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Continue the Further Contextualization of Christianity in China and enhance the Church’s Adaptation to Socialist Society

This year (2020) marks the 70th anniversary of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the 40th anniversary of the founding of the China Christian Council. For Chinese Christianity, these two events are of great significance as they are closely related to two historic changes in our country.

The launch of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in 1950, especially the publication of the Christian Manifeso, clearly expressed the aspirations of the vast number of Chinese Christian pastors and believers to support the socialist new China led by the Chinese Communist Party, by completely cutting off all ties with imperialism, and building Chinese Christianity according to the Three-Self Principle. This was an important moment of historical change in China. The key choice made by the Chinese Church determined the way forward and influenced the trajectory of Chinese Christianity.

After the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Chinese Christians, together with the broad masses of the people, experienced a rebirth from the “Cultural Revolution” that ushered in the spring of reform and opening up. With the implementation of the policy of freedom of religious belief, churches began to gradually recover. In October 1980, the third National Chinese Christian Conference was held. This was the first national Chinese Christian conference to be held after the reform and opening up. Confronted with many challenges, the conference first fully affirmed the great achievements made by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and then proposed that we should continue to adhere to the Three-Self Principles and make the Chinese Church a well-governed, well-supported, and well-propagated church. At the meeting, it was decided to establish a national organization for Christian affairs, the China Christian Council. At the meeting, Bishop K.H.Ting said:

“After research and discussion, we can see clearly that the national Three-Self organization and the national organization for church affairs are both organizations with Christians as the main body. One is a people’s group composed of Chinese Christians as the people, and the other is a faith group composed of Chinese Christians as believers. If Sanzi (Three-Self) is a patriotic movement of Chinese Christians, then this church affairs organization will represent a patriotic movement of Chinese Christians. Both are patriotic and religious groups.”

He added: “The national church affairs organization and the national three-self patriotic organization are parallel, each with its own emphasis. They are like two hands on one body. They are closely cooperative, not one leading the other. With these two organizations, our unity will be even greater.”

Since then, the China Christian Council has been established, which also marks the official formation of the structural pattern of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches (TSPM) and China Christian Council (CCC). In the following 40 years, Chinese Christianity has experienced a wealth of grace from God, including the earth-shaking changes brought by the reform and opening up of Chinese society, and the healthy development of Chinese Christianity in the past 40 years.

After the “Cultural Revolution”, most church reunions occurred around 1980, with slight variations in different parts of China. The majority of Christians welcomed the reform and opening up with the same joy as the people of the whole country. We deeply realize that “He will not break a bruised reed, or quench a smoldering wick,” (Matthew 12:20). At the time, although many church pastors and believers had suffered in the “Cultural Revolution”, their patriotism and love of the Church had not changed. Church restoration was faced with numerous difficulties, such as the lack of meeting places and Bibles, the shortage of preachers, and the insufficiency of much needed material support in many churches. However, they all enthusiastically agreed to propagate the gospel. While praying devoutly to God, they also actively sought support and help from the religious departments of the government.

Against the historical backdrop of reform and opening up, China’s subsequent social and economic development and its implementation of the policy of freedom of religious belief provided the material foundation and policy support for the healthy development of Christianity in China. Over the past 40 years, Chinese Christianity has undergone many gratifying changes from recovery to growth and maturity.

Reform and opening up brought vitality to Chinese churches

Over the past 40 years, Chinese Christianity has not only made great advances in the number of churches, meeting places, baptized believers, pastoral personnel and theological colleges, but has also made great progress in many other aspects.

In terms of theological education, since the restoration of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary in 1981 the country has seen the establishment of 22 theological seminaries with about 1,200 theological students graduating every year. In addition, training courses and Bible classes organized by churches throughout the country have made theological education and Bible studies popular in Chinese churches. In recent years, in a move to promote its “talent training plan” and raise the level of theological education, TSPM&CCC has begun the offering of doctoral programs in Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. Simultaneous efforts have been made to undertake curriculum development, the appraisal of teachers’ professional qualifications and the compilation of standard teaching materials, so as to improve the quality of theological education and cultivate more outstanding talents for the Chinese Church.

Over the past four decades, the number of churches, meeting points and preachers have increased to a noticeable extent, but the greater change has taken place in the levels of church management and institutional improvement. In the past, many colleagues literally believed that the church was God’s home, left to be governed by God himself. Thus, rules and regulations were regarded as “human tools” which should not be employed, leaving the institutional management of the church in a state of chaos. As the church developed, we gradually realized that if the Church wants to be well-governed, it also needs to establish rules and regulations as well as to embrace rule of law and democratic management.

