Churches in China, especially those in rural areas, are standing at the crossroad on the issue of registration although the Chinese government appeared to become more opened in their policies.
On March 1, 2005, the new religious affairs regulations have become effective. Unlike the previous 1994 regulations, the new regulations claimed to protect the rights of registered religious groups, under certain conditions, to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations. Yet, the law remains very strict concerning the registration of religious groups as it requires all religious groups to register places of worship. Unregistered groups are being considered illegal and are subjected to punishment.
In face of the new changes and the severe crackdown on unregistered churches, many churches have therefore raised the concern about the formal registration of the government. According to a U.S.-based Chinese mission group the Revival Chinese Ministries International (RCMI), many churches in the Mainland China have been very uncertain on the issue.
"Most house churches, especially in the rural areas, are still miles away from trusting the government to that extent," RCMI’s January newsletter stated. "The bottom line for them remains unchanged. As long as the communist party is still above the law, there is no guarantee that this new law will offer them any protection, if needed."
Founded in 1997 by Pastor Dennis Balcombe, who has over 20 years of experience in doing missions in Mainland China, RCMI exists to help the house churches in China to fulfill their calling from God. Not only it has been working hard to put Bibles and Christian literatures into the hands of the Chinese people, it also offers leadership training to house churches.
According to RCMI, most of the house churches, especially those in the rural areas have doubt in the apparent openness of the government. And it has caused even greater threat of persecution among the unregistered churches as they have hold back and preferred to take risks.
"Where religious persecution used to exist because the house churches were illegal, it now exists because these same house churches are unwilling to trust the government and register under the new law," RCMI explained the reality.
Only a very small number of house churches, mainly in the city, have decided to register after studying the new religious laws, according to RCMI. It cited the case of one church that has tried to reach some agreements with the government before it registered: First, the church has the right to pick its own pastor; second, the church has full autonomy in regard to their finances; third, the church has the full authority to decide the activities in the church. The government officials have finally agreed the conditions, RCMI reported.
RCMI warned of the existing crisis of division between house churches as they hold different viewpoints towards the registration issue. It thus urged prayers for the house church leaders so that they can respect and support each other’s choices.
"No one can be certain of the real intention behind this new religious law and for this reason it has created real debate," the group commented.
"House Church leaders need to support each other’s choices and we need to pray for unity of the Chinese house churches. Let's pray that leaders from different house churches across the country would get clear direction from God and respect each other in the different approaches they take in responding to this religious act," the newsletter read.
In addition, since the details of the new religious regulations were made known to the public, local authorities in many parts of the country have responded by taking serious action, according to RCMI.
Currently, government officials in Shanghai, Beijing and many other places have begun to monitor or even crackdown on the house churches in an increasing manner in the last few months, because they have been tried to "play it safe by doing more than what the Beijing government asks," RCMI said.
RCMI called on believers to pray for the Chinese believers "to stand firm in God and trust in His protection."
The international religious freedom report published by the U.S. Department of State in 2005 has also given an account of the new religious regulations in China. The decision to register the church or not varies very much, depending on the attitudes of different groups.
"Some religious groups have declined to register out of principled opposition to state control of religion. Others do not register due to fear of adverse consequences if they reveal, as required, the names and addresses of church leaders. Unregistered groups also frequently refuse to register for fear that doing so would require theological compromises, curtail doctrinal freedom, or allow government authorities to control sermon content," the report stated.
The report concluded by saying, "It was too early to tell whether the new regulations would result in an increase in the number of or an expansion in the type of registered religious groups."