The article provides a probe to the view of marriage in China's contemporary church. Owing to the special status of the church in China, the topic is divided into two parts, concerning the Three - Self church and the house church.
The Three-Self church's view of marriage
Since the Three-Self church is a legally registered body, regarding marriage, a church wedding has always been a supplement to the secular wedding. While recognizing the legitimacy of marriage certificates issued by the civil affairs bureau, the church is only a venue to hold weddings. But some churches require both spouses to be members in order to hold their wedding there. For example, the True Jesus Church requires that the couple must both be members before their wedding can be held there. Some churches require that at least one of the spouses be a member. There are many churches that do not have this restriction on membership but at least one person from the couple should be a Christian, and they will also pay a fee for the ceremony. Of course, there are churches that require both parties be Christians otherwise no wedding can be held in their venues. And then there are some churches that have no requirements at all.
Despite these differing conditions, there is one requirement that is unanimously held by all the churches: that both parties have a marriage certificate first.
Pastors of the Three-Self churches are generally not interested in wedding matters. For them, managing a large church is already very difficult. Marriage is apparently a private matter.
Three - Self churches on the whole are like this, but there are exceptions. In some areas, although as churches they are registered, they are not effectively regulated. In addition, there is a lack of appropriate equipping so that some leaders have no awareness of what the law requires. If the church is in a remote area where supervision is not present, the leaders might desire to thoroughly dominate their churches. It is then possible for them to interfere with even the private lives of believers, and then marriage is a first matter for them.
China is a nepotistic society, and the patriarch often has considerable authority. Brother L of the M church, for example, fancies Sister S, but Sister S seems to have little affection for Brother L. So L uses all his schemes to please the church's head, Pastor H. Remaining in the relationship for most of a year, Brother L finally pours out his troubles to tell Pastor H his concern. Pastor H, under the pressure of saving face, contacts Sister S's mother and informs her of the situation. The Sister S's family are caught in a dilemma and finally agree to get along first to see the result. But church M has an unwritten rule that, in order to avoid cohabitation before marriage, the dating pair must marry within one year after the dating relation has been confirmed. Under the pressure of strong public opinion in the church, Sister S reluctantly marries Brother L, and eventually the two become a couple. However, their marriage is not a happy one because the two were originally at odds with each other.
Although the Three-Self church does not interfere in marriage matters between believers, it has a long tradition concerning marriage, such as divorce is not accepted. Most churches punish divorced brothers and sisters by, at minimum, revoking their ministries or serving at the church. And divorced believers are almost never accepted. As for the teachings on marriage, conservative pastors' explanation is that the couple should both be Christians in the Lord when they wed, and divorce is not permitted unless one of the parties is unfaithful. Even in the event of a divorce, remarrying is not possible unless the other spouse has died. For ordinary believers, there is no sense of belonging in the Three Self-church and so one's private life is not much to be interfered with by the church.
Most of the pastors of the Three-Self church hold a blessing ceremony for weddings but the power to determine the validity of the marriage is relegated to the national civil affairs bureau. For example, in many areas there is a tradition of inviting pastors to the house to bless the daughters when they are getting married.
The house church's view of marriage
The house church's attitude towards marriage is the focus of this discussion.
On the one hand, the membership of a house church is large and the exact number is unknown due to statistical difficulties. However the prevailing view in the academic community is that the number of members is greater than that in the Three-self church. On the other hand, the secrecy of matters in the house church makes its affairs even more elusive.
Believers in the house church face a complex situation. After receiving the marriage certificate, can the couple be a legitimate couple? A growing number of house church leaders have expressed their views on marriage. Some say it must be confirmed by the church first, otherwise it is invalid. The civil affairs bureau's marriage certificate is only an aid or supplement.
In the gospel pamphlet "The Marriage of Christians", Lin Xiangao mentions that the ancient custom was that marriage was decided by parents and suggested by the matchmaker. Young people today advocate for "free marriage". Christians should find a medium between God's way and the knowledgeable of one's elders. The elderly can make arrangements for their children but they must first obtain their consent. In choosing, one must seek God's will through prayer and be in accordance with biblical truths. Only then should one refer to the advice of the pious elders.
Of course, this is a very traditional description, is part of a parent's care for the younger generation, and represents the position of a large number of Christian parents. In short, the marriage of brothers and sisters in the church needs to be decided by the leaders of the Church.
