Chinese Theological Review 18

Women, Faith, Marriage
A Feminist Look at the Challenges for Women

Meng Yanling

In the opinion of Wang Meixiu, associate professor of history at Beijing University, in the socio-cultural value system, marriage and family are the social institutions most sensitive and responsive to changes in social life. Social change and development will inevitably be reflected in ethical relations within the family and in the moral standards of marriage. We can say that changes in the concepts of marriage and family reflect changes, developments and progress in the entire system of social and cultural mores. This point is expressed not only in society, but is particularly evident in the Church, because there is a concentration of women believers in the church. As a woman pastor, I naturally connect very easily with women in the Church, who frequently come to tell me privately of the conflicts and difficulties they face, and to find support and help in their faith. The greatest number of problems facing women are marriage problems, because even today, women see marriage as the most important aspect of their lives.

Once, following a sermon, a Sister poured out to me the humiliations and sufferings of her twenty-year marriage. I was greatly shaken, and this gave me greater recognition of the importance of feminist theology and feminist biblical interpretation. Reading the Bible from a feminist perspective, uncovering the experience and spiritual language of women that has been ignored by men, interpreting the Bible from within the context women face, giving women support and guidance in faith is clearly of extreme importance.

1 For modern Christian women marriage is a compromise between attitudes in Chinese culture and Christian faith

Contemporary Chinese society can only be an extension of Chinese history. This period of culture, besides new modern concepts and consciousness; it is also the critical inheritance and rational extension of the Chinese traditional culture. Traditional Chinese culture has an undoubted and profound impact on the lives of Chinese women, their values, role choices and future development.

Traditional Chinese society was one in which men were honored and women despised. This is no doubt that for two thousand years of civilization, women were kept at the margins of society. The nature and status of women were never valued or affirmed. A traditional Chinese saying goes: Three things are unfilial and the most serious is to be without progeny. Here progeny refers, not to daughters, but to sons who could carry on the family name, authority and property. Another traditional saying has it that The most beautiful daughter cannot match a splayfooted son. In the extreme poverty of the old society, female infanticide was a common way of reducing the number of mouths to feed.

Throughout her life, a woman was confined by family regulations. The scope of her everyday activities was restricted to the home. The Book of Rites set down the role of women as one of inner spaces: confined to the inner quarters where men might not enter. While men went out and about, women were confined within. Men spoke of things beyond the home, women did not. In sum, traditional social rules for women were nearly all about establishing, maintaining and strengthening the family order. The restrictions of feudal propriety placed upon women contained many unique and unequal demands.

There are a number of famous passages in the Book of Rites whose subtext is to discourage an independent character or social position for women. With regard to the female intellect: A virtuous woman is without talent. Economically, women had no right to property and the names of women were not recorded in the family record book. Women were forced to observe so-called female virtue, to be Confucian paragons. A Song-dynasty Confucian saying had it that starvation is a small matter, while loss of virtue is serious. The truly virtuous, women who died rather than compromise their virtue, were rewarded with memorial arches constructed in their honor. Economically women were dependent on others. And the Book of Rites says that "women are subservient. As children they obey their fathers and brothers. When married, they obey their husbands. As widows, they obey their sons."

These special rules built a human wall around women, excluding them from acting as social subjects outside the home. The female gender made women into political, economic and cultural outsiders. The traditional Chinese woman, whether in reality or in literature, had only two paths open to her, the same paths open to Hua Mulan: taking on a male role, fighting the enemy and acting as part of the feudal system, or becoming a wife. This was the context for a woman. We could say that marriage and family were, for all intents and purposes, the sum total of the space allotted to the traditional woman for her existence. The man always held authority and thus placed on woman a consciousness more in line with his own tastes. Thus the image of the traditional woman was created in accord with male imagination and desires. The role of women, their nature and position, were all controlled, defined and explained by men. The signifying process women underwent in patriarchal society was the process by which women were gradually depreciated and oppressed.

