On Vocation for Single Female Christians in Hong Kong

Hongkong

Der Text „On Vocation for Single Female Christians in Hong Kong“ ist schon etwas älter, genauer gesagt von 2007. Jetzt erst ist er in dem Sammelband „Urban Christian Spirituality. East Asian and Nordic Perspectives“ veröffentlicht worden. Es geht darin um die Disproportionalität von Frauen und Männern in christlichen Kirchen in Hongkong aufgrund von Einzelbekehrungen. Was oft übersehen wird, ist, dass dort ein Drittel der christlichen Frauen meist ungewollt ledig bleiben:

On Vocation for Single Female Christians in Hong Kong

By Jochen Teuffel

Joining Sunday worship in one of the numerous small Chinese congregations in Hong Kong – often located in a commercial building – a European visitor inevitably notices a fairly high number of participants in their twenties or thirties. Most Christians, some eight % of the population, are first-generation-Christians who were born and raised in non-Christian families. This phenomenon can be explained with the common mission strategy of the various Chinese-speaking churches which mainly targets teenagers and students through various fellowships and leisure activities. As some 50 % of the secondary schools in Hong Kong are run by Christian churches or church-affiliated organizations with Christian Religious Education or Bible Studies as a mandatory subject, churches have privileged access to students. After joining Christian fellowships and congregations for some time, young Chinese – normally between 15 and 25 years old– decide for themselves to become Christians and to get baptized.

What makes Christian mission to Chinese particular, not only in Hong Kong but also in Mainland China and among the Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia (like Malaysia or Indonesia), are individual conversions, different to tribal conversions of most other protestant missionary approaches in Africa, Asia or Oceania. Wherever families, clans or whole tribes became Christianized, the cultural and religious identity of the local community was generally preserved.[1] Though the missionaries in the 19th century – based on their own individual conversion experiences in the awakening movement – originally aimed at individual conversions of tribal people, they came to know that within a tribal setting, worshipping is entirely a communal affair. Anyone who gives up the religious practices of the tribe at the same time excommunicates him- or herself from this community and thus forfeits his or her living. Therefore, within a tribal society, it is very difficult to convert a single member of a family to Christ. In consequence, German missionaries like Christian Keyßer among the Papuas or Bruno Gutmann among the Chagga in present-day Tanzania, witnessed the Gospel to a tribal community until the whole community (represented by a chieftain) was willing to become Christian.

Different to mission among tribes (including the Germanic and Slavonic tribes in Europe in the past), modern Christian mission to China, from its very beginning (Matteo Ricci), encountered a civilized and culturally advanced society with a pluriformity of worshipping practices and different religious teaching in various schools of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Individual people – though being incorporated in a family system – are able to decide for themselves to become Christian. Such a decision may cause irritations, probably even disapproval among other family members, yet the individual decision of the convert can be maintained within the family without any excommunication. It is even possible that other family members will eventually become Christians too, after they have recognized a positive influence of Christianity on the life of the convert or on themselves. Based on such individual conversions the missionary situation among Chinese resembles the situation of the early church within the urbanized, poly-religious culture of the Roman Empire in the second and third century bc.

However, the pattern of individual conversions within the Chinese ethnic group is the starting point for a problem of Christian mission which is widely ignored, particularly among Protestants. The conversion rate among young Chinese women is significantly higher than among men, comparable to the sex ratio in the early church within the Roman Empire.[2] Women seem to be more religious and receptive to the Christian life. Though there are no statistics at hand, one can estimate that the proportion between young Chinese women and men converted to Christianity is about two to one. At a first glance that does not sound particularly significant, since the participation of women in church life in Europe or the US is likewise significantly higher than among men. However, in the situation of a first-generation-church, as it is the case here in Hong Kong, the disproportion in terms of genders does have a fundamental impact on the future life of young female Christians. When it comes to marriages, about 50 % of young Christian women can not get married to a Christian husband. Most likely they will remain single, for several reasons:

