Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Feedom of Religion in China 

Sophia invited me to share some thoughts about the development of religious freedom in China for a group called FACES at Peking University. As I understand it, the group is composed mostly of young people affiliated with Stanford University in the States.

This seminar had to do with the development of religious freedom in China. They had lined up a professor from Canada, and a professor from Peking University, and then they wanted to find a Christian, so Sophia recommended me.

There are basically two types of churches in China--the Three-Self churches, which are regulated by the government, and the family churches, which are independent.

The main point I made in my presentation is that, while religion in China is controlled by the government, and churches are required to register, in fact, house churches are exempted from this requirement, as per Chinese government policy from which I quote:

"There is no registration requirement for, to quote from Chinese Christians, 'house services,' which are mainly attended by relatives and friends for religious activities such as praying and Bible reading."

This little clause within the larger policy is more significant than may be originally apparent. The reason for this is that while government figures list the number of Christians at about 15 million, the fact is that most Christians in China do not worship in the Three-Self (government regulated) churches. So how many Christians worship in churches that are exempt from the government registration policy? This is a question to which nobody knows the answer. I have seen estimates as high as 100 million (by Christians), and as low as 50 million (China Daily). I really don't know. But it is safe to say that the vast majority of Chinese Christians worship in churches that are actually less regulated than American churches. Of course there is no Religious Affairs Bureau in America that monitors sermon content. But American churches do need to register for tax purposes, in order to establish that the stuff they are doing fall within the limits established for their 501(c)(3) tax status.

In China, churches take offerings just like they do in America. They pay their pastors and handle their affairs, all completely without any regulation from any government agency. That is, again, if they stay small. But how small? This is the $64,000 question. Nobody really knows the answer. The policy I just quoted says, "mainly attended by relatives and friends." But how big is that? A few people gathered in someone's living room? But in China, pretty soon "family and a few friends" becomes anther family and a few more friends, and pretty soon you have quite a crowd. This generates two questions which define the issue:

    1. At what point does the government step in and tell house churches that they have become too big to be unregistered?

    2. How do the house churches respond to this government interference.

The answer to the first question is that it varies. I have been to several house church meetings in Beijing that are clearly more than just a few friends in the living room. Most of the time the government looks the other way. But there is no guarantee that they will. After my presentation, a young lady came up to me and mentioned the name of an unregistered church (can't really call it a house church, because it doesn't meet in a church) that had just been shut down by the government. She asked me what would happen to them. I think she really wanted to know, but perhaps her question was also intended as a polite reminder that all was not as smooth as my presentation might have implied. I said to her, "They will disperse, and then reemerge." If I am not mistaken, I think that church had about 500 members.

This leads, of course, to the second question, which his how house churches respond when the government tells them they have to cease and desist. Some of them resist. They keep meeting, get arrested, and then hope to generate international support for their cause. But most of them respond by staying small. They don't want trouble. They aren't protesters. If what they are doing is getting unwanted attention, they fold up or split up and continue in a manner that does not cause problems for them. The result of this is that the church in China is strong and growing very rapidly. In America, churches get bigger and bigger and bigger. In China, they spread by a mitosis which is much more conducive to healthy rapid growth. As a result, the Christian movement in China is unstoppable. China will one day be the largest Christian country in the world.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?