The concept of marriage for modern women has its source in tradition, but is sited in the modern. Traditional Chinese marriage has been attacked and influenced by modern thought. Threats to modern marriage come mainly from the impact of social material consumerism and indulgence; sentiment and sex have become commodities. Since the twentieth century, there has been in developed countries a whole host of vast changes in the realm of sex, what has been called the sexual revolution, which has in effect been a comprehensive challenge to traditional sexual relationships and ethics, causing people to rethink, reevaluate and readjust sexual tradition. This sexual revolution reached its height in the 1960s. Under attack in this revolution, the traditional system of morality and values (in the West) collapsed.

As it happened, in the 1970s and 80s, China was implementing a policy of reform and opening; the gates of China were open to the world. Things from the developed countries, good and bad, came in, and the soul of the Chinese people, too long held down, rushed to absorb these things from outside. There was no time to consider, the mind simply took it all in, including some moral and ethical ideas that were too radical and open and thus assailed traditional Chinese marriage and family. As one American historian has pointed out, the assault brought about by the sexual revolution is nearly global, and its greatest assault on the human soul is moral confusion. Traditional, Confucian-, Buddhist- and Taoist-influenced ethics and morality have experienced an unprecedented challenge. Trial marriage, living together before marriage and extra-marital affairs are no longer to be wondered at. The divorce rate has risen sharply and as a result there are now many single-parent households.

It is especially among young people that the concept of family has diminished: individualism and hedonism have surged. With a concept of marriage and family in which pleasure is the goal and no one takes responsibility, people seek only to satisfy their own desires and ignore the needs of the family. Many people see marital affections as a private matter unrelated to others, separate from morality, chastity and responsibility. The traditional conception of marriage and family has been shaken. People are no longer willing to shoulder a lifetime of responsibility. Popular sayings along the lines of Who cares whether the mountains crumble as long as I get mine, or Live it up, reflect the current attitude. Margaret Thatcher reflected a typical critique of the situation when she said in March 1983 that we are now being paid back for what was sown in the 1960s. The families of many Christian women in China are experiencing such attacks, and, not only their families, but they themselves are experiencing the effects of this so-called modern thinking.

The effects of traditional Chinese culture on women Christians are profound and far-reaching; some are more affected by traditional culture, while others are more affected by modern trends.

As a Christian woman, one lives, on the one hand, within Chinese culture, while at the same time one is influenced by biblical culture. A Christian woman stresses understanding marriage and family from a biblical standpoint and her views on this are frequently taken from those of her preachers and pastors. Though sixty to seventy percent of believers in the church are women, it is mostly men who stand in the pulpits and do the work of teaching and leading. Male pastors can only speak from their own standpoint, while most ordinary women Christians do not have the capacity to correctly interpret the Bible on their own. Thus, their understanding of the Bible must come from pastors. Because these women have a pious faith, one that upholds the authority of the Bible, they do not dare question the teaching of the preacher in any way. The message the majority of women believers get from preachers is that women in the family should be long-suffering and obedient. In fact, sometimes it is not that a male preacher is deliberately biased against women, rather their own gender means they have no way to understand the inner struggles of women and so it is easy for them to overlook the female context. It is also extremely difficult for women in a congregation to pour out to male pastors private sufferings to do with their marriages and families. And it is difficult for male pastors to identify with these Sisters in the way a woman pastor can.

A high government official, a man, following a conference on women at which he heard real stories of bias and harm done to the rights of women, spoke with great feeling. In his opinion it is really not that men deliberately discriminate against women; all men have mothers, and what son would discriminate against his mother? But men do indeed fail to think about or often forget the rights of women or ignore the needs of women. And in the Church, too, it is often for the same reason that male pastors, deliberately or not, ignore the context and experience of women.

Even in the course of giving a sermon, a preacher is frequently unable to transcend culture in (his) interpretation of the Bible. The Bible was revealed by God; it transcends all culture, but penetrates through all culture. The revelation of God had to be expressed in human language and in the course of being expressed, was inevitably influenced by Hebrew culture. The Bible was born out of a culture that honored men and despised women and so it too reflects this phenomenon. If we pay no attention to historical culture and background in our biblical interpretation, but simply apply things mechanically, we make the revelation of God into a petrified Word.

