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An unsolved puzzle

An unsolved puzzle
Published: Apr 26, 2009

Review: A new book on Christianity in Indonesia fails to throw light on the startling prominence of women in the church in Minahasa

Susan Blackburn

A dozen years ago, when I visited Minahasa at Christmas time, my hosts took me to a church service. Minahasa, the largest region of the two million strong province of North Sulawesi, is overwhelmingly Christian and mostly Protestant. I was surprised, in the Protestant church, to find that the sermon was delivered by a female minister, and when I inquired I was told that the majority of Protestant ministers were women. Something that women in churches elsewhere have been working towards for decades was taken for granted in Minahasa. Older people told me that after the Protestant church there broke free from the Dutch Reformed Church, it began in the 1950s to admit women into seminaries, which the colonial church would never have tolerated. As I pointed out, Protestant churches elsewhere in Indonesia were not dominated by women as was the Minahasan church. When I pressed them, older people remembered that in the 1950s women’s entry into the ministry had been controversial – but now it just seemed natural.

For some time I have wondered why no-one has documented this remarkable aspect of Christianity in Minahasa and explained its connection to the culture of the area. It must have had something to do with the enthusiasm with which Minahasans embraced not only Christianity but also modern education for girls: in the early twentieth century the region had the highest education level in the colony of Indonesia, and the highest level of female education. (When I visited the main state university in Minahasa I found that women held most of the top educational positions, including in economics and agriculture.) It may also have had something to do with the fact that before the missionaries came, women were religious leaders in Minahasa, a practice quickly suppressed by the churches.

Occasional reference to books on North Sulawesi and Christianity in Indonesia over the past few years have never revealed to me the secret of Minahasan women’s unique role in the Protestant church. Imagine my anticipation, then, when I came across a newly published book, A History of Christianity in Indonesia, edited by Jan Sihar Aritonang and Karel Steenbrink (Leiden: Brill, 2008). Now that people are free to discuss important religious issues in Indonesia, and now that awareness is so widespread concerning the problem that women pose for all religions (i.e. how much equality religious theology and practice will concede to women), I felt sure that a book published so recently would make up for the past neglect of women in Indonesian Christianity. Amongst its more than 1000 pages, I thought, I would surely find the answer to the mystery of the role of Protestant women in Minahasa. Moreover, the book has a chapter on Christianity in Minahasa!

On my part, this is a story of profound disappointment, disbelief and ultimately anger. First, the book has no entry for ‘women’ in its extensive index. Apparently women are not recognised by the editors as constituting an important issue in Indonesian Christianity, or as being agents within the churches. Secondly, the chapter on Minahasa says nothing at all about women, except to confirm that early missionaries stamped out older religious practices including female religious leadership. I then scoured other possible chapters. A chapter giving a national overview of Christianity in Indonesia from 1800 to 2005 does not mention that women have been an issue in the churches, let alone that they have become ministers of religion. I was about to give up completely when I found that a chapter on ‘Theological thinking by Indonesian Christians, 1850-2000’ does discuss feminism in Indonesian theology in the last couple of decades. At least here the issue of women in Christianity is raised, but inexplicably no recognition is given to how far advanced Minahasa has been in this respect, and how it has pioneered women in the ministry: the region is not mentioned.

The failure to discuss this matter is the more surprising because in other ways the book is very comprehensive. Apart from a straightforward historical section on the spread of Christianity in the archipelago, it has chapters on Christianity in most regions of Indonesia, and on a number of unusual topics such as Chinese Christian communities and Christian art and media in Indonesia. These are all worthy topics, but why has the female half of the congregation suffered such neglect? Surely the churches should be proud of their success in educating girls and, in the Minahasan case, of promoting women in the ministry?

A History of Christianity in Indonesia is written by 26 contributors, mostly from Indonesia and the Netherlands. None of them is a woman. This may have something to do with the failure to discuss women in Christianity in all but one of the 21 chapters of the book. On reflection, I recognise that this book is not so exceptional in being gender-blind. Although anthropologists and sociologists have contributed some fascinating analyses of gender relations in Indonesia (a place where women have long been thought to have relatively high status), most writers have not managed to break through old ways of looking at the world as a place where women rarely do anything of any significance in public life. And religions almost everywhere are very male-dominated. That, of course, is why I found Minahasa to be such an exciting exception. Perhaps the female pastors of Minahasa are an embarrassment to other churches, something to be hidden from view. The history of women in the Minahasan Protestant church remains to be written.     ii

Jan Sihar Aritonang and Karel Steenbrink (eds) A History of Christianity in Indonesia (Leiden: Brill, 2008) ISBN 978 90 04 17026 1, hardback, 1004 pages

Susan Blackburn ( is an associate professor in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. One of her recent books is Women and the State in Modern Indonesia (Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009

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