Almost all observers agree that there is a serious gender imbalance in the Chinese church. David Aikman, in Jesus In Beijing, states that the average ratio is 60-80% women in churches on the Mainland. In Taiwan and elsewhere, the ratio may be less extreme, but there are usually many more women than men attending church on any Sunday morning. The proportion of women serving in the church may be even greater.
True, there are some exceptions to this overall picture. One church I know of in Beijing has about as many men as women, and men predominate in the leadership. Another church in America which I visited enjoys the same nearly equal proportion of men and women. And the church which we attended in Taipei has a high percentage of men involved.
Still, the fact remains that there are many more Christian Chinese women than there are believing men.
When we inquire into the possible reasons for this imbalance, several factors come to mind. I list these not in order of importance, for I do not know which are more significant.
- The activity of foreign women missionaries. At first through the China Inland Mission, and then with other mission agencies, women played a major role in the spread of the Gospel in China in the 19th and 20th centuries. To begin with, they were sent to minister to women, who could not be reached by men because of social customs.
Later, however, many foreign women missionaries also ministered to mixed groups, though they still usually worked mostly among women.
Their example paved the way for the prominent role of Chinese women as evangelists and Bible teachers (the so-called “Bible women”). Another consequence of their activity was the rapid spread of the Gospel among Chinese women.
- The activity of Chinese female evangelists. Not only before 1949, but especially afterwards, Chinese women have played a major role in the growth of the church. When pastors, elders, evangelists, and deacons were put into prison or even killed under the rule of the Communists, women stepped into positions of leadership.
Some women held meetings in their homes. Others were sent out by house to do itinerant evangelism. Usually going two-by-two, they took the Gospel to countless towns and villages across the nation. Their fearless and passionate preaching led to the conversions of millions of people, most of whom were women. We shall discuss the possible reasons for this later, but for now we merely note that female pastors and evangelists have built a church composed largely of women.
- The absence of men from rural villages. Since 1978, when market reforms were introduced into China, millions of men have left the farm in search of work in nearby – or far away- towns and cities. Seeking better pay, they have stayed away for months or even years at a time. As a result, their wives have been left in charge of the farm, the family, the governance of the village, and the church. Rural churches, already having more women than men, were deprived of even more men as a result of this mass migration of men to urban areas.
- The role of traditional religion. In some places, especially Taiwan, Hong Kong, but also parts of China, traditional religion places barriers in the way of men believing in Christ. Parents who still worship ancestors believe that they must have sons to take care of their souls after they have died. Filial sons think that they must honor their parents in this matter, and thus do not dare to embrace the Gospel. They know that they cannot worship their ancestors in the usual way if they become followers of Christ.
- Work pressures. Since men feel a great responsibility to work in order to provide for their families (and also to further their own career ambitions), they often think that they do not have time for religious activity. This keeps them from attending meetings where they might hear the Gospel, and thus from believing in Christ. For the same reason, many men do not take part in ministry within the church.
- A “feminine” Gospel? When we analyze the message which is often preached, we find that it appeals especially to the problems women face. Indeed, it is mostly a “problem-centered” message. “Believe in Jesus, and he will heal you; guide you; comfort you; strengthen you; provide for you.” In short, we preach a “gospel” for those who are “weak.” Some passages from the Bible (such Matthew 11) can be used to support such a method of presenting the Gospel
The core of the real Biblical message, on the other hand, is a warning to those who are strong! It is a summons to those who are rebellious, a command that “all men everywhere should repent” (Acts 17). When we study the actual preaching of Jesus and the Apostles, we see that they promise something other than what we usually offer. They first announce that we are sinners who have rebelled against a holy God and who therefore will judge them, and then they declare that Jesus has died in our place, so that we may be forgiven.
Additional benefits named by the biblical Gospel are peace with God; the presence of the Holy Spirit; holiness of life; fellowship with other believers; justification by faith; new life; the privilege of becoming children of God; and, of course, eternal life and the hope of everlasting happiness in a new heaven and new earth.
This message opposes the proud; it exposes our usual searching after earthly pleasure, peace, prosperity, power, and position as idolatry, and it calls us to forsake this world and follow Jesus alone.
In other words, our “Gospel” often presents a “soft,” “motherly” God who cares for the weak (which is partly true), but does not often present a “hard,” “fatherly” God who commands the strong to submit to his authority in order that they might have life.
Furthermore, preaching by women often emphasizes what we might call the emotional aspect of the Christian faith. Now, this part of new life in Christ is quite important. Long ago, Jonathan Edwards wrote Religious Affections, partly to defend the expression of healthy Christian emotions.
On the other hand, emotions can also be deceptive, as Edwards pointed out with such clarity in the same book. Too much focus on emotions can distract us from the true content of the Bible and can turn our eyes from the objective reasons for trusting and following Christ. A Gospel that is largely aimed at arousing and expressing feelings quickly turns into a content-less religion that is open to all sorts of false teaching and, just as bad, profound disappointment when our hearts are not always filled with positive emotions.
Men tend to be attracted to a more reasonable presentation of the Gospel; they like to weigh various arguments for the truth of the Christian message. The rational aspect of Christianity challenges their minds, and they respond to this sort of challenge. That is especially the case with men who have leadership potential.
- A “meaningless” message? Usually, the Gospel presented by evangelists, and the regular preaching of pastors, deals only with “spiritual” matters. Now, you may think that I was just proposing such a “spiritual” Gospel! Yes, but I am now talking about something else.
Our message usually deals only with “spiritual” matters; or (as I said above) it only offers “earthly” comfort, prosperity, and peace. But seldom do we teach what the Bible says about all of life. There is much in the Scriptures about justice, business, work, leadership, education, and the ordinary affairs of life – just those things that interest men.
