UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) McLeister, Mark; Hamm, Matthew


The Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) is a politically oriented "patriotic religious association" that was established in the early 1950s by a group of diverse but prominent Protestants. The movement's name stems from its core principles of "self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation." Strictly speaking, the movement is not a church, but rather a collection of Protestant churches that are affiliated with the movement and who register with the state through the TSPM. The organization aims to represent Protestant believers in China and engage with the Chinese state on their behalf. To that end, TSPM maintains committees at not only the national level, but also the provincial, municipal, and county/district levels. The TSPM works in partnership with the China Christian Council, whose remit is to deal with doctrinal and pastoral issues, and, together, they are referred to as the "Two Committees" (lianghui 两会). This entry understands the TSPM through the lens of several, TSPM-affiliated churches in the city of Huanghaicheng, a pseudonym for a city of approximately 2 million people on China's eastern seaboard. The research informing this entry is Mark McLeister's extensive ethnographic work in Huanghaicheng, which has been continuing since 2009. Because of this detailed focus, there may be slight variations between the answers to the questions presented here and other TSPM-affiliated churches in different parts of China. TSPM-affiliated churches are distinguished by their belief in a threefold yet single God (made up of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit), who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, who created the world, and who is purely good. As well, members of TSPM-affiliated churches believe in an immortal soul that can be rewarded in Heaven or punished in Hell after death and that Jesus Christ is the messiah who will return at the end of the world to save the faithful and create a “New Heaven and New Earth” (xintianxindi 新天新地). TSPM-affiliated churches understand the universe in terms of a three-fold division between that which is “of God” shuling 属灵 (and Jesus and the Holy Spirit), that which is related to Satan (sadan mogui 撒旦魔鬼) and “evil spirits” (xieling 邪灵), and that which is “of the flesh” (shu ruoti 属弱体) or “of the world” (shushi 属世). Individual sins and sinful acts act lead to a kind of break or opening (pokou 破口) in one’s spiritual life that can allow evil spirits to influence and even dominate one’s life. Evil spirits are also thought to be capable of possessing individuals or “playing tricks” (kaiwanxiao 开玩笑) on them such as by preventing keys from working in locks or hiding one’s keys. Previous scholarship has tended to present TSPM churches as staid and austere, befitting the organization's image as a modern religion, while discussing "household churches" as forms of "popular Christianity" that deal with more sensorially and aesthetically rich forms of religious experience in a way that echoes other popular religious practices in China. However, detailed ethnographic work demonstrates that these two religious modalities are present within TSPM, with the more formal aspect featured in weekly Sunday sermons and the latter aspect more prominent in small prayer meetings among church adherents throughout the week. The latter aspect is defined in terms of ling’en 灵恩. Composed of the characters meaning “spirit” and “grace,” this term is the same as that used in “charismatic” or “Pentecostal” movements. However, its adherents understand it as referring to distinct forms of practices unaffiliated with those movements. In brief, ling’en refers to being filled with (or moved by) the Holy Spirit as a result of prayer. It is defined in sensorial and aesthetic terms and is associated with feelings of joy and peace that can easily move a person to tears. The gifts given by the Holy Spirit can also include the ability to exorcize demons, heal the sick, utter prophetic words, and speak in tongues. Although not possessed uniformly by church leaders, ling’en qualities are an important measure of authority within TSPM-affiliated congregations. The atmosphere of the prayer meetings that are the frequent site of ling’en experiences form a strong contrast to the staid atmosphere of Sunday worship services and may be considered a more personal and sensorially rich form of worship than the “public face” of TSPM-affiliated churches presented in Sunday services. Nevertheless, participants emphasize that such prayer meetings are “warm” rather than “hot” (renao 热闹), as the term renao is thought to be associated with activities that are “of the world” rather than “of God,” and, in some cases, even with evil spirits. Protestantism is one of China’s fastest growing religious movements and the complex array of interactions between the leaders and participants of TSPM-affiliated churches and the state has many potential implications in Chinese society, especially in relation to issues of state-religion interaction, as well as the role of the law in state actions.

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