The China Experience and Women’s Ordination

Kent Knight

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.

19 replies on “The China Experience and Women’s Ordination”

Thank you for this objective perspective on the situation in China as it relates to women’s ordination.

Thanks for the article. I too have had the China experience placed before me. Your article puts the correct spin on what is actually going on there. Our prayers need to be with those in China.

There are web sites that do a similar analysis of the evangelical church situation in China, from perspective of biblical gender roles. Same issue but different denominations. The observations are very close to this one by bro. Knight. Don’t recall the exact sites, but I found them while I was trying to understand the China situation myself a couple years ago.

Welcome to the discussion, Barry! I agree that the China situation is unique. Those I know who are Chinese natives, including my landlady here in Berrien Springs, have made observations quite unfriendly to the case of those who would use the China experience to justify women’s ordination.

The question cannot be “what is happening in China?” Rather it should be “who is God calling to His service” Those who want to limit God to their misunderstanding of scripture are referred to in the statement “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.” God is the One who calls and the church is empowered to acknowledge the call that He has made. Joel 2:28,29 is clear that the call in the last days will not be gender restricted. Since Jesus said that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” gender cannot be a heavenly issue. Those who want to make it an issue in these last days ” are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29

Can someone (i.e., a truly dedicated Adventist, and not a “cafeteria-style” one who picks and chooses only which official Church votes suits one’s fancy) please help me understand the following. I noticed that Brother Kent stated: “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.” (Emphasis added). Please note that this matter of “ORDAINING WOMEN AS ELDERS” was officially voted back in 1984 by the GC in Annual Council. Hence it seems as though our brother Kent is directly faulting our duly-called GC Annual Council. Also, since that vote we have had SIX full GC Sessions, and never once was this vote challenged, changed or canceled. Unless the above phrase was an unintentional mistake, I’d like to inquire: Why is it that so many who consider themselves as “loyal” members, keep on sharing such misinformation?

He said “according to the Bible”, not according to voted church policy, so your imagination has caused you to respond to an argument that was never made in this article.
This article focuses on the Bible and in the end that’s all that matters. We are free to vote, because God does not coerce our actions, but if we vote foolish policies that contradict the Scriptural witness on gender roles, then we will be held accountable, and we will experience the consequences. Jesus said:

“Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:19

And His brother added:

“For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” – James 2:10

The apostle Paul taught gender roles on the basis of the law (i.e. the Torah) and did so in ALL the churches according to 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, referring back to Genesis 3:16. Thus women were not allowed to have authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12) and in keeping with this the offices that came with “full ecclesiastical authority” (AA 160.2), namely those of elder/overseer or what we would call elder/minister/pastor, were to be reserved for the husbands of one wife, implying that they had to be male (1 Timothy 3:2). This is the only consistent way to harmonise all of the Bible’s sayings on the subject, and not “make void the law of God”, by culturalising away its intended meaning.

God can make any exception He chooses and condemn and wink at what He chooses to wink at and pay for all the violations of His clearly stated position with His own blood but that in no way annuls His Law or original position or the WISDOM of such positions. God can speak through anyone and anything and He has done so in scripture but that in no way says we must now ordain stones and donkeys. The fact that David was guiltless for eating bread that it was not lawful for him to eat in no way says it would be okay for the rest of the kings of Israel or officials to assume priestly prerogatives. The fact that the thief on the cross was assured of eternal life and never baptized by immersion in no way annuls baptism by immersion. We cannot therefore say all prisoners should never be baptized. The Application of exceptions in scripture must ever be carefully done lest we institutionalize transgression. The tendency to use an incident to justify legislative change is a common 21st worldly phenomenon but it must never be our practice as a people. The China situation is not a normative state. It is an evolutionary state. There may well be other situations of a demographic nature that place women in positions of leadership but that in no way change their gender, God or scriptural precedent. What we are seeking to do is emulate scriptural precedent and seek Divine instruction so that we can clearly account from scripture for our actions and positions. We can never use progressive world trends as our cue which some are hell bent on making us do and are using administrative and financial vantage points to do.

Ron does have a point. If we voted to ordain women as Elders, and in my view it clearly was a mistake which was strategically engineered into an official position (please talk to those who attended that meeting or articles written on this matter about how and when that vote was taken), should we not make a motion to bring this matter back to the floor and vote to rescind it because it is just as non scriptural as the ordination of female ministers. In fact, we have to go right back and ask ourselves, whatever possessed us to accept the notion of female pastors?! If we had been scriptural from the very onset, we would not be debating this nonsense. What Adventists have done over the years is play fast and loose with the world, even inviting ministers of Sunday keeping churches and Catholic Bishops to our General Conference to address the delegates and fraternizing with people who clearly have no respect for our positions and who actively preach against them. We should therefore not be surprised at this infection. Our clear course should be one of repentance, rescinding Biblically indefensible positions and rediscovering our simplicity and purity and unique covenant with God to be the upholders of His word in the world.

