Chinese Theological Review 18

My View of Three-Self Education


For decades now, when we in the Three-Self Movement preach three-self, we begin with missionaries sent under the rubric of religion by the imperialists to serve the imperialist aggressors against China, and then bring out the necessity for Chinese Christianity to be independent, carrying out self-government, self-support and self-propagation. We can say this is the Denunciation Movement view of three-self. It has been the traditional evangelical line of TSPM since the 1950s. But recently, we have increasingly found this way of speaking to be rather unpopular: many young people are indifferent to it, many find it annoying and the speaker finds it wasted effort. One important reason for this may be that a stress on so-called spiritual offerings is widespread in our Church, and persuading believers through reason is neglected.

When speaking about three-self we must give full weight to the standing of missionaries in the eyes of most Christians in the Church, including seminarians. We should not think that quoting a few lines from some westerners' self-confessions to Christians today will persuade them that Christianity was used as a tool by imperialist forces in their aggression against China, or that having done so, they would then accept the necessity of three-self. The political climate today is very different from that of the 1950s, and it is not easy for people to accept the ideas that some of us formed at that time. Evangelism, missionaries, mission organizations and mission boards have a great deal of prestige among Christians, both in China and abroad. We should adopt a spirit of seeking truth from facts in realizing this.

Might we consider that in explaining the necessity of three-self today, we no longer begin by citing as evidence the example of China missionaries from imperialist nations using religion as tools of aggression? This is liable to arouse disgust. Please note my phrasing, begin by; I am not suggesting that we deny the facts. When Jesus commissioned us to go into the world and spread the Gospel, imperialism did not use religion and mission was nothing other than spreading the Gospel. When evangelism and politics (imperialism) are linked, believers seldom see the connection immediately. They believe that evangelism is Jesus' commission and cannot be denied.

We should collect facts on churches from around the world, those that are well run, and those that are not, as illustrations. Those churches that are well run are self-governed, self-supported and self-propagated. We can find evidence in the New Testament as well. Acts 15 tells us that in order that the non-Jewish Gentiles might accept the Gospel, the Church in Jerusalem decided not to take on the customs of Judaism (observing the Sabbath, circumcision, etc.), but to allow Gentiles to develop their own Christianity. This is Three-Self. Paul respected the independence of the newly established local churches. He was not willing to re-evangelize where a church had been established (Rom.15: 20; 2 Cor. 10:16). There were those in the churches of Britain and America who early on advocated that Asian and African churches should implement three-self as soon as possible. The earliest form of three-self was their proposal. They had many arguments for the concept and filled a number of books with their theses, which would be useful references for us. We must first of all link three-self with love for the church and use this to replace the bad impression that three-self means politics and lack of love for the Church. We cannot base an understanding of the significance of three-self on the fact that in our early days we came to it through an awareness of the way in which imperialist aggression in China made use of missionaries and religion, and insist that the youth of today and Christians in general follow this same line of reasoning.

My suggestion is to first marshal a great quantity of material from China and overseas, historical and current, theological and biblical, to demonstrate that in order to run the church well, implementing self-government, self- support and self-propagation are essential. Three-Self is a precondition, or one of the preconditions, for running the church well. This shows that reliance on foreign countries -being governed, supported and propagated by others-is of no benefit to running the church well. It means that the church cannot be the church. If we present things in this way, many in Third World churches, judging on their own experience, will find that what we say has merit.

As for missionaries' contributions to China, Frederick Brown of the Allied Forces (an American missionary who led imperialist forces from Tagukou (Tianjin) into Beijing), and other missionaries who imposed the unequal treaties on us in service to their governments, tried many ways to destroy our feelings for our own country. This is something that should be exposed and opposed. We need only proceed by seeking truth from facts, setting out those facts, speaking reason, not exaggerating, and our Christians will respond sympathetically when we speak. But it is best to put these things at the end of what we wish to say. In our seminaries especially, classes in three-self studies should first study church and theological issues and move from this to politics, without rushing into the missionary question. Imperialist is a fuzzy concept, difficult to define, and should be used with caution.

This path of promoting three-self in the churches and implementing three-self education, that is, adjusting the starting point of our discussions, will be more suitable to our listeners in the church. Is such an adjustment important? Must we be particular about results? Does it make a difference, whether we make this adjustment or not? The question touches upon the future of three-self and our international reputation. We must not treat this lightly, nor reject what is new. I hope my colleagues in Three-Self and those in government who work with religions will consider this carefully. I welcome your reactions.

Nanjing Theological Review 3(2003): 4-6. Closing speech at a Conference on Love Never Ends, Shanghai, July, 1999.

K.H. Ting is Principal of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, and President emeritus of the China Christian Council and Chairperson emeritus of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.