Inside the House Church Movement in China

Yiran Ding/Shanghai, China

The staircase of the silent apartment block is poorly lit, but the face that peers down from the gloom to check on me is a reminder that I’m on the right track. We halt outside an unmarked door where Mina—my guide on this pilgrimage—retrieves a ring of keys from his pocket, then sets to work on the heavyset door. As it swings open, the dinge gives way to the overwhelming scent of incense and brilliance of icons that mark this secret place as a house of worship.

Here in China, such places are referred to as jiātíng jiàohuì, literally meaning ‘house church.’

House churches are a familiar fixture of Protestant Christian communities, where the lack of ecclesiastical hierarchy allows believers to worship from their own homes. In the United States, nothing about today’s visit to this apartment-cum-prayer hall just off the Shanghai metro would seem unusual; everything from the warm welcome to the elaborate decorations could be from a Baptist meeting in the Deep South. Admittedly, the concentrated Arabic chants that swell to fill the prayer hall could have seemed almost mosque-like, had it not been for the unmistakably female voices gracing the chorus. But what makes this Coptic Orthodox Church feel different is the palpable tension that pervades the atmosphere, unlike anything you’d find in the West.

That’s because of the other big difference: this gathering is illegal under Chinese law.

In 2005, the Chinese government introduced new restrictions on all religions other than the five legally recognized ones: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. The distinct treatment of Protestants and Catholics gives broad-sense Christianity a vague status under Chinese law, which treats activities by all other religious groups as illegal assemblies—severely affecting their ability to operate and proselytize. For example, the Eastern Orthodox Communion has over 250 million members worldwide, yet possesses only three churches in mainland China. Of these, two are technically extraterritorial, operating from the safe confines of Russian consular property. They refuse entry to all Chinese nationals seeking worship or baptism, for fear of violating anti-missionary laws. A third church, located in the formerly Russian-owned city of Harbin in northeastern China, was recently granted informal recognition, in a unique exception from the Chinese state. Nonetheless, its privileges exist within the blurry murk of semi-legality. Every sermon is a potential sedition charge against both priest and parishioners.

For the state, this arrangement allows for direct control over the activities of religious groups at a grassroots level. This enhanced level of control—and surveillance—is perceived as immensely important here in China, where the historical memory of violence by religious mass movements is strong. Less than 200 years ago, a heterodox Christian cult started a civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion, causing widespread destruction and millions of deaths. But it’s not just historical. One modern example of a Chinese Christian cult, Eastern Lightning, holds that Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a Chinese woman and further believes that the Chinese Communist Party is the evil Red Dragon mentioned in the book of Revelation. Members have been implicated in murder, kidnapping, and riots. Its founders have successfully sought political asylum in the U.S. While today’s measures could indeed prevent future violent cults from spreading, they also cause discontent. For instance, the excommunication delivered to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA)—the state body responsible for overseeing all Catholic activities within the country—shortly after its inception has made it untenable for Chinese Catholics.

Events have escalated since 2005. The conspicuous presence of Chinese citizens among the ranks of Islamic militant groups has sparked serious concerns in Beijing about homegrown insurgency. A prominent moment took place in 2017, when the Syrian ambassador to China revealed that the number of Chinese Uyghurs fighting for the Islamic State was more than 16 times higher than the Chinese government’s official estimate. Secondly, the successes by local missionaries in attracting converts has caused the Christian population to swell to approximately 100 million. The rapid growth has even fueled speculation about China becoming a Christian nation in the near future. Such trends are viewed as unwelcome by the officially state-atheist authorities—especially as the country now has more Christians than Communist Party members for the first time in its modern history.

The Reaction Accelerates

The latest government action came in February 2018, when new religious restrictions ostensibly targeting extremism were passed into law. The reforms both reiterate and reinforce the 2005 laws: Protestant or Catholic groups that operate under the supervision of state-approved bodies, like the TSPM or CPCA, may continue to do so. Those that reject this supervision, or follow a different denomination altogether, operate under the risk of arrests, fines, or imprisonment. As a consequence, a striking proportion of Chinese Christians—as many as two-thirds—go underground by attending unregistered house churches.