Church unity is not an incidental or occasional political resolution or convenience. It is a duty. It is a commandment. We have to speak ONE thing to the world and make sure the trumpet has a certain sound. After Adventism has spoken, the world should be clear on its duty. 1Co 1:10 Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 1Co 2:16 For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ. 1Co 2:4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:
1Co 2:5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
How do we read such scriptures and dare to make a proposal that divides the position of the church on any matter that becomes a public position? How do we even think that Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, and they DID NOT all have a uniform culture, would present or preach a position that would be culturally specific? 1Co 1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; 1Co 2:2 For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. We should not even be discussing interpretation but application by now. The scriptures are NOT cultural in their intent but spiritual and the challenge is primarily application not interpretation although the latter leads to the former. On matters vital to the church God has left us in no doubt or meandering and floundering in theological conundrums. The wisdom of man and mischievous political machinations of past GC officers have led us to take positions by engineered minority consensus that we need to rescind. These things are on record. Let us have the courage to do so in order to retain scriptural integrity as God’s singular and clear voice and praxis in the world.

The author’s emphasis of the unique cultural circumstances of China that justify why certain women there are ordained as pastors is an elegant argument that the vote on the question in San Antonio should be in the affirmative.

As a US Soldier for more 15 years I have seen the transformation of the Army allowing women to have a more active roll in combat arms. This changes have had Bring more headaches to the Army leadership and the augmentation of females rapes in the Army. It is Just bad business to allow then to do a Job that is not the calling front the Lord. Likewise the Army allow the women start working as combat support arms, then allow openly homosexuals and now be on combat arms.

Those who are pushing this agenda know they are being mischievous. Those of us who know this is mischief should not blink or flinch from opposing it. We did not come into this church and adopt this faith to become disciples of men. We did not leave the world to come here and consult our sentiments. We came here to do the will of God. How convenient that we should be beset by “women” this and “women” that at a time when the world is also revisiting the roles of women everywhere, upending society to place women in positions of authority. SOMEONE is pushing the “women” agenda the world over. Pray tell, who does anyone think it is? The question is clearly usefulness because women can use their gifts of soul winning without the need for ordination. The question is clearly one of “equality” and “fairness”. Which is a human rights issue. So, let us be clear. This has nothing to do with God or our work in the world. It is the world seeking to take charge of the Seventh Day Adventist church and I can understand. The question to be debated at the GC in San Antonio should therefore be, “Should the world lead the church? Should we now take orders from another master?”

This is so silly! You are using on several of your pages the argument that women should not teach men etc and claiming EGW support that view, but EGW herself is a contrediction because she did hold public church meetings and preached. She did not shut her mouth: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” (1.Tim.2:11-12) Either you have misunderstand the meeting of this scripture or EGW was disobedient to God’s truth.

You just are not seeing the Big picture. The reason that women should be quiet in the Church setting if they had questions or disagreed with what the male leader said, is because they are not to usurp the leader’s authority in a public situation. She is to go home & discuss with her husband. Apparently, too many women were doing so in Paul’s day, and this creates chaos in the Church; therefore, disrupting the service and causing others to question what the elder was explaining. This does not mean that women must be silent at all times – only if they might be in opposition to or not completely undersand what the male leader is expressing during the actual Church service. She may not rightly understand what the elder is trying to convey and therefore, must remain silent while he in in charge of the service. A women can teach and preach and pastor (verb–not noun) – but only during the actual Sabbath service when given permission from the elder. If she wants to preach, evangelize, bible studies, or canvassing on her own away from her home church, she may do so. There are Fruits of the Spirit, Gifts of the Spirit, and then there is God’s organizational plan regarding the separate male roles for leadership in His Church.

