A Conversation on New Regulations
CP editor’s note: The following is an extensive interview with two of the house church’s leading voices – Wang Yi in Chengdu and Gao Zhen in Beijing. The interview discusses these pastor’s views on the new religious regulations currently being implemented in China, and most importantly, how their theology shapes and informs their churches’ responses to the regulations.
A transcript of the interview was published online in China in the lead up to Chinese New Year last month. The intention of these pastors was to provide the house church with material upon which to reflect and pray as the new year arrived, so that there might be a unified response to the regulations among the house churches going forward. In this interview, the pastors discuss the government’s motivations behind the regulations, questions concerning whether house churches should break up into small fellowship groups, how ecclesiology influences house church responses to the regulations, what testimony the house church is presenting to Chinese society, and why house churches in big urban centers must take the heat for small rural churches.
We at China Partnership are excited to translate and publish this interview (also available in the original Chinese here), asking that you join us in prayer for your brothers and sisters. Pray that many pastors and church leaders will read this interview and be encouraged. Pray for the church in China to respond to the regulations according to the hope and promises of the gospel, rather than out of fear.
We also suggest that you read more about the new regulations before reading this interview if you do not yet have a basic understanding of the changes. The first portion of the interview discusses many intricate aspects of the Chinese Communist Party and its motivations for interfering with the house church.
Grace to City editor’s note: On February 1, 2018, the New Regulations on Religious Affairs (abbreviated as the New Regulations) came into effect.
What does this mean for the Chinese house churches? How should the Chinese house churches face this external challenge? “The New Regulations are unconstitutional;” “we should continue large-group worship”; “no we should downgrade into small groups” …With so many different opinions, Grace to City invited Pastor Gao Zhen and Pastor Wang Yi for a discussion on this issue. This conversation is not an analysis of the content of the New Regulations, but a gospel-centered reflection on the church’s attitude, posture and strategy from a theological level, based on our doctrines of the church (ecclesiology) and salvation (soteriology).
For special reasons, pastors who adopted a small-group approach were not able to join our conversation today. Unfortunately, we were not able to have a dialogue between these different points of view because we are missing another voice. This forum is far from being all inclusive. We look forward to a deeper, broader discussion about this issue in the future.
Interview Host: For the New Regulations that are going into effect, what are some specific parts that are worth our attention?
Wang Yi: First, from the government’s control of religious affairs, it has developed into a more comprehensive system of management. Besides the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the New Regulations now include the Public Security Bureau, community administrations and governments of all levels.
The New Regulations are consistent with policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the past few years: for the first time the management of religious affairs was added into the Party Constitution, and religious control was added as a major focus to a list of social conflicts, contradictions and political goals. This means the government has put more value on the administration of religious affairs than it did in the previous decades. Although the New Regulations is still listed as a low-level State Council policy, it is setting up a system of comprehensive regulations over religious affairs.
For example, Mr. Liu Peng mentioned that the role of Wang Zuo-an, director of State Administration for Religious Affairs, has been downgraded. (He used to be a member of the Central Committee of the CCP, but now he is not even an alternate member). I think downgrading of the role of State Administration for Religious Affairs does not mean the government does not care about religious affairs; this actually reflects that the government has intensified their focus. That is to say, religious affairs are no longer managed by the insignificant State Administration for Religious Affairs. With the New Regulations, there is now a comprehensive system of management that includes governments and departments of all levels. In this comprehensive system of management, the State Administration for Religious Affairs is no longer the driving force.
For example, in the past ten years the role of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission has been downgraded; its secretaries used to be members of the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP. But downgrading the secretary of Legal Affairs Commission from the Standing Committee does not mean the work of legal affairs is less important; in fact, it has been elevated because it now falls into the hands of the National Security Council and President Xi.
The New Regulations in reality intends to establish a comprehensive system of management of religious affairs by including all governmental agencies. Something worth noting is that in the process of implementing the New Regulations, there is no way to identify (at least not on paper) which agency or which individual is the supreme leader in charge of religious affairs in China today. It’s no longer the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Is it the National Security Council, President Xi's office, or something else? Who is ultimately in charge? All we can do is guess, there is no way to find out on paper. The only thing certain is that it is no longer the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
Therefore, there are two points: first, the government intends to establish a comprehensive system of management over religious affairs. Second, this system is still ambiguous. We do not know how it will be ranked and who would ultimately be in charge after the system is fully implemented. This may become clearer after the New Regulations have been in place for a while.
"The government intends to establish a system of management over religious affairs." -Wang Yi
Second, from its content, the New Regulations clearly tightened the control over certain details, especially those involving foreigners, properties, education (theological education, religious education and training), custom entries, and religious activities overseas. In these areas a more elaborate, detailed system of management has been established. After February 1, State Administration for Religious Affairs issued a ten-page enforcement guideline on administrating licenses based on the New Regulations, which covers approval, administrative licensing and specific application practices (for example, religious activities by foreigners, administrative licensing for religious education longer-than three months, and detailed application process).
Third, the New Regulations seem to have left a space for temporary venues for religious activities and temporary registrations. What is interesting is that, while the enforcement guidelines of administrative licensing explained in detail the application process for religious activities and religious education, it does not cover registrations for temporary venues for religious activities. It is interesting that the New Regulations left a space for temporary registrations, yet there is no clear guideline in the management of such registrations. Therefore, I think the implementation process will be punishment first and detention second, since now the specific execution of temporary registration is not in effect.
Gao Zhen: In facing the New Regulations, I suggest that we take the long view, even ten years or twenty years into future and see what the Chinese government intends to achieve.
First, the New Regulations clearly define what is legal and what is illegal. While the New Regulations have been brewing for a while, they were endorsed at the change of the government; therefore, they were done hastily and carelessly. We have to take this into consideration.
What is legal? Would everything be legal if we join the Three-Self Church? We can't tell by looking at the New Regulations. The regulations give local governments the authority to decide what is legal. During the implementation of the New Regulations, it looks like local governments need to ban all that is illegal; in fact, the New Regulations want to convert all that is illegal into legal. That is why people call it “the new Three-Self Movement.”
The New Regulations weakened the roles of the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Three-Self church. It placed the power in the hands of the local governments to decide what is legal and to manage local churches. Later we will talk about how local governments will implement these policies.
Second, we have to take the long view; I am concerned that the New Regulations may be preparing the way for comprehensive religious legislation in the future.
How to manage religious affairs? The government has hosted numerous forums; China is also learning and mobilizing.
I just came back from Taiwan. I brought back a membership directory from one of the churches there. It recorded all members’ information, including their tithing. In Taiwan there is no unregistered church; every member must be registered; the government knows every member’s contribution amount, and churches must participate in community service. We have come to realize now that when the government intervenes with church governance, [the result is that the] churches in Taiwan have almost all been wiped out. They pursue the prosperity gospel or Pentecostalism. Either they become Pentecostal, or they begin to compare building and congregation sizes. Churches that hold up the cross are all declining, while Pentecostal churches are reviving. This is happening all over Taiwan. Some seek big church buildings and prominent community service.
It is not an overstatement to categorize Christianity in Taiwan as "Christianity without Christ." Therefore, I am concerned that Chinese churches will slowly follow in their steps.
The New Regulations aim to gradually transition into penetration and intervention, not suppression. This is like what is happening with the churches in Wenzhou. It is not a policy of confrontation, but a sinicization of Christianity by practical measures (for example, installing national flags and video cameras in and around the churches) to the degree of forbidding evangelism and canceling children’s Sunday school. This is happening in the whole Wenzhou area.
