The Protestant Church in the People’s Republic of China

by Don Browning

Don Browning is professor of religion and psychological studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 4, 1987, p. 218. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The range of issues that the churches face in China, and the theological methodologies that they are devising to handle them suggest that in the near future a new kind of theology may come from this part of the world.

The new policy of China’s Communist Party toward religion is everywhere visible to the foreign visitor. After being closed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) , Buddhist and Taoist temples are being opened and restored, and tourists are allowed -- indeed, strongly encouraged -- to visit them, especially the more spectacular ones. Monks are coming back to these temples, not only to worship but to live, work and educate their successors. Nanjing Theological Seminary, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Protestant school of theological education, was reopened in the early 1980s. For several years it was the only Protestant seminary in the People’s Republic, but within the past two or three years, nine others have been established. In addition, both Protestant and Catholic churches have reopened. Moreover, the government is actually returning confiscated church property and paying "back rent" as a means of compensating the churches for misuse of this property.

Former members are returning to the churches -- and new people are attending. Although Protestant denominations no longer exist as such and are united in one mainline group, the Chinese Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, it is estimated that that church has grown from around 700,000 in 1949 to 3 million members today. And this figure does not include the uncountable number of Christians who are still identified with China’s mysterious "underground church": believers who worshiped secretly during the Cultural Revolution and who still have not all surfaced. Older ministers are reassuming their pulpits, and new candidates for the ministry, both women and men, are attending the seminaries.

Last fall I was a member of a small team of scholars and health-care professionals that was sent by the Park Ridge Center, Park Ridge, Illinois (an institute that studies the interrelations of health, faith and ethics) , to look at medicine, religion and ethics in China. Our group’s understanding of the relationship of Deng Xiaoping’s government to religion began before we left the U.S., with our study of a fairly recent position paper on religion issued by China’s Communist Party. Titled "The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question During Our Country’s Socialist Period," it reasserts the standard Marxist view of religion as a response to the human fear of the terrors of nature -- a response manipulated by class societies to rationalize the power of the upper classes and justify the plight of workers and the poor.

After these familiar-sounding preliminaries, however, the tone of the document quickly changes. Although it maintains that religion will gradually disappear as China’s socialist economy more and more meets the material needs of its people, it concedes that this process will take a very long time. In the meantime, the paper asserts, the Communist Party must have a sensitive and informed policy toward religion, and must acknowledge that many religious individuals are good people with much to contribute to China’s development. The party must not try to abolish religion by decree; instead, it should attempt to guide religious people and institutions so that they will "center all their will and strength on the common goal of building a modernized, powerful socialist state." In short, if religions support the drive toward modernization, they can be tolerated, encouraged and even actively supported.

On the other hand, the document says, if religions seek to obstruct the modernizing process, then they are to be discouraged or even punished. It seems particularly concerned to condemn superstitious or magical forms of religion; for example, it prohibits "sorcerers and witches" and recommends the re-education of those who practice "phrenology, fortune telling and geomancy." Such limits to toleration indicate that although the present government is repenting of the repression that characterized the Cultural Revolution, its more lenient attitude is limited to religious expressions that can mesh with the regime’s goals for modernization.

One can, of course, take a cynical attitude toward the party’s new policy on religion. The government is well aware that it needs the country’s Buddhist and Taoist temples and Islamic mosques in order to attract large numbers of tourists whose money it desperately wants, and this is clearly part of the motivation underlying the new attitude. Behind the scenes in all the religious institutions -- as in every Chinese institution -- are party supervisors who set down the basic rules. If a religious edifice has value as a tourist attraction, its party supervisor formulates guidelines as to when it is to be open to the public for sightseeing and when it can be used for religious purposes. But this rather manipulative use of religious institutions scarcely applies to the Protestant churches since they are plainer and less exotic than other houses of worship and on the whole have minimal allure for the Western tourist.

Much of the government policy change follows from the position on social philosophy adopted by the Chinese Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement when it was founded in the early 1950s. From the beginning it asserted independence for Chinese Protestants from the foreign missionaries and the Western imperialism with which they had been associated. Arguing that it was theologically justifiable to have a patriotic love for China, and for Christians to be loyal citizens of the emerging socialist state, the movement declared that the Chinese Protestant church should be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating -- hence the term "Three-Self." For some time the Three-Self Movement has been anticipating and adjusting to the Communist Party’s emerging religion policy. In so doing it has differed in many respects from the Catholic Church in China, which is deeply divided between those who continue to voice allegiance to the Vatican and those who are willing to align themselves with a patriotic movement similar to the Protestant one. Tensions between Catholicism and the government have been more serious than those between the government and mainline Protestantism.

All this became quite clear when our group met with the leaders of two pivotal Protestant institutions in China -- Bishop K. H. Ting, president of Nanjing Theological Seminary, and Han Wenzao, general secretary of the Amity Foundation. Speaking in flawless English, Wenzao and Ting described the work of their respective institutions and how they are compatible with China’s focus on modernization. But they also conveyed the idea that Chinese Protestant Christianity has goals that transcend the government’s more mundane ones. Only gradually, however, did we learn just what these broader goals unique to the church actually are.

