What We Can Learn from China’s House-Church Christians

Reflections on Mobilized Merchants – Patriotic Martyrs: China’s House-Church Protestants and the Politics of Cooperative Resistance, by Timothy Garner Conkling, 2013.

(You can find a full review of this book on the Global China Center website.)

Tim Conkling’s important book contains valuable lessons for Christians both inside China and elsewhere. Some of these lessons are explained below:

1. Christians should expect to suffer for their faith.

Chinese house-church (HC) Protestants are not surprised when persecution hits them. They have read their Bibles and know that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). They have heard Jesus’ words, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:19). They remember the words of the Apostle Peter, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

They know that a godless state often deifies itself and will brook no criticism or failure to comply with all its regulations, even those which impinge upon the conscience. The alliance of organized religion with the government, as in China and in most of Western history, almost always leads to persecution of Christians whose understanding of the Bible will not allow them to be co-opted by secular powers for their own political ends.

2. Christians should respond to persecution with patience, faith, and love.

Chinese HC believers have suffered on and off for several decades. They have borne their trials with steadfast allegiance to Christ, without complaining. On the contrary, many of them have welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate their faith in Christ with their own lives, aware that actions speak louder than words and that, as Tertullian famously said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The knowledge that God’s kingdom will prevail prevents them from despairing that the world will kill off the people of God.

Nor have they harbored anger, much less resentment or hatred, against their oppressors. Despite fines, imprisonment, beatings, and even unspeakably barbaric and cruel torture, they have not returned evil for evil. Obedient to Jesus, they have loved their enemies, blessed those who cursed them, and prayed for those who persecuted them. Just as Jesus said on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), so also they have prayed for the salvation of their enemies.

Despite extreme and prolonged provocation, they have not contemplated rebellion. They obey all the laws they can, except those that violate the scriptural mandates for Christians, such as those which forbid meeting in homes and teaching children the faith or which forbid evangelism, prayer for healing, and exorcism. Millions of them belong to organizations (called “networks”) that could be mobilized against the government, but their commitment to the Bible’s commands to obey earthly rulers prevents them from that kind of rebellion (see Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–17).

Most of all, they look to the sublime example of Jesus, who refused to lead a revolt against wicked rulers in Jerusalem or even against the cruel Romans who occupied the land, but instead went meekly to his death, like a lamb being led to slaughter.

3. Christians who gather in large numbers will invite government scrutiny.

Whenever believers in Christ assemble in large numbers and are led by men or women with considerable organizational and persuasive power, governmental authorities will take notice. Rulers will then either seek to co-opt such organizations or to crush them.

Generally, in China it is the larger congregations, meeting either in rented public places or in big church buildings, who receive unwelcome attention from the government. China’s rulers – with their atheistic ideology, their obsession with controlling all society through state-sanctioned organizations (such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement), and their pathetic paranoia – fear any sizeable group that is not completely under their observation and control. With very few exceptions, the police do not bother small groups meeting in homes, unless these are part of a larger network.

4. Building-based Christian congregations are most vulnerable to state pressure.

Not only because they are so visible, but also because they so loudly announce the presence and power of Christianity, big church buildings often evoke the ire of officials. Since 2013, the worst government action against Protestants and Roman Catholics alike has occurred in Wenzhou, the site of hundreds of prominent church structures, some of them as grand as European cathedrals.

Think about it: A big building represents a large group of people with a strong leader or group of leaders, possessed of considerable wealth, and capable of making a powerful, visible impact upon the surrounding city or town. Throughout church history, such building-based Christianity has gained the attention of rulers who have either tried to bring it under state control and to enlist it in the political program of the state or attempted to destroy it. Pastors of such large congregations are themselves often all too willing to form a cozy relationship with the government, imagining thereby to advance the kingdom of God through their influence in politics.

Governments do not always oppose building-based Christianity because its leaders are usually easy to manage and the congregants are easy to count and identify, should they “need” to be followed or coerced. When such buildings interfere with the priorities of the state, however, as in Wenzhou, where they defy the official atheism of China, they become a threat. Then they are easy to demolish or degrade.

5. When Chinese Christians resist the state in large numbers, and especially when they call on support from foreigners, they enrage the government.

