Chinese Theological Review 17

The Status and Role of Women in the Growing Church of China

Chen Meilin

I am proud to be able to share about the status and role of women in the growing Church of China from a woman's perspective. Since the restoration of churches in China in the early 1980s, women Christians have actively participated in all kinds of church activities and made great contributions to the growth of the Church in China. It is like one woman pastor has said, in the early days, it was women who first witnessed the resurrection of Jesus; today, women are still the backbone of Church life.

We may say the tremendous change in women's status in the Church in China is a reflection of the improvement in the social status of women in Chinese society as a whole. There are two sayings which vividly describe opposing views on the status of women in society. One is "women without talents are virtuous", the other is "women hold up half the sky." In the past, China was deeply influenced by teachings which stressed the authority of the husband, and women were regarded as inferior to men. This kind of traditional understanding of women is quite similar to that of the Jewish tradition in Biblical times. It stresses that women have to be confined to their homes, and wives are subject to husbands. In the past, women could not even keep their own names after marriage; they had to adopt their husbands' surnames. This went to such an extreme that women even had to bind their feet to show obedience to their husbands. After several revolutions in China, women's social status has now changed dramatically. This is evident in the growth and development of women in the Church. Here are some statistics which I personally find very encouraging:

1) Over 75% of Christians in China are women; in rural areas, around 80% of believers are women.

2) There are over 400 ordained women pastors in China, and 98% of these were ordained after the Cultural Revolution.

3) These 400 women pastors constitute 26% (over one quarter) of the total number of pastors in China.

4) There are 7,047 women church workers, including lay workers. This comprises 44.5% of the total number of church workers.

5) Over one third of the faculty in the 18 seminaries and Bible schools in China are made up of women and, among them, two are principals of their seminaries.

6) Among the leadership of the National Committee of the TSPM and the China Christian Council, three are women, including the president of the CCC.

The growth of women and the development of women's ministries depend not only on social reforms but also have much to do with the deepening of theological thinking in the Church in China. In his articles, Bishop K. H. Ting shows great respect towards feminist theology and actively responds to it by saying "Our knowledge of God is not to be circumscribed by what we know of human maleness. Our understanding of God's love needs to be broadened and deepened by looking at human womanhood and motherhood too. We have come to see that, when Jesus calls God Father, what he means is not that God has a sex and is male and not female."*

Today more and more Christians and Bible scholars have realized that, apart from the traditions recorded by Biblical authors who were influenced by the patriarchy of their times, there are many chapters and verses which describe the love of God from a woman's perspective. For instance, in Isaiah 49:15, God is compared to a mother who is nursing her child. It says, " Can a woman forget the infant at her breast, or a mother the child of her womb? But should even these forget, I shall never forget you." In Psalm 131:2 we read, "But I am calm and quiet like a weaned child clinging to its mother." In these Bible verses, when talking about the caring character of God, the Biblical authors chose the same image of a mother to describe the same theme. Women Christians are especially drawn to these verses for, as women, they suffer from sexual discrimination and oppression in a male dominated society and church.

Awakened Chinese women Christians are making efforts to overcome prejudice and make people realize that men and women are both created by God and share the same image of God. Men and women are equal in the eyes of God. One joyful thing is that, at the Bible Interpretation Consultation which was held recently in Qingdao, a group of women pastors, women teachers and women preachers emerged who have tried their best to study the Bible from a woman's perspective, challenging traditional theological thinking. They had a heated and fruitful discussion on Paul's understanding of women. Papers were also presented at this consultation and, from the titles of the papers, we can see how courageous and wise they are: "God's Image Found In Men's Strength And Women's Gentleness;" "Women As The Majority In Proclaiming The Good News." These women read the Bible through women's eyes and they try to disclose the uniqueness of the truth of the Bible so as to encourage more women to be the light of our times.

I have been observing and studying the reasons why women have become the majority in our growing and developing church. In fact, this is a worldwide trend. Due to political and economic tensions, it is women who have first become marginalized, the overlooked and the victims. This is quite common in different countries and different cultural traditions. Women who need more help and comfort have been keener on religion than men because of the comfort and reliability religion can offer. In China, you can see that there are more women than men in churches, and most lay people are women, although, in general, most of these are women from the countryside who did not receive much education. The fact that half of all seminary students are women is another feature in our church. Women students at seminaries will eventually bring more women preachers and clergywomen in to the church. Women are very active in participating in all kinds of church ministries, such as leading worship, preparing the sacraments, witnessing to the Gospel, helping in theological education, visiting people, working in church bookstores, serving as church accountants and pianists, singing in the choir, being involved in social service, and so forth.

