(Dis)unity in the Church in China

Rev Joseph GuWhen I was first interested in Christianity in China, the Protestant terrain was laid out very clearly to me. There are two churches in China: (1) the true and faithful house churches who’s members endure persecution to live the faith and (2) the Three-Self churches who’s members are not really Christians because they have compromised the gospel to communism. Over time, I have come to realise that these characterisations are far from representative of these two groups, and a lot of good can come out of discarding them.1

Three recent events have happened with TSPM churches which underscores my views on this point. First, since 2014, there have been church demolitions and cross removals from TSPM (and non-TSPM) churches occurring within Zhejiang province, mainly within the Wenzhou area. Second, a number of meetings since 2014 have been held with leaders of the TSPM/CCC, government officials, and secular academics discussing the ‘Chinisation of Christianity’ 基督教中国化, attempting to develop a Chinese theology that is more compatible with socialism.2 Third, and just this past weekend, the Sr. Pastor Rev. Joseph Gu 顾约瑟 of Chongyi Church 崇一堂, widely acclaimed as the first megachurch of China with an estimated weekly attendance of about 10,000, was removed from his post by the Zhejiang TSPM and CCC.3 Although outside observers can only guess as to the reasons for these three events, it seems apparent that there is some connection between them.

Mindful of this, I contend that the differences between house churches and TSPM churches is becoming less and less apparent. As the Hong Kong-based Christian Times notes, the removal of Rev. Gu is perhaps due to his open stance against the church demolitions and cross removals, through his previous role as the head of the Zhejiang CCC. In other words, his present and past positions in the TSPM/CCC have provided him a platform for engaging the provincial government, for better or for worst. Yet contrary to the simple characterisations which were posed in the beginning of this post, Rev. Joseph Gu would be considered by many outside the church to be a stalwart of evangelicalism. In fact, the vast majority of Protestants in China, regardless of affiliation, can be considered embracing the fundamentalist-evangelical tradition. While many chide the theology of the TSPM/CCC based on the ‘liberal’ views of leaders like the late Bishop Ding Guangxun 丁光训 and Chen Zemin 陈泽民, we often forget the ‘evangelical’ teachings of other influential Christian leaders like the late Wang Weifan 汪维藩. Moreover, some of the earliest members of the TSPM from its advent in the 1950s were self-identified fundamentalists, such as Chen Chonggui 陈崇桂 and Jia Yuming 贾玉铭.

A number of observers have suggested that a number of recent events in China (related and unrelated to Christianity) are reminiscent of the strong-arm authoritarianism of the 1950s-60s. Yet the 50s-60s is also when the TSPM was first born, as a mechanism for bringing upon a form of unity to the Protestant church.4 This is even moreso true today in which there are complex challenges to the question of how Christians are to relate to the state,5 which drive many decisions, including registration with the TSPM. For too long has this been an artificial boundary marker of who is a ‘true Christian’ and who is not. All these challenges have the potential of pushing various Christians and Christian groups in China towards greater solidarity with one another and, ultimately, to a more nuanced understanding of the state of Protestantism in China today.

  1. My colleague and good friend Mark McLeister has written a nice piece problematising these two categories, which I agree very much with. 
  2. See my blog post about this when it was first announced. 
  3. You can see some of the news on this in English or Chinese
  4. I have written elsewhere about the challenges of unity and diversity in the Protestant church in China in the last century. See Alexander Chow, ‘Protestant Ecumenism and Theology in China since Edinburgh 1910’. Missiology 42.2 (Apr 2014): 167-180. DOI: 10.1177/0091829613501965 
  5. It would be far too naïve to try to import an American-style understanding of democracy and church-state relations into China, as some have suggested.