One of the statistics on my Chinese religious demographics wish-list (have to make that another post someday) is the gender ratio among pastors in China. I would be surprised if the proportion of women pastors isn’t one of the highest of any country in the world. Chinese churches, both underground and government-sponsored alike, by and large have no qualms about putting women in a position of authoritative church leadership, whether preaching or otherwise.
As with the bloody meat, it is hardly necessary for me to discuss the related biblical texts. I would just like to mention some thoughts related to this issue, how Chinese churches look at it, and its results.
Good-Enough-for-Them Ministry Philosophy
More surprising to me than the Chinese churches’ embrace of female leadership is the frequency of foreign laborers adopting a similar attitude. It is amazing how someone can be solidly against a female preaching in their own country, get on an airplane, land in China and cooperate with a church led by a female pastor without batting an eye! I’m not sure if it’s desperation to make contacts of any kind in China, or just a supposition that all Chinese churches are just like that. But either way, this double standard implies that it is not as important for Chinese people to do things in a biblical way. And the double standard reaches further than this issue. Pastors and missionaries often end up supporting something in China they wouldn’t be comfortable with at home!
Good-Enough-for-Us Ministry Philosophy
Now we turn to the Chinese believers’ take on things. Probably the most common response to the issue is: ‘well, male leadership would probably be ideal, but in China we can’t get enough men to be pastors.’ First, this reveals a dangerous attitude toward the authority of Scripture that needs to be addressed. Chinese pastors-in-training need to be told that their culture is not a trump card to be pulled whenever God’s instructions seem daunting. Second, this thinking shows a tragic lack of faith in God’s empowering man to fulfill his commands. No society naturally produces ‘faithful men able to teach others also.’ They are forged by the work of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the Word. Sometimes you as a foreigner have to repeat people’s words back to them to let them hear what it really means! If I said China can’t get enough men to be pastors, people would call me a racist.
Ignoring More than Interpreting
I’ve found this issue to be defended in a much different way than the eating blood thing. In many other contexts, when teachers wish to affirm the place of women in church leadership, they usually address the relevant Scriptures and do their best to offer an alternative explanation to their most obvious sense. But I have found that many Chinese believers have simply not even considered what the passages mean! You ask them what they think about the text and they just look at you blankly! Obviously, this is not an ideal response to Scripture’s instruction! But what an opportunity to teach Chinese believers to jump in and wrestle with the meaning of texts that rub us the wrong way! Conversely, how dangerous to let such an attitude go unaddressed!
Clichés More than Reasons
One of the most influential pastors in the Chinese-speaking world, while normally a refreshingly stubborn theologian, has put his opinion on the issue in words something like this: “I’ve just seen so many women greatly used of God in preaching roles that I wouldn’t be comfortable saying that they can’t be pastors.” But (as he would insist on many other issues) ‘what God is blessing’ is not a sufficient basis for our ministry decisions. First of all, we’re often measuring the wrong thing. Second, we don’t how God would bless if we were submissive to his instruction. Last, we’ve all seen ‘blessings’ come upon men and ministries that later proved to be in deep error. Haven’t homosexuals been blessed in preaching the Word? Haven’t men sleeping with their secretaries been blessed? The Word is always blessed – regardless of whether or not the instrument is approved by God. So trite truisms about the blessing of God are unconvincing. Clichés belong in high school yearbooks, not in our church’s doctrinal statements.
The Vicious Cycle
What does giving in to the regular list of excuses result in? Well, who wants to go to a church where women are in leadership? Women, for the most part. Chinese churches are overwhelmingly female. And then you’re back to the old ‘not-enough-men-to-be-pastors-in-China’ mess. No sense debating about what came first, the chicken or the egg – they both fit in the wok! So why not fry both?
And there are missionaries and churches that are insisting on following the Bible’s instructions. That would rather leave a position open and let the Chinese men feel the pressure than to do things in a way forbidden in Scripture. And the results of their efforts are proving that God can indeed raise up Chinese men to preach his Word!