- A “vicious circle”? We may also trace the larger number of women in Chinese churches to the force of inertia: A trend like this has its own self-perpetuating energy. Men like to be with men, and feel uncomfortable in a room filled with women. Women, on the other hand, don’t mind quite as much being in a group mostly composed of other women, though of course they would welcome more men!
On the one hand, we can thank God that so many Chinese women have found love, joy, and peace in Christ. They often have a hard life, and God’s power and pity come to them with liberating energy. Though sometimes despised in society, they find a place in the family of God. They can use their God-given talents and abilities to serve others, and they can enjoy fellowship with other women. Most important, of course, is that millions of Chinese women have received forgiveness of sins and hope of eternal life through faith in Christ.
On the other hand, we can see why this gender imbalance has caused considerable concern, for the consequences of this gender imbalance are largely negative.
For one thing, if there are more women than men in the church, where will Christian women find Christian husbands? This problem is extremely acute already. The Bible teaches that Christians must marry only “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39; see also 2 Corinthians 6:14). There are many reasons for this, of course. It’s hard to maintain your own faith when you live with a husband who is not a believer. How can husband and wife agree on child rearing, the use of money, recreation, standards of conduct, and whether to go to church on Sunday, if one of them is not a Christian?
Furthermore, if a husband is supposed to love his wife as Christ loved the church, he can hardly do this if he does not know the Christ who loved the church! Where will he find the power to forgive his wife, or to sacrifice himself for her?
So, if there are not enough Christian men, Chinese Christian women will have a hard choice: To obey God and remain single, or to succumb to societal and inner pressures and marry a non-believer?
Without Christian husbands, where will we find Christian fathers? In that case, how hard it will be to bring up Christian children!
Without Christian husbands and fathers, where will the church elders, deacons, and pastors come from? Where will we find male evangelists to bring the Gospel to Chinese men?
A church with not enough men to take part in leadership will perhaps consider choosing women to join the leadership team. But this opens up a set of other problems. One of those is the possibility that long times spent together will lead to sexual temptation among leaders. Another is that outsiders will accuse Christian leaders of sexual sins even if they are not guilty. This happened in a famous instance not long ago, when a group of leaders of a Southern house church were arrested. The women among them were tortured to get them to say that the male leaders had committed sexual sins with them.
Is there any way out of the current difficulty?
Perhaps, over time, some of the following steps would begin to redress the gender imbalance we now see.
- Focus on training Christian men. If pastors, elders, and teachers concentrate their time and energy on training men to live as Christians, to serve in the church, and to present the Gospel to non-believers, the next generation might enjoy the benefits of more male leaders.
That means, of course, spending less time on training women for church ministry and evangelism. Instead, perhaps women could be given biblical education, and training in how to be a good wife and mother; how to counsel other women; how to pray for the lost (including unsaved men!); and how to set a good example in the world.
- Focus on male leadership. If more men were pastors, evangelists, and teachers, then they could appeal more easily to other men. Instead of being perceived as a religion mostly for women and children (like Buddhism) Christianity could be seen as a faith started by a man (Jesus), spread by men (prophets, apostles, and evangelists), led by men (elders and deacons), and appealing to men (see below).
- Focus on evangelizing men. If, instead of sending teams of women out as itinerant evangelists, the churches sent men, they could present the Gospel more easily to other men, and could speak to things that interest men.
- Present a “masculine” Gospel. Though we should not ignore the parts of the Bible that offer comfort to the hurting, peace to the anxious, and strength for the weak, we could also teach those parts of the Bible that speak of God as King, as warrior, as Father, as judge.
If we could show how faith in Christ and following his commands and teaching will help a man live in this world with honor and integrity, then perhaps men will find our teaching more interesting. When, for example, have you heard a sermon on how to be a good father? Or husband? Or worker” Or when have you heard a message on how to overcome sexual temptation or anger or a competitive spirit?
- Pray for God to bring more men to faith, to maturity in Christ, and into ministry. Jesus told us to pray that the Lord of the harvest would thrust forth workers into the harvest. Can we not be more specific and ask him to bring more men into the Chinese church?
Some years ago, members of OMF Taiwan were concerned about a similar gender imbalance: There were not enough male missionaries. Then someone said, “Why don’t we pray about this?” After a few years of such petitions, we noticed that God had, indeed, moved a number of highly-qualified men to come to Taiwan to serve with OMF. Our Father does answer prayer!
- Re-consider the traditional interpretation of biblical passages dealing with male leadership in the home and in the church.
For more than 1900 years, the Christian church followed the pattern of Old Testament leadership and of Christ and the apostles. Men were expected to exercise leadership, and women to serve in an auxiliary role. Then, with the rise of democratic impulses in the 19th century, especially in America, and the full-blown growth of feminism in the second part of the 20th century, the current situation came into being.
New ways interpreting passages like 1 Corinthians 14:33-38, 1 Timothy 2:5-15, and the vast majority of references to male leadership in the Bible seemed to justify encouraging women to become pastors, teachers, elders, and evangelists.
At the same time, many scholars object to these novel interpretations, and present strong reasons for endorsing the traditional understanding. Perhaps now is a good time to re-study the Bible and to ask hard questions about the methods of interpretation that have swept away millennia of scholarship and practice, particularly since we can trace the latest developments to secular sources.
This writer has composed a study of “Women and Leadership in the Church” which is available from him. Just write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The current gender imbalance in the Chinese church may be a wake-up call for prayer, study, and action. The cost of inaction will be an increasingly weak witness to the Gospel, not to mention a great deal of loneliness and frustration.