As the 2008 Beijing Olympics are underway, I have been reflecting on some of the legal aspects of practicing Christianity in China, specifically as such practice applies to Chinese citizens. I suspect that most American Christians are generally unaware of how the legal system works in China in relation to religious practice.
In addition, as the Olympics unfold there will be increased media attention focused on China and, whenever there is increased media attention on a subject, there is often an increase in confusion. This occurs not out of less than savory motives, but instead, occurs because it is impossible to give the full perspective on an issue in the space of a few minutes or worse still, in a sound bite.
As some readers know, I spent close to six years living and working in China. As what has come to be called a “tent maker” missionary, I worked as a university professor, teaching advanced courses to English and Journalism majors. As I have said before, this was perhaps the most rewarding experience I have ever had, both professionally and spiritually. I became very close with a number of Chinese Christians and, in so doing, gained much perspective on the reality of what it means to worship Christ in China today.
Before I went to China, I had a long-standing love affair with all things Chinese. I was a serious student of Chinese history, culture, religion, and philosophy. My time there only deepened the affection I felt for this magnificent land and its even more magnificent people. I especially came to honor and esteem Chinese Christians who are forced to go about pursuing their love for Christ in ways that we cannot even imagine. Observing, developing friendships, and just associating with these folks taught me more than I can ever know.
Living and working in China, I also discovered that we Americans have a somewhat distorted view of Chinese society in general and Chinese Christianity in particular. This is not to say that everything we see, hear, and assume about China and its Church is incorrect. It is just to assert that there are some areas where, due to a lack of contact and familiarity, we have come to several erroneous conclusions.
As a very brief backdrop to what follows, let me share a few things that will help you understand the contents of this article. First of all, Christianity in China is growing at a pace too rapid to quantify. All attempts at discerning the actual number of professing and practicing Christians in China is wrought with difficulty. Official figures cannot be trusted due to questionable and largely inaccurate methods of data collection, along with the fact that the local governments often report either inflated or otherwise faulty figures in order to meet the needs of its own agenda. Also, the membership in the massive house church movement, which by the way is where the tidal wave of expansion is taking place, is not available. In a country where religious persecution can be a definite reality, keeping membership rolls is asking for trouble.
Explaining the divisions of Christianity is also somewhat difficult, but I generally use the following way of breaking things down into a manageable perspective. Basically, there are three types of religious entities found in China. First, there is the government sanctioned church, known as the Three Self Patriotic Movement. This is the official church and, increasingly, these congregations are meeting in church buildings, not wholly unlike their counterparts in our country. The distinguishing feature of the Three Self Church is the fact that it is a legal entity and, although it operates under close state scrutiny and restrictive laws, members rarely are harassed for worshipping openly unless they do something that violates one of the many laws governing church operations and practices.
I am in daily prayer for the Chinese Church in all its forms and I hope that, with the Lord’s guidance and blessing, I can eventually turn some of the material I will be sharing in this series of articles into a book that delves into the subject at a greater depth. Most of the research and first draft has already been completed. Also, here at LifeBrook my wife, myself, and a Chinese couple we are dear friends have put together a ministry we call ChinaLight International, which is commissioned with the goal of increasing contact, understanding, and cooperation between Christians in China and America. This undertaking, however, is wrought with difficulties in terms of laws in both countries, visa issues, and international politics.
Still, we are assured that we can, with the Lord’s help and benediction, turn these stumbling blocks into stepping stones. We humbly and earnestly ask for your prayers for this vital endeavor.
© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved