Official Protestant Church Politicizes Pastoral Training, "Reconstructs" Theology

March 10, 2010

Protestants who worship at officially sanctioned congregations in China continue to encounter state interference in the practice and teaching of their faith. To operate legally, congregations must submit to two state-run "patriotic religious organizations" that run their affairs. China's state-controlled Protestant church manipulates and modifies doctrine and theology in an effort to eliminate elements of Christian faith that the Communist Party regards as incompatible with its goals and ideology. It calls this process "theological reconstruction." Recent meetings between top Party officials and the patriotic religious organizations illustrate the close relationship that the Party maintains with these organizations. Meanwhile, local government reports from various provinces indicate ongoing emphasis on theological reconstruction and political study sessions in registered Protestant churches.

In early February, central Party leaders and top officials from the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) held meetings with representatives of China's "patriotic religious organizations" to commend them for their work in 2009 and to outline the Party's priorities for 2010. Two of the six state-led organizations in attendance―the Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) of Protestant Churches and the China Christian Council (CCC)―are responsible for managing Protestant churches on behalf of SARA and the Party's United Front Work Department (UFWD).

The director of SARA, Wang Zuo'an, addressed the meeting of patriotic religious organizations on February 9 at the Beijing headquarters of the Central Party UFWD, according to a February 10 SARA report (via the Central People's Government official Web site). Wang endorsed the "theological reconstruction" campaign and the political study sessions that the TSPM/CCC requires of registered pastors: "the Protestant TSPM/CCC have achieved positive results through continuing to promote theological reconstruction, strengthening the building of their organizations, and vigorously launching trainings [for pastors]." The day before Wang addressed the patriotic religious organizations, Jia Qinglin, the fourth highest-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, welcomed the leaders of these organizations to Zhongnanhai, a secure compound in central Beijing that houses the Party's top leadership. In this annual meeting to mark the Chinese New Year, Jia articulated the Party's desire for registered clergy who promote its political agenda: "diligently train a corps of qualified religious personnel who are politically reliable" (Xinhua, February 8).

In line with these sentiments expressed by top leaders, government entities from localities across the country issued reports in late 2009 and early 2010 that continue to stress the role of patriotic religious organizations as an instrument of the Party. For Protestants, this role is reflected in the importance afforded to theological reconstruction and political training for pastors.

Guangdong Province

  • According to a December 24 report from the Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission (GERAC), a top official for religious affairs in Shaoguan municipality told a local gathering of registered Protestants on December 10 that they must "strengthen theological reconstruction, continuously draw out positive factors from the Protestant canon and doctrines, and push theological reconstruction to new heights."
  • In late November, the TSPM/CCC of Jieyang municipality gathered to discuss proposals to facilitate the development of "harmonious churches." Theological reconstruction figured prominently in the proposals put forward by the TSPM authorities: "we must integrate our efforts to build harmonious churches, insist on the three-self principles, and deepen theological reconstruction; [in order to] resist infiltration and various forms of heresy, and bring about healthier development for the church" (GERAC, December 23).

Zhejiang Province

  • On February 9, the Zhejiang Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee reported that the TSPM/CCC held a symposium on theological reconstruction with 151 registered church leaders from across the province. Deng Fucun, the Zhejiang TSPM chairman, told participants how theological reconstruction was necessary to make Christianity sufficiently "Chinese" and to maintain independence from foreign Protestants. Deng described the "spiritual essence" of the TSPM as "insisting on the principle of independence and free initiative without wavering; creating, with single-hearted devotion, a church that belongs to the Chinese people…exerting ourselves to further the construction of a harmonious society…"
  • A January 22 report from the Hangzhou Municipal Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau (via the Hangzhou Office of Performance Assessment's official Web site) reveals the imperative to modify Protestant doctrine and teachings that lie behind theological reconstruction. Under the heading of "Primary Tasks to Do," the Bureau writes: "we must encourage and support religious circles to interpret doctrines and church rules in ways that conform to the times and accord with the demands of social progress, they must go a step further in deepening Protestant theological reconstruction, push forward with theological reconstruction until its positive results capture pulpits at the basic level."

