What is freedom of religion?

What is freedom of religion?  It depends.  Who gets to define freedom?  And who defines religion?  Maybe even who defines “of”.  We’re looking at China in this series, but the same issues come up everywhere.  It’s all about who sets the rules.  One thing we can be sure of – it’s not God.  Not in China.  And not in my country or yours either.

What is freedom of religion?Here’s the thing about freedom – of religion or of anything.  See that eagle flying around in the sky?  That eagle is free.  But he’s probably looking for someone to eat.  Something alive.  And when the eagle finds his target, a little bit of freedom is lost.  A life is gone.  And the eagle remains free.

With people, freedom of religion is kind of like that.  Someone’s “flying around” above us.  Someone who either doesn’t like our religion, or likes theirs better.  Sometimes they hate our religion so much they want to kill it.  If they’re strong enough – they can certainly take out individual people.  Even any given church building.  But can they destroy an entire religion?

We know from history that powerful people can certainly change religions.  Thinks that were once thought to be truth because they were in the Bible – all of a sudden they aren’t so true anymore.  Because some powerful person changed them.  The Pope even changed the Our Father for Catholics (aka the Lord’s prayer for the rest of us).  

In China, they’re trying to work on both changing and killing Christianity.  Changing it, by literally taking Jesus out of His position as the Son of God.  Killing it, by creating a new version of Christianity to replace the old one – God’s original version.  Will it work?  Time will tell.

China’s religious regulations – freedom of religion

In this third part of the series on China’s religious regulations, we’ll look at Chapter 1, Article 2, which as about religious beliefs.  Interestingly, it’s not actually about freedom of “religion”.  It’s about freedom of “religious belief”.  It’s hard to say if that’s a nuance of the translation process or not.  In most countries, we expect to read freedom of religion, not freedom of religious belief.  Truth is, it doesn’t really matter.  Here are the common usage definitions for the word religion, from dictionary.com:

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects:
    the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices:
    a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.:
    to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
  6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience:
    to make a religion of fighting prejudice.

When it comes to religion, it’s all about beliefs.  So whether it’s freedom of religion or freedom of religious beliefs – it still comes down to the belief system within a given religion.

Chapter 1, General Provisions.  Article 2, ¶ 1

As in previous articles, we see the 2005 regulation that was replaced in 2017 in column 1.  The second column has a proposed, but not approved, draft from 2016.  Finally, the last column is the text of the law that’s now in place.

2005 regulations about to be replaced 2016 deliberation draft – not approved final version of China’s Religious Affairs Regulations – Article 2
2a. Citizens have freedom of
religious belief.
2a. Citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief.

2a. Citizens have the freedom of religious belief.

It almost seems comical that the word “enjoy” is in the 2016 draft.  Using the eagle analogy from above, it’s hard to imagine any joy in the little creature that eagle is about to devour.  But that’s exactly what’s happening in China.  The government is circling the beliefs in Christianity, trying to pick off every one of the beliefs they find objectionable.

Sure – they removed the word “enjoy” and but back the generic “have”.  But remember this from the previous article in this series:

These Regulations are formulated in accordance with the Constitution and relevant laws so as to ensure citizens’freedom of religious belief, maintain harmony among and between religions, maintain social harmony, regulate the administration of religious affairs, and increase the level of legalification in work on religion.

There’s no reason to increase the level of legalification in work on religion if there’s truly freedom of religious belief.  The regulation above clearly shows a conflict between what the atheist Government of China wants its people to believe versus what they really believe.  Using a word like “harmony” is as much a cruel joke as “enjoy” would have been.

This isn’t about ensuring freedom of religious belief in any sense that a Christian from the U.S. or most of the rest of the world would think.  It’s about redefining Christianity.  Not in the image of God – but in the image of an atheist government.

Chapter 1, General Provisions. Article 2, ¶ 2

Let’s get some details by looking at the rest of article 2.  The column structure is the same.

