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Police officers in Chengdu, China, detained Pastor Wang Yi and 200 members of Early Rain Covenant Church over the weekend as they prepared to gather for a service commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. All were released within 24 hours—but the arrests and crackdown on one of China’s most influential house churches raised alarms over the Xi Jinping regime’s growing efforts against Christians.
The magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2008 killed about 87,600 people, left millions homeless, and became a “sensitive” topic after more than an estimated 5,000 schoolchildren died as shoddy classrooms collapsed on top of them during the quake. Many blamed corruption and mismanagement by local officials that led to the construction of substandard school buildings, as structures around the schools remained intact after the quake. In response, the Chinese government silenced critics, banned newspapers from mentioning the issue, and stifled unapproved commemorations—like Early Rain’s service.
After the May 12, 2008, earthquake, house churches from all parts of China sent teams to help in the relief effort, which began a movement of Christian charities, as organizations provided aid, rebuilt houses, and planted churches. Wang, who at the time was not yet a full-time pastor, helped coordinate church teams that poured into the region to help earthquake victims.
Wang points to the earthquake as the moment he decided to leave his job as a law professor and go into full-time ministry, helping to grow his house church into one of the most influential in the country. With his background in constitutional law, Wang publicly speaks out about the government’s illegal treatment of churches and is often detained on “sensitive” dates such as May 12 or June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yet not all threats to the church come from the outside: Last year, the church underwent a difficult church split due to differences in personality and vision within the church leadership.
At 11 p.m. the night before the Saturday morning memorial service, local public security officers showed up at Wang’s doorstep to inform him that Early Rain’s service was illegal. Referring to the new “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” a police officer noted that Early Rain could not set up religious venues or hold religious activities without government permission.
“Then come tomorrow and do whatever you are going to do according to the laws,” Wang responded calmly, according to a cell phone video of the exchange recorded by his wife. “We will still meet tomorrow. Feel free to arrest us. … We will safeguard our legal rights according to the laws: applying for petitions and administrative review, and filing lawsuits.”
Immediately afterward, a plainclothes police officer showed up with a subpoena for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for Wang’s posts online and brought him to the local police station for questioning. Police also detained Li Yingqiang, another church leader.
The next morning at 7:30, church members showed up to attend a prayer meeting at the church only to find dozens of police officers blocking the entrance of the office building where the church meets. According to Early Rain’s Facebook page, which updated the situation throughout the day, police carted 30 congregants off to the local station in police cars.
Yet congregants continued to arrive for the 9:30 a.m. memorial service. In total, police detained more than 200 church members, including children and the elderly. Police entered the church building, temporarily confiscating 15,600 Christian books and Bibles, as well as more than 900 CDs. As congregants stood outside the church singing “Amazing Grace,” police confiscated many of their phones to keep them from posting the scene online. Even the monitor of the Early Rain Facebook page—inaccessible inside China without a virtual private network—was taken away in handcuffs for sharing what was going on with the outside world.
By Saturday night, police had released Wang, Li, and nearly all of the church members. Wang sent out a message saying he had finished writing Sunday’s sermon, titled “The Way of the Cross, the Life of the Martyr,” at the police station. He praised his church members for their courage amid persecution: “I am grateful for you because we did not try to retreat, hide, or escape from the coming of this day, but we welcomed it with praise and zeal.”
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A search on China’s online retail giant Taobao can help you find items you didn’t think you needed. You can find a snack bowl with grooves to hold your iPhone, a rain poncho that covers two people and a scooter, or a laser-beam taillight for your bike that projects emojis onto the road.
One thing you can no longer find on Taobao: the Bible, the holy Word of God.
Starting in late March, major online retailers including JD.com, Dangdang, and Amazon.cn stopped offering Bibles for sale, although children’s Bibles, theological books, and Bible concordances remained. Technically, Bibles in China are allowed to be sold only in government-sanctioned churches, yet the authorities never enforced that rule strictly, and Bibles could easily be found online as well as in Christian bookstores.
In the first week of April, though, a government official inspected a Beijing Christian bookstore and informed the owner that books with foreign ISBN numbers could no longer be sold, according to Hong Kong’s Inkstone news website. Many Christian books are translated into Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan and sold in Christian bookstores in mainland China. Some Chinese Christians speculate that the government may target Bible apps next, which would make the Biblical text even more difficult to obtain.