Obviously the central figure in Chinese Protestant Christianity, Bishop Ting is not only president of Nanjing Seminary but also of the Amity Foundation, the Three-Self Movement and the China Christian Council. Furthermore, he appears to have considerable rapport with officials in the Communist Party. They in turn have chosen him to serve on various citizen advisory committees, even at the national level. He is also the Protestants’ chief theoretician, theologian and policy formulator.

During a dinner at Nanjing Seminary, Bishop Ting spoke about the Protestant church’s support for the goals of modernization. It is important, he said, for both the people and the government to know that the church is interested in the welfare of the entire Chinese society. Han Wenzao pointed out that such a stance requires a broader and more social theology of salvation than the church espoused prior to the 1949 liberation. In discussing his own persecution during the Cultural Revolution, Ting told us about the seminary’s closing, the destruction of most of its library, and his forced attendance at the Red Guard’s political-education classes. During this difficult period he was determined to show the government that Christians could be helpful in achieving modernization. For a while, this former seminary professor kept the financial books for a fertilizer factory. Then he helped edit a new Chinese-English dictionary. Later he became a translator of United Nations documents and communications for various government offices.

The Amity Foundation was started both to carry out the social-ministry responsibilities of the Protestant church and to demonstrate the church’s support for China’s modernization. Although begun by representatives of the Three-Self Movement, the Amity Foundation is officially separate from the Protestant church and even has Marxists on its board. Nonetheless, it continues to receive support from the church (as well as from other sources) and is seen as a secular and autonomous form of the church’s social ministry.

Health care and medicine are the foundation’s most prominent areas of endeavor. Although it does have a vital program for bringing to China English and American educators to teach English as a second language, it also supports a children’s mental-health research institute, a child nutrition research project, and a factory that specializes in the manufacture and fitting of artificial limbs. Wenzao was quite candid in saying that the foundation tries to fill the holes and gaps in Chinese society that the government’s welfare program overlooks. Most of its programs are in the field of scientifically informed medical research and service; of all the areas of technology, medicine has the most immediate public visibility. It is the medical field in which the Protestant church can be heard most decisively by the society as a whole when it claims that its ministries complement China’s drive for scientific and technical advancement.

Ting and Wenzao are doing everything they can to absorb China’s underground house churches into the mainstream of the Three-Self Movement. In the process they hope to cleanse these groups of the magical and superstitious elements which often take root in secret religious societies deprived of an educated leadership. To them, magic and superstition have little place in the Christian faith. Moreover, it is precisely groups that practice magical healing, divination and other such rites that the government believes will constitute an obstacle to scientific progress. (Seasoned China observers in Hong Kong describe reports of faith healings and even "resurrections" in the underground churches.)

Understandably, Ting, Wenzao and the institutions they lead want to avoid the government’s confusing them with the underground churches. And in fact, individuals from these churches are gradually joining the new, more public churches. Nonetheless, says Ting, there is much to be done to deepen the maturity of the Chinese Christians’ faith, and this is why theological seminaries for the education of professional ministerial leadership are so important. The seminaries are also under pressure to educate a new generation of ministers in time to replace the rapidly aging older generation. Ting himself, for example, is said to be in his early 70s.

The social sciences are quite prominent in the curriculum of Nanjing Theological Seminary, a fact that is understandable in light of the significant debates in China over the question of religion’s definition. In Beijing a representative of the Division of World Religions of the Chinese National Academy of the Social Sciences admitted that the standard Marxist definition of religion as the "opiate of the people" is no longer the only view informing the academy’s research. Such developments within academic disciplines are highly significant in a society in which the social sciences are viewed as instruments for the clarification, support and advancement of the government’s philosophy and policies.

Very much aware of these movements within the National Academy, Bishop Ting told us of a recent academy document that was even more broad-minded than the "Basic Viewpoint and Policy" paper -- one that goes even further in acknowledging religion’s potential creativity for the good of society. Ting stresses the need for ministers who are sophisticated enough to make a contribution to the national debates over the role of religion. Such an intellectual capacity on the part of ministers may be crucial to the survival and expansion of Chinese churches. Little is being done at Nanjing Seminary to teach such favorite American subjects as psychology or psychotherapy, but much is being done to expose students to sociology, social theory and social-science methodology. By the same token, education at Nanjing strongly emphasizes a historical-critical approach to the Scriptures. One’s impression is that the seminary seems to be educating the hearts of its students to be evangelical while educating their minds to be rational and critical. In a society in which a rational approach to social theory and the social sciences in general is increasingly dominant, the church must be able to take part in these discussions.

Ting’s capacity to contribute to these social-science dialogues partially explains his ability to deal both with the leaders of the Communist Party and with Protestant clergy and laity. Similarly, the capacity of the Nanjing Seminary faculty to take simultaneously a confessional and a critical approach to its educational task may explain the fact that this same group of professors doubles as the department of religion at Nanjing University.

