Chinese Theological Review 16

The Current Situation in the Chinese Church

Cao Shengjie

Achievements: God has done great things in China

a) The church is growing fast, especially in the last 20 years.

Statistics for 1999:

15 million Christians-- more than 20 times the figure for 1949 (700,000).] 6,000 churches; 32,000 meeting points; 18 theological seminaries at different levels (national, regional, provincial). Each province also has its own local lay training projects. 28 million copies of the Bible have been printed, including Bibles in the languages of national minorities, Braille Bibles, etc. In recent years Bible production has averaged 2-3 million copies per year, making the Chinese Church one of the largest printers of Bibles in the world.

Much Christian literature has also been published. Tian Feng (Heavenly Wind), the church monthly magazine, has about 100,000 subscribers."

b)The church is post-denominational. Prior to 1949, Chinese churches were divided among many denominations. Since 1958, Christians of different denominational backgrounds have come to worship together. Unity is much treasured and there is no existing denominational structure in China anymore.

c) The church has a good relationship with the Chinese people. Our motto is "Be light and salt to the world; glorify God and benefit the people." Many churches and Christians bear beautiful witness to their faith by good behavior in society. More and more people, especially intellectuals, are sympathetic and supportive of the church.


a) Raising the spiritual quality of Christians. The majority of Chinese Christians are in the countryside. Due to low educational levels and the lack of trained ministers, many Chinese Christians do not have a thorough grasp of their faith. Some easily blend Christian faith with folk religion or superstitious practices. In some places heretical teachings and cults once prevailed. In one of these, called "Anointed King," the leader identified himself with Christ, being worshipped by his people and taking advantage of young girls. Another cult, "Eastern Lightning," proclaimed that Jesus had come again, this time as a woman.

b) Finding new ways to illustrate and spread the Gospel well in a nation that has made great progress in science and culture. We believe people's spiritual need is permanent. Yet, if we cannot meet these needs properly, if our church is not run well, Christianity might not be built on a solid foundation.

c) Responding to attacks from some Christian groups outside China. There are some Christian personnel and groups who spread rumors and misinformation about China and the Chinese Church. They also try to influence Christians in China against their own church and government with sayings such as "Hear God, not men," or "You will not be saved if you attend a church that follows the three-self principle." They prevent grassroots Christian communities from being registered (something every social organization should do to gain legal protection), and even support some illegal activities directly.

Insights over 50 years

a) Christians must identify ourselves with the Chinese people. A bit of historical background is in order: In 635 CE, Syrian Nestorian missionaries came to China. This was the earliest entry of Christianity, but Nestorianism vanished in China after some 200 years. In modern times, Christianity came to China following the Opium War (1840) along with western colonial expansion. Though some missionaries had lofty aims of spreading the Gospel and some did good for the Chinese people, on the whole, unfortunately, the missionary movement was involved in western imperialist aggression. There were missionaries who aided the opium trade, drafted the unequal treaties and even participated in military invasions. The churches they set up in China were controlled by foreign mission boards in finance and personnel. Therefore the Chinese Church was very much looked down upon in China itself as a "foreign religion." This was a great obstacle to the spread of the Gospel.

The Three-Self Movement (self-administration, self-support and self-propagation), initiated by Chinese Christian leaders, has greatly changed the image of the Chinese Church. This is the main reason why the church has grown so fast in recent years.

In ancient times, China was a country with a rich cultural tradition and strong central power. But after 1840, the Chinese people were greatly oppressed and humiliated by western powers, and this misery persisted until 1949. Christians shared the fate of their people. As a child in Shanghai, I remember seeing dead bodies in the street everyday as I walked to school during the winter months. They had died from cold and hunger. As Chinese, it was natural for us to support revolutionary change in our country. Nowadays, we Chinese have greatly raised our standard of living, though it is still low compared with many western countries. Our situation as Chinese Christians is like that of our fellow Chinese citizens. Without the policy of reform and opening to the outside world, we would not have been able to build so many churches in recent years.

We call on our Christians to be "good Christians and good citizens." This is common in all countries, but some western Christian leaders have condemned us on the grounds that our leading party, the Communist Party, is atheist. In 1949 I sometimes heard people in church circles say that the Communists would kill all religious believers when they took power. But this did not happen. The policy of religious freedom was set down in our Constitution in the 1950s. (During the Cultural Revolution the Constitution was not fully implemented, a calamity for the whole country, not only for religious circles. Thank God, this is all over.) In our experience and understanding, our government's goal is to unite people of different faiths and ethnic identities to build up our socialist country. We can unite with them politically in serving the Chinese people, while respecting each other's religious faiths. This is our stance of cooperation.

There is much talk in the West about "persecution" of Chinese churches. Where does this come from? I think these persecution myths come from four sources: 1) Outdated information from the so-called Cultural Revolution; 2) Intentional anti-China propaganda from prejudiced mass media; 3) Reports of cases which are actually illegal practices of foreigners or cult leaders (according to Decree 144 of the Chinese government, foreigners are free to worship in China, but not to evangelize or preach without an invitation from a Chinese church organization. Nor is it legal for them to organize any religious programs on their own, or to set up their religious organizations in China.); 4) Exaggeration or distortion of individual cases which are the result of wrong practices by certain officials who do not handle the policy of religious freedom well. These cases can be passed on to the government for redress and this the TSPM and CCC always do.

On the whole, I would say that in the last 20 years, the government has been doing a better, not a worse, job of implementing religious freedom.

We believe that by better uniting ourselves with the people, the church is moving ahead toward a bright future.

b) The main task of the Chinese Church today is to build herself up based on the three self principle.

