At one time it happened in Scotland. Presbyterian believers forced to meet in secret, hold conventicles in out-of-the-way places, facing imprisonment or worse for worshipping God in a way the establishment did not approve. Today it is happening in one of the world’s two superpowers.
Worshippers from a leading unofficial Reformed church in southwest China have been subject to a severe crackdown, and have experienced abuse whilst in police custody. Yet, like the Covenanters of old, they vow to continue to meet for worship.
The Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan province, is one of China’s few openly operating unofficial house churches. On the night of 9th December more than 100 members were snatched from their homes and streets across the city. Among those detained were Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong. Also held were church elders, members and seminary students.
This round-up in Chengdu is part a broad crackdown on unofficial churches launched by Beijing early this year. Amendments to the Religious Affairs Regulation give local officials greater power in acting against churches. They can impose tougher penalties for ‘unauthorised religious gatherings’, and are not slow to do so.
Early Rain Covenant Church has about 500 members. While most of China’s Protestant house churches operate underground, the Early Rain congregation refuse to hide and practise their faith openly. Sermons are posted online and they conduct street evangelism. Some would call this foolhardy; others can only feel abashed at what they risk for their faith in Christ.
Early Rain Covenant Church have initiated a presbytery which has expanded to four churches in the area. They are also helping churches in other cities start up their own presbyteries. Within the next five to 10 years, Pastor Wang expects China to have at least seven presbyteries.
Every Sunday Early Rain conducts services across more than a dozen meeting points around Chengdu. According to elders, these attract more than 800 church-goers each week. It also runs a seminary with about 100 students and a primary school catering for about 40 children.
One member of the Early Rain church said police raided his home around 1am on Tuesday 11th December. ‘Police told me three things. The first is that our church has been defined as an illegal organisation by the relevant department from the central government. Second, our church has been banned so we are not allowed to return, and third, I could not post anything about what he said online.’
Before he was taken into custody by the police on Tuesday church elder Li Yingqiang had been posting updates of the arrests online. In his last post at around 3am, he said: ‘I think I have already been found.’ Li’s wife, Zhang Xinyue, said she had expected Li’s arrest and was surprised ‘it took this long for him to be captured’.
Zhang said members of Early Rain were in good spirits and would press ahead with gatherings. She said: ‘We will not forsake assemblies. I was frightened at first when it happened but have soon overcome the feeling as we are prepared [for persecution].’
In a handwritten letter posted online as he evaded police, Li did not succumb to pressure but called on church leaders to take up pastoral work despite the crackdown. ‘We are willing to have 200, 300 and even 500 of us locked up so that the whole world knows we are willing to be persecuted for our faith,’ he wrote.
In a call reminiscent of the Covenanters, he urged church members to keep worshipping, and to meet outdoors if venues could not be rented. He asserted that the Church would never give up practising its faith publicly.
Those Christians who were released have been subjected to round-the-clock surveillance at home. Members’ social media accounts and group discussions have also been blocked and the church’s phone lines cut.
An official from Chengdu religious affairs authorities claimed he was unaware of the action against the Early Rain Covenant Church. Chengdu police referred media inquiries to the city government’s publicity department, which was not available for comment.
What is happening to Early Rain Covenant Church is typical of what is happening to our brothers and sister throughout China. Three months ago, Beijing police closed the Zion Church, one of the largest Protestant house churches in China with more than 1,500 regular church-goers. The Living Stone Church in Guiyang, Guizhou province, was banned three years ago. Li Guozhi, one of the church’s two pastors, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for releasing a document outlining an official plan to destroy the church.
When we compare the feebleness of the church in the West, unwilling to stand up to pressure to accept unbiblical social change, with the faith of these Chinese Christians, we should do two things. Firstly, pray for them. Secondly, ask ourselves some serious questions.