological studies. She is the first class of graduates from the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary after it has merged with other seminaries. After her graduation, she served in Shanghai Saint Peter’s Church and the Shanghai Grace Church for evangelistic work. In 1962, she became the secretary for the National Committee of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSMP) of the Protestant Churches in China. In 1988, she was ordained as a pastor. She later became the vice-chairman of the China Christian Council (CCC) in 1991 and she was elected as the chairman in 2002.

Rev. Cao is very passionate in building diplomatic relations with foreign churches. She has been actively involved in foreign affairs throughout her ministry. For example, she has received the former general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Konrad Raiser, two former Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury Robert Runcie and George Carey, as well as other church leaders from the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. Rev. Cao has also represented China to visit many countries in Asia, America, Europe and Africa. She was invited to the WCC 8th General Assembly and gave a presentation on the Church in China. In 1988, she has led a Christian women delegation to England.

[Editor’s note: The interview was originally conducted in Mandarin and was translated into English.]