COMMENTARY: China, the Olympics and the Bible

August 18, 2008

"Everything you can say about China is true ... somewhere in China!"

Such was the insight offered by my 90-year-old friend Rosa, who with her sister, the late Ruth Graham Bell (Billy Graham's wife), was raised in China.

It's a timely and useful observation as the Olympics are upon us and we Westerners are trying to understand the enigma that is China.

Semantics are always important when you're talking cross-culturally. Some athletes have donned protective face masks to limit exposure to Beijing smog, while one Chinese official insisted, "That's not pollution, it's only a mist."

Nowhere are words important, and the Chinese more enigmatic, than on the issue of religion and the Bible.

In the West, opinions are divided about the degree of religious freedom granted by China's communist government. It all depends on what you make of three separate but related issues: the official Chinese "Three-Self church," the government-owned Amity Press that prints Bibles, and the claims of persecution by the "underground church."

First a little history. The Three-Self Patriotic Church born in the 1950s was an attempt to remove foreign influence from China's Christian movement. "Three self" refers to the three pillars of self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation. Western missionaries were forced to leave the country.

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, all religious activity -- including the possession of Bibles -- was banned in China. The Three-Self Patriotic Church was terminated, despite promises by church leaders to remain "patriotic."

Christian activities were driven underground into house churches and, much like the early church under Roman persecution, this underground church movement thrived despite persecution. The more repressive the government became, the more the church grew.

In 1979, the Three-Self Church reemerged under the control of the Chinese government, which monitors its activities. Certain topics were off limits, including the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Teaching from books of prophecy that predict the end times -- such as Daniel and Revelation -- was prohibited. The church's influence over teenagers and younger children was severely limited. The government oversees clergy education and retains the right to review sermons to assure compliance with government restrictions.

While numbers are difficult to come by, David Aikman, the former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, estimates that there are now 15 million to 20 million members and affiliates of the Three-Self church.

When the government reinstated the state-run church, it required that all Christians "register" with their local three-self church. Millions of "house church" Christians refused to go public. Today, it's estimated that 60 to 100 million Christians are active in this unregistered movement.

The burgeoning underground church is hungry for Bibles. Where can they get them?

Amity Printing Co. is the one state-approved printer of Bibles in China and has been printing as many as 3 million copies each year. These Bibles are available to anyone who "registers" to receive one. In advance of the Olympics, Amity opened a massive printing facility and increased production to 6 million Bibles a year, with a capacity of up to 12 million if needed.

So does China allow religious freedom, and are Bibles readily available to any who desire one?

Westerners are being assured that Christianity is allowed in China and Bibles are available and that much is true -- provided you are willing to attend the Three-Self Church and are willing to register with the government to receive a Bible.

Westerners are also told stories of persecution of the house church, and of the need for smuggling Bibles to desperate Christians. That's also true -- provided that you refuse to grant the government authority over your spiritual life, an authority you believe belongs to God alone.

"Everything you can say about China is true ... somewhere in China!"

-- Dick Staub is the author of "The Culturally Savvy Christian" and the host of The Kindlings Muse. His blog can be read here.

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