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The state of religion in China

For faith to flourish, churches must be free from state coercion


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The state of religion in China
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A new Pew Research Center study provides an overview of the state of religious belief and practice in China. Many accounts have claimed that there is a boom in Christianity in China, but is this true? Most of the empirical survey data focuses on “formal affiliation” and “worship attendance,” which is a serious practical limit. And according to such measures, the Pew report “finds no empirical survey evidence that China has experienced a surge in religion since 2010—but also cannot firmly rule it out, given the many sources of uncertainty.”

Much of that uncertainty has to do with more informal religious practices, including the Chinese “house church” movement. While there are some Christian denominations that are recognized and licensed by the Chinese government, there are many more unregistered groups that do not have a separate building for worship and that operate in a gray area in the law. There is wide variety in the beliefs, practices, and makeup of these churches.

The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper distinguished between the church as an “institute” and as an “organism.” The institutional church involves formal characteristics like confessions, organization, policies, and practices, including sacraments, corporate worship, and programs. The organic church, on the other hand, has to do with the spiritually empowered identity of Christians as members of the body of Christ, which includes elements of formal worship in institutional settings, but also involves everyday practices of piety and discipleship.

One way to understand the “house” or “family church” movement in China is as a reaction against overweening state authority, which burdens institutional expressions of the church. More informal or unregistered religious activities therefore tend to emphasize more organic, spontaneous, or less structured expressions of faith.

This does not mean that house church worship is not institutionalized in some way. Rather, it means that for many Chinese Christians the feasible options for authentic Christian expression do not include formal recognition or acknowledgement by the government. What would prevent Christians from seeking such institutional expression of their churches? Much of it has to do with explicit government policy that seeks to neutralize the authentic expression of religious faith.

When talking about our earthly relationships, Jesus taught that our spiritual connections to God are more significant than ties of kinship or political citizenship.

For at least the past decade, the policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been less focused on the direct persecution of Christianity and directed instead toward encouraging a domesticated version of the faith. As one Chinese pastor said, reciting an article of this government-approved orthodoxy: “We have to remember first of all we are a citizen of this country. And we are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That comes second.”

Recent reports even indicate that the CCP is pursuing a policy to rewrite the Bible. If formally organizing as a Christian church in China requires someone to invert (or blatantly rewrite) Jesus’ teaching about our citizenship in heaven relative to our earthly identities, then it is easy to see why many faithful Christians would choose to be part of underground or unregistered church movements.

When talking about our earthly relationships, Jesus taught that our spiritual connections to God are more significant than ties of kinship or political citizenship. Kuyper described our earthly and heavenly citizenship as a kind of “twofold fatherland” or homeland. Thus, writes Kuyper, “Despite the treasure of human nobility that the Lord God gave us in our earthly fatherland, his hand contained yet more grace. He had prepared for us a still better fatherland. Our society in our fatherland here below, considering even its most beautiful feature and in its most glorious period is still far from approaching that of Paradise. Yet God had destined us for more than a paradise in our creation. In due course we shall die and our fatherland will take us to its bosom and our dust will be mingled with its soil. Then we still exist and enter the gate of eternity and continue to call with serious longing for another fatherland when this fatherland falls away.”

As long as the Chinese government continues its policies that coerce and mislead believers into subsuming their religious identities under idolatry of party ideology or national identity, Christians will continue to suffer for remaining true to their faith. State coercion may inhibit Christians’ ability to formally institutionalize as churches, but it will not ultimately be able to prevent the growth of the Christian faith, either in the number or the commitment of believers. And we might hope for such growth in China, even if it cannot be captured or measured by survey instruments.

What Jesus said to his earliest disciples might also be said of Chinese Christians in these latter days: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).


Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.


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