The church in China is different from that anywhere else in the world. But then, China itself is also quite different from other countries. China, more perhaps than in any other place and time since of beginning of USA, is a nation trying to forge its destiny in new ways that are not really copied from anywhere else. It has made many mistakes, as its current leaders readily admit. That in itself makes it quite different from most other nations!
This summer I spent three weeks in the People's Republic of China with a group of ten other people. Our primary interest, in addition to sight-seeing, was to learn as much as we could about the current church in China.
We attended church services in “open” (official) churches on the two Sundays when we were in cities where an open church was available. We visited pastors and Christians in several other cities. This was possible because we had as our tour leader Mildred Lovegren, who was born in China of missionary parents. She later returned to China as a missionary until the Communist take-over and then spent the rest of her life until retirement in missionary work in Hong Kong and Macau. Fluent in Chinese, and knowledgeable about Chinese culture, she brought us into contact with people in ways not possible for most American tourists.
What did we see in the churches? Crowds of people! One pastor told us that people began arriving at 6:30 a.m. on Sundays to get a seat for the 10 o'clock service! In the in-between hours, they taught hymns, Bible verses, had Bible studies. The two churches we visited each seated more than 500 people. People sat on stairs leading to balconies, stood in the aisles and against the walls. In one church, a canvas had been spread over the courtyard outside, and at least 150 people sat on little stools out there and listened to the service over a primitive public address system. Many people DID have Bibles – the Chinese government is now permitting Bibles to be printed, but the demand far exceeds the supply.
Most churches have several pastors, and we learned that most pastoral staffs included women pastors. In fact, one male pastor asked us, “Do you have women pastors in your churches in your country?” I swallowed hard and answered, "Some do and some don't." He went on to explain with pride that all pastors, male or female, carry the same kinds of responsibilities. All take turns preaching, leading the communion services, baptizing.
We wondered why Chinese churches were so far ahead of many churches in the USA. Perhaps they learned from the MODELS of missionary women and wives - - most of whom did evangelizing, preaching, and teaching as well as child care and home-making.
Of course, the Chinese government makes a big point of equality between men and women in the workplace. We visited factories, farms, craft industries, stores, and always saw men and women working in similar kinds of work. We had women guides and men guides; we saw women and men supervising others, we saw women and men doing manual work. Since that is official government policy, it would naturally be applied to government-approved churches. Most of the current male pastors are more than 60 years old and were trained in seminaries before the communists took over in 1948. Many of them suffered through the Cultural Revolution (1965-1975) in prisons or in manual labor in the country. At that time all churches were closed. After the death of Chairman Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, new leaders came into power who began to allow some churches to reopen: These were known as the Three Self Patriotic Movement. Three-Self refers to self-governing, self-suppporting, and self-propagating. “Patriotic” means they do not fight the Communist government, and they have NO ties with “foreign" groups - - mission boards or other foreign agencies.
As part of the movement to eliminate anything "foreign,” the government has said that the churches in China cannot bear a denominational name - they cannot be Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, for such denominations are a part of the West. They can only be “Christian.” One Chinese woman pastor pointed to the symbol of a dove at the front of the church and said, “Perhaps we are fulfilling the final prayer of Jesus in John 17 - that they may all be one."
She said they try to make all believers comfortable in the services by offering a variety of choices. People may choose to be baptized either by immersion or by sprinkling. Infants cannot be baptized, however, for the government insists that “religion” cannot be forced on a child. When a person is of legal age they can make their own choice. Children are permitted, however, to attend church with their parents.
The open churches include Seventh Day Adventists among their members. Services are held for them on Saturday, and others who work on Sunday can also attend those services. (Everyone in China works six days a week and many must work on Sundays.) The Lord's Supper is conducted in several ways, and members can go to the service of their choice.
One male pastor said that his only concern about women pastors was that the seminaries (there are six open seminaries at present) are getting more women students than men. One seminary has 50 students - 30 women and 20 men. “Women seem more open to the call of God than men do," he said wistfully. All students who wish to go to seminary must spend about two years working in their home church before they go. In this process, pastors have a chance to evaluate the depth of their commitment to Christ and their doctrinal soundness. If the church recommends the student to seminary, the church also supports him or her during seminary training.
Some of the seminaries are quite primitive. We visited roe that met in two small dark basement rooms in a church in Beijing. The library consisted of a few shelves of books. Each classroom had a few chairs and tables, and a blackboard.
Pastors assured us they were getting no persecution or pressure from the government - only support. One said, "Sometimes visitors ask us if we must submit our sermons to the government before we preach them. Of course not. We are free to preach the Gospel.”
At present there are about 4,000 open churches in China, with three or four new ones being opened each week. There are only a few hundred Roman Catholic churches open, although there were more Catholics in China before the Communist victory than there were Protestants. The government has permitted Catholic churches to open only if they do not profess loyalty to Rome. The one great insistence for all churches is that they be Chinese and not under any kind of foreign influence.
During the Cultural Revolution when all churches were closed, the buildings were turned into factories, stores, apartments, or other uses. The current users must be moved before the churches can be reopened. This is not always easy.
Four thousand churches may sound like a lot, but when we remember that China has more than one billion people, we realize that there is on average one open church for each 250,000 people!
In addition to the "open” (government approved) churches, there are also many, many "house~ churches - small groups of believers who meet together in a home to worship, pray, study the Bible. These began as “undercover" churches after the Communist revolution. Many of these churches (perhaps a majority) were led by women. This may be one reason the open churches have been able to ordain women even though seminary education is just getting under way. (Seminaries have been open less than six years.)
Not all Christians from "house churches" are willing to join the open churches. Some do not trust anything that is approved by the Communist government. They fear that if their names get on open church rolls, they will be subject to persecution and harrassment if the government policy toward religion changes again.
Women seem to be playing important roles in every aspect of Chinese life. Since wages are very low (an average of $25 per month for fulltime work) almost all women are employed. We were surprised at how well-dressed the women of China were. They all wear western clothes, with bright colors and increasingly good fashions. (A few years ago, almost everyone ware white and light blue only.) We watched women pedal down the street on their bikes in heeled sandals, panty hose (yes, on miserable hot days!) and attractive skirts and blouses or dresses.
Current Chinese policy permits only one child per family. Housing is critically short and apartments very small. Whether mothers should work hardly seems a question. Child care is available and government operated. Children of school age are provided after-school activities until parents can come to get them. Since only one child is permitted per couple, children are very valued and cherished.
It will be many years before China begins to match the standard of living of the Western World, but the attitude toward women inside and outside the church is one from which we in the United States may be able to learn.
We asked pastors what we as Christians could do to help them. "Pray for us," was the response. And we answered, "Yes, and please pray for us, too. Our churches in United States need renewal and the power of God working in and through us."