I Will Build My Church
During chairman Mao's rule it was not uncommon for Bibles and other Christian literature to be burned in public in China, while the owners of the volumes were forced to watch. Bibles are thick books and during one of these lengthy, unholy bonfires in the city of Chungking, a Christian onlooker managed to secure one page from a burning Bible. For years afterwards the underground church to which he belonged survived on this single page. A message sent by this particular underground church to the free world read as follows: “We have learned from this one page that Christians have to try and resemble Christ.” The page that sustained their faith in those years held Matthew 16 and the verse “Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will Build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” was indelibly printed on the hearts of believers.
The Chinese culture is one of the oldest cultures in the world, boasting 4,500 years of unbroken civilization. The beginning of the written Chinese language is dated at approximately 2500 B.C., a time which coincides closely with the Tower of Babel. It is of particular interest to note that the ancient Chinese civilization in its earliest stages was monotheistic. It served only one God. Truths which we find in the first book of the Bible, in Genesis, are hidden in the old, written Chinese language – a language made up of word pictures. (For further reading for those interested in this, the book The Discovery of Genesis written by C.H. Kang is thought-provoking and well-worth one's time.)
In spite of the monotheistic beginning, however, somewhere along the way pagan ideas began to flourish. Taoism, Buddhism, the moral conduct system of Confucianism and the Zen school of thought all found their way into the everyday lives of the Chinese people. Many gods were intimately connected with each individual's life as bringers of calamities or givers of bountiful gifts. Pantheism was born. Every single object of daily life came to have a presiding spirit that had to be consulted and appeased. Mysticism, magic, ceremony and ancestor worship became an integral part of Chinese life.
Truly China was, and is, a separate country remote from other nations. The huge Himalayan mountains cut her off from India. Her north and west borders feature desert. There is also a wall – a great stone wall, 20 to 30 feet high and 15 to 20 feet thick – stretching 1,400 miles between China and Mongolia. As such, it was virtually impossible, aside from the possible initial Tower of Babel trek, for the Chinese people to receive news about the Creator God. Yet God says in His Word “Before me every knee will bow” (Isaiah 45:23).
At the end of the 13th century, Marco Polo, the explorer, travelled into China. Amazed at all the things he saw, he began to nurture a love for the Chinese people and obtained an audience with the Kublai Khan, the great ruler of China. The meeting between the two men went well and when Marco returned to his native Italy, he carried with him a letter from the Khan to the pope. The letter requested one hundred learned monks to teach the Chinese what the Bible taught. God surely guided the Khan's hand and heart to desire such a thing. And yet this time, strangely enough, was not God's time. Chinese knees were not to bow yet. The request for missionaries went almost unheeded by the Western world. Out of the hundred requested, two monks were sent – but they were fainthearted and returned to their homeland without spreading the Gospel. The door to China, opened just a crack, shut again. China stayed isolated.
In the 1850s trading posts were established (with the Chinese emperor's permission) by France and Britain. The door was opened to missionaries and the Gospel once more. One of these missionaries was a man named Hudson Taylor. During his stay in China this question was put to him by a newly-converted man. “How long have you had the Gospel in your country?” “Hundreds of years,” Hudson replied. “What!” the man responded indignantly, “Hundreds of years? My father was looking for the Truth. He died without knowing about it. Why did you not come sooner?” But this article is not about Hudson Taylor, nor does it cover the heroic lives of martyred missionaries John and Betty Stam, who were also permitted to sow seeds for the church in China. This article is about present-day martyrs – about brothers and sisters alive in China today and hungering with a fierce hunger for the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The twentieth century saw China embroiled in a struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists with the Communists finally victorious in 1949. Mao Tse-Tung became the totalitarian chairman of the People's Republic of China. The policies his government enacted were detrimental to the spread of religion.
In 1971 a documentary film entitled “China '71” was aired on the campus of the University of Guelph, Ontario. It portrayed small Chinese children in state-run nursery schools singing songs about chairman Mao who was nothing short of a god to them. Little three and four year-olds were shown singing a song which, translated, read something like this:
In Peking there shines a light,
No, it's not the sun,
Chairman Mao is his name,
And the song is done.
