Part of a continuing series of journal article summaries. You can also read my summaries on The regulation of religion in China and Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries.
Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China By: Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (full text PDF)
The Little Flock Movement or Christian Assembly, was a loosely connected church movement that was started by Watchman Nee in the 1920’s as a wholly Chinese form of Christianity. It strove to be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-funded in accordance with three-“self” principles that were popular at the time, and quickly grew as the Chinese public turned more strongly against foreign imperialism.
Fundamentally the Little Flock modeled itself after the church depicted in Acts; they would be united as a community of believers, and there would be no hierarchy beyond the local church. They strongly promoted the idea of the “priesthood of believers.” They urged their congregations to break cleanly from western missionary movements and rejected the idea of denominational ties. This is somewhat ironic given that the Little Flock benefited greatly from theological training from earlier missionaries. The movement also promoted the idea that there should only be one church in each geographical region, so that there would not be competition between believers.
The Little Flock movement spread in two distinct ways. One way was for travelling evangelists (“apostles”) to make connections in a new place, and train local leaders who would form the core of the new church. Once established the evangelist would move to another region. The other method was to move several families from an existing congregation to a new area, where they would reach out to non-believers. By 1949 the Little Flock movement made up roughly 25% of China’s Christian population.
When the Communist Party came to power they initially claimed that religious institutions would be tolerated, and created the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which followed the same ideas mentioned above, but was directly overseen by the Party. Initially the Little Flock worked alongside the TSPM and eventually endorsed the “Christian Manifesto,” which stated Christians’ loyalty to the Communist Party. While Watchman Nee was concerned about Mao’s atheistic views, he convinced himself that the movement would not be affected because it was both indigenous and apolitical.
In 1950 the Korean War broke out and all foreign missionaries were forced to leave the country. This meant that many foreign funded churches were suddenly understaffed and underfunded. The Little Flock quickly made connections with these congregations, and helped them to continue worshiping in accordance with the three-self principles.
Initially the Little Flock congregations urged their members to sacrifice material comfort and help the Party rebuild China. Later though they would resist collectivization and conscription. This dangerous position and their recent connection with foreigners, meant that many Christians suffered during Mao’s various campaigns.
In 1951 some church leaders turned against each other and publicly denounced other Christians and Watchman Nee. This led to the excommunication of all believers who were explicitly pro-government in ’52. In ’53 Little Flock leaders began to openly encourage congregations to leave the TSPM, and reaffirm that Christ was the only authority over the church.
Watchman Nee’s insistence on ideological autonomy eventually led to his own denouncement. In 1956 he was arrested and charged with being a counter-revolutionary and undermining the power of the State. He died while serving a 15 year sentence in a labor camp.
Despite persecution the Little Flock continued to grow and spread to every corner of China. Many believers infiltrated the Party and used their positions to spread the Gospel. On university campuses many of the professors were also believers because they had been trained on Christian campuses prior to ’49. Youth groups were also organized in an effort to counter anti-religious teachings promoted by the Party.
By the time the Cultural Revolution began, the Little Flock movement had become adept at surviving persecution, their theological view of the world reinforced the idea that this was a time when their faith would be tested, and that God would eventually deliver them. Ironically, during this time the movement grew due to the lack of supervision from State agencies that had collapsed in the chaos.
When China allowed religion to reemerge in ’78, the Little Flock became the template for many of China’s house churches.
In the article there is a quote which states that throughout China’s history there has never been a gov’t that has promoted freedom of religion. The goal of the State has always been to regulate, control, and exploit religion. Just this week the Party issued a message once again warning about the dangers of religion.
In a country where “change” is a word that is usually followed by “undermines stability” it can be difficult to imagine that things could ever be different. Religion offers a radically different view of society, and encourages submission to an authority higher than the Party. In many cases throughout Chinese history, people of faith have been the instigators of change.
Given this, it isn’t surprising that the Party has tried to control those who exist outside of socialist ideology, but given the power of religious ideals, it also isn’t surprising that the Little Flock survived decades of persecution in an effort to maintain the ideological autonomy necessary to pursue their beliefs.