Such tactics – such as those described in Conkling’s narrative about a “successful” campaign by Wenzhou “boss Christians” to overturn a government ban against holding summer camps with religious instruction for young people – may succeed temporarily. In the long run, however, they can have at least two deleterious consequences: Either they tempt Christians to rely on their numbers and influence to advance God’s kingdom, or they provoke resentment and a desire for revenge on the part of the officials who have lost face. Can we completely rule out the possibility that the ferocity of the recent onslaught on churches in Wenzhou has nothing to do with the “cooperative resistance” in 2001–2 that forced local authorities to retreat in the face of threats to shut the government down with an avalanche of faxes, telephone calls, and emails from within China and from overseas?

6. The intervention of foreigners, and especially foreign governments, to help protect persecuted Christians has limited effects and may do greater long-term damage.

In several cases described by Conkling, foreign governments, including that of the United States, have interceded for people being held, tortured, or convicted of crimes by Chinese authorities. These appeals often resulted in a lessening of punishment or even release from prison. Since 2013, however,  the tightening control over all forms of dissent and especially the harsh detention of civil rights lawyers has only increased, and the demolition of church buildings and removal of crosses have not been slowed by outcries from overseas.

On the contrary, the PRC government has made it clear that Christianity in China must serve government purposes and that it must not be in any way connected to foreign powers, especially the United States. On the one hand, this return to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist restrictions upon all elements of society reflects the convictions, as well as the profound insecurity, of the present regime. On the other hand, do we know that past connections between HC Protestants (especially those involved in civil rights advocacy) and Western powers play no additional part in the current regime’s hostility to Christianity in particular?

7. Perhaps China’s Protestants need to return to home-based meetings, to break up large networks, and to adopt both a more “local” form of organization and a plurality of leadership.

Conkling observes that Chinese HCs tend to be organized and led by (mostly) men who imitate the tradition of imperial rule. New movements towards a more “Presbyterian”-style government by a plurality of elders reflect both biblical principles and the practical reality in China today. Some Wenzhou Christians have realized that their large “cathedrals” diverted a huge amount of money, time, energy, and human resources away from the primary callings of the church, resulting in shallow commitments to Christ, insufficient pastoral care, and truncated evangelism. They are going back to their roots in home meetings where deep fellowship and loving care can take place.

For more on this theme, see my article "Home Meetings – the Way Forward for Chinese Christians?"

8. We should be cautious in predicting that China will become a “Christian” nation.

First of all, as many have pointed out, there are no Christian nations, only Christian people.

Second, it will take a long time before Christians and Christian values permeate Chinese society so that it could be called “Christianized.” James Hunter, in To Change the World, has shown how lasting cultural change requires intentional effort over several decades.

Third, the resemblance of HC Protestant Christianity to folk religion, as Conkling and others describe it, should give us pause. Many urbanites attend church because it is now “in style”; 90 percent of all professing Christians believe in Christ because of experience with physical healing through prayer; and Chinese pastors are almost universally complaining that the faith of their people is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” When this is the case, we must ask, “What does ‘Christian’ mean in these circumstances?”

9. Perhaps we should reconsider some popular assumptions about the way Christians should make the deepest impact on any society, including China’s.

When we consider Christians who gather in big numbers, meet in big buildings, and have big budgets (and, often, big bands) and who are led by big “bosses” seeking to make a big and visible impact on society, we must ask, “do they reflect biblical values?” Do Christians need to make their works of charity public, when Jesus said we should keep them private? Do they need to have a prominent “presence” expressed through costly buildings, prominent leaders, and well-publicized social work?

There is no doubt that Christians should proclaim the gospel widely and that they should engage in works that benefit both individuals and society as a whole. Christians have taken the lead in the past to show love to those whom the rest of the world neglects, and there is certainly a place for this in China today. I only want to raise questions about what motives should impel us and what means we should use to show our love for God and our neighbors.

10. Finally, though we must follow biblical mandates to pray for the sick, cast out demons, and seek to be “salt and light” in all of society, do we want to make “saving China” the goal of Christianity there?

Instead, our goal should be to glorify God through prayer, through the proclamation of his truth to all aspects of life and all domains of human endeavor, and through the practice of good works – especially of sharing love within the family and our immediate circle of Christians and with those whom we encounter each day.

Why aim for political influence, except in the long term as a result of the power of the truth and love proclaimed and practiced by Christ’s followers, individually, in churches and in society? What Hunter has called “the lust for power” has sorely compromised American evangelicals, just as it has compromised Christians throughout history, with disastrous results.

G. Wright Doyle