Our understanding of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20) is the balance among "Go and make disciples of all nations," "baptizing them" and "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." That means, we not only pursue the increase of Christian numbers, but also help our church members to be pleasing children of the Lord and to commit themselves to Him. We are doing evangelism through many forms, e.g., evangelistic meetings, music programs, personal witness, etc., but we also focus on pastoring. Without this building up, the church cannot be built on the rock of Jesus Christ, and evangelism cannot be carried on successfully.

The Chinese Church has her own historical background and current context. In some areas, we have some conditions different from churches in other countries. For instance, post-denominational practice is possible in China because 1) denominations were the product of western churches, and were brought to China by missionaries. Chinese Christians happen to have joined some denominational churches, but were less influenced by denominationalism. 2) On the way to developing the Three-Self Movement, Christians of different denominations found out that we have so much in common in the dimension of faith and we can cooperate well. 3) While seeking the common ground, we still respect each other's differences in ritual practice (Worship on Sunday/ the Sabbath, baptism by sprinkling or immersion, Holy Communion in different forms, etc.), and most of our Christians are happy with that.

The essence of three-self is to develop our own selfhood, that is to act according to the guidance of God alone, to adapt ourselves to our society, and to go our own way, not copying others' patterns.

In the process of building up our church, the three-self principle means: 1) Insistence on the Chinese Church's independence and sovereignty; 2) the dual love for our country and for our church; 3) unity among Christians and with the people; 4) doing our church work well, i.e., running the church well, supporting well, propagating the Gospel well. We are seeking and exploring and praying for the fresh guidance of the Holy Spirit.

c) The importance of theological reconstruction. It is quite natural for a mature church to have her own theological reflection. Bishop K.H. Ting says, "Theology is the church in the act of thinking." But in the past, when the Chinese Church was a mission field, we accepted the Gospel according to the theological explanation of the missionaries only. Coming into the new society, we found that some of these did not fit our environment and experience. For instance, the sort of exegesis of the passages about Noah's three sons (Gen. 9:2028) that says black people are descendents of Canaan and therefore it is God's will that they be slaves, while Japheth represents white people, who have the right to live in the tents of people of color. I am surprised to know this was what some missionaries said in Africa. This arises from racial discrimination, but some Christians teach it as if it were biblical truth.

Another interpretation says that each day of the six days of God's creation of the world stands for one thousand years. This would mean the history of the universe is only six thousand years, something we know is not true according to geological science. Many doomsday claims were made for the year 2000 (the end of a six-thousand-year history). Many heresies pick up some single term or passages from the Bible to support wrong teachings. If we do not study the Bible ourselves, we can be easily misled.

We believe that the Bible is revelation from God, the highest authority of faith. Our faith, based on the tenets of the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, will never change. But as human beings, our understanding is limited. Our understanding of God's attributes, the meaning of salvation and the work of the Holy Spirit always needs to be deepened and intensified with time, and sometimes varies in different contexts. Paul says, "O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God" (Rom. 12:33). We really wish to enrich our understanding of God through the reconstruction of theological thinking, and the abundance of God's truth will be revealed.

This is nothing to do with the demarcation between evangelicals or liberals. In China, there is no typical representation of either school. In joining in the Three-Self Movement together, even though Christians have different theological backgrounds, all have gained some new inspiration. We all need to study the Bible in our situation under the light of the Holy Spirit, in order to explain clearly and properly the truth of Jesus to contemporary Chinese people.

Our theological thinking will be based on biblical teaching, historical church tradition and our unique experience of the church and our culture. We hope our efforts will help in the all-round upbuilding of our church and make some contribution to the church universal.

Some wishes for our foreign friends

Three-self is by no means self-isolation. As a part of the church universal, the Chinese Church still has to learn from Christians and churches in other parts of the world. We treasure the friendship and fellowship built on genuine Christian love and partnership on an equal basis. To reach this goal, let us proceed along the right path.

1) Mutual understanding is the priority. Since we live in different historical, social and cultural conditions, diversity in church-building and social outlook is quite possible. In order to respect each other and find the best way of showing loving concern, we need to understand each other better. I hope visits from friends overseas will help more Christians abroad know the real situation in China. When the Chinese Church is targeted by misunderstandings, we need the prayers and support of friends overseas.

2) We abide by Chinese law and wish our friends to respect Chinese law and regulations as well. Honesty is the prerequisite for true friendship. I hope all exchanges will be done in honesty, openness, sincerity and legality. Never do anything secretly, not to say illegally. Some people speak in a friendly way, but half-secretly support some illegal activities detrimental to the interests of the Chinese Church and Chinese people. This will have no positive effect.

3) Cooperative projects may be set up according to the needs of the Chinese Church and the possibilities of our counterparts. As we run our church independently, I would first mention the needs of the Chinese Church. We receive offerings without strings attached. Please be sensitive to giving up those old mission ideas; i.e., some outsiders think that only they can evangelize China or lead the Chinese Church. They should know that God has been using the local churches and native Chinese to accomplish God's will. Friends are sometimes invited to help, yet they are not asked to do anything in place of Chinese Christians.

I have tried to speak very frankly in line with biblical teaching, "Speaking the truth in love." I believe only with mutual respect and sincere cooperation can the friendship and fellowship among us be enhanced and developed over time.

*Additional statistics for 1999:
Ordained clergy: 3,000 , or 1 per 5,000 Christians
Lay workers: 70,000
Number of new Christians per year in Shanghai: 6,000

Rev. Cao delivered this briefing to the "China Symposium" sponsored by China Partner on December 10, 2001.