Hong Kong Baptists’ Views on Church-State Relationship: A Historical Perspective (1842-1970)
Alex K. TO

Baptists have long been proud of themselves in upholding the principle of the separation of church and state. Since their first establishment in Hong Kong in 1842, Baptists have been involved and entangled in church and state relationship. The colonial government provided a free grant of land and government officials donated money to build the first Baptist church in Hong Kong. Due to the British traditional belief that churches operated better schools, Baptists in the early days of Hong Kong received government subsidies to run a church school.

In the mid-twentieth century, the change of political situations in Mainland China led to a large influx of refugees, resulting in a sudden demand for various social services such as education, medication, and housing in Hong Kong. Seeing churches would share the same idea of anti-communism, the colonial government continued to rely on churches to provide services to meet the needs. Due to some historical reasons, Baptists were singled out as the most reliable partner among different churches and religious groups. As a result, Baptists built the first resettlement housing, the Pok Oi Estate, on government land for the fire affected refugees in 1950, and operated a number of schools with free land grants, interest free loans, and building fund subsidies from the government. Apart from primary and secondary schools, Baptist cooperation with the government extended to include Baptist College, Baptist Hospital, and other social service institutions. To save public expenditures, the government welcomed Baptist participations in providing these services. Baptists were also pleased to be able to do outreach through these institutions.

While enjoying the benefits of partnering with the government, these practices aroused the concern of Southern Baptists, who were the principal supporter of Baptist ministries in Hong Kong. Worrying that the receipt of government money would infringe on the Baptist principle of church and state separation, the Foreign Mission Board of Southern Baptists warned that they would stop funding Hong Kong Baptists if they continued to accept government subsidies. However, what constituted government subsidy could not be clearly defined by the Foreign Mission Board despite their repeated attempts. In fact, the same issue also troubled Baptists in the United States when deciding whether to accept government subsidies for their higher education institutes.

Facing this situation local Baptist leaders voiced their opinions through Baptist Monthly, the denomination newsletter, and held special meetings in the 1960s to discuss the subject matter of whether to accept government subsidies to operate Baptist schools. Those who supported the idea of accepting subsidies took a pragmatic view and argued that it would help them evangelize and serve the community more effectively. Their opponents, who took a theoretic view, believed it was an obvious infringement of Baptist teaching and wrong to use worldly money for God’s work. In the end, the pragmatic approach prevailed. However, the issue was far from settled. Opinions continued to be raised and discussions went on in the following years.