Chinese Christians' Olympic "degree of difficulty" rated at 9.7

By Skippy R. | 08/20/2008

(Crossposted at

China's Olympic Games began in Beijing in venues choked by smog and under the shadow of a crackdown on human rights and religious freedom.

The Chinese dazzled the world with an impressive and often intimidating opening night display of pageantry and technical flash.

Now millions of concerned Christians around the world are focused on China because of the Games and want to support believers there. But like the smog that cloaks the Beijing skyline, layers of cultural misperceptions, political biases and contradictory information conceal the actual status of the Chinese church from our view.

What's really going on with the church in China? 

It's hard to tell what's real. At least that's been my experience. Maybe you'll do better at sorting it all out than I have. (The discovery that much of the Olympics fireworks display on opening night was computer-generated is perhaps emblematic of the problem).

The main issues first surfaced this year in the controversy over evangelizing at the Games.

I guess we should be glad times have changed. For the first few centuries of the church, the only Christian witness at a stadium consisted of the cries of the victims as they were being torn apart by wild beasts because of their faith.

Christian history


But spectacles are hard to resist, even for the pious.

St. Augustine tells the story in his Confessions of how a Christian friend, Alypius, came to be obsessed with Roman gladiatorial combats. Alypius at first refused to attend the violent spectacles. But, cajoled by his colleagues, he gave in, with the proviso that he would keep his eyes shut. If he could only have closed his ears too, laments Augustine, for when the crowd roared, he was thrilled so deeply that he couldn't contain his curiosity. He opened his eyes, took in the spectacle, and became enthralled.

Like Augustine's friend, I'm afraid I haven't been able to look away as the spectacle unfolded in Beijing.

Throughout history, Christians have had mixed feelings about athletic competition in general. In A.D. 394 the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian who considered the Games a pagan festival, ordered them stopped. The most famous Christian Olympic testimony was by Chariots of Fire character Eric Liddell, who witnessed mightily at the 1924 Games his absence.

Some claim we shouldn't entangle Christianity with sports in the first place, because it unduly glorifies "success," while most of Christ's early followers were losers in life pursuits, in personal character, in relationships, in just about everything. Losers, Jesus said, are closer to the kingdom of God than the winners.

Whatever their attitude toward competition, Christian missionary agencies and ministries during previous Olympics always took advantage of the unique opportunity to share the gospel with athletes and visitors from around the world. This year all that is banned. Only Chinese Christian chaplains and ministers are allowed to conduct services and counsel with athletes in the Olympic Village. (Update: Athletes are complaining that these arrangements are inadequate.)

Run-up to the Games

A few months before the Games, evangelist Franklin Graham announced he wouldn't support any illegal Olympics evangelism. At the same time, the media reported an increasing crackdown by authorities on unregistered Christian house churches and their leaders in a pre-Games "security" sweep. China Aid Association's leader Bob Fu met with President Bush just before he left for China to ask him to attend worship at an unregistered church in Beijing to support the persecuted Christians there. Instead, Bush worshipped at the registered Kuanjie Church. China Aid claims this led to the arrest of Hua Huiqi, a renowned Christian social activist in the city.

house church
Chinese House Church meeting. (Photo by WorldServe)

All this emphasizes a sticking point in understanding China's Christians --the split between the registered and unregistered or "underground" churches.

American Christians want to support the good guys. We want to disparage the bad guys. And we don't welcome facts that muddy that black-and-white clarity. Especially with an emotionally charged issue like this .

As I delved into reports from all sides, this disagreement over recognition by the government reminded me of something-- the re-emergence of an ancient conundrum among early church leaders about what to do with delators.

Bear with me here.

The cult of martyrdom

In the early centuries of the Church, martyrdom was extolled to the point that Christians with an extremist bent virtually taunted the authorities, challenging them to put them to death for their faith. In some ways similar to the Islamic jihadist martyrs of today-- but without the element of the murder of innocents-- they gladly forsook present comforts and life for an eternal reward they believed would be enhanced by their manner of death.


Not everyone agreed. To balance this cult of martyrdom, St. Gregory of Nazianzus stated the now generally accepted view of orthodoxy: "It is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it "(Orat. xlii, 5, 6).

On the other extreme, some believers succumbed to the pressure of persecution and would either make a sacrifice to the gods, pay off the officials to get a paper acknowledging they had made such a sacrifice, or in the worst cases, betray their friends to the authorities to save their own lives, even appearing in court to testify against them. Some were given the property of the accused as a reward.

These turncoats were called delators--Latin for "common informers" or traitors. And once the persecutions were over, some surviving delators, having repented of their misdeeds, would often petition to be reinstated in the congregation. In some areas there were hundreds of them.

Does Christian love extend so far? A few bishops embraced the wavering and weak along with the treacherous and the self-aggrandizing. Other bishops imposed severe penances to weed out the insincere. Still others remanded all delators to perpetual excommunication and thus damnation.

But I wonder-- who can judge besides God?

The Russian example

In the Soviet Union before the fall of communism, and in China today, a division between registered and unregistered churches has resurrected the delator question in a new context. But what defines betrayal in these circumstance? And who has betrayed whom?

For our part, watching from the outside, it's always hard to know how best to support these believers who labor under conditions that range from uneasy tolerance, to harassment, to imprisonment and death.

I interviewed Georgi Vins, a leader of the unregistered Baptist church in Russia, a couple of times after he was was exiled in exchange for Soviet spies in 1979. I had followed his ministry for years, and also talked to Alexei Bichkov, leader of the registered All Union Council and his colleague Michael Zhidkov, pastor of the registered Baptist church in Moscow, on their trips to meet with officials in the West in the 1980s.

They represented two very different paths for dealing with an oppressive regime.

As I recall, the All Union Council representatives and some of their supporters in the West saw Vins as just stirring up trouble and in effect betraying the whole enterprise by causing increased suffering for all believers in his country by his stubborn refusal to compromise. Vins, who had served many years in prison camps, claimed the All Union Council was working directly with the KGB. I viewed Vins with respect and Bichkov and Zhidkov with suspicion. It was all pretty black and white.

