three-self principles

three-self principles
   The three-self principles were an early statement of the view that Protestant missions in non-Christian countries should aim to be independent of the mother churches in Europe or the New World. This idea became the majority view in the second half of the 20th century, as mission churches became indigenized all over the world.
   The idea was originally advanced by three prominent Protestant missionaries - Henry Venn (1796-1873), Rufus Anderson (1796-1880), and John L. Nevius. For more than 30 years, Venn served as the honorary secretary of the Church Missionary Society (1841-72). Venn believed missionaries should aim to set up local churches that would be "self-governing, self-supporting, and self-extending." As an Anglican, he opposed setting up missionary dioceses, or naming bishops, before a local following had developed. He argued that foreign missionaries should quickly turn over control to local leadership.
   Operating as an executive for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston, Rufus Anderson arrived at essentially the same ideas as Venn. He argued for a focused and purposeful missionary program whose only goal was the creation of a scriptural, self-propagating Christianity. Missionaries were to seek the conversion of the lost, organize them into churches, train a competent local ministry, and lead the congregations to a stage where they became self-propagating. Any other activities were superfluous and even distracting. By the end of the 1860s, he was clearly articulating the three-self principles.
   John Nevius was a Presbyterian missionary who further developed the three-self idea while working in China and Korea. The key to making the three-self principles work, he believed, was teaching converts to become a witness for Christ among their neighbors and coworkers. The building of local leaders meant that churches would not be dependent on foreign funds for their survival and growth.
   Churches were often reluctant to give control of their missions to local leaders. But with the decolonization and other changes brought by World War II, the idea became unavoidable. During the war, many churches had been forced into self-sufficiency; most of them demonstrated their readiness for self-governance. After the war, the end to colonization was frequently accompanied by the transformation of missions into autonomous churches.
   As a philosophy, the three-self principles survived most visibly in China. The Communist government expelled all foreign missionaries in 1950, and in 1954 forced the Protestant churches to merge into a single body, the Three-self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China. Ostensibly formed to break church reliance on foreign money, influence, and leadership, the movement was actually designed to train leaders in patriotism (support for the government) and to facilitate communication between the government and the Christian community. In 1966, as the Cultural Revolution began and the government attempted to destroy Christianity, the Three-self Movement was disbanded. It was reorganized in 1980. Its main role is to articulate new government policies regarding religion. On a more positive note, it has helped foster the sense that the contemporary Chinese Protestant church is an indigenous body and no longer a branch of a foreign institution.
   Further reading:
   ■ Gerald H. Anderson, ed., Mission Legacies: Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998)
   ■ Scott W. Sunquist, ed., A Dictionary of Asian Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerd-mans, 2001)
   ■ Philip L. Wickeri, Seeking Common Ground: Protestant Christianity, the Three-Self Movement and China's United Front (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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