China #2: Reforming, Growing and Uniting

by Juan Sarmiento

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133

The official Protestant church in China (Chinese Christian Council/ Three-Self Patriotic Movement or CCC/TSPM) has its origins in the mission work of primarily American, British and Canadian denominations during the 19th and part of the 20th century. Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, Presbyterians, and others Protestant movements, including those originated in China, were required to come under a single organizational roof in 1949. As one would imagine, bringing such a diverse group together into one organization would not be a simple task but it seems to me that it has been worth it. Contrary to most predictions, in its 60 years of existence, the official Protestant church has grown from less than a million to around forty million.

Mr. Gu Meng Fei who serves as the General Secretary of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for the entire country gracefully hosted our group last Friday. He was emphatic about the importance that it places on unity and how it has helped present a compelling witness to Chinese society. He mentioned how the fact that “Southern” and “Northern” Presbyterian missions did not collaborate as much with each other generated questions that were very difficult to answer. “You say you believe in the same God and read from the same Bible,” Mr. Gu says that people of China used to ask. “Why then do you have so many denominations?”

The proximity to Reformation Day is a good opportunity to be grateful for the theological emphases that have shaped our Reformed heritage and identity. The historical movement that gained popularity with the ministry of people like Martin Luther and John Calvin now has an impact that goes much beyond its original European lands into places as originally unthinkable as America and Asia. However, Reformation Day is also a fitting time to recognize that all too often, we Protestants have had a propensity towards being divisive and sectarian. Shamefully, we have projected those tendencies in our approaches to mission. The CCC/TSPM has sought to deal with those challenges by lifting up our common life in Christ while honoring the distinctive traditions within its growing membership. Our Outreach Foundation group has also heard how the church works hard to develop positive and collaborative relationships with the Chinese Catholic Church as well as with non-registered Christians. While it used to identify itself as a “post denominational church,” it has now shifted to call itself a “uniting church.” At the same time, it affirms the faith over and against the cults that go against the main Christian tenets that are rapidly growing and creating confusion in the country.

Earlier today our group had the opportunity to worship with Dushu Lake Church, a congregation of over 3,000 members in the city of Suzhou. Despite our different languages, we felt unified with God’s people here in the singing of tunes like “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the Doxology as well as the reciting of the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Our group was presented with a beautiful scroll containing the text of the 133rd Psalm. Even when denominational, cultural and national differences are real, we can learn to “live together in unity.” May we become the answer to Jesus’s longing when he prayed to our Father “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.” John 17:23