It is hard to say whether the crackdown is aimed at unregulated house churches, or religion itself. A hint came earlier this year from Xu Xiaohong, the head of the TSPM. He was reported as saying: “Anti-China forces in the West are trying to continue to influence China’s social stability and even subvert our country’s political power through Christianity… it is doomed to fail.” Coming from the state-appointed leader of all Protestant Christians in China, the explicit construal of Christianity as a social and political threat is suggestive. For the Chinese government, Christianity comes with Western baggage.

This hardline attitude has a historical precedent in the Cultural Revolution, when Christianity was suppressed as an anti-Communist fifth column. But the remarks of state officials on the new stance, such as those by Xu Xiaohong, discuss a religious threat to Chinese culture, not Maoist doctrine. When taken at face value, Xu’s suggestion that Christianity acts as a vehicle for cultural subversion might suggest that the current stance aims primarily at restricting Westernization, rather than enforcing Communism.

The dangers of going underground are fully understood by worshipers from both Chinese and foreign backgrounds. While none of the Chinese converts to Coptic Orthodoxy (a surprisingly common sight at minority-denomination house churches) at mass felt secure enough to be interviewed, a handful of foreign residents happily agreed to speak on the record, despite the possibility of deportation.

One of these was Istifanus, who had come to China several years ago from Egypt. Now in his 40s, Istifanus had managed to remain beneath the radar as a university teacher for almost a decade, all while actively promoting the church within diaspora circles in Shanghai. He was surprisingly dismissive when speaking about the possible repercussions of this religious networking.

“Back in Egypt before the revolution, we had it much worse. I applied to an assistant professorship at Ayn Shams University, and they rejected me, saying they don’t hire Christians. That was before the [two] revolutions, and now are with Sisi, thank God. But even today [in Egypt], Christians are forced out of playing football, [yet] we are still more than 10% of the population. I don’t want to change here,” he says, waving a finger at the room around us, “Because the people here don’t care that we worship at home. In Egypt, when they find out about a house church, there will be [a] riot and even their [Christian] neighbor is not safe.”

While I struggled to keep Istifanus on-topic, it soon became clear why he felt inclined to downplay the risks associated with joining an illegal church group. In some ways, migrant workers like Istifanus enjoy more freedoms in China than back at home. Violent raids on domestic churches are also nothing new in Egypt. Culprits are often average citizens, rather than official police. Emphasizing the benefits of an attractive salary and good working conditions compared to back home, Istifanus assured me that Coptic house churches remain practically free to operate, so long as they don’t draw attention by preaching to Chinese citizens.

For many Christians, this might seem like a small sacrifice to make in return for personal safety. But I expected that recent converts, who are likely to be more zealous than born believers and deeply animated by the call to evangelize, might think differently. So, I asked Rami, a convert from a different Muslim-majority country. However, he seemed similarly calm about practicing his faith in secret. “Most of us are students or teachers, and some earn enough to send money home to our families,” he told me. “Even with the church, it is very safe for us here if we respect the rules and don’t bother them [the Chinese]. Things are good—why would we want to change that?”

Istifanus and Rami represent an often overlooked demographic within China’s Christian community. Of course, the biggest community is the Chinese Christians themselves. And there is also the broad community of expatriates who don’t have a past of persecution at home, often from Western countries. Many also have access to embassies and expat-only parishes in China. But in this particular community, many had faced more serious and direct persecution at home than in their new enclaves.

Rami’s reluctance to rock the boat with overt preaching was the mainstream attitude within the congregation, and was shared by virtually everyone from a Middle Eastern background. But the Chinese converts are different. When speaking to the handful of Chinese converts in attendance, almost all of whom reportedly first encountered Christianity through romantic relationships with immigrant believers, I found approval and enthusiasm for evangelism to be nearly unanimous. One woman, who did not agree to an interview, even stressed that converting her parents had become a main life goal. Her passionate optimism belied the obvious challenges at hand; balancing cultural obligations, filial piety, and religious morality under the restrictions of Chinese law is far from an easy effort.

