The Vatican is excommunicating two bishops who were illegally ordained by China’s breakaway Catholic Church (BBC News). This development highlights many interesting topics, depending on your perspective.
From a sinologic viewpoint, the news here is the fact that there actually is a church on the mainland loyal to Rome, and that we’re allowed to hear of it. Ten years ago, it would not have been safe to even mention the underground church. Apart from that, China’s position is what we have come to expect: 1. Don’t interfere with our internal affairs. 2. We’d like to be your friends—just stop talking to Taiwan.
As for religious liberty, it’s a trickier case. It’s obviously a good thing that being openly Christian is no longer necessarily a problem in China. The rift here is about church authority, and whether or not to accept Vatican supremacy. What cannot be discerned is who is making this decision. Does the body of believers agree on the issue of national independence, or is the government imposing it on them? Hard to say without a 100 % free press.
In cases of church-state, who gets the final say? Luke 20:25 and Romans 13:1-7 tell us that conflict should be avoided, but at which cost? I believe that nationhood and faith collide the latter should take precedence. Some (as the right-wing Danes who insist that imams not educated in Denmark be expelled) call this fundamentalism. I call it conscience.
Many countries disapprove on a nationalist notion of any religious organisations that are deemed ‘foreign’. This has been a problem especially in Russia and former Soviet states. Religious freedom should include the right to affiliation with international bodies.
Now, from a Seventh-Day Adventist perspective, ironically we have a lot in common with the Catholic Church. We, too, are an international church and seek to protect the right to overseas affiliation, in China as elsewhere.
However the story in China is, despite occasional setbacks, a story of greatly expanding religious liberty, also for Adventists. At the General Conference in 2000, the church in China could not be spoken of openly. In 2005 they had an official membership count and delegates attending. China is not still not free in the Western sense, but religious liberty is, as so many other things in that country, expanding.
As for church structure, it is interesting to note how Seventh-Day Adventists have combined a grass-roots movement with a very hierarchical (on the face of it, at least) structure. Yes, we have democracy instead of apostolic succession for the presidency, but still a central licensing system to promote doctrinal unity. Now, unity can be a good thing, but maintaining the grass-root mentality is important. There should be no need to excommunicate anybody on the sole account that they were not appointed by us (Luke 9:49-50).