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Most of China’s Seventh-day Adventist Churches are served and sustained by women’s ministries. The pastoral function is largely provided by women. But should this reality serve as an argument for the ordaining of women there or anywhere contrary to the plain reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 2:11-15; 3:1-15, Titus 1:5-9; 1 Corinthians 11:3, 8-10)?
A recent viewing of a 2013 taped interview conducted by Casey Wolverton, Senior pastor of the Glendale Seventh-day Adventist Church, Queensland, Australia with Rebekah Liu, senior pastor of a church in mainland China has led myself and a circle of my colleagues to offer the following response:
First, we praise God for the dedication and faithfulness of all of our believers in China. For reasons that will follow, we are especially grateful for the thousands of women who are standing in the gap, literally a gender gap exacerbated by Chinese work laws governing men’s work week.
In response to the interview with Rebekah Liu, what follows is a brief analysis of her comments and what they reveal about the health of the Adventist Church in some areas of China. In doing this we will note the findings of American Adventists conducting regular, on-the-ground evangelistic meetings in China—findings as they relate to the women’s ordination issue confronting the world church. Finally, we will return to the question posited at the beginning about the propriety of appealing to the ordination of women in China as pastors as an example for the world church to emulate.
In the short interview Liu was asked to share her perspective on whether women’s ordination should be viewed as a theological or cultural issue. Without hesitation, she said it is “cultural.” She said “in China we don’t have experts to study the Bible theologically so whenever there is a need we just go for it,” as in going “for what works.” As an example, she spoke of congregations that are using contemporary Christian music to involve their young people.
Rebekah stated there were 112 ordained Adventist pastors in China with 20 of those being women (October 2013). She went on to say that seven of those women were in one area where there were 400 churches (mostly house churches).* These numbers are revealing. Given the reported thousands of gospel workers leading out in China, most of whom are women, these numbers confirm what our American evangelists tell us. Among Adventists, the practice of ordaining women is not common and it seems to be limited to certain regions in south China. Also, it is more evident in those churches sanctioned by the China Church Bureau. These Adventist churches are more reflective of the diverse theologies and practices that characterize the surrounding evangelical groups, i.e., the occasional ordaining of women and the more demonstrative music like that of evangelical churches in North America.
One American evangelist who has ministered in China on four separate occasions tells us that the Adventist Church in China is an anomaly which should not be used as a template by the world church in addressing issues such as the ordination of women. He reports that there is a serious deficit of young and middle-aged men in the churches because most are required to work a six-day week with Sundays off.
Due to widespread spiritual hunger, virtually all Christian churches are exploding with growth as the historic suppression of Christianity is lifting. This massive influx is creating serious challenges because many of our Adventist converts have not been adequately grounded in the faith. The Spirit of Prophecy books are largely unavailable, not being officially permitted.
Further analysis reveals that, like America, Adventist churches in China are similarly diverse. Opinions on the women’s ordination question vary depending on what part of the country one is in and whom one speaks with. In most of the churches where members are reading the Spirit of Prophecy writings and employ more traditional music in worship, women pastors are not ordained nor wish to be. Biblically speaking, they understand the role distinctions between men and women. They will not perform baptisms or conduct communion. These leadership tasks they reserve for male elders or pastors as they are available.
What’s the take-away from the church’s experience in China—especially since some have called attention to the work there as an argument favoring women’s ordination throughout the world field?
We believe that it is a misinterpretation of the Holy Spirit’s work to attribute the strength of the church in China to the unauthorized ordaining of women. With three-fourths of its membership female, it is to be understood and appreciated that the predominance of the leadership would also be female. Does this give proponents of women’s ordination a green light to present the China experience as justification for ordaining women as elders and pastors contrary to the Bible? No. Advocating for women’s ordination based on the China experience will likely contribute to the growing sense of disunity not only in the West but in China as well. It is fair to say that the Adventist work in China is fragile and subject to growing instability going forward. Why fuel that instability by growing this divide? China needs the gifts of seasoned, credentialed, Chinese-speaking workers to provide leadership for healthy growth but governmental obstacles stand in the way. Divine intervention can open doors.
Finally, on a positive note, there are thousands of women in China conducting gospel work in the way that Ellen White envisioned it, and with no thought or desire for ordination. Please notice the conclusions to be drawn from her often misquoted statement (RH July 9, 1895, p. 8) regarding women in ministry: this ministry is part time, it includes work in parallel with what the church is already doing, and it does not even involve holding a church office in the usual sense of the term.
Also, in the following quote please notice the use of the word “public.” Presently, undue emphasis is being given to the public ministry of women in China. This is calculated to lead many to the erroneous conclusion that women should be ordained.
The actual EGW quote:
Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister; but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church. This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor. Not a hand should be bound, not a soul discouraged, not a voice should be hushed; let every individual labor, privately or publicly, to help forward this grand work. Place the burdens upon men and women of the church that they may grow by reason of the exercise, and thus become effective agents in the hand of the Lord for the enlightenment of those who sit in darkness.
*As of 4/24/15 there are 140 ordained ministers in China. The vast majority of these are men. There are 4000 churches. The vast majority are led by women. Very few of even the ordained leaders have ever attended an Adventist school on any level. This is contributing to the lack of unity that currently permeates our work in China.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Kent Knight is a retired pastor living near Hermiston, Oregon. Kent and wife Billie Jean have served God in a lifetime of pastoral ministry, most recently in the Upper Columbia Conference in Washington state.