American Denominational Administrators Visit Women Serving as Ordained Ministers in the Adventist Church in China
by AT News Team
Pastor Dave Weigley, president of the Columbia Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Pastor Raj Attiken, president of the Ohio Conference, recently returned from a 13-day visit in China. They met with local churches and pastors in Shangh
ia, Beijing, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, Xi’an, Guilin, and Chengdu, as well as leaders of the Chinese Union Mission in Hong Kong. They took with them Taashi Rowe, an editor for the union conference periodical, who wrote a report on their trip which was published in the last few days in the Columbia Union Visitor along with an announcement of the special constituency meeting that will decide on the ordination of women serving as pastors in the Columbia Union Conference.
They were told how difficult evangelism can be in Asia. “Many people don’t believe in supernatural beings and view Christianity as an imperialistic tool,” said Pastor Edmund Cao, leader of the Adventists in the western region. Nonetheless, “Adventist brothers and sisters who work passionately and tirelessly to tell people about God and how much He loves them,” wrote Rowe.
The church they visited in Shanghai had more than 1,500 in attendance on a communion Sabbath. They were told of churches with memberships of up to 5,000. There are some 400,000 Adventists in mainland China.
The Church is organized along an apostolic model instead of the corporate model developed in the United States. John Ash, an associate secretary of the Chinese Union Mission, estimates that there are some 48 “mother churches” each with hundreds of church plants.
“With a ratio of one pastor to every 4,000 members, the mainland churches must rely heavily on local elders. … It is also common and practical for women, who make up a majority of the membership, to pastor mainland churches.” In fact, some of the women who are ordained ministers are responsible for hundreds of churches. “In the West, these women would be equal to conference and union presidents.”
Women serving as elders in China go back to 1949 when the missionaries left. The first ordination of a woman to the gospel ministry occurred in the 1980s, which means this has been a reality there during almost all of the debate on this topic in North America and Europe.
“When we choose pastors here, gender doesn’t enter into our minds; only who is available and capable,” the Visitor quotes one male leader. “Some people may say we are going against the church, but we ordain women because of the need of the work. If there was theological [reason] not to ordain women, we would not prosper.”
Adventist Today interviewed Pastor Attiken about what he found as a member of the team on this tour.
You indicated that one of the women pastors that you met in China chose to be ordained by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and not the Three Self Movement (the officially-recognized Protestant organization). This indicates that the women who are ordained ministers in the Adventist Church in China are "real" Adventist ministers. Is that an accurate conclusion from what you saw and heard there?
Yes, except for a very few exceptions, all the ordained pastors are ordained by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Most of the time the ordination service and the laying on of hands is done by ordained Adventist pastors from a province or region. Hence, it is more than a local church ritual. Those few who are ordained by the Three Self Movement have usually received their theological education at an institution approved by the government. Those ordained by the Three Self Movement are serving as pastors in Adventist churches. Some of our members evidently are quite reticent to recognize and receive those pastors who have been ordained by the Three Self Movement.
Has there been any controversy among Adventists in China about women being ordained either as elders or pastors?
Gender equality in ordination seems a very normal part of the life of the church in China. None of the conversations we held with Adventists in the seven cities we visited suggested to us that there was any controversy over this matter. On the contrary, our Chinese brothers and sisters seem baffled that this is so much of an issue in the rest of the world!
What characteristics of the Adventist Church in China most impressed you?
There is no such thing as the “Adventist Church in China!” China is post-denominational. There are Chinese Seventh-day Adventists. And there are Chinese Seventh-day Adventist congregations. I was impressed that these congregations have been successful in forming their life together based on the Scriptures while navigating their way through the principles of the Three Self Movement; self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation. I was impressed with the devotion and deep faith exhibited by those we visited and worshipped with.
What kind of organizational structure exists among Adventists in China?
As I said earlier, China is post-denominational. Church organizations as we know them in the West are not permitted. Hence, Chinese churches are congregational. They manage their own affairs without any organizational link beyond their walls. In this regard, they are more like early New Testament churches. They have an organic rather than an organizational link to other congregations. They are diverse. They are indigenous and develop their own leaders. Although they are not linked organizationally, they seem to know the different leaders in the various churches within a city or region and maintain some interaction with them.
The territory of mainland China is considered by the General Conference as part of the China Union Mission, based in Hong Kong. However, the Mission has no administrative or governance authority within the mainland. Leaders from the Mission may visit churches in mainland China to encourage and inspire; beyond that there is no linkage. Because such linkage does not exist, it is difficult for anyone to know exactly just how many churches and how many members there are in mainland China! There is no reporting mechanism to a centralized entity as we do here.
What did you observe about the age profile of the Adventists in China?
While there clearly were a good number of younger families, it looked to me like the majority is middle-aged or older.
Did you hear any recent stories of persecution by government officials at any level?
No stories were shared of recent persecution or restrictions imposed by the government. On the contrary, there were some references to this being a good time for Adventists to live and practice their faith.
The GC president has met with leaders of the official Three Self Movement at GC headquarters in Silver Spring and made a recent trip to China which included a meeting with some of the same leaders. Did you hear anything about the content of these conversations or the attitude of Adventists in China toward these meetings?
Hardly anything was said about this. What was pointed out to us a few times was that since the GC delegation that visited China did so as the guests of the Three Self Movement, their itinerary and participation would be largely influenced and monitored by the Three Self Movement.
How do Adventists in China relate to education?
Obviously, there are no Adventist educational institutions in mainland China. Adventist children attend state-operated schools. The family and the church, therefore, become important transmitters of faith. I sensed that there is a strong yearning among Chinese young people for higher education. Hong Kong, which is now considered an administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, has elementary and secondary schools and a college.
Conventional forms of public evangelism are generally not permitted in China, so how do Adventists in China engage new converts?
We heard three types of stories: One related to personal sharing of faith by our members. Another type of story had to do with house churches and how people would just “show up” at these gatherings. A third related to our larger churches in the cities where people would walk in off the street to check out what was going on in the church building. On the Sabbath we worshipped at the Shanghai Mu’en Church, there was a spot in the service when they ushered in a whole row of people to the front of the church. They were each given a gift and the entire congregation sang a song of welcome to them. We learned that this was a regular feature. As people would come in off the street, the church recognized them, welcomed them, and took whatever steps they could to incorporate them into the life of the church!
What lessons can the Adventist Church in North America learn from the Adventists in China?
While there is a fundamental unity among Adventists in China–rooted in their faith in God, their acceptance of Jesus, and their hope of His return–there is also considerable diversity from region to region, city to city, and even church to church. Some of this diversity relates to beliefs and practices. For the most part, Chinese Adventists have learned to embrace this diversity as part of the nature of unity in Christ. So, one important lesson we can learn from our Chinese brothers and sisters is to respect and accept the diversity among us even as we celebrate our unity in Christ.
Another obvious lesson has to do with gender equality. The full participation of men and women in the mission and ministry of the church has resulted in the robust expansion of the Adventist mission in China. The topic of women in ministry and the ordination of women as pastors is not a theoretical exercise for debate or discussion. It is very much in the DNA of the church in China as a way of life for the church. There certainly is a lesson there for us!
A third lesson I might mention has to do with priorities. I sensed that our brothers and sisters in China have sorted out what is important and what is not, in their spiritual lives, in the life of the church, and in their ministry. They don’t seem to spend too much time debating the non-essentials. They have learned how to “keep the main thing the main thing.” As a result, there is a depth to their spirituality and godliness that is refreshing.