According to Asia Harvest, there are approximately 84 million Protestant Christians and 21 million Catholics in China. That sounds like a lot of people, but it represents only 7.7 percent of China’s population. Compared to only four million in 1949, the number of Christians has rapidly increased, especially since the government eased religious restrictions in the 1970s. That said, Communist China keeps a watchful eye on churchgoers, forcing them to document their activity. The government also tears down church buildings or the distinguishing mark of their cross in the name of beauty.
Christians In China
Between 2014 and 2016 alone, more than 1,800 crosses were torn down (The Daily Beast). As to the persecution of Christians themselves, they, “face harassment, arbitrary arrests, fines, denials of justice, and lengthy prison sentences” (Voice of Martyrs). It’s all an effort to control messaging and maintain ultimate authority.
The significant level of control in China is evident when identifying a church as a “government sanctioned church.” This is opposed to house churches which are illegal meetings and attendees can be harshly prosecuted. Since the Chinese communists tried to completely abolish Christianity in the 1960s, it stands to reason that it only sanctions churches to generally appease and to register those in attendance. That way, any suspected conspirators are in the open and more easily disciplined. The government also owns the buildings and funds the pastors, so they essentially have authority to remove anyone and replace the leadership at will.
Take Joseph Gu, for example. He is the former pastor of the largest Protestant church of more than 10,000 members, the Congyi Church in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. It’s a sanctioned church. Last year, he protested against the government’s removal of crosses from area churches. What do you think happened next? Gu was arrested on trumped up charges and hauled off to prison with no assurances he’d return. He did end up returning home, but he was no longer permitted to pastor and a heavy police surveillance monitored his every move.
This past January, Gu was arrested a second time. Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide said, “It is not clear why Pastor Gu has been detained again. However, his re-arrest comes at a time of increasing restrictions on religious activities and organizations, including both registered and unregistered churches. Given that Pastor Gu was first detained in connection with his peaceful opposition to the removal of crosses from churches in Zhejiang, it appears this case is part of a trend of intolerance towards any expression of views contrary to the government’s policies and actions. We call on the authorities to release Pastor Gu and to uphold the rights of freedom of religion or belief and expression in accordance with international law.”
The increased persecution against government sanctioned churches will not stop Christianity in China. It will only help strengthen and grow the house church movement. “The Church in China is growing at an unprecedented rate,” says Kody Kness of China Aid. “[It] is on the way to become the largest Christian nation by 2030.” The house church movement is massive, considering the constraints. Some estimate the number to be 30-50 million people, maybe more. Though most gatherings under 25 people are “tolerated” by the authorities, Christians who attend a house church are always watchful, always careful, and sometimes carried away because they decided to worship God and study Scripture with fellow brothers and sisters.
I’m reminded of the story in Acts where Gamaliel advised the Sanhedrin about Peter and the apostles. They wanted to kill them when they proclaimed the Gospel. Gamaliel asked them to consider to leave them alone, “For it their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). The advise is applicable to Chinese Christians and other persecuted Christians worldwide.
Let us pray for pause among the authorities in China, that they might see the mighty work of Jesus in the lives of our Chinese brothers and sisters.