  • Like the early Church fathers pastors in Chinese churches in Hong Kong often warn against marriages with non-Christians. Some fundamentalist churches even prohibit such marriages to their members.
  • Different from a rather secularized society in Europe, religious affairs still have their impact on the daily life of families. A traditional Chinese family – no matter whether following Buddhist or Taoist practices – is engaged in common ancestor worshipping. Every household has its own shrine, where ancestors are remembered and food-offerings are placed. Such a religious form of living along with different ethical values makes it problematic for Christians to found a family with someone who is not a Christian.
  • The rather puritan form of Christian living does not allow young Christians to participate in various forms of mating entertainment like discos or bars. It largely confines the social life of Christians, apart from their families and their profession or studies, to the church which normally limits the marriage market to their own congregation or at least to other Christians.

Following the Chinese family traditions, unmarried daughters are supposed to stay with their parents in their home supporting them financially and taking care of them in their old age. Hence, becoming a Christian has the implication for quite a number of young women that they will remain in their paternal, non-Christian families unmarried. Though from a contemporary European perspective one may regard such a form of life as burdensome and thus to be pitied, in the context of the Chinese culture, emphasizing filial piety living together with the parents is generally recognized as virtuous.

Nevertheless, in general, the particular situation of unmarried women is widely ignored within the churches in Hong Kong. The pastor’s attention is mainly given to the young married couples and families which have emerged from dating and marriages between members within the same congregation. Though there might be a fellowship of single women in a congregation, their form of life does not find proper recognition within the church. Instead, the glamorous Church wedding services, normally attended by the whole congregation, endorses marriage as the one blessed status in life to be pursued. However, such ‘blessed” status remains unattainable for every fourth young woman within the church. Whereas almost every heterosexual man in church can become married (even causing rumors that young ‘non-believing’ bachelors join Christian congregations in Mainland China in order to find a wife) single women have to get by with their (often unwanted) form of life which in the Chinese culture is widely regarded as deficient.

As we have already mentioned, the church situation in Hong Kong resembles, to some extent, the situation of the early church, however with one important difference: The Early Church paid particular attention to the situation of single Christian women. In their numerous treatises on virginity (and widows) the church fathers were in high praise of this form of living. We may suspect behind such virginity asceticism an animosity towards sexuality and hostility to a bodily existence based on body-soul dualism. Yet those treatises were often written out of their pastoral concerns for the numerous unmarried women in Church. When those sisters were addressed as ‘the holy virgins (virgines sanctae)’ to be ‘the most illustrious portion of the flock of Christ’[3] or as ‘the spouses of Christ’[4], their status was regarded to be higher than married men and women in Church because of an exclusive intimacy with God.[5] In addition, the Church supported small communities of unmarried women (either virgins or widows) where they could live together with a considerable amount of personal freedom. Thus unmarried women no longer were confined to a life within their parental family as it was the common custom in the ancient world.

Starting from the 4th century, the church introduced a liturgical ceremony of personal consecration of virgins whose solemn rite basically consisted in taking the veil. Whereas weddings remained mainly a family affair outside the Church without any pastoral assistance, the personal consecration of virgins introduced their status as a blessed form of living to the other church members.

The Roman Catholic Church, different to the Protestant churches, is still following the tradition of the early church. Young women are encouraged to pursue the status of a consecrated life, which applies to the situation of unmarried Catholic women in Hong Kong and Mainland China very well. Currently there are 519 sisters living in convents and nunneries in Hong Kong.

The need for a calling

What people who have been raised up in Christian families (and even ‘reborn” Christians) can hardly imagine is the fundamental impact of being individually converted to Christ in a non-Christian culture. Such conversion asks for more than just a rather vague spirituality; one has to have a calling for a particular way of life as a Christian after baptism, in line with St. Peter’s question: ‘Lord, where shall we go?’ (John 6: 68) For young married women their calling as Christians seems to be obvious: Raising one or two children in a Christian way within their family (with the help of a domestic helper either from the Philippines or Indonesia) and going to work in a business company in order to contribute to the living of the family.

