In late 2019 and early 2020, 60 Chinese Christians left their homes in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, seeking religious asylum on Jeju Island, a popular tourist spot in South Korea.
The group of 28 adults and 32 children hailed from Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church (SHRC), following the lead of their pastor Pan Yongguang who went to Korea before them. At the end of January, the Gwangju High Court denied the church’s final asylum appeal. They now face imminent deportation to China unless another country grants them refuge.
Pan’s church began considering emigration after the 2018 persecution of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, whose head pastor, Wang Yi, knew Pan. Wang was arrested in December of that year and sentenced the following year to nine years in prison. Wang, Pan, and several of Pan’s church elders were represented among the more than 400 house church congregations whose leaders signed a statement criticizing the tightening religious regulations that went into effect in 2018.
After Wang’s arrest, Pan believed that house churches could no longer exist openly in Chinese society. “The church had to leave, unless we scattered or renounced our faith,” he later said.
In mid-October 2019, SHRC held a congregational meeting and voted to move to Jeju. If the church (at that time a group of about 120) remained in Shenzhen, they believed they had only two options: to disperse or to “bend the knee” to the government-sanctioned Chinese Three-Self church.
Additionally, many church members’ children had been attending the congregation’s school, which authorities later shut down. Concerned that their children would be taught material that violated their faith, SHRC parents believed they must move.
Around that time, Pan left his home on what he believed was an exploratory trip to scout out Jeju—he only brought two sets of clothes. But he never returned. Within a few months, his family and a significant portion of his congregation joined him.
But only after the church arrived and applied for asylum did they begin to understand South Korea’s highly restricted asylum policy, Pan said. (In a letter to his church near the beginning of the process, Pan told congregants that an attorney had advised him their planned actions were “perfectly legal.”) A former doctor, he and his church members have worked menial jobs since leaving China, and none speak Korean.
SHRC is now known by some as the “Mayflower Church,” a name coined by Pan’s friends after the pastor noted the similarities between the religious-liberty inspired migrations of the Pilgrims and the SHRC congregation.
“Even the children were familiar with the history of the Mayflower,” Pan said, noting that his church spent the year before leaving China studying Pilgrim leader William Bradford’s firsthand account of the Pilgrim experience, Of Plymouth Plantation. “Our faith is the same as the Mayflower’s; our experience is also similar to theirs.”
A divergent decision
Since new laws governing religious affairs in China went into effect in 2018, life for Christians has grown increasingly difficult. Churches like SHRC that continue to refuse to register with local governing authorities and come under government oversight have found it difficult to meet openly and operate as they once did. This situation is particularly acute for members of urban Reformed house churches whose leaders openly signed the joint declaration.
However, the SHRC’s response to persecution has raised questions among other house churches in China that have remained and continue to endure the new difficult reality that comes with being an unregistered church in today’s China. While many are sympathetic to the congregation’s desire for freedom to worship, others are critical of their corporate decision to flee.
The persecution Pan chronicles is not unusual, but is in many ways a typical experience for Chinese believers in the unregistered church. Many other Chinese house churches share the same experiences, yet others have not responded by corporate fleeing. The incident has sparked discussions among house church leaders regarding what God’s call to his church is, and over the role of pastoral leadership in politically sensitive situations involving not just one household, but an entire flock.
One house church pastor said, “I’m not willing to judge them for their response, seeing as their motives and underlying situation isn’t clear to everyone. Only they know their motives. In a situation like this, it is best not to pass judgment. Take, for example, the Mayflower. They left, and we don’t pass judgment on them.” (Interestingly, the pastor who instinctively made the Mayflower comparison was not aware that some now refer to SHRC as “Mayflower Church.”)
Another house church pastor shared why he returned to China to lead a house church after studying overseas, forgoing his security abroad: “I cannot say the current situation is my personal choice. I am inclined to see it as the circumstance God has prepared and put me in. Growing [up] in the traditional house church in China, ever since the first day of my conversion, persecution is not a strange concept for me.”
As this pastor packed his things to return home, he meditated on the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who explained his return to Nazi Germany as a decision to share in the trials of the age with his people. He also mentioned the sacrifices of missionaries such as Wiliam Borden, who died in order to share the gospel with the Chinese.
Although he and his family could, like Bonhoeffer, have avoided the turmoil of pastoring in China, he said: “As a called minister of the gospel, it would be hard for me to preach the hope of a heavenly kingdom to my brothers and sisters in China, while [I] had a plan of retreat. … The shepherd should be with his flock and stay in the field … I will stay, to be faithful.”
Stay or go?
Historically, there are examples of emigration and asylum-seeking for those under the threat of religious persecution in China. However, those cases concerned individuals and families. To our knowledge, an entire church seeking asylum in another country is highly uncommon, if not unprecedented, for China.
House churches tend to identify with those forefathers who stayed and endured persecution such as Watchman Nee and Wang Ming-Dao, both of whom were imprisoned for refusing to join a church under government oversight. Nee in particular had an opportunity to avoid persecution in Hong Kong but chose to return to Shanghai. Thus, the standard historical position of these churches has been to stay and endure.
