What’s a House Church? – The difference between registered/unregistered churches in China

Yesterday I answered some of the questions I get most often about Christianity in China (if you have more please post them below). Today we’ll be looking mostly at the differences between a registered and unregistered church.

Registered Church/Official Church

Chinese protestant churches must be registered with two groups in order to be considered legal; these groups are the China Christian Council (CCC), and the Three-self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). These two groups work so closely together that at this level of understanding, it is not so important to differentiate.

Church in Dali, Yunnan

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement was formed in 1951 as a way of placating the new Communist gov’t that there would be no direct foreign involvement in the Chinese church. The ideals highlighted by this movement though were actually established in the late 1800’s as a guide for establishing an indigenous Chinese church (more on mission in China coming later this week). The three principals are self-support, self-governance, and self-propagation. While these principals might sound like they are reinforcing the party line, I think they are the best hope for creating a Chinese church that truly addresses the needs of the Chinese people.

Church in Longzhou

Church in Longzhou

These two organizations also run China’s 13 seminaries as well as provide oversight for the Amity Printing Press and the Amity Foundation.

For a church to become registered it needs to have 50 core members, a seminary trained minister, and a fixed location for worship.

Underground church/Unregistered church

My understanding of this kind of church is somewhat limited because I have never actually attended any of their services. The reason for this is not that I think they are not true Christians or anything like that, but because I worry that a foreigner attending worship with them might attract unwanted attention from local authorities.

These churches often refuse to register with the TSPM and CCC because they believe they are too tightly controlled by the gov’t, or are not fully conveying the message of the Bible. Other times they do not register because they do not meet the requirements for registration.

Many of these underground churches receive funding and training from Christians outside of China. This can lead to some strange interpretations of the Bible, since the trainings are often short, and not held in Chinese (If you are thinking this is only Evangelical American missionaries, you might be surprised to know that there are also scores of Korean missionaries in China promoting this kind of church). For example one of my colleagues noticed that a student was suddenly far too serious and had stopped smiling. He asked her if something was wrong to which she replied, “Christians should never smile because Jesus has died.”

However it is important to remember that these churches vary widely in their teachings, and it is my understand that many of them are theologically sound.

Laws Effecting Churches in China

While people have freedom of belief in China, this is vastly different from freedom of religion.

For example churches are not to advertise, or publicly try to attract new believers. I learned this from a student who had tried to make a sign to put outside of the church in Longzhou, only to find out that it was not allowed. She was incredibly disappointed to learn about this and the other ways the gov’t restricts proselytizing.

These laws are in place because China also technically has freedom from religion. Essentially this means that a person should have to seek religion, and should not have to encounter it outside of church.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the rapidly growing church in China

16 responses to “What’s a House Church? – The difference between registered/unregistered churches in China”

  1. Darryl Snow says:

    The American government could learn a lot from the way the Chinese government handles harmful fairytale proselytizing here. It’s such a shame that people think others should “need” a (their) church (religion).

    • mrchopstik says:

      Somehow, I’m not sure that is the right idea and your description is a denigrating one of religion at best. The American government has its faults but freedom of religion is not one of them. You have the choice to join or not join a religion and it is your choice alone. As Tom as described here, the choice in China is one where you can join a church (state-sanctioned in which case the power belongs to the state and not the church) or not join a church. But you cannot openly discuss your choice of faith if you so choose outside of said church. You may not be religious (which is fine) but there is a clear difference between permitting people to do something with which you may not agree and explicitly denying them that opportunity. In this case, China is denying a right rather than permitting it. Whether you agree or disagree with the given point of view is irrelevant – the choice, in this case, is not yours.

      • Tom says:

        Even though I am a Christian I would just as strongly oppose state sponsored religion, as I oppose state sponsored atheism. Although Mr. Chopstick had it pretty well covered.

      • Darryl Snow says:

        Well… if anything is worthy of denigration it would be a system which aims to suppress human intellect among the greatest number of people in favour of ancient fears and superstitions. The doctrines promoted by the world’s major religions and the behaviour and rhetoric of many of their victims tend to denigrate religion without a need for the voice of reason.

