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July 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 3 · pp. 20–31 

The Silent Church in the Midst of Radical Change in China

Henry G. Krahn

The Chinese church which once cooperated with foreign missionaries in openly proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel has been silenced. The Chinese church, which on the eve of the Communist revolution was encumbered by traditional Western organization and structure, has been transformed into an unpretentious fellowship without any of the conventional symbols that make the church visible in other parts of the world. And yet one of the best informed scholars describes the Chinese church as “alive and well.”

Westerners, who have always been ready to give China material assistance, have been unwilling to make the intellectual effort to understand the Chinese and their culture. And they have had a serious problem in understanding the revolution in China, for they continue to see this historical event largely through the prism of power politics or attitudes that have been conditioned by information coming out of Marxist Russia. Adding to our ignorance of Chinese developments is the fact that China, once a field for some ten thousand missionaries, is closed to any form of foreign assistance by a government that is determined to remain completely self-sufficient and self-sustaining. It is most encouraging to observe the emergence of a keen interest in what is going on in mainland China, especially in the United States, which was totally cut off from China for some twenty-two years.

Compelling first-hand reports by distinguished scholars and statesmen are now available. There is also a considerable body of material on the encounter between the church and Communism, with interpretations which range from those which see Mao Tse-tung {21} promoting the Kingdom of God to those which see him as the embodiment of evil. But these books and articles have been written by outsiders, and their analyses must remain doubtful. Those Chinese Christians who have lived through the encounter with Marxism are, ultimately, the only ones who can reveal the nature of the changes that have taken place in the thinking and in the relationships that the new order has brought.

It will be our concern to describe the encounter between Marxism and the church in China and to give a tentative interpretation of the facts which can be known. But first of all we must place this encounter in historical perspective. As the movement of large bodies of water are not determined by surface ripples caused by prevailing winds but by oceanic currents, so the course of history is frequently not determined by observable events but by historical forces not easily discerned.


The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 marked the conclusion of one period in modern Chinese history and paved the way for one of the greatest social and political transformations in the long history of China. Yet the Chinese revolution was not imposed from the top down. Revolutionary changes affecting all areas of life were carried on the wave of popular enthusiasm and like a violent hurricane swept with them all that was not deeply rooted in the cultural soil of China. It is a well-known fact that Mao Tse-tung’s rise to power and fame was directly related to his ability to read correctly the forces working for change in Chinese society and to work with them, eventually gaining control of these forces and then using them in the reconstruction of China.

What he constructed was a socio-political system that in some important respects was analogous to the Confucian empire which was formally abolished in 1911. From this perspective the forty years between 1911 and 1949 were but an interruption between the Confucian view of a unified cultural political empire and the Chinese Communist view of a “unitive” society into which all segments are perfected and integrated and totally committed to Mao’s revolutionary objectives.

The People’s Republic of China is not simply a national political system; it represents for its people a complete ideology, a communitarian ideal, a quasi-religion. The Maoist passion for a unified society surpasses that of medieval Christendom and does not allow for a distinction to exist between the spiritual and temporal powers as was the case in ancient western Europe. And so there is no room for competing ideas. All ideologies, be they Christian, Confucian, or {22} capitalist, that in any way pose a threat to Communism are viewed as revisionist, elitist, or imperialist and must be removed.

The Chinese people have always viewed religion as a way to improve life and to perfect society. Ancient China was ruled by an intellectual aristocracy which was typically agnostic in faith and moulded by the heavily ethical, socially oriented, and metaphysically indifferent character of Confucianism. The ordinary Chinese was a syncretist, making use of Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism as it suited his need. He appealed to the Taoist priest when he wanted his fortune told or changed; for his eschatology he looked to Buddhism. His ethics and his attitude to government were mainly formed by Confucianism. In addition to these, the national cult focused on the emperor as the representative of heaven. To reject this cult was tantamount to treason under the ancient system, and it has not been difficult for Mao to revive this cult under the guise of Maoism.

Although Christianity has been in China uninterruptedly since 1582, and with interruptions at least since 635, it has never planted its roots deeply into Chinese cultural life. It remained a foreign element, separated from the mainstream of Chinese life and with no broad popular base of support. The ruling classes always considered this foreign religion to be de-nationalizing. It undermined, they maintained, the national cult which kept the Confucian order intact. And so the Christian church was small, at most numbering about one percent of the population on the eve of the Communist revolution.

