Cover Story

Caesar's seminary

Sweeping conservatives from China's best-known seminary may leave only foxes guarding the henhouse, but it may also strengthen China's underground churches

Issue: "China: Caesar’s seminary," Jan. 27, 2001

in Nanjing-No preaching. No prayer. No hymns. Those are the restrictions Chinese officials recently imposed on campus meetings at Nanjing Seminary, the most prestigious of China's licensed Protestant theological training centers. Those prohibitions are different from the attacks on Nanjing 35 years ago during the Cultural Revolution, when "Red Guards"-Communist thugs-burned seminary books in the courtyard and doomed all who resisted to forced labor or death. But they represent one more attempt to strangle the faith that China's rulers most fear. The Cultural Revolution marked a new low point for Christians under communist rule. Beginning in 1966, the government led by Mao Zedong closed schools, seminaries, and churches, with the goal of sweeping out the "four olds"-old thoughts, old habits, old customs, and old culture. Dressed in green jackets and red armbands, Red Guard cadres stormed schools, museums, and places of worship. They closed Nanjing Seminary and turned its stone buildings into army barracks. All of China's churches closed between 1966 and 1979. Reports of underground church activity did not reach the outside world until 1972. The seminary reopened in 1981 under the "Open Door" policy of Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping. Altogether officials have opened 18 state-sanctioned seminaries, and three more are expected this year. For China-watchers intent on discerning whether religious freedom can catch up with widening economic freedom, Nanjing presents a pleasant face. With 170 students, it is the largest Protestant training institution in the country and the only one to accept students from all over the country. Applications outstrip acceptances 10 to one. The school offers a four-year undergraduate program, in addition to two or three years of postgraduate studies. Some faculty members receive training in the United States or Europe. The library-resurrected from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution-is housed in a new two-story building. But the training ground for future leaders in the church has become a battleground over how they should be taught. Last year, the administration fired a core of long-time faculty members for opposing liberalism in the school's teaching program and for nonconformity to its Marxist leanings. Prior to that, the seminary's president, Bishop Ding Guangxun, canceled classes and eliminated activities after students in 1998 protested the government's role in shaping theology and dictating school policy. Outwardly at Nanjing, potted plants and landscaped serenity have returned. Inwardly, the seminary is a microcosm of the government's roiling unease with religious freedom. Lingering suppression deepens the wedge between official, state-approved Christianity in China and its unofficial-and still illegal-counterpart, the house-church movement. The China Christian Council runs Nanjing. Its head, Han Wenzao, is a member of the National Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, part of the ruling communist hierarchy. Both the China Christian Council and its twin, the Three Self Patriotic Movement, are controlled by the government's Religious Affairs Bureau in Beijing. Those two agencies control official church activity in China-licensing and approving pastors, registering church locations, and overseeing the seminaries. The dominant theology, with cross-fertilization from the World Council of Churches, is akin to the liberal theology of mainline denominations in the United States. "We feel like Martin Luther," began Peng Yaqian, describing the year leading up to the dismissal of her husband, Ji Tai, from the Nanjing faculty. A Nanjing graduate himself, he began teaching there in 1991. He was a promising addition to the faculty, and the administration sent him to Germany for further study. Upon his return, it made him director of graduate studies and associate editor of the quarterly theological review. Beginning three years ago, when Bishop Ding adopted a new slogan for the seminary, "Construct Chinese theology," and called for "theological adaptation to socialism," Ji Tai protested. He seized opportunities to preach on original sin, the second coming, and justification by faith-tenets that are criticized in The Collected Essays of Ding Guangxun, a text now working its way into the standard curriculum at Nanjing and other seminaries. Ji Tai avoided mandatory political study groups and weekly flag raising ceremonies, believing them to be a distraction from the school's purpose. He refused to publish articles in the review that argued in favor of "process theology," the attempt to conform Christian teaching to socialist and Marxist philosophy. When Ji Tai accepted invitations to preach and perform baptisms at unregistered house churches, the seminary charged him with misusing his status as seminary professor and pastor to engage in "illegal religious activities." Bishop Ding publicly dismissed him last summer. Soon after, another long-time seminary professor, Wang Weifan, was also asked to leave. Officially he was "retired" because he is 78 years old, but Wang Weifan told WORLD that Bishop Ding (who is 84) pushed him out. Wang Weifan, too, had once been a favorite of the official church hierarchy. He accompanied China Christian Council president Han Wenzao and others on a tour of the United States in 1998 that included attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and meeting with evangelist Billy Graham. Wang Weifan said Nanjing's administration is "crafty" in building cases against evangelical faculty. According to the ousted professor, it continues to "assess" other, particularly older, professors for censure. The seminary discontinued courses once taught by Ji Tai and Wang Weifan, including Romans, Revelation, apologetics, and hermeneutics. It introduced new courses on the teachings of Deng Xiaoping, Three Self education, and military training. Prior to the faculty dismissals, students were already running afoul of seminary leaders. In 1998 Bishop Ding kicked out three students who were nearing graduation. Three others left in protest. Their departure left a significant hole in a postgraduate class of 18. The official reason for the dismissals was the students' refusal to sing patriotic songs at a school ceremony. The students said the songs praised the motherland and Marxism, and they lobbied for hymns instead. But the rift also ran deeper. The