Book Review: Half the Church, by Carolyn Custis James

I have pretty mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it is a refreshing alternative to the usual, overstated egalitarian versus complementarian dogmatism. Although written from a decidedly egalitarian perspective, it moves past the debate to focus on the privilege and responsibility women have (as God’s image bearers) to live out the gospel and fight for justice in the world.

On the other hand, it is a case study in how even the most relevant and valuable insights can be diminished when they are stretched beyond their limits in order to promote an agenda—however valid and well-intentioned that agenda may be.

Overview

In Half The Church, Carolyn Custis James issues a compelling challenge not only to women, but to the church as a whole. She urges the body of Christ to recognize, encourage, and utilize the potential that lies dormant and untapped in “half” of the church—specifically the female half. The basis of this authentic and passionate appeal for men and women (the Blessed Alliance) to shoulder Kingdom work together is threefold:

1. An exploration of the biblical evidence for God’s vision for women

2. A look at the messages women are receiving both globally and within the context of the American church

3. An expose of the atrocities and injustices committed against women worldwide and the inadequacy of the church’s response

God’s Vision for Women

This is huge. Whatever conclusion a woman comes to about gender roles, her identity and purpose are ultimately shaped by her understanding of how God sees her. I can attest to the fact that the (understandably) male focused Scriptures, and the majority male leadership within the church do produce in some women a frightening suspicion that, in the eyes of God, men might somehow be more significant than women.

James does a thorough job of dismantling this painful and crippling misconception by going back to the beginning—the account of the creation of the first humans. While I greatly appreciate her overall contribution on this issue, I do have a critique here.

In chapter 5, The Ezer Unbound, we are introduced to the Hebrew words èzer (help, helper) and kenegdo (corresponding) from Genesis 2. Kenegdo, we are told, has come to us as the familiar meet (as in help-meet) only through an interesting etymological process in English. Literally, it is opposite to or in front of, meaning corresponding or counterpart. So far, so good. James also rightly acknowledges that most of the post-Genesis 2 occurrences of èzer describe God as Israel’s helper—in a military context. This means that there is nothing in the word that implies weakness or inferiority. In fact, it carries with it the idea of strong support, or ally. Here James offers a powerful affirmation that men and women are of equal worth in the sight of God, and that each is a strength, support, and ally to the other.

But then I think the author goes too far. Not dealing with (among other things) the fact that the root àzar (to help) is used in both military and non-military contexts, she proceeds to equate an èzer with a warrior and uses this as the working definition of God’s design for women for the remainder of the book.

Putting the facts together, isn’t it obvious that the ezer is a warrior? And don’t we already know this in our bones? God created his daughters to be ezer-warriors with our brothers. (113)

Whether or not women are warriors, I think this treatment of the text lacks integrity and unnecessarily distorts what is otherwise a healing and empowering concept for women who have been hurt by a flawed understanding of Biblical womanhood.

Messages to Women

I found this theme particularly helpful and challenging. It is easy to think of what it means to be a Christian woman only in terms of my own experience as a cherished and respected wife and mother, in a privileged nation, with a multiplicity of choices and freedoms at my disposal. While it is vital that I determine what it means to live for God in my own context, James points out that to think exclusively in these terms leaves a large percentage of the world’s women out of the conversation.

What about those who are single, never had children, or are empty-nesters. What about underprivileged, impoverished, abused, or even tyrannized women? How are they to understand God’s vision for their lives? Is my notion of Biblical womanhood big enough to include all women? James says it had better be. I think she’s right.

Global thinking raises deeper questions and sends us in search of answers that are expansive and dynamic enough to frame every woman’s life from birth to death. Within this wider global context, we will discover—for their sakes and ours—the true strength of God’s message for women. (37)

And the message according to James? As God’s image-bearers with the co-responsibility to rule and subdue the earth, women are to proactively serve and lead alongside men, boldly living out kingdom priorities, bringing restoration and healing to a broken and hurting world.

God is shaking his daughters awake and summoning us to engage. His vision for us is affirming and raises the bar for all of us. We cannot settle for less. We have work to do. There’s a kingdom to build, and what we do truly matters. (192)

I appreciated this stirring and articulate call to action, but found it complicated by another message that, ironically, excludes many women from the conversation. It may not have been the intention, but it is difficult to come away from the book without the sense that women who are convinced that the Bible affirms male authority in the home or church (or even those who fully embrace traditional roles) are forfeiting the ability to offer their all to God and have a meaningful impact in the world.

It is not godly to hold back our gifts and to know less (or pretend we know less) so that men can lead. (164)

True enough, but the context implies that this is the obvious outcome of complementarianism. It seems to me that these kinds of unfair categorizations could be avoided without compromising the overall potency of the message.

Global Awareness and the Great Debate

Half the Church is largely a response to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunuity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Kristof and WuDunn’s stories of oppression and atrocities against females, together with the incredible tales of those who have survived and gone on to courageously make a difference for others ignited a fire in James’ heart.

Ashamed that, according to her sources, Christians represent neither the loudest voice nor the strongest effort to turn the tide for these women and girls, James asks us to seriously consider our priorities. Due to technological advances and recent history, our awareness of brutality, human trafficking, and abuse worldwide has been greatly increased—and with that awareness, argues James—our responsibility has also increased. By pooling our resources, we have the ability to make a real difference both in our own communities and in those around the world.

In light of this, James challenges believers to take our focus off of shallow, counterproductive bickering over disputable matters (in this case, particulars of the egalitarian/complementarian debate) and set our minds on higher things, working together to be God’s agents of love, justice, and compassion in the world.

Like quarrelling siblings, we are arguing over how to divide a pie so everyone gets their fair share while the neighbor’s house is on fire. (161)

This may be the most important message in the book.

And that is why I dislike confessing that I also find some inconsistency here. Though the most hotly debated texts are not engaged in its pages, Half the Church could hardly be more egalitarian in its approach. Considering her fervent appeal to avert our attention from the debate, it felt to me like James wanted to ‘have her cake and eat it too.’ Clearly, she is passionate about this topic. I commend her for that. Still—whether she is right or wrong—I can’t help but think it would have served her stated purpose better had she adopted a more neutral tone in regards to her position in this debate.

Conclusion

Do I recommend this book? Well…sort of. I can’t say I liked it, but there are reasons one might want to read it. Half the Church is an easy and interesting read. It has some valuable insights and it offers a much needed rebuttal to complacent, self-centered, and tunnel-visioned Christianity. It answers, in a deep and (mostly) healthy way, life-shaping questions concerning female identity and purpose—questions I know women are asking. And finally, even if you find yourself disagreeing with James, her thoughts are worth engaging. Hers is a strong and intelligent voice and this is no dry, technical discussion, reserved only for theologians to banter about on their blogs. This book will be read at the popular level—I suspect—significantly influencing the thoughts of a generation of Christians.

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