“A women’s ministry? Why would you want to do a ministry for women?” Asked in surprised tones, this question came from no less than a Chinese woman pastor. Perhaps more than anything, this snippet of conversation underlines the way in which women are widely overlooked in today’s Chinese churches, despite their being the majority in most congregations.
This “unawareness” of women as the larger component of Christ’s body is hardly a new phenomenon. Dr. Kwok Pui-lan has noted this lack from the earliest days of Protestant missionary work.1 At the same time, Kwok and others point out how women contributed in enduring ways to the growth of God’s kingdom in China. In no less measure today, women not only populate China’s church but also stand as many of its pillars. This paper seeks to give a broad overview of the situation of women in the church in mainland China. It tries to confine itself to description rather than to analysis or prescription.
Alexander Chow’s article, “The Remarkable Story of China’s ‘Bible Women,’”2 notes that since the 2000s, women in the surging urban house churches have tended to be discouraged from most leadership positions. Later, we will look at this development further, but Chow also contrasts this situation with that of the 1980s and 1990s when women were commonly accepted in leadership both in the official and unregistered churches. This contemporary downplaying of women’s public ministry after having enjoyed a season of widespread influence parallels previous eras in China’s church story.
From the 1860s onwards, education for women was offered by many mission agencies. Due to Confucian constraints upon male-female interaction, it fell to women themselves to promote the education of their sisters. Chinese women, taught by female missionaries, went on to transmit literacy, teach doctrine and hymn-singing, explain Scripture, and generally be enormously effective instruments in the spread of Christianity among half the populace. George K.W. Mak writes that in the 1910s, Bible women were reading Scriptures aloud to upwards of 3,000 women each month. Hundreds more each year were being taught to read for themselves. These figures are based only on statistics from the British and Foreign Bible Society.3 Probably the wider impact of Bible women employed or supported by other missions was even greater and not solely in the Christian sphere. The raising of women’s stature due to education eventually permeated all society, part of the tectonic shifts in worldview and cultural norms that the entry of God’s kingdom often brings about.
As the church progressed toward maturity in the late 1920s, men were its visible face. Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) is a name known worldwide as a leader in China’s church. How many know the name of the woman to whom he attributed his conversion (Dora Yu),4 or that of another woman who profoundly shaped the nascent leader (Margaret Barber)?5 Elsewhere I have written of the steadfastness and indispensable ministry of the wife of the celebrated stalwart, Mr. Wang Mingdao.6 Liu Jingwen was surely not alone in being the chief enabler of the career of a famous husband as she, and many others, remained obscure. John Sung’s wife was another who “stayed at home with the kids,” but raised daughters who inspired house church folk for their unflinching integrity in the fires of post-1949 persecution.7 Thus the strong sisters of the twenty-first century church stand on the shoulders of their mothers, aunts, and “godmothers.”8
The spirit of the “Bible women” did not die away with the emancipation of the female sex in the “New China” inaugurated by Chairman Mao in 1949. During heightened suffering and repression in the 1950s and 60s, while Christian men languished in prisons and labor camps, wives and daughters quietly and determinedly ensured that knowledge of God was not extinguished. Children were taught the faith of their fathers, or in this case, that of their mothers. Neighbors who knew that the man of the family was incarcerated would see in the lives of the womenfolk left behind that the suffering was for the sake of a savior who had suffered to bring life to the world.9
In countryside places far from official surveillance, women rose to be powerful leaders in what later came to be called “house church networks.” One such woman, “Mama K,” was almost certainly a principal instigator in one of the more dramatic episodes of the emerging “house church movement”—the smuggled delivery of a million Bibles in 1981.10
At the height of their influence in the 1980s and 90s, rural house church networks frequently were headed by a male atop a pyramid whose second and third tiers were staffed by women. These lieutenants functioned as the administrative executives directing the corporal life and ministry of the million-strong (sometimes multiplied millions-strong) networks. In those heady days, single women were dispatched in twos or threes as evangelists and teachers, just as were their brethren, and no one saw the former as lesser in ability or anointing than the latter. “We were given a 100 RMB and a one-way ticket to go to our appointed mission field,” one sister recently told me. “There was no hardship we didn’t endure, no work we didn’t put our hands to.”11
This outgoing sister, who is now the mother of at least two school-age children, typifies many who began life in a village, often receiving the gospel as the first one in their family. She eventually led her mother and brothers to Christ before answering the call to full-time ministry. Preparation for such was in an unofficial (“underground”) Bible school far from home. English was part of the curriculum, so she speaks enough to have facilitated her travel overseas to southeast Asian countries and to the Holy Land. Nearly 20 years ago she began factory evangelism in a sprawling suburban area; fruit was sparse. “We were strangers to them,” she recounts. “It wasn’t till we were able to rent our own place and invite people home and make friends with them that they began to listen to what we were saying about Jesus.” One of the male co-evangelists married this woman, and they have planted several congregations in the district. Though himself a country man, her husband has been a diligent student, as has his wife. “Our church members all are college and technical school graduates,” she says. “We have to keep learning. My husband understands how strategic literature work is, but not many pursue it, so he has his own website and posts lots of articles. … Theologically we are balanced. We don’t ban the spiritual gifts, but we don’t overemphasize them either.” This latter remark reveals the Pentecostal roots of many major, rural-based house church networks.
