The PC(USA) and the China Christian Council

Today there are a number of conflicting accounts as to the status of Christianity in China. One persistent version begins with the assumption that an atheistic Communist government will not tolerate the presence of a true Christian church. Consequently, Christianity in China must be sharply divided between an "apostate church" -- represented by the China Christian Council which is supported by the atheistic government -- and the "true underground church," which is subject to continuous persecution and harassment.

Such a view continues the legacy of the Cold War, makes an easy identification of the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and justifies clandestine activities that would fit into a LeCarrŽ spy novel.

But such an interpretation is a gross oversimplification of complex issues and does not “square” with recent experiences of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in its China relationships. This article attempts to present a more balanced understanding.

In 1983 the PC(USA) General Assembly adopted a policy statement which supported the leadership of the church in China and entered into a partnership relationship with the China Christian Council. At that time China was something of an unknown quantity and a certain risk was involved in entering into such a partnership. We had no precedent for working with a church within a Communist regime and did not know whether such was even a possibility.

But today we can look back on a “track record” of 15 years. How has it gone? In March of this year, a consultation was held to review what had been accomplished. Nine representatives from the China Christian Council came to Louisville for the occasion. The PC(USA) was represented by a cross-section of our church representing the General Assembly staff, Outreach and Medical Benevolence foundations, the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, China Connection, pastors, missionaries, PC(USA) Korean and Chinese ethnic congregations and others. Looking back, we found the relationship to have been fruitful beyond our fondest expectations. The China Christian Council has been a faithful and dependable partner in mission. Note the following.

Church Growth — Christianity in China has experienced an unprecedented period of sustained growth which has been true for the open churches relating to the council or the so called “underground” congregations. This fact is undisputed. There are now in China at least 15 million Protestant Christians. They meet in 13,000 organized congregations and an additional 25,000 “meeting points.” They sing the hymns the missionaries first taught them, listen to the preaching of the Word of God, and observe the administration of the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. The worship is traditional; the theology is conservative. You will not hear criticism of the government from the pulpit. But neither will you hear Communist propaganda.

Recently an enormous new church edifice was dedicated in Huaiyin, a former Presbyterian mission station. It was jam-packed with 2,500 worshipers. Kathy Call of China Connection preached the sermon. The Huaiyin church is anything but an “underground church” as it towers seven stories into the sky!

The “Three Selfs” — The China Christian Council is strongly committed to the three-fold principles of “self-support, self-government and self-propagation.” The council receives no funds from abroad for its internal operations. But an agency known as the Amity Foundation has been created through which funds from abroad can be channeled for specific mission projects. This relationship makes it possible for us to donate funds with the understanding that they will be used only for the specified project.

Bible Printing — One such project has been providing funds for the construction and equipping of the Amity Press in Nanjing. Since 1987, when the press was opened, some 20 million copies of the Scriptures have been printed and distributed. Most Bibles are sold but funds from some overseas donors (China Connection and Franklin Graham’s East Gate Ministries) provide help for those too poor to purchase them.

Seminary Education — There are now 18 Protestant seminaries and Bible schools in China. The PC(USA) Worldwide Ministries Division (WMD) has made financial grants for construction and enlargement of three of these in Hangzhou, Jinan and Shanghai. In the last 12 years 4,000 students have graduated and are now serving congregations. Columbia Seminary has enjoyed an exchange program of faculty and students with the Nanjing Seminary. Presbyterian Women provided $10,000 from the Birthday Offering for the Nanjing Seminary library. Philip and Janice Wickeri continue their service for China from San Francisco Seminary in translation work and leading seminary exchanges.

English Teachers — Scores of PC(USA) volunteers have taught for two-year terms under the sponsorship of the Amity Foundation. Since 1985 more than 200 Christian teachers from North America and Europe have served in China. The Amity Foundation and PC(USA) mission workers Don and Wei Hong Snow took good care of them when they were in China. They had to be careful about public evangelization but were free to answer questions about their faith, and they identified with the Christian communities where they lived. Those returning have been enthusiastic about their experience.

Welfare Service — Increasingly, Chinese Christians are engaging in humanitarian service — clinics, middle schools, orphanages, public health, blindness prevention, flood rehabilitation and care for mentally retarded children. The Health Ministries office of the WMD has provided grants for medical projects. Dr. and Mrs. Norvel Christy, retired PC(USA) Pakistan missionaries, have made various trips to China to perform cataract surgery. China Connection donated a mobile surgical clinic for the province of Tsinghai in the far west to serve the nomadic people who live on the high plateaus of Central Asia. Logos on the vehicle clearly identify it as having been donated by a Christian organization.

Travel — Hundreds of our people have visited China with Presbyterian and ecumenical travel study groups. As a rule they have gone where they wished and talked with those that they wanted to meet. Jean and Franklin Woo have led scores of travel seminars throughout China. I have visited 11 former mission stations including Xuzhou, where I lived as a boy. Retired missionaries or their children have visited most of the centers where Presbyterians had work and have been warmly welcomed.

With such a host of encounters by so many diverse groups over the past 20 years, the scenario of an apostate public church and a true underground church simply does not make sense. But are there divisions among the Christians in China? Yes, but it would be more accurate to describe these as the registered churches and churches resisting government registration. Other divisions in the countryside are the result of not having enough trained leaders to keep up with the rapid growth of the church. Consequently, strange new sects and doctrines have emerged.

Is there persecution of Christians in China? Yes, there is. This is something we should not take lightly. Although religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, the implementation of this has been uneven in areas where an extreme “leftist” cadre are still in control. The China Christian Council did not deny that persecution has taken place. They did deny: (1) that the systematic persecution of Christians was a national policy and (2) that the China Christian Council had taken part in the harassment of churches which refused to register, as some critics have charged. Rather they have protested with some success incidents when Christians had been persecuted.

Problems abound for the leadership of the church in China. They walk a fine line between governmental pressures on one side and the needs of a diverse Christian constituency which has only recently emerged from the terror of the Cultural Revolution on the other. They need our prayers and encouragement more than our criticism.

Professor Diane Obenchain, visiting professor of religion at Peking University for the last 12 years, is in a unique position to serve as an objective observer of the religious scene. In her Neumann Lectures at Princeton Seminary in April, 1999 she has the following observations to make:

“As one observer on the scene in China today . . . . I think the news from China with regard to the Christian church is largely good . . . . Rather than discourage with constant rounds of condemnation, especially when it is not we who face the huge task of reform and reconstruction to the extent that they do, could we not say one nice thing? . . . This is not to say that there aren’t negatives. There are persecutions of innocent people, but I would insist that we on the outside do not always know all the reasons why. China is a complex culture and has a complex recent past . . . . My point is this: let us not dwell only on the negatives, let us look also to the positives, which I think are potentially a larger, better part of the picture of Christian life in China than the negatives.”*

Here is good advice for those of us on the outside who would like to help.


*Diane B. Obenchain, “Revelations of the Dragon: Observations on Christianity and Ru [Confucianism] in China Today,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. XXI, No. 2, p. 194.


G. THOMPSON BROWN and his wife, Mardia, of Decatur, Ga., were longtime PC(USA) missionaries to Korea. This past summer they received Presbyterians for Renewal’s Bell-Mackay Prize.