What can be learnt from divisions among Chinese Christians?

To better understand Christian divisions, Chinese Christians teach us that only one factor is never enough
What can be learnt from divisions among Chinese Christians?

Catholics attend Easter Mass at a church in Hefei, eastern China's Anhui province in this file image. (Photo by AFP)

In this week of prayer for Christian Unity, every Christian is invited to pray for a coming together of Christ's disciples.

Many may pray for Chinese Christians who face problems over divisions.

It is well known that Christians in China, Protestants and Catholics, are subjected to various government controls.

However, under these pressures, two distinct types of churches emerged.

On the one hand, there are registered and 'patriotic' churches, which fully accept collaboration with state agencies.

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They are known official churches.

On the other, there are those who put up varying degrees of resistance to the dictates of Communist Party officials.

These are called 'house churches' in the case of Protestants and the 'underground church' in relation to Catholics.

This binary division that dates back to the early 1980s is the most basic way to present the situation in China.

However, after almost 40 years of internal evolutions and conflicts, many observers insist that the situation is far more diverse and subtle than this outdated binary model.

Also, many argue that understanding divisions among Chinese Christians requires wider criteria than just the political angle.

To focus on Protestants, there are all sorts of variations and trends among them that create serious tensions and real divisions.

Just taking a political perspective is inadequate to get a good understanding of Chinese Protestantism.

There are Christian business people from Wenzhou who build worldwide merchant networks where coworkers create and lead their own churches.

These Wenzhou churches are not under the leadership of any pastor or theologically trained individual but evolve under the supervision of these so-called 'boss Christians' and focus on entrepreneurship.

Then, there are all kinds of new urban churches comprised of members of the white-collar middle class.

They usually import new theology (neo-Calvinism) and stay away from the two classical types of Chinese churches, the 'patriotic' and 'house churches.'

One must also acknowledge the wide presence and influence of heterodox movements.

They claim to be Christian but follow the female reincarnation of Jesus, or reject the trinity, or write their own holy scriptures.

They are diverse and unstable, but impact other Protestant Churches by constantly bringing new and somehow awkward theological challenges.

Clearly, Chinese Protestantism, like Chinese Catholicism, is marked by all kinds of variations.

Everything may be political but is not exclusively political.

Fast urbanization, wild capitalism, new theological trends, etc. reveal that there are other factors that explain the constantly evolving divisions of Chinese Christianity.

To better understand Christian divisions, Chinese Christians teach us that only one factor is never enough.

Even the political one is far from sufficient to truly measure all the struggles and tears that divide Chinese Christians.  

While in China the exclusive criterion to reflect on unity and division has been politics, in the West, one may argue that it was theology.

Christian divisions were only analyzed and acknowledged through the angle of theology, and other factors such as economy, politics, etc. were often downplayed or even ignored. 

Praying for Christian unity requires an embracing of the incarnation of the church, those who struggle in the midst of all sorts of challenges.

The church is not only an intellectual body reflecting on theology nor a political body responding to Caesars.

Christians are constrained in this world by numerous challenges. Praying for their communion requires us to embrace the complexity of their incarnated situations.  

To return to Chinese Christians, it is true that most researchers publishing papers about Chinese Protestants hail from the social sciences.

Therefore, they have a tendency to focus on political aspects and leave aside theological or ecclesiological questions. This reality of the research reminds us that speakers shape debates.

Those wanting to better reflect on Christian divisions and pray for unity, would do well to carefully question the source of their information and diversify the types of speakers to whom they listen.

Relying only on academic scholars, or on clergy members, is not enough to recognize the mystery of the divided body of Christ. Only one type of speaker and only one kind of criterion do not serve Christian unity. The torments of Chinese Christians invite us to more analytical. 

May this week of prayer for Christian unity help us to face further the variety of our divisions and better follow the only source of our communion.

Michel Chambon is a U.S. based doctoral student who has spent the last two years in China researching for his dissertation on religion in the country.

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