Chinese Theological Review 17

Development and Enrichment of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement


This is the 50 th anniversary of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Our view of those fifty years is closely related to how we will see the movement fifty years from now, and to how well TSPM/CCC run the church. I would like to share with you my own view of these past fifty years.

As I see it, there have been four high points in these fifty years. By high point I mean developments and clarifications in the organization's self-knowledge and guiding thought which had an all-round impact on its work, and which raised it to new levels.

1) Exposure of the relationship between western missions and western imperialism in China, raising the anti-imperialist consciousness of believers and advocating the three-self line of self-government, self-support and self-propagation. This was the beginning of Three-Self. We know that the reputation of missionaries is very high in Christianity worldwide, and the courage and boldness our church displayed in daring to attack them, show that they served imperialism, and announce our independence amazed Christian circles around the globe, engendering both anger and criticism as well as praise and commendation.

2) Since Three-Self was something new, well- and ill-intentioned questions were raised both at home and abroad; enemies, in China and overseas, sought to attack it; and in China itself, a mass movement in theology and biblical interpretation arose very naturally. Many articles in which ordinary Christians discussed these issues appeared in the church monthly Tian Feng . Some articles found evidence of three-self and patriotism in the Bible and in church history. There were many responses here and abroad, and overseas there were critiques of the missionary movement and calls for independence on the part of churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America. All this confirmed the reasonableness of three-self and patriotism for our colleagues here. At the same time, a new discipline appeared in the West: a "new missiology" which was a critique of traditional missionary organizations and thinking, reflection on approaches and advocacy of churches not being run by missionaries, but by Christians in Asia, Africa and Latin America themselves. There was interest in learning about the Chinese Three-Self Movement and some adopted a friendly attitude toward it. Canadian Christians led the way in this transformation, which is still ongoing. This new missiological thinking continues to have a great impact and has shaped an attack on the original "mission boards."

3) Running the church well. The aim of TSPM; that is, to enable Christianity in China to be independent and to achieve self-government, self-support and self-propagation, is endorsed by the majority of our co-workers and fellow-Christians. They also support running the church well; that is, making it well-run, well-supported and a church in which self-propagation is done well. Under the rubric of running the church well, the China Christian Council was established as a separate entity. But because of the long experience of ultra-leftism, many government cadres and co-work-ers in the church harbored lingering fears that the slogan "run the church well" represented a church standpoint separate from the standpoint and interests of the Chinese people. We knew that the Communist Party is atheist, opposed to religion, and we had heard them say that the church should gradually disappear; in that case why speak of running it well? I recall that Li Zuomin, assistant secretary general of the Central United Front Department held a long discussion with several dozen church co-workers one evening, in order to dispel our anxiety on this score, so that we might set our fears aside and go about running the church well. I also remember the deputy head of the Religious Affairs Bureau under the State Council, Wan Yaobin speaking at what must have been a meeting of the joint standing committee of the TSPM/CCC. He also told us that the government supported us in running the church well. We were delighted to hear it and our experience in these years tells us that the Party also supports it. In fact the TSPM was founded in order to create conditions for running the church well, and the CCC was founded to serve as the body to run the church well.

4) Advocating theological reconstruction. There are very many aspects to running the church well and the solid construction of theological thinking in the Chinese Church is the most fundamental, most crucial step in running the church well.

At present many Christians emphasize preaching the gospel and conversion. But if the message we preach is done up in outmoded theological thinking, can it attract modern people whose thinking has already undergone a great renewal? When the incarnate Jesus came into the world, he brought a new message, which we call the New Testament. The New Testament developed out of the Old Testament. Jesus often said, "You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ...but I tell you, ..." Our theological thinking also need to be renewed before it can persuade, before it can attract people's attention to the message of Christ.

Some of our co-workers have long been exposed to missionaries or theology teachers whose thinking is extremely conservative, and they like to say that they pay no attention to whether something is theology or not, but speak only of Life and faith. They say, if we have the Bible, faith and Life, that's all we need. We don't need to worry about right and wrong. I think they are mistaken. We are human beings, we can think, and these brains we think with were also given by God. If we use our brains, our thoughts will turn to issues and problems. As Christians, when we read the Bible, we cannot help but think of the issues raised by the Bible and by faith, we cannot help but be led to think of the challenges and attacks on faith occasioned by the real world.

Human beings cannot exist without thinking and a church cannot exist without thinking theologically; there are no Christians without some sort of theological thinking. Whenever you say a few words about a passage in the Bible, whenever you pray, your view of God and your view of the Bible are apparent in your words, and this is theology.

Party Chairman Jiang Zemin calls upon religion to adapt to socialist society. I do not think we need to see this as prejudice against religion or some sort of harassment of religion. It is not only religion that needs to do this sort of adapting. The need also arises in education, literature and the arts, the social sciences and ethics.

Recently, among some co-workers, the idea arose that three-self was enough and that theological reconstruction was something they could take or leave, as they wished. It is also said that others concern themselves only with theological reconstruction, thinking that it has replaced three-self. If such tendencies exist, I think both are superficial. Chairman Jiang spoke of actively promoting the adaptation of religion to socialist society. We know that mere mouthing of slogans is a very low form of adaptation. Genuine adaptation must take place in thinking. For religious circles, this must be theological adaptation. Theological reconstruction is not simply making theology adapt to socialist society, it also removes theological obstacles to patriotism and socialism, providing an intellectual foundation for support of patriotism and socialism. And this was the original goal of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Theological reconstruction is one with the work of the TSPM; we should not place them in opposition to each other.

To enliven theological thinking, we advocate the diversification of theology in the church; it would be inappropriate to defer to a single authority. Theology in any church should be pluralistic. The Bible lifts up one Christ, one faith; but theological viewpoints should be many, we should not require that they be unified. We should not label someone an "unbeliever" simply because his or her theology is not our own. This makes the church into a "police state" where we are cut off from pastors and co-work-ers with views different from our own. At the least, this is unethical and unloving. To say someone belongs to "the unbelievers' clique" is to accuse them of being a false Christian, someone who should be ejected from the church. Who gives us the authority to judge?

It is not only on the church level that theological reconstruction is needed; every clergy and co-worker in our church needs individual theological reconstruction. In worldwide Christianity today, especially in the mainstream churches, there is a view that our clergy is lacking in theological thinking and have little of interest to say in dialogue. Cannot we as individuals do something to address this situation by improving our own theological awareness, step by step?

These are what I see as the four high points of the fifty years' of the TSPM. It was not my intention to see these as chronological; they are all part of the development and enrichment of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China.