Despite its small size, Christianity was particularly vulnerable. Folk religion, Taoism, and Confucianism were without institutional character. Buddhism did not have a national organization, and Islam was limited to certain ethnic groups. Only Christianity was an independent and nationally organized entity which could be viewed as politically significant. This, plus its foreign character and foreign ties, explains the relative attention given it by the authorities.

In the main, the official view of religion is thoroughly Marxist, documented from the writings of Engels, Marx, and Lenin. Mao was an orthodox Marxist in matters of religion and believed that religion will in time die of itself and therefore, at least in theory, held the view that persecution is self-defeating. Mao can be quoted repeatedly in defense of non-coercion in matters of religion and the central policy of the government, as defined in the constitution, is that of freedom for both religious belief and non-belief.

In actual practice the manner of dealing with the religious systems varied from time to time and from place to place. Though the central government enforced the basic religious policies it set, regional politics, attitudes of officials, and the status of the church in a given area {23} affected the encounter between the church and the system. In periods of unrest, of campaigns, of crises, the religious institutions were controlled by whatever means were deemed appropriate. In the main, however, religious beliefs were tolerated. Devotees of the various religions have not been classified by the Maoists as undesirables like the landlords or counter-revolutionaries, who were branded enemies of the people.

On the other hand, anti-religious teaching has also been a part of official policy. Government policy in China has not allowed for concessions of the kind made by eastern European countries. It may also be noted that revolutionary enthusiasm which frequently outdid party policy was tolerated by the central government. According to Mao, it was necessary for a revolution to go too far at times. But the official position was to control religion, keeping a watchful eye on all religious systems until they died a natural death.


The transformation of the highly organized and institutionalized church into an unpretentious fellowship of believers was a process to which the church submitted herself during more than two decades. That process, viewed from the perspective of the Communist party, was a process that in stage one would bring the institutional church under the complete control of the state. In the second stage, institutional religion was to be eliminated. It is well to remember, however, that Communist theory or policy cannot be defined apart from given social and political settings. Theory in China is regarded as human and situational knowledge to be used in action and in the formation of attitudes within society. Religious policy was kept fluid and can be understood only as it was applied to actual situations.

In 1950 Premier Chou En-lai met with China’s foremost church leaders in Peking for three days, outlining for them the official policy towards religion and defining the strategy that was to be employed in liberating the church from what he called foreign control. He told the leaders that the People’s government had no quarrel with the church as such but informed them forthrightly that their constitutional freedom would be protected only if the church declared its complete independence from foreign support and control. The outcome of this conference was the Christian Manifesto (July 1950), which was prepared and approved by the government before the majority of church leaders had an opportunity to discuss or alter it. The Manifesto, which was eventually supported by the National Christian Council, became the document which gave to the Religious Affairs Bureau of the central government the authority to force the church to sever all ties with the Christian church outside of China and to put pressure on {24} the church leaders to create a new organizational structure which would include all Protestant churches in China. It was the intent of the government to bring the church, with every other institution, in line with its overall program of reconstruction.

The response of the churches varied considerably. Most of the churches which were members of the National Christian Council rallied to the support of the government in the interest of national unity and the reconstruction of the new China. These churches formed The Three-Self-Patriotic Movement (self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating), agreeing to obey the party and support the government in all its social and economic reforms in return for freedom to maintain and practice its own beliefs. The great majority of Protestant leaders, concerned equally for the welfare of the church and the peace and economic well-being of the country, adopted this line. In the course of time it became the goal of this movement to fuse the Protestants and Catholics in total isolation from all forms of foreign support. Within a few years this organization, which from the outset enjoyed the support of Religious Affairs Bureau, became the central authority for the churches in China.

Although most Protestants cooperated with the Three-Self-Patriotic Movement, a large number (including evangelicals, Pentecostals, and independent churches) refused to cooperate on the grounds that they were apolitical and owed their ultimate allegiance to one Lord. Among the independent leaders who showed great courage and a true Anabaptist spirit were preachers like Wang Ming-tao and Watchman Nee. Many suffered gallantly for their beliefs, yet their attempts to retain ideological neutrality proved impossible. In China there was no room for non-involvement.

The Roman Catholic Church at first took a firm stand against the Marxist system, favoring institutional and ideological confrontation. In this stand it was supported by the Vatican, many European bishops, and inspired pro-nationalist Chinese church leaders. With greater consistency than the Protestants, probably, it maintained that Christian faith and Marxist ideology are incompatible. In the course of time, however, this church, like the Protestants, had to yield. Its many institutions were nationalized and an organization called the National Catholic Patriotic Association (a counterpart to the Three-Self-Patriotic Movement) was created which was also controlled by the Religious Affairs Bureau. Some authorities maintain that the Catholic organization was less dominated by the government than was the Protestant Three-Self-Patriotic Movement. But it is also true that the Catholics suffered more for their faith than did the Protestants.

