This week, China sentenced Early Rain Covenant Church pastor Wang Yi to nine years in prison. This conviction was the latest attack on jiating (house church) congregations and came a year after officials took more than 100 leaders and members of the prominent congregation into custody. The round-up had come on the heels of the government shutting down Beijing Zion Church, one of China’s capital largest house churches, after the congregation refused to install surveillance cameras in its sanctuary. The crackdown on Beijing Zion marked the beginning of a new campaign by the Chinese Communist party-state to eliminate all jiating churches in China. With these high-profile forced closure of several prominent jiating congregations, the Chinese authorities have now begun zeroing in on the lesser known but numerous jiating churches throughout China.

Many Chinese Christians belong to a distinct type of Protestant churches called jiating churches, which are often translated as “house churches,” “family churches,” or “home churches.” Although expedient, these are inadequate translations. The Chinese word jiating could mean family, home, or house, and “house” is the least commonly used meaning, so referring to these churches as “house churches” is a misnomer. The members of such churches often regard their church as jia, which means the family or the home associated with a sense of familial belonging and close-knit fellowship. The physical structure of a house is the least important and may change from time to time. As the meaning of a jiating church is closer to a “congregation” than a church building, I adopt the transliteration and refer to these churches as jiating churches.

Jiating churches have undergone several phases of development, beginning as underground bodies, snowballing from private gatherings in homes to congregations of hundreds, and pivoting from passive avoidance of the authorities to actively seeking registration with the government. With the exception of the Cultural Revolution, when all religious institutions were eradicated, jiating churches have generally stood independent from and parallel to the officially sanctioned “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”

Surviving: the 1950s to 1970s

On August 7, 1955, Rev. Wang Mingdao of the independent Christian Tabernacle church in Beijing was arrested for refusing to join the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” committee. Wang was one of several Christian leaders who opposed the Three-self committee for various reasons, including the political nature of the party-engineered movement and the modernist theology of some Three-Self leaders. “Three-Self” technically refers to self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. But in reality, the movement was the engineered campaign to fold churches under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (The word “patriotic” in it actually meant loyalty to the CCP.) During the initial campaign, the CCP forced every church to cut off organizational and financial ties with foreign missionary organizations and churches in the West. By 1954, the Three-Self committees were officially established at the national level and some local levels.

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Despite tremendous pressure to join the Three-Self committee, Wang defiantly published an essay titled “Obey Man or Obey God?” in a 1954 issue of Spiritual Food Quarterly. He argued that Christians ought to obey institutions only when the powers that be are not opposed to God’s commandments. In his view, the government had no right to interfere in the Christian life of Communion and evangelism. In the following year, Wang published another essay, titled “We are for Faith,” which expressed his firm opposition to modernist liberal theology and charged some Three-Self leaders as nonbelievers. In 1955, Wang and his wife were arrested and charged with “counterrevolution.” The event coincided with many Christians leaving Three-Self churches to hold Sunday worship and prayer meetings at private homes. The jiating church movement was born.

In 1958, about a decade after Chairman Mao Zedong took power, the government disbanded Christian denominations and churches were agglomerated under the Three-Self committee, which assigned pastors and preachers to churches. During the subsequent political campaigns of the Great Leap Forward and the Socialist Education Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many Three-Self churches closed. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, Mao Zedong’s youth mobs called Red Guards ransacked many churches and shuttered every religious site across China. The de facto ban of religion lasted for 13 years until 1979.

Nevertheless, Christianity survived through underground worship and prayers at homes, caves, woods, and crop fields. Such religious gatherings were illegal and the punishments could be severe, including shame parades, labor camps, and prison terms. Surprisingly, recent oral history that I and other researchers have conducted indicate that Christian revivals proliferated even during the heydays of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. By the 1970s, jiating churches began expanding rapidly in the eastern and central provinces of Zhejiang, Henan, and Anhui. By the end of the 1970s, the total number of Protestant Christians reached from 5 to 6 million, according to the estimates of historian Daniel Bays. Mao Zedong’s policy of religious eradication failed.

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Thriving: the 1980s to 1990s

Following the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping rose to paramount power in the CCP and launched a series of social and economic reforms. Beginning in 1979, the party-state allowed some churches, temples, and mosques to reopen to rally citizens toward economic development. In addition to restoring the Three-Self committee, the Christian Council was established to manage internal church affairs and improve public relations with churches abroad. Nevertheless, this council became a de facto wing of the Three-Self committee, and together they became known as lianghui (two councils).

The new policy of limited religious freedom was formalized in the revised constitution and the CCP Document 19 of 1982, which had ambiguous wording on Christian gatherings at homes. While many underground Christians joined the reopened Three-Self churches, many others refused to join due to the political nature of these churches and the apostasy of some Three-Self officials who joined radicals to suppress Christians during the Cultural Revolution. Thereafter, some Three-Self leaders, including its top leader, Bishop Ding Guangxun, attempted to articulate the delicate position of discouraging but nonetheless allowing home gatherings. In the following three decades, the CCP intermittently persuaded, pressured, and repressed jiating churches.

In response, the primary strategy of jiating churches in the 1980s and 1990s was evasion from authorities. During crackdowns, some Christians fled to other counties and continued evangelizing there. Many testimonials and reports have circulated among Chinese Christians and around the world about the hide-and-seek relationship of jiating churches and the police.

