In recent days, Beijing Watchtower Church held their Sunday service outdoor due to pressures received from the local authorities, which aroused some criticisms on their methods; Rev. Liu Tong Su, who has been keeping a close watch on the house church development in China, wrote an article in response.
Liu titled his article “Being the Watchman for the Entire Society.” Although he isn’t a member of Watchtower Church nor does he represent them, he explained that he is only expressing his opinion on the incident from the position of an evangelical pastor and Christian scholar. He is writing for the sake of love towards the entire congregation and coworkers of Watchtower Church and concern for other friends in Christ who shared the same vision. He again clarified that he isn’t behind the Watchtower Church as rumor says, nor did he ever have any co-working relationships with the church.
In response to opinions that criticizes Watchtower Church’s conduct as “political”, Liu disagreed. He pointed out that outdoor gathering isn’t to challenge the government, nor is it “political or a power-struggle”, but there is only one purpose – to hold regular church service in the midst of persecution.
Similar to Beijing Watchtower Church who received the criticisms, Chengdu Qiuyu Church also received the same kinds of attacks since their outdoor events since June. Liu observed that besides the criticisms from those who are obviously politically motivated much of the reproaches originate from within the churches, including those in China and overseas, which made him feel that the churches still have many misunderstandings towards the actual situation of the house churches, so he motivated him more to clarify the relevant facts and concepts through the Watchtower Church incident.
House Churches Have no Intentions to Challenge the Government, but are Victims of Deprivation
The point brought up in most reproaches is “Why use outdoor gatherings to challenge the government?” Liu said their outdoor gatherings in the past or present are held without a choice. Local authorities have persecuted the landlords, whom they’ve rented spaces from, causing some house churches to have to move out from the offices to hold gatherings.
“There isn’t any house church that will actively go outdoors to hold services; the government deprived the house churches of their gathering space, so without any other choices they had to have gatherings outdoor. This is a basic fact.”
On Oct. 18, Liu met with pastor and elders of Watchtower Church. During their meeting, they’ve earnestly and worriedly declared that “Watchtower Church really doesn’t want to hold outdoor gatherings.” They are making their best efforts to sign the contract for purchasing a new building before Nov. 1, but twice the negotiations for purchasing the new building was interrupted by some departments and terminated without any reasons given. These obvious facts and the clear rights and wrongs are placed in front of us, “Who is the aggressor, who is the victim, these things can easily be distinguished as right and wrong.”
Moreover, in response to the question of why didn’t the church rent a gathering space prior to the purchase of the new building, Liu explained that this is because of their consideration that the local authorities have always pressured the landlords of the office space, which stopped them from using a rented place as a gathering place, so until they can enter a place that they’ve purchased to build a church they will hold outdoor worship service.
House Churches Hold Outdoor Gathering, Protect the Public Living Space for Gospel’s Sake
Liu expressed that this problem directly involves the essences of persecution from the government and holding outdoor gatherings in opposition to persecutions. In more specific terms, he said that the common trait of a park and an office space is that they both belong to the society’s public living space; but a family is considered as private space. “Although going from an office space to a park has the difference of indoors and outdoors, it maintained the right to worship in the public living space. Although going from an office space to a home are both indoors, it is a retreat from a public living space back to private living space.”
“Since spring of 2007, Beijing police has incessantly threatened the house churches to retreat back to their homes, and the motivation is to force the house churches out of the society’s public space. At present, all of the persecutions that happened nation-wide involve churches that are related to the public lives, which go to show the essence of persecution is to nullify the rights of house churches to hold any activities in the public living space. House churches are now going from being a marginalized group into the society’s mainstream. For a church to hold activities in the society’s public living space is one of the key elements to proclaiming the gospel to the entire society.”
Liu continued, “Hiding secretly in homes for gatherings basically have no fundamental influences toward one’s spirituality; however, it definitely cannot bring the gospel to the entire society. In this era, God has already command the church to proclaim the gospel to all people groups within the Chinese population, so it would be impossible to accomplish this mission by merely remaining at the society’s fringe or hiding in secret places. In this era, God has already chosen the house churches to be the watchmen for the entire ethnic group. The gospel is no longer a message passed through tiny passages at the society’s fringe, but it is a mainstream voice that should be proclaimed to the entire city at a wide and bright place. Public living space is the platform that reaches to the entire society at the maximum extent; maintaining the public living space is holding on to the largest passage way towards the entire society.”