By contrast, Reform theology has emerged among the gatherings of urban elites in the new millennium.12 As recently as the middle of the first decade, women sharing leadership in city house churches was not uncommon. By the end of the decade, however, well-educated younger men, hewing to doctrinaire Calvinism, viewed their pulpits as male preserves. Women were obliged to accept less visible roles in the name of complementarianism. “Invisible,” yet irreducible, women have continued to run the Sunday Schools and childcare programs of city churches (where such may still be possible in the strict new post-2017 environment); they run visitation ministries and practical care outreaches and are often at the forefront of burgeoning mission involvement by their congregations.
These women will continue to benefit most from healthy interactions with outside sisters. We can fellowship with them most readily due to geographical access and cultural affinity. While many of them have already benefited from theological training, courses tailored to the needs of urban working women have yet to be designed and presented. Child-rearing, family management, and work-home balance are topics which would most strengthen our sisters (not to mention some men as well). More than theology, life-on-life walking with our sisters will bring the encouragement that will firm their hands. It will not be a one-way transfusion either. Their lives and commitment to Christ shine with a vibrancy that cheers us on as well.
Outsiders like to observe that most of China’s Christians are in house churches. This fact, though true, unthinkingly belittles God’s presence and work with his people in the congregations under the Three Self and China Christian Council. Since the TSPM’s resurrection in the early 1980s, open churches have often had women at the helm, and so it is today. In a comprehensive article, “Two Small Copper Coins and Much More,” Dr. Fredrik Fällman cites the cases of prominent women high in the TSPM. “The TSPM/CCC is actually far ahead of the Chinese party-state system, which still has a long way to go, as only one out of 25 persons in the Communist Party of China (CPC) politburo is currently a woman, and two out of 34 in the State Council.”13 Rev. Cao Shengjie “was the first national woman church leader ever in China, and one among still rather few in the world. She was the CCC chairperson 2002–2007.”14 House churches and foreign evangelical supporters considered Cao to be another tool of the Communist Party, but Fällman makes a point we should not ignore: “…the mere fact that the largest organized Chinese Church has had a woman chairperson is a strong statement.”15 Perhaps more noteworthy, especially compared to seminaries outside China, estimates are that up to a third of TSPM seminary faculty are women.16 Need we say that the hand that rocks the cradle of theological training rears the church of tomorrow? We cannot write off all TSPM leaders as puppets of godless communism. Many, women and men alike, have courageously taught truth under pressures that most of us, who are not in their shoes, have no idea of.
Outside Zhenjiang, a river town 250 km from Shanghai and the burial place of Hudson and Maria Taylor, a cathedral-sized new building, the Xuande Church, also houses the only public memorial to these missionaries in China. The fact that it was opened in 2018 amid increasing restrictions on Christian witness has not a little to do with the strength of personality and diplomatic finesse of the female head of the CCC in Zhenjiang and senior pastor of the church, Pastor Yin.17 Other indefatigable women serve their flocks in out-of-the-way corners. “I didn’t want to come back here,” one young pastor in a dusty township sanctuary told us, “but I knew that this is where God is calling me to serve him and build up his people.”18 Her faithfulness has chosen the narrow road.
