Reflections on How Christianity Can Help China to Flourish

An empty church
An empty church
By Richard J. MouwMarch 31st, 2023

The Chinese government official was telling me about how he had experienced changes during his career in the government’s policies dealing with religious groups. When he was first studying for government service, he said, the party line was that religion was a bad thing, and the ultimate goal was to banish it from Chinese culture. Then, when he entered government service, he said, that viewpoint was modified: officials were saying that since religion cannot be eliminated, it should be tolerated. Now, he reported, the guiding principle was that the government very much needed to partner with religious groups to promote “social harmony.”

An official statement from the 17th Party Congress of the Chinese government in 2007 that urged religious organizations "to actively participate in building up a harmonious society" confirmed his observation.

That official worked in the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which was established by the government in the 1950s to monitor and supervise the five “approved” religious groups in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestant Christianity, and Catholicism. It may seem odd for Catholicism to be treated as a separate religion from Protestant Christianity, but the Catholic Church does not easily conform to the “Three Self Principles” that regulate religious life in China: Each religious body must be “self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.”

Since the Vatican is officially a state, with Rome appointing all bishops, Catholicism does not measure up to the self-governing requirement. There is a network of Chinese Catholic parishes that function under bishops appointed by the government, but there are also “underground” congregations that are loyal to Rome.

The Vatican has been negotiating with the Chinese government in recent years, looking for a compromise arrangement for appointing bishops, but those conversations are made difficult by its own Chinese bishops, such as Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong, who insists that the Chinese officials are enemies of the faith and cannot be trusted to keep any promises they might make to the church.

I met with religious affairs officials many times during my two dozen visits to China. They saw me as a friend because of “the China controversy” that surrounded my 1993 inauguration as president of Fuller Theological Seminary. On a trip to China in the mid-1980s, my predecessor had established friendly relations with the late Bishop K.H. Ting, the head of the network of registered Chinese congregations, and when I heard that the bishop would be attending my inaugural ceremony, I invited him to give a brief greeting at the event. When word got out about the invitation, the protests started.

The global evangelical community, including many seminaries and church bodies in North America, tends to give strong support to the cause of the underground churches in China—those congregations that refuse to register with the government as legally approved entities. Fuller Seminary, a large evangelical theological school, featuring an appearance by Bishop Ting at a major campus event, was seen as a betrayal of the cause of religious freedom in China.

There was also a protest on our campus. Chinese students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other countries—including the U.S.—held prayer meetings, asking God to tell me to withdraw the invitation to the bishop. While I did not back down, I did meet with the protesters, listening carefully to their concerns. I told them that as someone who had participated as a graduate student in anti-war protests at the University of Chicago during my doctoral studies—including a sit-in at the school’s administrative offices—I felt that I deserved whatever they chose to do at my inauguration. They responded with a limited protest that we agreed upon. They passed out black armbands to those attending the inaugural ceremony, and a designated group of five of them were given assigned seats in the front row. They quietly but visibly walked out while the bishop spoke, and when he finished, they returned out of respect for me. The proceedings, then, went well, but the protest was featured in some of the published reports regarding my inauguration.

With the start of my 20-year presidency, the seminary’s relationship with Chinese Christianity became a major focus for Fuller. In my two dozen visits to China, I preached in local congregations, met regularly with church and government leaders, and lectured in many of the 21 “Three-Self” seminaries.

A major cooperative effort aimed at “social harmony” was initiated in consultation with the Religious Affairs Administration. They told us that China was experiencing significant increases in divorce, suicide, and addiction. “We don’t have adequate mental health services in place yet,” he said. “Can Fuller Seminary help us by training pastors here to counsel people who are going through difficult times?” We agreed to do so.

In the Chinese context, “harmony” has a Confucian connotation. A harmonious society is one in which every person accepts his or her rightful place in the natural order of things. In classic Confucianism, the idea of one’s rightful place was linked to the understanding of defined-role relationships: parent-child, husband-wife, old-young, teacher-student, and so on. It goes without saying that this concept acquires new meanings when managers of a socialist system use it. Accepting your assigned position in the social order as set forth by party ideology is the first step to finding your rightful place in the overall scheme of things.

According to recent reports from China, the government is tightening its control over religious groups. There are increased efforts to shut down “unregistered” bodies, and the “Three-Self” movements are being more closely monitored in their week-to-week activities. SARA’s role has also changed. It is no longer a government agency and is now under the control of the United Front, which means that it is in close contact with the party rather than merely being under state management. This means that more careful attention is being given to religious ideas, with the party now requiring that religious groups demonstrate that they are engaging in the “Sinicization” of their teachings and practices. For the Three-Self churches, this means that they must show that Christianity is an authentic Chinese religion and not a Western import.

Actually, the sinicization mandate can be seen as a positive development for the Christian community. The "contextualization" of theology has received a great deal of attention in recent decades. Different cultural contexts require different configurations of theological ideas. Western sermons about salvation from individual guilt, for example, do not apply easily to the “honor and shame” cultures of rural Asia.

Indeed, the Chinese concept of social harmony can be seen as having some overlap with the idea of shalom, a Biblical concept representing a rich understanding of human flourishing. In the Babylonian captivity, the prophet Jeremiah urged the exiled Jewish people “to seek the welfare and shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare and shalom you will find your welfare and shalom” (Jeremiah 29:4–8). Christians in China today can accept that promoting "social harmony," also known as shalom, is a mandate.

Chinese Christian leaders can also offer to help organize interfaith dialogue on religious understandings of social harmony. There has been surprisingly little engagement among religious groups in China, and Christians could point to ways that shared efforts by religious groups—care for the aging, improving schools in rural areas, marriage counseling, and the like—can benefit Chinese society.

The Chinese Christian community has experienced serious persecution in the not-too-distant past. This required the churches to promote a private faith, lived out in isolation from the larger culture. Important spiritual lessons were learned under those difficult conditions. But there are opportunities today for applying those lessons to a more active public faith that responds to new cultural opportunities for demonstrating a commitment to human flourishing in China.

Dr. Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary. A philosopher, scholar, and author, prior to his two decades as president, he served as provost and senior vice president for four years and as professor of Christian philosophy and ethics beginning in 1985.

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CCD reprinted with permission.

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