The Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD) recently expressed its dismay (January 14 post) at the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)’s for having ignored religious persecution in China during its recent visit. Instead, says Faith McDonnell of the IRD, the WEA spoke only of cooperation with the government-registered church while disregarding restrictions by the communist regime on unofficial churches. The vast majority of Chinese Christians, conservatively estimated at 80 million in number, worship in unregistered congregations that meet in homes and other settings.
The IRD post adds that: “In the past week alone, leaders of the Chinese House Church Alliance were detained by the authorities in Hebei province according to China Aid. House churches in both Beijing and Shanghai have also been closed recently by the police. In Shanxi province, authorities demolished the Fushan House Church’s building, giving church leaders long prison sentences. In December, a Ugyhur Christian convert from Islam was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for his faith.”
There is no question, to my mind, that this report from the IRD is accurate. Having served on the board of IRD, and having had the privilege of knowing Faith McDonnell, I deeply respect her integrity and professionalism. She knows her facts and she has a deep desire to help those who suffer. I also agree that there is a time and place to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, as is the case for those millions of believers in the unregistered house churches in China.
Faith J.H. McDonnell's full statement reads as follows: “We are glad that the WEA was able to minister to and encourage China’s officially registered church. But we cannot do service to one part of the Body of Christ at the cost of doing disservice to another.“One would not be able to discern the presence of any other church in China from the WEA’s report. We find it staggering that there was no acknowledgment of the 80 million or more Chinese house church Christians or what they face from the Chinese government."
“Acknowledgment of the Chinese house churches, and of those who are in prison for their faith, is our duty as fellow Christians."
“We see the inability of good intentions and legislation to stop the persecution of Christians around the world. We see what appears to be a juggernaut of policies and politics crushing freedom and democracy. But have we seen the power of God released in these circumstances by faithful and constant prayer? We must get serious about praying for the persecuted church.”
Question: Is it always right, especially in a context where one is a guest inside an oppressive regime like that in China, to “acknowledge” every part of the body of Christ in order to assist one part of that same body?
I think the answer to this is rather tricky and never easy. I know Faith and believe her completely, as I have already noted. But I also deeply respect the World Evangelical Fellowship and would guess that they were not trying to harm anyone by acknowledging the registered churches in China. They were seeking to build relationships with Christians inside China for the cause of Christ’s larger mission. At the same time I am not sure of the entire context of their discussion, which obviously was held in private.
Let me give some context to my question. I can still recall Billy Graham’s visits to oppressive countries like Russia and China during the 1980s. He was routinely criticized, by the left and the right in this instance, for not taking a stand against the persecution of believers within those lands. It seemed like he was being "used" so he could preach the gospel to some and ignore others. I can still recall a protest in front of the Graham Center here in Wheaton. I shared a great deal of dismay about his stance at the time. Many years later we have come to know what we did not know at the time. My view has changed based upon the facts of Dr. Graham’s stance in the actual context of what he aspired to do and why he tried to do it. I do not see his behavior as harmful to the persecuted church but, in the long term, I think it may have actually helped the persecuted church.
I freely admit that I am not an expert on these matters. I pray for the persecuted church as my friend Faith McDonnell urges us all to do in her final paragraph. I know Faith to be a wonderful, honorable and admirable Christian advocate for her persecuted brothers and sisters so this is not in question at all. The heart of her concern is right on.
I hosted Brother Yun, the former Chinese house-church prisoner, in Wheaton in the fall of 2008. I learned from him (firsthand) of the horrors of persecution in that land. But I still wonder. Should we raise objection to such groups as the World Evangelical Fellowship, who can do so much good for the church in China, because they do not publicly speak about the plight of the house church?
This reminds me of another story that I know to be true. I got the story from a minister who was in the room with President George W. Bush at the time that he told the story to a small private group. On his first visit to China President Bush spoke to the premier on behalf of Christians in China at a dinner. He told the premier of his own faith and urged him to see that following Christ should never bring such oppression from a government since faith helped make him the man who could run for office and eventually become the president. After a night’s sleep the president pressed the point once again, in private, the next morning.
As far as I know the media never reported this so many Christians may have felt the president lost a golden opportunity to speak on behalf of fellow Christians in China. The real facts are that he did but in a guarded and appropriate way, at least from how I see the situation. I am open to see this differently and some of you may have information or facts I do not have but I “winced” when I saw IRD openly question another important evangelical group that faithfully seeks to represent Christians from all over the world.
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During my time as a faculty member at Denver Seminary, a group of representatives from a number of Chinese seminaries visited the campus and met with our faculty. All the seminaries represented were affiliated with the registered TSPM Protestant churches of China. It was very evident that these men were authentic Christians who had a deep love for Christ and a heartfelt commitment to ministry.
Are there persecuted believers in China? Definitely. Are there many leaders in the registered churches who are faithfully proclaiming and living out the gospel? Absolutely. Is it wise for Westerners who have the opportunity to fellowship with and assist the registered churches to jeopardize their future ministry in China by speaking out against the persecution of believers in the unregistered churches? I don’t think so.
Yes, the situation of the church in China is complicated. A strong case can be made for refusing to register with the government, since doing so does bring with it some restrictions on Christian activities. But a strong case can be made, as well, for obeying the law and registering, since those who do are granted a reasonable degree of liberty to practice their faith and can do so without constantly risking arrest or worse.
I applaud the World Evangelical Fellowship for its willingness to recognize and cooperate with the registered churches. Were they to speak out strongly in support of those who have chosen to worship illegally, they would almost surely be denied the opportunity to continue connecting with the registered church movement in China.
Let the IRD and other advocacy organizations continue to inform the world about violations of religious liberty in China. To speak out on behalf of the unregistered churches is the role they have chosen for themselves. But I believe it is unfair of them to demand or expect that all international Christian organizations making connections in China do so in the same way or with the same objectives.
John this is an excellent reminder of the complexity of the churches in China and the government’s official policies. If we would only be able, once in a while, to try to see things from the governments own perspective. Imagine the difficulties of the central government controlling such a vast empire (about 1 1/4 billion). There are something like 55 minority ethnic peoples in China and the government seems to be legitimizing these groups while at the same time bringing them more and more into the National life. I was looking at some great resources on the official Chinese TV web-site only today re.one of these groups-the Meio people group. There is an official Chinese Bible Society sanctioned by the government which is quite large which I became aware of during the Olympics. As we think more in terms of the Universal Church and less in terms of our own American situation, perhaps we can be free to see this situation in more of a balanced way. Thank you and thank Ray for his excellent first-person conribution.
John Paul Todd