As news of the Bible sales ban emerged, China’s government released a white paper claiming the Chinese Communist Party exercises authority over religion in order to keep “Western” religions like Christianity from being “controlled and utilized by colonialists and imperialists.” It also claimed that 200 million people in China practice religion, with 38 million Protestants. (Church leaders believe the actual number of Christians to be much greater, since many worship in unregistered house churches.)
President Xi Jinping insists on the “Sinicization of Christianity,” an effort to transform Christianity into a belief system that “aligns with the core values of socialism and so-called Chinese characteristics,” according to U.S.-based ChinaAid.
In a recent web post on that subject, Chengdu pastor Wang Yi argued that Buddhism (originating in India) was able to transform from a foreign religion to a “Chinese” religion by mixing with traditional Confucianism and Taoism. In order for Christianity to become “Chinese,” it too would have to mix with traditional religions, contradicting the exclusivity of the gospel.
Drawing from the Biblical book of Acts, Wang noted that the early church faced both outward threats from Rome and the inward threat of mixing Christianity with Jewish culture, such as by requiring circumcision for Gentile believers. “This is why Paul continually urged that Christ’s death and resurrection was the sole foundation of the church,” Wang wrote. Throughout history, believers have had to take care not to mix Christianity with local cultural beliefs.
The Communist government’s urge to mix Christianity with Chinese culture is a threat to the church, Wang concluded: “Only when the gospel dies to and is resurrected from the bondage and limitations of culture can Christianity truly be established in that culture.”
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Billy Graham’s death (and his funeral on March 2) ends an era of evangelical revival that took off at the 1949 crusade in Los Angeles.
But another side of Graham, which many obituaries missed, comes in Owen Strachan’s 2015 book, Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement. It’s a challenge to Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Strachan traces the lives of Boston pastor Harold Ockenga and Christianity Today Editor Carl Henry and how they pursued the lordship of Christ for higher education.
Billy Graham worked behind the scenes to help his two older friends pursue this unusual vision for Christ’s kingship over the world of colleges and universities. The academic world has its own subculture and customs, and Ockenga and Henry thought this world needed Jesus Christ just as much as the homeless men at a rescue mission.
They were swimming upstream against both the secularism of the intellectual world and an anti-intellectual bent among many Christians of the early 20th century. Billy Sunday, for example, was the Billy Graham of an earlier era, preaching in small towns, then in big cities after being a star base-stealing player in big-league baseball. Sunday was influential politically and socially but never had Graham’s ambitions for the academic world. “I don’t know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit does about ping-pong, but I’m on the way to glory,” he declared.
Graham never needed to be center stage in Ockenga’s and Henry’s efforts, as they launched a magazine and started Fuller Seminary on the West Coast and Gordon-Conwell Seminary near Boston. They encouraged young people to pursue doctorates to bring the influence of Christ to bear on an academic world that scoffed at the claims of Christ and the Bible.
Graham was often included in the middle of their efforts, lending his time, talent, and treasure, which included friendships with wealthy and influential business and political leaders across the country. The book sums up the trio’s accomplishments this way: “Led by pastor Harold Ockenga, theologian Carl F.H. Henry, and evangelist Billy Graham, the neo-evangelicals championed a freshly intellectual and culturally engaged brand of evangelicalism that broke with the separationist, preeminently defensive program of fundamentalism.”
Whether they were starting seminaries or a magazine, or helping a young student figure out where to get a doctorate, Graham’s name was often in the middle of their correspondence and counsel as Ockenga and Henry tried to renew the idea of a Christian mind.
Henry had an even more expansive vision for a Christian university that would have the academic standards of Harvard and strong personal piety. They thought young believers should see higher education as a mission field just as important as the countries that had heard little of the gospel.
Of course not all their visions and dreams came true, especially the university idea. Baylor University may come closest in recent years to what they were seeking.
They did much to encourage a little army of believers to take intellectual life seriously and obtain the credentials to serve in the academic world. Strachan’s book outlines their wins and losses and their remarkable influence and progress. “Graham, contrary to popular opinion, did not want only spiritual revival of the heart,” writes Strachan. “He wanted it spread to the mind.”
In this story Graham showed not just the capacity for a big vision for Christ’s kingdom but also the heart of a servant leader. He helped his friends with these projects and never needed to be in the limelight or take credit for what was being accomplished.
Billy Graham was the greatest evangelist of his generation. What helped him achieve that remarkable stature was his character as a servant leader.