The teachings the Church most often directs to women are those of Paul: "Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5: 22-25). "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ" (1Cor. 11:3). "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord" (Col. 3:18).

There are many such passages, and when women hear them, they obey, they endure, and they are humble. Because we have not transcended the gulf of culture in our Bible interpretation, we find conflicting verses: "On the one hand the church teaches Brothers and Sisters to love one another, that we are all made in the precious image of God; but at the same time, on the other hand, it teaches that men are the main and women the subordinate gender and that Sisters ought to obey their husbands and moreover, ought to make the home their ultimate base of service if they wish to be in accord with biblical truth." 1

Naturally, a woman has an irreplaceable function in the construction of the family, in building harmonious family relations, in the education of children and in care for the elderly, they play a most important role. Research has shown that care for pre-school age children is borne by the wife in over sixty percent of households and that women themselves feel this is their responsibility. Today we have, on the one hand, a rising body of public opinion that would like to see women return to the home as housewives, and on the other, a society that still judges women according to male values. The efforts of women in marriage and the home are ignored. This being the case, if women want to gain recognition and respect, they must expend greater effort and gain success in the workplace and professions.

In their view of marriage, Chinese women Christians are influenced by society and culture on the one hand and church teachings on the other. Within the Church there are times when culture is equated with truth, to the extent that men and women are seen as unequal. The Church must first deal with such phenomena; otherwise it will be powerless to take up its mission of responding to the times. Women within the Church will more and more feel their isolation from their surrounding environment and feel unsure in facing real issues; they will sense a clash between faith and real life.

2 Considering biblical teachings on marriage from a feminist perspective on biblical interpretation

Let us consider first of all the position God gave to women at their creation. In the first creation story in Genesis, "the peak of creation came when humanity was created, because the result of the creation of other things and beings was "good" and that of the creation of humanity was "very good." 2 " the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1: 27). In this P source account of creation, male and female are united, not separated; from this union, we can infer that neither is higher or lower than the other. Male chauvinists usually take the second creation story as evidence for male superiority, especially Genesis 2: 18: "Then the Lord God said, ‘ It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." In fact, the word helper here has no sense of higher or lower either. Helper (ezer) occurs a dozen times in the Old Testament and in many instances it refers to the work of Yahweh and has no meaning of grade or level attached to it.3 In v. 20 of chapter 2, it is excellently translated as "but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner." In fact, an overview of the term helper in the Bible indicates that it is the role and status of the helper which is at issue. Helper here is used to express the idea of fulfillment or complementarity, and not a conferral of status, so most scholars take this helper not as simply helping in the work of everyday life or child bearing, but as a mutual partner. Thus, we best understand helper as a role, a kind of post: a helper should be the role of one who knows when to extend a hand in aid, like God who gives human beings aid in time of need but does not spoil the people he loves.4 When the man, on seeing the woman, calls her "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh," this is a fuller expression of this mutual complementarity, of their union. Only when male and female are united, mutually helping, can perfection be achieved. Thus, the most important message Genesis 2 has for us is not the order of creation but the mystery of human connection, that "they become one flesh." Between male and female there is not opposition, but mutual help.5

It is Paul who mentions the male-female relationship within marriage most frequently in the Bible and there are several instances in his discussion of marriage that are frequently quoted by Christians, especially that in Ephesians 5: 22-25 quoted above. But "be subject to" here is not a command, but a sincere exhortation, the best translation of the Greek verb is "willing obedience." 6 A wife is obedient to a husband just as the church is obedient to Christ. Christians do not obey Christ because of a command from God; their obedience stems from willing and joyful hearts. At the same time, Paul is at pains to point out that Christ is the head of the Church, something quite different from the husband being the head of the wife. Therefore, he particularly emphasizes "the body of which he (Christ) is the Saviour." By saying this, Paul shows that he knows his com parison is not exact. Christ is the Saviour of the Church, but the husband is far from being the saviour of the wife.7 At the same time we must not forget that Paul has a teaching for a husband: to love his wife as Christ loves the Church. Paul tells us that the love of a husband for his wife is a high form of love and its mark is self-sacrifice, not self-satisfaction. The goal of such love is the well being of the loved one. And Paul says: "...husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies" (Eph. 5: 28). This is not to demonstrate the limits of a husband's love—that as much as he loves himself he should love his wife, but rather it refers to the nature of the relationship between husband and wife, which is the foundation of his love. The husband should love the wife because she is part of his body.8

