The following is a reflection from CBF field personnel Laura Foushee, who serves alongside her husband, Carson, and the Japan Baptist Convention in Tokyo. You can learn more about their ministry and support their work at www.cbf.net/foushee.
I met Rev. Akinori Taguchi, pastor of the first church that Carson and I served in Kanazawa, at the 2012 CBF General Assembly in Fort Worth when he attended as a representative of the Japan Baptist Convention (JBC). Rev. Taguchi took time to meet with me as Carson and I were in the early stages of discerning ministry in Japan with CBF. As we talked, he asked if I had any questions. I asked him, “Are female pastors accepted in Japan? If we come to Japan, I would like to be able to preach as an ordained minister myself.” Rev. Taguchi replied, “No problem.”
That was an important question for me, and his answer has largely held true during my time in Japan. At least within the JBC’s context, I’ve had opportunities to preach and teach like my male counterparts, and I’ve also had the privilege of learning alongside Japanese female pastors and church leaders. In fact, during our time serving the Kanazawa Baptist Church and Toyama Koizumi-Cho Church, their deacon bodies were always majority female. It was not until we moved to Tokyo that we became a part of a larger congregation that had a more equal balance of male and female leadership.
During our time in Japan, I have felt very much at home as the experience has been quite similar to my experiences in CBF churches.
This is a reflection of both theology and context. The JBC as an organization has held firm to a gender-inclusive theology and the Church in Japan has also been heavily influenced by a strong female presence in its membership. Historically, women have had more freedom in abandoning some of the usual familial responsibilities, like caring for the Buddhist graves of ancestors—something that places pressure on some men to not engage in outside religions like Christianity. Women have also historically not been an active part of the workforce, giving them more time to devote to religious activities. Especially in smaller cities and rural areas, women seem to comprise a larger portion of Christians in Japan.
Within the larger society, however, Japanese women have faced severe obstacles in gaining equal rights and pay. In a very traditional culture that is slow to change, Japanese women have had a steeper uphill climb compared to women in the U.S. and Europe. When it comes to balancing a career and parenthood, most women must choose one or the other. The result has been a declining birth rate over the last five decades. Japan ranks at number 121 out of 153 countries in gender equality on the World Economic Forum’s scale.
So, while JBC churches and CBF churches look similar in their inclusion in female leadership, the cultural contexts make a significant difference in how to read the witness of the Church in either country. I like to describe it this way: While most American churches lag behind American culture in gender equality, JBC churches are ahead of Japanese culture in valuing the role of women as leaders.It is an amazing witness, as a minority religious group, to support gender equality as a statement of faith and in contradiction to social norms.
A final note: The JBC is not satisfied with its status on gender equality. In 2019, their general assembly approved an organizational confession, citing many of the ways they had collectively failed to do enough to support and encourage female pastors and leadership—an admission that their practice has not always lived up to their stated beliefs. We continue to be grateful for the ways the JBC honestly reflects on its past and strives to be renewed in Christ.