Dr Julie Ma shares her experience as a female Asian scholar in academia, as well as her views on missions.
Dr Julie Ma, born in South Korea, is a professor of undergraduate theology at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, whose academic area is intercultural studies and mission. She has had over 20 years of teaching experience, spending 10 years at the Pacific Theological Seminary in the Philippines as a missionary professor, and another 10 years at the Oxford Center Mission Studies as a research tutor.
Dr Ma is also renowned as a missionary. She spent 27 years in the Philippines where, together with her husband Dr Wonsuk Ma, she was involved in evangelism, training and church planting among tribal people groups in the mountains.
At the Global Pentecostal Summit held from 3 to 6 Nov, Dr Ma presented her paper on “Women’s Leadership In Asia And Their Influence On Global Christianity”. Sharing from her personal experience as a theologian and a missionary, she discussed the challenges faced by women, particularly in the Global South where gender inequality in education and opportunities is common, and exhorted them to recognise their God-given gifts and to use them for the Kingdom. Her session left a deep impact on many in the audience, both women and men.
In this interview, Dr Ma shares her insights on what it takes for women to challenge stereotypes and take on more prominent roles in Christian education and faith.
Being an Asian female theologian, what are some of the challenges that you have had to navigate in academic circles?
I was quite concerned about how I was going to be accepted by both female and male scholars when I attended conferences and presented my paper as an Asian scholar. But I tried to change my attitude. I was very much concerned about whether I was going to be accepted or not. I’ve since learned to take it as it is. And I tell myself, it will take time—not everything will work out within split seconds. When I had the right kind of attitude, I started to feel comfortable, and I was at peace.
Where would you say that your confidence comes from? Obviously, it comes from God and knowing that you’re doing God’s will, but would you say that it also comes from your wealth of knowledge and education?
Yes, I think that is quite correct. In my session, I shared a little bit about how I built my confidence. Especially when I was in the United Kingdom, and the people—especially in Oxford, they really have a kind of pride in who they are. I didn’t work hard at trying to fit in or to be a part of that. But during the seminar or in a time of discussion, I would share that I am a mission scholar, and I know the area, and people go, “Oh yeah, you’re different: you’re an Asian woman, but your knowledge is far beyond.”
You said in your session that to be used by God, one needs to have preparation and development. How can a woman do that, practically speaking?
I came up with these things as I was experiencing them, not from the beginning. I didn’t prepare myself but as I looked back at how I went through all this, I realised that preparation is important and has to be developed.
In terms of preparation, as I said, not every woman needs to take a PhD or a doctoral degree. But even lay women (ministers) must prepare themselves in their hearts, in their minds, and especially in the spiritual areas. Tell God, “I want to be used by You, help me to prepare myself.”
Of course, if you have a chance to earn a degree, you can do that. You can even do distance learning, take courses like counselling, missions or theology, and you’ll learn a lot of different things. That may not be the ultimate purpose, but through gaining knowledge, you can be useful. That’s one of the ways to prepare.
Also, as you earn a degree or prepare your heart, you also have to develop your spiritual gift. We want to see healing take place, and God demonstrating His power, but how are we going to experience that and let others experience that? You pray for somebody and God answers your prayer—God will heal that person because you prayed. That’s part of developing your gift.
Complementarianism is common in affluent Asian churches. They believe God created men and women equal in their essential dignity and personhood, but different and complementary in function (roles and responsibilities). Many still feel that there should be male headship in the church and also in the home. How would you respond to that?
I think it has to do with a man’s mindset—some men are a little authoritative. I’ve heard of a Korean man who would ask his wife to do everything. When he wakes up in the morning, he will ask his wife to bring him water, a brush, everything. He doesn’t move from his bed—that is his attitude. There is another man, very similar to that. He said, “I am a king at home.” Somebody responded, “Then your wife is the queen?” And his answer was, “No. She’s just a housewife taking care of the house.” No matter how people tried to persuade him, he wouldn’t listen.
My son says, “Mom, you are head of the house, but Papa, you are head of the family.” We are both heads, but we are flexible. Sometimes, you can be the head and I’m under you, other times, I can be the head—it depends on the situation.
I like to acknowledge the headship of my husband, but I don’t think I can be submissive all the time. And I’m not his subordinate. But as the heads, both husband and wife as you know, must be working and doing things together, hand in hand. Equality but mutual respect. Yeah, I think that’s the key.
What advice would you give to Singaporean women who are affluent? We are well-educated and have careers, and we also juggle family.
Whether it’s Singaporean women, Korean women, or American women, my answer will be this: if you want to be used by God, you need to prepare yourself.
But I’ve noticed Singaporean women are capable even in church. As I mentioned, there are couples who are both pastoral staff and they work together, being treated equally. I was very, very impressed. The senior pastor’s wife was invited to conclude the meeting with a closing prayer—I’ve not seen this anywhere else. I see great openness in Rev Kong Hee and I deeply appreciate his inclusion of women—not only his wife, but other women ministers as well.