"It is not a policy of confrontation, but a sinicization of Christianity by practical measures."
When local governments intervene with churches' standard administration, they start with your safety and fire prevention. They do not care about the sizes of your congregations – they do not start by looking at your numbers. They start by looking at your building – number of people allowed in the building, fire prevention, etc. Penetration starts right here, one step at a time. This is what I am concerned about, that the New Regulations will gradually transition into comprehensive religious legislation.
If comprehensive religious legislation is established, all of our churches will have to be registered; how would that impact the Chinese churches and their development? We have to think about this in the next ten to twenty years.
Interview Host: You two have spoken a lot from an administrative standpoint. Pastor Wang pointed out that the New Regulations aim to return to an ideology-based system of comprehensive management that is consistent with CCP policies. While it leaves space for certain issues, it does not provide any detailed guidelines on these areas. Pastor Gao pointed out that the New Regulations give authority to local governments, who may start with standardizing building regulations and gradually intervene with churches' internal affairs.
If so, from the perspectives of management and control, what are some parts of the New Regulations regarding church affairs that we need to be mindful of?
Gao Zhen: One of the effects of standardizing building regulations would be the venues and the formats of church gatherings.
Just like the removal of low-income populations in Beijing, the excuse for their removal was that their housing did not meet the standards. Once their homes were sealed off, the people had to move, and houses that meet the standards are very expensive. We are facing the same situation. The way the government intervenes with church administration will start with congregations located in dangerous communities or housed in unsafe buildings.
Take Second Gospel Presbyterian Church as an example: at first, we rented a warehouse and spent quite a bit of money to renovate it into a nice space. Then the government came and said the building was not up to standard, and we were kicked out (the owner built the building without license and thus had no legal property right, and we were unaware of this).
First, we should not quickly count this as persecution: we were gathering for worship; the police came and put pressure on the owner; then we were persecuted. Such a simple definition of persecution is too hasty.
The government first starts with driving churches out of dilapidated buildings and residential areas. The churches will then have to move into commercial space, like Pastor Wang's church now meets in an office building. But a lot of churches can't afford this because of their size and tithing. Because of this, some churches choose to downgrade into smaller groups.
But before downgrading into smaller groups, you must consider what are the factors and motivations behind dividing into small groups. You must consider your doctrine of the church (ecclesiology).
Wang Yi: Pastor Gao mentioned the new Three-Self movement; the New Regulations in essence are the manifesto of the new Three-Self movement. But it is different from the Three-Self movement in the 1950s.
In the 1950s, the government needed to win over people from the church. The Three-Self movement was a spontaneous movement led by Wu Yaozong and others as a manifesto from within the Chinese Christian circle, and the government readily acknowledged and supported it. The situation today is different. While the content and implementation of the New Regulations were done in a hurry, its introduction has been deferred a few years; it was being prepared as early as 2015. And it still felt hasty after a three-year delay.
A couple of years ago, the government wanted to make Christianity more Chinese ideologically. One important part of the government's intervention in Wenzhou churches is that religious affairs have been elevated to the level of ideological security or national security. In the past couple years, the government failed to win over people from house churches to represent the new Three-Self movement.
In the 1950s the government had to win over a group of people from the church before they persecuted the rest. Today, the government fails to find any pro-government people in the churches; this creates a lot of problems if the government wants to persecute the church right now. Therefore, this new Three-Self movement is different from the 1950s because this movement is completely driven by the government without any collusion from inside the church. While it is possible that house churches may divide during the implementation of the New Regulations (which we will discuss in detail later), this movement was not initiated by a division within the church.
"Today, the government fails to find any pro-government people in the churches." -Wang Yi
Under the pretense of the rule of law, the government introduced the New Regulations to launch and promote this new Three-Self movement. The first few articles of the New Regulations seem relatively tame since they talk about purposes and goals, but the New Regulations are much stronger in comparison to the 2004 regulations in that they clearly mention ideological security and sinicization of religions. This somewhat resembles the Three-Self manifesto in the 1950s, except that in the 1950s the people within the church came up with the ideas of a Three-Self, renewed, and patriotic movement. The New Regulations aim for new reforms, patriotism, and sinicization of religion. They've always said that “religions should adapt to socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Now it is elevated to the level of ideological security and sinicization of religions. These two points will have a great impact on the things we will talk about later.
What the church could tolerate is the transition from approval-based religious administration to record-based administration, which means there would be no review of content. We hope that religious administration can evolve from a system of strict examination to a more flexible system of records. Yet from what we see on paper, this is going in the opposite direction. The New Regulations show no signs of transitioning from an approval-based system toward a record-based system; instead it pursues ideological security and sinicization of Christianity. In fact, many articles strengthened the practices of examination and approval.
Like the government intervention with churches in Wenzhou (intervention with architecture, education materials, community services, traditions, etc.), these all lead to even stricter examinations for church officers, properties, doctrines and members. In essence, the New Regulations wanted to launch a new Three-Self movement. From this perspective, it will inevitably fail. While some state scholars voiced support for the movement and provided some philosophical foundation for the sinicization of Christianity, the government has no representation in the house churches and has to initiate this new Three-Self movement by law. Therefore, the New Regulations are in essence the political manifesto of the new Three-Self movement disguised as a law.
Interview Host: Pastor Wang mentioned that the New Regulations elevated religious affairs ideologically to the level of national security and religious security. The government seeks to achieve some control over the church ideologically and politically through the new Three-Self movement. You also mentioned that the way it is carried out is different from the 1950s movement. Is it possible that, in the 1950s, the new regime was just established, and the church was by nature legal – the church existed before the new regime came into being. The Three-Self movement, from a strategic and operational standpoint, was originally a re-registration movement – the legal church becoming more legal by joining certain organizations, which was a way of operating within a certain historical context. Today’s New Regulations aim to bring control to churches outside the Three-Self movement.
In some ways, the government no longer needs to re-register and divide the church. Registration is enough; there is no need for re-registration. Therefore, would it be possible that the government no longer intends to bring more division within the church?
Wang Yi: If the government considers the Three-Self system established in the 1950’s still effective today, it does not need to recruit new agents in the house churches. This would prove that the government was very confident. On the other hand, statistics show that house churches were really the main body of the church in China; the total number of all house church members could be two to three times higher than that of the Three-Self church. The Three-Self church does not seem to be a very useful tool, and it would be quite a stretch under such circumstances. In fact, the government was not confident enough.
One other factor is what Gao Zhen just mentioned about Taiwan, which is tied to our ecclesiology, and we will talk about that more shortly. When the CCP wanted to link religion with ideological security, we can use another term to summarize this situation, which is the legitimacy of the state. The cultural revolution in religion happened before all other revolutions. The regime established in 1949 was a whole new system that faced a legitimacy problem, which was closely tied to the church-state relationship.
The government in Taiwan takes a simple view of the church and treats churches as all non-religious civil organizations. Therefore, the Taiwanese government manages churches the same way it manages other non-religious organizations. This has nothing to do with a state's legitimacy. The state’s legitimacy is not challenged by the church’s ecclesiology; it is purely secular. In Taiwan, and in most western countries today, while the church is considered religious, it is treated no different than any other secular organization.
