A few years back, I was delivering one of my first academic papers in a conference in North America. I was discussing the controversial figure Bishop K. H. Ting (丁光训), saying I did not agree with many of his actions, though I did think a theology that tried to encourage the church to engage non-Christians was a good thing. One of the respondents from the audience stood up and basically spent the next ten minutes explaining to me that this type of theology was neither biblical nor Evangelical. I responded by saying that Ting’s theological approach could arguably find resonance in the thinkings of a few notable Evangelical theologians, but this in no way appeased the fury of this man (it probably angered him even more!).
This was my first major experience in an academic environment with a very narrow view of the government-sanctioned Protestant church of China – the TSPM. To be honest, when I first began studying Christianity in China, I had a personal bias against the TSPM because of all the negative portrayals. The more I studied and visited China, the more I realised that the line between the ‘house churches’ and the ‘TSPM’ were more blurred than previously portrayed to me.1 Even amongst academics who are supposed to be ‘objective’, I have come across some really bad misunderstandings. Here are three I have encountered in academic writings in the past two weeks:
- The TSPM was started by the government. To be clear, Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩来) did encourage religious entities to clarify their relationship with foreign nations (which, mind you, had been taking over Chinese lands for the prior hundred years). But the TSPM was started by a group of Christian leaders (a hodgepodge of liberals and fundamentalists) and was headed by a Christian named Y. T. Wu (吴耀宗) who was sympathetic to the communist concern for the plight of the marginalised. While the relationships between these individuals and the communist leadership were very complicated, the TSPM was still fundamentally a Christian movement.2
The TSPM is a state church. This would be an incredible development if it happened – but it is nowhere true. The basic problem with this view is that to be a ‘state church’, China would have to have a ‘state religion’ of Protestant Christianity (as opposed to… say, communism). This is what England has since it’s ‘state church’ is the Church of England. TSPM churches, in contrast, are ‘state-registered churches’. The funny thing is, in most other countries in the world, you would expect a church to register with the state to establish as a legal entity – but, for whatever reason, this is a controversial notion in China.
The TSPM is a political organisation. There are often rumors that every sermon needs to be vetted by government officials and that only liberal Christianity that has compromised the gospel exists in the TSPM. This is far from the reality of the situation. The vast majority of TSPM churches are fairly conservative and are hardly involved in politics. To put it another way, the government is not that interested in every sermon and bible study going on in a TSPM church to go through all the trouble to censor everything.
There are definitely a lot more misconceptions I can list about the TSPM. These were just a few I came across in my readings these past few weeks. Just to briefly list some positives about the TSPM:
- The TSPM is an expression of religious freedom. Although China does not offer the same kind of liberties found in Western nations, it is definitely a lot better than how many people have characterised it. Leaders from the TSPM have been instrumental in the shaping of certain key religious policy documents like Document 19. Moreover, while many urban churches are trying to bring their faith into the public square, the most publicly visible Christian presence today in Chinese civil society is in fact the TSPM churches.
The TSPM is growing. Christianity is the fastest growing religion in communist China. While accurate statistics are hard to come by, it must be underscored that all churches in China are seeing tremendous growth. The photo in the beginning of this post is the TSPM church we attended when we were living in Beijing. It was Easter morning, when the queue to get into service wrapped throughout the courtyard and into the neighboring business park. Two weeks after we left China, the church baptised 180 people on one day.
The TSPM is a unifying force. The reality is churches need to register with the TSPM if they want to publicly worship. As a result, it has brought together many denominations and is often described as being post-denominational.3 By and large, most churches are fairly conservative, coming from pietistic and evangelical backgrounds. While you have controversial leaders like Bishop K. H. Ting, you also have strong evangelical leaders like Wang Weifan (汪维藩).
Clearly, coming out of the Cultural Revolution in the 1980s, Christians in China were quite leery (reasonably so) about registering as a religious entity with the state. Times have changed. Though the situation is not as ‘ideal’ as some may want it, it is also not as bleak as others have put it either.
Update: Jonathan Y. Tan shared with me the important point that many of these thoughts can to a certain extent also apply to the Catholic Church’s CPCA (中国天主教爱国会). Thanks Jonathan!
- Mark McLeister, ‘“House Church” versus “Three Self”: Cooperation across the Christian Community in China’, China Source 24 June 2013, available online. ↩
- Philip L. Wickeri, Seeking the Common Ground: Protestant Christianity, the Three-self Movement, and China’s United Front (New York: Orbis, 1988), part 4. ↩
- Though I have in the past critiqued this notion of post-denominationalism and the unity in the registered churches on theological grounds, I do think progress can still be made in this area. See Alexander Chow, ‘Protestant ecumenism and theology in China since Edinburgh 1910’, Missiology 1 October 2013. DOI 10.1177/0091829613501965. ↩