Chinese Christian leader dead at 97

A controversial figure, Bishop K.H. Ting is both credited with saving China’s Protestant church during severe persecution and accused of putting loyalty to the state ahead of following Christ.

By Bob Allen

K.H. Ting, an Anglican bishop prior to China’s Cultural Revolution who led a “post-denominational” re-emergence of Chinese Christianity in the 1970s and 1980s, died Nov. 22 after several years of poor health.

KHTingHailed by some as a patriot and visionary and criticized by others for being too cozy with China’s Communist leaders, Ting, 97, worked through 60 often difficult years of change in the world’s most populous nation.

Ting was ordained as China’s last Anglican bishop in 1942, a position he never renounced and technically held until death, even though his church was effectively dissolved and merged with other Protestant denominations into an umbrella organization called the China Christian Council.

Ting served as chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the liaison between church and state in China, and president of the China Christian Council, the official Protestant denomination. He became president of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary in 1953.

He lost his positions during the Cultural Revolution -- a crackdown launched in 1966 to strengthen Mao’s position in the Communist Party and ensure continuation of the revolution that formed the People’s Republic of China in 1949 -- but returned to prominence in the wake of liberalizations following Mao’s death in 1976.

In 1985, Ting and others set up the Amity Foundation, a Christian faith-based organization that promotes education, social services, health and rural development across China. Its work includes Nanjing Amity Printing Company, Ltd., a joint venture with the United Bible Societies launched in 1988 that recently celebrated the printing of its 100 millionth Bible.

Ting is also credited with opening up the Chinese church to the outside world, including Amity’s Teachers Program, which recruits people from around the world sponsored by church agencies to teach English, Japanese or German in Chinese universities.

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship representatives in China work in full cooperation with the China Christian Council.

"The life and ministry of Bishop Ting has had profound influence on the Christian church in China as well as on the global Church, and it has had profound influence on me personally,” said Daniel Vestal, the recently retired executive coordinator of the Atlanta-based Fellowship.

Vestal, director of the Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership and distinguished university professor of Baptist leadership at Mercer University, described the Chinese leader as a prophet, pastor, evangelist and teacher. “But most of all he was a bold follower of Christ who showed us that God is love," Vestal said.

Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, described Bishop Ting as "an extraordinary leader in the Church.”

“Under his careful guidance, the Church in China flourished and experienced its richest period of growth and service as a truly indigenous expression of the gospel," Medley said. "He will be greatly missed, not only in China but in the church ecumenical.”

A theologian influenced by French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ting envisioned an indigenous Christianity devoid of foreign influences and sensitive to the Chinese context. (The Three-Self Patriotic Movement stands for self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.)

Critics like the U.S.-based China Aid Association, honored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2007, portray Ting as an apologist for the government’s crackdown on “house” churches, which for various reasons do not register with China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs.

Others, like the World Council of Churches, credit him with keeping the church alive during a period of severe persecution and demonstrating that Christianity could survive and grow even under a Communist regime.

Britt Towery, a retired Southern Baptist missionary who was present for the announcement of the Amity Foundation in 1985, called Ting’s death “the passing of an era.”

“Without his influence the revival of Protestant churches would not be what it is today,” said Towery, who now lives in San Angelo, Texas. “He and others proposed to the government to open the churches and allow free access to the Bible.”

“His efforts during China’s tragic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s had a great deal to do with the Christian churches remaining vital, even though the church buildings and many Bibles were destroyed,” said Towery, 82. “On one occasion during those years, his life was threatened. Premier Zhou Enlai personally came to his aid, saving him for the work he led in the 1970s and 1980s.”