God is building his kingdom in the midst of our messy realities. It would skirt an uncomfortable truth to end this essay without referencing the social and interpersonal challenges which many sisters navigate routinely. While the evangelical view of contemporary mainland Christianity remains rose-tinted, a few have written of failures within the church. In the 1950s and earlier while the Little Flock was a well-known “denomination,” there were some who, with reason and justification, pointed out the ethical failings of its founder, Watchman Nee.19 Similarly, in the heyday of the rural house church “revival” in the late 1990s, the head of the sprawling South China Church, Pastor Gong Shengliang, was found guilty of molesting female church members.20
While it remains difficult to discern accurately all that occurs in the multi-layered world of Chinese Christianity, nonetheless it is a valid critique to point out that the reassertion of male leadership makes it even easier for men to take advantage of their female fellow servants. It should be more of a scandal than it is that Chinese believers often take the cultural low road and refuse even to mention some of the problems of misconduct and abuse within Christian circles. Chinese society is not worse than any other, but it is steeped in traditions of Confucian “morality” and “face-saving” which work against openness and transparency.
In, and in spite of, this unpropitious milieu Christian women’s steadfastness and strength shine on undaunted. Here we have sketched the merest glimpse of the blessings God has poured out on his people in China through his daughters. In seeking to affirm our sisters in all the potential God intends for them, we would do well to ponder and pray how to appropriately promote their progress toward the day when the shackles of culture, tradition, even “theology,” fall off.
Change will not come fast, but God’s Spirit sovereignly works from within cultures to transform fallen human ways and bring about the beauty of the New Creation ordained from before the foundation of the world.
- Kwok, Pui-Lan. “Claiming our Heritage: Chinese Women and Christianity.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16, no.4 (1992): 150-153. Dr Kwok has pioneered research into women’s roles in Chinese Christian history.
- Chow, Alexander. “The Remarkable Story of China’s ‘Bible Women’,” March 16, 2018 athttps://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2018/march/christian-china-bible-women.html.
- Mak, George K. W, citing BFBS China Agency Report 1910-19, in Philip Clart and Gregory Scott, eds., Religious Publishing and Print Culture in Modern China 1800-2012. Boston, de Gruyter, Inc., 2014. pp. 31-32.
- eL, “Women in China’s Protestant Church and Missions,” ChinaSource article, Sept 18, 2017 at https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/women-in-chinas-protestant-church-and-missions/.
- Covell, Ralph, “Margaret Barber, British missionary educator in China” from the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity website at https://bdcconline.net/en/stories/barber-margaret.
- eL, Op.cit. “Women in China’s Protestant Church and Missions.”
- Author’s observation based on conversations with house church laity and leaders in the 1980s.
- Aikman, David, Jesus in Beijing. Regnery Publishing, 2006, chapter 5.
- Author’s observations based on interactions with house church believers in the 1970s.
- “Open Doors: Project Pearl—25th Anniversary of Delivering 1 Million Bibles to China,” June 24, 2006, Christian Today website at https://www.christiantoday.com/article/open.doors.project.pearl.25th.anniversary.of.delivering.1.million.bibles.to.china/6713.htm.
- This sister’s remarks here and in the following paragraph are from a personal conversation with the author in December 2019.
- Fulton, Brent, China’s Urban Christians. Pickwick Publications, 2015, p. 116.]
- Fällman, Fredrik, “’Two Small Copper Coins’ and Much More: Chinese Protestant Women and Their Contributions to the Church—Cases from Past and Present.” Religions & Christianity in Today’s China, Vol. VIII, 2018, No. 3, pp. 39-55, ISSN: 2192-9289 at https://www.china-zentrum.de/issues/2018#c687 p. 46.
- Ibid, p. 45.
- Ibid, p. 45.
- Ibid, p. 53.
- For more information on this event, see “Hudson Taylor Memorial Tower Opens in China,” China Christian Daily, June 7, 2018, http://chinachristiandaily.com/news/church_ministry/2018-06-07/hudson-taylor-memorial-tower-opens-in-china-_7298 and “A Visit to the Hudson Taylor Memorial Building,” China Christian Daily, September 12, 2019. http://chinachristiandaily.com/news/ministry/2019-09-12/a-visit-to-the-hudson-taylor-memorial-building_8571. While neither article mentions Pastor Yin by name, she is in the picture included in the first article, identified by the author of this article.
- From a conversation with the author, 2016.
- “URGENT: Imprisoned South China Church Leader Gong Shengliang Paralyzed by Stroke; Family’s Request for Medical Parole Rejected,” China Aid, Dec. 14, 2012, https://www.chinaaid.org/2012/12/urgent-imprisoned-south-china-church.html.