The question for supporters in the West back then was whether to criticize or mollify the authorities. The researchers at Keston College in England, (recently moved to Baylor University) who carefully documented all this for decades, said Christians in the West should base their responses on what the persecuted Christians are telling us. If they want us to put outside pressure on their government and protest their treatment, then that's what we should do, even if it increases trouble for them.

With the hindsite of history, that tactic seems to have made a difference in the Soviet Union.

Slowly, a reconciliation

How did the newly freed Russian Baptists deal with the question of delators after communism fell apart?

At first there was continuing, even increasing, bitterness. But in recent years, much has happened to heal the intra-Baptist wounds stemming from those Communist-era divisions.

Walter Sawatsky, professor of history at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, reported in the spring of 2007 that the different groups of Evangelical Christian Baptists in Russia responded positively to a request to pray for their rivals. "To pray for the other, publicly, as a post-Soviet evangelical church, is therefore an important step on what must still be a long road toward reconciliation, given the many, many negatives that have circulated," Sawatsky told the Christian Century.

vins kryuchnov
Michael Zhidkov, Gennady Kryuchkov, Georgi Vins

More recently, Pastor Valentin Vasilizhenko of Moscow, secretary of the Russian Baptist Public Council, an umbrella organization committed to dialogue with all groups of Russian Baptists and formed after the All Union Council dissolved, reported that he frequently conversed with Pastor Gennadi Kryuchkov, the leader of the unregistered churches, until Kryuchkov's death in the summer of 2007.

Kryuchkov --who evaded the KGB for decades while running a whole clandestine denomination out of a small hidden attic room-- had been the most severe critic of the All Union Council leadership. But even he agreed for his International Council church to enjoy observer status within the Public Council.

Since his death, "a new leadership has been selected," Vasilizhenko said, "and we believe we will be able to find contact with one another and continue our dialogue."

It's not a completely cozy arrangement, perhaps. But, by way of contrast, those two groups now have more interaction than the Southern Baptist Convention currently has with the Baptist World Alliance.

There may be a practical reason that helped push this reconciliation. A provision in the Russian religion law enacted in 1997 said only churches officially recognized 15 years previously (i.e., recognized under the Soviet Union) could achieve the highest status of legality. That may have made a relationship with the Public Council more attractive to the unregistered churches, which had no such standing. A common threat has also arisen in the growing dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church over all religious matters.

But not everyone is on board with reconciliation, and some unregistered churches are still being hassled by local government authorities. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Still, mutual trust is slowly being restored between the two groups.

The Three Self Movement

In China a similar split still continues, but under completely different conditions.

K. K. Yeo, professor of New Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, explained the differences in a 2006 article in Christian Century.

"No great theological chasm exists between registered churches and unregistered churches. Many Chinese Christians attend both.

"However, there is a difference between registered and unregistered churches in political attitude. Most of the churches aligned with the TSPM and the CCC adhere to the theology of Romans 13:1, 4 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . . [they are] God’s servant for your good") and 1 Peter 2:13 ("For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution"). They hope to be God’s agent of salvation within the political reality. In response to the communist view of religion -- and the TSPM has no illusions about communism’s atheist views -- the TSPM has been accommodating, finding ways to cooperate with the state’s mission.

"The political attitude of the unregistered churches reflects the theology of the Book of Revelation. They assume that the Chinese government, being communist in ideology, is pagan and satanic. Most unregistered churches do not believe that Christianity should collaborate with a government that does not love or honor God."

Bishop K. H. Ting

Back in the 1980s, Bishop K. H. Ting, the leader of China's registered church council, seemed pleasant enough when I spoke to him on one of his trips to America. He avoided some of my more pointed questions then, but I didn't really press him because of limited time. I really just wanted to meet him.

Today on reflection I find I can empathize, though not sympathize, with the idea of registration and cooperation in the complicated situation in China.

The play A Man for All Seasons portrays Sir Thomas More as someone of principle who nevertheless considers carefully the details of the King's Act of Succession to see if he can abide by it without violating his conscience.

That sort of combination of practicality with conscience could explain the difficult, lifelong, high-wire act of someone like Bishop Ting. And it doesn't guarantee survival. Thomas More lost his head. And during the Cultural Revolution, the government-sanctioned Christian leaders were imprisoned, spat upon and tortured alongside those who chose to worship outside the government restrictions. In fact, Ting's home was taken over by Red Guards and he and his wife were reported to have joined millions of other intellectuals and professionals sent to work in labour camps, at least for a time.

A hunger for scripture

But since then, a lot has changed in China. The Chinese government and the recognized church organizations have worked hard to eliminate objections to compromise and cooperation. More than 12,000 places of Protestant worship and 17 centers of theological training have been legally established. Ting helped found the Amity Foundation 20 years ago that has printed 50 million Bibles-- printed by Chinese Christians for Chinese Christians. No need to smuggle them in, they insist. (These Chinese Bibles are even being distributed at the Games).

That's a lot of Bibles. But if estimates of up to 150 million Christians in China are correct, of which only 18 million belong to registered churches, then that's too few Bibles. And in fact, the Amity Foundation, which prints the Bibles, is sort of a monopoly. Earlier this year a certain Pastor Wang Zaiqing tried printing his own Bibles and was arrested.

Christians will risk just about anything to obtain a Bible.

This Bible survived the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution (Photo by WorldServe)

I saw this on a trip to Romania in 1981. My wife and son and I traveled with a Bible-smuggling group to deliver hundreds of pounds of scriptures and teaching supplies to several remote churches. The materials, hidden inside the van we were traveling in, escaped the notice of inquisitive border guards. It was a scary week of trying to look like normal tourists, not talking for fear of bugged hotel rooms and wondering if my son's crying would attract police attention. What started as an objective journalistic endeavor ended with me frantically helping to unscrew the panels that contained the precious cargo. When the Bibles were eventually delivered in the dead of night, the people were beaming and wouldn't let us leave, despite the danger.

(The organization-- Mission Possible based in Denton, Texas-- is still operating in Eastern Europe, now openly ministering there).

Reflections of a China hand

Britt Towery, a retired longtime Southern Baptist missionary to Taiwan and frequent traveller and teacher in China whose reputation is sterling, insists that many of the most lurid stories of Chinese persecution are exaggerated, that Christians have no need to go "underground" and that many times they are only making things worse.