In 1991, the CCC&TSPM passed the Trial Rules and Regulations of Churches in Various Parts of China, and in 1996, The Church Order of the Chinese Protestant Church was approved. It was revised at the Standing Committee meeting before the Eighth National Christian Conference in 2008. Another major revision was subsequently made in 2018. These changes indicate the progress that has been made in the institutional construction and development of Chinese Christianity.

China’s reform and opening-up has made its overseas contacts and exchanges more frequent and closer, creating conditions for more exchanges with the ecumenical movement. In February 1991, the China Christian Council, representing the Chinese Christian Church, became a full member of the World Council of Churches. After the reform and opening-up, Chinese clergy have enjoyed more opportunities to visit overseas and to attend various conferences. At the same time, Chinese churches have often invited and received overseas church groups and individuals for visits and exchanges in China. Well-known foreign scholars have been frequently invited to give lectures in China. Some clergy have had the opportunity to study in theological colleges abroad, leading to increased knowledge and broader horizons. They project the image and spiritual outlook of a new generation of Chinese clergy, all of which have been positive for theological education and the research of Chinese Christianity. These exchanges enable us to keep abreast of the changes and developments in Christianity overseas. They also enable Christians overseas to understand the development of Chinese churches and China’s policy of freedom of religious belief, enhance mutual friendships and eliminate misunderstandings, so that the Chinese Church in the post-denominational period has witnessed the grace of the Lord within the ecumenical churches, and shared well the story of the Chinese Church.

Over the past four decades, Chinese Christianity and Chinese society have become more closely integrated. On the one hand, with the deepening of reform and opening up and overseas exchanges, Chinese people’s acceptance of Christianity has grown, and religious belief is no longer simply regarded as superstition and ignorance in people’s minds. In particular, Chinese Christianity has always adhered to the principle of loving Church and country, insisting on running Chinese churches independently according to the Three-Self principles. These efforts have gradually changed people’s view that Christianity is a “foreign religion” and a part of imperialist aggression against China. On the other hand, since the reform and opening up, the theological seminary has studied “truth, goodness and beauty” outside the church, and the churches have discussed “being a Christian and a good citizen” and “national law and canon” and other related issues, all of which have helped pastors and believers gradually change the perceptions deeply held in the past, on the division between the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the worldly. This has subsequently led the Chinese Church to progress from only focusing on evangelism to stressing both evangelism and testimonies, as well as glorifying God and benefiting people, being light and salt. With the emphasis on the social responsibilities of Christians, the Chinese Christian Church has begun to participate, as much as possible, in social charity. In accordance with their own conditions, local churches have made attempts and contributions towards caring for the elderly, helping the disabled, supporting the poor, and assisting with medical care. The social service departments of CCC&TSPM have participated in HIV-AIDS prevention, poverty alleviation, drought relief and other social service projects in different regions, and achieved good results. It is a ministry that is based on the Bible, the tradition of the church and the needs of society. In early 2012, six ministries and commissions of the central government jointly issued the Opinions on Encouraging and Regulating Religious Circles to Engage in Public Welfare and Charity Activities, which provided policy guidance for religions to engage in public welfare and charity activities. In China’s fight against Covid-19 this year, the churches in China actively donated money and material worth more than 200 million yuan. These changes have not only helped the further integration of Christianity into Chinese society, but also for it to become a positive and progressive force in Chinese society.

Chinese Christianity: a Uniting Church with subjective consciousness

Historically, the last four decades have been the “golden era” in the development of Chinese Christianity. Chinese Christianity has made great progress in terms of theological education, international exchanges, church and organizational construction, social services, Bible publishing and many other aspects. But one of the most fundamental changes that has taken place is that under the banner of loving the country and the Church, Chinese Christianity has gradually formed a relatively integral and mature selfhood.

From the perspective of modern history and Christianity’s introduction to China, we can see that Christian churches in old China were established under the umbrella of unequal treaties, with different missionary organizations coming from different countries establishing their own churches, with denominational backgrounds, in China. At the time, as the result of having many denominations in China, there was no independent Chinese Church. People did not have an overall concept of Chinese Christianity, and they thus could not have the subjective consciousness of the Chinese Church. The launch of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the announcement of the Christian Manifesto expressed the will of Chinese Christians to support the new China led by the Chinese Communist Party, to cut off their ties with imperialism, eliminate its influence and establish an autonomous, self-supporting and indigenous Chinese Church. This was the political declaration of Chinese Christians to “stand up,” together with all the Chinese people. It was the first time that Chinese people with Christian faith expressed their wishes on behalf of the group. Through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and under the banner of loving country and loving Church, Chinese Christians, for the first time, had their own correct political stance, and thus formed an integral body.