As the children sang they smiled and gestured, pointing chubby fingers to the enshrined picture of Mao above the blackboard. The same film also showed children playing a game where a revolution was enacted. Pretending to hold hand grenades, preschoolers hurled make-believe bombs against the school wall. The wall stood for anything that opposed chairman Mao.
The children of the Mao years were kept in state-run nurseries from Monday to Saturday. They were fed, changed and taught by the state as their mothers worked. They were bottle-fed on communism. But they ached with malnutrition and developed rickets of the soul. Some of them joined churches and some did not.
Mao died in 1976. By this time the Communist regime had been firmly established. The Party had made firm inroads into every Chinese family. But there was much discontentment. There were state-run churches as well as underground, house churches. The latter were the almost forgotten churches. But they fed on milk and remained alive and grew.
Not all that long ago, a farmer and his wife arrived one day in the huge city of Shanghai, which boasts a population of some 14 million plus. Camping on the sidewalk they drew many curious glances from passersby. Their clothes and manner gave away the fact that they were from the country and not used to the ways of the city. “Where are you from? What are you doing here camping on the sidewalk?” Questions were not long in coming from those who lived in Shanghai.
The farmer was subdued and a little backwards, people thought, in his answer. “I am looking for my brother.”
“He's looking for his brother.” People guffawed behind their hands and thought him a country bumpkin for imagining that he could find his brother just by sitting on the sidewalk. “What's your brother's name? Where does he live?”
When the farmer shrugged his shoulders and answered that he didn't know, the people laughed again and walked on. The man was strange but he had brought a smile to their drab existence and they relished the thought of speaking to fellow workers about him.
Word got around and a Christian couple in a nearby apartment heard of the farmer and his wife camping on the sidewalk. They also laughed a little but suddenly stopped to say to one another, “As Christians we address one another as brother and sister. Do you suppose this farmer is trying to give a message to our churches here?”
Walking down to the place where the strangers were camped, the man greeted them kindly. Then he said, “My father's name is Abraham; who is your father?”
The farmer regarded him solemnly for a moment. Then, with tears in his eyes he responded, “My father's name is Abraham too! You must be my brother.”
The Christian couple found a Bible for the farmer and his wife. That is what they had come to Shanghai for. They left soon afterwards to share that single Bible with hundreds of believers in the remote country district from which they had come.
Can Bibles be purchased in China? According to a number of sources they can. But this is deceptive. Bibles are, generally speaking, not available to the ordinary people and cannot be purchased in bookstores.
China has an official church – the church of the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.” (The Three-Self Patriotic Movement stands for self-administration, self-financing and self-evangelization.) Through this state church the government has tried to bring all Christians into one organization in order to control them.
When Bibles are available in the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Churches, purchasing them has often resulted in persecution. It can happen that a house-church which has ordered Bibles for its district has a representative travel to the city to pick them up. This person will be questioned at length about his involvement with an “unregistered” church. Within weeks that church will very likely be raided by the Public Security Bureau with church members either arrested or fined. The house church will also be ordered to register as part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement church subject to government supervision. As a result, ordering Bibles is rarely done. The procedure is both dangerous and time-consuming. Forms are filled out and names, addresses and ID numbers must be left for government perusal. Most Christians are afraid of government intervention.
The Bible is often referred to as the “Heaven Book.” With Christian literature and the Scriptures so scarce, house churches try very hard to do their own printing. A number of very old printing presses are hidden in caves. These caves also serve as hideouts and as places for religious activities. They are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Giving much protection, they require no building permits.
The machines that provide the literature for the house congregations are ancient. They are hand-fed and produce one page at a time. Students often volunteer to man a printing press, fully conscious of the fact that they will have to stay in a cave's interior for several months as a precaution against being detected. Bible verses are copied out by hand if a travelling leader quotes the Bible to a congregation during a service. People are hungry for God's Word.