Jiangsu Province

  • On February 2, the Jiangsu Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission reported on a meeting held earlier the same day by the TSPM/CCC of Huai'an municipality to assess their work from 2009. Authorities congratulated TSPM/CCC clergy for their success at "energetically launching theological reconstruction, strengthening personnel training, and coming together to launch 'blessing the motherland' patriotic propaganda activities that celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the New China…" Among its list of priorities for 2010, the Huai'an TSPM/CCC vowed to "safeguard against cults and resist external [forces] that use religion to infiltrate." Registered churches were also urged to "conduct a careful investigation into and promptly dispose of all existing unsafe and unstable factors in various locations."
  • On January 25, the TSPM/CCC in Suzhou convened a meeting to review their 2009 activities and to make plans for 2010, according to an official report from the Suzhou Municipal Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau. Although the TSPM/CCC leadership found that official churches had "obtained a certain degree of success in launching patriotic education campaigns…promoting theological reconstruction… and attracting and fostering personnel," Suzhou religious affairs officials continued to emphasize Party-dictated political "study" for pastors in their 2010 agenda for Protestants: "all pastoral personnel shall attach great importance to study, take study as a responsibility, treat the study system as a type of hard restraint, and earnestly master [their] studies."
  • The TSPM in Sihong county ordained 95 deacons on December 15, after determining that they were "politically reliable" and that they "insisted on the three-self patriotic principles, understood policies and regulations, understood church management, and were capable of correctly interpreting doctrines and church rules," according to a December 29 report from the Suqian Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs.
  • A December 3 report from the same source provided details of officially sponsored "preaching competitions" held in Sihong county in spring 2009 for the purpose of "guiding the masses of believers to the correct understanding of the Bible's basic teachings, purifying Protestants' faith, enhancing the adaptation of Protestant faith to socialism, raising their consciousness to resist cult infiltration and to oppose separatism, and promoting social harmony and stability."

Jilin Province

  • According to a January 27 report from the Jilin Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission (via Buddhism Online), SARA approved a request to establish a new TSPM/CCC-controlled Bible school with the "primary task of educating and fostering Jilin province's full-time theology students and training existing pastoral personnel within the province who serve as the backbones of local churches." Jilin authorities stressed the need for TSPM/CCC leaders to strengthen "political and ideological education at the school," and "in a planned way, foster religious personnel who are patriotic, which will have decisive impact on the future face of Protestantism in Jilin."

Yunnan Province

  • UFWD and SARA officials in Yiliang county launched a campaign in January to promote the incorporation of Party Chairman Hu Jintao's "scientific development concept" into the teachings of the state-sanctioned church, according to a January 25 report from the official Web site of the Yiliang county government and Party committee. Yang Chaoping, the vice director of the county UFWD, told local church leaders: "religion must adapt to socialist society; make great efforts to serve the construction of a harmonious society; insist on the three-self principles without wavering; resist, in practical ways, infiltration by external hostile forces; resolutely push forward with theological reconstruction; and accelerate the scientific development of the Protestant church." The vice head of Kuixiang township, Niu Changxiang, urged TSPM/CCC leaders to ensure that "the religious masses strictly abide by national laws and regulations, and endorse and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party…"

Hubei Province

  • In late November, the TSPM/CCC in Huangshi municipality held its third symposium on theological reconstruction, according to a December 1 report from the Hubei Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission. Deng Hanguang, the Commission's Vice Director, attended the symposium and "affirmed" the efforts of the TSPM/CCC to reshape Protestant theology. Deng also "raised a clear demand" for how Protestants should explore ways to "deepen the study of the spirit of the leaders' remarks to the plenary session of the 17th Party Congress."

For more information on theological reconstruction and the politicization of pastoral training for registered Protestants in China, see Section II―Freedom of Religion―Protestantism―Controls over doctrine and theology & Controls over pastoral training and preaching in the CECC's 2009 Annual Report.