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Holding Up Half the Church

Quite a few of my friends in China are women serving in the church, either at the pastoral or lay leadership level. I remember asking a couple of them once what they thought was the percentage of women who served as pastors in China. Both answered “more than 50%.” While it is only anecdotal, it does speak to a reality of the church in China today. No matter what one’s position is on the issue of women in church leadership, it is vital that those wanting to serve the church in China understand this reality and grapple with the issues surrounding it.

In this post, I would like to highlight some recent (and not-so-recent) articles on this important topic.

Last month Christianity Today published an excellent article about the challenges faced by wives of pastors in China’s house churches. Highlighting some of those challenges, the author writes,

When Westerners think of these “house churches,” they often assume the biggest challenge is the political environment. While the legal issues surrounding the unregistered church are often tense and at times overwhelming, the ministry struggles are much more mundane and common. Like small church pastors in the States, Chinese pastors and their families experience significant pressure as they lead often-underfunded and understaffed churches.

A lot of that pressure is borne by the wives.

The social, spiritual, and even physical struggles expressed by Chinese women are both familiar and foreign to their Western sisters. As recent articles have highlighted, they face common challenges surrounding singleness, success, marital infidelity, domestic abuse, and parenting. They also face issues particular to their context, including the former one-child policy and matters of filial piety.

Arguably, however, the challenge most often identified as an impediment to ministry and family life is the Chinese work ethic.

For Chinese pastors’ wives, it’s a quiet, subtle struggle that pervades family life. These women in ministry face spiritual difficulty not in dramatic showdowns with the government but rather in the same daily struggle to live according to God’s grace that most believers face around the world.

She goes on to the importance of ministering to the needs of not only pastor’s wives, but of Chinese women in general.

In the March 2011 edition of the ChinaSource Quarterly, we published a translation of an article from ChurchChina that took a look at the general problem of gender imbalance in Chinese urban churches. The author notes that “today, the ratio of men to women in churches in China is often about 1:2. Sometimes it is even worse—one man for every three to five women. When these numbers are compared to the usual ratio of men to women in Chinese society, we see a stark and serious contrast.”

It is a long article, but worth reading for a deeper understanding of this important issue in the church in China.

In 2013, in our Chinese Church Voices column, we published a translation of an article in the mainland site Gospel Times about a “Pastor Mom.”  It is an interview with one of the pastors of the Beijing Gangwashi Church.[1]

In the Chinese church, there are more female believers than male believers. There are also more female students than male students in the seminaries, more female preachers than male preachers, and even more female senior pastors than male senior pastors. But have these female pastors in China who hold up half the sky received enough attention? And are people aware of the unique difficulties of being pastor, mother, and wife? Are they carrying a particularly heavy burden? And is the burden they are bearing too much?

Turning to the perspective of missionaries, Jackson Wu has been considering the role of women in missions in a series of three posts that he published on his blog at Patheos. Although the issues he touches on are broad and relevant to any mission field, he writes primarily from the perspective of China.

In the first post, ”Why Do We Have Missionary Wives But Not Missionary Husbands?”, Wu notes that many sending organizations place the same expectations on women as on men, in terms of ministry work, but often do not include them in conferences or exclude them from leadership positions. “These habits of speech,” he writes, “are indicative of a deeply rooted problem. Words matter. Organizations send a mixed message about women’s roles in missions ministry.”

He also highlights the conundrum for complementarians serving in China, where, as we have noted above, a disproportionate number of churches, both registered and unregistered, are led by women.

In his second and third posts on the subject, he compares the minimalist vs. maximalist interpretations of Scriptural injunctions against women serving as “teachers,” showing how and why a minimalist approach is applied at the seminary where he teaches in China:

Since I take a take a minimalist view of the text, I have no problems teaching women in the seminary even though I don’t think the text endorses women pastors. One of the major misspeaks around occurs when people ask whether you affirm “women in ministry.” Of course, we should! However, “women in ministry” is far broader than saying “women in the pastorate.”

With respect of female pastors, our seminary is complementarian but welcomes female church leaders for two reasons. First, we would rather train them than they not have sound teaching. We at least want their churches to flourish, even if we disagree about this one issue. Second, you can’t persuade those with whom you don’t teach or have a relationship.

Chairman Mao famously said that “women hold up half the sky.” They certainly make up more than half the church in China. How are we preparing ourselves and our people to work in this environment? It is a question the sending community needs to grapple with. 


  1. ^ The church I attended when I lived in Beijing.
Image credit: Jacek Sniecikowski via Flickr. 
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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