The news that China had (again) put members of the unregistered Shouwang Church in jail on Easter has brought a new round of international scrutiny to the Chinese government’s uneasy relationship with Christianity.
Shouwang Church meets outdoors precisely because the Chinese government has blocked every attempt they have made to procure a meeting place. In 2009, the church raised $4 million and purchased a space, but the government intervened and the seller’s refused to hand over the key. Shouwang Church has not received their $4 million back, nor have their attempts to rent space elsewhere succeeded. Promise Hsu has an excellent recap of the events over at Christianity Today that is worth reading.
The international pressure has had some effect within the country.. On Tuesday, a single editorial was released in China addressing the matter. You can read the English language version here, or the Chinese version (which is different) here. Here are the final paragraphs of the Chinese version that a friend in the academy has translated:
The establishment of large organizations in China has been a serious subject matter. Chinese society for decades has formed a habit of caution, and the government has managed them stringently. Whether this should be relaxed or not is a big political issue for the whole society. In such a sensitive issue, the church should not be a force for promoting radical change. Otherwise, the church is not engaging in religion but politics, and that is taboo for the church.
Regardless of how Shouwang church members were thinking when they first came together, they should have the sense of becoming increasingly political. Now is a particularly sensitive time, and Shouwang church is not acting appropriately according to the state’s management but are using “religious freedom” to walk a fine line, trying to achieve their own demands through resistance. In fact, this echoes the pressure put on China by the West and far exceeds what a church should do.
China is not a perfect country. China lacks “house church” management experience but China does practice religious freedom while trying to avoid religion’s shock on the rest of society. This policy is not only correct; it also fits China’s reality. For so many years China has avoided religious sectarian conflicts, with every religion living in harmony. For a large country like China this is rare. Everyone should cherish the social stability of China.
Compare that with the English language version, which paints Shouwang as a dissident church that refuses to register, and which blames the Western media for pushing Shouwang to not conform to Chinese law:
There are many open Christian churches in China, the Chinese government encourages Christians to worship in legal manners. However, the religion’s power overseas eagerly hopes to bring Chinese Christians beyond Chinese law, and so attempt to twist Chinese society by politicizing religion.
All the Christians, as well as those of other faiths, are Chinese citizens first and foremost. It is their obligation to observe discipline and abide by the law. All those related to yesterday’s event should reconsider the reasons they attended the gathering.
The problem, however, is that Shouwang has sought to be in conformity with Chinese law–and has been prevented by the government itself. In a response to the editorial, Shouwang outlined their many attempts to register, all of which have been denied by the government, which has sought to limit their freedom to assemble outside of the home. Again, translated excerpts provided by my good friend in the academy.
… The editorial “is a good reminder” for the church. It’s the only formal Chinese language news report by domestic media…so as parties to the issue we must “clarify and explain” to “give readers a more comprehensive and detailed understanding.”
… a large group refused to compromise and rejecting joining the TSPM. …they had no choice but to return to homes to maintain their faith and continue worshiping God. Because in that era not joining the “three self” [registered churches] was not a faith issue but a serious political issue because not joining the “three self” was counterrevolutionary so many people were put in jail. … following the changes of opening and reform in the end of the 70s these so-called “house churches” that originally secretly worshiped in homes gradually opened their gatherings and as the numbers increased and the environment improved, church gatherings gradually moved from individual’s “homes” to office buildings and other public open spaces even to some congregations constructing churches.
the circumstances of “house churches” truly is “vastly different” and as noted in the [editorial] Christianity in China has developed rapidly in recent years but the nature of house churches has not changed…
so the article misunderstands by saying that “the [Shouwang] church is different from true house churches that meet in a building” because the most important thing for churches is not the meeting place but …. The Bible says: “for where two or three are gathered in my (referring to Christ) name, there am I.”
We acknowledge that the atmosphere is more relaxed than before but we should also compare the house churches in the new period of development and the serious lag in the “original religion management system” has created the serious tension in church-state relations.
Shouwang Church for over two years from 2005 to 2007 actively applied for registration to the government under the newly published [in 2004] State Council “Regulation on Religious Affairs” and submitted the “Views of Beijing Shouwang Church on Religious Regulation,” proposing views on how to resolve the house church issues. And what was the related departments’ response to Shouwang Church? The related departments gave a clear refusal, not just by maintaining the 1950s and 1960s era religious policies that you cannot legally worship and gather if you don’t join the “three self” but also that believers should gather at home.
