China report

Despite difficulties, Christianity in China is alive and even flourishing with a zeal and intensity that many Christians in the West could wish for themselves.

Alf Lohne is a general vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

On our recent tour of China (March 13-25), W. T. Clark, president of the Seventh-day Adventists' Far Eastern Division, and I were in a teeming city where as yet no Protestant churches have been reopened for services. There we found an Adventist Christian from the United States who teaches English in a nearby university. He gave us a touching account of the worship services he and his wife share with a small group of Chinese Christians. "

Just by chance," he said, "we heard about a family who sang religious hymns in their home. We visited them, and now we meet there regularly every week."

"Do you speak Chinese?" we wanted to know.

"No," he said, smiling. "And they don't speak English. Yet we have a satisfying spiritual fellowship." Seeing our questioning looks, he continued, "We have found a way to conduct a service that we all understand. First we hum the tunes of a few hymns until we find melodies all of us know. Then we sing them together—they in Chinese and we in English. Next we select a text or two. They read it from the Chinese Bible and we from the English. Finally we have prayer, with each praying in his own tongue. This is our simple worship service, and we all enjoy it!"

Only a few years ago, especially during the cultural revolution and the sub sequent rule of the gang of four, such a meeting would have been unthinkable. From 1966 to 1976, those who had contacts with .foreigners or who practiced religion were in danger of being sent to prison or suffering an even worse fate. Torture and death were not uncommon.

One Christian leader, who was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment, told us that his incarceration probably saved his life, for the worst excesses took place outside prison walls. The Red guards ransacked his house several times, confiscated all his religious books, and mistreated his wife. They beat her savagely and cut off her hair. For six months she was forced to stand in the street an entire day every week, holding a poster that read, "I am a Christian reactionary." This Christian worker has now had his "hat of disgrace" removed, as he put it.

In other cases Bibles and religious books were gathered from homes and burned. Some Christians were forced to kneel by the fire with their heads so close to the heat that eyebrows and hair were burned and their faces permanently injured. When the complete story of those terrible years comes to light, it will be a sad account indeed, and the list of modern martyrs will be greatly lengthened. Both the faithfulness of the persecuted and the cruelties of the persecutors in China rival the record of past ages and make it easy to believe that the final trials prophesied for God's people during the last days can and will take place. One can hardly avoid recalling such prophetic texts as Revelation 6:9-11: "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, 'O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?' Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been" (R.S.V.).

Christians weren't the only ones to suffer injustice during those ten hard years in China. Other individuals spoke freely of what they had gone through and of their bitterness. We attended a lecture given by the vice-president of the Technological College in Hefei in which he spoke openly of the setback China had suffered from the cultural revolution. Teachers, students, and educational institutions alike suffered, he declared, and practically all development stopped or even went backward. Now enormous efforts are being made to catch up, and the government is making every effort at a just restitution.

Rapid changes taking place

Today the situation for Christians in China is quite different, and further improvement seems to be rapidly on the way. Every week tens of thousands of Christian believers meet in private homes and in the few available halls and churches for prayer, Bible study, and worship. In a country that closely regulates the lives and activities of all its citizens, such groups are no secret to the authorities. But no one tries to prevent or disturb these gatherings. As a matter of fact, a new article in the criminal code, article 146, makes it a crime for government personnel to obstruct the religious freedom of citizens. Conviction carries a sentence of imprisonment for as long as two years. However, even such regulations do not mean that Christians in China live under the same favorable conditions as do those in the Western world.

K. H. Ting, acting chairman of the National Committee of the Protestant Churches of China for Self-administration, Self-support, and Self-propagation of the Gospel, is an Anglican. The organization he heads embraces all Protestant churches and is commonly referred to as the Three-Self Movement. Bishop Ting is also a lecturer at the University of Nanking, where the government established a Center for Religious Studies in 1979. While we were visiting the university, Bishop Ting invited us to his home. Mr. Han, chairman of the local Three-Self Movement in Nanking, was also present.

