Christian History Home > Issue 98 > Worshiping Under the Communist Eye
Worshiping Under the Communist Eye
The birth of an "official" Chinese church helped Christianity thrive in public under political constraints.
Open religious life of all sorts was suppressed entirely during those 10 years, all churches were closed, and church leaders were attacked, criticized, and sent to the countryside to reform themselves through productive labor. The long history of Christianity in China had ended in the final extinction of the church, it seemed.
A new national church
After Chairman Mao's death in 1976, the Communist Party retreated from Mao's radical vision of complete socialist purity and embarked on a course of economic reforms and limited political liberalization. Toleration for religious worship was reinstated from 1978, in order to accommodate the small remnant of elderly religious believers that Communist Party leaders thought remained. That expectation was soon confounded as religious activities of all sorts gathered influence and adherents, including among the young. Thirty years later, the Chinese government continues to struggle with how to manage this new reality.
Among Protestant Christians, the change in policy was both a source of rejoicing and an opportunity to move forward more positively than had been the case before 1966. Party policy still insisted that Protestants must be loyal to the Communist state and independent of foreign control and funding. It also insisted that all church affairs should be supervised by a nationwide "patriotic religious organization" answerable to the Party. For many Protestants, however, the TSPM savored of political extremism due to the role it had played in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, it had always been an association of individuals rather than churches. Many of the more radical leaders of that period had passed from the scene (Y. T. Wu died in late 1979). Accordingly, in 1980 the new Protestant leadership founded the China Christian Council to serve as the national ecclesiastical expression of the Protestant churches in China. In practice, the two organizations have overlapped considerably in personnel and responsibilities, and they are often referred to together as the TSPM/CCC. Local differences in worship style persisted, but denominational structures were not restored, and the Chinese church became officially "post-denominational."
The new church leaders faced immense challenges. They had to locate the deeds of church properties that had been expropriated during the Cultural Revolution and persuade the local authorities to return these premises to the Protestants for worship. They had to restore regular worship across China's vast territory, both in areas where the officials were relatively cooperative and in the many regions where Party leaders still thought of religious believers as retrograde blemishes on socialist society. They had to persuade the people of a poor country to begin financially supporting church work again. They had to renew contacts between the Chinese churches and Christians abroad, yet without compromising the independence of the Chinese church. Most pressing of all, they had to train a new generation of Christian workers after 30 years of limited and then zero theological education.
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