Britt Towery
Britt Towery

From what he describes, it's sort of a Catch-22 that works like this: The recognized churches have agreed not to invite foreign missionaries in or receive western assistance. The unregistered churches do accept this help, and then are arrested and charged as foreign agents because of it. Their persecution is publicized outside of China, which leads to more western assistance, which results in more persecution.

Towery, who taught in the Protestant seminary in Nanjing as recently as 1989, says the majority of unregistered house churches usually are willing to work with the churches of the registered Three Self Patriotic Movement's China Christian Council (CCC), and vise versa.

"With Bible printing and devotional and theological books coming off the presses, China's Christians are in the most hopeful and open society they have known in centuries. They have limited freedoms, but are doing much more with their adjusted freedoms than many other places are."

The "three self" part of the official name refers to the principles of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation first introduced for Chinese churches by missionaries in the 1800s to encourage indigenous leadership and limit foreign influences.

Towery, now retired and living in San Angelo, had a falling out with his Southern Baptist sponsors over this in the late 1980s. Most mainline western denominations were working only with the recognized churches in China. But Southern Baptists "chose to ignore local and national leadership and began covert work," he explained in an e-mail interview.

"So they and some others chose 'cloak and dagger,' secret Christian witness in China. Which is absolutely unnecessary. Christianity is one of five officially recognized religions in China."

zhejiang church
The Three Self Movement Zhejiang Church. (Photo courtesy of Britt Towery)

I've seen enough fund-raising scams and exaggerated healing claims to be skeptical of any press release from an organization with an ax to grind. But can all the stories of Chinese persecution be false?

More probably, no single viewpoint can explain everything that's going on in a country with over 1.3 billion people.

The bitterness of betrayal

Towery agrees. But he says the way the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) changed its direction hurt all those involved.

"Where the SBC (Foreign Mission Board) failed was early on in 1984 when they promised to work with the CCC and be there to help in any way they could," Towery explained. When the SBC started to see so many independents "doing their own thing" in China, the mission board's leadership "went that way without informing me. I was viewed as too close to the CCC national leadership and not trusted as a covert agent."

"K. H. [Bishop Ting] told me what they were doing ... and asked me to do something. Our leadership was surprised that K.H. knew and were not happy with me."

So Towery and his wife took early retirement. "They wanted us to go and we did. I see it as another element of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC," he said. He admitted he had to repent of some bitterness over the affair.

Towery says he agrees with this assessment by E. Luther Copeland, retired Professor of Missions and World Religions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the use of covert ministry in closed societies:

"I am told that those sent to 'unreached peoples,' particularly to countries where missionaries are not admitted or not welcomed, sometimes misrepresent themselves as specialists who have no relation to mission boards, though in fact they have been sent and are supported by mission boards.

"This is the kind of dishonesty which cannot be squared with Christian ethics. Similar problems obtain with regard to nonresidential missionaries, missionaries who live outside the country or region to which they are assigned and make periodic visits. They may misrepresent themselves to have access to Christian groups within a given country.

"Such practices cannot be condoned. To assume that one has to forsake truth to have access to people where missionaries are not admitted is not only shoddy ethics but also poor theology."

The SBC and other groups that use a covert approach in closed societies report it is highly effective and reaps great spiritual rewards. It's an old question, one discussed all through the period of covert ministries to Iron Curtain countries during the Cold War. It's still being argued about, and apparently will never be definitively settled. There are plenty of scriptures to support both sides of the debate.

The truth is out there

As you can see, the religious situation in China poses confusing problems for the western observer.

Some things we know.

The observation of early church father Tertullian that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” has apparently proved true in China. The persecution of Christians proceeded in varying degrees from the beginning of Communist rule, peaking during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1977 with an uptick in the mid-'90s and again in the last few years. Just since the Cultural Revolution, the church in China has increased from less than a million practicing Christians to a total of anywhere from 30 million to 70 million... with some estimates as high as 150 million.

Some things we've forgotten.

Chinese suspicion of foreign influence (which figures prominently in the thinking behind the Three Self Movement) dates from the colonial schemes of European empires and their subjugation of China after the Opium Wars. And surprisingly, Christianity is blamed for one of the bloodiest chapters of all human history-- the Taiping Rebellion.

Hong Xiuquan, a 23-year-old new Christian convert-- inspired by a Christian pamphlet-- was convinced by a dream or vision that he was the younger brother of Jesus. Spurred by this experience, he began a movement to bring in a Christian heaven on earth and drive out foreign influences. In an uprising that lasted from 1850 to 1864, he almost succeeded, but an astonishing 30 million people died in the process.


shanxi church
The Shanxi Church associated with the Three Self Movement. (Photo courtesy of Britt Towery)

Although Mao Tse Tung looked on the Taiping Uprising as a precurser to the Communist revolution because of its anti-foreign aspect, Chinese governments have been wary of Christianity's tendency to breed sectarianism and heretical offshoots that might destabilize society, and they always cite the rebellion as a reason for the need for keeping tight control of religious movements.

Some things we never hear about.

Although China's human rights record is abysmal to say the least, China's constitution guarantees freedom to worship. All China watchers agree that in practical terms local bureaucrats enforce the laws at their whim. Some unregistered churches operate completely in the open. Some registered churches become subject to oppressive measures for perceived slip-ups and are punished.

As Scott Kennedy, director of the Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business at Indiana University, told the Indianapolis Star: "In such a vast and populous country, the tolerance for religious practice varies greatly," with some local officials looking the other way or even participating in the churches. "But you can never count on that being permanent. It's a cat-and-mouse game, and it's dangerous."

Towery insists that some "persecution" is tantamount to zoning disputes in which unregistered churches make their neighbors mad simply because of loud singing at odd hours, and the neighbors call the police on them, which can start a cascade of legal troubles. Sometimes local officials pressure congregations because they refuse to pay a bribe.

Many Christians worship at both registered and unregistered churches. In an interesting development, one registered church pastor recently left that umbrella to set up an unregistered church openly in an urban nightclub in an attempt to forge a third path for a new generation of believers.

Around 18 million Christians worship in registered churches in China. That's a lot of people. Who are they, and what is their spiritual condition? Are they delators? Or faithful followers of Christ?

Puppets or a fulcrum for change?