The encounter with Maoist Communism during the first decade {25} under review did not unite the Christians in China. The varied response of the churches to the demands of the government and the inherited divisions (particularly the divisions based on interpretations of scripture and attitude toward socio-political involvement) aided the state in controlling the church. There are some indications that the inherited divisions, which were accentuated by the revolution, are still noticeable today.

The revolution forced the churches from the beginning to opt for either total participation with the revolution, with the inherent danger of losing their own identity, or to choose a ghetto-like existence which set the believers apart from other Chinese in society, making them suspect among those who were committed to the revolution. In the long run, however, those who chose a ghetto existence seem to have fared as well as did those who identified with the revolution. Those who chose the way of suffering demonstrated convincingly that they could survive and preserve the Christian faith in the midst of violent social change. Those who accommodated themselves to such a change not only lost their identity but in time were swept along with the Communist revolution.

The church leaders who participated in the creation of the Three-Self-Patriotic Movement hoped to influence official government policy towards religion through it. There is no evidence that those who made far-reaching adaptations either influenced the policy of the government or witnessed a breakthrough in the indigenization of either theology or church liturgy. The argument that many faithful Christians relinquished their treasured faith in the belief that this would contribute to the greater good of all Chinese is not particularly convincing to this writer. It is probably more correct to assume that the greater the accommodation the less effective the witness of the church. Two things, however, need to be kept in mind when we make critical evaluations of this sort. It is better for westerners to withhold judgment and exercise patience until these evaluations can be made by Chinese Christians who were participants during these critical years. It must also be kept in mind that the available documentation concerns the encounter on the level of Christian and political leadership, not the encounter in villages and among the masses.

The fragmentary evidence indicates that during the first decade there were many more adaptations to the socio-political realities of the emerging China than original attempts to relate to the spiritual heritage of the church. In China, as elsewhere, economic conditions and political considerations rather than theological convictions determined the extent of participation in the revolution. The Christians, as other Chinese, had been deeply involved in the periods of civil turmoil, the anti-Japanese war, and the final struggle which led to the inauguration {26} of the Communist regime. Once in power, the Communists used every means available to communicate to the masses the fact that a new day had come for China. This regime promised to free China from the humiliation of the past and give her a new place in the sun. It is difficult for westerners who are not acquainted with the history of the turbulent century which preceded the Communist takeover to understand the powerful appeal Communism had for the Chinese population.

The widespread defections from Christianity during the first decade of the Communist rule therefore cannot be solely attributed to the stringent religious policies of the government. The revolutionary atmosphere caused many to believe that the acceptance of Communism was the best way in which Chinese could express their patriotism. It was nationalism rather than Communism which won the hearts of the Chinese people. Nationalism has been a dynamic force in China since the days of Sun Yat-sen who already during the 1920’s was flirting with Communism.

It is the view of one well-informed scholar that the general decline in religious life, which continued beyond this first decade, is due less to the fact it is frowned upon than to the acceptance of Mao’s teaching that religion is an unscientific relic of the past. The youth of China, like many in the west, are especially affected by the secular idea that religion is irrelevant to modern needs.

The widespread defection, coupled with the religious policies of the government, resulted in the closure of many churches in the cities and in the country. Reports available from this period indicate that many churches were not in use. It is estimated that eighty percent of the ministers became redundant during the first decade. This trend may well have encouraged the authorities to adopt more aggressive policies towards the churches during the second decade.


We have observed that the government of China gradually but firmly brought institutional religion under its control during the first decade of its rule. From 1963 to 1965 the government gradually shifted towards a confrontation with institutional religion which not only brought much suffering to believers throughout China but eventually resulted in the complete elimination of institutional religion. The cultural revolution (1966-1969) became the vehicle through which the government sought to implement this new policy.

During the cultural revolution all religions were attacked as remnants of old ideology, old customs, old habits, and old culture. All Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, liberal intellectuals, and {27} others who were unwilling to embrace Marxism-Leninism and the thought of Mao were branded as disloyal citizens, disgraced, demoted, and were frequently imprisoned or sent to re-education camps. This policy was ruthlessly enforced by millions of Chinese youths who were used by the Communist system to purge China from the sins of imperialism, elitism, and revisionism. The Christian church was once again caught up in the convulsions of a society undergoing radical change. The Christians suffered with many others. Whether or not the Christians were singled out from other religious devotees is not clear.