        You say China is denying a “right”, implying that the issue is about freedom of choice, rather then protecting society. To use your argument, one could say the following:

        You may not be a paedophile (which is fine) but there is a clear difference between permitting people to do something [i.e. abuse children] with which you may not agree and explicitly denying them that opportunity.

        Would you also argue that in this case a government should not intervene to protect its vulnerable citizens, in this case children?

        Taking Chinese history into consideration, there has been the White Lotus Rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion, the Hui minorities war, even the cultural revolution – these events all demonstrate to the Chinese government the dangers of mass proselytisation of poor, vulnerable, and poorly educated people. The government’s current way of dealing with organised religion within an officially regulated, state-managed framework is surely more pragmatic than malicious. It’s simply not a freedom of choice issue when unrestrained organised religion has also been proven to cause harm to a modern society.

        The main point, at the end of the day, is that it’s up to governments to decide what institutions should be permitted to operate in the society that they manage, based on the perceived welfare of that society. The Chinese government has clearly recognised that there are a considerable number of people who want to subscribe to some ancient middle-eastern superstitious doctrines and so they’ve provided a safe and controlled environment for those people to live out their little fantasies. No Western missionary, preacher, or blogger, can fairly say that they’ve chosen to support the wrong set of doctrines simply because they’re not the same ones they themselves subscribe to, nor can such people make a bold claim that the Chinese people as a whole need such doctrines.

        And furthermore, there’s no such thing as “state-sponsored Atheism” – just as there’s no such thing as state-sponsored A-unicornism, state-sponsored A-fairyism, or state-sponsored A-flying-pigs-ism. You’re perhaps alluding to a state which doesn’t deem it necessary, in its duties to provide for the safety and welfare of its people, to officially sponsor some or another brand of flying spaghetti monster. There can of course be, and indeed should be in my opinion, state-controlled religion, as there can be state-controlled alcohol, state-controlled tobacco or state control over any other dangerous substances etc.

      • Tom says:

        Let me address your arguments one at a time:
        your first paragraph is your opinion that religion does more harm than good, but religion has promoted literacy (ex. educating women in China in the early 1900s), education (the creation and promotion of the modern school and university system), Health care (the operation of low cost/free clinics), and many other elements that we take for granted in secular society, to me that’s a net good.
        China is denying a “right” in that it is defined as a human right under article 18 of the UN charter on human rights, so it’s not some random blogger claiming that true freedom of religion is a right arbitrarily. You will notice a clear lack of the right to pedophilia.
        I see you’ve mentioned 3 wars sparked by religion in Chinese history, while how many of been caused by other reasons? The party involved China in the Korean war, the Vietnam war, and a war between China and Vietnam. So even without religion there can and will still be destructive wars.
        It also seems that you are making the argument that Religions must be regulated/limited to ensure their freedom. Just as the Chinese gov’t argues that Speech must be regulated/censored to maintain freedom of speech. I’m not sure that’s logical.
        Finally, I said state sponsored Atheism, because it is the view required for party membership. This means that it is valued by the state above any other view.

      • Darryl Snow says:

        Religion, as a set of beliefs and not a set of people, has not promoted literacy, education, healthcare etc. – human altruism has.

        To argue that a set of beliefs has brought about these “elements” then you would have to also argue that they could not have been brought about without that particular set of beliefs. Good luck. There is plenty of evidence on the other hand, that religion has obstructed literacy, education, healthcare, equality etc. as many holy books prescribe doctrines and sets of beliefs which either explicitly or implicitly make demands on human behavior. Societies all over the world face problems of racism, sexual inequality, prejudice against homosexuals, endemic disease, and poor education as a direct result of religious doctrines. This is an irrefutable fact.

