We, Beverly Wiebe MD and Henri Wiebe MD, are graduates of the School of Medicine of Loma Linda University, class of 1961.
We worked in China on a working visa between 1990-1997 and 2003-2008. We trained SDA pastors, elders, Bible workers, medical doctors and other church leaders in the science of evidence-based, lifestyle-related health principles as found in the Bible, the SOP, and the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. Armed with this knowledge, the graduates were to blend this into their approach to gospel medical missionary evangelism.
In many ways China intrigues the West, and many think that a week/month/year or two on the ground there is enough to understand the country. Below we will identify some of the factors that make it problematic to hold up SDA Chinese women pastors as examples for the rest of the SDA world to follow. That is a big mistake and leads to a lot of misunderstanding.
The religious groups officially recognized and governed by the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) are Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and some folk beliefs. SDAs are grouped with Protestants. Protestants must be self governing, mostly self supporting and self propagating. In principle they can receive no foreign leadership interference (must be congregational), and most can receive no foreign financial support. They cannot evangelize outside the walls of the officially registered meeting place.
China is very regional. There are about 700 discreet language groups. The central government laws/policies are unevenly enforced. Political winds can shift quickly in China in terms of region and time. What may be tolerated in one locale at one time may not be so tomorrow, nor is it the same elsewhere. Consequently reports from the duped, guided, controlled occasional visitor can be misleading.
SDAs are considered a subgroup of Protestants and often share a registered meeting place. They are considered sheep thieves. Why? To be a Christian in China is already a great sacrifice, so then why not go all the way in following the Bible? The move from a Sunday Christian to a Seventh-day Christian is relatively easy and so friction arises when SDAs use the same Protestant facility on Sabbath.
Often when Chinese persons become SDAs they lose their jobs because of obligatory Saturday work. Since it is still the man's duty to support the family, the wife often quits her job and the husband may continue to work against his conscience. The wife then has time to develop spiritually, attending all manner of week long, month long or even year long Bible training courses in China or abroad. When the husband finally retires and is baptized, the wife is far ahead in biblical knowledge and spiritual development. Naturally when the time comes to chose spiritual leaders, women are chosen.
There is great fear in China that the position of pastor is chosen for money/power/prestige. Consequently the wages of a pastor are kept at a level so that the pastor cannot adequately support his family. A woman pastor who has a husband working does not have the same financial problem.
Since by law, the church group must remain congregational, each leader teaches how he understands the Bible. Some have trained in non SDA seminaries and will teach accordingly, including the idea that spiritual leadership is not gender specific.
Registered churches come under the political supervision of SARA. Appointments of pastors must be approved by SARA, and since the state is gender-neutral, a woman may be assigned to the position.
All the above applies to government recognized registered SDA churches. Many believers are suspicious of the cooperation between SARA and the registered church. Consequently, they go underground and form house churches. How these groups relate to gender in choosing spiritual leaders is not uniform.
In summary, China is a mixed bag, and definitely not the place to look for guidance in deciding if gender should be an issue in the choice of spiritual leaders. We must instead, follow the Bible.
Further reading: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/religion-china
Dr. Henri Wiebe, MD is a practicing Pediatrician in Angwin, CA. Dr. Wiebe graduated from Loma Linda University School of Medicine in 1961 and has been in practice for 58 years. He completed a residency at La County Hospital. Dr. Wiebe also specializes in Preventive Medicine.