What is clear is that the institutional church was eliminated from the surface of Chinese society. What emerged was an institutionless Christian community diffused into the existing structure of a socialist state. Believers throughout China were separated not only from the church outside of China but also from their pastors, their places of worship, and any regional or national religious organization. Many Christians were cut off from mature believers who had retained a Biblical perspective on life. These Christians were now totally dependent on God, on their own spiritual resources, and on neighboring believers. The church became “the silent church.”

The status of Christians in China since the cultural upheaval is not at all clear, for the available reports are contradictory and at times misleading. The conflicting reports obviously reflect varying regional conditions and the diverse attitudes of reporters. Many Christians are not in touch at all with the world outside of China. The following attempt to reflect on the status of the “silent church” must therefore take into account these considerations as well as the limited resources available to the writer.

Contact between established church agencies and the Bureau of Religious Affairs seems to have ceased during the cultural upheaval. It may be significant for the future of the Christian community that the Protestant Three-Self-Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association remain the approved church agencies for the guidance of Christians. There are also Buddhist and Moslem parallels (the latter, however, is considered a cultural rather than a religious community and for this reason enjoys a special position). Taoism, unlike the other religious movements in present China, does not have any legal representation, and some informed persons think that the government would like to see it die. It is a well-known fact that under the old regime Taoist functionaries had a reputation for “charlatanry.”

Foreign visitors and emigrants since the early 1970’s have reported that churches and temples are being used as museums, factories, warehouses, and schools. Some remain unused. Since 1972 visitors have reported that the two churches in Peking, a few Buddhist {28} Temples, monasteries, and Moslem mosques were open for worship. Common people were not seen worshipping at Buddhist Temples, however. Foreign-style churches are apparently not in use. Overseas Chinese visitors since 1972 report of Christian groups meeting for worship in private homes and even in public meeting rooms. Several recent reports indicate that public worship is again practised throughout the country, even if conducted somewhat irregularly. There are many more reports that suggest that public worship does not exist but that Christians quietly yet openly practise their faith. Numerous reports support the view that home worship is practiced in many parts of China, though some maintain that this is more common among older people than among youth.

Foreigners traveling in China, though interested in meeting Chinese Christians, have been disappointed. Chinese reluctance to contact foreigners can be understood if we keep in mind that the unpardonable national sins are elitism, foreignism, and revisionism. They are understandably eager to remain a part of the Chinese system and to be in touch with their fellow Chinese. Those who have been contacted are reluctant to admit that religion has been forced underground, maintaining that their constitutional rights are indeed respected.

The de-institutionalization of the church inevitably affected both the status of the existing leadership and, by the elimination of the theological institutions, the future leadership of the church. A few clergy apparently continue to be involved in some form of pastoral ministry. The majority, however, have accepted lay responsibilities. Many have accepted secular positions. One report has it that many Christian leaders hold teaching posts. The last reported ordination took place in 1966. The prospect for future ministries along traditional lines seems bleak.

It is not clear why the authorities have allowed the Nanking Theological Seminary to remain open (at least in theory). There have been no admissions of students since 1966. Nevertheless, President K.H. Ting and a faculty of twenty are still intact. President Ting has been interviewed by a number of foreign visitors and remains the most articulate spokesman for the Christian church in China. This well-informed church statesman is of the opinion that the training of future leaders for the believers will have to conform to political realities. Ting is recommending that theological training will have to be decentralized so that “natural leaders” in various regional areas of China may have an opportunity to acquire leadership skills in keeping with the needs of the silent church. According to one report, this form of training has already begun in some areas of China. {29}

In some significant ways the revolution has forced the church to adopt forms which in certain important respects are similar to those of the first century church. The church has been forced to lean on natural leadership over against an inherited professional clergy. The well-organized institutionalized church has become an unpretentious fellowship of believers. The Christians have been forced to rely on the Bible, for they are virtually cut off from western literature. Perhaps their understanding of basic Christianity has undergone a significant change as well. Bishop Ting has recently defined Christianity most appropriately, “It is a world view of those who adhere to a biblical faith and the fellowship of Christians.”


If it is true that our understanding of the Chinese church in the past is replete with misunderstandings, then the first challenge we must face squarely is to utilize all the resources on hand to become acquainted with the silent church as it attempts to relate itself to a system that unabashedly proclaims that it can transform persons and societies. A review of mission history in China since the late nineteenth century will teach us that our errors and failures were not so much the result of a lack of expert knowledge as they were due to the lack of popular understanding which would have permitted the wise use of the knowledge we did have.