The post-Maoist era, especially in the late 1980s, seemed to be more open to change – to democracy. The student movement at universities in more than 80 cities and towns, backed by millions of countrymen who were tired of communism, captured the attention of newspapers around the world. The nursery-school children who had been spoon-fed communism had grown up ravenously hungry and desired to speak of politics, religion and freedom openly. They were angry at the corruption, the poor housing and the tight rein that had held them in check. They had lost faith in the ideology of communism and sought something else. All religions had been suppressed for so long that a vacuum of values existed. May of 1989 saw thousands of students occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing for more than six weeks. They had erected a 30-foot high plaster statue they called the Goddess of Democracy. Others raised a banner which read “The Lord Loves You, Long Live Democracy.”
Then came about those events which were to become known in history as 'Bloody Sunday.' On June 4, 1989 the Chinese troops moved in and hard-line Marxists again took control of the People's Republic of China. Hundreds of students were killed, thousands were imprisoned and a great number fled to the country. Many hid in towns across China. Among those who were imprisoned were some church leaders. Another chapter in the life of China had begun – a chapter that would prove to make things even more difficult for the house churches which had already suffered so much. People were frightened into silence. It was said that if you made a remark about the price of tomatoes, the neighbours might consider that a political complaint and tell the police. Unofficial gatherings were banned and government pressure became stronger.
Lee Cho is the wife of one of the leaders of a house church. When she was eight months pregnant her husband was forced to flee his home because the police were looking for him. The police knew that Lee Cho was expecting a child – not her first. Warned by friends that the authorities were coming to arrest her to force her to have an abortion, Lee Cho fled away to a distant village. Lee Cho's family had to suffer the consequences of this. The police took some of their furniture, a sewing machine, wheat, firewood and kerosene – all precious items. Then the family members were taken in for interrogation. “If,” they were told, “Lee Cho does not come home for an abortion, we will demolish your houses.” Finally the police were bribed with a “fee” of 1000 Yuan to spare the houses. 1500 more Yuan was painfully collected to have Lee Cho come home and have her child. Twenty-five hundred Yuan is a huge sum of money – for a farm worker it is more than two years' salary.
Not all too long ago some missionaries attended a house church meeting in a cave. Smuggled into the countryside wearing inconspicuous green army coats, they were led into a cave which had been carved out of rock – a cave roughly 30 by 5 meters in size. Sitting tightly packed together on wooden benches, some 90 people had assembled. The men sat in the back and the women and children sat in front of them. The elders sat at the side and with them sat a young man with an accordion on his lap. All eyes were fixed on the missionaries. They were hungry for preaching and for contact with other Christians. They attended the service at the risk of their lives.
Often elders minister to the needs of these house churches. Training classes are arranged in secret to provide basic Bible instruction for young people who are willing to leave the leadership of city house churches in order to evangelize among remote house churches in the countryside. Hundreds of students are trained in this way. Cassette tapes are an essential part of this ministry. Devotional messages, the Gospel and teaching material which has been sent by the West is avidly used by these house churches.
The October 1994 Christian Herald reported Dr. Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as saying that those who “smuggle” Bibles into China are causing mischief. He says it is not necessary to do this as two million Bibles were produced in China in 1993. However, it is necessary to remember that Christians do not have ready access to these Bibles and that two million Bibles hardly meet the demand of the millions of people who would like to have one.
At times tents are used by house churches, which meet in many places and under various circumstances. In many of the house church meetings there is a strong spirit of revival (not to be confused with revivalism). When the Gospel is preached, the congregation and the leaders show great sorrow and turn to the Lord with weeping. The news given to the West is that thousands of new Christians are being born and that many new house churches are being formed. In June of 1992 the State Statistics Bureau in China claimed Christians numbered 63 million. Because many believers would not take part in such an official census, it is believed that the actual number of believers is perhaps as high as 100 million and growing. Such a burgeoning number is somewhat mindful of the Second Great Awakening in the United States – a spiritual awakening which took place in the early 1800s. One Ebenezer Porter wrote at that time:
The God of this universe is not dependent on instruments… He could fill the world with Bibles by a word, – or give every inhabitant of the globe a knowledge of the Gospel by inspiration. But he chooses that human agency should be employed in printing and reading and explaining the Scriptures. God is able to sanctify the four hundred million of Asia, in one instant, without the agency of missionaries; but we do not expect Him to do this without means, any more than we expect him to rain down food from the clouds, or turn stones into bread.