        It doesn’t matter how many wars have been caused by other reasons because those reasons having nothing to with religion or a lack thereof. People have brought about wars based on these ancient and unreasonable superstitions, but never has a war been instigated by people being too reasonable when it comes to the nature of the universe. The Chinese communist party for instance, did not go to war in Vietnam or Korea because of a lack of belief in your god, or fairies, or unicorns, or any other human fantasy. Yes, even without religion there can be destructive wars, but where there is religion, there are most certainly always destructive wars precisely because of it. Religion clearly serves to divide, rather than unite, human societies – history proves this as another irrefutable fact.

        I am certainly not arguing that religions must be regulated in order to ensure their freedom – that wouldn’t be logical, no. I argue they should be regulated to contain their proven damage. I was quite clear with my comparisons to other dangerous substances.

        I can take a different stance on free speech because freedom of speech doesn’t do anyone any harm. People can say whatever they want and nobody has to listen to them or believe what they say. But when people say things in a manipulative or obfuscatory way in order to subvert or control others – like religious leaders do – then that is a case where people should be protected, not through restrictions on the religious leaders’ words, but by proper and informed education for the people they talk to.

      • Tom says:

        It’s interesting that in your view when people who strongly believe in a religious world view bring good into this world, you dismiss it as not being related to religion. Yet when individuals twist religion for their own benefit, that is absolutely a result of religion.
        Like Chopstick, I’m also failing to see the difference between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. It sounds like “But when people say things in a manipulative or obfuscatory way in order to subvert or control others – like religious leaders do – then that is a case where people should be protected, not through restrictions on the religious leaders’ ” you are arguing that speech should also be limited if it in any way involves religion.

      • Chopstik says:


        Reading through your responses, it is clear that you harbor a great deal of antagonism toward religion and that is your right (in countries that permit you that right). But I think you continue to miss the underlying point. You argue that China is right to deny people the right to worship and to believe in religion as they would wish. But, as I pointed out earlier, regardless of your views of religion, the denial of that human right is wrong and no less egregious than denying any other right (perhaps the right to free speech which you hold in much greater esteem – and something to which I am curious how much you enjoy in China). I am not suggesting that your views on religion are right or wrong – that is beside the point. But if you are going to argue that people should have the right to free speech (is yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre free speech?) and to explicitly deny it is wrong, then I fail to logically see how you can rationally disconnect the freedom of religion and worship as being separate from free speech.

        Curiously enough, your paedophilia analogy is specious at best and not one that proves anything other than a twisted sense of moral values (all of which are subjective and not objective). Perhaps a better comparison would be, to use your own example, free speech. Is it ok to use free speech to incite a crowd to riot? Is it ok to use free speech to denigrate an entire class of people (black, gay, illterate or any other subset you wish) in order to deny them other basic rights? If not (and, based on your previous arguments, I suspect not), then how is it ok to deny people the right to believe as they wish. Many people seek a purpose and meaning and life and find it in religion. To argue that the state should subjugate that to its own purposes is disingenuous at best. Social harmony (to use a term you may be familiar with) does not come about by denying people rights but by allowing people to live freely within the constraints of an open and free society – something that would not exist under the aegis of state-organized religion as you have proposed.

        Finally, you state “The main point, at the end of the day, is that it’s up to governments to decide what institutions should be permitted to operate in the society that they manage, based on the perceived welfare of that society.” I would posit that you have misstated your argument. It is not up to government. Government is and only ever should be a tool used by society to manage itself (much as religion has often served in that role). It is not up to governments to decide, it is up to society to decide how it manages itself. Otherwise, tyranny and dictatorship will only ever result.

      • Darryl Snow says:


        “Yet when individuals twist religion for their own benefit, that is absolutely a result of religion.”

        Well how can you be sure that their religion is being twisted? Can a muslim charity worker prove that he is conforming to the will of his god any more than a muslim suicide bomber? They both have the same lack of reasoning for their belief systems. It certainly is the fault of a religion if it directly influences people’s behaviour and yet is so ambiguous and irrational that people may be driven to cause harm to others. A lack of irrational belief can’t drive anyone to do anything.