Perhaps the time has come for the church to educate its membership to the profound changes that have taken place in the relationship between the western world and the developing nations. The churches in the developing nations are vitally affected by these changes. These changes are already beginning to affect the church in the west and will increasingly do so in the future. A study made of the experiences of foreign missionaries during the last years of their service in China concludes with the following sober words: “In China we dallied and the end of an age came; a new age has begun, what will be done elsewhere?”

Thoughtful Christians of every age have asked the question: How is God working in history? Or, How can we as God’s people, who are commissioned to be promoters of God’s Kingdom on earth, be assured that we are working with God in the fulfillment of his will? How do we assess the achievements of nations whose leaders, though embracing an ideology that is atheistic, promote social and moral reforms that are strikingly similar to the goals and aspirations of Christianity?

In formulating a mission strategy that is in keeping with the realities of the “new China,” we will have to search for a fuller understanding of what God’s redemptive will is for human history on {30} the cosmic level. If we accept the clear scriptural teaching that God works within the secular world, it is logical to believe that God’s saving action for the people in China continued during the revolutionary era.

In this writer’s view there must always remain a vital distinction between God’s acts in the history of nations and his saving action through his Son and the Holy Spirit. If this distinction is kept in view, we will be able to applaud the positive achievements of the Chinese revolution and also to sympathize with the suffering church that has been commissioned to a cross-bearing ministry. We will also be free to encourage the Chinese Christians to search for new and creative ways to resolve the problem of being Chinese Christians in the truest sense of the word. And then they, and we, may discover what God’s saving will is for the future of the church in China.

The silent church in China lives in a society that is different from the old pre-revolutionary society. The environment in which that church lives is both hostile and open. Like the early church in the Roman Empire, it is surrounded by forces that seek its destruction. The early church survived because of an indomitable faith. There is a considerable body of evidence which indicates that this faith is still sustaining the silent church. We must be willing to learn that the traditional forms that have so often meant “church” to us cannot by themselves sustain the church.

We must hasten to add, however, that we do not yet know with any degree of certainty what the removal of the traditional forms may mean for the church in China. It may well be that when the experience of the church in China is fully known we will have to revise our views of the value of the traditional symbols and forms. It is a well-known fact that the Russian Orthodox Church was determined to retain the institutional aspects of the church as well as its orthodox theology. A leading scholar on modern Russian history attributes the ongoing success of this church in Russia to its faithfulness in upholding its orthodox doctrine and its form of worship.

What the silent church needs most at this time is our sincere prayers and understanding. We also need to pray that we will have confidence that the Holy Spirit will teach the Chinese Christians how to live and practice their faith while remaining truly Chinese.


  • Bush, Richard. Religion in Communist China. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.
  • Burkholder, Lawrence J. “Rethinking Life and Mission in Light of the Chinese Experience.” Paper read before the meeting of the China Conference at Notre Dame, 1977. {31}
  • Clark, William H. The Church in China. New York: Council Press, 1970.
  • Christianity and the New China. Ecclesia Publications, South Pasadena, California, 1976.
  • Chao, Jonathon T’ien. “The Christian Mission to the Chinese People.” Paper read to the delegates at the China consultation at the Lutheran World Federation Seminar, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1976.
  • Fairbank, J. K. (ed.). The Missionary Enterprise in China and America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.
  • Glasser, F. Arthur. “Timeless Lessons from the Western Missionary Penetration of China,” Missiology, I (Oct., 1973), 444-63.
  • MacInnis, Donald E. Religious Policy and Practice in Communist China. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1972.
  • MacInnis, Donald E. “The People’s Republic of China: Challenges to Contemporary Missiology,” Review and Expositor, LXXIV (Spring, 1977), 159-71.
  • MacInnis, Donald E. “Theological and Missiological Implications of China’s Revolution,” Missiology, I (Oct., 1973), 433-44.
  • Rhee, Song Nai. “China and the Kingdom of God,” Missiology, I (Oct., 1973), 425-31.
  • Sovik, Arne. “China: The Church is not Dead,” World Encounter (Sept., 1976).
  • The Encounter of the Church with Movements of Social Change in Various Cultural Contexts. Geneva, Switzerland: Department of Studies of Lutheran World Federation, 1977.
  • Treadgold, Donald W. “The Problems of Christianity in Non-Western Cultures: The Case of China.” Paper read before the meeting of China Conference at Notre Dame, 1977.
Henry G. Krahn is President and Professor of History and Missions at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg. He is a former missionary in India and is presently focusing his academic interest on East Asia.

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