For unmarried women, however – likewise employed while living with their parents – the question of the calling becomes urgent, in particular in the second half of their thirties when they realize that they most likely will not become married. Thus, for some of them, the desired calling can be the call to ministry in the church. Most of the denominations in Hong Kong, even the conservative Evangelicals like the Christian Alliance Church, do have female pastors or evangelists. Based on their own savings during their more than ten years of employment they are able to register as a student in one of the more than 20 seminaries in Hong Kong, even without any scholarship from their mother church. It is no surprise that a significant number of female students in their late thirties and forties enrolled in a Master of Divinity or Bachelor of Theology Program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary are unmarried. A dedicated life to Christ in the form of a minister may work as a calling, but not for all unmarried women. And even among those who enter the seminary, there is a significant number who won’t receive the external calling from the church as a minister or who will have to quit ministry because of tensions within the congregation or because of their own lack of capabilities.

The calling to ministry certainly cannot be the solution for most of the single female Christians, yet it indicates the seriousness of the problem. What Protestant churches in Hong Kong and China need is to rethink their family-centred image of a Christian life. This image has been introduced by the Protestant mission (different to the Roman Catholic) in the 20th century where most of the (male) missionaries from America or Europe were (or became) married too. Those missionaries inherited a balanced gender-proportion within church due to the tribal conversion of their own Germanic forefathers and foremothers. Therefore they could not imagine that something like gender-disproportion among the converts would not guarantee the Christian family model to all of the women converted. A balances gender-proportion within church could be achieved in a tribal setting in Africa or among the mountain tribes in Southeast Asia and in Oceania, where conversions took place within whole clans and families. The China case (and as one may add, the Vietnam and Cambodia case as well), however, with individual conversions was and still is different. Within a (former) folk church, like in central Europe or Scandinavia or within a Christian civil religion like in the US, there are no marriage limitations due to gender disproportion, though participation in worship activities is also significantly higher among women.

Protestants have to rethink their theological and ethical heritage in terms of the normative form of matrimonial living. It was the Reformation, after the First Diet of Speyer 1526, which eventually purged out virginity as Christian vocation and reinforced family life as the only approbated Christian way of life in protestant territories by closing down women convents and nunneries. The re-familiarization of Christian life into the domestic estate (status oeconomicus), sometimes enforced, restricted the communal life (vita communis) of the church to the parishes and confined the life of women to a patriarchal family household. Though the reformers addressed various abuses in monasticism of that time and rightly rejected the meritoriousness of a monastic life and its undergirding two-stages-ethics – monastic life as alleged state of perfection (status perfectionis) and taking vows as second baptism, the general rejection of monastic vows and the consecrated life as expressed by Martin Luther in his ‘On the monastic vows’ (De votis monasticiis iudicium)[6] and stated in article 27 of the Augsburg Confession does have its own theological short comings.[7] The disapproval of perpetual vows is not substantiated by the Biblical witness.

If one reads the relevant passages in the New Testament carefully, the preferred status with regard to the eschatological angel-like life (bios angelikos, cf. Mk 12:25; Mt 22:30) is clearly the unmarried one. Jesus Christ himself – according to the Gospel of Luke – even advocates virginity as the exclusive form of a Christian calling:

Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. (Luke 20:34-36)

Jesus likewise praises sexual continence and virginity as particular charisma given to some of his followers for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt 19:10-12). St. Paul, while admitting that all Christians may marry (1 Cor 7:25), nevertheless recommends that unmarried Christians should remain in their status because of the upcoming end of this age (1 Cor 7:25-31) and because of the greater freedom in serving the Lord (1 Cor 7:32-35). Marriage appears to be provisional in order to avoid porneia (1 Cor 7:1-6), yet the apostle wished that all would have been able to abstain from any sexual relation (1 Cor 7:7). Finally John the Seer in his vision of the Lamb on Mount Zion and his one hundred forty-four thousand name-bearers recognized that those followers of the Lamb remained in the status of virginity:

It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless. (Rev 14:4f)

In light of Christ’s resurrection, which inaugurated God’s restoration of his creation, procreation no longer has any meaning in terms of salvation. God’s promise of progeny applies to his elected people Israel and in particular to their progenitor Abraham but no longer to the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Procreation itself is not a calling for the children of God’s kingdom to come. It is permitted, but not requested for Christians. The late Max Thurian, who served as a priest in the Community of Taizé, rightly points out that celibacy (which according to its Latin origin coelebs simply means ‘bachelor’ and thus is not confined to ordained ministers) has its eschatological foundation when he writes the following,

Celibacy relates to the resurrection of the dead; it is a sign of eternity, of incorruptibility, of life. For marriage has as its natural end the procreation of children, it assures the continuance of the human race and the creation of new beings, since human beings are fated to die and need to leave successors. But at the resurrection of the dead, those who have been accounted worthy will no more see death: ‘They cannot die any more because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection’ (Luke 20:36). In the other world, since they are immortal, there is no further need for them to make sure that they have descendants. Besides, in the kingdom of God, there is one sole Father, since all, like the angels, are called sons of God. The celibate state, on account of this relationship with the resurrection of the dead, with eternity and with the angels, is a sign of the world to come, which the priest lives with his whole existence as a follower of Jesus Christ.[8]

Celibacy as a ‘sign of eternity’ does not mean that such status is regarded to be the exclusive one for Christians. Neither does it imply any meritoriousness in terms of salvation, as it witnesses (but does not work out) the future resurrection from the dead already perfected in Christ’s own resurrection in a particular way.[9] Protestant churches, not only in Hong Kong or China, are invited to recognize celibacy (or virginity) for the sake of Christ as a blessed status within the Church. With such recognition the life of single Christian women is freed from any impression of being deficient. Though in most cases being unmarried is a status hardly desired, the calling to celibacy affirms such form of living as being recognized in the eyes of God: ‘It is not because of a lack of attractiveness or the lack of marriageable men, but because of God’s particular calling that you remained unmarried.’ Such calling to celibacy does not need the response of a personal consecration or the vow of chastity, but a liturgical form of confirmation may foster its recognition within the church.

Once the calling to celibacy is recognized within Protestant churches, two questions are to be answered: a) what are the particular contributions of unmarried women to the life of the Church and to the Kingdom of God, and b) what particular form of a communal life can be established for unmarried women within the Church. Such questions do not call for norms and rules but for inspiring examples likely to be found in the life of the Early Church. After all, unmarried women in their faithfulness to Christ deserve the same recognition the early church gave to their foremothers.

Bibliography

Brown, Peter, ‘The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church’. In Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century. Jean Ledercq, Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff, Eds. New York: Crossroad, 1985. pp. 427-443.

Meyer, Harding and Heinz Schütte, Eds. Confessio Augustana. Bekenntnis des einen Glaubens. Paderborn: Bonifacius-Druckerei, 1980.

Dunn, Geoffrey D. ‘Cyprian’s Pastoral Care of Women in Carthage’. http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/Dunn.htm 2010-10-11.

Halkenhäuser, Johannes. Kirche und Kommunität. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und zum Auftrag der kommunitären Bewegung in den Kirchen der Reformation. 2nd ed. Paderborn: Bonifacius-Druckerei, 1985.

Joest, Christoph. Spiritualität evangelischer Kommunitäten. Altkirchlich-monastische Tradition in evangelischen Kommunitäten von heute. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1995.

Luther, Martin. The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows (trans. James Atkinson). In Luther’s Works. Vol. 44: The Christian in Society. Ed. James Atkinson. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1966, 243-400.