China’s tiny Coptic minority is far from alone in this regard. In recent years, China has seen an explosion of homegrown evangelism and missionary activism, largely propelled by growth in the country’s Protestant and non-affiliated Christian groups. While some of this may be explained by the zealous-convert phenomenon, it is also linked to ideas about the social benefits of spreading the faith held by native Christians themselves, some of whom believe that converting their fellow Chinese might curtail immorality, or even eliminate crime. Such beliefs indicate that proselytism is often seen as an act of civic loyalty, rather than civil disobedience.

But this is a far cry from the state’s attitude to its fastest-growing religion. Since the 2018 regulatory changes, unregistered churches across the country have been raided and forcefully shut down by police. Although the small size and local membership of many house churches make the true scale of the raids hard to ascertain, a representative of U.S.-based China Aid reported over 10,000 cases of detention against Christians in 2018 alone, with hundreds arrested by police during the night. Zion Church in Beijing, formerly among the city’s largest, was caught in the crackdown. Over a short space of time in 2018, Zion Church had its lease retracted, electricity, and water turned off, and Bibles confiscated by state authorities. The last step was to declare the church itself a form of illegal assembly, leaving its 1,500-strong congregation liable for serious criminal charges. Zion ceased operation shortly after, as have many other churches targeted since 2018.

Perhaps the reason the Chinese state is shutting down house churches lies within the institutional infrastructure of its existing, state-backed Catholic and Protestant communities. While the two officially recognized denominations are not the first to establish a presence on the mainland, they have been focal points for a decades-long effort by the Chinese state looking for ways to control popular religion. These firmly established organizations have the authority to regulate every Christian event or activity in all of China.

What appears to be a religious sinicization policy is well underway under Xi Jinping. The strategy is one of containment and, in some cases, conversion into CCP assets.

Chinese Protestantism’s Rising Generation

Chinese Protestantism is made up of the state-backed Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM)—a body formed by those Protestant communities and leaders who rallied to the CCP in the 1950s—and the wide array of extra-legal house churches. One estimate cited in a survey focused on Wuhan estimates the total number of Three-Self members between 18 and 30 million, while estimates of house church adherents fall between 45 and 60 million. The same study found that house church adherents tended to be somewhat younger, and also better educated. The general critique by house churches of the TSPM is that it is compromised as a state body (sometimes seen as illegitimate in itself) and has failed to maintain core aspects of Protestant Christian doctrine to accommodate “sinicization.”

There is a degree of irony in the fact that China’s state-owned regulatory body for Protestants was founded on a set of principles originally used by British and American missionaries, for the purpose of empowering indigenous Protestant communities. But current Chinese state bodies don’t feel constrained by these roots and are dead-set on ensuring ideological and cultural integrity in China. This leaves house churches with the challenge of maintaining a careful balance: operating outside the CCP’s religious framework, while trying to avoid charges that they serve as vectors for Western influence. The reality is that many house church leaders have been grappling with the distinction between Christianity and Western culture, and this grappling has not always resulted in conclusions Chinese authorities find acceptable.

The immense size of the house church–going population makes it hard for the CCP to simply repress them, and thus ensures their present survival and growth. But it also makes them a larger potential liability in the eyes of China’s leaders. Indeed, house churches have given rise to a new generation of leaders who desire greater political influence. A prominent example is the Chinese Calvinist pastor Wang Yi, whose 2015 “95 Theses” document drew on Calvinist and Augustinian conceptions of political authority to argue for separation of church and state, and freedom of religious association. The document explicitly targeted the TSPM and its perceived compromises with state power. Both Wang Yi and the aforementioned Liu Tongsu have framed the document as moving the Protestant house churches to a new era of organization and intellectual development. The Western influence is unmistakable.

Yale scholar Chloë Starr, who reviewed the “95 Theses” in detail, highlights the role which U.S. churches play in providing material assistance and training, in addition to being a “dialogue partner.” But despite this close relationship, Starr states that house churches “seem to see this as a neutral, culture-free Christianity.” There are even concerns that “sinicization” threatens the expressions of theology received from non-Chinese missions. In response to sinicization, house church voices have called for the “evangelization of China, the kingdomization of the church, the Christianization of culture.”