2005 regulations about to be replaced 2016 deliberation draft – not approved final version of China’s Religious Affairs Regulations – Article 2
2b. No organization or individual may compel citizens to believe or not believe in religion. There shall be no discrimination against religious citizens (hereinafter referred to as religious citizens) or non-religious citizens (hereafter referred to as non-religious citizens). 2b. No organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as religious citizens) or citizens who do not believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as non-religious citizens). 2b. No organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as religious citizens) or citizens who do not believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as non-religious citizens).

If anything, the final version of this paragraph sounds better than the 2005 version it’s replacing.  Really, it does.  It says “any” religion, as opposed to just “religion”.  It sounds like it could possibly cover more people.  Allow for freedom for some religions that somehow may not have been included in the previous version.

Yeah – sure.  Just like that eagle is only riding the wind currents, with no thoughts of eating.

As I said at the top, a big part of knowing what freedom of religion really is – it’s being able to define religion.  Here’s how that’s done in China, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations website.

The state recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism.

OK – that’s hardly inclusive of what most would consider “any religion”.  But still, it includes 5 very large religious organizations. 

Freedom of what?  And what kind of freedom?

Or does it?  The CFR article goes on –

The practice of any other faith is formally prohibited, although often tolerated, especially in the case of traditional Chinese beliefs. Religious organizations must register with one of five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations, which are supervised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).

Uh Oh.  There’s the Three Self Patriotic Movement again.  For all five religions.  So much for freedom really meaning freedom.  

So now we see that in addition to defining “religion”, they also define “freedom”.  People in China are free to hold the beliefs of one of the five approved religions, and those five religions must affiliate with the Three Self Patriotic Movement.  Sorry.  That’s not religion or freedom.

And let’s not forget about the legalization in work on religion.  SARA has a web site.  In English.  I did find a document that says what SARA’s main functions are.  (unfortunately, the document seems to be unavailable.)  It has ten functions listed.

II. Main Functions

1) To protect the freedom of religious belief citizens by law; to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of religious groups and their activity venues; to ensure the religious faculty and staff to perform normal religions activities; and to ensure the citizens with religions belief to conduct normal religious activities.

Yes – legitimate rights and interests.  But remember, this is a “religion” that has registered with the atheist government.  And SARA, as you’ll see below, gets to define these legitimate rights and interests.  So really, what’s that worth as far as what true Christianity is about?  Or any of the other religions?

Do you know, if you search the NIV Bible Translation for the word “government”, you’ll find it only four times?  None of them are in the New Testament.  Two of the four are in one passage in Isaiah.  They are part of a prophecy about the coming of a savior.

Isa 9:6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isa 9:7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

This is about Jesus.  His government, which is to come.  Pay attention to things like – Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.  That’s not a good sign for the long-term viability of any attempt by China to stifle Christianity.

But it actually gets worse for them. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.  It’s hard to fight a battle against someone you don’t believe in.  It’s impossible to have enough strength to overcome the God who created all of us.  Even the people who run that atheistic government.  Yes, they were created by God.  Subverted by Satan to be sure, but created by God.  And against Him – they have no chance.  But they don’t know that.  Yet.

2) To survey religious status at home and abroad; to probe into religious theories.

They probe into religious theories.  If they don’t study it deeply, they can’t determine what the legitimate rights and interests should be.  On the flip side, how else can they identify the objectionable beliefs of the registered religion so they can be removed?

This almost sounds like missionary work.  It’s not, of course.  But it does remind me of Paul, when he spoke with the men of Athens in Acts 17.

Ac 17:22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

In much the same way as the men of Athens, the atheists running China worship an unknown god.  They worship themselves, they think.  But really, they worship none other than Satan.  Not by name, of course.  But ultimately, there are only two objects of worship – God or the devil.  It’s been that way since the Garden of Eden.

