The government of China appears to be shifting its approach toward Christians, and this change could prove highly problematic in the years to come for the Chinese church.
The persecution of Christians after the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 was swift, brutal, and devastating for many Christians, both native Chinese and missionaries. While the missionaries were attacked and driven from the land, the remaining Christians faced rioting crowds, the seizure of their property, and hard labour. Many were forced to attend re-education programs that extolled the virtues of the Communist party in China.
As documented in the book God Is Red, the remaining Christians in China formed the back bone of an underground church that has continued to thrive despite official opposition from the Chinese government. An uneasy truce has existed to a certain degree, with some Christians worshipping in state-approved churches. However, those seeking freedom of worship in an unapproved house church could still be imprisoned, beaten, or worse. Those who oppose government policies face harsh prison sentences.
There's no denying how terrible and devastating China's treatment of Christians has been, and we should certainly pray for the perseverance of believers in the midst of danger. However, China's new policy toward Christians could prove particularly subversive and damaging to the health of the church.
Officials are encouraging Christians to keep their faith, provided that their loyalty to China comes first. As one national church pastor, Pastor Wu Weiqing from Beijing's Haidian Church, shared: "We have to remember first of all we are a citizen of this country," he says. "And we are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That comes second."
Many Christians worshipping in underground home churches are aware of this shift in policy.
Xu Yonghai has served a number of jail terms and noted: "Official churches are in fact just political institutes... It is impossible for us to leave Jesus and follow the Party."
It is feared that with this emphasis on a particularly Chinese brand of Christianity, officials will place new pressure on Christians to go public with their faith and to pledge their primary allegiance to the government. Aside from this concern, it's also appropriate to note the possibility that the government could undermine a segment of the Christian church by more or less distracting it with misaligned priorities.
American Christians have experienced this challenge since the 1980s when a large movement of pastors formed the "moral majority" and became political surrogates for the Republican party. According to these religious leaders turned political operatives, the goal was to elect "godly" political leaders, but American nationalism quickly crept into large segments of conservative Christianity throughout the US.
With a pre-existing obsession with End Times theology among large camps of American Christians, elections began taking on apocalyptic ramifications. If a "godly" (translation: Republican) leader wasn't elected, the judgment of America would surely be imminent. At the very least, these religious leaders promised that God would judge America based on who we voted for in November.
Christians can vote for politicians who believe in large or small governments, but the primary concern in America is that putting politics before the gospel has proven a devastating distraction for the church. Many of the negative associations people have about Christians in America can, in part, be traced back to Christians waging political battles on behalf of a party rather than sharing the actual message of Jesus.
Jesus warned us that we cannot serve two masters. Whether we try to serve God and money or God and political power, our allegiance to God will wane and become ineffective when our priorities are added.
We've seen this happen over and over again in America as the witness of Christians has been diluted and diverted by putting political issues first.
I suspect that the leaders of China are well aware that the persecuted church continues to thrive even if it's not visible. Perhaps the leaders of China have learned that the way to undermine Christianity isn't necessarily to attack it, it's to combine it with another priority.
Ed Cyzewski (MDiv) is the author of A Christian Survival Guide and Coffeehouse Theology. He shares about prayer and writing at www.edcyzewski.com and at www.thecontemplativewriter.com. Find him on Twitter: @edcyzewski.