Bob Fu
Bob Fu of China Aid at the U.N. Human Rights Commission plenary session in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2005 demonstrating a torture device he says is used on Christian prisoners in China.

Bob Fu of China Aid, in testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2000, said house church believers consider the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) as "an agent of the government. House church leaders do not regard the TSPM and the China Christian Council (CCC) as authentic representatives of the Chinese church. Hence, it is hard for them to be reconciled with their betrayers who are still betraying them."

They also feel the officially recognized church is simply too liberal in its theology.

On its web site, the China Aid Association makes these charges:

"The TSPM recently asked the Public Security Bureau to shut down all house church meetings and arrest house church leaders and traveling evangelists."

"Bishop Ding also started a theological reconstruction campaign among the official seminaries. The purpose is to change the focus of teaching from justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ to justification by love in doing good deeds. Under the guidance of TSPM and the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), religious messages are to be made 'compatible with socialism.' Pastors are discouraged from preaching about Jesus’ divinity, miracles or resurrection, so that believers and non-believers can be united together to build a prosperous Socialist China."

I asked Towery about these charges. He categorically denies they are true.

"All of it is lies. K.H. is not that kind of man," he responded.

Towery remembers Ting writing letters to the Chinese government during the Tiananmen Square student standoff in 1989, "pleading for the government to spare the students and not do anything rash."

That speaks well for him, but ill for the authorities, and for the argument that registered Christian leaders have some pull with the powers that be. Troops brutally crushed the demonstration anyway.

Bishop Ting, now in his 90s, retired in 1997 and is living in a rest home in frail health. He and his successors walk a path of patience and frustration that is no doubt mentally and spiritually exhausting. But unregistered Christians have chosen a path that often takes a higher physical toll and requires a different, more visceral kind of courage.

Unregistered Pastor Bike Zhang, recently expelled from his home in Beijing.

Recently, Beijing pastor Bike Zhang and his wife were booted out of their home and hounded by police to keep them from finding anywhere to live. They're currently sleeping on the street.

When the human rights watchdog agency China Aid Society asked why they were being hounded, one official replied: “Because Bike Zhang met the Americans and destroyed the harmony of the Beijing Olympic Games.” Many more have been imprisoned in the last few months.

It's easy to understand how unregistered Christians may see people like Bishop Ting as delators, in the same way Georgi Vins once viewed Bichkov and Zhidkov.

But could it be that God is somehow using both?

According to some observers at the time, the emergence of a robust unregistered Russian church movement in the 1960s gave the registered churches the leverage to gain concessions from the government, such as a correspondence course for ministers, which was the first formal training allowed since 1929. The existence of a government-recognized church organization allowed foreign visitors and international interchange to be part of the push-pull that, combined with samizdat underground reports of persecution and western pressure, led to the eventual fall of communism and an opening for full religious freedom. Some observers see the same thing happening in China.

Yes... and no 

Michael Bourdeaux, Templeton Prize winner and founder of the Keston Institute in England, spearheaded a laborious, often lonely struggle to examine and explain the systematic destruction of religion in Iron Curtain nations during the Cold War.  His work is being continued at the Keston Center for Religion, Politics and Society at Baylor University.

Michael Bourdeaux

In response to our e-mail request, he found some parallels between the church's response to oppression in the Soviet Union and China, though he cautions that he's "far from being an expert on China."

"Bishop Ting (now a very old man) went along with the 'Three-Self Policy' in China when Mao first promoted it in the late 1950s.  The only alternative was prison (which others honourably chose), probably leading to martyrdom. We who have never faced such a choice should never stand in judgment over those caught in this vice. 

"The worst was yet to come: the Cultural Revolution swept aside those who compromised, just as it did those who refused to compromise.  The parallel with Stalin and the Russian Orthodox Church in 1929 is uncanny.  So, ever so slowly, the Three-Self Movement and the new unregistered churches emerged in the late 1970s.  It was the latter who now showed unbelievable fortitude in the face of continuing persecution, the number of new converts justifying the stand they had taken.  But the Three-Self Churches made progress, too, less spectacular, perhaps, but progress nevertheless."

"The position with the Roman Catholic Church is more clear-cut.  The government-controlled church which has had to cut its ties with the Vatican does not have the moral authority found with the persecuted church, whose bishops the Vatican appoints.  Cardinal Zen in Hong Kong stands firmly behind the latter - a thorn in the flesh for the Beijing authorities."

Philip Wickeri, on the other hand, doesn't really like my Russia/China analogy.

He's professor of evangelism and mission at San Francisco Theological Seminary. He worked for more than 20 years with the Amity Foundation in China and with the China Christian Council and recently wrote Reconstructing Christianity in China - K. H. Ting and the Chinese Church.

Philip Wickeri

"Comparison with former Soviet Union is very tenuous. After the 1917 Revolution, the Russian government saw the church as one of its main enemies. The Orthodox church had extensive land holdings, etc. In China, Christians never had such a huge presence. Christianity in China was not then and is not now as highly institutionalized as in Russia."

In China today "the picture is not a perfect one," he admits. "There are places in China, particulary in inland China, where the local government leaders are not following the national policies, so there are abuses of religious freedom. But the tendency in the western media is to accentuate the problems. China Aid and others think the only way the church can exist in China is to confront the government."

Just back from China last month, Wickeri views Ting not as a misguided quisling but rather as one of the major figures in 20th century Christendom.

"Bishop Ting presided over the most extraordinary time in the Chinese church in the 20th century. He helped recreate institutions, developed theological education, printed Bibles and religious literature. He did so by cooperation, not confrontation."

Disturbing contradictions

As a whole, my sympathies still lie with the "underground" church. But some parts of this whole debate, as it plays out in the West, particularly disturb me.

River baptism by an unregistered congregation (Photo by WorldServe)

--Unregistered churches criticize their registered brethren for mixing politics and religion. But their supporters in the West are many times the loudest proponents of that strange brew.

--Many of the people who publicize the most lurid details of Chinese persecution are the same ones who claim Christians in America are being "persecuted" by the media and secular government, thereby draining the term "persecution" of any meaning.

--It's just too easy for the media and the ministries to put the facts and the statements coming out of China into their own pigeonholes. It may be unavoidable. I'm doing it as I write this story. And my own categories aren't quite fitting-- apparently neither the delators illustration nor the comparison with Soviet Baptists sheds much light on what's going on or what will happen in China. Preconceived images merely tempt us to idolatry.