Still, Yi isn’t calling for revolution. He’s not even calling for democracy. His document urges the CCP to acknowledge the freedom house churches already possess. Starr further notes:

Wang’s starting point is that the house church’s demands are the demands of the gospel—and ought to be respected within the scope of the Chinese Constitution and China’s position as a signatory to various international treaties. The church is not fighting for new rights, but “asking the state to acknowledge and respect the freedom we already have…” ([14], p. 367). Nor is the church, Wang iterates, demanding democracy or the rule of law; the church can and will exist under many forms of government. The only thing it demands, he notes echoing Barth, is the freedom to worship and to spread the gospel. Apart from the state’s role in guaranteeing the constitutional right to freedom of religion (a clause he suggests “exists in name only”), “the mission of the gospel has nothing to do with state power.”

This contrasts with the more activist and confrontational stance that many Hong Kong Christians embraced during that territory’s political battles, including those fought by the Umbrella Movement, as well as the current anti-extradition-bill protests. Although previous uprisings faced opposition from religious authorities, like Hong Kong’s Anglican Primate, its Occupy Central movement leadership included Protestant laymen and clergy.

All this suggests that simplistic dichotomies which see Chinese Protestants as either foreign or patriotic aren’t of much value. In fact, the state body itself is tied to conceptions of Chinese Christianity stemming from foreign missionaries, while nominally illegal house churches have advocated for recognition from within the Chinese legal framework. As the movement will only continue to grow, it remains to be seen if the CCP will make use of this framework in order to move the relationship forward.

Chinese Catholicism’s Long Reunification

Chinese Catholics make up a smaller population than their Protestant counterparts: estimates range from 9 to 12 million, with around 6 million of these belonging to the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The rest belong to the extra-legal underground church. However, these distinctions mainly hold with regard to whether a particular Catholic bishop is recognized by Beijing or not, with laity and even priests often interacting with both communities. There are an estimated 70 bishops within underground bodies and around 30 in the CPA.

Unlike the religiously and organizationally diverse Protestant churches, Chinese Catholics are theoretically united by their relationship with the Holy See, which acts as their religious head. In practice, this has become a point of conflict. Pope Pius XII originally excommunicated the CPA bishops in 1958, and Catholics underwent persecution during the Cultural Revolution, along with all religions in China. Beijing had pressured the CPA to reject Rome as its supreme authority, a heretical stance within Catholicism. However, the Vatican has spent the past few decades slowly reintegrating bishops of this body. The final step of this process occurred in late 2018, when Pope Francis admitted the final seven CPA bishops into regular communion, essentially reunifying China’s Catholics on the ecclesial level.

The deal has faced intense opposition from some among the underground church, as well as Catholics beyond the mainland, such as the retired Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong. On the other hand, many of the CPA bishops continue to prioritize cooperation with state authorities on projects like the sinicization of Christianity.

However, this debate marks a distinction between the Vatican’s strategy in China and that of Protestant pastors such as Wang Yi. Catholic history in China stretches back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when Jesuit missionaries became an important presence at the imperial court, where they made a concerted effort to adopt Chinese cultural forms. While later centuries saw the Church attacked as a foreign presence, the complex politics of the latest deal stems from the Vatican’s desire to secure the Church’s place in a rising China with an expanding Christian population. Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit before becoming Pope, has continued to pursue this strategy. This stance is clearest in Vatican-approved publications like La Civiltà Cattolica, which discusses renewed efforts of outreach by a pope sometimes criticized for a supposed lack of interest in seeking converts.

In practice, this means that the Vatican has been more open to discussions of sinicization than many within the house-church movement. These strategists can point to bottom-up cultural developments even in the underground church, such as devotions to local Chinese martyrs. Francis is also following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, by emphasizing the distinctions between religious and political spheres—a stance which echoes the Protestant “95 Theses” document.

