The Li Bo Perspective #2

In review, we’re talking about the case for the Three-Self Church, the Chinese government-sponsored Christian congregations. Li Bo is just one of many voices in China that denounce the work of missionaries who plant unregistered churches and maintain that the rightful avenue for ministry is via the government church. But I am just one of the many unconvinced. Though there are many reasons given for distancing ourselves from the TSPM, this post will attempt to point to the most serious problem – their unpardonable offense.

My own problem with the Three-Self Church actually has very little to do with government control. It’s hard to tell just how much monitoring/regulating/restricting is going on anyway. It would appear that each church is free to set their own agenda in some respects – just like many churches under a denominational umbrella in other countries might. There is no question that the TSPM’s highest leaders are in a mess of Scripture-denying, socialist theology, but the extent of the trickle-down to local pastors, seminary students, and church members is unclear. This is not to say that there is no danger for an individual church simply in being connected to a political organization (whether Communist or otherwise). It’s hard to see how the TSPM doesn’t make a Siamese twin out of the church – one head is Christ, the other is the Party. Little hard to tell who calls the shots. But it is to say that it may be possible for a Three-Self pastor to be a faithful minister of the Word.

Of course there is a danger that, though the government’s control of the Three-Self may not be stifling now, in the future things could change and the government churches would be the first to face frightening ultimatums. But if one day they are forced to choose between denying the Gospel and suffering persecution, they will still have the opportunity to show themselves faithful. There is always the option of losing all. And if these persecutions should one day come upon them, it is unlikely that the judgment will stop at the government-sponsored house of God. But all that to say, I think this theoretical hazard stops short of the real trouble with the Three-Self Church.

The inexcusable problem with the Three-Self Church is simply the absence of the Gospel from their preaching. It has simply been passed over at every service I’ve attended. I do think that many of their leaders and members really do believe the Gospel. Some of the guys from our church and I took a government church pastor out for lunch a couple years back. She said enough about her personal faith to allay many of those worries. But for whatever reason, the Gospel is not being preached to the crowds that gather at her church.

Far more typical of Three-Self ‘believers’ is a young mother at our church who used to attend a government church. We were talking one Sunday morning before our class started and she told me, “You know, I was always so scared when I went to the Three-Self church because I thought my salvation depended on my good works. But now I’ve learned here that I’m saved by depending on God’s grace!” (if that sounds a little made-up, believe me – I was startled too to hear it put so simply by a new believer) It’s not enough to say that this lady understands a little better now – she hadn’t heard the Gospel when she came to our church! And that little anecdote is about as representative of my experience with Three-Self church members as anything I can think of. Whether or not a given government church has freedom to preach the Gospel is up for debate; whether or not they use that freedom is far easier to establish.

Three-Self advocates chronically confuse Christian form and Christian content. They rejoice in truth-receptacles: their congregations, their prayer meetings, their seminaries, their rallies, their preachers, and their instruction. They go on, apparently never realizing that a false Gospel will fit into the receptacles just as nicely as the real thing. Does it matter that they have a seminary (patterned after traditional Christian seminaries) in every province if the seminaries teach a Marxist view of religion? Is it cause for rejoicing that thousands crowd in to listen to a moralist’s platitudes (even when he addresses them like a traditional Christian preacher)? But the Three-Self advocates exhibit an astounding lack of concern about how much Gospel is in the church – so long as they call themselves churches. It’s a little like a restaurant that advertises their plates and waiters rather than their entrees and desserts.

By the way, this is the same problem that we find in many house churches as well! My surprise in learning that was due in large part to my missionary-prejudice in favor of underground churches. I kinda just thought that the only reason that unregistered churches would disregard the law and continue to meet in the face of persecution was a Gospel-engendered boldness. Maybe so. But regardless, this is yet another place where it is crucial to remind ourselves that the average house church is NOT facing intense pressures from the authorities. They are risking almost nothing. And false teachers – even the nice moralist kind – always have much to gain!

It is not wise for us to equate organizational purity with doctrinal purity. Coming out from the government’s shadow may be a step in the right direction; coming out from the Gospel’s shadow is certainly a step into Hell. If there’s a dozen churches in your town that you would advise people not to go to, why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that there’d be as many Chinese house churches you’d find equally censurable?

So… if house churches and Three-Self churches both have purity problems, why choose one over the other? That brings us to the next question, which will take another post. That question concerns what good a missionary can and should do in China today.

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2 Comments on “The Li Bo Perspective #2”

  1. Uncle John March 31, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    Great article as usual and from my 20 years in China exactly right. God has gifted you brother Jake in stating important aspects of missionary work in China acurately and simply.

  2. Tim April 5, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    “Truth receptacles” “The false gospel will fit just as nicely as the real one” and “moralists platitudes”

    I believe the same things that play in the US play in China as well.

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