The goal of the Three-Self Movement, set in 1951, is to unite all Protestant groups into one organization, the bishop informed us. The purpose is not to eradicate religion as such, but the state considers the proliferation of Christian denominations as practiced in the West to be an unhealthy situation. "We concentrate on that which we consider most important," Bishop Ting stated. As an example, he cited the belief of the Anglican Church regarding apostolic succession. "That may be very important to the Archbishop of Canterbury," he re marked, "but not to Chinese Anglicans. Here we are busy building a socialist state!"

"But what about denominational practices?" we wanted to know. "For example, can Baptists practice baptism by immersion?"

The bishop was very definite on this point: "If that's important to the Baptists, no one will interfere. Our country respects the religious convictions of individuals. No one will now be persecuted for his faith or for following certain religious rituals."

Being Seventh-day Adventists, we couldn't hold back our questions regarding Sabbathkeepers. "Would there be any problems for people who keep holy the seventh day of the week, and accordingly worship on Saturday?"

Again the bishop was unequivocal: "If anyone has a serious conviction on such a matter, it will be respected." Both he and Mr. Han mentioned that in the city of Nanking about thirty Seventh-day Adventists, along with forty other Sabbathkeepers, meet regularly for worship on Saturday in the Three-Self Movement office, and Pastor Wu, a 60-year-old Seventh-day Adventist minister, serves as their teacher.

In the city of Canton, a Baptist church has been open for Sunday meetings for some time, and since October 20, 1979, a service is also conducted on Saturday. On Sunday the 1300-seat church is packed; on Saturday about 200 people come. The same sermon is preached on both days, and the Baptist, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, and Chinese Free churches take turns providing the speaker.

Injustice rectified by the party

One Seventh-day Adventist pastor told us about a Sabbathkeeper who worked in a factory that gave Thursday as its day off. (In order to avoid traffic congestion caused by the large population during weekday rush hours, and on Sunday in resorts and shops, many factories choose a day other than Sunday for its day off and stagger working hours.) This particular Seventh-day Adventist factory worker managed to arrange for his day off on Saturday and worked Thursday instead. But during the cultural revolution this privilege was denied. Although he continued to work on Thursday to make up for his absence on Saturday, the factory deducted four days' pay from his check every month. After the gang of four fell from power, and law and order had been restored, he asked for redress. The party reviewing his case ruled that he be permitted to keep the Sabbath as before and that all the money deducted from his pay should be refunded to him!

Fortunately, military service presents no problem for Chinese young people who have conscientious objections to training with weapons or who follow a special practice with regard to their day of rest. All military service is voluntary, and we were told that many more young people volunteer than the country needs. A strict physical examination is used to select personnel from among the volunteers. Even so, the government is able to muster many millions of soldiers—all volunteers. Therefore, young Chinese Christians can choose to serve their country in nonmilitary ways, and do so in harmony with their convictions.

Eighty tons of new Bibles

Most Christians lost their Bibles during the cultural revolution and the succeeding rule of the gang of four, and we noticed a great lack of Bibles every where we went in China. Even now one cannot buy a Bible in Chinese book stores. However, Bishop Ting gave us some good news that will bring about a change in this situation. For some time the government has planned to print Bibles, but the special India paper has not been available. Now four truckloads of this special paper, each weighing twenty tons, have been allotted to the Three-Self Movement. A printer has been selected, and Bishop Ting expects that before the end of 1980 the eighty tons of paper will have been transformed into 100,000 Bibles to be placed on the market in China.

"Will it be a new translation?" we asked.

"Originally we thought we would do that, but rumors started that we would make a special Communist translation that would destroy the Bible's meaning and message. Therefore, we finally decided that we would take the 1919 translation and follow it word for word."

Before leaving the bishop's home, we asked permission to pray together. He gladly consented, and we were happy to include him and his associates, as well as the rulers of the world's most populous country, in our prayer.

