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Christian History Home > 2008 > 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.
Ryan Dunch | posted 8/08/2008 07:43AM

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It was fitting, then, that the man who emerged as the key leader of the TSPM/CCC in post-Mao China was a theological educator, Bishop K. H. Ting (Ding Guangxun, born 1915), president of the Jinling Union Seminary in Nanjing. An Anglican bishop with graduate degrees from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York, Ting was a different sort of leader than Y. T. Wu. His intelligence and tact made him able to gain the respect of Communists, Christians of different stripes, and leaders of other religions. Ting's Christian faith was also more spiritual in orientation than Wu's, and he was able to work with evangelicals as well as more liberal elements within the church. Over the 1980s, Ting became increasingly vocal in advocating for the interests of the church and against some of the more clumsy efforts by government and Party authorities to control church affairs—including early efforts to create a registration system for churches. He also came to acknowledge frankly the existence of Protestants in China outside of the TSPM/CCC aegis. Ting retired in 1997 at age 82. Christians both inside and outside of China will debate his legacy for a long time to come, but the importance of his leadership cannot be denied.

Imperfect, vital ministry

Comprising at least 32,000 churches, 16,000 meeting points, and 18 million worshippers (according to 2004 figures), the TSPM/CCC is larger and more diverse than any single denomination in the U.S.A. With only 2,600 ordained ministers (one per twenty congregations), the shortage of trained pastoral leadership remains dire. Yet the growth of the church has been remarkable by any standards, and does not appear to be abating. The Amity Foundation, the social service arm of the TSPM/CCC churches, has published over 50 million Bibles in Chinese since the mid-1980s.

Independence, patriotism, unity, and sustainability persist as perennial issues for the Chinese church. The relationship between the church and China's authoritarian state is likewise a major challenge for church leaders, whether in the open churches or the unregistered ones. So also is discerning the line between unregistered Protestants and the quasi-

Christian new religious movements that have been proliferating in China over the last 20 years. For all these challenges, the churches affiliated with the TSPM/CCC occupy an essential place as the main publicly-visible expression of Protestant Christianity in Chinese society. Like all churches, the TSPM/CCC church reflects the Christian gospel imperfectly, but it is vital for China's Christians and for Christian witness within Chinese society.

Ryan Dunch is associate professor of history at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Religious freedom and Chinese law

The current Chinese Constitution (adopted in 1982) grants "freedom of religious belief," but only specifies that right as belonging to the individual citizen. It refers to, but does not define, "normal religious activities." These two items have been pressure points in religious policy and law ever since. Article 36 reads as follows:

"Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination."

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