Chinese Theological Review 15

Feminist Theology and the Chinese Church

Cao Shengjie

Feminist theology has been advocated by western female theologians since the mid-twentieth century, functioning to raise female consciousness concerning biblical commentary and traditional theology. Except for Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, Chinese seminaries rarely offer courses in feminist theology, but through contacts with overseas Christians, feminist theology has had a definite influence on Chinese Christianity.

Feminist Theology Furthers the Development of Women's Work in the Church

Following resumption of church activities in China in the 1980s, development in all areas of church work began to prosper. Before the Fifth National Chinese Christian Conference in 1991, the CCC and TSPM had established a system of regulations, committees on theological education, church music, Christian literature and Bible publication; but none for women's work. Many people's thinking at the time was that since men and women both participated in the work of the church, there was no need for a special category of women's work. In fact, the Chinese church had a tradition of women's work during the last century. Now, with women accounting for upwards of seventy per cent of Chinese Christians, it would be difficult to run the church well if we do not do a good job in this work.

In the process of developing relationships with overseas Christians, the Chinese church has had many contacts with overseas church women. These have included American Presbyterian Jean Woo, formerly with the China Program of the U.S. NCCC, who has organized many groups of American church women to visit China; American feminist theologian, Prof. Letty Russell, together with Prof. Kwok Pui-Lan of Hong Kong, led a delegation of American and Asian feminist theologians in 1990; prominent officers of the Women's Council of Asian Christian Churches visited twice under the leadership of their former head, Eunice Kim. Women from churches all over China participated in conversations with these visitors, shared experiences with them, and learned about women's work in churches overseas. The visitors also brought their views on feminist theology. I remember an occasion when Asian Christian women used Jesus' healing of the woman who had been bent over for 18 years (Luke 13: 16) to illustrate Jesus' special love and care for women. This was very inspiring and encouraging for us.

1988-1998 was the WCC Decade of Women. Among the materials sent out was the theological basis for the importance of women's issues: Christ's body should be a fellowship of mutual love. Men and women were God's creation, the limbs of the church, and they should be closely bound together, to enable women to make many contributions to the church.

The Chinese church also sent women to study overseas, where they very naturally tended toward feminist theology. To my knowledge, after studying overseas, Gao Ying, Peng Cui'an, Sun Meici, and I myself, all felt that there were in the Chinese church, too, issues that women needed to address. For example, women's work: the thinking behind this term does not stress anything special about women, it does not see women's role within the church. Feminist theology helps us to move from theory to raising our level of knowledge, and to become conscious of the importance of promoting women's work.

The UN Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995. As a member group of the Chinese Federation of Women, the YWCA was permitted to organize a discussion in the NGO Forum. When it was learned that Christian women from many countries would participate in the activities, Chinese church women could not wait to get involved. At the initiative of 19 young colleagues, the lianghui set up the Commission on Women's Work at the end of 1993. It was the first national women's organization of the church in new China, signifying that a new page had been opened in women's work. With the establishment of the Commission on Women's Work, its active participation in the NGO Forum, and the joint discussion with the YWCA at the Beijing forum, "Women-Church-Society," many foreign women heard the voices of Chinese Christian women.

These events illustrate that feminist theology functioned to encourage, in terms of theory, the opening up of the work of organizing Chinese Christian women.

Feminist Theology and the Awakening of Chinese Church Women

Feminist theology touches on a broad range of issues, three of which are directly related to women in the Chinese church:

1. Raising feminist consciousness and understanding that, in the eyes of God, men and women should be completely equal.

China has been influenced by thousands of years of feudal thinking, and its effect on the consciousness of young women is very profound. After Liberation, the equality of men and women was enshrined in the law, but in reality, women faced many difficulties: in educational, employment, and other opportunities. In the church, those who looked down on women always quoted certain Bible passages to support their views, adding another layer to the fetters that bound women in the church.

Whether in society or in the church, people, content with received ways of life, see the actual inequalities between men and women as the norm. Not only men, but women, long accustomed to the thinking that says men are better than women, put themselves down, shrank from meeting things head on, felt that they should come second. If we want to strive for male-female equality, we women must first have a feminist consciousness, we must realize our own value as women, one that men cannot substitute for.

There are two Bible passages frequently referred to in feminist theology that have great significance for understanding the value that God has given to women: 1) Genesis 1:27, where God makes humankind in God's own image, "male and female he created them." This shows that women and men are the same in God's creation, each has God's image. God created men and God created women; neither is set higher than the other. 2) Galatians 3: 28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ." This shows that in the redemption of Jesus Christ, women and men alike have been blessed, with no difference made between them. Thus there is absolutely no reason for women to think that they are a lower rung of humanity. They should value their status in Christ.

2. In the matter of women clergy, the emphasis should be on women also being vessels for God's use.

The Chinese church began to ordain women in the 1980s and there are now more than 300 women pastors in China, quite a few in absolute numbers. But this does not mean that men pastors and women pastors are equally accepted in the Chinese church. In some places some churches still have not ordained women, or if they have, they are still placed in subordinate positions. It is said that in some places, a female pastor will only be allowed to lead services if there is no male pastor available. Individual female pastors, too, have a sense of inferiority. If someone asks a female pastor to marry them, that female pastor may, on the excuse that believers are not used to it, recommend a male pastor for the job.