We do see in the Bible that the letters of Paul in some passages express a great equality: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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 Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3: 27-28). But there is also what looks like belittling of women: "...but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (1 Tim. 2: 10-14), and so on. In these passages, we see a Paul who is contradictory, conflicted. But we must not forget that Paul was situated in a male- dominated social environment. Paul was attempting to bring the fellowship of the Christian ideal of male-female equality and the culture of the time, into harmony. Cultural comparison must use horizontal time, not vertical time. In those times, discrimination against women was a global phenomenon. When Paul said the husband was head, it was to say that, like Christ, he should love his wife with a self- sacrificing love. And in those times, this was quite a breakthrough.

When we study the Bible, we unconsciously place particular cultural values in a sacred position, with the result that, in order to uphold gender values that were in force in some culture, we maintain that the Bible has these unchangeable teachings on principle. Such a method only serves to continually diminish the abundance of the Bible and forcefully unify the varied voices of the Bible. This limits Christians'intellectual exploration of and interest in pursuing the world of the Bible.9

3 The Predicament of Modern Christian Women and the Way Out

Along with reform and opening and economic development in China, people are moving from being closed-in towards liberty, from poverty to abundance, and at the same time, values and ethics are also undergoing continual transformation. Marriage and family is the most fundamental social unit and its sensitivity to these changes means it is the first to be affected and dissolve. The divorce rate has not come down, but continues to rise and a substantial number of extra-marital affairs lead to the breakup of families. When marriage is under attack, it is women who are in the weakest position. The instability of modern marriage means that women cannot rely on their husbands forever. Women must be strong and independent and seek their own worth and status. There are many women in the Bible who can serve as models.

Hebrew society was a male-oriented society and for the most part women were not entered in the tribal or family records. But four women appear in Jesus'lineage, which means they are out of the norm. I think the reason these women won recognition was precisely because of their strength and independence, their unwavering characters and aspirations.

Tamar, for example, was much to be pitied. She was married to Er, the firstborn son of Judah, but because "he was wicked in the sight of the Lord, the Lord put him to death." According to Hebrew custom (Deut. 25: 5-10) she was then married to another of the sons of Judah, Onan, but her fate was the same, for the Lord was displeased at the sin of Onan and put him to death also. Tamar was again plunged into widowhood. What is more, Judah feared she would be the death of his other son, so he was unwilling for him to marry her. We could say that her fate was at its nadir, because in Hebrew society if a woman wanted to change her status, she usually did it by giving birth. Though women were not valued, mothers were, and were respected. We see in the Bible that every woman paid great attention to the matter of bearing children, and moreover, they frequently felt pride or humiliation over how many children they bore or did not bear. And they could be ridiculed if they were barren. Biblical scholars believe that the reason Hebrew society placed such a high value on childbearing and gave high status to mothers was based on their misunderstanding of the promise of God: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers, he will strike your head..." (Gen. 3: 15). They believed that only once a woman had produced offspring did she have a part in the promise of God and have value. In her hopeless situation, Though we would look askance today at her methods, as a weak woman Tamar had no other way out. This was her only way of getting power and status. Therefore, in saying "She is more righteous than I," Judah might be speaking of her way out. For her own worth and respect, she was willing to risk her life to get a son from Judah. I very much admire her courage and spirit of self- reliance. It was because of her unwavering determination that she saw light within her hopeless situation.