        I’m not saying there is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. People should of course be free to have whatever fantasies and fetishes they want as long as it doesn’t harm others. But the fact that religion can harm others, as evidence attests, I think all religious practices (including the necessary practice of indoctrination) should fall under some sort of regulation. Speech can also be free and yet regulated – that’s why we have litigation for libel and slander.

        I’m not at all saying that free speech relating to religion should be restricted, but that some religious practices should be. Preachers squandering people out of their money, catholic priests using the fear of god to manipulate and abuse children, the indoctrination and religious branding of children in general is effectively the same sort of abuse.

      • Darryl Snow says:

        My underlying point was simply a reaction to the line in this article:

        “I think they are the best hope for creating a Chinese church that truly addresses the needs of the Chinese people”

        Basically, I think it’s deluded and conceited for one person to feel that 1.3 billion “need” a similar system of belief concerning the nature of the universe, perhaps the same system to which they were themselves were inculcated (as implied), or that they even know which system is “needed”. Especially deluded when such belief systems have been so demonstrably harmful to modern society. I think it’s fair to say that any rational person to harbor antagonism and suspicion towards religion when living in an environment where literally billions of people may wish to either judge or harm them based on nothing more than ancient superstition and folktales, and where such people can’t be at all reasoned with.

        “You argue that China is right to deny people the right to worship and to believe in religion as they would wish. ”

        No I don’t. Where did I say that?

        “then I fail to logically see how you can rationally disconnect the freedom of religion and worship as being separate from free speech”

        See a previous comment. It seems there are lots of things you fail to logically see.

        Are you accusing me of having twisted moral values simply for using an analogy or because of my stance on religion?

        “Is it ok to use free speech to incite a crowd to riot? ”

        Specious argument indeed. Free speech is one thing but deliberately intending to cause harm is another. That’s my point. What’s yours exactly?

        My stance is this: Of course someone is free to incite a crowd to riot, but should they? No (unless more harm could somehow come about by not having the riot?). Should they be convinced not to? Of course. Should they be gagged / threatened / somehow forced not to speak? No, of course not. Should they be directed to a forum where they can appropriately voice their opinions without risk to anyone else? Yeah, sure. Should they be punished (or perhaps re-educated?) if they go ahead and deliberately go about trying cause harm to others by inciting violence? Yes, absolutely.

        Allowing people to preach their religion or incite a riot would be classed as freedom of speech. Allowing people to fantasise about fairies in their own home or harbor anger about something would be classed as freedom of religion or thought. But when people try to influence the behavior of others in a way that can be harmful, that’s clearly wrong and it’s currently best avoided through a system of education and/or punitive measures.

        Chinese people are free to believe whatever they want, free to change their beliefs, free to worship in pubic or private, alone or with others. They have religious freedom in that respect. Where the situation in China doesn’t conform to the UN declaration of human rights, is that people who wish to subscribe are restricted to particular brands of religion, and there are restrictions on the proselytisation of other brands of religion. I think the word “teaching” in the DoHR is perhaps a little ambiguous. I would argue that proselytization of religion is most certainly not a human right, whereas teaching people about ancient myths and modern religious practices is a human right – This is done (albeit not in great detail) in middle schools all over the country.

        Now back to where China’s government officially* violates part of that article 18 – they do not allow people to communally worship unregulated brands of religion. I fully support them in this, and thus, disagree with the wording of the DoHR. Who am I to disagree with the UN? Just one person… but there are many people and societies that disagree with the exact manner of the DoHR, which after all is only a guideline, purely because the moral zeitgeist is not a clear straight line, and lies at different positions among different times, cultures, and stages of development. I think China has more pressing concerns and human rights issues, and places like the USA and parts of the Middle East no more pressing concerns than the potential damage from religious extremism. I think China’s current way of handling that risk is both sensible and appropriate in the current climate, and could well be appropriate for places where religious extremism is causing visible damage.

        *I say “officially” because in practice, we don’t know to what extent these churches are ignored or shut down.