Finally, a careful look at scripture shows that zeal is hard to define. It can lead to the martyrdom of an Isaiah, who, tradition says, continued to preach even as they sawed him in half; or to the silence of Jesus before Herod; or to the carefully reasoned debates by Paul before Roman authorities; or to that same apostle's escape-by-basket at Damascus.

As Aslan told Lucy in the film Prince Caspian, "Things never happen in the same way twice."

But American Christians, who so often bitterly slander and castigate one another over doctrinal disputes, can hardly offer suggestions to their Chinese brethren that are not tinged with hypocrisy and arrogance.

Thankfully, as the Olympic Games focus the world's attention on China, we can actually do something effective to clear the smog--we can pray for them all.

"For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust." --Psalm 103:14

More information:

• Watch a recent PBS Frontline documentary about the Church in China, and read a critique of the film by China specialist Adam Minter.
• Read a longer interview with Wickeri here .
• Read a longer interview with Towery here .

[Photos provided by WorldServe, a mission to persecuted Christians with an office in Frisco, Texas.]


DramaByGeorge | 01:32 pm on 8/20/2008

Skippy, thanks for the balanced reporting and nuanced look at the Chinese church. Whatever the exact facts, I think the trend is clear that God is doing great things in China!

pigseye | 02:39 pm on 8/20/2008

Praise God the church in China is over 100 million now. The majority of the growth is due to the underground churches. The 3
self state church is the regulated front fascade the Government allows to operate within strict guide lines. Jesus is not Lord etc. As it was under the Soviets, those who stand against the state dictates of doctrine suffer the most, and accomplish the most. We have our own 3 self churches in the USA,(me myself & I).
The difference is that they are not run by a Godless oppressive Government, but by charlatans. As we see the spurious hate speech laws grow more wide spread, and our own state starts dictating what can and cannot be preached from the bible, or evangelized in the streets. It will be those who like China and the Soviets and the catacombs before them that will push ahead in Christs name despite Martydom. Throughout history very few Christian Martyrs were killed for political stances, the vast majority were for standing up for faith and truth. Listen to the song "Martyrs" at

budda | 03:47 pm on 8/20/2008

In the end, the American state will censor and silence the church, crushing the pious, and stealing their religious freedom. It will be done to the righteous and faithful remnant by secret agnostics in the believers very midst, the holy will be spied upon and turned in by sheep in wolves clothing.

What did you sat your address and phone number was pigseye? I just want to know my...uuhh.... church newsletter thingy.

pigseye | 08:06 am on 8/21/2008 536 Vail, Az.
Sorry budda no Phone number, or home address. I suspect that there are many in certain congregations who won't even notice when the restrictions are in place and followed to the letter because it will be just business as usual for them.

fizywelko | 10:14 am on 4/02/2011

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SRebbe | 09:06 pm on 8/24/2008

[gasps] they're on to you!

Jerry Pack | 02:44 pm on 8/20/2008

Thanks Skippy, Ditto the comments by DramaByGeorge.

Process Deist | 07:20 pm on 8/20/2008

The American Missionary, in a foreign land, is usually an intruder.
I know of no other class of people who can be so certain in their
interpretations of God. For each one that is humble and meek,
there will be ninety-nine that are sure that they have the only
knowledge worth knowing about God.
Only they know the true way, and without them the native
will burn in hell.
If you go to help the native live a healthy and peaceful life, Amen.
If you go to convert or destroy their religion, you are wrong.

pigseye | 08:18 am on 8/21/2008

Peter, paul, and Mary, I mean James said that they ( gentiles like me ) should not drink blood, eat things strangled, especially people, avoid sexual immorality, and avoid Idol worship. Oh yeah,
and Jesus is the only way to be saved. There is no greater peaceful life, and no other way to eternal life. As easy as these should be
I've blown all but the strangled food deal in the past.
I wish they would have said abstain from sweet and sour scorpians or something like that instead.

budda | 03:14 pm on 8/21/2008

Amen, Deist. I've held forth on missionaries enough in the past.

Of course freedom of expression is better than censorship, but there are many in the state approved churches in China who are fine and happy in their faith. From the Chinese people I've talked to, it's not like the old days anymore, you can get a bible if you want one. Trained theologians are rather scarce, though I'm not sure thats a bad thing. I've been told that in the rural areas home churches operate pretty freely if they don't cause political trouble. I think we confuse religious, social and political oppression sometimes. My personal opinion is that the slow change in China is preferable to the anarchy and chaos that enveloped the former Soviet block countries. Every whack job religious freak in the world went and converted people to some crazy religion, and the people there had no discernment 'cause of the long isolation. Anarchy feeds the powerful and brutalizes the weak. I could be wrong on which one is better/worse though.

Process Deist | 03:40 pm on 8/21/2008

Budda, have you ever noticed how the Fundies sneak into foreign countries totally unprepared. Jesus makes it very plain, at the end of the Book of Mark and in the 10th Chapter of Luke that a proper conversion by missionaries involves demons, snakes and poision.
But, he says nothing about smuggling Bibles.
I think Evangelical Fundies need to start smuggling rattle snakes into China. One down each trouser leg. That should bring about some 'spitit filled tongue talking'.

budda | 03:54 pm on 8/22/2008

Yep, Deist, I have noticed. I can't get started on missions 'cause it's a two hour answer or none at all.

I would like to have mountainguy explain the anarchy thing. Knowing that people are thinking of something different than me when we say the same word bugs me. I want to know what he means when he says "anarchy".

mountainguy | 06:23 pm on 8/21/2008

You say a lot of important things Buddha. But I don't like the way you misinterpret the word "anarchy". A lot of people makes this mistake, but I just want to remind you all that "anarchy" is not the same as "chaos".

Lilly | 06:31 pm on 8/21/2008

Damnit Mountain Guy. Now you have thrown me into total CONFUSION.

budda | 10:29 pm on 8/21/2008

I am so glad you said something mountainguy, I have been searching for someone to explain the difference to me. How can anarchy not involve chaos? Do you mean to say that anarchy is like libertarian ideology? I know that what I think of when I hear the word and what some people mean when they say the word is different but I don't know what the difference is. Please explain, I sit at your feet listening.

mountainguy | 08:56 pm on 8/22/2008

1. Anarchy is not the same as chaos. You can find chaos everywhere, in every system. Perhaps we get confused because of the "propaganda of the deed", approved by some anarchist groups.

