Despite some unique challenges, serving God as a single woman in China is a journey of experiencing God’s faithfulness. By looking at the background and situations of Chinese female ministers, we can clearly see God’s sufficient grace and inexpressible joy which keeps them going and bringing glory to God. Knowing more details will hopefully inspire each one of us to pray for these women and encourage us to walk in fuller obedience.
According to data listed in The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China website,1 there are about 23,050,000 Protestant Christians and about 37,000 pastors/ministers serving in Three-self churches. But there is no recent, updated information on the website and very little information anywhere to determine how many female ministers there are in China. However, a few stories can help us gain a glimpse of single women ministering in China.
Women’s Changing Status in History
When speaking of women’s roles at church, we must first look at women’s roles in China overall. For a very long period of Chinese history, women have been considered lower than men. Women were somehow meant to be servant-like in a family and only as part of a family. Mostly, they did not have much say in anything. With the development of China in recent years, women’s roles have improved. Now they can receive a good education and have a career; they are more respected than before. However, according to a gender gap report through World Economic Forum, China ranks 103 out of 149,2 which means that the place of women in China is still lower than in most countries. This, of course, influences women’s roles at church.
Women in Today’s Church
For the most part, there are more female than male believers within the Chinese church. More women are serving in churches, Sunday schools, and fellowships than men. However, when it comes to leadership, there is an expectation and a hope that men will lead.
The roots of Confucianism are key to understanding the traditional roles of men and women. In society, women were identified within the family structure as a daughter, wife, sister, daughter-in-law, or mother. In each of these roles, women had duties and responsibilities to fulfill. The early church also had role expectations. There is biblical support for the idea that male leaders are ordained by God in a special way to lead and shepherd the church; there are cultural and traditional reasons that women are considered as helpers and not leaders—especially when men and women are involved at the same time. First Timothy 2:11-123 is preached to believers to explain that women are not supposed to teach on a public platform. Generally, women are not encouraged to lead a church, but they are supported to lead as part-time volunteers at church in areas such as leading Sunday school and small groups. All in all, the roles available to women in churches are not equal to those of men, especially in areas of leadership due to historical, cultural, and other reasons.
Single Women in Ministry
For single women in China, whether in the church or society, there is much pressure coming from families, friends, and society. Women are expected to be married before they are 25 years old; otherwise, they are called “left-over women.”4 Therefore, single women in ministry face a great deal of pressure. Besides the fact that they are expected to get married at a certain age, single women in ministry are limited in their ability to reach certain groups. For example, a single woman would not be recommended to be in family or marriage ministries since they do not have marriage-life experiences.
Moreover, single women in ministry face other challenges. Without a spouse, a coworker, or an understanding family member, it is sometimes difficult to find someone with whom to share the joys and struggles of ministry. They often lack a support system, a community, mentors, financial support, and prayer support. In addition, there are times of loneliness that few people would understand.
Since there are strong societal reasons for marriage, many Chinese people have little respect for single women. Often single women are not considered to be whole or complete persons. Therefore, there is a great need to care for single women in China overall as well as single female ministers.
On the positive side, single women in ministry can contribute in many ways since they have more time and flexibility. It is easier for them to move around a city or go to other countries to share the good news, to do disciple-making, participate in mission trips, retreats, and trainings. Being a single in China is not easy in many ways, but it is a special blessing that can be used by the Lord.
Momentum that Keeps Single Women Going
In addition to the family and societal pressures already mentioned, varying levels of persecution also impact Christians in China. Being a single minister amid persecution is an additional challenge for women ministers. In the face of such challenges, what are some specific reasons why single ministers in China are able to keep going? Let us look at some real-life stories.
God called Ma Lin in her late 20s. She serves as a single minister in a city far from her home. Some believers were critical of her as her preaching was not always clear due to her accent and style of speaking. Others misunderstood her since they did not know her local culture and background which were different from their own. Because of her low income, she lived in a room inside the church; later she was told she had to move out because it was not safe for a single person to stay there.
Ma Lin has continued to serve at the same church for quite a few years now. She has not been able to meet many men at her stage of life, let alone get to know someone with the same calling that would lead to marriage. Even though there are times she is misunderstood by her family, and even by her church family, she is joyfully active in various ministries at the church.
Yu Jun was also called in her late 20s to do outreach ministry. Her calling was not fully understood by her home church, but she was given opportunities with another church to reach into different ethnic groups. Stepping into full-time ministry has brought about the most difficult years in her Christian life so far, yet they have been the most amazing years. She is filled with God’s promise that he is with her wherever she goes. By God’s grace, she has reached and discipled about 150 people in the past two years.
In an interview with Ma Lin and Yu Jun, I asked them what keeps them going. Here are their answers. Their responses are true for many female ministers in China.
- A calling and vision from above: If it is the Father’s calling and work, however impossible and difficult it may seem, he will strengthen those who are called to live for his eternal kingdom.
- Listening and obeying: Sometimes, even if church tradition suggests that women are not supposed to serve full time as a leader, if God calls, you just obey and follow.
- Cultivating a relationship with the Lord: Apart from the Lord, we can do nothing. Only by dwelling in his words and unchanging presence can we keep going. When we are close to him, we know it is not only about doing, but about being. Whatever we do, we do it with joy, bringing glory to him, and blessings to others.
- Understanding the main focus: Bear in mind that the very core and focus of our beliefs and work is that he will increase, and we will decrease. (John 3:30)
- Knowing needs will be met: Whether there are spiritual, emotional, or physical needs, God is always faithful to provide. Counting his blessings daily enables us to keep going. Through it all, we know that God is with us always, and he alone is what we truly need.
- Partnering with others: Accept encouragement from those who understand you, even if there are only a few. It is very important to have a team to walk with. Alone, we can walk fast, but together we can walk further. We do not need the whole world to agree with us, but when the Father provides a few to walk alongside us, it is enough.
- Valuing supporters: Regular support from mentors and fellow believers is important. Supporters can pray, give financially, or encourage. We should cherish them greatly and praise God out loud daily for them! His grace is always sufficient.
Serving God in China as a single is a journey of experiencing God’s faithfulness, his sufficient grace, and inexpressible joy (1 Peter 1:8).
Once others understand more about women’s roles in China and in the church, we can get a sense of what real life ministry is like for single women. The greater the challenges faced, the more miracles there can be. The single women ministers represented in this article are provided for through God’s love, mercy, peace, and joy. In my experience as well, I can say confidently that it is a privilege to serve as a single woman in China. Let us be inspired and encouraged by the single women who minister in China. Remember them in your daily prayer life. We need to praise God for using women, including single women, in China for his glory.
Editor’s note: Excerpts from a newsletter Joy Kwan wrote in 2020 are found in “The Heart of a Single Servant,” ChinaSource Blog, March 24, 2021.
- The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China, “An Overview of Religion in China,” 2013 at http://www.gov.cn/test/2005-06/22/content_8406.htm.
- World Economic Forum, “The Global Gender Gap Report 2018,” https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2018.
- 1Timothy 2:11-12, NIV: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”
- Different terms are used for “left-over women” as they get older. Women from 25 to 28 years old would be called primary left-over; 28 to 32 junior left-over; 32-35 senior left-over; and those who are above 35 are called special-grade left-over. 剩女 on 百度百科 Baidu Baike, https://baike.baidu.com/item/剩女/7352570#1).
Image credit: Randy Posslenzny
Joy Kwan (pseudonym) is a minister to women and youth in China following God's call to serve him fulltime. She works primarily with women, discipling them; she is also involved in student ministry, sharing Christ with college students. Joy loves God's creation and often spends her free time collecting things from …View Full Bio