        Perhaps what I don’t really understand, having never been indoctrinated myself, is what part of the religious experience necessitates you share the exact same set of irrational beliefs with others? Where’s the harm in just believing what unfounded notions you will about the universe without having to recite those beliefs in the company of others or make sure others believe the same thing? Perhaps you could enlighten me on that? Is it simply community spirit? In which case, couldn’t people be equally comforted by all the various community activities the Chinese government freely allow? Or is it that people feel at risk of wavering in their blind faith without the mutual support of other homogeneous subscribers? When there’s no reasoning whatsoever behind the beliefs, it’s difficult for someone who doesn’t hold them to understand what physical manifestation they should require.

        I didn’t argue that the State should subjugate religion, but rather monitor it. You yourself talk of “constraints” of an open and free society. You were correct in that I did misstate my previous argument about the role of government. The Chinese people, the society, decided they wanted this type of government before 1949. Whether they still want it is another matter – I would argue that the vast majority do, but only because they have been “religiously” indoctrinated. The fact that there are restrictions on who can enter government, they have decided, is a good thing. They have decided that the people running the country should be able to make rational decisions, and not demonstrably prone to making irrational ones or holding irrational beliefs. I don’t have much opinion about politics, but I still insist it’s unreasonable for a Western Christian to assume that the Chinese population should want or need to believe in fairies, or that he may know which fairies they should want or need to believe in. I also insist that it’s a government’s responsibility to protect its people from things that are proven to be potentially harmful.

      • Tom says:

        The meaning of the sentence you so strongly disagreed with was that it is a Chinese church as opposed to a foreign run church that would best meet the needs of the people. Not that it would be one religion vs. another, or Christianity vs. atheism. My point was not that China needs Christianity, but that an indigenous version of Christianity would better serve their needs (which have been unmet both by the party, and civil society).
        Also “Chinese people are free to believe whatever they want, free to change their beliefs, free to worship in pubic or private, alone or with others. They have religious freedom in that respect.” This is not correct. Chinese people do not have the right to believe whatever they want (Falun gong is perhaps the easiest example), nor do they have the right to worship in public (this requires registration with the gov’t, which limits some groups from meeting legally). Certain aspects of religions are also banned, such as recognizing the Pope as head of the Catholic church, or Dalai Lama as religious head of Tibetan Buddhism (not that these are necessarily good things, but they are key aspects of those religious traditions). The gov’t even maintains that it has the authority to name the reincarnations of later Lamas, which interferes again with Tibetan Buddhism.
        Finally I’m not sure which middle schools you might be referring to, I’ve yet to meet a Chinese student who has learned through schooling even rudimentary aspects of the recognized religions within China.

  2. Vicky says:

    It is interesting to hear of the many Korean Missionaries in China. Just recently here in Vancouver I was approached by Korean Christians who where sharing and handing out their pamphlets for their church. I was a little taken aback, I didn’t expect to be told about the Word of God so passionately from such a source. Now I know that sounds completely ignorant but I come from the prairies in Alberta where most Church people are Caucasian, that is not to say that there are no Asians but usually from my experience they are there because they want to improve their English. I have have seen some Mandarin Pentecostal Groups but they usually did not do any visible missionary work and mostly kept to themselves. In Vancouver we have a very large Asian community and I have come to realize that Koreans are at the forefront when it comes to Missionary work. The ones that approached me had some interesting Theology, but they were pretty passionate.

    • Tom says:

      South Korea is one of the most Christian countries actually, and is home to the worlds largest church. Many Korean businessmen in China will give workers the option to attend a worship service at the company on Sunday morning, or continue working, their pay is the same either way.

  3. […] week we looked at many of the misunderstandings about Christianity in China (1, 2,3, 4), so today I thought we would wrap up by looking at mission in China just before the fall of […]

  4. Thank you for sharing and documenting differences in churches in China. There is the healthiest groups which are in the unregistered groupings that are clearly Biblical Churches and are opposed because they will not compromise on their teachings because they are from the Bible. These rural underground Christians are not opposed to government they only want to freely proclaim the Good News of Heaven!

  5. […] underground church of China is living under a government that requires registration of churches and yet resist registration because they believe they should not be so governed in the expression […]

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