Some jiating church networks in rural Henan, Anhui, and Zhejiang became well organized and sent out evangelists to faraway provinces, including the borderlands in southwestern and northeastern China. These jiating church leaders attributed to God miraculous protection and evangelistic harvests, which evoked comparisons to early Christians fleeing Jerusalem for Antioch and beyond.

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The student-led democracy movement and the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989 marked a watershed of spiritual awakening of college-educated Chinese. Thereafter, many Bible studies and fellowship groups emerged from university campuses, converging into the “Christianity fever” and “cultural Christian” phenomena. Meanwhile, rising economic levels also created “boss Christians,” Christian businesspeople who were successful in the emerging market economy.

While some “cultural Christians” and “boss Christians” were baptized at Three-Self churches, many others joined jiating churches. The CCP reported that the number of Three-Self Christians multiplied from 3 million in 1982 to 6.5 million in 1995 to more than 10 million by 1997. Many observers estimate that the number of jiating church Christians probably grew similarly rapidly.

The transition from central planning to a market economy brought sweeping changes in social life. The “people’s communes” in rural areas were dissolved; the “work-units” in urban areas reduced many welfare functions. Christian churches attracted individuals yearning for social support and fellowship, and Christian belief filled the void of meaning and morality amid rapid social transformation. Meanwhile, the CCP made economic development the central task, with control over jiating churches often lapsing.

Diversifying and Contending for Legal Recognition

In the 21st century, along with experiencing rapid growth, jiating churches have diversified in theology and organizational structure. The church networks originating from rural Henan and Anhui have planted churches in urban areas and dispatched missionaries to south, central, and western Asia. Wenzhou’s businesspeople became active domestically and abroad, and the Christians among them established churches wherever they went.

Meanwhile, Pentecostal and charismatic churches organized numerous revivals across China. Reformed theology became popular among young professionals with higher economic and cultural capital. Accordingly, some new urban jiating churches adjusted their strategy from eschewing the authorities to negotiating with the state for gaining legal status.

In 2005, China’s State Council announced the Regulations of Religious Affairs, which hinted at the possibility of permitting jiating churches to register with the government without joining the Three-Self committee. For registration, the regulation only required a fixed meeting place, membership, and leadership. In response, some jiating churches made organizational adjustments and applied for registration.

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The most prominent case of a church seeking registration was Beijing Shouwang Church. In Beijing’s university district of Haidian, about a dozen Bible study groups merged to form a congregation. This congregation rented a hall in an office building as a sanctuary, passed a church constitution, and installed elders and a pastor to formally establish the Beijing Shouwang Church. The church then submitted its application for registration to the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) of Haidian.

The Haidian RAB required that the church join the Three-Self committee or have its pastor certified by it. The church petitioned the RAB at the municipal level, arguing that joining the Three-Self committee or getting certified by it was not a requirement in the Regulations of Religious Affairs. The Beijing RAB, however, affirmed the Haidian RAB’s decision against the church.

The church then submitted a petition to the State Administration of Religious Affairs. The church insisted that it would not join the Three-Self committee because of its political nature, citing Wang’s 1955 article “We are for Faith.” In response, the authorities raided the sanctuary and ordered the church to disband. The government evicted the church from its rented hall multiple times and prevented the church from entering its newly purchased property. Without a building place, the church called its members to gather outdoors in a plaza for Sunday worship service. However, police sealed off the plaza on Sundays. Its pastor, Jin Tianming, has been under de facto house arrest since 2011.

In the 2010s, Early Rain Reformed Presbyterian Church in Sichuan province became a pioneer in the jiating church movement. The congregation moved into a sanctuary it purchased; established a seminary, a day school, and a college; and developed the West China Presbytery with other jiating churches in the city of Chengdu. The church’s ministries included a campaign to oppose forced abortion and a show of support for families of political prisoners. In December 2018, authorities closed down the church and detained Pastor Wang Yi, and other leaders, accusing him of inciting subversion, similar to the crime of counterrevolution for which Pastor Wang Mingdao was arrested in 1955. After being held in secret detention for months, this week, Wang received a nine-year sentence for “inciting to subvert state power” and “illegal business operations,” the longest prison term issued against a house a church pastor in a decade, according to World magazine’s China reporter, June Cheng. Wang was also fined and had his personal assets seized. While the pastor has stated that he denies whatever charges the government has against him, he said he will serve his time.

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What s next?

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, militant atheism has prevailed as national policy. Following the pronouncement of the revised Regulations of Religious Affairs in 2018, the party-state has implemented the fiercest campaign against jiating churches since the 1980s. In the past year, Chinese authorities have shut down well-known jiating churches, including Rongguili Church in Guangzhou, Xunsiding Church in Xiamen, and some in other large cities.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of jiating churches of various sizes persist throughout China, and most have been firm in rejecting the Three-Self committee. While large congregations have had to break into smaller groups for worship and prayer meetings, many jiating churches continue to baptize new members and plan for overseas missions. In fact, as historians and sociologists of religion know well, when it comes to bringing in new converts, the evangelistic zeal of a small-group fellowship is often more effective than large church gatherings. Moreover, the current campaign may keep jiating churches small in size, but these campaigns usually wane after a while. Indeed, some jiating church leaders have been making preparations for the turnaround of the policy and the bouncing back of jiating churches in the near future.

Fenggang Yang is the director of Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University and the founding editor of the Review of Religion and Chinese Society.