The China Christian Council was subsequently established, and Chinese Christianity continued to develop in adherence to the Three-Self Principles. At the “Ji’nan Conference” in 1998, Bishop K. H. Ting proposed that China’s Christianity should undertake the construction of theological thought. Over the past 20 years, around the theme of theological thought construction, churches around the world have actively carried out exchanges, studies and theoretical discussions. In this process, we have both agreements and disagreements in our theological thought, but the greater achievement is that Chinese Christianity has further reached a consensus on the basic theological thought. At the National Conference for Religions, President Xi Jinping put forward the idea that “China’s religions should adhere to the direction of further contextualization.” This is not only the expectation and demand of the Party and government for religions, but also represents the need for the further development of Chinese Christianity itself. In 2018, CCC&TSPM put forth the Five-year Work Plan for Promoting the Further Contextulization of Chinese Christianity (2018-2022), which is of great significance to theoretical research and practical exploration of the further contextualization of Christianity in the whole country. Co-workers of the regional CC&TSPMs and believers throughout the country actively responded. It has become the direction and goal of local churches to endeavor to explore and build a Chinese Christianity adapted to socialist society. A common political stance and shared direction has helped in the development of a unified church both structurally and ideologically.

The TSPM unites all Chinese Christians under the banner of love for country and love for Church, providing them with a shared political attitude and stance. Since the establishment of the China Christian Council forty years ago, it has been the consensus of Chinese Christians to run the church well according to the Three-Self Principle and strive to build a contextualized Christian Church adapted to socialist society. Through organizational reconstruction, pastoral exchanges, theoretical discussions and other church activities, the CCC&TSPM has united churches and Christians all over the country, on the basis of which they have formed the main body of the Chinese Christian Church with a subjective consciousness of Chinese Christianity. This unified faith group has both a clear political position and distinctive ecclesiastical characteristics; it has both direction in its efforts and a subjective consciousness. Such a Chinese Christian Church has been formed against the historical backdrop of new China led by the Chinese Communist Party; it is the fruit of reform and opening up in the Chinese Christian community. Reform and opening up has restored the Chinese Christian Church and contributed to its growth and maturity. Christianity, which was once used by imperialism as a tool of aggression against China, has become the religion of the people in a socialist society under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

Running the church well according to the Three-Self Principle and actively promoting the construction of Chinese Christianity

Today, Chinese society has entered a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The Chinese Christian Church must be run well as a testimony to God’s grace for the Chinese Church in this era.

The 70-year history of the Chinese Christian Church shows us that adhering to the Three-Self Principles and loving church and country has been the path of grace prepared by God for the Chinese Church. Thus, we should, in the future, continue to hold high the banner of loving country and Church, move towards the further contextualization of Chinese Christianity, spread the gospel of Christ and establish the Lord’s church throughout China. We should nurture Christianity with the excellent elements of traditional Chinese culture, preach Christian faith in a way that can be appreciated by the Chinese people, and strive to construct theological thoughts with Chinese cultural characteristics; take socialist core values as the guide and take root in the fertile soil of Chinese traditional culture. While maintaining our basic beliefs, core doctrines and liturgy, we must also keep the inherited, biblically based traditions of the Reformation and the ecumenical church, deeply distilling from within doctrine that which is conducive to social harmony, the progress of the times and the construction of a healthy civilization. We should draw and interpret from doctrine that which supports the development and progress of contemporary China and its excellent traditional culture, so as to bear witness to Christ’s gift of salvation for the Chinese people. We need to strengthen efforts to cultivate all kinds of Christian talents. The mission of the Church lasts for generations and needs to be passed on from one generation to the next. Having qualified talents is an important guarantee of the healthy development of Christianity. We should abide by the laws and regulations of the state, bring our work into the orbit of the rule of law, and earnestly implement the rules and regulations of the Church, so as to promote the healthy development of Christianity and enable the Christian ministry to be carried out in an orderly manner. If Chinese Christianity wants to develop in a healthy manner, it must resist the intrusion of heresy. Heresy harms society, people and the Church. We should actively preach the true faith, guide and help believers consciously resist heresy. Overseas hostile forces are prone to taking advantage of Christianity to achieve their goals. We should bear in mind the history of Christianity as a tool of imperialism. We should always stand on the side of the country and the people and adhere to the fine tradition of loving country and the Church.

We thank God for placing us in this great era. At the same time, we should also endeavor to serve and make ourselves worthy of this great era. We pray that God will continue to show grace to the Chinese Church in this new historical period, so that the Chinese Church can become a Christian Church that follows biblical teachings, meets the requirements of laws and regulations, fulfills the expectations of the Party and the government and satisfies the people, while preaching the gospel and testifying to Christ’s gift of salvation in the Chinese context.

Reverend Wu Wei is President of the China Christian Council