2. Anarchism is not the same as libertarianism. Libertarianism is a very broad term, that covers a lot of items (from free will to politics). When is about economy, libertarianism (as long as I know) involves minarchism, laissez-faire capitalism, so it could be close to anrchist individualism and anarcho-capitalism. Anyway, there are also "conservative libertarians". For example, dominionist Gary North considers himself to be "libertarian" for economic issues.

3. I'm not an expert in this topic. BTW, it seems I was a little obnoxious with my first opinion... I express my apologies

SRebbe | 09:11 pm on 8/24/2008

isn't there still some type of ultimate leader in an anarchist society? doesn't that defeat the purpose of anarchy?

Anonymous | 11:36 am on 9/03/2008

I was at a gathering of Communists and Liberals a few years ago at the Lincoln Memorial. The best organized group was a drill team that called themselves Anarachists.

Anonymous | 08:39 pm on 10/02/2008

I dont agree, budda. I think that if run right, anarchy could be good for us. The only problems are getting to that anarchy and then keeping the peace, and I am sure some gangbanger somewhere will go 'Hey, no more government, i'm gonna go kill someone.' Complete and total anarchy would be possible if it weren't for stupid, immoral people. we would be able to live, spend our money (without taxes), and truly be free..........and i am most definately a southerner

Cartoon Mohammed | 10:28 am on 8/25/2008

Missionaries are often the first step in colonization. This is what happened in Hawaii. The descendents of American missionaries became the islands’ largest ranchers and landowners. Fearful that the Hawaiian government might start land reform, the landowners orchestrated a coop, and made Hawaii and American territory. Mark Twain was opposed to this.
Today, we can thank Jesus that Hawaii is our 50th state.

that calvinist doug | 07:29 am on 8/21/2008

PD, you're right. Paul was like that. And Peter. And John. Damn their arrogance!

Okay, it's been a looooong time since anything new was posted here, so the primal need to be a smart-ass was all pent-up, like Mount Pinatubo, waiting...sorry, you were in the path of my pyroclastic flow.

Process Deist | 08:02 am on 8/21/2008

Your are right, it would be difficult to find a missionary with more arrogance than Paul. Also it is strange how the money flowed from the foreign land back to headquarters.
Of course, you must also remember that Paul was a still a Jew when he died. He was justified by birth, and he was telling his converts to Judaism that they would be justified by faith.
Jews just don't send out missionaries like they used to.

that calvinist doug | 12:41 pm on 8/21/2008

PD, I'm thinking you didn't get my ya anyway.

Process Deist | 02:01 pm on 8/21/2008

I was laughing when I wrote that.
My sarcasm was the part about Jews don't send out missionaries like they used to. They use more gunpowder now.
Glad we are back to new comments and a new story.
It's good to see you have not lost your 'edge'.

A1 | 12:29 pm on 8/21/2008


Americans stopped, 300 bibles confiscated in China
Mon Aug 18, 5:52 PM ET

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese customs officials stopped four American missionaries and confiscated more than 300 Bibles they were trying to bring into the country, state media and a member of the group they belong to said.

Patrick Klein, founder of the missionary group Vision Beyond Borders, and three volunteers were detained on Sunday at Kunming airport in southern China, but were eventually released, regional coordinator Dyann Romeijn said.

"They confiscated all of the bibles, 315 in total, and were told that only one per person was allowed," she told Reuters.

China's Communist government keeps a tight grip on religious activity and the country's Christian, Muslim and Buddhist communities are officially only allowed to worship at state recognized churches, mosques and temples.

Rights groups regularly criticize the government for restricting the right to worship and arresting those who try to follow their faith outside state appointed bodies.

The state news agency Xinhua said the Americans would have needed approval to import the Bibles.

"According to Chinese law, each overseas visitor is allowed to bring in no more than three basic units (books, volumes or box) of printed religious materials or visual and audio publications for their own use," it said.

"Undeclared religious publications would be confiscated, ordered to be sent back, or held under the supervision of customs."

China pledged that free Bibles in both English and Chinese bearing the Beijing Olympic logo would be available to athletes and tourists during the Games, which started on August 8.

Process Deist | 02:08 pm on 8/21/2008

I am going out on a limb here, I will take a wild guess that the confiscated Bibles were not NRSV translations.
What would it sound like reading KJV in Chinese?

pk | 02:58 pm on 8/21/2008

Thanks for the report, Skippy. So confusing. Glad I don't have to judge it, cause I'd be screwed.

Droslovinia | 11:23 am on 8/22/2008

Great post, Skippy!

I usually come here to be entertained, but this is a very well-done and thought-provoking article.

SRebbe | 08:44 pm on 8/22/2008

I bet they're all those skinny New Testaments, too.

screw the Bibles... why are they not bringing FOOD???? these people are hungry. physically hungry! dammit, bring medicine. bring clothes. bring shoes.

then again, I have my own little commentary on the whole olympics thing on my Gentle Fudge blog, as this is my heritage and I have a thing with human rights when a country lets its people starve. but I am equal opportunity and I point fingers at all those in control of prosperous nations who spend billions on frivolities while those who slave in fields and labor while wanting for basic necessities (and cable is NOT a basic necessity) ...... but I may go to far here and it is getting late....

as it was once reputed to be said, 'Let them eat cake,' right?

pigseye | 07:17 am on 8/23/2008

Re/ screw the bibles, I agree with your food and clothes for the
needy. This is true religion, true doctrine. I found that out in the bible where I learned that I could have eternal life if I repented and believed. So while it is good to do good works for those who are in need, we can be so much more if we also bring the word. The difference between a missionary and a philanthropist is immense. I'm sure I'll get attacked on this but
because I live about an hour from the border, my wife & I go to Mexico frequently w/ clothes,food,toys, shoes and bibles. I work with a pastor there I met when we were both in Jail years ago. He has led many to the Lord. When we build houses it is not usually
for the saved but unsaved. Many have later been saved and have evangelized their friends many of whom are saved. Because I speak spanish a little more than half ass I preach and give out bibles, (skinny little new testaments). Unlike the US we have prayed with people at their doors to be saved, we feed all who show up. I can't see doing one without the other.
Let them eat tortillas.

