The Li Bo Perspective #1

A couple months ago, Li Bo gave some feedback to a post about Chinese churches that represents a certain perspective that I am still learning about. While I ultimately disagree with this view as a missions philosophy in China, it does offer a stronger challenge than I used to think and ought to be carefully analyzed rather than dismissed out of hand. As I recently wrote something about the variety among house churches in China, now might be a good time to discuss the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Ultimately, this is the basket where Li Bo (as I understand him) deposits his missiological eggs. The basic tenets of this perspective (which I will just name after him since I am unaware of an official one) seem to be as follows:

1. The Three-Self Church is a great work of God

It is common for foreign missionaries to criticize and discount the work of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. For those unfamiliar with Chinese Christianity, the Three-Self churches are those congregations that are sanctioned by the Chinese government. Most every city has a few, and many villages have one as well. Those in urban areas are generally quite large – there are three or four in our city that run several thousand in attendance. Reports vary, but there seem to be at least 10 million people attending Three-Self churches in China. They have an essentially closed structure, with their own seminaries feeding into their own churches. The three self’s are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating – meaning, their congregations are to be free from foreign intervention in these areas. ‘House churches’ and the missionaries who work with them tend to view the Three-Self churches, at best, as being in a potentially compromising position and, at worst, as evil puppets of a Communist regime. The Li Bo Perspective, however, sees a great work of the Lord among the millions that crowd into the large Three-Self sanctuaries.

2. House churches are not good

Outside of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, millions of Chinese Christians (almost indisputably the majority of them) have ignored or outright decried the government churches by congregating in unregistered house churches. The Li Bo Perspective sees this action as an unacceptable violation of biblical commands to submit to those that are given authority to rule over us. Where many believe that the greatest work of God in China is taking place in the house churches, a good portion of Li Bo’s crowd would feel the existence of these congregations is regrettable. They would ask: “Why can these believers not simply participate in the Three-Self congregations?” If there’s not one nearby, that might be an exception, but for those who live in close proximity to a government church, believers must submit and attend.

If you asked a Three-Self pastor what is wrong with house churches (I have), they’d say something like, “they’re illegitimate because they’re not connected to the true Church in China.” Basically the Pope’s answer to “what’s wrong with Protestants?” In other words, whatever qualms they have with the Three-Self Church, the house churches abandon all claims of being a church when they divorce themselves from the only authorized Church.

Stories of abuses and exploitation among house churches are also cited as indications of the need for government-enforced stabilization of Christianity’s growth in China.

3. Foreigners should work in the government-approved way

Meaning, if a foreigner desires to work in China, he needs to find an opportunity to serve alongside the Three-Self Church. As Li Bo mentioned in his actual comment, foreigners working in unauthorized ways are even said to cause the government to fear and dislike Christianity in general, thus making the atmosphere in China more hostile to the church’s advance. To the proponents of the Li Bo perspective, the idea of a foreigner coming to China, ignoring the governmental provisions for them to work in Christian churches, and starting their own unregistered Bible study or church reeks of rebellion and foolishness.

What is there for foreigners to do in the Three-Self Church? Good question. My guess is not much. There are ministries that raise money internationally to build rural sanctuaries and community centers, as well as buy Bibles in coordination with the Three-Self Church. One Three-Self Church I know of recently started English services, where many of the English-teaching missionaries now go. As I understand it, the foreigners are given almost complete freedom in the service, besides the obvious language restriction.

But the three self’s – which mean self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating – insist on keeping Chinese churches free from foreigner intervention, and thus all but preclude missionaries from any meaningful interaction with the Chinese congregations, especially in terms of Great Commission ministry (I would be happy to hear of any exceptions you know of).

I have tried my best to accurately represent Li Bo’s perspective. Whether or not he personally lines up with everything I’ve outlined above, there is a definite segment of Christian workers within and without China that are becoming convinced that the Three-Self Church is the most legitimate option for missionaries in China. Again, there are definitely some things worth commending in this view. It recognizes that there are many Chinese people hearing the Gospel through the Three-Self Churches. It maintains the danger of missionaries causing civil unrest by unnecessary disobedience to authorities. It also emphasizes the value of a unified church. But there are important questions that the Li Bo perspective fails to address adequately. Questions such as…

  • Is the TSPM theologically pure enough for believers to join and support?
  • Do missionaries have a biblical duty to do anything that the TSPM won’t allow?
  • On what basis can the Three-Self Church claim to exercise authority over others?
  • To what extent do government regulations influence the leadership of the TSPM?

To these questions we shall turn in a following post…

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2 Comments on “The Li Bo Perspective #1”

  1. Joseph March 20, 2012 at 7:01 am #

    It seems that most TSPM advocates emphasize the lack of foreign influence in their churches. However, this assertion is problematic for two reasons. First, theology is always being influenced by a number of factors. At issue shouldn’t be whether that influence is foreign or domestic but rather whether or not that influence is Christian. It is rather easy to prove that the TSPM is heavily influenced by domestic non-Christians. Second, while the theology of the TSPM is shaped by unbelievers in China, TSPM theologians invariably follow western models (usually classical liberalism) to express their theological agenda.

    On a positive note, not all TSPM churches follow the party line. However, if a church functions properly within the TSPM, I don’t believe it is proper to grant them Christian recognition let alone fellowship or support. While this sounds harsh, read this:

    Ting, K. H. “Old Style Theological Thinking Needs Revision and Renewal.”
    Chinese Theological Review 14 (2000): 22–23.

  2. Septimus March 21, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Here’s a few highlights from a letter written by Chinese house church leaders in China to the government about why they do not join the TSPM, quoted from “Jesus in Beijing”: (translated obviously)

    “Chinese hose churches do not join the TSPM for the following reasons:

    1. The heads of the two are different:
    a. Three self churches accept the sate as their governing authority: their organization and administration are governed by the government’s religious policy.

    b. House church take Christ as their head, and they organize and govern their churches according to the teachings of Scripture.

    2.The ways church works are establish are different:
    a. Religious workers in the TSPM church must first be approved by the Religious Affairs Bureau before assuming office.

    b. Workers in the house church set apart their workers by the following qualification; spiritual anointing, being equipped in the truth, possessing spiritual gifts, approved by the church, and having spiritually qualified character.

    3. The foundations of the two are different:
    a. Three Self churches are products of the Three self reform movement, which was initiated by the government; they were started by Wu Yao-tsung who propounded liberal social gospel type of the theology; some of the initiators of the TSPM were not even Christians.

    b. House churches take the Bible as the foundation of their faith; they developed from the traditions of the fundamentalists and evangelicals.

    4. The pasts of the two are different:
    A. The three self church practice the unity of politics and the church; they follow the religious policy of the state and they engage in political activities

    b. House churches believe in the separation of the church from the sate. They will obey the sate when such obedience is in accordance with Scriptures. When the two are in conflict with each other, they will ‘obey God rather than man.’ For such obedience they are willing to pay the necessary price, which is know as ‘walking the pathway of the cross.’

    5. The missions of the two are different:
    a.the three self churches can preach the Gospel and conduct pastoral ministry only within the designated places of religious activities.

    b. House churches obey the great commission of preaching the Gospel and plant churches.

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