Open Doors Challenges Claims of Religious Freedom in China

Tuesday, October 3, 2000

By Lori Arnold
Christian Times

SANTA ANA (October 3, 2000) - When millions of Chinese evangelicals gather for services in their homeland, the worship is rarely music to the ears. Forget the last minute sound checks, voice warm-ups, or instrument tuning. This worship is music to the heart.

Anything louder would be to risk arrest, heavy fines, and beatings.

If anyone doubts the danger, just ask Terry Madison, president of Open Doors USA, an international outreach with offices in Orange County that has, for 45 years, supported the persecuted church oversees.

According to Madison, China's tolerance for Christianity has blown with the wind over the past two-plus decades in which Open Doors has had workers within the nation's borders. Although the Chinese Community Party openly supports state-sponsored churches, Madison warns that Americans not be duped.

"American Christians have gone to China and come back speaking well of religious freedom in China, that everything is okay," said Madison, adding that visiting dignitaries and religious leaders are given tours of the official church, called the Three Self Patriotic Movement.

Three Self refers to self supporting, self perpetuating and self governing.

"They come back and endorse what the government is doing there," Madison said. "The house church movement is called a cult by the government because it doesn't tow the government line."

Concerned over recent reports that China was relaxing its policy on churches and worship, Madison sent out an advisory earlier this summer warning that such articles only paint half the picture. Persecution among independent churches, he said, runs rampant. This summer alone, the world press has reported numerous incidents targeting the underground house church.

Late in August, three Chinese Americans were among 130 arrested by the Chinese government. The Americans-Asians who belong to Chinese Vineyard Fellowship Church in Los Altos, Calif.-were released two day days later. The Americans were in China for a two-week mission trip supporting the China Fangcheng Church, an evangelical house church that boasts more than 500,000 members. Less than a week later, a group of Roman Catholics were arrested and their pastor severely beaten.

"It goes to prove what we've been saying all along, there is not absolute religious freedom," Madison said. "It's a large country. There is a modest openness to religious freedom in some areas. In other places there is tremendous prosecution and as time changes, those boundaries keep changing.

"Almost anytime, anywhere you go, day or night, some group of Christians would be arrested, beaten or detained."

Madison said the problem is especially troublesome in rural areas, where authorities often use the fines as a major income source for their own budgets.

"It's become a growth industry," he said.


On the surface, Madison said, Communist China has forged a more tolerant policy toward religion, a spiritual aspect of society that was virtually banned during the Cultural Evolution era of former chairman Mao Zedong. After the 1989 Tianamen Square uprising, however, the CCP carefully monitors religious activity, both inside and outside of the church.

According to Madison-a self-described student of China since 1968 who has made more than 40 trips to the Asian country and lived there for more than two years-the government doesn't permit worship outside of the recognized church and its designated hours. Teaching children about the faith before the age of 18 is also forbidden. Preaching excessively about the Lord's Second Coming is also frowned upon.

"They do exercise a lot of control over those pastors," Madison said of the Three Self church.

Despite the restrictions, Madison said many believers choose to participate in the state-sponsored church because it is often easier to secure concessions, such as programming, from the government. Although worship and teachings are restricted, Madison said the state-sponsored church is filled with sincere and committed evangelical Christians.

"There are wonderful Christians and evangelical pastors and preachers in the Three Self Patriotic Movement," Madison said. "These are people who love the Lord. In America, we seem to side with one side or the other. We support the Christians who have chosen to worship in the Three Self Patriotic Movement."


For those believers unwilling to bend to government authority, the house church has been their refuge.

"Over time, the body of Christ, real Christians over there, couldn't operate above ground," he said. "The body of Christ is not the building anyway. The church has survived because it's gone underground. It's not only survived, but is growing and thriving through miraculous ways. The Holy Spirit is never constrained by government authority. It was growing even when we couldn't see it."

According to Madison, an estimated 60 million to 80 million evangelicals belong to the underground house church, up from one million in 1949. As many as 15,000 to 20,000 people convert to Christianity daily.

"If you look at that in America, we don't have the numbers," Madison said. "One of the greatest revivals in our generation, certainly in the last century, is the church of revival in China, in the midst of communism. We've been astonished. Growth has not stopped."


Using a vast network of sources, including some high-placed insiders, Open Doors supports Chinese evangelicals through a two-prong approach by providing biblical resources and sponsoring mini-training workshops that Madison has dubbed Seminar on the Run. To lessen the risk of getting caught, volunteer instructions will lead a two- to three-week session then leave.

"They sneak in and run home," he said.

Last year, Open Door supplied more than two million books, including one million Bibles. Other supplied resources include commentaries, hymnals and Christian living devotions.

"We have developed 25 years of trust-making relationships that have served us well," he said. "It's wonderful how the Lord has people at all levels. Even in China there are Christians in high places who love the Lord.

The resources are vital to believers, Madison said, since many converts are poor farmers and peasants who have no access to Bibles.

"For them to come up with a Bible would be very difficult," he said. "They would have to travel too far, if they knew where to look."

Before supplying materials, Madison said Open Doors is careful to research the needs, making sure the resources match those on the receiving end. Pastors are given appropriate study Bibles for their work and children are given Bibles they can understand.

"We don't do dump-and-run Bible distribution," he said.

Recognizing that new Chinese converts come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including Confucius, Madison said a major challenge for the house church is helping believers learn how to practice Christianity without incorporating non-Christian elements.

"We have seen all kinds of aberrations that have nothing to do with the Bible," he said. "We have to teach the whole counsel of the Lord and teach it in a systematic way."

It can be a daunting task given than many pastors oversee fellowships of 100,000 to 800,000.

"The pastors just can't keep up with the discipleship," he said. "Many of them haven't been trained themselves."

Although many trust their fellowships to what Madison called "sub-leaders," the workload is immense. Even the training sessions are intense, running from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

"Our people come back and they can't believe it," he said. "These people are like dry sponges. They just can't soak up enough."

Among the biggest needs in China, Madison said, is prayer. Many young, college-age people, disillusioned by the offerings of the Community Party, are looking for something, an ideology that can become their life's work. Madison believes they will find what they need in Christianity and the house churches.

"There is this wonderful energy and, in the middle of this, we have persecution," he said.

The issues of modern-day China are not too far removed from those of the New Testament church, Madison said.

"They didn't have a lot of fancy air conditioned churches," he said. "They were meeting in homes, breaking bread. In areas where Christianity is in the minority, believers often find their reward outside of a building. They are so beleaguered and set upon by the larger society that they find encouragement and enjoyment in just getting together."