A Chinese church leader tells Americans that his country is allowing increased religious freedom.

As if opening another window to the West, Bishop K. H. Ting Guangxun and several dozen other church leaders in the People’s Republic of China hosted some 50 non-Chinese Christians at a recent five-day symposium on the church in China.

Ting (sometimes spelled Ding) told his visitors—most of them Americans—that Christians are finding increased freedom in the “new China” under the Communist government of Deng Xiaoping. He added that Chinese Christians are helping the country achieve its socialist goals.

The visitors who were asked to speak at the symposium were overwhelmingly from the evangelical-conservative camp, said participant Werner Burklin, executive director of the International Conference on Itinerant Evangelists to be held next year in Amsterdam. Former astronaut James Irwin, of the High Flight Foundation, spoke about his Christian faith; and Sam Wolgemuth, president emeritus of Youth for Christ International, spoke on prayer. United Methodist leader Joseph B. Kennedy, head of the U.S. China Education Foundation and one of the symposium’s organizers, presented a Western view of the Chinese church. Others gave summaries of church growth and missionary work around the world.

Ting, president of the China Christian Council and head of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), China’s officially recognized Protestant body, described life in China under Communist rule. He restricted his comments to the period following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the end of the infamous Cultural Revolution, during which Christians were harshly persecuted. Since 1979, when the government initiated a series of reforms, Ting said, “a growing church [has had] … the freedom to worship, propagate its faith, educate its youth, live in Christian homes, [and] publish journals, books, and Bibles.”

Other Chinese church leaders joined Ting in briefing their guests on conditions in China. One reported that 1.6 million Bibles have been printed in China since 1980. He said the Bibles are distributed through churches and the China Christian Council offices, and are available to all believers, including members of the many so-called house churches that are not aligned with the TSPM. The church leader said that a new agreement with the United Bible Societies soon will see the arrival of new printing equipment and the printing of “several hundred thousand Bibles and 500,000 New Testaments, new hymn-books, new catechisms, a collection of sermons, and books for lay training.”

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The portrayal of church life in modern-day China painted by Ting and his colleagues did not square with reports of religious persecution widely publicized in the West. Some of the symposium participants came with deep suspicions about the nature of the TSPM’s relationship to the Chinese government. Ting acknowledged that violations of believers’ rights may occur in some parts of China. But he insisted that freedom of religion is protected by law, and that the TSPM is not under government control or direction.

He said China’s 1979 constitution, which changed the priorities of the Communist party, deemphasized the propagation of atheism and protected religious freedom for those who choose to believe. Since then, he said, nearly 3,500 churches have reopened, with new churches opening at the rate of at least one a day. He also told of “tens of thousands of meeting points,” or house churches, that are surfacing around the country.

Ting estimated China’s Protestant population at between three and four million, up from 700,000 in 1949. The Catholic population is roughly equal to the Protestant population, he said, with Muslims numbering 20 million and Buddhists 100 million. But he urged caution, saying “no one really knows how many believers there are.” He dismissed as exaggeration such estimates as 40 to 50 million Christians, suggesting that some in the West may be circulating those figures in an attempt to drive a wedge in the public’s mind between the organized church and the house-church movement. Westerners need to know that it is hard to be a Christian in China, Ting said, “and that we emphasize quality, not quantity.”

The Chinese participants said they welcome gifts of Bibles brought in by tourists and other visitors. But they warned that large-scale Bible smuggling can harm the church’s credibility. They also lamented the lack of communication between Christian broadcasters in the West and church leaders in China.

The Communist party’s priority today, commented one TSPM leader, is to build a strong modern society by promoting the “united front,” a cooperative effort involving all groups, secular and religious. The government no longer views the Christian faith as a threat, he said, and it realizes that Christians are honest workers.

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Ting said Chinese Christians fear that their country’s government could again fall into the hands of hard-line ultra-leftists. He indicated that Christians are praying for deliverance from such a calamity. Yet in the repressive days of the Cultural Revolution, he said, “we learned to respect and love the Bible more, because most of them were burned.”

Burklin, one of the Westerners who participated in the symposium, was born in China to missionary parents and lived there for 18 years before Mao’s army forced his family out of the country. He said he was surprised to see the Chinese participants “carrying Bibles, lecturing from Bibles, and reading from Bibles.” He said he sensed “a strong evangelical spirit among all those who attended. They came across as men and women without guile.… My prejudices softened after meeting Bishop Ting. I was overwhelmed by his humility, his spirit, and by his spiritual insight.”

It was Burklin’s fifth visit to China within the past four years. “There are signs of a strong, healthy church in China,” he said. He noted that evangelists were numbered among the pastors, seminary professors, and other Chinese participants at the symposium. He said there was strong support among church leaders for a preaching visit by evangelist Billy Graham. (Ting issued an official invitation to Graham last year. The evangelist is “awaiting the right time and circumstances” to make a definite decision, according to an aide.)

As a result of their experience, Burklin and Wolgemuth drafted an 11-point statement addressed to believers outside China. It calls on Christians to help, not criticize, the church in China, and to undergird it with love, concern, and prayer. It exhorts Christian broadcasters to evaluate their programming in light of the needs in China and to listen to the advice of the country’s Christian leaders. It also urges evangelical leaders to explore ways in which they might enter into “co-laborship” with their Chinese counterparts in such areas as the provision of books for 12 new seminaries; the possible exchange of gospel music teams; and evangelism, without violating the Chinese church’s indigenous principles.

The paper concludes by expressing appreciation for the clear biblical teaching provided by Chinese symposium participants, which included a strong emphasis on the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the need for personal conversion.

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Judge Dismisses A Case Against Pastor Who Refused To Break A Confidence

A Florida judge last month dismissed a case that centered on a minister’s right to maintain the confidentiality of a counseling session.

The dismissal freed Nazarene pastor John Mellish of a jail sentence for contempt of court. The sentence was imposed last year after he refused to testify against a man who was suspected of child abuse (CT, Oct. 5, 1984, p. 80). A 1976 state law required Florida pastors to divulge information about suspected child abuse.

The case stemmed from a counseling session that Mellish had with Earl Sands, a former police officer. Sands was arrested in August 1984 and indicted on charges of sexual battery of a child. Mellish, who was subpoenaed by the state prosecutor’s office, refused to testify against Sands.

In September Mellish received a 60-day jail sentence for contempt of court. The pastor spent a night in jail before he was released on bond.

The American Civil Liberties Union provided an attorney to defend the pastor, and Mellish appealed his contempt conviction to the Fourth District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach, Florida. In the meantime, Sands pleaded guilty to charges of raping a young girl and was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Appellate court judges refused to rule on Mellish’s case because of a law passed earlier this year by the Florida legislature. That law, which takes effect next month, makes clergymen immune from having to report any confession they hear regarding child abuse. The 1976 state law exempted ministers from reporting all suspected crimes except child abuse.

The new law was not made retroactive. However, the appellate court returned Mellish’s case to Broward County Circuit Court Judge Harry Hinckley, asking him to rule on a motion to vacate the contempt sentence. Hinckley said he still felt that Mellish was guilty, but because of the new law and Sands’s guilty plea, he vacated Mellish’s sentence.

JULIA DUIN in Florida

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