SRebbe | 10:00 pm on 8/24/2008

I have no problems with people meeting the physical needs as well as spiritual needs... but there are churches out there who only send Bibles. only. solamente. (and my Spanish isn't much better, but it improved over time. that's why there are translators!) one of our interim pastoral candidates confessed that he had been in a church where their board argued -- argued, for hours -- over whether to send Bibles or medicine to Africa. seriously. Bibles... medicine... Bibles... medicine... they ended up sending Bibles. only.

for too many xtians here in the States, life begins after death, not before. we keep forgetting that we have to wake up tomorrow. when you live in misery, a brief moment with a stranger means little to you. I've had many pray for me when I've lost jobs -- and I have lost many [still looking for one now] -- and all I could think was how I was going to keep a roof over my head. stop praying for me and give me a little money so I have a place to live, dammit! it wasn't until I sent a letter to my MN church, to their prayer committee, that someone anonymously slipped me some cash every once and a while. it still didn't pay my mortgage, but it helped for a few months so I could concentrate on other mounting bills.

in Nicaragua, we brought Bibles. also, the barrios we frequented had been hit by every American xtian group every year... nearly every month. oh yeah, they knew who Jesus was. they grew up Catholic or something like that. most of them couldn't read -- or read very well -- so a Bible wouldn't do much good unless someone taught them. and we only gave Bibles to those who specifically asked. why? because it's not a numbers game, just like how many members a church has means squat when it comes to spiritual maturity or growth.

technically, I've only been a 'missionary' once according to church terms. my mother was an MK, my grandparents were missionaries to China until the Communist Revolution, then settled in Taiwan for nearly 20 years. I've grown up around this stuff. and I've seen the aftermath -- my uncle disappeared because church was shoved down his throat, my aunt has issues because a missionary family 'doesn't doesn't act like that', and my grandfather always put proselytizing, visiting his church or strangers, and giving away money and possessions before anything else. including his family. so yeah, I know about church, american church, foreign church, missionaries, bringing 'your way' of doing things to 'their way' of doing things. however, one thing they didn't catch that I picked up is there's more to it than just catching slippery souls. people want to know that they matter for something before they will listen to some random voice from the sky. then change will slowly start. at least from my observation.

Jehovah's Witnesses have gone through those neighborhoods. and the Mormons. and Catholics trying to get the displaced back in churches. and on and on... and it's hard to believe G-d loves you and has a better plan for your life when you don't where you will live because your boyfriend/husband threw you out and you have no way to provide for your children or if your child will go completely (instead of just partially) blind because he has an iron deficiency which could easily be fixed with proper nutrition... or you just give up and introduce your 14-year-old daughter to a much older man and let her get pregnant because 'they all have sex anyway.' I saw all of those within 4 days when I was down there.

what many American missionaries don't realize is that many are 'saved' two, three, 15 times because it makes the Americans happy. they like to see the Americans smile when they take the Bible. Americans are their favorite people. you have money! you come from a wonderful country! then you have to bribe the cops on the way back to the airport... but that's another story.

as I mentioned to Process Deist in a different post:

There are a lot of 'missionaries' whose 'mission' is greatly misguided. The time when you go in, guns blazing, armed with 'your way', 'your ideas' and 'your culture' is when you fall into trouble. When what you see around you -- here or there-- doesn't affect you short- and long-term, that's when you have a problem. When you think that you need to leave your country to have an impact, that's when you have followed the wrong path. When you think that you need to bring your ways to those who are different, that is when you have become blinded. When you think that 'missions' is all about carving another notch on your bedpost, you are in danger of the flames of hell yourself.

Manifest Destiny, I keep thinking of. It is a far greater sin to let my brother starve, freeze, or be lonely than to be [just] after his soul, as if it's a prize. It is not mine. It never was, it never will be. [addition] Jesus also let people walk away if they so chose. The rich young ruler did, among others.

And this is what I wish all those who want to go into 'missions' will see: That no one 'goes' into missions. You're already in it, like it or not. You just continue on. Whether or not you are aware that you're involved is another story.

that calvinist doug | 07:12 am on 8/25/2008


I smell what you're cooking, and it ain't "pray the sinner's prayer, take this bible, and have a nice life." Not to throw stones (pardon me while I pick up this rock) but, that's what led me away from my SBC upbringing into Reformed theology. It seemed to me growing up that it was a numbers game (we'll stand here and sing 47 verses of "Just as I am" until SOMEBODY comes down front and "gets saved."). It was as if the altar call was the whole purpose of church, and by transference, missions.

Imagine my delight when upon visiting some other churches, the gospel was still preached, grace was the underlying theme, and yet no one felt compelled to make sure we added numbers to the flock before we could go home, just to make ourselves feel like we'd accomplished God's will. I'm pretty sure a very wise man once said the wind blows where it may, and we don't know where it came from or where it's going.

Discerner 24/7 | 03:40 pm on 8/27/2008

Altar calls? I was stunned a few years ago when I learned that altar calls by and large didn't exist until the 19th century! We can thank Charles Finney for that. Yes it's a numbers game in most churches. The Gospel takes second place or third or fourth!

Skippy R | 12:41 am on 8/25/2008

Thanks, SRebbe,

"You're already in it"....That's exactly right.

I suppose we're all on a mission trip every day. Listen.... the thing that occurs to me after writing this story is, where do you feel like you're confronted with the same challenges as the Chinese Christians in your own everyday Christian "walk?" What compromises have you made, how did they turn out? Did you find out you were wrong in the first place. Was God able to turn your mistake into a miracle? God, after all, is at work in the drive to your job, interaction with your coworkers, and how you treat the cashier at the drive-through.

Can we be authentic/transparent as our default way of life, or do we need a conscious "mission."

Humility is the takeaway from all this, I think.

