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Numbering, Classifying China’s Churches Complicated

The China Christian Council is an organization of China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which exists to unite Protestant Christians who are loyal to their government and uphold its constitution.

The China Christian Council is an organization of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which exists to unite Protestant Christians who are loyal to their government and uphold its constitution. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The CCC/TSPM says there about 16 million Christians in China, worshiping in about 50,000 Protestant churches and meeting places.
 
Other unofficial estimates, meanwhile, which also count believers in unregistered churches, range upward to 70 million.
 
But some observers break those numbers into more complex categories. Dr. Don Snow works through the Presbyterian Church (USA) with the Amity Foundation, a CCC/TSPA-related organization that promotes education and social services. He offers the following five groupings in an article on the Web site ChristianityinChina.org
 
–Churches associated with the China Christian Council and Three-Self Patriotic Movement. These churches are legally registered with the government, are generally in urban areas and led by trained clergy. They are the backbone of efforts since 1979 to reopen churches, publish Bibles and train clergy and lay leaders.
 
–Meeting points related to the China Christian Council. These groups meet in homes or other non-church structures but are not registered. They are usually elder-led, often affiliate with a CCC church and are located usually in cities, suburbs or towns rather than villages.
 
–“Semi-denominations,” like Seventh-day Adventists or indigenous Chinese denominations like Watchman Nee’s Little Flock, which have a distinct identity apart from China’s “post-denominational” churches.
 
–Unregistered groups that have made a clear choice not to register with the government or associate with the China Christian Council/Three-Self Patriotic Movement. They are usually rural, led by charismatic individuals who have been Christians a long time (and thus may harbor grievances over past abuses). This category probably accounts for most reports of persecution of Christians in China, but for the most part their meetings are not interfered with even if officials know when and where they are meeting.
 
–Rural Christian groups that are not registered but do not necessarily oppose it. They rather are disconnected from cities, are often led by lay leaders, consist of younger Christians and are probably the most rapidly growing segment of China’s Christians.
 
Snow said it is misleading to count the last two groups together in order to illustrate tensions between the “official” and “unofficial” Chinese churches.
 
Sanctioned churches in China operate on “Three Self” principles: self-governance, self-support and self-propagation. They are also “post-denominational” in that they do not identify themselves as Baptist, Methodist and the like, but only as Christians.
 
Once preoccupied with rebuilding the “hardware” of China’s church—reopening and rebuilding church buildings shut down during the Cultural Revolution, printing Bibles and other literature, training leaders and accommodating massive numbers of new believers, the CCC/TSPA groups are now shifting focus to developing a theological understanding of what it means to be a Christian in a rapidly changing society.
 
That process, termed “theological reconstruction,” is not without its critics. Opponents view it as an attempt to harmonize Christianity with Communism and to impose liberal theology on fundamentalist and evangelical churches.
 
But advocates pledge to honor the authority of the Bible and uphold the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds.
 
The aims of theological reconstruction, a movement initiated by Bishop K.H. Ting, are twofold, Peter K.H. Lee, a theology professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong, wrote in an article published in a Chinese publication called The Christian Times.
 
On the one hand, Lee said, Christianity brought into China from the West foisted on Chinese churches denominational labels and theological disputes that had little relevance to Chinese believers and hindered church work in the nation. Beyond that, some churches on the mainland have resisted scientific thought, embraced superstition and developed tendencies incompatible with socialism.
 
Sound theological thinking is indispensable for ministers to be adequately equipped, Lee said.
 
The CCC views evangelism as not making more Presbyterians, Methodists or Baptists, but in spreading the gospel message in a unifying Christian witness not constrained by confessional boundaries.
 
Part of that effort is to deepen exchanges between Chinese and overseas Christians, and to ask that they avoid well-meaning efforts by outside groups, including some from the United States, to interfere in Chinese religious affairs.
 
During a recent visit to the National Council of Churches headquarters in New York, China Christian Council President Cao Shengjie criticized groups that come to Chinese Christians with the message: “We want to help you but you must do things the way we want. They tell us, ‘You aren’t a real church.’ That sometimes causes a split in our church … and social disorder.”
 
“We feel it is the responsibility of the Chinese church to pass on the gospel to Chinese Christians,” Cao repeated Oct. 22 at a press conference at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, reported by Religion News Services.
 
“Some foreign churches have come to China to impose their own way of thinking and sectoral disputes to the Chinese church,” she said. “It is an infringement upon the sovereignty of China and therefore is harmful.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.