The execution last month in Heilongjiang of Xu Shuangfu, the founder of the Three Grades of Servants Church, was the latest milestone in an ongoing trend that has attracted only sporadic attention outside of China. The number of Christians in China has been growing exponentially in the past two decades, and concurrently Christian worship has become an increasingly volatile flashpoint of conflict between the PRC government and rural society. No one can be certain how many Christians live in China right now. Some estimates place the number as high as eighty million and growing.
The greatest share of this Christian demographic surge has not been within established denominations recognizable to congregations outside China. This is not entirely surprising, as religious life remains under tight state control. Anyone desiring to "legally" participate in Christian worship in the PRC must join one of two officially established churches (one Catholic and one Protestant) chartered and regulated by the Chinese Communist Party. The new Christian explosion, however, has not taken place within the domain of the official churches, but within wholly novel and indigenous Christian communities that have sprouted and spread throughout rural China.
These new religious communities have come to be called "house churches" in the English language media. I am not sure who first applied this label to the new Christian groups in China, but the phrase is highly charged with symbolic historical associations. Scholars of late antiquity identified the "house church" as the focal unit of Christian communal worship during the first centuries of the religion's history. The implication of the label is thus to link current events in China to the narrative of Christianity's rise from persecution to triumph in Roman times. The facts on the ground provide much fodder for imaginative parallelism: the PRC is a vast empire, Beijing is Rome, the Party is Caesar, the house churches are communities of humble origins akin to those of the first Apostles. Indeed, many Christians in the US and Europe perceive developments in China as an epochal event with potentially prophetic implications.
The "house churches" themselves, however, do not easily assimilate to scriptural narratives cherished by non-Chinese Christians. Many of them are doctrinally quite idiosyncratic, such as the Eastern Lightning Church that insists that Christ has been reborn as a young Henanese woman (it is not entirely clear that the woman in question actually exists). Xu Shuangfu, the recently executed founder of the Three Grades of Servants Church, claimed to be in direct communication with God. Many of the new Christian churches are as distinct in social practice as they are in doctrine. The use of violence and extortion to win converts is quite common. Such violence is not reserved for unbelievers, but is aggressively applied to other Christians. Beatings and murders of the clergy and congregants of competing churches have been very common, and violence has even been applied to non-Chinese missionaries attempting to proselytize on behalf of orthodox denominations. Though PRC law technically empowered the state to execute Xu Shuangfu for his illegal religious activities, he and his lieutenants were in fact sentenced for murdering members of the rival Eastern Lightning sect. In the face of such theological and ethical complexities even the most enthusiastic observers of China's Christian effervescence have been compelled to develop a heuristic distinction between "house churches" and "cults."
China's new Christian communities thus sit at a complex nexus of cultural perceptions and expectations that colors many observers' readings of the implications of this phenomenon. In this climate it is perhaps most clarifying to focus on those aspects of the "house church" movement that fit integrally into the long context of Chinese cultural history. In many respects the "house churches" are no different from the long succession of Buddho-Daoist religious groups that have been a fixture of rural Chinese society since the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 C.E.).
Even during peak eras of imperial power central government institutions had very limited reach into the local domain of rural village society. Rural communities were free (indeed compelled) to organize themselves around locally rooted social and cultural institutions. Alongside family, clan, and lineage organizations, devotional traditions were ubiquitous matrices for the structuring of village life. Because these traditions picked up at the point where the ordering energies of the imperial state ebbed away (and because the imperial state itself was conceptualized as a grand spirit-cult), their "political" and "religious" functions could never be practically disaggregated.