It’s just that those of us who worship God – we know who we worship.  The goal in China isn’t freedom of religion – it’s freedom from religion.  The people in the Chinese government worship a god not known to them by name.  But nonetheless, one who will ultimately lose.  

3) To draft laws, rules and regulations relating to religion; to research and work out departmental rules and regulations, as well as specific policies relating to religion.

Of course, laws, rules and regulations relating to religion, is a way of saying SARA will determine the theology of the registered religion.  Not only are things like God removed, but you’ll see below that non-religious things are added.

It is really possible to write laws and regulations to stop something you don’t understand?  Even Christians don’t truly understand God.  

Here’s a quote from Sun Tzu, The Art of War author:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

While we may think we know ourselves, God knows way more about us than we ever will.  And He knows infinitely more about Himself that we ever will.  Really, there’s no chance against God for the atheistic government in China.

4) To conduct administration and supervision over the implementation of laws, rules and regulations relating to religion, to steer and promote religions to run on the track of laws, rules, regulations and policies; to prevent and curb illegal elements from irregular and illegitimate activities by taking advantage of religions.

What do you think steer and promote religions to run on the track of laws, rules, regulations and policies means?  It means ensure they teach government approved theology, not the theology of the religious texts used by a member of that religion in the rest of the world.  China even has a project going to rewrite the Bible.

To some degree, they will succeed.  However, there are Christians who are willing to die for what they believe.  Paul was a special person.  But he was but one of many such Christians.

Ac 21:10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ ”

Ac 21:12 When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

No amount of attempted legalization of Christianity can stop its growth.  Freedom from religion will fail.

5) To organize and guide the publicity and education of religious policy and legality.

Are they really going to help get out the Gospel?  Will they be part of the Great Commission?  Please.  No way.  Their role is to make sure that only SARA approved publicity is used.  If the people don’t know any different, they’ll think that the Three Self “Christian” church is actually Christian.  It takes time, but China is nothing if not patient.

Jn 10:27 “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

No amount of propaganda can stop those who truly seek Christ from finding Him.

6) To support religious circles to make self-education on patriotism, socialism, motherland reunification, and ethical solidarity; and to unite and motivate the citizens with religions belief to serve the reform and opening up, as well as economic construction.

Here we go.  Tell me, how many of these things take place in your church?  self-education on patriotism, socialism, motherland reunification.  Christians should know Jesus’ stance on repressive governments.  Mt 22:21 … “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

7) To assist religious groups in fostering and educating religious faculty, well managing religious schools, and promoting self-construction; to handle for religious groups those issues to be supported or coordinated by the government.

Those of us who live in countries where there’s a “separation of church and state” might find part of this item appealing.  Can you imagine the U.S. government assisting religious groups in fostering and educating religious faculty, well managing religious schools, and promoting self-construction.  Just the fact that the government is willing to do these things, even in the U.S. should scare the heck out of Christians.  Government and religion is a bad mix.  Some of you may even remember all the people who came over to the “new world” to escape the changes European royalty made to religion over there.

While those issues to be supported or coordinated by the government might seem like a limited task, it’s not.  Remember the probing.  There isn’t anything about a registered religion that SARA isn’t going to be getting into.  Supporting and coordinating is just a way of saying they’ll have their hands in everything.  And if it doesn’t fit the guidelines, it’s not happening.

2Co 11:13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

Again, they will fool many.  But the true seeker of Christ will not be fooled.  Freedom from religion cannot be accomplished.

8) To direct the work of religious affairs departments under local people’s governments; to assist local people’s governments to promptly resolve key issues relating to region.

Oh, this sounds so good.  The local people’s governments.  Except we have to remember this is China.  Anything that’s referred to as “the people’s” means it’s actually controlled by the atheist Communist Party.  It’s not run by the people.  It’s run to control the people.

1Ti 6:3 If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

This whole “people’s” whatever is false.  Ultimately, it will be recognized for what it is, because it won’t produce the results that a true follower of Jesus knows should be forthcoming.

