Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women (Zondervan, 2010), 206 pages.
It is no secret that women outnumber men in most church settings. Nor is it a secret that women across the world suffer unspeakable pain and injustice with no real way of escape. Both of these realities led Carolyn Custis James to write the book Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women. James writes to expose the suffering of women worldwide and to call Christian women to action. She believes women in the American church are not fully realizing God’s call on them, and as a result are not at the forefront of helping women throughout the world who are suffering and oppressed.
James bases many of her arguments on the recent book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression of Women into Opportunity Worldwide by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof. When she read the book in 2009, it opened her eyes to the atrocities happening to women across the globe. She also saw that Christians were largely not the ones to respond the loudest to these global problems.
Implied by the book title, James believes that women in the church have been unable, and many times not allowed, to fully realize their spiritual gifting. As a result the church is deficient of the involvement of more than half of the church (19). In addition, she sees the American church’s definition of womanhood as a hindrance to the woman saved out of a brothel in India, implying that a conservative understanding of gender will actually discourage oppressed women rather than give them hope (120-123). In her assessment, for women to be able minister in an increasingly globalized world, something has to change.
In a prevailing book theme, James calls on women to embrace a “full-orbed gospel” (24). What she means by this is that the gospel of Jesus Christ involves social justice, empowerment, opportunity, and most notably ministry opportunities (35). She says that a clear gospel vision for women includes freeing them to serve alongside their brothers in Christ (49). What the global church needs, James says, is a broader vision for women than simply being a wife and mother. When we define their roles in the home and the church in only those terms we marginalize women and hold back half the church from exercising their gifts (41, 101-103).
Some Troubling Implications
James, however, leaves the impression that the role of wife and mother is a lesser one compared to the greater global impact women can and should have. James rightfully exposes a deficiency in our churches when she says that women who are single or childless need a vision for womanhood that includes them. Rather than shunning marriage and motherhood as lesser options for fruitfulness, however, our churches need an all-encompassing vision for what it means to be a life-giver in every season of life.
More troubling, James contends that the gospel message gives women freedom to minister without restraints. This interpretation of a “full-orbed gospel” leads James to focus the majority of her book on women leading and ministering boldly. Taking the Genesis account of God’s command to rule and subdue, James sees this as a mandate for both men and women (68-78). In this command, she says, we are given God’s “original vision, namely, that he is raising up his daughters to be leaders” (77).
Her conclusions about gender are most evident in chapters on the role of women and submission. James shuns the notion that Eve was created to be a “helper” to Adam; rather she sees them both as co-regents in the “war zone” that is Eden (113). She asserts that we have misunderstood the translation of ezer (helper), which has led to women being held back from what God designed for them (111-115). Men and women were designed to be strong warriors together in God’s kingdom, not divided by roles and responsibilities. It is only when we understand our identity as ezer that we can begin to be freed to live as fully realized followers of Christ, she writes.
This understanding of a woman’s identity leads into her chapter on submission. By beginning with a story about a child bride in Yemen, she implies that submission is not only unhelpful to an oppressed woman, but also unbiblical (119-120). She seems to equate oppression with submission. Believing abuse and oppression to be by-products of submission only numbs us to the pain true victims feel and only worsens their trauma. Throughout the chapter, and the entire book, she presents female biblical characters as ones who revolt against submission and lead courageously. In doing this she paints submission with a broad brush without ever dealing with the full meaning of the texts. Oppressed women do not need autonomy and freedom from authority so much as a Savior who provides for them, protects them, and leads them to himself.
James positions her book as a Christian response to Half the Sky, but without any real solutions for the plight of women worldwide, this really is just another book about gender in the church aimed towards women. And while James never says which position she takes (egalitarian or complementarian), her language and conclusions seem to lean egalitarianism. By attempting to combat the conservative position of women in the church, along with the plight of women worldwide, James comes across as trying to do too much. For the pre-teen girl in the Middle East forced to marry a man three times her age, equating her situation to that of women not being able to use their gifts in the church seems like a stretch at best, and diminishes her plight at worst.
Courtney Reissig has written for The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Daniel, a youth pastor at New Heights Baptist Church and a SBTS student. They live in Louisville, KY and she blogs regularly at In View of God's Mercy.