Yet in 1949, the Communist Party in China could not look at the church this way. Today the situation remains the same. After several decades, the CCP regime still faces the problem of establishing authority in the country, and it clearly feels that the existence of house churches threatens and challenges its legitimacy. In fact, the government today sees the church-state relationship as a competing relationship between two kingdoms. But the church to a large extent does not look at the issue this way. That is to say, the government considers the existence of the church not only as a civil governing problem (like the government managing an independent civil group). The government believes the church can influence its ideological security, meaning it would also influence the self-definition of the state; it is a problem about the boundary between the two kingdoms.
"We are defining the boundary between church and state." -Wang Yi
It is excellent that Pastor Gao pointed this out. The New Regulations today highlight the church-state relationship, which is not about what one church should do, not about whether one strategy is feasible, not about whether it is safe for one church to continue gathering and worshipping. In fact, we are defining the boundary between church and state. In China, this is an issue that has not been finalized. What the government does today and how the church responds will impact the boundary between church and state in China for the next twenty to thirty or even one hundred years.
Today, countries represented by the United States legally treat the church equal to other non-religious organizations; yet from a national, social, cultural structure perspective, the state still holds a distinctive view of the church. While this is not a traditional Christian kingdom mindset, governments still view the church as a factor that could influence the existence of the state. But some other western countries and regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan do not hold such a special view of the church. This is what Pastor Gao was concerned about.
Then what are we hoping for? We hope the government would govern the church the same way it governs all other civil organizations. This is the basic request of the church. Currently we call our special treatment "persecution." But if we have equal treatment with other organizations, we cannot call it persecution, because all civil organizations share the same, equal treatment under the law.
Therefore, our current request seems to be, the government should not treat us any differently because we are a religious organization. Yet if we move one step further, as Pastor Gao just said, if one day the government has finalized its philosophy of government, it is no longer concerned about ideological security but has true confidence in its system, when the legitimacy of the state has nothing to do with the church and the government no longer treats the church any differently than other civil organizations, the church may not necessarily be in a better situation either. The church has lost its distinctiveness.
We hope the government would establish a more biblical church-state relationship. In fact, the government should still legally treat the church equal to other civil organizations, yet also with certain distinctions. Of course it is not distinct to the extent of viewing it as a separate state. Today the game between the church and state will in effect define many issues relating to the boundary between the church and state. I am also very concerned about this.
Interview Host: Pastor Gao, Pastor Wang has already touched on ecclesiology. A while ago you mentioned that the question of downgrading (to small groups) or not is not the most important; what is most important is to think with a proper ecclesiology. From your standpoint, how does your ecclesiology help you think through the whole issue? What role does ecclesiology have in your pastoral practices? How does it guide your thoughts?
Gao Zhen: First, we have to think about what makes the church distinct from other religions.
The New Regulations regulate Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism and other religions. People see us as one organization, but we have a strong, biblical doctrine of the church. If your form of worship can be changed easily, that means your ecclesiology is not strong enough.
A strong ecclesiology comes from the Bible. Doctrine of the church, doctrine of worship, moving onto the doctrine of God, the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of salvation, they are all inseparable. Many people’s confusion comes from a lack of unity; they separate these doctrines from one another, leading to pragmatism and confusion in real life applications.
Currently there is a two-wing system in churches in Taiwan, which is large group gatherings plus small groups. But they can’t find a balance between large group and small groups, to the extent of placing the administration of baptism and communion in the hands of small groups. As a matter of fact, they don't pay much attention to Sunday worship and give most authority to small groups.
My biggest concern is the response to the New Regulations by downgrading into small groups. Christ built up the church, not to fulfill personal needs, but to fulfill the need to worship God. This is extremely important. Right now, the inclination toward individualism is very serious; some people think that public worship and Sunday gatherings are merely formulaic; they want to cut back on public worship and think that churches should have lovely and nice fellowship. Therefore, if the church downgrades to small groups in response to the New Regulations, while there are some remedial measures (for example, two big gatherings every year), as time goes by, your ecclesiology will be turned upside-down.
"Christ built up the church, not to fulfill personal needs, but to fulfill the need to worship God."
Such churches are not be called by God, but they are self-initiated. Sacraments, church discipline, and even God’s Word may be weakened. John Calvin wrote about the three marks of a true church: the holy word, holy sacraments, and church discipline. None of these three can be administered effectively in small groups. These three marks are tied to the church's catholicity, apostolicity, and holiness. The New Regulations were done rashly; it would be even more rash if we downgrade the church into small groups just to respond to the New Regulations.
Interview Host: Pastor Gao, you mentioned the three marks of a true church – the holy word, holy sacraments, and church discipline – and the church’s attributes of catholicity, apostolicity, and holiness. Only in these terms can we find the form of a visible church. A visible church is different from a small group in that a small group does not have these attributes and cannot fulfill these marks. Your concern is that, without the guidance of a proper ecclesiology, downgrading into small groups would lead to a loss of the church's full functionality and its existential purpose to worship God. Therefore, it is inappropriate to downgrade the church into small groups without the guidance of a proper ecclesiology. And this is why you don't downgrade your church into small groups.
Gao Zhen: This in essence is a struggle for power between God and man. Small groups reflect human power while the church reflects God’s power, that is, hallowed be your name.
Interview Host: When a church planter plants a new church, it looks a lot like a small group. What then are the differences between a church plant and a small group?
Gao Zhen: A church plant is not a fellowship because it has a sending church.
Interview Host: But a church plant at the beginning does not have a complete set of sacraments, preaching (God’s word), and church discipline. You may say that from the sending church it inherits the attributes of catholicity, apostolicity and holiness. But a small group also has these attributes as an extension of a larger congregation, only that it does not have the marks of an independent functioning church. So what are the essential differences between a church plant and a small group?
Gao Zhen: A church plant is in a transitional stage between a missional gathering and a full congregation. But small groups already have a full congregation, only that the congregation has been separated.
Interview Host: That is to say, while a church plant and a small group may look similar from the outside, a church plant is more like a seed that will eventually grow into a tree. This is only a temporary transition. But if we downgrade to small groups, we may be in that format forever and will not become a church again.
Wang Yi: These are two different scenarios. It’s a totally different thing when a church separates for the sake of church planting. If the conditions are met and we can plant a church earlier than expected, then we are not talking about small groups, but rather we are talking about a church planting movement.
"This in essence is a struggle for power between God and man." -Gao Zhen
Interview Host: Pastor Wang, based on your ecclesiology, how would you respond to the New Regulations?
Also, Pastor Gao mentioned the issue of separation in the church. Traditional house churches paid a lot of attention to the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), and one implication from that would be the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology. Often we focus on the doctrine of salvation – being born again, evangelism. It seems like downgrading to small groups may even promote evangelism. What role does ecclesiology play in your pastoral practices? How do you perceive the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology? How would your ecclesiology help you respond to the New Regulations?
Wang Yi: Pastor Gao put it very well. The center of God’s creation and redemption is his church. Before the foundation of the world he chose his people in Christ Jesus. As the first fruits of everything, his people are waiting for the day when all things will be united in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. Therefore, we are created for community, and we are redeemed for the kingdom, the body of Christ.
We are kept on earth, rather than being carried directly to heaven after our baptism, because of the Great Commission – to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, to teach believers to observe everything the Lord has commanded us, to establish worship, and to return to the original purpose of creation, which is to fill the earth with God’s image and glory through those whom God has saved. Therefore, the church is first and foremost God’s kingdom.