SRebbe | 06:21 pm on 8/25/2008

thx Skippy. that's what I was going for, and continue to aim to do in day-to-day life. it isn't easy. I screw up, royally at times. I have a hard time liking people who do me serious wrong. but you still gotta get back up on that horse, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.

now if they would just let me preach in church... ;)

pigseye | 08:33 am on 8/25/2008

Srebbe, I read your post on fudge, good article. Yea the US basketball team won again. Mostly because they played as a team
for a change. Great job of coaching to pull all those talented multi millionaires together.
There is certainly a lot of mission work right here in the good old USA. The Gospel rescue mission is a good place to start. In SF when I used to live there we would feed, give sleeping bags,
house, and give the gospel to as many as we could. Believe me many walked away ( or much worse ) up there. I myself have gone from a multimillionaire status to barely getting by after losing everything. But compared to most in the world I still live like a king. I have a great deal more compassion now, and I don't miss
the mansion with the ocean view, I have a better one in heaven. A tract with a few bucks in it makes a good place to start. I just wrote a song, not published yet, but recorded, about a homeless guy on P.C.H. ( pacific coast highway ). I'll eventually get it and others on my web site. Go into all the world and preach the gospel. Feed the poor and heal the sick. A winning combination. Let them eat bachlava.

budda | 03:53 am on 8/26/2008

I miss the mansions with the ocean view.

Marjoe | 10:34 am on 8/25/2008

Don't they make cheap bibles in China? Ever see at the cheap crap in the “Oriental Trading Company” catalog? Half of the stuff is Christian themed. I am sure in some sweat shop, Chinese workers see the word “Jesus” everyday.

SRebbe | 04:20 pm on 8/25/2008

especially those coin purses (sorry, I couldn't resist). I just want to know why we need rubber balls with 'I heart Jesus' written on them... do they bounce higher to heaven?

Vic | 12:52 pm on 8/25/2008

I had my opinion of the great commission changed when I heard someone translating the text and it sounded like it was saying very simply that, as we go out in the world (like the store, workplace, neighborhood) that we should carry the Gospel to those that we are subjected to during our routine duties. (I fail BTW at this most of the time). It was suggested that the places far away from us didn't neccessarily need us to visit in order to be reached by someone carrying the Gospel. Of course our Lord can place anyone anywhere anytime - we have all experienced this blessing of use. This has lead me to question the people that do extreme, expensive things that accomplish something that might not be as important as it seemed at the time. When I read this article I saw that certain actions by we Americans caused the opposite reaction we had desired, and yet also that the actions of the Christian congregations themselves can hold the power to maybe control the actions of or to even tear down a government when it uses the power of the effect our actions actually had, in a strategic way.
I know a woman who keeps spending hours and hours of her time doing things for God. She says she wants to donate the last half of her life doing things for God because she wasted so much of the first half of her life doing things for herself. Though many are admiring her - I am wondering if she is doing a lot and accomplishing some, but what God accomplished THROUGH us isn't quite the same as what we DO when we are serving at events and carrying on a bible study class, etc.
What's my point? Well, this article sure was long and seemed like a History lesson and was interesting, though difficult for me to grasp the whole of in all it's parts (for me, who grasps ideas and concepts instead of detailed facts very well) seemed to point out that good intentions and action without education and intelligence is sometimes accomplishing the opposite that we would want.
We probably need to pray always, pray before we act, so that we are not serving our own selfish wants, so that what we do is actually allowed to be guided by God. I can't always know why something I have done is serving a purpose - but I can know that doing anything without prayer contributes to wasted time and money and energy and might actually hurt the cause I am trying to support.
I also think that because we aren't subjected to the type of persecution that so many other Christians in other countries are having to live through that maybe there is a different type of responsibility on our shoulders. Are we seeing it? Are we using the power God has given us in the best ways? I really doubt it.
My heart poors out to the Chinese Christians. I will pray for them. And I will pray that the unique situation I have been born to creates opportunities for me to do that which my Lord has desired of me.

that calvinist doug | 03:39 pm on 8/25/2008

You are all such failures at this. I, myself, am quite adept at winning souls for the kingdom. Let me share my tips for success:

Why, just this morning, I gave a tract to the guy pumping gas next to me, led him through the sinner's prayer, and I'm happy to say, he threw out his crack pipe, promised to stop pimping out his daughter, spending his paychecks on lotto tickets (and crack) and begin to support the various children he has throughout town. Imagine my glee.

I'm off to Costco now. Who knows what souls await my arrival...

Peace out.

budda | 04:00 am on 8/26/2008

Well, I thought Uncle Kenny was going to win the prize (a monogramed skinny new testament) for the most douls won, but now it goes to Doug. Who would have thought it?

budda | 04:03 am on 8/26/2008

Souls, not douls. It's been a long days night. Chicago is very pretty at night and there was a harvest moon as big as, well, just very big in the sky. I thanked God for it 'cause it was beautiful.

pigseye | 04:22 am on 8/26/2008

Chicago is a good blues town.
" Jesus went to chicago, turned that water into wine"

budda | 08:25 pm on 8/26/2008

I know some here would say that you can't earn your way into heaven, but if God did make an exception as He is at times wont to do, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard will be there. And heaven will be the better for it.

SRebbe | 09:39 pm on 8/27/2008

excellent ribs... excellent pizza... I highly recommend Gino's East.

pennsylvania tourism | 01:54 am on 1/22/2011

I love that one pigseye, so catchy! I would love to visit Chicaco one day, can you recommend any good spots?

that calvinist doug | 06:53 am on 8/26/2008

Thanks for the clarification. I previously assumed you meant "doles", which would have been appropriate, since I immediately placed this man on the contact list for my church's capital campaign.

Claiming the devil's money for God's kingdom, your friend,


SRebbe | 04:26 pm on 8/25/2008

awesomegloryhalleluia, Doug! (btw, where did he throw that crack pipe? it may be able to be recycled.) the angels are rejoicing and adding to your treasures in heaven. you'll have some great, sensationalistic stories when you get back, about how Jesus truly transforms lives right-here-right-now! you will have many jewels in your crown and a bigger mansion closer to the great Temple in heaven thanks to your efforts. as it was written: throw down your nets and follow me! my church!


after all, the Gospel is in those great Chick Tracts, not embodied in living vessels. we just need to release those words, words, holy, sacred words....

that calvinist doug | 06:54 am on 8/26/2008

Not sure about the pipe. I was too preoccupied with getting his daughter out of my passenger seat. You see, I was, uh, sharing the gospel with her...

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