There has indeed been an awakening in China. A report dating back to August 1992 speaks of a team of believers sent out to preach the Gospel in the eastern province of Zhejiang. They write that:
The workers had only to open their mouths and preach, and their hearers showed themselves willing to repent and believe. In a few days, two brothers led 300 to believe in Jesus. Then a group of 20 returned to say that more than 1,300 had been saved. A month later, when a majority of the teams had returned, more than 10,000 had been saved.
More reports than this one are coming in. Regions where there were not thought to be any Christians now have thriving churches. But the great shortage of Bibles remains. It is believed that there are as many as 55 million Christians without their own copy of God's Word.
A China news and church report of July 1994 tells the story of a group of Christians recently traveling through China. While they were on a train, one of the team members took out a small Bible to read for her devotions. After a few minutes a train attendant passed her and stopped to ask what she was reading. When she answered that it was the Bible the attendant responded with: “Oh, the Bible. What does it say? Can you come to my office and tell me about it? I would really like to know more about what it says.”
A nearby woman, seated on one of the sleeper bunks joined the conversation and said, “Are you Christians? I have seen a Bible and some other books on Christianity. What is it about? Can you lend me something to read on it?”
When the group obligingly gave her a book, the person in the bunk above hers also asked for a book. While these two were reading the material given to them, another person from the compartment came over and talked to the Christians explaining to them that faith in the Communist party had disappeared and that hearts were empty. “Where we go there is nothing,” the young man said, “We're just wasting our lives.”
Persecution of Christians was stepped up radically after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
In August of 1993, Ge Xinliang, a house church preacher from the Anhui province, was arrested after holding a prayer meeting which was attended by over 100 people. Charged with “disturbing the public order” he was accused of encouraging others to listen to religious radio broadcasts from Hong Kong; receiving Bibles from abroad; and holding “preachers” training classes. Without any trial he was sentenced to two years reform through labour.
In January of 1994 six preachers from the same Anhui province were arrested and sentenced to between one to three years of “re-education through labour.”
In January of that same 1993 a registered church building in the Shaanxi province was destroyed by the police. Approximately 300 men surrounded the church while a worship service was in progress. They ordered the Christians attending the service to leave, dragged out those who refused, and then razed the building with bulldozers. When the church leaders objected, they were told that the church building was too prominent, built too close to a main road and that the cross on the top could be seen by too many people.
The Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, located in northern China, issued regulations for Christians believers in October of 1993. These regulations exist to control China's large and growing Protestant population. They read as follows:
- Christian believers must fervently love the People's Republic of China, support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Government, uphold the unification of the motherland and the harmony among ethnic groups, and work steadfastly on the road of socialism.
- Christian believers must strictly abide by all the laws, regulations, and policies of the Communist Party and the State, and strive to be patriotic and law-abiding citizens.
- Christian believers must actively work to increase the material wealth and cultivate the spiritual morals of the socialist civilization. They must comply with the government's labour codes and strive to contribute to the development of the “Four Modernizations.” When scheduled religious activities are in conflict with production and work schedules, the economic activities must take priority.
- A permit must be obtained from the county Religious Affairs Bureau in order to establish religious meeting points. No unauthorized meeting points are allowed.
- Christian believers must actively cooperate with the government to carry out thoroughly the party's religious policies to the letter. They shall not persuade and force others to believe in Christianity. They shall not brainwash teenagers under 18 with religious beliefs. They shall not bring children to religious activities.
- One should see a doctor when sick. Christian believers must not resort to prayer alone for healing so as not to endanger people's health and lives.
- Christian believers shall not preach their religion outside the church buildings and specific places which have been designated for religious activities. They shall not preach itinerantly. They shall not receive “self-proclaimed evangelists” to their homes, churches or meeting points.
