Three Self Patriotic Movement Churches (Part 1)

( [email protected] ) Dec 09, 2003 10:10 AM EST


The expression "three self" is not an invention of the Chinese leadership: it goes back to Henry Venn, of the Church Missionary Society, writing over a century ago. It was founded on strong biblical concepts, but has been given a completely new context in today¡¯s China. The three terms are "self governing, self supporting and self propagating."

In 1950 a document, largely the work of a liberal Christian called Y. T. Wu and approved by Zhou Enlai, was produced. It was called "The Christian Manifesto." It called upon Christians to throw off foreign influence and work together for the reconstruction of modern China. Christians were divided about whether to sign this or not. Those who signed thus became members of the Three Self Reform Movement, later to be renamed the Three Self Patriotic Movement.

The TSPM was formally established in 1954 with Wu as chairman. There was a subsequent attempt to close all Protestant churches which had not joined this new movement. Even the churches that did join were severely reduced in number. When the Cultural Revolution from 1966 onwards brought the enforced closure of church buildings, there was no longer a visible TSPM.

Under Deng Xiaoping¡¯s new policies, churches were allowed to reopen from 1979 onwards, and Bishop Ding became head of the reconstituted TSPM, replacing Wu, who had just died. When the Third National Christian Conference took place in October 1980, there were high hopes for a new era of progress.


Bishop Ding Guangxun was born in Shanghai in September 1915, and was educated in Shanghai, New York and Hungary. From 1938 to 1943 he was student YMCA secretary in Shanghai. In 1942 he was ordained an Anglican priest. From 1943 to 1946 he was pastor of the International Church in Shanghai. From 1946 to 1947 he was secretary of the SCM in Canada and from 1948 to 1951 secretary of the World Student Christian Federation. Returning to China, he was Principal of the Nanjing Theological College from 1953 onwards. In 1955 he was consecrated Bishop of Zhejiang. He was a keen member of the TSPM and very supportive of the government. During the Cultural Revolution he is thought to have taken part in reform through labor. After he became head of the TSPM, he led a number of delegations to other countries.

In a sermon published in 1988 he admitted his leftist errors. In 1989 he supported the student demonstrations, yet somehow survived. Indeed, he was reappointed head of the TSPM at the fifth assembly in January 1992. His more moderate approach is shown in his affirmation on several occasions that house meetings should be allowed to take place.

At the sixth National Christian Conference in January 1997, changes in the leadership were announced. Han Wenzao was made president of the China Christian Council and Luo Guanzong chairman of the TSPM. Bishop Ding, however, was to remain honorary chairman of both organizations, so his influence would continue. Both of the new appointees are prominent laymen, and Han is known to be a Communist Party member.


From the formation of the TSPM, patriotism has been high on the agenda. It seems important to be a patriot first and a Christian second.

It is wrong to claim, as some do, that the State does not interfere in the internal affairs of the Church. Sometimes well qualified applicants are refused admission to seminaries because the Religious Affairs Bureau does not like them. Non believers have been placed on the staff of seminaries for the sake of their political input. In Document 6 it is clearly stated that the government uses the patriotic associations, of which the TSPM is one, to control religious affairs.

On August 17, 1987 the United Work Front Department in eastern Henan issued a document which said: "We must draw a clear distinction between the Bible and Party policy. Where the Bible and Party policy conflict, we must unwaveringly implement matters according to Party policy."

At a local level a lot depends on the RAB officials. In some areas they leave the handling of the internal affairs of the Church to the church leaders themselves, but in others they seek a lot of personal control.

Individual pastors vary considerably. Some are very politically conscious. Two western Christians visited a pastor in eastern China. He kept making remarks such as: "We are so grateful for our Party’s policy of freedom of religious belief," and, when invited to pray, became very embarrassed. This is in contrast with a TSPM pastor who was preaching in another city. He said: "The religious leaders get together with the government cadres behind closed doors. They decide on things in secret, but then the church leaders turn round and say, ‘We are not responsible, it was not our decision - it was the government’s.?


To belong to the TSPM gives freedom to worship and to minister legally; yet there are many restrictions. One of the main restrictions is the "three designates" policy. This means that Christian activity must take place only in designated buildings (church buildings and homes that have been registered with the TSPM), must be conducted by a designated leader (an official TSPM pastor) and must be confined to one¡¯s own area (no poaching in somebody else "parish").

A rule about not reaching out to the under 18s means that officially Sunday Schools and youth groups do not exist; but I have heard of such groups being formed.

Even the substance of a pastor¡¯s sermon is under scrutiny. Such subjects as the value of suffering, the return of Christ and the life of heaven are frowned upon, as they are regarded as "escapist" themes, and thus in conflict with Marxist ideology. Such practices as praying for the sick and exorcising demons are regarded as superstitions, and should be outlawed.

The China Christian Council

What is the relationship between the Three Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council? The latter movement was born at the Third National Christian Conference in October 1980. It may be described as a kind of "action wing" of the Church. When it was formed, its tasks were defined as handling pastoral work, training pastors, publishing spiritual literature and strengthening contacts with churches and believers throughout China.

One of the marked effects of the CCC has been the opening of various seminaries. The printing of Bibles is another achievement, though this was subsequently taken over by Amity. A new Chinese hymnal was brought out in 1983. (Some hymns have a distinctly "patriotic" ring about them.)

In February 1991 the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches voted overwhelmingly, and perhaps uncritically, to grant full membership to the CCC, thus marking the end of a 30 year estrangement.