We can thank God for Allen Yuan’s fearless witness over many decades and despite horrific suffering and then incessant harassment. Courage, zeal, and perseverance like his should redound to God’s glory and inspire us to imitate Yuan’s faith.
Yuan’s tireless ministry before and after his imprisonment sowed seeds that have borne rich fruit in the growth of the Chinese church, not only in Beijing but around the world, both among those who heard him personally and those who have read the biography by Lydia Lee, read David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing, or seen the documentary film, China Soul. Today’s thriving Chinese church cannot be understood without the labors and prayers of men and women like Yuan and his wife. No sociological factors by themselves could have brought about the conversion of so many millions of people in such a short time.
Even his long years in prison, including six months of solitary confinement, were not “wasted” by God, who was demonstrating his power to preserve his people through the fires of persecution and to purify them for even greater usefulness. Who knows how many fellow prisoners and even guards were secretly moved by his steadfastness under trial? And who knows how many people who have heard about Yuan and his family have been challenged to entrust their lives to God or to devote themselves more fully to the service of the gospel?
Yuan’s treatment at the hand of the government and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement helps explain the ongoing division between the leaders of the TSPM and Christians who attend unregistered congregations today. Thankfully, much of the old hostility between these two groups has faded with the passage of time, memory, and the older generation, and TSPM pastors now often help unregistered congregations in many ways.
Still, various factors that led Yuan to refuse to participate in the TSPM continue to keep most Chinese Protestants out of the “official” organization:
A. A conviction that only Christ is the Head of the church, not any government
B. A belief that the church should not be intimately connected with the government
C. A belief that some leaders of the TSPM are still infected with liberal theology
D. A refusal to join an organization that is compelled to serve the purposes of the government
E. A theology of the church that rules out denominations
F. Lingering memories of persecution at the hands of, or at least the instigation of, the TSPM, even within the past few years, something for which the TSPM has never apologized.
On the other hand, Yuan’s freedom to preach the gospel and lead his church for more than twenty years, despite government disapproval and harassment, testifies to the new reality of religion in China: For the past couple of decades and up to the present, the vast majority of Protestants in China have been able to meet in unregistered gatherings at home or even in rented public venues without persecution or even prohibition.
That is not to deny that the overall civil rights environment in China has not changed since the current regime assumed power in 2013. Clearly, the government has been imposing more and more control on all forms of public expression, including Christian proclamation and gatherings. Dissidents have been arrested and harshly treated. Civil rights lawyers, many of them Christians, have been detained, and some of them subjected to the most brutal and unspeakably barbaric cruelty. More than 2,000 crosses have been forcibly removed from churches in Zhejiang Province and elsewhere, and a number of large church buildings have been demolished on the grounds that they were illegally constructed. Political monitoring and instruction have been imposed on Christian congregations in Wenzhou. Some pastors who have objected to the cross removals have suffered loss of jobs and even arrest.
We must admit, nevertheless, that the number of Christians affected by this crackdown remains very tiny, and that the number of Christians and their leaders who have been arrested simply for holding meetings is minuscule. Even then, the penalties meted out to pastors and other church leaders have been lenient, especially compared to what Yuan and others endured for many years after 1950.
In short, as Brent Fulton has often said, especially in his book, China’s Urban Christians, the “persecution narrative” that has dominated Western media coverage of Christianity in China simply does not apply – at least not at present. We must give credit where credit is due and thank God that the Chinese government has not (or at least not yet) embarked upon an all-out campaign against Protestants in unregistered churches like the terrible persecution of previous years.
Christians in the West should heed the cry of Chinese church leaders and pray for China’s Protestants to be delivered from materialism and the lust for the things of this world that now constitute the greatest threat to the vitality of the church.
At the same time, we should examine ourselves. Are we so entangled with this world that we have lost our capacity to be “salt and light” in our society? Do we possess the zeal and love for God and his kingdom that drove Yuan, his family, and countless other Chinese believers to bear witness to Christ and his gospel despite the horrendous cost? If the police came to our door tonight, would we be ready to forsake all and follow Jesus?
In our present freedom, which may not last forever, are we, like Allen Yuan, relying upon God, his Word, and his Holy Spirit to make us witnesses of Christ, both at home and “to the end of the earth”? (Acts 1:8)
May God give us all grace to imitate the life of Allen Yuan, his family, and millions like them throughout the ages!
G. Wright Doyle