I grew up in a denomination that had firm views on what roles women could hold within the church. While us ladies were not permitted to preach or hold a pastoral role, we were welcomed to serve through the nursery team, Sunday school, or women’s Bible studies.
Initially, I didn’t think much of it, but as I grew into my teens I began to question some of the church norms I had been taught. Whenever I’d hear remarks from my peers about how, “a woman’s place is within the home,” I’d immediately think about Corrie Ten Boom, Gladys Aylward, Amy Carmichael, and Darlene Deibler Rose: women who were dedicated believers and overseas workers, regardless of their marital status.
I didn’t really begin to dive into the issue of a woman’s role within the body of Christ until I found myself on the other side of the Pacific, in China. Before I moved here, I only expected that the local believers would teach me about what it means to suffer and to be bold in my faith. But over these past several years, I’ve been challenged to rethink the issue of women in leadership because of what the Chinese church has shown me.
In order for a church to operate out in the open without facing any repercussions, it has to be approved by the Chinese government and given a title of being a “Three Self-Church.” While there are some regulations they must follow, they function very much as an ordinary Christian church.
One of the first services I attended in central China was led by a female pastor from Hong Kong. She was among a group of other pastors who would rotate each Sunday to preach the message. At first, I was curious about why there was a constant rotation of speakers instead of just a main head pastor that preached the majority of the time. I later heard that it was a way to keep one specific pastor from gaining a lot of popularity, which would only draw more attention from the local government. This was my first introduction to how the Chinese church has had to be creative with how they function so that they can keep ministering in their communities.
A few years later I moved to a different city in eastern China and got married to a Chinese guy who didn’t hold a lot of the traditional beliefs that I had grown up hearing about. I was surprised when he mentioned that he didn’t really understand why female pastors were controversial amongst American Christians. Shortly after our wedding, we began attending a different church, one that had been in the city for over a hundred years. Our new church had lived through the Japanese invasion of the late 1930s and the rise of Chairman Mao. This local fellowship lived through tumultuous years, and during that time there have been male and female pastors that have diligently worked to keep the doors open.
As the Chinese church has exploded in growth over the past several decades, there has been a massive need for people to step up and serve in a pastoral way, to shepherd local Christians. Many of those who answered the call were women who had become believers, who went to seminary, and began serving in their local churches as pastors. Just like their male counterparts, female pastors hold no influence or authority in Chinese society. Often they are disappointments to their families who have different expectations for their lives. They do not fit into the mold of what it means to be Chinese.
For several decades, Chinese pastors have fought to help the church survive, but they are not strangers to issues that can be a cause for division. There can be a lot of tension between the Three Self-Church and home churches. These are fellowships that are not government approved and often operate “underground.” Both have often struggled to bridge the gap as barbs have been exchanged on either side. That being said, Chinese Christians know that because of persecution, they do not have the luxury to debate a plethora of controversial issues much like other Christians can in the West.
The Chinese church has taught me that theological issues shouldn’t be a source of division, but a chance to engage in a loving dialogue. It has also encouraged me to examine parts of my faith that have been formed more by my culture than a deeper understanding of Scripture. I still find myself in a state of learning and wrestling, but I thank God for how he is using my Chinese brothers and sisters to challenge me.
How has your host culture challenged you to reexamine your faith when it comes to theological issues that often are quite controversial?