First a missionary, then a scholar, Dr Wong-Suk Ma shares with City News his journey of obeying God.
Few people have had as long and fulfilling a career as Dr Wonsuk Ma and his wife, Dr Julie Ma. Currently the distinguished professor of Global Christianity at Oral Roberts University, Dr Ma once spent 27 years in the Philippines, reaching out to tribal villages up in the mountains.
Born and raised in Korea, Dr Ma became a minister at an Assemblies Of God church located at the original place where Dr David Yonggi Cho set up his first tent church. After his stint in the Philippines, he went on to serve as the executive director and David Yonggi Cho Research Tutor of Global Christianity at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. He has participated in various international mission and ecumenical functions, including the Reformed and Pentecostal Dialogue, Edinburgh 2010, the Lausanne Movement, and various ecumenical conferences including the World Council of Churches and the Global Christian Forum.
Dr Ma has authored and edited 13 books, in addition to numerous scholarly writings. At the Global Pentecostal Summit held from 3 to 6 Nov, the professor presented a paper “Toward Spirit-Empowered Leadership: An Old Testament Foundation”. The paper studied the weaknesses of the charismatic leadership model popularised by Max Weber in 1904 and offers an alternative: Spirit-filled empowered leadership. He also explored four essential characteristics of the Spirit-empowered leaders from the Old Testament.
He sat down with City News to talk about how God has ordered his steps throughout his career, and also about the paper he presented on Spirit-empowered leadership.
Dr Ma, your paper is truly inspiring. Especially in your conclusion where you say that the life of a Spirit-empowered leader is one that most people would avoid, but their ultimate reward is God Himself. Have you encountered that personally in your years of ministry?
Yes, I have. Whether I was a fully Spirit-empowered leader or not, is another question (smiles).
Together with Julie, I spent 27 years in the Philippines as a missionary. We believe God called us, but from the very beginning, we had to struggle to survive. Nobody believed that we were missionaries because the Korean Assemblies of God did not even have a mission department at that time—it was the early ’70s. Yet God’s call is even more important than what the denomination believes. So, that’s the cost of leadership.
But the reward is something that you cannot exchange, even your hardship cannot be compared. So yes, I experienced this in the Philippines, and when we started in Oxford Centre for Missions Studies.
When we began our tribal ministry, the circumstance was quite challenging. First of all, there were communist rebels still around. Perhaps on two or three occasions, our lives were at risk. But you know, God spared us. Only afterwards did we realise, “Wow! God, You did that!”
But more importantly, by the time we left the Philippines, there were at least six villages that were completely evangelised. There was a small elementary school that was closed when we were there. The teacher told us that they would resume classes after we left.
So, everything in those villages operated around the church and that was very rewarding. Julie had done extensive research on those churches and why the Pentecostal message has been standing out and bringing people to God. Because signs and wonders always prove that God is the supreme God. He is powerful but He’s also really loving.
What led you out of the mission fields and eventually to Oral Roberts University today as a distinguished professor of global Christianity?
It’s a God thing. It was when our lives, especially ministry were just flourishing, and there was nothing more I can ask for. Praise the Lord that by the time we left the Philippines, there were about 160 churches—small and large churches—all over the mountains. More importantly, each year about 10 to 12 new churches come out of those existing churches. It is such a delight.
God told us very clearly—first of all to my wife—that our time is up. I thought we’d be spending the rest of our lives in the Philippines. She said, “No, when God says you are done, we should be done.”
We let our community know that we would no longer be around and available for service. Where we would go, we did not know, but we believed that it was God Who would lead us. So eventually, God led us to the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. A number of our previous students are here at the summit, so it is just a delight.
OCMS was where I took the Spirit-empowered mission to a global level from Asia. Julia and I were able to publish a book called The Mission In The Spirit while we were at OCMS. The school has an incredibly influential community, impacting the Lausanne Movement, the World Council of Churches, and especially the Edinburgh 2010 Conference.
From there again, 10 years later we felt that our time was up, even though we could see that is a good life. The influence is just incredible to the world church, but we longed for a community that is Spirit-filled where we could spend the rest of our lives. Out of nowhere, Oral Roberts University approached us, and it was a struggle. Because at that age, we were worried about packing and crossing an ocean so we sought God’s will for a long time and God confirmed it.
Wow! Your life has been an adventure with God—moving whenever He calls.
It’s a little bit like yesterday’s sermon (referring to Dr Brian Stiller’s devotion on Saturday morning). When you live in the tent, you’re always ready to move when God says so. I think that speaks about all our lives—we are sojourners in this world. When God calls, it’s such a delight. Although it comes with the cost of following him, there is no better life than following God.
If I have another life, I’d do it again.
This topic is talked about in hushed voices, but you’ve put it out there. What compelled you to bring this topic of Spirit-empowered leadership (versus charismatic) into the open?