Next, Liu supported his point with actual statistics, explaining the meaning and importance for the house churches to maintain holding gatherings in a public space. In 2007, he did a research among the Beijing house churches and discovered that the average rate of new attendants in small-scale churches held in residential areas was less than 2%; on the other hand, the average rate of new attendants usually surpasses 10%. While going to the Watchtower Church service on the local train, he met a youngster searching for the church while holding on to its address. In another words, “with regards to the proclamation of the gospel, ‘city’ on a hill or at the bottom of the hill does have their differences.” Therefore, for the sake of more broadly spreading the gospel, maintain the public living space is very important, he said.
Government’s Interference with Religion, House Churches Force to “Play with Politics”
Addressing some questions of whether an “outdoor gathering is playing with politics”, Liu stated, “Watchtower Church and the house churches that have held outdoor gatherings has only one purpose: maintain the regular church worship service.” If looking from the narrowly defined concept of “politics equal to power-struggle” within the Chinese cultural habit, then Watchtower Church’s outdoor gathering ‘does not have any power requests’, so it has no political implications.
He pointed out that the reason why “outdoor” is abnormal did not originate from the church but from the government. “The church did what it did only because it was placed under an abnormal outside pressure, so it inevitably had to use abnormal ways to maintain the churches’ normal services. At this moment, the “normal” can only be maintained by the “abnormal.”
Most Chinese have this concept: “If it is a request from the political powers, then we cannot object, but if we object then we are playing with politics.” Liu believes that under this type of conception the house church will inevitably be labeled by others as “playing with politics.”
“From the very start, house churches has boycotted against the political authority in order to maintain their gatherings. In reality, if political authorities interfere with church activities, then the church is already on the same side with the political authority. If negotiating with the political authority, then it is ‘playing with politics’, then the churches who stand up to protect their rights in front of the political authority are actively ‘playing with politics’, but the churches that allow the political authority to order them around are passively ‘playing with politics.’”
Next, Liu further spoke on the phrase of “politics” as broadly defined as “public affairs and public policies.” According to this definition, politics is a matter that concerns all citizens. Public affairs should involve the people and public policies should be decided by the people, which are the essence of a civil society.
“For any worship service that consists of people other than one’s own family members, it is considered a form of public life, which means that it is a public affair related to public policies and that is the broadly defined politics. All of the house churches are political – according to the broadly defined politics – for they are all participating in the establishment of a civil society. There is only one form of non-political house church and they are those who retreated from the public living arena, retreated to their own residential areas and limited the participating members to those who belong to the family. However, whether it is still considered as a church, it is a question.”
“Fundamentalists” Propagating for Home Style Gathering, Oppose to Self-Marginalization
Lastly, Liu pointed out an interesting phenomenon where some believers think that house churches should retreat to their own homes to hold small-size gatherings, existing from the public living space. The ironic part is that these opinions of the so-called “fundamentalists” match exactly to the policies that the Chinese authorities have applied on the house churches. In recent years, the Chinese government has adamantly persecuted the house churches, aiming to force them back into their homes to hold the small-size gatherings.
He said that despite how the “fundamentalists” opposes the government, there exists in the subconscious a type of assumption: house churches can only survive on the fringe of the society. This subconscious thought in the public was formed as a result of the former civil society, for in those times the biggest survival capacity for the house churches was by the society’s marginal end in that society’s structure. Nevertheless, while civil society is gradually forming, house churches have already entered the mainstream society and is proclaiming the gospel to the entire society.
“Because of the changes of the generation’s context, the two parties who were used to opposing each other have ‘unknowingly’ become unintentional accomplice.” Therefore, he emphasized even more strongly that the cross will never change, but instead of adjusting the cross, we need to adjust ourselves to respond to the challenges of this era.
House Church Legalization is Difficult, Going Pubic is Definite
Presently, the trend of China’s house churches going public has increasingly become a topic of concern. In the beginning of this month, renown Beijing author Yu Jie and Sichuan scholar Wang Yi shared in their speeches at Hong Kong University that although the legalization of China’s house churches seems still very far away, but the going public has become an unstoppable reality. Using some influential house churches from their respective areas, such as Beijing Watchtower Church, Ark’s church, Chengdu Qiuyu Church, etc, they shared how many emerging house churches in the cities are courageously going public prior to government’s approval of their legal status. The persecution from the local authorities have pushed them towards the process of going public, through lawsuits, holding worship in the streets, etc, all serves to make the church even more open.
They also pointed out that in recent years various influential intellectuals in the public have Christian faith. While they use their personal faith to push for social justice, they also use public actions to disseminate the religious beliefs, causing the opening up of house churches as a definite trend.
Reporter Luke Leung translated the article