Under difficult circumstances, this kingdom can even exist in invisible forms. For example, in the 50s and 60s there was no visible church in this land. Yet those believers who were scattered and persecuted still made up the kingdom of God. This never ceased. People may ask, “If persecution comes, should we still keep the tangible, visible form of the church?" There are two questions related to this. One is what Pastor Gao just mentioned – the modern, individualistic understanding of the gospel, which influences our position on downgrading the church to fellowships, because our views on fellowship still come from an individualistic perspective. The focus is still on “me;” “I” need help from others. To put it in a worldly way, "We hold together for warmth.” Therefore, a fellowship is good for my personal growth.
Yet the church is not established from the perspective of individual members; the head of the church is Christ. If one holds an individualistic understanding of the church and the gospel, he will have a totally different response, because it will be all about my own salvation and how many people I can lead to Christ.
On the other hand, we recognize that the church is the kingdom of God. Sometimes under difficult circumstances, this kingdom exists in ways that are not visible to the eyes. The breakdown of the visible church does not mean the kingdom has disappeared. Under such circumstances, people ask, “Why should we keep the assembly and the forms of the visible church? What should the church defend in order to grow and develop?” This is tied to some complex factors. It is related to one's view of the church and understanding of the situation. I think many churches’ responses are related to their understanding of the situation, their understanding of Chinese society, and their understanding of the relationship between church and state (including their understanding of the church, state, and society).
In the past six months, I surveyed my colleagues and asked how many of them felt our church was under persecution. I did such a survey four to five times in the past six months. At the beginning half of them thought we have a 50% chance of being persecuted. The most recent one was taken a week ago and 80-90% of them thought we have a 50% chance of being persecuted. What is interesting is that those who frequently bypass the firewall tend to think the danger is not that high, while those who don’t bypass the firewall think the danger is higher.
This shows that our reactions are tied to our sources of information and our understanding of society, including our fear of the state and politics. Sometimes we want to dress up our decisions as theological responses, but I think this differentiation is necessary. Some churches’ responses are not based on theology, but are based on different sources of information, different understandings of the situation, personal experiences, and even fear. There is lots of worldly stuff here that we try to dress up as theology, and this is extremely dangerous. In situations like these, we tend to be weak.
After 1949, the emergence of Chinese urban churches in the last ten years was brought on by God in a relatively relaxed environment. In reality, our way of the cross, our experiences of suffering for the Lord, our grasp of the situation, and self-evaluation have not yet been seriously tested by God. Therefore, we tend to overlook our corruption and fear in the midst of weakness.
In our prior mode of survival, due to the advancement of information age, we were like frightened birds. We held deep-seated fear toward the state and political powers. However, if we face the new regulations with our salvation in mind, it will help us face our fear, timidity, weakness, and corruption in this life. As the new regulations bring challenges to our faith, do we have true freedom in Christ?
"In reality, our way of the cross, our experiences of suffering for the Lord... have not yet been seriously tested by God." -Wang Yi
When believers today face these external challenges, we should put more focus on our own weakness and fear, and whether we have been fearlessly filled with the Holy Spirit in Christ. In the Bible, the byproduct of being filled with the Holy Spirit is speaking the word of God with boldness. Therefore, our challenge today is ourselves: can house churches in China today preach the word of God with boldness because we are filled with the Holy Spirit? Do we have true freedom through the gospel of Christ? When we face the new regulations, our responses should come more from the gospel itself rather than our assessment of external factors. Often our assessments of external factors are not reliable (it depends on our sources of information, our limited life experiences, and even our geographic locations, like whether we are in Beijing, or Wenzhou, or other provinces). Therefore, we must ask whether our response is one that centers on the gospel. This says nothing yet about our view of the church, but only about our view of salvation. Facing these new regulations, God’s gospel of grace comes to life through the teaching of the church. This is the first point, facing the challenges of the new regulations with our salvation in mind.
Second, there's the ecclesiological perspective. Pastor Gao just said, no matter how you respond to the New Regulations, no matter what the government’s intention is, we must seek God’s will. God would never intend to reduce church worship through our responses to the New Regulations. Churches in China have indeed gone through periods without large congregations. We have already experienced decades with only small groups, family worship, and gatherings of only two or three people. In the past ten years, we saw God leading Chinese house churches into a new age. If it were not for the New Regulations, all of us would be talking about new buildings, pastoral systems, church planting and evangelism. Should we stop talking about these things because of the New Regulations?
God’s will is to bring his scattered children together to build tangible, visible congregations, where God’s people can gather together as a church (whether with one hundred, five hundred or fifty people – size is not important) for public worship and sacraments. Will the churches' responses to the New Regulations diminish our worship? If what we do diminishes our worship, then our response to God is wrong and contradictory to God’s guidance for the Chinese house churches in the past ten years. If the church’s response is more church planting, that is certainly good.
Take the Presbyterian church for example, to establish a new church there must be qualified elders. First, this requires a certain church size: a small group is unlikely to have two to three mature elders. Second, this takes time: a dozen people may share the gospel and experience trials in life together; it could take seven to eight years or even ten years before two or three of them qualify to be elders. Such a body needs time and stability. If a church’s stability is disrupted by men and it downgrades to small groups, realistically it will have no manpower to plant a church.
"God would never intend to reduce church worship through our responses to the New Regulations." -Wang Yi
Suppose we have a church of two hundred members. In the past seven to eight years, it has become a congregation with three qualified elders and a team of Christ-centered pastors, teachers and evangelists; they are all working well together. This is a church of two hundred members, growing under the guidance of God in the past seven to eight years. Yet now because of the New Regulations, the church downgrades to five or eight small groups. On average there will not even be one qualified elder in each group. The church’s teaching, worship and governance will have been weakened. This is not the result of proactive church planting, but instead a demolition of what God has built up in this church in the past few decades.
If however, after seven or eight years of growth, the church is preparing to split into two congregations, or sending a group to plant a church, or more ambitiously, splitting into three congregations in the next two to three years, that would be great and very plausible. This would be the right way to grow a church organically. But if the church downgrades into ten small groups, the church would be taking a step back rather than moving forward. The result would be separation of the whole church, and separation of the body of Christ.
If the church downgrades into ten small groups, we are not likely to have ten churches in the future; rather, five or six of them may be lost, and two or three of them may repeat the slow growth for the next seven or eight years and return to where we are today. Today we must consider whether it is worthwhile for us to pay the price for Sunday worship, church government, and the administration of the sacraments that God has established among us? Should we walk the way of the cross and not give up easily? This has to be the most critical question.
I do understand that some churches choose to scatter their people based on their understanding of the situation (even though later development may prove them wrong). I would not criticize them, because they did so based on their understanding. If today’s situation is as bad as it was in the 1950s and 60s, maybe we all have to scatter. We have to pay the price; if things become severe enough at the end, it is likely that we will not even hold public worship with more than fifty people. Even if that happens, we still believe that a visible body of Christ will continue to exist in China.
But the current question is, would you pay the price? Would you pay the price for what God did through the house churches in China in the past ten years? For the whole urban church planting movement, congregation-building, formation of Christ's body, slowly maturing into an ecclesiology that informs our teaching, pulpit building, administrations of sacraments, church officer training, and discipleship? For most churches, this only has taken place in the past seven, eight or ten years. Are these worthy of us paying the price of walking the way of cross, even to the degree of imprisonment, until we cannot take it anymore?