In the various expressions of Christianity in China, there have been many patriarchal churches. Let's start with an example of a house church: the Jesus Family in Shandong. Although the church itself has been closed, it effect is quite significant. The patriarchal system exists in other forms: marriage and divorce are to be approved by the leader.
This Shandong church's background of patriarchalism was highlighted its founder, Jing Dianying. Regarding the marriage relationship, he said "the right to marriage should be reliquished". Because those in the Jesus Family made financial sacrifices to support the church, why not also make sacrifices and give up the right to marriage? The marriage in the Jesus Family was all according to the Lord's will which can only be accepted and not be rejected. Whne choosing a partner, Jing Dianying required the brothers and sisters to love the Lord as the primary motivation. To be concerned about the outer appearance or condition of the person was less important than loving the Lord more than anything. So there were sisters in the church who had a secondary education married and were married to someone who was illiterate. There was an attractive sister who married to a brother who was an amputatee. There was a healthy sister who was married to someone with physical deformities. There were even marriages to patients with syphilis or gonorrhea. And there was also a case of an 18 year old sister had to marry a 41 year old man.
In the Jesus Family, cohabitation was illegal and considered sin. Pregnancy out of cohabitation was considered giving birth to a "ghost" and will be severely punished. Such people in the Jesus Family were considered inferior.
When the Jesus Family increased in number, the place was not large enough to accommodate everyone so a husband and wife could not live together. If you wanted to live together, you had to queue up. It was up to the person in charge of registering the family to decide at random. It was very arbitrary. For example, a very good couple who had been in the Jesus Family for ten years, were only allowed to live together for eleven days. And on the contrary, a bad couple were allowed to live together for a long time. People in their 40's were asked to give up the chance for sex. It even deliberately isolated some couples fulfilling their private desires.
Today we find this incomprehensible. However it really did occur and there are many such things that are still happening in some places today. A sister with a Master's degree marries a brother with aprimary school education. A "princess" from a well-to-do family marries an ill and disabled man. Beautiful sisters marry ugly brothers. A young man marries a woman fifteen years older to ease the situation of more women and less men, and so on.
For those patriarchal house churches, the marriage process is divided into three steps: matching, determining, and marrying. What is being discussed here is a house church of a certain size which has formed its own rules and regulations. This is not about smaller churches with a dozen of believers.
Matching refers to when a man wants to date a woman in the church. He cannot be in a hurry to express his love, but must first pass it by the pastor. If the pastor feels it is appropriate, he will then find the other to talk about it. If he/she feels inappropriate, he will directly stop it.
Then, in the second step, if the pastor feels that the two are suitable, he will go to the other party to match. In general, it is hard to refuse.
Once matching is agreed upon, they can date, but the two need to respect the church's teachings and cannot have inappropriate behavior. Many churches require the two people dating not to hold hands before marriage, let alone engage in other intimate acts. In order to avoid premarital sex, hand holding must be stopped because it is viewed as the first step towards possible sexual behaviour.
Determining means that the matching has been completed and the two parties have been dating for some time. Both now agree to enter into marriage. At this time, the pastor invites the two along with the parents to formally meet to discuss with each other the terms, all under the supervision of the pastor. After the discussion, the marriage of the two will be settled.
Finally, comes marrying. Under the auspices of the pastor, the two eventually get married. Usually prior to this, the church requires the two obtain a marriage certificate issued by the civil affairs bureau. Of course, there are exceptions. I have once attended a wedding in which the groom was not yet the legal age of marriage and did not receive a marriage certificate but finally was married under the blessing of the pastor.
It should be added that divorce is not allowed in many house churches. Even long-term domestic violence is tolerated by regarding it as a cross to carry, believing the suffering to be a blessing and having patience as the end to bearing witness to God's grace.
It must be admitted that the church's interference in the marriage of believers has some biblical support and some church traditions. However on the whole, it is more a desire for power by some leaders to the point of distorting the Bible's teaching, neglecting the reforms of the Reformation, and admiring the authority of the Medieval Church.
After the Reformation, the Protestant Church broke away from the Catholic Church's bondage, freed itself from some distorted ideas on marriage, and released the right to marry to individuals. Marriage has been administered by secular governments and the church has only been responsible for applying a moral conscience to it.
Most Chinese Christian churches have inherited the Protestant tradition. However concerning marriage ethics, some parents are more inclined to follow Catholic tradition as a way to govern the congregation, which is really regressing historically. Freedom is risky, but averting risk should not come at the expense of freedom.
- Translated by Charlie Li