Large crowds attend divine services

Attending a Sunday-morning service in one of the three Protestant churches that have been reopened in Shanghai was one of the highlights of our visit. Prior to the Sunday service, we had an interview with Ms. Yin Hsiang and Mr. Cheng Bu Ying, of the Shanghai Three-Self Movement office. Ms. Yin, manager of the Three-Self Movement headquarters office and secretary-general of the Shanghai branch, and Mr. Cheng, a member of both the national and the Shanghai Three-Self Movement committees, received us cordially, and willingly answered our questions.

They informed us that one Roman Catholic and three Protestant churches are now open on Sunday in the city of Shanghai. So many people want to at tend services in the More memorial chapel, which seats 1,200, that two services are held, one at 8:00 A.M. and the other at 10:00 A.M. Actually, about 1,700 people squeeze inside during both meetings. The other churches are equally crowded, and it is estimated that 6,500 people manage to get inside the churches every Sunday. No one is certain how many others meet for worship in private homes, but the figure probably runs into thousands.

"Why doesn't the Three-Self Movement open more churches, and why can't Seventh-day Adventist members have services on Saturday in the churches that have been opened for Sunday meetings?" we asked. Yin Hsiang and Cheng Bu Ying replied that all church buildings are used for schools and other purposes during the week, so they are unavailable. But, as Bishop Ting had done, they assured us that the religious views of the people will be respected, and that as soon as possible more churches will be opened so that Sabbathkeepers will be able to worship on Saturday as they do in Canton and a few other cities.

From observer to worshiper

One of the three Protestant churches open on Sunday morning in Shanghai is the Seventh-day Adventist church on Wu Tsin Road, right beside the hospital the church operated before the revolution. The service was to begin at 9:00 A.M., but we were advised to be there at least an hour earlier in order to get in. Even eight o'clock proved to be too late! Not only were all the seats taken at that time, but people were standing in the aisles and the entrance hall. Latecomers such as ourselves had to stand on the steps outside and try to get a glimpse of the service through the open doors.

Fortunately Mr. Cheng Bu Ying and a church deacon met us outside and took us around the building to the back door. Even here people filled the entryway and crowded the steps leading from the church into the yard. But somehow, people smilingly squeezed together to let us through until we found ourselves in the space beside the platform. We tried to insist on standing with the hundreds who had no seats, but there was no alternative—we had to occupy the chairs the deacons provided for us.

To begin with, I had a strange feeling of being only an onlooker—somewhat outside of what was really going on. I saw no one I knew. The language was strange to me. Somebody put a hymnal into my hand, and I hardly knew which way to hold it, or whether I should look at the characters from right to left, or left to right. But when I looked into the faces of the people, everything changed.

All the seats were taken. All standing room was occupied. Those crowding around the platform placed their elbows on it to make standing a little easier. The church has only 600 seats, but my friend from the Three-Self office whispered that he estimated 1,500 persons to be present! Then came the opening hymn. The tune was familiar, and I could sing along in my own language: " 'He leadeth me, He leadeth me, By His own hand He leadeth me; His faithful follower I would be, For by His hand He leadeth me.' " The sound of more than a thousand voices raised in song filled that simple sanctuary, and melted something within my heart. I realized that this throng of people meant what they were singing. In spite of all they had been through (perhaps because of what they had suffered), they trusted in God's care and guidance.

When one of the pastors read a scripture, a church elder handed me a Bible with both Chinese and English text, pointing out that the pastor was reading Psalm 23. I watched the faces—most were elderly, but I also saw some teenagers and young people. Very few had Bibles. Almost everyone had his eyes on the man who was reading from God's Word. One lady near me could not hold back her tears. It was evident that she loved the Word. When I looked at her face and the other faces around me and felt their attitude, I was no longer a mere observer. Now I too was a worshiper. Although the minister was 78 years old, he preached a powerful sermon on Luke 15 and held his listeners spellbound.

The service lasted about an hour, during which everything was quiet in spite of the crowded conditions. Nobody left. None of those standing moved. And when the service was over, the people left quietly. I had been on holy ground. I felt the power of the Holy Spirit. I was reminded of what a former atheist had said to me some years before: "Some think they can wipe out Christianity. But it's impossible; Christianity can't die!" Such has certainly been proved true in China.

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Alf Lohne is a general vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

September 1980

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