"Would you pay the price for what God did through the house churches in China in the past ten years?" -Wang Yi
We should respond step by step, rather than overreacting and downgrading the church in advance. Downgrading in advance is tied to one's ecclesiology; it is tied to courage and filling of the Spirit from the gospel as a result of one's soteriology; it is also tied to a faulty judgment of the situation or insufficient information.
Interview Host: First, for a Christian, the doctrine of salvation should equip him with sufficient courage to face persecution. Second, the importance of the doctrine of the church. Pastor Wang mentioned the relationship between salvation and the church, that God’s will is for the church to be an integral community of life, to complete the ultimate salvation of the new man.
Today we gather those who have been scattered on earth, to join together, with churches, with divine governance and the works of the Holy Spirit, with maturity and discipleship, as a visible, organic community, as a church or a congregation. This is the precious work of God. Based on this ecclesiology and appreciation of God’s work, we see God’s guidance through so many years. Based on this ecclesiology, should we make decisions with incomplete information? Should we readily give up without walking the way of the cross, without doing our duty, without making any sacrifices for God's work?
This is the reason you continue to hold public worship. If one day, after paying the price, we still end up being separated, that is the will of God. But before God’s will is revealed, you are willing to carry on the work of God, for the maturing of the church, continue as a full church and congregation.
Wang Yi: One more point - in the past few months and also moving forward, we are actively promoting and accelerating church planting. Intentionally planting a church is different from small groups. We launched one new congregation at the end of last year; we plan to do so again in March; we may launch or support one more new church this year. This is consistent with the logic of building up the church, only that current events may bring new energy to our movement. This is completely different from downgrading into small groups.
Interview Host: This is a proactive response under the church's unity and sovereignty, not passive and restricted. To some degrees the situation accelerated the process, but this is a proactive action by the church, rather than reactive.
Wang Yi: In addition, according to our ecclesiology, the fundamental issue is our understanding of the relationship between church and state. Why would there be New Regulations? In many ways the New Regulations are concerned with ideological and national securities because in essence the governing philosophy in China sees politics and religion as one. The state does not accept a spiritual authority or a kingdom in the realm of faith. Therefore, our response to the New Regulations today carries significant evangelistic and apologetic purposes.
That is to say, we are not reactively responding to the New Regulations, but we have an opportunity to continue to demonstrate to society what the church is; why spiritual authority should not be in the hands of those who wield the sword; why we can accept external governance (at least we could endure that) but can not allow our faith, worship, teaching, shepherding, church offices and members to come under the state's review and control. This is an opportunity for the church in China.
In the 1980s and 90s there were several rounds of persecution toward house churches in China, but in the past twenty years there has not been a nation-wide persecution of house churches. In the past twenty years there were only individual cases of persecution for certain believers and churches in certain areas. But there have not been any national persecution movements in the past twenty years. This is really an opportunity, as the government makes a new attempt (to persecute the church).
I personally believe this is the last attempt by the CCP – in hope of complete suppression or at least strict limits on the development of Christianity in China, even adopting legislation, mandatory enforcement and possible criminal cases in the future (probably not many, five or six cases in different parts of the country). The government is sparing no expense to suppress house churches. I think this may be the CCP’s last attempt in its transition. What I meant by the last attempt is that this may not be successful. It may get stuck in the middle and be abandoned after a couple of high points.
It is a lot like the Edict of Milan in 313 AD: before Christianity was legalized, it suffered one last severe persecution in 311 AD, which seemed violent but did not last long. Therefore, how the church respond to the New Regulations is a large-scale evangelistic and apologetic movement that no individual church, minister or believer could do in the past. This is God’s will, that through persecution or some kind of wide-spread suppression, the church has an opportunity to rethink or even demonstrate in this process, with humility, gentleness and yet a resolute heart, that the essence of this church-state relationship is the boundary between a spiritual kingdom and a worldly kingdom with swords.
The church of Christ's position on the church-state relationship is shaped by our ecclesiology. In fact, all other religions are beneficiaries of Christianity’s position on this issue, because they do not have a philosophy of separation between church and state. In its response to the New Regulations, the church must explain and hold firm to its position of separation between church and state. We must express to the government why our faith supports a separation between church and state, and why we firmly reject sinicization of Christianity, government interventions in churches, and exams on pastoral qualifications.
For today’s churches, we must examine whether we should firmly reject government interventions. If yes, how do we show the government that we are motivated by our faith, not by political goals? This means we are willing to take the way of the cross and suffer for our faith. What is the way of the cross? Some say that both separation and solidarity are ways of the cross. I don’t think so. I understand that you are downgrading because of your judgment of the situation. Even if later events prove your decision wrong, I understand the motivation behind your decision. But I don’t think that is the way of the cross. That is to say, what did you pay the price for? It is not for dodging, but for the society and the country to know why our faith rejects the government’s limit and control over what we believe. I am willing to pay the price for this. I am willing to show you that I am willing to pay the price. This is the way of evangelism and apologetics.
You must look at your response from an evangelistic and apologetic perspective, rather than simply saying that separation would prompt me to share the gospel in the streets. That is an excuse, because as long as you are not in prison you can share the gospel with people in the streets; this has nothing to do with responding to the New Regulations. As long as you have personal freedom, you can share the gospel with people. This has absolutely nothing to do with the church’s response to the New Regulations.
Therefore, the most important issue is that the church has an opportunity to contend, persevere, and pay the price for our faith in front of society and its rulers. If this is the first nation-wide persecution of house churches in the last twenty years, the church also has its first ever evangelistic and apologetic opportunity in the last twenty years. This is the way of the cross that is consistent with a theology of the cross that God has put in our hearts.
Grace to City has been advocating for a gospel-centered and Christ-centered church; we have been teaching that the cross is our center. As we face the New Regulations, unless churches in China, the Reformed churches, and churches involved in Grace to City demonstrate that they are willing to pay the price for what they teach and for the way of the church, we are betraying what we have been teaching. This is an opportunity for the churches in China to have not only a message to preach, but also leaders with testimonies.
In response to the New Regulations, Grace to City should become a gospel-centered church planting movement that stands firm for our ecclesiology, based on our Christ-centered and gospel-centered faith, which supports a separation of church and state; Grace to City should be willing to pay the price and voice its concerns. Unless Grace to City plays such a role in this movement, it will lose the power to share its gospel.
Interview Host: We talked about ecclesiology, first from a holistic view of salvation – that is the relationship between the doctrine of man and the doctrine of salvation. We develop a theology of worship based on our ecclesiology; we need to maintain corporate worship.
Second, we looked at ecclesiology from the perspective of God’s kingdom and authority. The realm of God’s kingdom and authority is the human soul; every person is responsible to God. The church directs God’s people through God’s Word, God’s sovereignty, Christ, and the shepherding of the Holy Spirit. This type of boundary is different from that of the government.
The government has the power of the sword, but the sword should not infringe upon the boundary of God’s sovereignty. Therefore, when the government attempts to intervene with churches' administration through its authoritative words, yet before they misuse the sword to persecute the church, some churches already voluntarily scatter or adopt certain strategies to retreat, without any confrontations with the sword. When the two kingdoms' boundaries have not yet been revealed, when the swords of the two kingdoms have not yet been crossed, some churches voluntarily give up – this is not the way of the cross.
