Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Easter!

Fu Huo Jie Kuaile! Happy Easter! In Chinese Fu (re-again) Huo (Live/life) Jie (Day). Yesterday was the first time I have attended an Easter Sunday service at the local Three Self Chinese Church. This is the official government church where Chinese believers or curious others are allowed to freely come and practice their religion within the boundaries given by government. Where I live, a large Christian church and a Catholic church are available. Being Easter, the service was a special one with Easter music sung by three different children’s choirs.
I also hear other traditional hymns and the Halleluiah Chorus. It was beautiful. There was an Easter message of victory, new life and hope given by the pastor and finally a public baptism service. Since baptism is a once a year event, cameras and video cameras were allowed. We went to the 2nd service so we saw the “sprinkling” baptism of more than 70 people. Apparently, there was also a “dunking” service with more than 100 others! It was a touching sight to behold.
In my mind, I kept thinking about all the times that I had been told (and had told others) that Chinese citizens didn’t have the freedom to worship publicly and were forced to hide out to express their faith. Had that been untrue? Well, yes and no! It depends on which area of the country you live in, who the government officials are, and what’s being enforced. Sound complicated? It is! Most people in China have the option of going to the government church. It is a structure designed by the government, lead by trained pastors in the government seminary and has a specific set of rules and doctrine to be taught. It is the only option that is legal and acceptable. In some areas you need to register as a church member and that can cause social consequences for you or your family…like losing your government job, or being shunned, etc… But in other places, it is no big deal at all. Many people go weekly to the church without incident.

By Chinese law, it is not legal for foreigners and Chinese to go to International Fellowships together. International Fellowships require participants to show their passports before they are allowed to enter the service. This is to keep the foreign and Chinese believers separate. It is not illegal for me to be a believer, but foreigners and Chinese are not currently allowed to meet with, study the Bible with, distribute literature to or lead religious activities with Chinese people. That would be illegal.

Some people refuse to join the Three Self Church because they have doctrinal or policy issues with the Three Self Church and they do not want to be limited by the constraints of the church, so they form groups outside the registered church for meeting, studying and worship. These are unregistered churches and considered illegal. In some parts of the country there are no government churches at all and only these types of fellowships exist for believers. They are still illegal and members can be and sometimes are severely persecuted for breaking the law and illegally assembling.

So is one type of church better than another? Is the answer black and white? Is one right and the other wrong? Is one type good and the other evil? Again, it’s complicated! In America we tend to think in terms of black and white and have difficulty with gray areas. We don’t understand why the Chinese people don’t have the right to choose something outside the government church or why they can’t legally meet with foreigners for religious activities. The answer to that is simple: This isn’t America folks! The Chinese government has sovereignty in their own country to have their own way of doing things for their own people. Is it always right, agreeable or understandable to us? No! But is the American way of doing things always right? Not hardly! We have our issues, too!

We have so many choices on how we worship that shop for the most convenient or palatable form of religion we can find and if we don’t like it, we go somewhere else. There is no consequence, price or cost to wanting to worship. We can come or go as we please. We are as judgmental of others in our own country as we are of those in others. We look at the church across town and think, “How can they believe that? They’re can’t be “real Christians!” No one denomination or group has it 100% right…No one! There are areas in every church’s doctrine that can be questioned or debated. The Three Self Church in China certainly has its limitations and errors, but does that mean there are no “real Christians” in the Three Self Church? Certainly not! I have met some very faithful committed believers who attend the government church and they choose to work within the system for change. Does that mean that in the unregistered churches are only, “real Christians?” Certainly not! There are some that have a great fire and love of Jesus and others who just want to have the power to lead with their own ideas. The unregistered house churches are not exempt from problems. Although they are free of the government constraints to worship in a prescribed way, there is a lack of solid training and leadership which can lead to all kinds of heresies in the faith.

Maybe we ought to consider the idea that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It can be both/and. As foreigners we need to be less judgmental of things we don’t fully understand and need to be willing to look for places of common ground and cooperation between entities. Does that mean we accept ideas that are contrary to the Word? Of course not, but vilifying a whole institution such as the Three Self Church doesn’t do much good and painting everything with the same brush as “wrong” is also unproductive. We need to work toward the idea of the church being “one body of believers” both at home and abroad. That is so much more biblical!