In the same way, each one of us Christians reverences Mary, Jesus'mother. When we mention Mary, we think of her gentleness, her virtuousness and endurance, for these are male ideals of the image of the Holy Mother. Our definition of Mary has always been based on a male aesthetic. But when I do a close reading of the passages about Mary, I find that actually her most important virtues, courage and strength, are often overlooked. The angel appeared to Mary, telling her that she was to bear a child—to a young virgin, this must be seen as a tremendous challenge, especially in the Jewish society of the time. For a young woman betrothed but not yet married to become pregnant was not at all permitted, and Joseph thought of dismissing her quietly. In the face of great pressures, Mary courageously accepted the divine plan: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Lk. 1: 38). In the days to come, Mary, with the strength and endurance of a mother, accompanied her son through every sort of situation and faced every kind of challenge. At the foot of the cross on Golgotha, we see a great mother, who with incomparable strength stood by her son to the end. Actually, what we notice first about Mary is her courage and strength, and not just in the male sense.

These women are excellent models for us. The courage, strength and self-reliance we see in them are qualities needed by women in every age. And it is by reason of these wonderful qualities that they are recognized and honored.

Wong Wai Ching, associate professor of modern languages and cultures at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that in its missionary efforts, early Christianity gave women a double-edged sword: faith both restricted them and gave them new stimulation and imagination. Thus, three "backhanded" phenomena quietly crept in: when missionaries intended to save oppressed Chinese women through Christianity, women missionaries were seeking their own independent roles outside their own country. As women missionaries blessed good wives and mothers with one heard and mind, women Christians in China discovered in the way these foreign women lived their lives an inspiration, that women might have choices outside the home.

Christian women, together with the church and its western network, struggled for gender equality. It can be said that once the missionaries, with their western colonial consciousness, met up with women who were seeking self-liberation and space for development, the result could not have been imagined at the outset.10 Today, Christian women also gain strength and help from faith, cast off their dependence on their husbands or others and thus raise the status of women in the home. Of course, self-reliance comes with much more difficulty for women than it does for men, whether in the past, or now.

The establishment of the market economy and economic development do not automatically bring freedom and independence to women. One important aspect for women in ridding themselves of reliance on men is to go into society and earn salaries. This will enable women to have an independent voice in the home and control over income and finances. In such an environment, women will naturally have greater choice and opportunities. At the same time, however, there will be greater challenges and even potential for harm.

Because of the rapid development of the market economy and the weakening of traditional moral standards, for women to rely on men and there find protection becomes much more difficult. If women do not improve themselves, there will inevitably be more of the past repeating itself in modern dress. In such circumstances, women must strengthen their quest for freedom and independence and raise their educational level in order to strengthen their ability to meet challenges. But one characteristic of the economic revolution embodied in the market economy has been the marginalization of Chinese women in the labor force. Women go into business in large numbers, but their choice of work is very small and in some professions the gender gap is fairly serious. The force of public opinion compels them to be marginalized. Therefore, women must expend a great deal more effort in making themselves independent than men.

As China made the transition from traditional to modern, modern women underwent a profound and difficult transformation. In their everyday lives women frequently find themselves in a double bind. Their progress and development are always caught in this kind of contradiction. When social conditions are not yet perfect, women must give up one thing in order to get another. Faced with a changed aesthetics of the times, women have made the painful discovery that success in a profession does not mean success as a woman, but just the opposite. For a woman, success engenders in other people a sense that she has gotten off track; when people term her a strong woman, it is not a compliment. There needs to be a comprehensive integration of the modern women's liberation movement and the movement toward development. There needs to be a kind of debugging undertaken between traditional culture and modern culture, social reality and Christian faith, to enable the formation of the character of modern women to develop in a healthy direction.

