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“Please come to China and meet my people,” requested the Seventh-day Adventist pastor as my wife, Chandra, and I enjoyed table fellowship with her at our home last October. Little did I realize that six months later I would have lunch with Pastor Rebekah Liu at a restaurant in her homeland.
The land, people, history and culture of the “Middle Kingdom” have intrigued me for many years. Pastor Liu awakened my interest with stories about Adventists in China and how their decentralized religious universe is expanding in all directions. I found many aspects of those stories so compelling that I wished for other indigenous voices to give depth, breadth and texture to them. Thus, when Dave Weigley, Columbia Union Conference president, invited me to join him and Taashi Rowe, Visitor news editor, on an “adventure of listening,” I quickly agreed.
Women Hold Up the Sky
One of the primary purposes for our visit to China was to learn about the role and influence of women in the expansive growth of Adventism there. The picture began to form rather quickly. We learned about Hao Ya Jie (pictured, left), an ordained Seventh-day Adventist woman pastor, who leads the largest Adventist congregation in China. The Beiguan Church in Shenyang, with about 5,000 members, is “mother church” to about eighty other congregations with total membership of over 10,000! In Beijing we enjoyed dinner with Lilly, who is one of hundreds of ordained women elders who function as pastors in many of China’s approximately 4,000 congregations. Communion service on Sabbath at Shanghai’s 1,500-member elegant Mu’en Church was led by its two senior co-pastors, Pastor Dheng and Pastor Lu. Pastor Lu had been offered ordination by the official Three Self Patriotic Movement, but she chose instead to be ordained within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In Chengdu we spent a day in the company of Pastor Qin Zheng-Yi. Ordained to the gospel ministry in 2002, Pastor Qin is reported to have been responsible for planting numerous congregations in this largest province in China, and providing apostolic oversight to the approximately 400 churches. Of the five ordained pastors serving the over 10,000 Adventists in Sichuan Province, four are women.
That women—and ordained women pastors—play a major role in the life and mission of the church in China is incontrovertible. Accepting women in leadership and pastoral roles is normative to the over 400,000 Adventists in China. Gender equality, and the ordination of both women and men as pastors and elders are seen as part of the divine order, and not as a political, ecclesiastical or cultural oddity. The leaders of the China Union Mission (based in Hong Kong) that we visited with readily acknowledged that they recognize and affirm the presence of ordained women pastors in mainland China and the prominent role they play in the life of the Church. Their acknowledgment gave voice to my own feelings that “this is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see.” Psalm 118:23.
In the seven cities we visited during our two-week itinerary, we met some incredible people of faith and enjoyed their inspiring stories. They explained how, during China’s so-called Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, Adventism in China survived eradication. Although the government expelled all foreign missionaries in 1949, Chinese Adventists continued to establish and nurture the faith in Chinese soil. In the absence of denominational voices from abroad to help guide, instruct and shape them, they developed a deep reliance on Scripture and the Holy Spirit. Like the churches in early New Testament times, these congregational communities learned to live out their faith in ways that are rooted in their culture. Despite the diversity among them—in beliefs and practices—they found unity in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the blessed hope of His soon return. Individuals who emerged as leaders because of their spiritual gifts took on the role of “apostles” to give guidance and counsel to congregations.
The stories of the brothers and sisters we met—more broadly, the story of Adventism in China—is ultimately a triumphant tale of a vibrant church, thriving against all odds. It is a tribute to China’s valiant shepherds of faith who proved that a religious, political or social system cannot control or eradicate what’s in people’s hearts. That lesson alone made my journey to this intriguing land a life-changing experience. And it is a lesson that merits the attention of Adventists in North America.
Raj Attiken, D.Min., serves as Ohio Conference president. A more detailed story on our trip to China is available in the June Columbia Union Visitor.
Photo by Rajmund Dabrowski: Pastor Hao Ya Jie from Beiguan Church in Shenyang, and Zu Xiu Hua, a pastor-leader responsible for starting 380 congregations in the province of Jilin.