Most of the time these local forms of religious life existed in a state of mutual benign indifference with the imperial government. The popular forms of Buddhism and Daoism that persisted in local society, however, preserved doctrinal visions that were radically at odds with the rationale of the imperial state. Self-cultivation traditions promised the practitioner health, long-life, and the acquisition of mystical powers that conveyed moral and spiritual authority. Eschatological teachings predicted the advent of a new age in which spiritual powers would effect the inversion of the current social and political order. Rural religious groups thus always retained the latent potential to explode into sudden and often violent political militancy. Though economic or political stresses can sometimes explain why this latent potential became actualized in any given instance, the metamorphosis from local religiuos group to armed millenarian rebellion was often completely unpredictable and seemingly motivated solely by the doctrinal teachings of the group itself. For this reason, though the imperial goverment remained practically committed to a posture of benign neglect toward local popular religion, it retained a broad and draconian system of prohibitions against any form of "heterodox (i.e. non-state -sanctioned)" religious expression so that state officials might be legally empowered to move swiftly and ruthlessly against any group that showed incipient signs of millenarian militancy. Thus though the extraordinary repression that the PRC government has applied to groups like the Falun Dafa and the Catholic Church has obvious roots in Communist ideology, in many respects they are in lock step with a pattern that has governed relations between the Chinese state and popular religion for many centuries.
Focusing upon the "house churches" we also see many aspects of a long historical pattern at work. These new Christian groups offer their adherents programs of self-cultivation (cast in terms of "prayer" rather than "meditation" or "yoga") that promise the same rewards of vitality and mystical power formerly claimed by Buddhist and Daoist teachings. Eschatalogical visions rooted in the New Testament nonetheless offer the same kind of social and political inversions predicted by Chinese millenarian groups in the imperial era. The violent militancy of groups like Three Grades of Servants and Eastern Lightning expresses the same political volatility exemplified by earlier non-Christian groups like the "Celestial Masters" or the "Eight Trigrams."
What, then, do these indigenous historical comparisons have to teach us about the "house churches" and their contemporary significance? One analysis is that these churches may be viewed as "old goods in a new wrapper." This view would hold that the rise of "house churches" is fueled by the same forces that impelled the spread of various popular Buddho-Daoist traditions throughout rural China for much of Chinese history. These groups are thus stepping into the same role as was filled by those earlier groups, and much of their social behavior can be understood as an expression of the same impulses that have always inhered within local religious life. There is much truth to this view, and it is indispensible to any clear global analysis of the "house church" movement.
The Christian nature of these groups cannot be completely discounted as ancillary or insignificant, however. The turn of local religious life toward Christianity may be a product of some essential appeal of the Christian message, as non-Chinese Christians would assert. This perspective is not wholly incompatible with an instrumental reading of the house church movement, moreover. If religious life has always been a medium for the expression of the collective political aspirations of rural Chinese communities, the choice of Christianity cannot be dismissed as arbitrary in the current political climate. In this regard, the most appealing aspect of traditional "Christian" narratives for Chinese congregants might be the long history of Christian opposition to Communism. Conversion to Christianity might represent a form of "voting with the spirit," electing to join the group that is most irreconcilably opposed to the ideology of the ruling Party. Awareness of the sympathies of Christians living overseas could play a role (if even a subconcious one) in this decision. Not only is the choice of Christianity an intrinsically anti-Communist one, but for precisely that reason the formation of a Christian group creates certain constraints within which the Communist Party must operate if it is to avoid international censure.
If something like this dynamic is a part of the "house church" phenomenon (and I strongly suspect it is) then anyone who is concerned about the long term stability of the PRC should pay attention. The Chinese Christian explosion is not only a religious or cultural event, but is one among many gauges of the political temperature of Chinese rural society. Along these lines, the course of Beijing's interraction with the house churches should not be wholly subsumed by narratives that are imported from outside the Chinese historical context. The execution of Xu Shuangfu is not first or only the execution of criminal justice or religious persecution, but is part of a longer struggle over whether the Communist Party will continue to retain control over the countryside.
Acknowledgment of this struggle does not provide clear ethical or pragmatic insights into who should "win." The "house churches" are not uniformly pious and humble apostles in search of spiritual redemption and the agents of Beijing are not uniformly brutal tyrrants bent on religious oppression. The great destructive potential of this conflict lies not in the moral character of its participants but in the systemic dynamic that makes the contest between Chinese state and local religion a zero-sum game. Decentralization and democratization of China's political institutions would help defuse the tensions that are bringing the house church movement to a political boil. The increasing violence transpiring at the interface between state and local religion suggests that the time for making these needed changes is running out.