On the one hand, the Vatican’s ability to coordinate Chinese Catholics more centrally and negotiate on their behalf should be a strength for the Catholic faith in China. Likewise, its openness to dialogue on sinicization, as well as its historically strong record in this area, may be better received than the hostility of other quarters toward the concept. But everything depends on the Vatican’s ability to maintain the trust of China’s many underground believers and clergy. In addition, the very existence of a foreign religious authority is all but anathema to the CCP’s fundamental worldview about how Chinese social and political power should be organized—and Chinese Catholics number less than their strong and growing Protestant counterparts. Today, the exact place of China’s Catholics remains uncertain, even as the relationship takes steps forward.

The tension between domestic political authority and the foreign religious authority of the Vatican is nothing new or peculiar to China. The Reformation was closely related to political tensions between the distant Vatican and the German princes who saw its influence as meddling in their rightful affairs. The Anglican church had a similar origin in the English crown asserting control over religious matters in England, including the ability to appoint bishops by state decree. Even in America, 19th-century Catholic immigration created political tensions around whether Catholics could be simultaneously loyal to both Rome and the republic. These tensions continue in American Catholic political discourse to this day. China’s tensions are the latest iteration of this tension created by the empire-without-an-empire structure of the Catholic church.

Between The Church And The Party-State

Alternatively, it is possible that the 2018 regulations are just the latest entrenchment among many similar cultural protectionist policies introduced under Xi Jinping. So-called “cultural censorship” reportedly accelerated since Xi came to power in 2012, most notably when depictions of gay people were banned from public television. This was accompanied by a ban on South Korean entertainment shows in 2016, and an informal ban on American actors just this year in 2019.

So, although some analysts view the religious crackdown as a generic attempt by Xi to consolidate power, the broader cultural policy trend suggests otherwise. From the state’s perspective, clamping down on an unregulated and fast-growing religion might not only prevent a second Taiping Rebellion, but also keep Chinese society from falling into the quagmire of cultural conflict seen in the West, which is increasingly recognized as a threat to the national security of Western countries.

After all, the Chinese state is keenly aware of the many cultural conflicts afflicting the West. It demonstrated its willingness to weaponize these as recently as this year, when ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye wrote an op-ed accusing the socially liberal Trudeau government of white supremacy. Having found an Achilles heel in Western cultural pluralism, it’s understandable that Xi might seek to follow countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, which are more assertive in their enforcement of cultural and religious homogeneity. China’s restrictions among Christians and other religious believers can in part be tied to its broader cultural policy: homogenization on the basis of preventing or erasing cultural differences which it sees as a vector of dangerous political conflict.

But back on the ground in this illegal house church, geopolitics seems impossibly far away. All that matters to the worshipers I spoke to was the semblance of normality they still have—going to work by day and to church by night. For Istifanus, who recently had his first child, this situation didn’t seem like it could last. He told me he was preparing to move to a Western country as soon as his daughter came of age to attend school.

As I wished him and his new family well before returning home, I was struck by the realization that for Istifanus and the rest of us foreigners here temporarily, there was no real risk to being involved in the house church movement. We came, we worshiped, and we socialized, but we returned home with neither concern nor care that we might be tracked and hunted by the government. Whether implicitly or explicitly, we knew that our privilege as foreigners was for the CCP to take zero interest in our beliefs. Even the worst-case scenario—being caught in a police raid and flagged for deportation—would be far from a catastrophe, amounting to little more than returning to our home countries earlier than we had intended.

But as we filed out of the small apartment block, sharing smiles and goodbyes, I saw a very different expression on the faces of the few Chinese converts who had dared to attend. It was a face that reflected neither the joy of the liturgical sermon, nor the satisfaction of the Egyptian meal of fuul we shared together before leaving. I saw displayed in the furrowed brows and darting glances of the few Chinese converts an expression very different from that exhibited by their foreign counterparts.

It was a face of fear, and of deep concern. But for many millions of Chinese Christians, such emotions are nothing more than Sunday routine.

Some names have been changed to protect individuals from retribution.

Wael Taji is a graduate student in behavioral economics and neuroscience at Peking University. You can follow him on Twitter @coevolutionist.