Local police also interfered with the church from time to time in the name of its being a “disturbance,” forcing the church to move to dozens of places. Later the church rented an office building to avoid disturbances, but related departments in the name of reporting an “holding an illegal gathering” burst in to stop the activities. Then in 2009, several departments (Religious Affairs, National Security, Industry and Commerce, Tax, Police, and others) united to give great pressure to the landlord to cancel the lease contract. So we were then also forced to worship outside.
In order to have a stable gathering site and not be disturbed again, the church believers collected a lot of money to buy a suitable site that could accommodate the entire congregation. Even though the congregation paid in full, because of the involvement of relevant departments the developer has been reluctant to give us the keys (this has been going on for more than a year).
The church has no choice but to again pay a lot of money to rent a place, but due to relevant departments’ involvement the rental contract has many times been canceled.
So it’s not that Shouwang Church is “using ‘religious freedom’ to skirt the line legally” and much less that Shouwang Church wants to take advantage of outdoor worship to “resist the society management system” but that the conduct of relevant departments of Beijing city or of Haidian district continue to make Shouwang Church which “has no choice” but to choose outdoor worship.
Further, the editorial specially emphasizes that “it is taboo for a church to do politics” and we completely agree with this. Another reason for why the house churches do not want to join the “three self” is precisely because the “three self” is a product of a political movement and the result of the church’s politicization. Whether in the past or now, the house churches continue to maintain the principle of separation of church and state and firmly oppose the politicization of churches. Therefore, in the “congregational letter” on outdoor worship, and the later “re-explanation of outdoor worship,” we clearly expressed that, given the lack of alternatives, outdoor worship was purely a worship activity and not a political activity done in the name of religion.
Whether it’s the outdoor worship in November of 2009 or the outdoor worship this time, the so-called sensitive times were not of the church’s choosing. Both times were because the church lacked any other alternatives but this decision, because relevant departments forced made the church lose its gathering site: in May 2008, before the Olympic games, a direct attack on Shouwang Church; in 2009, before the big celebration of the 60th anniversary [of the PRC founding], forcing the landlord to cancel the lease contract making the church lose its meeting site, up to the editorial’s “current time of political sensitivity” when the leasing contract signed by Shouwang Church was once again canceled…these events have happened each time a sensitive period has happened. After all, is this by accident, coincidence, or on purpose?
We express once again that Shouwang Church’s outdoor worship is not a political issue but purely a religious matter. It’s a religious issue created by the tension between the rapid growth and maturation of house churches and the lagging behind of the “old religion management system.”
Therefore, we hope that relevant deportments will not politicize the outdoor worship of Shouwang Church. Politicizing it may reduce the responsibilities of some government offices but this is not the appropriate way to resolve religious issues. We hope government departments can treat this as a religious issue to solve and only as a problem of a religious nature can this be resolved appropriately.
In fact, Shouwang Church wants nothing more than to be guaranteed to be able to gather inside to worship in stability; this is not too high of a demand. In the “Re-explanation of Outdoor Worship,” Shouwang Church already clearly explained “Government departments should also see it like this, [that] the church only to have a stable gathering place, especially the site we already bought. As in November 2009, the church will immediately return indoors to carry out Sunday worship. All the conjectures on whether the church has any political motive will be self-defeating.
We understand that currently it is not easy for relevant departments to “completely resolve” this… Therefore, if it is not possible to issue a certificate for Shouwang Church to return indoors, then let Shouwang Church into the worship sites that have been purchased. This is the most natural, most reasonable, and simplest solution.
Of course, afterwards, a mutual communication platform can be established to find a long-term solution together but also to address the problem of the accumulation of house churches for the sake of social stability and even to make a joint contribution to harmony.
The Chinese government’s repression of Christians in China should be an occasion for prayer for our brothers and sisters who live there. My own interest in the matter has grown considerably since last summer, when I had the good fortune of spending a week with a member of the Shouwang Church. Hearing the stories and seeing the photos of their worship services (in the snow!) was a challenging and humbling experience that makes me ever more appreciative–and defensive of–the real religious liberty we do have in America.