Earlier this month, Preacher Wu Wuqing was arrested just hours after he officiated a funeral service in Chengdu, China. Authorities accused him of “disturbing public order.”
This was not Wu’s first run-in with authorities. He belongs to Early Rain Covenant Church, a church now internationally known for being targeted by the Chinese government. Though he was released later that evening, Wu has been threatened and intimidated many times for his service to his church and his community.
Authorities have at times cut his home’s access to utilities and they warn that things will only get worse for him if he continues his work. But Wu does not plan to back down, just as other members of his church have not stopped boldly proclaiming the gospel despite other instances of intimidation, arrest, and even long-term imprisonment.
The more than 500 members of Early Rain Covenant Church comprise one of the most influential house churches in China. Unashamed of their faith, these Christians do not bother to keep a low profile, although their status as an unregistered church makes them vulnerable to being shut down at the whim of the government.
Early Rain even runs a seminary and a Christian school, in addition to ministries that serve the most marginalized in society, including orphans, the families of prisoners of conscience, and the unborn.
The trailblazing streak of this impressive church grew under the leadership of Pastor Wang Yi. When Wang Yi converted to Christianity in 2005, he was already a prominent lawyer, public intellectual, and professor known for his human rights work. In 2006, he was even invited to the White House to meet with George W. Bush along with two other notable Chinese Christians. In 2011, Early Rain Covenant Church installed this former firebrand lawyer as their pastor.
As a pastor, he did not cower from the possibility of backlash from the government. He often spoke out in favor of religious freedom and against abortion, participating in local pro-life campaigns. China is still suffering from the painful consequences of the former one-child policy, and though that has eased to allow for two children, China still has the largest number of abortions in the world.
Pastor Wang knew that there was a strong possibility that he would one day be arrested. He prepared for that eventuality by writing a document he titled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience.”
His congregation was instructed to release the declaration if he were ever detained by the government for more than 48 hours. On Sunday, December 9, 2018, Pastor Wang, his wife, and more than 100 members of Early Rain Covenant Church were arrested.
By December 12, the published declaration had begun to inspire Christians around the globe. It offers a beautiful description of what he terms “faithful disobedience,” contrasting his actions from political activism or civil disobedience. He wrote:
I firmly believe that the Bible has not given any branch of any government the authority to run the church or to interfere with the faith of Christians. Therefore, the Bible demands that I, through peaceable means, in meek resistance and active forbearance, filled with joy, resist all administrative policies and legal measures that oppress the church and interfere with the faith of Christians.
I firmly believe this is a spiritual act of disobedience. In modern authoritarian regimes that persecute the church and oppose the gospel, spiritual disobedience is an inevitable part of the gospel movement.
He was secretly tried at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court on December 26, 2019. On December 30, Pastor Wang Yi was sentenced to 9 years in prison for the false charges of “illegal business activity” and “inciting to subvert state power” and fined 50,000 RMB.
It was a harsh punishment that surprised even the most cynical China hawks. Pastor Wang was far from a national security threat. Upon his arrest, the congregation of his church released a statement emphasizing this. They testified that Pastor Wang “has taught that even when the church is being persecuted, Christians should be willing to submit to the government’s physical restrictions of them as well as to the depravation of their property.”
The national security charge of “inciting to subvert state power” is familiar to many Chinese dissidents. Regularly abused in China, this charge is now utilized by the Chinese government against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong since it passed an oppressive national security law for the city.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party often feels threatened by anyone who publicly disagrees with the state or even pledges allegiance to authorities outside of Party control, and that includes God. This makes dissidents—and sometimes people of faith who refuse to comply to state regulation—perceived opponents of the state itself.
Today, Pastor Wang remains in prison. The Chinese government is likely to continue making the lives of Early Rain church leaders and members harder. But this congregation is unlikely to fold. They haven’t so far, and the eternal hope provided by their faith is something that no government can snuff out.