Lutheran Church of Taiwan: a vital piece of the puzzle

3 Jan 2023

As Rev. Selma Chen takes over as one of the first female Lutheran leaders in Asia, she reflects on the challenges of deepening Lutheran identity and improving relations with the majority Buddhist and Daoist population of Taiwan.

Rev. Selma Chen

Rev. Selma Chen, is the new President of The Lutheran Church of Taiwan (Republic of China). Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert

President Selma Chen shares hopes and challenges on becoming one of Asia’s first female Lutheran leaders 

(LWI) - The new president of the Lutheran Church of Taiwan (Republic of China) (LCT) Rev. Selma Chen (Shu-Chen), made history this month when she took up her post as the first woman to lead a Lutheran church in her country. Elected in October for a three-year term, she becomes one of the first female Lutheran leaders in the whole Asia region. 

A Council member of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Chen sees the strengthening of Lutheran identity and the development of ties with the global communion of churches as two of her top priorities, alongside increasing the church’s financial sustainability. She lists the improvement of ecumenical ties and interfaith relations with the majority Buddhist and Daoist population as two other significant challenges for the years ahead. 

Interreligious origins 

Chen says she was “lucky to grow up in a Christian family,” after her late father was baptized by Presbyterian missionaries in an army hospital in the early 1960s. “He saw how those doctors and staff worked with the soldiers from China who sometimes behaved so rudely, asking how they could be so patient and loving towards those people,” she says. “He saw how their faith gave meaning to their lives through service to others.” 

Chen’s mother came from “a traditional conservative Buddhist and Daoist family,” including an uncle who was a Shaman, an indigenous faith leader. “My father took me to church every Sunday, but my mum, my four sisters and I were not baptized until after my grandpa passed away, as he would have been very unhappy with that,” she recalls. 

At 12 years old, Chen became the youngest Sunday school teacher in her church, but at that time she had no plans to become a pastor or church worker. “I wanted to join the army to help save my country, as I had been brought up with the anti-communist education,” she says, referring to the civil war between the mainland Chinese Communist Party and the Republic of China government in exile in Taiwan. 

When I read those words [from Proverbs] I realized I was trying to escape from what I already knew in my heart.

– Rev. Selma Chen, President of the Lutheran Church of Taiwan (Republic of China)

Members of her church tried to change her mind, urging her to become “a soldier for Christ” instead. Unbeknown to her, one man began praying for her vocation each week for four years. Another shared with her a verse from Proverbs 16:9. “When I read those words about humans always making plans but it is only the Lord who guides their way, I realized I was trying to escape from what I already knew in my heart,” Chen says. 

After four years of seminary study, Chen graduated in 1992, the same year that the LCT was considering whether or not to admit women to the ordained ministry. After lengthy debate, church leaders went back to their constitution and discovered that there was no mention of gender and therefore no reason to exclude women from ministry. The first three female pastors were ordained 12 years after that decision, in 2004. “I knew then that one day we would have a woman president as well,” she says, “but we had to wait until the congregation was ready for that female leadership.” 

While her own colleagues welcome her ministry, relations are more difficult with the other Lutheran churches in Taiwan that do not ordain women (including three that are not LWF members). “There is no close cooperation with them, except through the board of the Lutheran seminary where all six churches are represented,” Chen explains. Part of the reason is that each church was established in a different area of Taiwan when they came from mainland China, with each developing “different work, theology and practices.”  

Living a Christian life 

Today LCT has six congregations in rural areas, another seven in the north around the capital Taipei and six in urban areas around the south of the main island. “Even though we are not all in rural areas any more, many of our people come from the countryside, they are not city people,” Chen notes. “Many are used to following the traditional lunar or farmers’ calendar, which is often combined with Daoist beliefs. We tell them not to follow that but we need to replace it with something, so we have started to promote the church’s liturgical calendar, helping them to live according to the cycle of Christ’s life.” 

Promoting a deeper understanding of Lutheran identity and the way that it is lived out through love and service to neighbor is a key focus for Chen’s ministry. Many pastors, she notes, come from other churches and focus more on pietistic practices and converting others,” she observes. “In LCT we try to show people how to live a Christian life, to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus. What does this mean? It means that, through baptism, our life has been transformed to be able to face the challenges of our contemporary world.” 

These include the need to promote dialogue with other Christian churches and to improve relations with the majority Buddhist population of Taiwan. “This is a huge challenge,” Chen says, “as many pastors are unwilling to have any contact with people that they say don’t believe in God. Some even describe them as evil or unclean and ask me why I have invited friends to visit Buddhist and Daoist temples.” 

Transformation through dialogue 

Conversion to Christianity can be particularly difficult for young people who often discover the faith at university, but may be told not to attend traditional celebrations such as the lunar new year or even the funerals of family members to avoid traditional worship rituals. “This creates many tensions and there is so much work to do to help them share the gospel in ways that do not create divisions in families,” Chen says. 

Chen’s interest in dialogue stems from her first term as an LWF Council member from 2003 to 2010, when she served on the former Committee for Ecumenical Affairs. “I noticed how rich these dialogues with people of different beliefs were for the church and it has really influenced my own ministry,” she says. 

“As a member of LCT’s executive committee, I always brought news of LWF to my church as I believe this can give us new ideas and can transform us,” she continues. “Most people know very little about the global communion, but I really hope to help people get to know others in the Body of Christ, to build up this beautiful picture. In Taiwan, we are such a small church, but I see this like a puzzle where we can share our parts – even the smallest ones. My goal is to share more and encourage people to join in LWF programs so that Taiwan does not become the lost piece of the puzzle.”

The Lutheran Church of Taiwan (Republic of China) is one of the three LWF member churches in Taiwan. Led by Rev. Selma Chen (Shu-Chen), it has 1,758 members and it joined the LWF in 1984. 

LWF/P. Hitchen