Anglican Bishop Ding Guangxun, the longtime head of the government-sanctioned Protestant church in China, died Nov. 22 in Nanjing at the age of 97. The cause of death was not given.
Called a “dear friend of the Chinese Communist Party” by the CCP’s official newspaper, Ding (who was also known as K.H. Ting) was a polarizing figure in Chinese Protestantism. Supporters say he promoted Christianity and increased religious freedoms within the Communist system, while critics point out he collaborated with the government by adapting Christianity to the country’s socialist beliefs. At times Ding has also joined in persecuting unregistered churches.
For many years Ding headed the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, the two groups that make up the official Protestant church in China and have complete control over licensing and approving pastors, registering churches, and overseeing seminaries. He was also president of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary and helped start Amity Foundation, the charity arm of the Three-Self church.
Born in 1915, Ding grew up in a Christian family, studied theology at Shanghai’s St. John’s University, and became an Anglican vicar. He also studied at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York. In 1954, he joined the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which required churches to cut foreign ties and pledge their support to the Communist Party.
Critics say Ding exchanged biblical truths for theology that would please the party. A 2001 WORLD article about Nanjing seminary reported on the school’s professors and students Ding kicked out for not adhering to a “theological adaptation to socialism.” For example, he had a professor removed for preaching about original sin, the Second Coming, and justification by faith—tenets criticized in The Collected Essays of Ding Guangxun. Seminarians were expelled for inviting students from other universities to attend an on-campus Bible study and for promoting an evangelistic Christmas celebration, as evangelism is illegal in China.
Ding also would not allow seminarians to preach at unregistered churches. Sometimes government crackdowns on unregistered churches begin when a Three-Self church official complains to local authorities about the technically illegal unregistered church.
The Rev. Jin Tianming of Shouwang house church, which was kicked out of its meeting place last year, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that Ding stressed “the compromise of faith.” Jin added, “Christianity should influence society; faith should not be about following [political] trends.”
Still, Chinese University of Hong Kong divinity professor Ying Fuk-Tsang told the South China Morning Post that Ding played an integral part in rebuilding the church after the Cultural Revolution, pushing the government to adopt policies favorable to religious freedom. He said Ding also spearheaded reforms to the Three-Self church, making it less political and more about the believers’ spiritual needs.
Today the amount of government control over Three-Self churches differs from region to region. When I visited a large Hangzhou Three-Self church in 2010, I found the service not much different from those in American churches: worship, choir singing, a sermon on Romans 15 about unity within the church, the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, and communion. Chinese Bibles and books written by Rick Warren, Billy Graham, and Charles Spurgeon translated to Chinese could be found in a bookstore connected to the church. Politics were not mentioned at all.
“He has made contributions as well as mistakes—and no other Christian figures had as much influence as [he did in China],” Ying said.