Stark, Rodney, ‘Reconstructing the Rise of Christianity: The Role of Women’. Sociology of Religion 56/3 (Fall, 1995), pp. 229-244.

Thurian, Max, The Theological Basis for Priestly Celibacy. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_theol_en.html 2010-10-11.

Vicedom, Georg F. ‘Trible Conversion’. Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission. Stephen Neill, Gerald H. Anderson and John Goodwin, Eds. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971, pp. 605-606.

Jochen Teuffel (Dr. Theol.) is currently serving as a parish pastor of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Bavaria in Voehringen, Germany. From 2002 to 2008 he was an assistant professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong. He has published ‘Mission als Namenszeugnis’ (Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

Abstract: Becoming a Christian means for quite a number of young Chinese women in Hong Kong that they will remain unmarried lifelong, due to the lack of marriageable Christian men. Such unintended female celibacy resembles, to some extent, the situation of the Early Church. The Early Church, however, paid particular attention to the situation of single Christian women, whereas Protestant churches in Hong Kong and China are focused on a family-centred image of a Christian life. If one reads the relevant passages in the New Testament carefully, the preferred status with regard to the eschatological angel-like life is clearly the unmarried one. Protestant churches, not only in Hong Kong or China, are invited to recognize celibacy for the sake of Christ as a particular calling within the Church. With such recognition the life of single Christian women is freed from any impression of being deficient.

On Vocation for Single Female Christians in Hong Kong,” in: Urban Christian Spirituality: East Asian and Nordic Perspectives, ed. Thor Strandenaes and Knut Alfsvåg (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2015), 143-152.

[1] Cf. Georg F. Vicedom, ‘Trible Conversion’, in Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission, ed. Stephen Neill, Gerald H. Anderson and John Goodwin, Eds. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971), pp. 605-606.

[2] Cf. Rodney Stark, ‘Reconstructing the Rise of Christianity: The Role of Women’, Sociology of Religion 56/3 (Fall, 1995), pp. 229-244, hereafter 231-233.

[3] Cyprian, The Dress of Virgins (De habitu virginum) 3. Cp. Geoffrey D. Dunn, ‘Cyprian’s Pastoral Care of Women in Carthage’, http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/Dunn.htm 2010-10-11.

[4] Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins (De virginibus velandis) 16.

[5] Cp. Peter Brown, ‘The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church’, in Jean Ledercq, Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff (eds.), Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century (New York: Crossroad, 1985), pp. 427-443.

[6] See Martin Luther, The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows (trans. James Atkinson), in Luther’s Works, Vol. 44: The Christian in Society, ed. James Atkinson (Philadelphia, PA, Fortress Press, 1966), 243-400.

[7] For a considerate and ecumenical discussion compare Bernhard Lohse, Karl Suso Frank, Johannes Halkenhäuser and Friedrich Wulf, ‘Mönchtum’, in Harding Meyer and Heinz Schütte (eds.), Confessio Augustana: Bekenntnis des einen Glaubens (Paderborn: Bonifacius-Druckerei, 1980, 281-318. Article 27,20 of the ‘Augsburg Confession’ at least concedes that one can be excepted to become married by ‘a singular work of God’, whereas the ‘Apology of the Augsburg Confession’ even calls virginity ‘a more excellent gift than marriage’ (Article 23,38-39).

[8] Max Thurian, ‘The Theological Basis for Priestly Celibacy’, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_theol_en.html 2010-10-11.

[9] For further theological considerations from a Protestant point of view compare Johannes Halkenhäuser, Kirche and Kommunität: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und zum Auftrag der kommunitären Bewegung in den Kirchen der Reformation, 2nd ed. (Paderborn: Bonifatius-Druckerei, 1985) and Christoph Joest, Spiritualität evangelischer Kommunitäten. Altkirchlich-monastische Tradition in evangelischen Kommunitäten von heute (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1995).

 

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