Late last month, members of the Sanjiang church in Wenzhou, China, watched helplessly as bulldozers closed in on their brand-new, cross-topped, cathedral-like building they had occupied for only five months. The building took 12 years and almost $4 million, most of which was contributed by church members. (Wenzhou is a prosperous coastal town, and Christians are numbered among its prominent businessmen.) Local officials considered the church an ornament to the city, but provincial authorities disagreed, especially when the steeple was topped with a large, red, “flashy” cross. Accusations flew among the church and local and provincial officials, leading to a dramatic standoff in March, when congregants surrounded the building in defiance of the demolition order. Authorities did not back down, and on April 28 the wrecking ball moved in.
Imagine how heartbreaking it would be if your own church building, whether grand or humble, were reduced to rubble in a matter of days by government order. Some were reminded of Psalm 137, when the Edomites rejoiced over Jerusalem’s destruction: “Lay it bare! Lay it bare, down to its foundations!” Tears flowed freely, and we can deeply sympathize with our brethren.
But is this an example of government persecution, church hubris, or bureaucratic bungling? Many locals, Christians among them, believe the church overstepped its regulated limits and bears at least some of the blame. On the other hand, city authorities, and probably some provincial ones, too, watched complacently as the foundation filled its half-acre limit and an annex, which may or may not have been approved, rose to four stories. Apparently the church agreed to some compromises that were not honored in the end.
The situation is complicated, and at least some of it is due to competing authorities engaging in the time-honored Chinese ethic of saving face. But there were other victims of the demolition game: local Chinese Catholics, who saw religious statues and monuments removed or destroyed in a private park on nearby Longgang Hill. Apparently all this church-building and Christian statuary has gone too far; lines must be drawn. That’s what the authorities are up to. The better question to ask, whether in China or Nigeria or North Korea or the United States, is, “What is God up to?”
Sometimes it’s our own ambitions that are laid bare. Pastor Wang Mushi, on the Chinese social media site Weibo, shared this thought:
“When it comes to our faith, the word jiaohui (church, congregation, fellowship) is not the same as jiaotang (church building). It may be possible to deal violently with a jiaotang, but not with the jiaohui. Christians shouldn’t be so sad. Maybe this is a good time to reflect and wonder if we have put too much focus on church buildings. With this jiaotang now destroyed, we should focus our efforts on building the jiaohui.”
Whatever happens, in American courtrooms or Chinese city halls, the church’s clear directive remains the same: build the jiaohui. Whatever happens, don’t be sad, because God is working toward that same goal, right along with us.