After a 20-year lapse, China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement held its third National Christian Congress. The 176 representatives from 25 of China’s 29 administrative districts who gathered in Nanjing (Nanking) during October were all Christians. But was their movement predominantly a religious expression or was it basically a political apparatus?

Observers said they could discern both elements from reports of the congress issued by the New China News Agency. On one hand, the congress “proclaimed its support for the process of modernization and the efforts to bring Taiwan back into union with the mother country. The delegates affirmed their support for the struggle for world peace and opposition to hegemony and aggression.” On the other hand, the congress pledged to continue “to make all efforts in defending the religious freedom of the public,” and to “help the government to fully implement its policy of religious freedom.”

The Three-Self Movement (for self-government, self-support, and self-propagation) was organized in 1951 to serve as a liaison between the government’s Bureau of Religious Affairs and the Protestant churches. All of China’s non-Roman Catholic denominations were forced to unite into the movement during the 1950s, and it functioned as the national church structure for about 15 years. During the mid-1960s, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, the movement was deactivated. Many of its leaders and functionaries were humiliated and even imprisoned.

But as the government’s policies on religion have changed in the past two years, the movement has reemerged. The Chinese authorities, recognizing that religious believers had been alienated by a suppressive policy, decided to bring them back into the mainstream of ...

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