In other words, this church-state boundary and the two kingdoms are revealed during the expansion of God’s kingdom, under government's persecution with the sword, on the way to the cross, and the marks of the cross. Through this revelation, we can clearly see the manifestation of the church and the kingdom. In some ways this is the only way to see the marks of the cross; this is truly the way of the cross. Basically, you just explained an ecclesiology from the perceptive of the kingdom, and the way and marks of the cross from the perspective of the boundary of God’s kingdom.
Wang Yi: Another perspective would be from that of evangelism and testimony. We must consider, as the church responds to the new regulations, what kind of testimony is the church presenting to the whole of Chinese society. In today's Chinese society, while the church is not always at its best, it still has a pretty good reputation among the Chinese people.
In traditional Chinese culture and society there is one group of people who, with no practical (economic or political) gain in mind, would hold on to their conscience and pursuit of faith to the point that even government persecution could not force them to give up. Moreover, they would express their goodwill by reacting not in violence but in gentleness. In the Chinese society, only the Chinese church has this type of testimony in the past few decades.
Yet the testimonies of the house churches were not well known by the majority of Chinese society. How many people knew of Yuan Xiangchen (Allen) or Wang Mingdao? Their testimonies were limited to a very isolated system; but the situation for the house churches today is very different. With tens of millions of believers, today’s house churches are becoming more known by Chinese society.
I do not know exactly how many Chinese people have known of admirable Christians like Wang Mingdao; I would guess no more than ten million. But today at least 200 to 500 million Chinese people know about house churches. Moreover, with the social changes in the past ten to twenty years, more and more Chinese, including those who pursue freedom and democracy and care for society, have gradually come to see the testimonies of the house churches. These are all brave people who hold onto freedom of conscience. The house churches are different in a sense that we do not take to the streets or resist with political campaigns. The church is by nature low-profile, obedient, and gentle. Today we have an opportunity to respond to a massive persecution brought by the new regulations.
The problem with testimonies from the past are, first, not very many people know about them, and second, they are in the past. But how the Chinese house churches react to the new regulations and bear witness for Christ today could have an unimaginably positive influence on the future of the gospel movement in China.
Interview host: To summarize what Pastor Gao and Pastor Wang have shared, we see from four different perspectives why you choose to continue large-group worship and follow the way of the cross.
First, Pastor Gao mentioned that the functional unity of the church, particularly the preaching of the word, the administrations of sacraments and church discipline, and the purpose of the church, all need to happen within a full church body.
Second, Pastor Wang mentioned the perspectives of ecclesiology and the unity between ecclesiology and salvation. The church is an organic, unified body; rather than easily giving up the fullness of the body, we walk the way of the cross.
Third, from the perspective of kingdom sovereignty, the sovereign boundary that God gives to the church is that of the kingdom. By following the way of the cross and the marks of the cross, we will demonstrate that our boundary is different from that of the world.
Fourth, the perspective of bearing witness to society and representing Christianity as a church. Our willingness to suffer is a testimony to our present age.
These are the four main reasons why you want to continue large-group worship.
Wang Yi: I would like to add one more perspective that Pastor Gao has already mentioned.
Fifth, churches in big cities must stand up for churches in smaller cities and villages.
From a biblical view of the church, I think it is wrong for any congregation to consider reacting to the new regulations solely on the ground of its own benefit or loss. Any decisions from that basis would be wrong. The decisions have to be made from a kingdom perspective - that churches in all of China are Christ’s body. We are one church.
There is one issue with this perspective: urban churches tend to endure more pressure than rural churches; churches in medium-sized cities tend to endure more pressure than churches in second and third-tier cities.
"Churches in big cities must stand up for churches in smaller cities and villages." -Wang Yi
Over the past ten years many urban churches have begun to emerge in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Chengdu, with public gatherings of over a hundred believers outside of their homes (some even climb up to three hundred or more, but usually they are between one and two hundred). We don't know what the goals or final results of the current government persecution are. Is it targeted to crack down on congregations with over a thousand believers and leave those with a hundred alone, or is to crack down those with a hundred and leave those with fifty alone? We have no idea.
From this perspective we realize why churches in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu must stand firm, because this is your responsibility. You stand among your brothers and sisters; you stand within the body of Christ all over this country; if you are quick to give up, churches in smaller cities will give up even more. If your congregation of two hundred members gives up easily without persecution from the sword or political authority, a church of fifty in a smaller city will have to give up to avoid imprisonment. If you can hold on, a church of fifty in smaller cities may be okay.
Only those with over a hundred members (i.e. larger congregations) are conspicuous. All the churches in this country are part of the body of Christ, one church. In this storm, you must hold on for your brothers. You cannot only think of your own congregation.
You must consider your response: you have come to your privileged position as a church in the capital, in the provincial capital, or in an urban center, and enjoy so much common grace from God; but it may be that God will also use you to stand up for your brothers, to hold on against the sword and the authorities. This is a crucial burden for the whole body of Christ.
Interview host: At the intersection of redemptive history and secular history, urban house churches have received more grace through external and visible resources. Since we have received such grace and resources, we should also now pay the price for other churches within the same saving grace, holding firm for them and protecting them with the same social resources that God has given us in the past.
The above five points are the positions of you two pastors/churches, but different churches respond differently to the new regulations. How should the church handle these different opinions?
Gao Zhen: Our presbytery had a heated debate over this topic. I am one of the marginalized. The mainstream opinion in our presbytery is to downgrade to small groups, with the justification that not everyone can face the government like me. I appreciate what Pastor Wang just said. First, we must have unity; otherwise we will all be isolated.
We are beginning to divide internally as we face the new regulations. I think today’s discussion is very crucial because we are creating something visible for others; we have not had such discussion before. Previously some Christian scholars started some conversations concerning the new regulations, mainly from a legal point of view - like how to understand its contents and deal with it legally.
We must face the new regulations from the perspective of a whole church. As one church, as the kingdom of God, we are willing to make the sacrifice, to pay the price, to carry the cross. When persecution came, the early church did not scatter. Although they moved entirely underground, they maintained unity. The early church faced persecutions under Nero and Domitian and they still survived. Today’s persecution pales in comparison to those under Nero, Domitian, Claudius, or the persecutions in China during 1950s and 1980s.
"As one church, as the kingdom of God, we are willing to make the sacrifice, to pay the price, to carry the cross." -Gao Zhen
Today the church must confront these challenges courageously; we must maintain our posture. Putting the new regulations into effect is the government’s problem; the church’s posture is more important. We must maintain unity; at this point there is no unity within our presbytery. Majority of congregations wanted to downgrade the church into small groups.
Wang Yi: First of all, if the responses of other churches are based on their own understanding of the information, and they happen to have a different assessment of the situation, I will still respect their decision, even while I disagree with them. Second, they admitted that they are weak. If my brother told me that he is weak, and he cannot do likewise, I can understand. These are two reasons why we need to respect and understand them.
But if the weakness results in fear and denial and is concealed by smooth “theological talk,” it will bring greater harm to the church. To me, this latter situation no longer calls for respect and acknowledgment, but for pointing out the heart of the problem.