The “HUSBAND of one wife” premise comes with the prerequisite that he has proven to everyone that he manages his household excellently and in a godly manner – there are not many men who can say that they do that, not even ministers! … How can he manage the household of the Lord if he cannot keep his home together (1Tim.3:5,12)?
IF this is proven, he gets promoted to manage the Household of the Lord in a LIKEWISE manner as a DEACON, a caretaker’s office without stripes – a test in humility;
IF that is proven, he gets promoted to manage the Household of the Lord in a likewise manner as an ELDER, a solemn task as like the leaders of the tribes in the ancient congregation;
IF that is proven, he gets the final promotion to lead the sheep of the Lord in a likewise manner as a MINISTER, the highest ecclesiastical office for CONVERTED MEN, to keep, care and love the sheep and the lams of the Lord (Joh.21:15-18).
Too bad many are allowed to jump from not to three, sometimes without a home or a wife, not have given proof of godliness, often with grave sin on the slate, named “innocent youthly foolishness,” and getting special permission to go to our seminaries to learn the THEORY of shepherding, and are found lacking. Verily, hirelings jump through windows (Joh.10:12-13)
God gave us clear instructions on how we should manage HIS HOUSE, but we all are standing by and let things go from bad to worse; we are silent, insist on being anonymous when we speak, pretend blind eyes and that it is not our responsibility; that it’s God’s Church; He should manage it. Paul said, you are inflated, puffed up (1Cor.5:2). We are corporately responsible for the present mess! And each one of us should repent and pray prayer Daniel’s prayer, which is the prayer of 2Chron.6:14-42 and God’s answer of 2Chron.7:14 will come. In 2012 I wrote an article on the China Connection; I will translate and post it.

I am still studying the issue of women’s ordination, so please understand that this is a sincere question and not one meant to cast doubt on anyone’s position on the issue. Elsewhere on this website, Brother Phil Mills answers a question about whether we should even practice ordination (i.e. is it Biblical?) by pointing to Ellen White’s comments on Acts 13. In Acts of the Apostles, she identifies the laying on of hands of Paul and Barnabas as ordination. In the article above, the author cites an EGW quote from the Review and Herald in which she identifies a certain field of work to which some women are called. About this Mrs. White says that these women “should be set apart to this work by prayer and LAYING ON OF HANDS.” I understand that the field of work mentioned in the second quote is not full-time pastoral ministry, but my question is this: If we are consistent in interpreting Mrs. White’s statements on the laying on of hands as referring to ordination, how can we argue against the church ordaining women, at the very least, to certain roles? This raises a more important question in my mind, similar to the one Brother Mills sought to answer regarding whether the church is following the Bible in practicing ordination. If, as Mrs. White writes, the laying on of hands is the Biblical method of ordination, and if she recommends it for both men and women, then is the Seventh-day Adventist church currently following this counsel? Thank you, in advance, for any light you can shed on these questions.

John, thank you for this question. Actually, we do not argue that women should not serve at all. We favor women being actively involved in ministry, including paid ministry. But this, as you have pointed out, would be for “certain roles.” But not for roles which God has reserved for consecrated males, i.e. headship roles. For example, here is an article we published in 2012 prepared by Pr. Jim Brackett (“Will the Real Ministers Please Stand Up?” The series by Pr. Kirkpatrick (“Foundations of Women’s Ordination” parts 1-8. Here is a link to part 8: also makes clear that our concern is with women being appointed to particular roles the Bible assigns to men only, and not to women ministering. Unfortunately, for some the goal behind ordaining women is part of a broader ideology to flatten role distinctions and to curtail the authority of Scripture while increasing the authority of the human interpreter. Let’s see if Phil Mills might offer a response as well…

Although a square is specific type of polygon, a polygon is a more general term that covers many shapes that are not square. Likewise, “ordination” is a specific type of “laying on of hands”, while “laying on of hands” is a more general term that covers many commissioning services that are not ordination.
For example, the service of laying on of hands for male and female babies (Mt 19:13) is a dedication, not an ordination. The laying on of hands for the sick, male and female (Mk 16:18,) is an anointing, not an ordination.
Ellen White is very specific in her use of the term ordination. and exclusively applies this term to deacons, elders, and gospel ministers. She uses the term “laying on of hands” more broadly for such work as medical missionary work, but never refers to this as ordination. There is a place for such commissioning services for men and women. But this is not ordination to the gospel ministry.
In the Bible, women’s ministry is essential. The Bible also makes clear what women’s ministry entails, “the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work” (1 Ti 5:9–10, Lu 8:2, Mt 27:55, etc).
The Bible records the laying on of hands for this work. “At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did” (Ac 9:36). This work included making coats and garments for the destitute widows in Joppa (vs 39). The Bible includes an interesting detail that could easily be overlooked, the service involved prayer and touch. Peter prayed for her (vs 40) and after her resurrection he gave her his hand and helped her to her feet (see vs 41). The touch of laying on of hands represents the church offering assistance to those anointed by God for a specific work (see Gal 2:9).

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