Pain of the Past, Faith for the Future

By Bob Paulson   •   June 19, 2008

For millions in China today, blue jeans, Calvin Klein and Versace have replaced those old suits. Streets are crammed with cars–new cars, including Mercedes, Nissans, Peugots and, yes, even some Ferraris. People don’t talk much about class struggle. And the ubiquitous pictures in many cities are billboards with fashion models advertising the same products one might see in the United States and Europe.

China now has the world’s fastest-growing economy, and millions of its citizens are enjoying material prosperity unimagined just a few years ago. During Franklin Graham’s May trip (see previous article), he reflected on the changes the country has undergone since his first visit, in 1988.

“I came to China 20 years ago with my father,” Franklin said during a May 9 press conference in Beijing. “I have seen much change in China. Not just economic change. When I came 20 years ago, there was not traffic with automobiles; it was traffic with bicycles. It was people riding bicycles to work. Now it is brand-new automobiles. But there [also] have been great changes as relates to religious affairs in this country. And I believe we should encourage China to continue with these reforms as it relates to the church and people of faith in general.”

At the same time the country has seen material prosperity, it has also experienced increased religious freedom–and rapid church growth. “Society is developing on a material level; the standard of living is going up, but people are longing for spiritual life,” said Joseph Gu, senior pastor of Chong Yi Church in Hangzhou. “This is the time to spread the Gospel, because the Gospel can change human hearts.”

Tumultuous History
China–the world’s oldest civilization–has a history of amazing cultural, technological, artistic and intellectual achievements. But its history also is full of tumult and war. Many of its famous dynasties took power through bloodshed and were overthrown the same way, and for long periods, various parts of the country experienced seemingly constant violence between regional warlords or oppression by roving gangs of bandits.

The West’s discovery of this thriving civilization didn’t help matters, as European nations competed for profits from trade. The England-based East India Company fostered the growing of opium in India and the sale of that opium to China, creating numerous addicts and social problems. When China seized existing stores of opium and tried to turn back British merchant vessels in 1839, England sent warships, easily defeating China and imposing a treaty favorable only to England’s trading interests. Another “Opium War” in 1856 led to even more concessions from China, this time not only to Britain but also to France, Russia and the United States.

Evangelical missionaries came to China beginning in 1807, and despite the fact that most came solely to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, many people associated them with the evils of the colonial powers. Even in 1916, when Ruth Bell Graham’s father, L. Nelson Bell, arrived with his wife, Virginia, to work at a mission hospital in Tsingkiangpu (now called Huaiyin), many Chinese people called foreigners “foreign devils.” The Bells and other missionaries had to overcome prejudice and sometimes hostility as they proclaimed and demonstrated the love of Christ.

Today, Chinese church leaders recognize the contribution of foreign missionaries, even as they seek to form a church that is thoroughly Chinese. They welcome friendly relations with churches and organizations in the West, while at the same time seeking to prevent the forcing of Western thinking and models on the Chinese church.
China’s tumultuous history continued after the 1925 death of Sun Yat Sen, who had founded the Chinese Republic in 1912. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek battled communist leader Mao Zedong for power, eventually losing to Mao, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

It was Mao who instituted the infamous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. During this period all churches were closed, and the government confiscated as many Bibles as it could. Pastors, along with secular scholars and professionals, were reassigned to work on farms and in factories.

Hard-Won Gains for the Church
During the Cultural Revolution, if Christians were to risk meeting together at all, it could only be in homes, since all churches had been closed. “Underground” house churches proliferated, especially in rural areas. They grew even faster after the end of the Revolution. Even today, with freedom of religion guaranteed by China’s constitution, many house church members prefer not to join state-registered churches. For some, there is simply no registered church nearby. Others feel that the government has too much control over registered churches.

Christians in the West have long been concerned about religious freedom in China, and as recently as May 2, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the U.S. keep China on a list of “Countries of Particular Concern” because of crackdowns on ethnic minorities’ religions, on unregistered religious groups and on groups deemed cults by the Chinese government.

China expressed firm opposition to the report. A Chinese government spokesman said that the Chinese government protects its citizens’ freedom of religious belief. Chinese law indeed states, “Citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief. No organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in any religion … or citizens who do not believe in any religion.”

Christians have often gotten into trouble when they have not registered churches or when they have engaged in illegal activities such as Bible smuggling. Today, however, observers say that many formerly unregistered churches are registering, or, in cities like Beijing, are coming under the umbrella of a registered church while continuing to meet largely on their own as one of many small groups in the registered church.

Also today, Bibles are available throughout most of China. Anyone is allowed to purchase a Bible at the bookstores of registered churches. In fact, Amity Press, in Nanjing, has become the world’s largest Bible publisher. Last year Amity celebrated its 50 millionth Chinese Bible printed, and it also prints Bibles in other languages for export.

Christians are riding high after last October’s Party Congress, which, in an amendment to the Chinese Constitution, included religion among the things that can help build a harmonious society. Christians believe this will remove some of the hindrances the church has faced in the past, and leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council have taken advantage of the amendment by reaffirming that churches should both evangelize and minister to the poor and needy.

If such a reaffirmation seems less than earth-shattering, remember that churches had to start basically from scratch again after the Cultural Revolution. Since the late 1970s, when churches and seminaries began to reopen, Christians have seen hard-won gains in both freedom and acceptance by society.

Progress was slow at first–not surprising when China’s government is officially atheistic. But church leaders such as Bishop K.H. Ting worked to gain a hearing for Christianity in China. Ting, though not an evangelical, was instrumental in re-forming the Three-Self Patriotic Movement after it had been dismantled during the Cultural Revolution. Even as a leader of the registered churches, Ting argued publicly that Christian home gatherings must also be seen as legitimate and lawful. “In interpreting the constitution,” Ting wrote in 1980, “we cannot say that there is religious freedom in church buildings but not in homes.”

Ting also took aim at a foundational idea that undermined religion. Among scholars during the 1980s, the firmly entrenched view of religion was summed up with the Karl Marx phrase: “Religion … is the opium of the people.” In several articles, Ting argued that China needed to rethink this idea. At one point, he masterfully brought to bear the even more firmly entrenched idea of a harmonious society–he argued that the doctrine of “religion as an opium” incites hatred of religion, which “is not conducive to national unity and stability.” Although his early articles were met with academic criticism, Ting’s arguments gradually seemed to gain a foothold for greater public acceptance of religious belief.

Remarkable Moment
Today, no one seems sure just how many Christians there are in China. Some say about 40 million, others say as many as 130 million. What is clear, however, is that in a socialist nation that holds one-fifth of the world’s population, God is calling multitudes to faith in Jesus Christ. These are believers who revere the Word of God, who believe in calling people to salvation and in meeting their physical needs, who (perhaps like the early Christians in Rome) are working out how to be both faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and loyal citizens of a non-Christian nation.

Into this complex and fast-changing society, Franklin Graham led a small delegation from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to China May 5-15 to learn from both church and government leaders, to meet with pastors and seminarians, and to explore possibilities for BGEA ministry in China.

That God brought about such a visit seems remarkable. Then again, what God has already brought about through China’s rich and painful history is even more remarkable.

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