In February 1994, the 42nd International Prayer Breakfast was held in Washington, D.C. President Clinton joined a number of congressmen and religious leaders at this breakfast. It had been decided beforehand to invite a number of delegates from China to attend. Three delegates were selected from the Three-Self Patriotic Movement church and three delegates were selected from house churches. At the expense of the U.S. government each of these delegates would be flown in from China and given opportunity to participate in the Prayer Breakfast.
The invitations to the house church delegates were extended personally by those who were organizing the Prayer Breakfast. These invitations were given with the following stipulations:
- You are not to speak at the breakfast.
- You are not to hold a press conference.
- You are not to make comments which will damage the image of the Chinese government.
- You are guaranteed safety both in exiting and in re-entering China by the Chinese government.
- At the conclusion of the Prayer Breakfast, you are invited to visit Rev. Billy Graham's hometown for a tour. During this time Dr. Graham will arrange for you to meet with the leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in order to enjoy conversing with this other group from China.
The home church delegates to whom this invitation was extended lived at least a thousand miles from each other. Unaware that invitations had been given to others, all three home church delegates individually replied that they would decline.
The first house church brother invited, a brother Lin Xian-Gao, replied,
If I went to the United States, I would tell the truth, not lies. To tell the truth would definitely be considered an act of damaging the image of the Chinese government which would create a pretext for the government to refuse my re-entry into China. But my commission from God is to serve Him faithfully in China only. Therefore, I choose to remain in China rather than to go abroad.
The second house church delegate responded in like manner and the third, a brother Li Tian-En said,
I am not a representative of the house church for I have never been elected as one. I can only represent myself. I cannot accept the invitation for the following reasons:
1. This Prayer Breakfast contains an element of politics which runs counter to our principle to separate religion from politics.
2. I do not feel comfortable to talk with people from the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
The American who had been sent to invite Li Tian-En was irritated at his answer and said, “Are you not too narrow-minded? Do not hate the Three-Self Patriotic Movement church. Be more tolerant.”
Li answered, “It is not that we hate the Three-Self Patriotic Movement church, but that we share with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement church neither common faith nor common goal. We are for the preaching of the Gospel; they are for the politics and for being a tool of the United Front.”
The American interrupted, “It is a glorious and dignified thing to be invited by President Clinton. Many people want an invitation, but they never get one.”
Li replied, “As for me, my glory is not meeting with President Clinton. My utmost glory is to see Jesus smiling at me and to hear His gentle voice saying, `Well done, good and faithful servant.'“
September 1, 1994 reportedly began a campaign by the Chinese government to tighten up control over all areas of life. This campaign is referred to as “zhonghe zhili” or “comprehensive rule.” The targets of this control include criminals (robbers, drug rings, prostitutes), advocates of democracy, those having illegal pregnancies, those engaged in illegal printing and those involved in illegal religious activities (that is to say, the house churches).
Comprehensive rule in action has already been witnessed by believers in the Xunhang County in the province of Shanxi a little over half a year ago. The police appeared during a service of a local house church where they beat several members with their clubs and handcuffed five missionaries who were present. The three male missionaries were stripped from the waist down and beaten. Twenty-six other Christians present were then given the choice to either beat these three men 100 times with a bamboo rod or be beaten themselves. Then these three men were strung up with rope and beaten again by the police officers. The women missionaries were abused.
China has 350 million young people under the age of 18 but it is illegal to preach the Gospel to them. A Western missionary who was smuggled into a cave for a service spoke to an eager congregation on Revelation 1:16, 17: “Christ the First, the Last and the Living.” He reminded the earnest faces in front of him that many earthly rulers had tried in the past to steal a march on Jesus but had not been able to do so. Even Mao had not been able to control what the Lord Jesus wanted to accomplish. Jesus would always and forever have the last word. And whosoever puts his trust in Him will have eternal life. The missionary concluded his sermon with the words of Isaiah 26:13, “O Lord, our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but Your name alone do we honour.”
The words spoken by the missionary were of great comfort to the people in the small cave. And they will be of comfort to the growing church in China in the years to come – a church against which the gates of hell cannot prevail.
May we be moved to pray for our brothers in sisters in China daily.