My Old Testament study for my PhD was the Spirit of God in Isaiah. I started this journey a long time ago and I realised how the Spirit of God in the Old Testament had a distinctive role—in choosing, empowering and sending selected leaders. So, I looked at our own lives and our contemporary situation—how God is raising Spirit-empowered leaders using them in incredible ways, despite human weaknesses and struggles.
First of all, when God called, everybody said, “No, I’m not ready”, “No, you have the wrong address”, “I’m too young”, “How can I say to the people because they do not know me? They don’t recognise me.” But God eventually comes in and says, “I will be with you. I will empower you, I will work with you, and I will protect you.” Because that is God’s job when He invites us to partner with Him.
Also, we see failures in leaders because we are humans. This includes faith leaders like Samson and successful leaders like David—even then, David had human weaknesses and failures. Yet the Holy Spirit Who selects them and empowers them will carry them through the restoration, renewing their lives and leadership. That’s what God is after.
The charismatic leadership model focuses on a leader’s gifts and talents, and those things are easy to measure. For the Spirit-empowered leader, it is much harder to recognise one. What is your view on that?
The attraction of the charismatic leadership model is the measure of ability because performance is the ultimate goal, right?
But think about Isaiah. Throughout the ages, his prophecies have been inspiring and guiding us. Think about the actual life of Isaiah. He was rejected by kings. Even at the very beginning, when God called him, it wasn’t, “Isaiah, I’m calling”; it was a very indirect way. Yet God somehow drew the curtains and this human being was allowed to see what was going on in the divine world. God was making a plan to bring His people back to a loving relationship with God.
Isaiah was to be a silent observer, but he told God he would go. What did God say? “Even if we go, people will not listen to you.” That sets out the challenging life of Isaiah, but Isaiah was so compelled by this call of God—even though it’s indirect—the privilege of partnering with God and God using his life for His purpose. He gladly and willingly said “I will go.”
In cases like this, how do you measure? You cannot! Only when we look back in history, we say Isaiah is a great man of God. His ministry and prophecies, inspired God’s people in exile, to have the vision of returning to and rebuilding Jerusalem and restoring the loving relationship with God. Beyond that, the prophecy is still speaking to us. Just think about that.
You used Saul as an example of failed Spirit-empowered leadership, which is frankly quite terrifying. How should church leaders apply your proposal of Spirit-empowered leadership? How should they recruit and train new leaders?
Yes, I think one of my four points was the continuing, repeating, empowerment cycle. It is how you nurture the next generation. It is one thing that your generation is Spirit-empowered, but if it ends with your generation, what’s the future of God’s kingdom? We must believe that God is going to call the next generation, who will stand even taller than us because they will be standing on our shoulders, just like we were able to stand on the previous generations’.
I think communities like this (CHC) will always provide a space to encourage them to listen to God. The Spirit’s empowerment is given to everyone. Although in the Old Testament, it was only given to selected people, Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled in Acts 2. Now, every one of God’s people has the Spirit of God. What we want is for them to have a fullness of the Spirit so they will become Spirit-empowered leaders.
Oftentimes, God’s people are called to the life of leadership. I think the challenge will be to find the specific area that God is calling you to, so your gifting is important. And the confirmation that each individual would have with God is important. Our job in raising the next generation is not only bringing the world to the fold of God’s kingdom but also raising them to be leaders, Spirit-empowered leaders for the next generation.
How can a church work towards being a “Spirit-empowered community”; especially in Asia where our societies are largely patriarchal? What if a woman is Spirit-empowered but there has never been a woman leading that church?
Thank you! That is a very important question, because all along we talked about the emerging leaders, but we haven’t talked about how the church has to position itself to become leader-makers of God’s Spirit. It is not only about training them but the church should embody what it is teaching.
My wife Julie spoke about women leadership. I think it’s about living out what you believe, as a man and woman, young and old, slave or free. We’re all called by God for empowerment and leadership.
It is important who the younger generation of the church sees on the stage. Is it only men? Only the elderly, with white hair? We saw the children that were there at the Saturday service. They were not just the performers, but they also spoke out messages.
It was so encouraging to hear Pastor Elizabeth’s testimony last night. In the tribal world, women do not have a position. But she embodies what she’s teaching and becomes the queen of the tribe. It’s not just personal transformation, but a social transformation can be realised through Spirit-empowered living, witnessing and leadership.
Is it countercultural in the Philippines for Pastor Elizabeth to lead the tribe?
It is. Church from the beginning was countercultural. What Jesus said, “Love your enemies”— counterculture. “Those who are poor in the spirit are blessed”—countercultural.
Pentecostal movement—again, countercultural. Racial segregation was not only a norm but also required by law in those days. But He had the black, the white celebrating, praying, and worshipping together. There is always a countercultural element of the gospel, that is why the church is the salt and the light of the world.