4 Theological Theory should be integrated with Christians' reality

The rise of the feminist movement was a response to and a resistance to culture which had made men the center of humankind. As Christianity grew and developed in human society, it was naturally profoundly influenced by patriarchal thinking. Feminist theology was born in response to this male-centered traditional theology. Western feminist theology was born out of the modern human rights movement. Later it completely broke free of this, and from the 1860s till today, it has been like a brilliant rising star, not easily ignored. Whether in terms of theological theory, or in practice, it has achieved quite a lot. Many seminaries have courses in feminist theology and many theologians and clergy have set up church organizations to protect and promote the rights of women. The focal point of feminist theology is to rediscover the experience of women that has been ignored, and, through new interpretations of the Bible, to reveal patriarchal influence on traditional theology, to develop a more inclusive theological language and connotations, and to emphasize male-female commonalities, interdependence, complementarity, and equality in friendship and love.

At the same time, taking the real context as material for reflection, exploring the signs of the times, questioning unequal phenomena, affirming the importance and inspiration of the feminist movement, will enrich theological reflection. Feminist theology also needs to recognize and give expression to gender inequality in social organizations and the context women face in the course of this opposing male domination, defined gender roles and language and actions that oppress women. Women should understand the significance, honor and value of being women and make ideas into concrete action, promoting the struggle for the dignity and power of women, abolishing male roles and images forced on women. Their question should be not What do others want me to be? but rather: Who am I?

Zhou Bi-e studies the rights of women and believes that on the surface, women and gender studies and feminism seem to dominate, but in fact, whether in academia or in the cultural system, such ideas remain in a weak position. They are not the mainstream, but are almost without recognition. In such an unfriendly environment, to announce that one is a feminist or to identify with women's studies, takes quite a bit of courage.11

It is difficult for people to accept Chinese feminist theology because of the influence of traditional culture on the one hand, and because of misunderstanding of many biblical passages on the other. So from the very beginning the term feminist theology raises a lot of doubts, even a lot of hackles. But I believe it is a very suitable term to express an important theological trend in the Church today. Perhaps in the course of its development, there has been this or that type of deviation, but no development leads smoothly from beginning to maturity and perfection. There must be a process of groping, an exploration, before it moves onto a healthy path.

Feminist theology is just beginning in the Chinese Church, and whether theoretically or practically, it is a bit scattered and superficial. Little practical use of the study or study and theory has been done. Christians with a consciousness of gender equality are mostly intellectuals; many ordinary women believers have no such consciousness and this may be due to the fact that all the promoters of feminism come from among intellectuals.

Women from middle and lower classes, because of their circumstances and limitations, have no resources for resisting men, so the idea of gender equality is, for them, nothing more than empty talk. Women who lack resources need help in all areas. There are women who have long lived in violent marriages, women whose husbands have many affairs. Because these women have no defined work themselves, they have no income and no ability or opportunity to struggle for themselves. They must accept their situations, endure abuse or live in what are marriages in name only. Their most urgent need is the concrete help of the church and other institutions, enabling them to have the ability to live independently and, from a faith point of view, giving them practical guidance.

I am greatly concerned about women, not only because I am a woman, but also because God gives to men and women the same grace, because both when growing up and now I have encountered so many great, strong, fighting women. In their homes, workplace and society, they have used their weak arms to uphold a home, the sky, a whole era.

Nanjing Theological Review 2(2003): 123-136.
Meng Yanling teaches at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.

1 Wong Wai Ching, Gender Consciousness and Biblical Interpretation (Hong Kong: CCLC, 2000), 24.

2 Dai Haohui, "Women and Ancient Interpretation," in Lu Longguang, ed., Bible Reading, Study and Interpretation (Hong Kong: Chung Chi College, 2000), 94.

3 See Yang Keqin, Between Male and Female (Hong Kong: Alliance Bible Seminary, 1995), 59.

4 Ai Jinsun Christian Ethics

5 Wang Peng, "On Paul's Prohibitions on Women in 1 Corinthians," Chinese Theological Review: 15: 88.

6 Feng Guotai

7 Ibid.

8 Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, reprint. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), 332.

9 Wong Wai Ching, 24.

10 Wong Wai Ching, "Religion and Women," paper at Chinese Culture and Women Conference, Beijing, 2002.

11 Zhou Bi-e. Address at Gender and Society Conference, Qinghua University, 2002.