Feminist theology helps women study the Bible. In Old Testament society where women had no social position, God still used women such as Miriam, Deborah, and Esther to achieve God's will. In New Testament times, the female disciples who followed Jesus were loyal to the end. It was a woman who first saw Christ after his resurrection, and who was sent to spread the message of the resurrection. The Church was built on the foundation of Jesus' resurrection, and in this sense, we can say that women were the earliest disciples. These Bible teachings help women in the church today to be brave in taking up what God has entrusted to them, and accept work in the church.

3. Women should not only serve generally in the church, but should take up important responsibilities.

In many churches, whether in China or overseas, women are in a majority, and enthusiastically join in the work of the church. But the proportion of women among decision-makers and leaders in the church is always very small. On the one hand, this has to do with the quality and ability of women, but on the other hand, it is often because women have not been given the attention they deserve. The lianghui values women comparatively more. There are four women among the nineteen office holders at the chairperson, deputy chair, president, and vice-president levels of the current TSPM and CCC. But at the local level, the imbalance is quite pronounced. Before the Fifth National Chinese Christian Conference, women were hopeful that 30 per cent of the delegates would be women, but in the event it only reached 21.3 per cent. Before the Sixth National Conference, women worked harder, with the result that women accounted for 26.1 per cent of delegates, but though this represented an increase over five years earlier, it still did not reach the goal of 30 per cent. This is because in the grassroots churches, and in the county-and-city-level lianghui, there are very few women in positions of responsibility, so it is difficult to choose women as delegates. These small numbers reflect the status of women in the grassroots churches-they do a lot of work, but have little right to speak.

Feminist theology stresses that when God created women, God gave them special grace, and so the church should recognize the role of women and encourage them to play to their strengths in serving the church. Like Phoebe, the deacon praised by Paul ( Rom. 16:1), Priscilla's name is mentioned before that of her husband Aquilla (Acts 18:26), which shows that Phoebe and Priscilla made great contributions to the church. If the church takes a good look at women's role, it should create the conditions to help them grow, rather than disparage them. Training women to take professional positions within the church is not only helpful in reflecting the needs of women Christians, but will be a great help to the development of the church.

Unite the Chinese Church for Practical Study of Feminist Theology

In my contact with conditions in the church, and in the process of studying feminist theology, I personally have perceived two things:

1. We do not take up feminist theology indiscriminately, but encourage women to look squarely at and realize the potential of the grace God has blessed them with, encourage them to make higher demands on themselves, and work to together with male colleagues in building the Chinese church well.

There are radical feminist theologians in the West who concentrate on the struggle for women's rights. Some, if the opportunity arises, can be quite fierce in accusing their male colleagues of oppressing women. Feminist theology calls for inclusive language, and opposes the use of gender exclusive language to describe God, or the use of the male third person pronoun to represent all Christians. This has positive significance. For example, in the NRSY, what had been translated in the past as "brothers" is now "brothers and sisters," which is closer to the original. But the proposal to use "Creator" in place of "Father" for God, easily leads to conflict in the church.

One idea implied in the call to run the Chinese church well according to the three-self principle is that of "strengthening unity." The Chinese church is short of qualified people today. The phenomenon of keeping women out on the premise that women are lacking in physical strength and good at housework is totally wrong and must be changed. But within the church, men and women must work together, must complement each other and work with one heart to build up the church. The issue of male-female equality should not dominate, giving rise to the erroneous idea that women must "seize power." At our present stage, it would not be productive for us to bring in disputes over inclusive language and so on, for these would affect the unity of the church.

If women are to be respected within the church, they must not depend on others, but work realistically themselves, proving by real action that they will not fall behind. The Chinese Federation of Women promotes "Four Selves" for women (self-respect, self-confidence, self-determination, and self-strengthening) and these are also useful for women in the church. Women pastors and women coworkers face many real difficulties-lack of education, narrow mindedness, heavy burdens at home-and so should rely even more on the power of God to overcome their own weaknesses. They should take the matters of God's house as their own, and continually improve themselves and be loyal handmaidens of God.

2. Feminist theology is closely related to hermeneutics. We must study advanced methods of biblical interpretation, not only to resolve women's issues, but more, out of concern for theological reconstruction in the whole Chinese church that will enable Christianity to adapt to socialist society.

If we proceed from a literal interpretation, then there are things in the Bible that are not helpful to women's position; for example, Paul denying women the right to speak, requiring them to be obedient, etc. In fact, God is not biased, and does not denigrate females: this is not the whole message of the Bible. Feminist theology has always stressed hermeneutics, not only for passages that value women, but have called for close study of those passages that have been seen as belittling to women, including study of the words, grammar and tone of the original language, the historical background, etc. Feminist theology has been very helpful in gaining a correct understanding of the spirit of the original. Reading the Bible from a woman's perspective frequently brings women new light.

China is currently engaged in theological reconstruction. Theological thinking must be anchored in the Bible; how to understand the spirit of the Bible is crucial. Many theologically related issues that concern our Chinese Christians are all directly related to biblical interpretation. For example, "do not be yoked together with unbelievers"-does this imply that believers and unbelievers are set in opposition? Does the call for Christians to "be sanctified" mean that Christians must separate themselves from all that is of the world, etc? Christian women must concern themselves with the theological direction of all Christianity, not simply with feminist theology. If the dominant theological thinking of Chinese Christianity is stagnant, conservative, and does not develop healthily, feminist theology will receive little attention and it will be difficult to raise the position of women in the church. Precisely because women have tasted sweetness through biblical interpretation, they want to know more about God's truth. We must actively involve ourselves in the present theological reconstruction in our church and take the lead in biblical interpretation.

Nanjing Theological Review, 2 (2000): 34-43.

Rev. Cao Shengjie is a Vice-President of the CCC.