9) To support and help religious circles to conduct friendly communication abroad, as well as with Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone, Macao S.A.Z. and Taiwan.

This is something that’s getting to be a really big deal now.  Hong Kong is soon (as of this writing) going to pass a law allowing people charged with certain crimes to be extradited to the mainland.  Then, they will be tried and sentenced by the Communist government there, rather than the Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone.  BTW, that zone is becoming less and less like a separate zone, but more and more like part of the mainland.  And Taiwan – they’re considered a breakaway province that China dearly wants back.

10) To undertake any other issues designated by the State Council.

Just in case the first 9 functions might have missed anything, here’s the obligatory “other duties as assigned”.  This is a nice way to say that whatever the atheist government requests – they’ll jump on it.  You may actually think the list above is complete.  But there’s a whole lot more to these regulations on religious freedom.  SARA will be very busy.

Chapter 1, General Provisions. Article 2, ¶ 3

2005 regulations about to be replaced 2016 deliberation draft – not approved final version of China’s Religious Affairs Regulations – Article 1
Religious citizens and non-religious citizens, citizens of every faith should live in mutual respect and harmony. Religious citizens and non-religious citizens shall respect each other and co-exist in harmony, and so shall citizens who believe in different religions. Religious citizens and non-religious citizens shall respect each other and co-exist in harmony, and so shall citizens who believe in different religions.

Mutual respect and harmony.  That just sounds so good, doesn’t it?  

There must be some reason why religious citizens and non-religious citizens doesn’t cover everyone.  There’s obviously a need to include “and so shall citizens who believe in different religions“.  Maybe because religious citizens are the ones who believe in the five Three Self Movement churches?  It makes sense.  

Religious citizens, non-religious citizens and “others”

That means people who don’t fit into the nicely defined categories of religious and non-religious citizens are, by definition, citizens who believe in different religions.  Remember, the categories were defined in Paragraph 2 above.

Of course, the catch is that the citizens who believe in different religions cannot possibly have mutual respect for the religious citizens.  After all, one subscribes to the actual beliefs of the true religion, while the other follows the state defined atheistic beliefs of the Three Self church.  By the same token, they can’t live in harmony either.  Therefore, anyone who believes in some “religion” other than the three self churches is in violation of this statute.

The exact same logic holds true if we substitute atheism for the state approved religions.  No one who holds the beliefs on any religion, other than the three self churches, can live in mutual respect and harmony with an atheist.

Isn’t this freedom of religion, with 6 choices?

The argument from the Chinese government is that people have 6 choices.  Six really good choices, or so they’ll claim.  Freedom of religion.  Citizens of China can be members of five different religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism.  Well, they can be members of the Three Self Patriotic Movement versions of those five churches.  

Oddly enough, there’s no three self version of atheism.  Sorry, not so odd.  There’s no “god” of any kind.  Who needs to regulate that?  

The thing to realize though, is that there’s a reason atheists get along with the Three Self Patriotic Churches.  By the time those 5 religions above can actually live in mutual respect, harmony and coexistence, there’s no “god” of any kind in them either.  By removing the beliefs that lead to disagreement, all “gods” have been removed.   Freedom from religion.

Even between Christianity and Islam, the God of the Bible and Allah of the Qur’an must both go.  The same is true of Jesus.  Those two religions hold such different views of “God” that they cannot be the same.  Just for one example, Christianity teaches of One God, in three persons: Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit.  On the other hand, Islam teaches Allah has no Son.  Rather, Jesus is just a prophet, and even then Jesus is second to Muhammad.  As I said, no God, no Jesus, no Allah.  No “God” of any kind.  Gone.  For more on the thought of various religions “coexisting”, please see The problem of Coexist – and – Love your enemy.

So the atheists can live with this.  And the atheist Chinese government has achieved its objective.  On paper, anyway.  How the only question is whether they can actually make it work.  They’ve got one huge opponent – God.




Image by Klappe from Pixabay


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