Any Christian woman who comes to City Harvest Church can serve beautifully. Once they are involved in ministry, they just need to equip themselves very well. Don’t be mediocre—do your best to serve God, not second best. That attitude is very important. And then develop more and more through listening to all the different things.
How did you start doing missions in the Philippines?
That’s a very long story. But I will sum it up. My husband went to the Philippines to study at a theological seminary established by the Assembly of God USA, to train Asian leaders and missionaries. We couldn’t go together because of visa issues, so he went ahead.
When I joined him later, I saw a change in him. He had become a missionary and he was giving what he had to the locals who were so poor. I really needed to adjust to the situation. So, I prayed for one year with fasting. I prayed, “Lord, I pray that either he changes back to who he was before, or you change me to be like him.”
You know what? I gradually changed and I started becoming a missionary. I began to give to local people more than my husband. It was a great, great change. I was actively involved in ministries—prison ministry, teaching ministry, training local people and more. I wrote PhD thesis out of these experiences, on how the gospel is contextualised.
Having lived and taught in the Philippines, what are your thoughts on short-term missions? If a church sends out teams to the mission field for a week or two each time, is that effective or sustainable, as opposed to sending a missionary to live there and practise mission as a lifestyle among the people?
I don’t think you can expect to see any fruit; you just plant the seed. You plant the seed and that takes time to grow, blossom and bear fruit. It all takes time. And somebody has to water. It can be you or someone else. Then another may bear fruit in time, a certain time—that is how I would describe short-term missions. You cannot expect to bear fruit right away. Impossible.
But planting seed is very important. If no one plants, there is no one who can water and bear fruit—so that is important. Short-term missions are good because how will you know it is good, and how will you be able to describe it unless you taste it?
How do we apply theological education to practical mission work, particularly in areas where survival and daily needs are a priority among the people?
I’m not sure if it was a theologian or a missiologist who said good theology never brings revival. Theology must be very practical theology. Whether New Testament, Old Testament, or systematic theology—they must be applied to the inner reality. If it remains in the air, theology can never play its important role.
In slum areas, or to those people who are in poverty, no theological education at the start. Maybe later if they want to grow more in the Lord, then they’d need to hear about the theological aspect of certain things. However, when you are doing ministry, you can reflect on theological aspects. For example, “Who is God? Who is Jesus? Who is the Holy Spirit?” I can ask them such questions, and then provide the answer for them. “What is love?” That’s a very abstract term. I can go to 1 Corinthians 13 and explain from there. Love is not just giving, but their giving must be done with wisdom. If you give too much, the one who receives may feel overwhelmed, and they will step back. If I am involved in ministry in slums or with neglected people, then I may do it that way, rather than teach them deep things because they do not have any foundation.
In your paper, you talked about constructing “the Christian history, spiritual journey and conciliation with conventional culture and religion” among the mountain tribal communities in the Philippines. What advice would you have for us as our church is embarking on similar kinds of missions to unreached people groups? What are some pitfalls we need to be aware of?
This is a very important question. The first thing is, when the missionary comes, they are so eager to teach and to preach. But you do not know whether these people are ready or not. For me or for missionaries in general, when you arrive in a certain mission field, the first thing we should do is to learn who they are, learn their culture, practices, mind, setting, their relationship level—learn all these first.
Learning is so important for effective mission work. Learn about their relationships, how they relate to each other, their body movement, and facial expressions—all these are very important. Your hand gestures, how do you ask a person to come forward? Your eye movement, the nodding of your head. All these carry certain messages.
The next thing that I’d like to say is to build relationships with the people. You reflect the love of Christ and Who Christ is. So, building relationships is very, very important. Try to build relationships the way they build relationships—not your way, not the American way or Korean way, but their way. And they will see, “Oh, this person already learned something” and they will appreciate it; there will be a general openness. Then you share the gospel—not with the theological aspects—the gospel is very practical: How Jesus approached the Samaritan woman, how He engaged her, and how she responded. You can learn a lot from this message.
What is your takeaway from the Global Pentecostal Summit?
I think this is an exemplary partnership between scholarship and the local church. I have attended many conferences and many summits in different parts of the world but they do it among their own scholars. They’d find a place in a school rather than in a local church. Like Vanguard University will host, or Oral Roberts University will host, without having a local church to be part of it.
This Pentecostal Summit being hosted by this church is so exemplary for me. I was very impressed by this church because they have prepared everything. Some people have a negative notion about megachurches. But not for me. Look at this megachurch and how it is effectively used by God. Some megachurches should learn this and apply it in their church. Some churches have become ingrown churches, just focusing on their own activities, their own things. How are they going to be witnesses? Doing important activities through publishing this, sharing information, and presentations, so people can learn. Not only your church members but also other church members will learn many things about women and other issues.