A call for the dissolution of China’s Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) by that country’s highest-ranking church official shook Chinese Protestant churches at home and abroad last December, and a more recent announcement of the formation of a United Church of China has further perplexed China watchers.

In a March interview with News Network International, Bishop K. H. Ding (Ding Guang-xun), who heads the TSPM, explained that the planned UCC would be less authoritarian than the TSPM and more service oriented, in the tradition of Presbyterianism or Methodism.

Both proposals have run into some heavy opposition within China. Church observers in Hong Kong report that entrenched local leaders in the TSPM do not want to give up power. And a North American theologian with connections in China says that disagreements on polity, the nature of the sacraments, and church hierarchy may delay the formation of a united Chinese church.

Observers of China’s churches disagree as well on the meaning of Ding’s announcements. Some interpret them as indicators that the government believes the TSPM has failed, or that it has found in the UCC a new way to control the churches. Others feel Ding wants to dissolve the TSPM to counter the influence of atheistic elements in it, or to rid China and himself of an institution feared and despised by Christian citizens and foreigners.

Motives Questioned

Ding is also chairman of both the China Christian Council (CCC) and the China Amity Foundation, as well as a standing committee member of the National People’s Congress (parliament) and its Foreign Affairs Committee. The 74-year-old bishop, a graduate of Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, is positioned at the center of a religious power struggle inside and outside China.

Due to his 35-year involvement in the TSPM, which cooperated with police in persecuting large numbers of uncooperative Christians in the fifties and sixties, most house-church leaders in China refuse to trust Ding. So last September, when Ding wrote to the state Religious Affairs Bureau in defense of house churches, his action triggered intense discussion.

Some observers feel the bishop’s move was designed to curry the favor of international evangelical leaders. Others believe Ding’s aim was to strengthen his political power base inside China by drawing more house churches into the TSPM. A third group believes Ding really wants more religious freedom in China and risks his reputation by publicly criticizing the government’s willingness to place Communist cadres in charge of Christian churches.

Ding stated in his September letter that “the house [church] meetings are great in both size and breadth.” He noted that in one province “several dozens of thousands of believers … have no contact with the TSPM.” He stopped short, however, of saying the nonaligned house-church movement is larger than the TSPM churches. Such an admission, his critics say, would be embarrassing and highlight the failure of the TSPM/CCC to unite China’s fast-growing Protestant churches.

The number of TSPM/CCC-related churches is estimated to be about 7,000, with thousands of meeting points. Ding says there are five million Protestant believers in China.

According to a former missionary to China, however, a careful province-by-province study based on interviews and confirmed reports puts the minimum number of Protestant believers at twenty to thirty million, with most of them served by house churches that choose to function outside the TSPM/CCC.

Communication Link

Reaction to Christian growth by the Chinese government and Communist party (whose membership is estimated at 40 to 50 million) has been mixed. Some leaders say Christians help the nation’s economic progress, while others fear that Christians could become a reactionary core against Communist party aims. In light of such differences, Ding’s role becomes especially important. By speaking openly to party and government leaders about the church’s place in Chinese society, he and the TSPM/CCC have become a permanent and visible channel of communication to Communist leaders.

During an address at last spring’s National People’s Council, the bishop said religion and the state should be separate. He told several thousand political delegates that if the state seeks to control churches through cadres that do not believe in religion, Christians will go underground, where the state will lose contact with them. Since an internal party document has found that most Christians are patriotic, he said, they should have freedom of religion and participate openly in the society.

American church leaders who have visited Ding say those statements and others like them prove how valuable the bishop is, for he can plead religious issues at the highest levels. However, many of China’s house-church leaders still seem unwilling to trust Ding and the TSPM/CCC as their representatives.

Ding and the TSPM/CCC have welcomed many evangelical leaders to China. In return, the bishop and his colleagues are receiving an increasing number of invitations to speak to evangelical groups. As Ding and other TSPM/CCC leaders deal increasingly with churches in the West, the bishop’s role and the future of the church in China will likely continue to be hotly debated.

By William W. Conard.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.