Book Review: Half the Church

Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women
by Carolyn Custis James
Publisher: Zondervan

Initially this book was a project that would collect her ideas (to-date) about women, the church, and God’s vision for women. But plans changed when Carolyn Custis James read best-seller, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It is a startling, unsettling exposé of what life is like for oppressed women around the world. Inspired to take action, James penned her response: Half the Church. It is a passionate plea for the church to realize God’s global vision for women and to export it for the sake of women and girls around the world. James explains, “What started out as a quest to find reassurance that we matter to God, that our identity in him is rock solid, and that our purpose is secure expands in this book to include an overt call to action.”

No Christian would argue that the church ought to be positioned on the front lines, feet fitted with gospel readiness, in the battle for human rights for every single people group around the world, especially for the cause of vulnerable women and children. I am very thankful that the church in this generation is finding a way to forge ahead with social justice in one hand and the gospel in the other. In many instances, Christian women are leading that charge. I wholeheartedly agree with James when she says, “This is a moment for us to put on display before a watching world the greatness and beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the radical difference he makes in relationships between men and women as we serve him together. This is a time for us to value and foster the flourishing of women and girls and to join together in leading in global advocacy and activism on behalf of the widow, the trafficked, the marginalized, and oppressed. Blessings from God carry responsibility for others.” Yes and amen!

In building her case for this call to action and in defending it with scripture, however, James contends with the church and with the gospel. Half the Church takes on more than the egalitarian-complementarian debate; James refuses to engage the reader in thinking through relevant texts and their implications because other theologians have already done that and because women are dying while the church entertains itself with debate (p. 161). Instead, she accuses the church of injustice (p. 163) and repeatedly asserts that the church’s message isn’t global enough, isn’t robust, isn’t grand enough to give hope to women everywhere (p. 40). She wants the church to answer three questions:

1. What message does the church offer women in the twenty-first century?
2. What will the church do to address the rampant suffering of women throughout our world?
3. What message are we sending to the world by how we value and mobilize our own daughters?

James concludes that the North American church must enlarge its message for the women of the world who are suffering under the oppressive hands of men because exporting the message of marital submission and motherhood is not helpful or beneficial to them, in fact, it is life-threatening (p. 34-ff and p. 162, “Ask Sapphira what she thinks now about absolute submission to male authority.”). To accomplish this, the church must rethink Genesis 2-3 (“Identity Theft” and “Bearing God’s Image in a Broken World”), greater utilize women (half the church) and their gifts (“The Shaping of a Leader’s Soul” and “The Ezer Unbound”), and offer women “real” leadership positions in the church (“Here Comes the Bride!” and “The Blessed Alliance”). Christian women must begin the global dialogue, take their places as the ezer-warriors God created them to be and who men need them to be (“The Great Debate”), and avail for ourselves the benefits of the three “ezer-convergences” in order to rescue oppressed and abused women and girls wherever they are found (“Waking the Sleeping Giantess”).

I agree with James that her three questions for the church are relevant and important questions to be asking in these days, and I admire anyone who isn’t afraid of asking scripture hard questions and searching for answers or principles contained therein. But I disagree with James’ assertion that our gospel is anemic. I am convinced that the gospel is far-reaching enough and robust enough to stand up under the evils of this world, to “encompass every woman’s whole life [and] the variegations that exist for us within this multicultural, rapidly changing world” without tweaking it. I am not convinced that women need another version of Genesis, another gospel for women, or the label ezer-warrior to help them feel significant and valuable in the 21st century church.

James spends a large portion of the book in Genesis 2 and 3 trying to recast the creation of the woman. But God demonstrated His wisdom in creating us male and female. Both genders bear his image equally, but the ways in which the genders display his image and fulfill their callings will differ. That does not mean that one is better than the other. Nor does it mean that both have to hold the same roles in order for them to have the same worth. Assigning value to people is a worldly practice. When Christian men have oppressed women in such a manner it is because they are sinners, not because the New Testament mandates it.

God has revealed that he does not value people and their roles the way the world does. In His kingdom, the least become great, the servant is master, the poor are rich, and the weakest members are indispensable. It is important for men and women in the church to put off that worldly way of assessing value and adopt God’s view.

James’ perspective seems to be stuck in the garden. She takes into account this present world only; eternity does not figure into her way of thinking about women in the church or society. Perhaps God’s asking a wife to submit to a husband’s headship is working out for her an eternal weight of glory. (Under no circumstances do I hold the view that women ought to accept abuse from their husbands or any man. I am merely saying (somewhat facetiously) that even godly submission to a husband can be a light and momentary trouble). Perhaps a mother’s role serving her family is working out for her an eternal life of leadership. Perhaps when an intelligent and many-gifted woman, out of obedience to God’s word, denies herself a position of authority over the men in her church it works for her an eternal position of responsibility and significance in God’s kingdom. Perhaps when men and women serve and honor one another as they share the gospel it presents to a lost world how the gospel tears down walls of hostility erected in the fall.

I am persuaded that a full-orbed gospel that also teaches women they have a loving Father and Advocate will empower them to stand against oppressors. Men and women around the world need to see the difference the gospel makes in relationships between men and women. The good news is the good news regardless of time, geo-location, culture, or gender, or it isn’t good news.

In the Garden of Eden, Eve believed the lie that she could be like God, that she could rule over Adam. The idea that a global gospel must encourage women to assert authority over men is in reality only garden-sized.

The winner of Half the Church has been contacted.

2 Comments on “Book Review: Half the Church

  1. Great job!

    “The idea that a global gospel must encourage women to assert authority over men is in reality only garden-sized.” I like that!!


  2. “The good news is the good news regardless of time, geo-location, culture, or gender, or it isn’t good news.”

    The lack of understanding that concept has spawned a whole lot of fiddling with the Gospel, creating something that has little resemblance to biblical truth.

    Excellent review, Leslie.


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