seminarians had been actively involved in organizing on-campus Bible studies that included students from other universities. At Christmas they organized an evangelistic celebration and sent invitations to non-Christians. This kind of outreach is illegal under Chinese law. Bishop Ding said their mission work was "unpatriotic" and complained that his seminary was "occupied by evangelicals." Three students issued lengthy protest statements upon leaving. They criticized the school's "theological pluralism." The three, Cui Xiuji, Chen Shunfu, and Chen Yong, wrote, "For long, the church has failed to differentiate clearly the relationship between the church and society, and between the church and the state; neither has the church differentiated between the teaching of the church and the ideology of the governing state ... this failure has resulted in blurring the unique identity of the body of Christ and her special mission." Their remarks were widely distributed and highlighted the divisions within the school. They are believed to have prompted the seminary to purge its leading lights and impose restrictions on meetings. Han Wenzao of the China Christian Council blames the dissenting faculty members and students. With his headquarters only a block from the seminary entrance, he acknowledged that he actively participated in the dismissals and said they were necessary because the evangelicals were too provocative. He said, "We want to train and build up a new generation of spiritual leadership who have a common feeling with fellow Chinese." Of Ji Tai, he said, "Too much opportunity and too much responsibility led to too much pride." The predicament for Ji Tai, his wife, and young son remains complex. Peng Yaqian also teaches at Nanjing. Since her husband's dismissal, she has been allowed to continue teaching undergraduate history, but the school cut back her courses. For now, officials allow her family to remain in seminary housing, but they are hinting that they will transfer her to another post. Ji Tai's position "is very dangerous," according to his wife. "Even though he still is a teacher and pastor, he has no legal identity anymore." Unlike house-church leaders, who are accustomed to the furtive nature of church life outside the government's favor, both professors are long-time adherents to the official Three Self church. Stripped of position, they say they feel isolated and uncertain of their future. "We would like to have a middle way between Three Self and house churches," said Peng Yaqian. Ji Tai's dismissal is drawing attention to a movement calling itself "Third Wave," or independent churches. They fulfill the government requirements for registration but do not adhere to state-sanctioned religion. The Three Self movement first came from missionaries, who wanted to establish the Chinese church as "self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating." Communist government officials twisted the formula into a means of disassociating the church from the "foreign influence" of orthodox Christian teaching and conforming it to government ideology. The brief of Third Wave advocates is to operate above ground, unlike house churches, but to remain independent of Three Self culture. Ji Tai and other advocates admit, however, that their way may be too difficult. Since the Three Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council must approve pastors for registered churches, the agencies can take over independent congregations at any time. Despite the political correctness at Nanjing, teaching in China's official churches and other seminaries actually varies. Some have evangelical pastors and teachers who work within the system, keeping their distance from officials like Bishop Ding and his politicized theology. Although Beijing has eased open religious activity since 1980, it is not ready to loosen all controls. Restrictions often vary from province to province depending on the whims of local officials. In addition to registering with the government, only approved pastors and teachers can lead church activities, which must take place only in the registered setting, and evangelism outside that context is forbidden. In addition, registered churches are prohibited from evangelizing anyone under 18 years old, and they must use state-approved texts. Even the international fellowship in Nanjing, led by exchange students from West Africa, must register with the government. It meets on Sundays in the offices of the China Christian Council. A surveillance camera whirs quietly in the corner during worship hour. Before announcements of the upcoming week's events, the leader reminds the congregation, "Under Chinese law it is forbidden to invite mainland Chinese citizens to these activities." Authorities prohibit Chinese citizens from attending the international gatherings, even though foreigners are allowed to go to Three Self churches. For Westerners these kinds of restrictions are outrageous. Chinese Christians in the official churches defend them as progress. They point out that official churches were nonexistent 25 years ago, and since 1990, they have grown under government regulation from 6,000 to 13,000. Their membership during that time has increased from 5 million to almost 15 million. The illegal Protestant house-church movement eclipses those official figures. It draws in about 45 million worshippers nationwide, experts agree. Those kinds of numbers are one reason for resentment and suspicion between house churches and official congregations. House churches are like the strong-willed child who prospers unbridled, despite years of punishment, deprivation, and time out. If persecution has not dampened house-church enthusiasm, it does stir resentment of Three Self churches. "It is the leaders of Three Self who report on house churches," one house-church member told WORLD. Government crackdowns on local house-church networks often begin after a registered church official complains to local authorities about the underground worship activity. Han Wenzao likes to persuade underground church leaders with this statement: "Once you are registered, your legal rights can be protected." But house-church leaders point to recent incidents at Nanjing Seminary, which they say reveal that the government and its church hierarchy remain more interested in controlling the content of theology and evangelism than in protecting religious freedom. Ji Tai and the dismissed seminary students, who now work primarily among independent and house churches, are agreeing with their feet.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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