It is difficult to keep from wondering whether Ting, Wenzao and other Protestant leaders are walking a tightrope between the still religiously skeptical communist government and the fundamentalists both in the underground church and among intrusive foreign Christian observers who deeply resent any hint of accommodation with Chinese communism. Certainly, Deng Xiaoping’s government is enjoying no small amount of implicit affirmation from religious leaders such as Ting. Furthermore, Ting is placing significant portions of the Protestant church’s energies into helping achieve the government’s modernizing goals. In the present atmosphere of the regime’s open-door policies and more liberal attitudes toward religion, Ting’s strategy seems sensible. But if these policies change -- as they may after the recent student demonstrations -- Ting and other Protestants may have to oppose the government in order to maintain their integrity.

Their strategy is designed to influence the Chinese government as much as it is to accommodate to it. Ting, Wenzao and others are convinced that the regime is open to suggestions, insights and thoughtful arguments from religious communities as long as they are delivered in a spirit of reasonableness and patriotism. Ting hopes that this new spirit of dialogue will extend even to the point of fundamentally affecting the government’s operative definition of religion so that it will no longer be viewed as simply a transient ideology but rather as a necessary expression of the human spirit.

I came to see Bishop Ting not as a dupe or pawn of China’s Marxist government, but as an extremely subtle and astute observer who has a good chance to establish between Protestantism and the regime a dialogue which will lead to a mutual transformation. The Protestant church may end up with a stronger social conscience than it had in preliberation days; and the government may arrive at a more profound understanding of the possibilities of religion in the modern world.

Ting also develops an intriguing doctrine of the Holy Spirit which sees it as leading faithful Christians to the truth -- to all truth, be it religious, scientific, medical, ethical or political. Affirming the goodness of human beings as found in traditional Chinese mythology, his theology states that Christians must applaud the quest for the infinite wherever they find it, even in such expressions as the Way of China’s ancient Taoism.

Despite this ecumenicity and inclusivity, Ting avers that Christianity can offer some important distinctive insights -- insights that he is even willing to recommend to what he calls his "revolutionary humanist friends." Central among these is the Christian doctrine of sin. As set forth by Ting, it has the ring of Reinhold Niebuhr. One wonders if it isn’t a direct legacy from the days that Ting spent at Union Theological Seminary in New York between 1947 and 1949. Addressing his humanist friends, he contends that

between the actual moral state of humanity as it is and the vision of the highest state humanity aspires to attain, there is a distance which humanity, by its own ability, certainly cannot bridge. Many conscientious revolutionaries, in all their serious self-examination, would readily feel at home in Paul’s predicament about his failure to do what he knew he ought to do and his inclination to do the very thing that he hated [Rom. 7:15].

This disparity between our ideal and our real moral condition Ting calls sin. He goes on to say: "True, as far as China is concerned, the change from feudalism-capitalism to socialism is all-important for the restoration of human dignity, but the change has not done away with this state of human spiritual poverty." In effect, Ting is telling his hoped-for Marxist reader that the imperfections of the human spirit will produce imperfections in socialism. And if the reports of corruption within the Chinese Communist Party are true, the imperfections of Marxism may become a spiritual problem that the government will have to face quite soon.

Not only does Ting offer the perspective of Christianity to explain ‘the inevitable imperfections of all human projects -- even socialist ones -- he also criticizes liberation theology for its idealization of the poor. After acknowledging an affinity between liberation theology and the emerging theology of Chinese Protestant Christianity, he takes exception to the former’s tendency to "absolutize liberation and make it the theme or content of Christian theology." Ting grants that the poor have an "epistemological advantage" in being able to perceive issues of injustice and domination. But he does not believe that all truth is necessarily in their hands. In fact, he argues that the Cultural Revolution was precisely a consequence of this idealized view of the poor. It pitted them against not only the rich but also against intellectuals, veteran revolutionaries, and all aspects of enlightened culture. Writes Ting in his Theological Review essay:

The poor deserve justice. But poverty is not virtue, unless voluntary, and it does not always bring with it wisdom. To make a messiah of the poor just because they are poor, and to pit the poor against the rich without the guidance provided by correct theory is neither Marxist nor Christian. We saw its harm all the more clearly during the Cultural Revolution, which turned out to be very anti-cultural and not in any sense a revolution either.

The quality of the essays in this volume, the range of issues that the church is facing in China, and the theological methodologies that it is devising to handle them suggest that in the near future a new kind of theology may come from this part of the world. It will be a theology that has made a certain measure of peace with Marxist socialism as it is developing in China. It will not sound like liberation theology because it will come from a post-liberation and post-revolutionary society. It will be not so much a theology of liberation as a theology of how to build a modern society after liberation. Quite likely it will be a theology mature enough and comprehensive enough to command the attention of the entire Christian world.