Women have realized their own value through their own efforts. Here I want to make a comparison. During the Anti-Japanese War, the Anglican Church ordained a woman pastor but this was never recognized by the wider Anglican Church. In 1949, there were only a small number of women pastors. Now we have over 400 women pastors and among them 98% were ordained during the last twenty years. We can predict that, in the future, more women will join in serving the church and taking greater responsibility for building up the church and proclaiming the Gospel. Rev. Cao Shengjie is the first woman president of the China Christian Council and we are all very proud of her.

The National TSPM and the China Christian Council have established a Commission on Women's Work. This is the first women's organization in Chinese Church history. Through its influence, 18 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions have also formed local commissions on women's work, while three other provinces have commission coordinators. Still another three provinces are currently in the process of forming commissions on women's work. The commissions on women's work at different levels have been well accepted and popularly recognized in the church. With the encouragement of the Commission on Women's Work at the national level, many women lay workers, seminary faculty and clergywomen have received various forms of training. Many churches have also run literacy classes to enable illiterate Christian women to read the Bible, and they have also prepared training programs for women. It is worth mentioning that, since 1995, Chinese Christian women have also joined with the worldwide Christian community in the World Day of Prayer for Women. This is one area of Chinese Christian involvement in ecumenical activities.

I want to quote what one woman pastor has said, "The task of women's liberation is an everlasting task." This helps us realize that, even though the status and role of women have been more and more recognized, there still remain great challenges on the way towards women's total liberation. In the church, we believe that God does not show partiality in the process of creation, redemption and sanctification of human beings. Nevertheless, some people have manipulated Scripture verses to support "male chauvinism". They use Paul's words to belittle women without studying the context in which St. Paul lived. As a result, some churches do not want to ordain women. Even if women are ordained, some churches still do not allow women to take charge of the sacraments as men do. Up to now, some churches even insist that women should not preach or deliver the Eucharist during menstruation because women are considered "unclean" during that period and also for a certain length of time after giving birth. Even some women church workers themselves believe this.

There are few women Christians in decision-making bodies at different levels of Church organizations. At the Fifth National Chinese Christian Conference, it was hoped that women would comprise 30% of the total number of participants at future conferences, but this goal has never been reached. Only 21.3% of the participants were women for the Fifth Chinese Christian Conference, with 26.1% for the Sixth and 26.9% for the Seventh.

Another issue we are concerned about is the rising rate of divorce and domestic violence, which threatens our society. Divorce is considered offensive in the church. If a woman pastor wants to get divorced, her church members, as well as her church, won't allow her to do so. It is easier for male pastors to get divorced. Whenever Christian women have family difficulties, they go to women pastors. To whom can women pastors and church workers go if they have marital difficulties? In a local church in Shanghai, a woman elder together with her colleagues, despite tremendous opposition and pressure, helped a woman in their church who suffered family abuse for a long time to get divorced and start a new life. For these kinds of problems, many believers, especially women, have asked the church to set up counselling programs on marriage and family life, or to help them engage legal advisors to help solve their problems. Our church magazine Tianfeng has a page on women and marriage which is welcomed by readers. Many women readers write to us for advice and guidance.

A correct interpretation of the Bible is one precondition for freeing women from their traditional bondage and affording them full participation in society. It is also important to improve their legal awareness and ability to protect themselves. The Church in China upholds the Three-Self principles; we must also advocate that our women practice the "Four-Self" principles, i.e., self-administration, self-sup-port, self-confidence and self-respect. We also encourage our women pastors and women church workers to learn from outstanding and talented women in the Bible and take them as good role models, so as to understand what role they should play and what responsibilities they should take on in the church of our times. In recent years, we have been sending women seminary graduates abroad to further their study and get more theological training so that some women will be prepared to engage in feminist theology studies.

May the cry of "Awake, awake, Deborah!" be the call of God to Christian women in the Church in China today. May God bestow a new vision to the Christian women of China, so that they can make their own contribution in building the Lord's church on the Rock.

Chen Meilin (Ms.) is executive associate general secretary of the CCC and director of its overseas relations department.
Talk delivered during the CCC/TSPM visit to the WCC in Geneva, April, 2003.
Reprinted with thanks from Amity News Service.

* Love Never Ends: Papers by K.H.Ting, (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2000), 259.