Because of this historical legacy, many churches view endurance under persecution as an appropriate application of a “theology of the cross.” If SHRC’s reasons for fleeing are historically grounded in the English Puritans who fled on the Mayflower, they may be viewed by other Chinese churches as turning their backs on the historical legacy of the Chinese house church.
Within the larger Chinese diaspora community, there is also a history of many who have fraudulently claimed “persecution” in order to grant credence to their cases.
Pan anticipated that his actions would spark controversy but believed his pastoral responsibility was to keep his congregation together. To members who remain in China, he wrote to his church: “I also knew that if I did [leave], I would surely be criticized by other churches and would have to bear this bad reputation for the rest of my life.”
The church around the world has wrestled with whether to remain or flee when confronted with persecution. In the Middle East, Christian communities have been decimated in recent decades as believers faced stark choices between tortured endurance or fleeing and starting a new life elsewhere.
Scripture offers examples of followers of God both remaining and fleeing persecution, and God using both decisions to further his purposes. In the Old Testament, the Lord keeps Obadiah in Ahab’s court while sending Elijah into Gentile territory to escape persecution (1 Kings 18:1–16). In the New Testament, Stephen’s stoning in Jerusalem leads to a mass exodus of Christians out of Jerusalem into other lands (Acts 8:1). What each biblical example shares, whether remaining and enduring or fleeing, is that the decision was made under the guidance of the Lord and never under cowardice.
The story continues in modern times, where the faithfulness of Chinese Christians following the 1949 Communist takeover planted the seeds for the robust faith of many believers today. On the other hand, those who left mainland China after Mao came to power developed many of the resources that helped strengthen young house churches in recent decades.
While critics of Pan and SHRC may have valid points, in the end, it is difficult for someone outside of the congregation to determine SHRC’s motives for leaving for Jeju Island.
Christof Sauer, a missiologist who has written extensively on persecution, tackled this issue for the African Missiological journal Missionalia. In his article titled “To Flee or Not to Flee,” Sauer concludes that people should not flee in situations where “obedience to God’s commandments and Christ’s commission and love for others would be jeopardized.” Only Pan and those seeking asylum in Korea know whether their motives avoid these pitfalls and whether their position is Spirit-guided.
However, the issue goes both ways. Often forgotten in the legacy of Watchman Nee and Wang Ming-Dao, who were marked by boldness and following Christ’s cross, is that each initially capitulated and under pressure cooperated in some way with the government church before later recanting and facing the ensuing suffering that came. The desire to attach oneself to a historical legacy can be fraught with dangers if detached from a Spirit-led, biblical framework for making decisions about responding to persecution.
One danger for churches who emigrate is that of forming a closed community in their new location. Sauer warns of the threat of a “ghetto mentality and a lifestyle that is marked by a high degree of legalism and insulation.” This is certainly more of a threat for groups who emigrate together, like SHRC. Biblically, the scattering of Christians from Jerusalem led to the planting of churches through “Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Pan should be aware of this threat and seek to lead his people to “seek the welfare of the city” in which they seek to stay (Jer. 29:7, ESV).
Following the denial of SHRC’s final appeal, the group now must leave South Korea within a few weeks. Prior to the final ruling, Pan said his church “very much hoped” another country outside of Korea would grant them asylum, but that he was unsure of the technicalities of the process. Although it is not certain the community will return to China, it is not legal for them to remain in Korea beyond mid-February.
If SHRC is forced to return to China, they will likely face severe persecution. Back in Shenzhen, some members of SHRC who were unable to join the church in Korea have already faced interrogation and even been placed under surveillance or house arrest.
If he repatriates to China, Pan himself will face serious charges: subversion of state power, colluding with foreign forces, and human trafficking. Pan’s friend Wang Yi was sentenced on the charge of subversion of state power, a catchall charge that is often used against political activists. The trafficking charge is due to Pan’s leadership of his church as they crossed national borders to seek refuge overseas. Life will likely also be difficult for the other members of his church, who in all likelihood would also face interrogation, surveillance, harassment, and, in some cases, imprisonment.
These larger warnings and considerations are not limited to SHRC or the Chinese house church world. The Pew Research Center has found that Christianity remains the most persecuted religion in the world, and this persecution has continued to increase in the past decade. Churches from China to Iran, from Ethiopia to India, will face many of the same types of struggles as Pan and SHRC and will have critical decisions to make as to how to respond.
For many, the opportunity to flee may arise. It is critical to pay attention to those like SHRC who have chosen to flee and to learn and assess the response of one’s own church. At the same time, any decision must be made with Spirit-guided motives that are steeped in Scripture more than in history, whether that be the history of a 21st-century Chinese house church or the English Puritans.
Apollos Bell is a professor of theology in Asia and is a fellow for the Center for House Church Theology. He spent a number of years in China serving in various ministry roles.
E. F. Gregory is the blog editor for China Partnership, which strives to tell the modern-day story of the Chinese house church.