Our understanding of the information is not absolute. I told my co-workers that we shouldn’t be too confident with our own assessment but acknowledge that we might be wrong. What is most important is God’s purpose and will. I see that God’s will is to revive the church. The persecution of house churches in the 50s consisted of a beautiful testimony, but on a large-scale, it represented a setback for the church, and resulted in much weakness and helplessness. The heritage of house churches depended on a handful of servants, so much so that it was not undertaken by the local churches, but by the testimonies of the servants who were widely scattered. I estimate that this round of persecution will not be as bad as the 50s, since the Communist Party does not wield the same power as they did in the 50s, and they do not have the power they did during the peak of Deng Xiaoping’s era. There will be a wave of persecution, but it will get stalled – when the government has prosecuted several cases, shaken up one or two churches, and convicted some or no personnel. This movement would then be punctured, and it will fail to achieve its anticipated goal. This is my prediction for the future.
If we assume that the persecution is going to be intense, I believe that many will feel weak and regress just like the churches and believers did in the 50s. But at that time, I hope to see the house churches in China inherit the progress of the church in the last few decades: we should not repeat the same situation in the 50s, where only a handful of scattered pastors, shepherds, and individuals upheld their faith and followed the way of the cross. In the 50s, we saw that Wang Mingdao, Yuan Xiangchen (Allen), and Lin Gaoxiang were a group of individuals. But today, we see a group of churches, even institutionalized churches, who are willing to follow the way of the cross. If it were not just a handful of scattered individuals but a group of churches, then we would be ushering in a revival.
I shared with my co-workers that in 2018, we either forge ahead or we will fall behind. The New Regulations will not remain stagnant or progress slowly like in the past; they will either stall in the middle or they will move forward aggressively. Thus, we will either be persecuted, our people arrested, the church will be hit, followed by a tough season ahead, or the movement will stall in the middle after the first half of the year with nothing happening afterwards. If so, we must do what has never been accomplished before and stride forward a step or two. As the house churches in China face the New Regulations today, we can no longer march on the spot or adopt the mentality of an ostrich – when I bury my head and pull it back out, the earth and sky still remain the same. This is impossible. It will either lead to the reception of a huge revival, or experience a large-scale vulnerability leading to regression and failure. Facing this regulation, it is inevitable that we would either forge ahead or fall behind; we can't stay in the same spot.
Interview Host: We have mentioned previously, based on the two-kingdoms theology or the relationship between church and state, in the clash between the authority of God’s word and the sword of the civil government, they will, of course, raise up the cross as their symbol. Under this situation, if the (path of the) cross is the boundary, is our judgment then only a guideline? Hence, it is only when that sword is abused can we prove our judgment to be correct. Only at that point do we see weaknesses being manifested. When the time comes, if we are maintaining congregations of five to six hundred members, we might as well split into groups of a hundred or so, as it would be easier to shepherd. It is only at that point that we see whether it is a judgment of weakness or a judgment of priority. Now different assessments cannot in themselves become absolute reasons, but only serve as guidelines. What do you make of those who take the initiative to give up even before this guideline becomes clear?
Wang Yi: For example, if there is a church with five to seven hundred members and they wanted to lower the risk or to expand God’s kingdom, they could split the church into three to four congregations of one to two hundred members each. But why are there so many churches of this size that would immediately split the church up into small groups? In reality, they know that if a church of six to seven hundred cannot be maintained, the same number divided into several one-to-two-hundred-people churches cannot hold. Furthermore, they will be weaker in their resistance.
If they immediately split into small groups, it is out of a last resort, retreating to groups and families. This means that they have to maintain it no matter what – and if they still fail, they will be considered apostate. All of this has yet to occur, and they know what the reason is for them to revert back to small groups. If it is out of church planting to become three to four churches of one to two hundred members, this is the expansion of God’s kingdom. But when we face the New Regulations, this is more dangerous. Hence, they might as well retreat to the end. Under such conditions, the assessment of the situation has dominated your decision, and not the gospel itself. How do we deal with them? Other than bearing with them and respecting them, I think the most important thing is to preach the power of the gospel unceasingly. We need to restore and renew the strength of the gospel in the church, in the preachers, and in the lives of believers.
We are not motivated by environmental factors but by the gospel – to be passionate about the gospel and be zealous for the advancement of the work of God. Not to be fearful of the persecution of the government, but to be enthusiastic that God is about to work, this is the strength of the gospel. When we preach the gospel of grace, we speak to them with the strength of the gospel. We do not discuss with them regarding strategies, but to dialogue with them in the strength of the gospel.
"We are not motivated by environmental factors but by the gospel." -Wang Yi
Gao Zhen: I am more familiar with Beijing, and most of the pastors are still living in fear. First, there may be weaknesses that they are unable to share. The believers in the churches that decided to split into small groups might not necessarily agree with the strategy. They will trust the pastor, for the time being. Several days ago, two pastors whose churches have already split into small groups told me that it seems as though the government does not wield so great a power now. I also saw that they may have regretted their decision, and they have acted too quickly. But even so, they will not retract their steps because this will affect the spiritual authority of the pastor in the church. As a pastor, if they have employed the wrong strategy, the believers will lose confidence in them; thus, they would rather be wrong.
Wang Yi: This is where the power of the gospel comes in. Without power from the gospel, it is hard for leaders to make new decisions.
Gao Zhen: Thus, most believers are not willing to split into small groups. They feel lonely in small groups. Most small groups are run by videos or audio recordings, with group leaders sharing once or twice. They lose a sense of unity of the church. They also doubt whether the judgment of the current situation is accurate. My suggestion is not to judge the situation too quickly, because your judgment may be wrong. If you are indeed wrong, how would you then explain your decision? The situation is the same the other way around. If we do not judge, we can focus on standing firm and finding solutions on the way.
For example, if the government comes to look for the landlord and seal up the place, bringing me away, imprisoning others or imposing fines, we could carry on in small groups for one or two months to avoid detection. But once the risk is over, we could congregate again. This is our mindset. We will also avoid going the legal route, because we don’t have that energy. The Bible also mentioned whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; and if absolutely necessary, we could use restaurant conference rooms and pay the weekly rate; or perhaps even in the park or under a large tree. If we have communion under a large tree, it would be better. This is my perspective.
Wang Yi: In 2009, I broke bread for communion in the street once. We had different ways of dealing with it then. First, we strengthened the small groups in this process. Previously, we had 60-70% of the members in small groups, but now it is 100%. Some people were not deeply committed to small groups, and they did not attend regularly. But we added to these small groups, assistant leaders and care for the leaders. We also prepared families to open up their homes in case they needed to swap places. These are the preparations we made for small groups. Next, maintaining a public voice has always been our stance. We are not fighting for secular human rights, but we take it as an opportunity to testify to all.
When we talk about the problem of fear, this new regulation would be a greater threat to the pastors than to the believers. If they were to apprehend any, it would be the pastor; thus, the pastors face the greatest risk. Thus, this is a test to the generation of pastors in house churches, in order to test their courage in the gospel. If they are timid and weak, how can we help them? We should not rebuke. On the one hand, we should have fellowship with them in the gospel, but on the other hand, we should be courageous.
"We are not fighting for secular human rights, but we take it as an opportunity to testify to all." -Wang Yi
For example, the Olive Fellowship in Chongqing was scheduled to be closed, and they requested a hearing. The legal team in our church went to assist them, even though they were still closed after the hearing. But it is alright to close, as they can open up at another place. But this entire episode served as a great encouragement in the faith to the brothers and sisters as well as the other churches. We will voice our opinions and go the legal route; through this process, we will defend our faith and express the church’s stance while explaining our viewpoint. First of all, this is not targeted at the government, but towards the church so that all other churches will see and be encouraged; next, it is a testimony to the society – so that they see how the church handles such situations and perseveres and endures. Third, it is a contest with the government, so much so that there is a chance of manifesting our faith in the courts. By speaking of heresies and sentencing, etc., some lawyers are able to recite the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the church’s confessions (e.g., Westminster Standards) in the courts, and thereby revealing their faith in the courts. Our strategy is: when we are persecuted we will speak publicly and we will pursue legal procedures.
