Fiercely independent house churches and their government-controlled counterparts eye each other with suspicion. Might God be able to use them both?

Through 1950, David Adeney lived in China for a total of 12 years. Since 1978, he has returned to China ten times. His most recent visit was in May 1990.

In this article, Adeney reports on the two major types of Protestant churches in China: the house churches and those affiliated with the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM).

Begun after China’s Communist Revolution, the TSPM is a nationalist, government-recognized Christian organization. It gets its name from its emphasisself-government, self-support, and self-propagation. Three Self churches are stronger in urban areas, are government-regulated, and are usually closed to missionary speakers. House churches, on the other hand, flourish in more remote areas (though many are in cities). They are typically based in homes and are comparatively free of government control.

Visitors to Chinese cities typically see large churches that are full and growing. Shanghai is officially reported to have 23 churches and 33 meeting points, with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Christians—and this figure probably only accounts for baptized Christians. A government magazine reported that 20,000 had been baptized in the city in the space of three years.

In churches connected with the Shanghai lianghui (the body composed of the Three Self Committee and the China Christian Council that oversees church activity), the average attendance is 4,000 people. According to the May–June 1990 issue of Bridge magazine, the city’s official projected Christian growth rate is 4,000 per year.

An unknown number of Chinese also attend smaller meetings in house churches. In 1990, one house-church leader told me that there might be as many as a thousand of these meetings in Shanghai.

Many city churches have several different groups meeting on their premises. In Shanghai, the Little Flock and the True Jesus Church have separate Bible, prayer, and youth meetings but use the same church buildings. In May 1990, I visited a church in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian, where the True Jesus Church and the Seventh-day Adventists had separate meetings.

Following the Revolution, the Chinese government abolished Sunday school in an effort to keep young people from attending church. Gradually, it has relaxed this policy.

Still, Sunday schools face challenges. Children sometimes get into trouble in government schools if they talk about what they learn in Sunday schools. And many churches greatly need curricular materials and trained teachers.

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I attended one youth meeting where the speakers made a strong appeal for deeper dedication. Of the several hundred young people in attendance, a large number indicated that they were praying and reading the Bible every day. And about 100 stayed after the meeting for a baptism class, while others—some of whom were non-Christians—came to ask us questions.

Churches In A “Fix”

The Chinese government cannot tolerate any organization not fully under its control. As a result, church unity in China takes on an unusual meaning: the lianghui and local Religious Affairs Bureau organize and control all Christian activities. To do this they emphasize the “Three Fixes”: fixing the meeting place, the evangelists, and the area in which evangelism may take place.

The government opposes independent traveling evangelists because it cannot monitor what they say. Recently a friend of mine was invited to preach in churches in another city. After one or two well-attended meetings, the religious authorities canceled the meetings. They told the teacher to confine his activities to his own city.

The government also limits the number of baptisms. In one district of Shanghai, only those who have attended services for three consecutive years may enroll in the catechism class. Then, only after passing an examination can they be baptized. In one church, over a thousand per year desired to be baptized, but only about 400 actually received the rite in any given year.

Many city churchgoers disagree with the government’s religious policy. Occasionally this disagreement surfaces even in official meetings. The May–June 1990 issue of Bridge magazine tells of the following exchange during a church workers’ monthly meeting in Xiamen, Fujian:

After the Scripture reading, someone stood up and questioned the Three Fixes policy. Another speaker rejected the question, saying it was the policy of the Three Self and that it should not be discussed. Immediately, another person objected to this statement. He based his objection on both the Lord’s command in Acts 1:8 to be Christ’s witnesses and on the words of the apostles: “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). A heated debate ensued, most of those present opposing the Three Fixes.

The group also discussed home meetings in Xiamen—which are reportedly attended by as many as one-third of the city’s Christians. Most of those present opposed the Three Self’s “administrative control” policy. Someone noted that even Bishop Ding, head of the TSPM, had spoken against the persecution of the house churches. Ding argued that most house-church members were doing nothing illegal, and he asked: If they did not want to join the Three Self, why should they be under its leadership?

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Government control has penetrated church leadership with its own agents and through senior pastors who are also leaders in the TSPM. Many of them seem to be more political than spiritual. Bishop Ding himself has said, “Our actual work team is very weak, with very few people, and among them a considerable number are without Christian upbringing, even without Christian faith. I doubt therefore their ability to unite Christians.”

Indeed, the Three Self and government religious organizations restrict the church. Some leaders have not been true to the Word of God and have not been sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Instead, they have dampened some people’s spirits and led others to compromise their beliefs.

Nevertheless, many church workers who recognize these truths are still convinced God has called them to minister to sheep who are without a shepherd—and in China’s cities, these are many.

Indeed, most churchgoers are simple Christians and inquirers who desperately need Bible teaching. And the “open” Three Self churches often represent the only opportunity for these people to hear the gospel since most of the house groups are small and hidden—particularly in large cities where government control is strong.

Many believers in Three Self churches give of themselves sacrificially and strive to be true to their calling. They deserve our prayers.

House Churches In The City

Because persecution is often administered through the TSPM, most of the house churches strongly oppose any links to its churches. Many meet secretly. A brother told me that in one city, his family and three others gather each Sunday, meeting in a different home each week. In some cases, house churchgoers will visit the large, open churches in order to reach earnest seekers, particularly students.

Since the 1989 massacre at Tianenmen Square, large numbers of students have become disillusioned with ideologies of the past. Communism is all but bankrupt, and the Confucian teaching that the heart of man is basically good seems unrealistic. Like never before, students are open to Christ.