Interview Host: This is the unique characteristic of your church. Just as when we talked about the different churches in large and medium-sized cities, different communities in the church will carry different burdens. This is a unique burden that you have accepted to bear.
Wang Yi: Yes, I do agree that most churches do not need to follow our example, and they do not need to pursue this path. But at the national level, there is a need for several churches that would pursue legal procedures to voice their opinions publicly. Most churches that are not equipped or prepared in this manner need not do likewise. I would suggest they don't do this at all. But it would be beneficial if there are churches that are willing to do this. In the hundreds and thousands of churches that are persecuted, it would be great if there are tens or even a hundred churches who are willing to do this. The purpose is so that most of the other churches can focus their energies on other things instead of this legal matter.
Interview Host: You mentioned this earlier: different churches will adopt different stances. With our approach to serving and the like, what are the specific challenges that the implementation of the New Regulations poses to the church, and what strategies would you suggest for churches?
Gao Zhen: From my own personal observation and communication with law enforcement: first, the law enforcement agencies are not prepared, and they themselves are surprised that some churches have acted so quickly.
The second is regarding the issue of selective law enforcement: the power to enforce the New Regulations is insufficient; the passing and execution of laws in China have always been disjointed. The manpower and police force are not capable of carrying out the law to its smallest details. They can only choose to enforce the law selectively. This selection means that they will find the representatives within their jurisdiction. If you have split into small groups, they cannot even locate you. Then, they will find those who are still standing - for example, us or the Early Rain Church. We are willing to do so in order to divert their attention to us and protect the other churches.
Third, we should have a sense of unity when we are faced with this selective law enforcement. If some churches are persecuted, the other churches should support and comfort them. For example, during the eviction of the low-income population in Beijing, some churches extended their hospitality to the homeless. We are willing to open up to the churches that are being persecuted. We are also not afraid that they might bring us trouble. We are willing to offer the free time in the church’s schedule. We are willing to do this, and we told it to our presbytery. If we are not persecuted and closed, we will always be open to other churches.
"If some churches are persecuted, the other churches should support and comfort them." -Gao Zhen
Fourth, if our church is persecuted and shut down, our choice is to utilize conference halls rather than splitting into small groups. My first choice is to enter the conference halls of nearby office buildings. We will rent one hall every week, and our members are all in various groups so that when the message goes out, we will gather. If they enforce the law to the limit by pursuing us even to that extent, then just like what happened with Shouwang Church, it means that they are really out to get us. Then we will have diverted all their attention to one church. It is because Shouwang Church attracted all the attention, so that “through his stripes, we are healed.” This then is how we are protecting other churches through our actions.
Wang Yi: Our strategy is basically the same as Pastor Gao. When the New Regulations emerged last year, I wrote several articles. I shared with my co-workers that my intention was to attract their heat towards us. If we are to be persecuted as a representative church, then we are willing to suffer this for the church of our Lord.
Our strategy is: if our sanctuary gets shut down, we will find other venues. If they come after us once, twice, or three times, we will endure that for a little bit. If we can no longer find a place in Chengdu and its surrounding areas, and if we are chased out of everywhere we go, we will then gather out in the open. This will force them to apprehend us. If they are not willing to handcuff us in public, they will never bring this church down. Either they apprehend us immediately by the law, or they put us under house arrest like Jin Tianming and take away our freedom. If they deal with us illegally, it is a testimony to society that the government is not lawful, and that they are reckless. To persevere in this way would serve as a very good testimony.
If a church of several hundred members attracts this kind of heat, they won’t be able to carry out a second case. Thus, we will have to wait until other pastors and I are apprehended, losing our freedom. Not until this final situation do we retreat into small groups. In midweek, we would have twenty small groups, and on Sunday we would gather in five to six meeting spaces. That is to say that small groups and Sunday worship would be distinct. On Sunday, two or three small groups would gather at a larger venue. A church is thus split into five to six meeting spaces and over twenty small groups. If a pastor is freed, we would immediately resume gathering. On the other hand, we would await legal proceedings to voice our opinions through due process.
Interview Host: You have both shared some possible ways of facing the New Regulations, and your respective strategies. In this interview, what other challenges and responses would you like to share with the rest of the churches?
Wang Yi: Concerning the challenges, we have mentioned some and it can be summarized as the following: the first greatest challenge is aimed at pastors and preachers, not at believers. Pastors of this generation face a greater risk than believers. When a church faces these things, believers will carry on with their lives, but pastors pay the greatest price. Are the pastors and preachers willing to pay the price and lead the church? Thus, I issue a call to the pastors of house churches: are you willing to walk the way of the cross by depending on the power of the gospel? This will not only affect you and your family’s lives, but it will also affect the church of our Lord and millions of God’s people. This is above all a test and challenge to the lives of the church leaders.
The second challenge is the unity of the church. Under this situation, will the house churches of China dissolve? Of course, persecution will certainly bring some unity to the churches in the process, and that is our hope for unity. Can the churches encourage one another, be in harmony with each other, and be united as a result of the New Regulations – thus, fostering greater solidarity and networking? Divisions on a small scale, but unity on a large scale. I think this is one of the greatest challenges that the New Regulations will bring to the church.
Gao Zhen: [Third], I believe there are some benefits to the persecution of the church, as it will purify the church. I personally believe that the impact of secularism is a greater threat to the church than the New Regulations. Secularism includes materialism, pluralism, and moral relativism, which all have a great impact on the church. For example, some intellectuals are very liberal – they do not read the Bible, but they use the Bible to speak. This is a great challenge to the church. Furthermore, the church is becoming more congregation-centered, taking the needs of the congregation as a starting point. In this way, the New Regulations are a test for the church – can we stand firm and be victorious through our dependence on the Lord in persecution and trial?
[Fourth], then there is the gospel that Wang Yi talked about. Regardless of the situation, we should be gospel-centered. The gospel deals with our sin, and it enables us to be humble, loving, and accepting of one another. Thus, we must truly understand what the gospel means for us. We have learned so much theology, but today we are entering the lab, and this will be an actual exercise and test, examining our lives. This is how I view the New Regulations and thus I am not fearful.
Wang Yi: [Fifth], I think we can talk about the regulations from another perspective. In the past two decades, Reformed theology has been preached in the Chinese house churches. The integration of Reformed theology and the way of the cross in Chinese house churches are being tested. If there is no integration between Reformed theology and the way of the cross in Chinese churches from either side, we can never face the challenge of the New Regulations and walk toward a future revival. The Reformed churches that were built in the past twenty years, and the Reformed theology that has been preached, will be tested during this persecution.
Interview Host: Thank you both! We talked about a lot in the last three hours. May God lead us, and may God grant us the hope for a greater unity in this test of integration between Reformed theology and the way of the cross in Chinese house churches. May we be rooted even deeper [in Christ]. Please pray for our country, church, and this period that we are facing.
"The Reformed churches that were built in the past twenty years... will be tested during this persecution." -Wang Yi