But some students are reluctant to attend the large churches either because of government informers or because the level of spiritual teaching in the church is often very low.

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Other churches openly oppose TSPM affiliation. One is Pastor Lin Xianggao’s church in the city of Guangzhou, which remains completely free from Three Self control. In spite of a temporary closing and all kinds of threats, Pastor Lin has resolutely refused to join the TSPM.

In other places, some house churches have arranged with the Religious Affairs Bureau to accept registration but remain free from control by the TSPM—though others in the same city reject even this as compromise.

Although the TSPM has made possible the printing of Bibles, it often hinders evangelism. But the Three Self is not in itself a church. It is an organization that exercises control over the church. The church, on the other hand, is composed of those who confess Jesus as Lord, regardless of where they meet. Where a group of believers meets in prayer, sincerely seeking to learn from the Scriptures, the Lord is in their midst. And in that place is a part of the body of Christ.

The Country Churches

Seventy-five percent of China’s population live in rural areas. It is there that the Holy Spirit has been at work in house churches to bring about the church’s greatest numerical growth.

Even during the Cultural Revolution, a period of intense persecution, small groups of Christians met in remote areas. When the government changed its policies and granted limited religious freedom, these groups began to grow and spread rapidly.

For several years, this growth continued without much government interference. During the early eighties, the Three Self and the China Christian Council were practically unknown in the rural areas. They were setting up their organizations in the cities and did not have the resources to reach the countryside. If they had, they would have met resistance. Older country Christians who had suffered after the 1949 Revolution had bitter memories of the Three Self; they feared the movement would destroy their vital Christian witness.

In many rural areas, the majority of Christians remains completely independent. The province of Henan has the largest number of independent house-church networks; a government report stated that there were 2,200 unregistered house churches there. Luoyang and its surrounding counties in western Henan may have as many as 500,000 Christians, only a small percentage of whom are officially registered. In some of the almost completely Christian villages, most of the homes even have Scripture verses pasted on their doorposts and lintels.

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Official estimates do not always reflect the church’s actual numbers, explains Tony Lambert in his book The Resurrection of the Chinese Church. Vice-premier Wang Zhen recently referred to the great increase in the number of rural Christians in Henan: from 400,000 to one million in the last few years. House-church Christians, however, would place the figure somewhere in the millions. The Religious Affairs Bureau registered only 50,000 baptized Christians for one county of Lushan (they originally wanted to register only 27,000). In 1987 local Christians claimed there were actually 100,000.

The church has grown primarily because families have spread the gospel. A friend in Henan said to me: “We do not speak of ‘where two or three are gathered in my name,’ but of two or three families. We seek to place one new family with two or three others that have longer experience in the Christian life.”

Unlike the large city churches with their robed choirs and Western-style services, the rural churches use indigenous forms of worship, often composing their own hymns and singing the words of Scripture to Chinese tunes.

Ironically, the house churches are more “Three Self” than the actual Three Self churches. While Three Self church finances are supervised by the Religious Affairs Bureau, the house churches are completely self-supporting. They are also self-propagating, sending out their own young people to evangelize.

Countryside Government Control

One Communist document bitterly criticized traveling evangelists, reports News Network International (NNI). According to the document, the great increase in the number of Protestants in the countryside is largely due to the activities of self-appointed evangelists who “trick the masses into joining their group, saying that believing in the religion can heal sickness.”

The lianghui has passed strict regulations in two different provinces. They emphasize “practicing the ‘Three Fixes,’ appointing three to five people in each church who will support the TSPM and work with the local government religious organization.” They also stipulate that no “evangelist is allowed to work without being appointed by the local lianghui.” Also, where no officially appointed evangelist is present, the congregation may sing, pray, and read the Bible—but they can’t have preaching. No meetings can be held except those authorized by the lianghui and the local authorities. And no meeting or sermon “should run counter to” Communist leadership or teaching. Nor can they “interfere in politics, education, or marriage.”

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Other activities such as healing, exorcising, and distributing foreign religious books, tracts, or tapes are also forbidden. Christians are also urged to “consciously refuse to tune in to the religious broadcast from abroad or from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan,” reports Bridge magazine. House church Christians believe the main purpose of these regulations is to restrict their freedom to preach. Not surprisingly,they are not prepared to submit.

The level of persecution varies from province to province. Some churches have loose connections with the Three Self and are able to maintain some independence. In other areas, there are so many Christians, and local officials are so friendly, that they make little effort to enforce regulations.

Heretical Teaching?

There still exists much theological confusion in many rural churches. Many groups emphasizing different teachings—some of which are heretical—have spread throughout the countryside.

In some cases, extreme teachings cause divisions; in other instances, false prophets have led untaught Christians to dishonor the Lord. Many “prophets” have foretold the date of the Lord’s return and urged Christians to give up all work and go preach the gospel. Others have taught that a person is not saved until he or she has heard voices or seen a dove. A member of one cult even felt compelled to sacrifice his son. Fortunately, he did not.

Undoubtedly the countryside’s greatest need is for new-believer training. There are large numbers of young people among the country Christians, but many of them have little education, and they can easily be led astray. The lianghui exacerbates the problem by trying to stop the desperately needed supplies of Bibles and other Christian literature from reaching the Christians. Training sessions often must be held secretly to avoid interference by the authorities.

To be certain, the Chinese church faces many challenges. Both in the cities and in the countryside, Christians struggle with persecution, compromise, divisions, and harmful doctrine. Nevertheless, God is at work in and through believers on both fronts. He plants his word in their hearts, and his Spirit brings it to fruition as he builds his church. And that church will be a powerful force in the twenty-first century.

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