The role of women continues to be a question that looms large. In business, politics, education and countless other arenas, the opportunities for women in the western world are virtually unlimited. Yet in other parts of the world, in the Middle East or in nations ravaged by poverty, these opportunities don’t exist. Indeed, in many countries, women are treated as little more than property.
This issue has not left the church unscathed. Are women “merely” to be focused on the home and family? Are there limits to how women can serve or should serve? Does the church give women—who comprise at least half of it—an inspiring, captivating vision of what it means to be a woman created in the image of God?
Carolyn Custis James seeks to answer these questions in Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women. In many ways this book is a companion piece to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which focuses on the abuses perpetrated against women around the world—among them sex trafficking, genital mutilation and honor killings. In light of the horrific crimes being perpetrated against women globally every day, James asks why the Church is not the loudest voice in this crisis; why the Church is not “the most visible at the forefront of addressing this humanitarian crisis” (p. 21). Half the Church, in James’ estimation, represents a call to action in combating these atrocities as the author describe what she sees as God’s vision for women.
From a male perspective, reading Half the Church was an unusual experience. It’s primary audience is women and James writes with that assumption in mind. In some ways this was quite refreshing as it gave me a glimpse into the female perspective, but it was also difficult at times to relate, particularly as she got into the nitty-gritty of her argument. And her arguments are where things get really interesting.
I need to be upfront about one thing before I go any farther: Half the Church was incredibly difficult for me to review. This is not because I wasn’t able to form opinions on it, but because my concern is that by voicing any disagreement with James’ premise or arguments I would be viewed as a misogynist (or worse). And nothing could be further from the truth. As a husband and father, ensuring that the dignity of women is protected is very, very high on my priority list. My daughters are learning how valuable they are in their Daddy’s sight, as is my wife (I hope!). I also acknowledge that I can’t possibly hope to cover every part with which I agree, any more than I can cover every point of disagreement. So if something you loved isn’t discussed, please be aware that I’m in no way trying to misrepresent the book’s message.
So, with all that said, let’s continue.
Truth and Assumptions
James writes that we in the West have been guilty of having tunnel vision, particularly when it comes to women. We’re unaware of our own cultural blindness and its impact on our understanding of the Bible’s teaching about women. “I marvel that we could imagine understanding God’s message for women without acquainting ourselves with the ancient cultural context through which that message is communicated” (p. 33). With this statement, I am in complete agreement. We must do all we can to understand the culture in which the Scriptures were written in order to be good interpreters of the text. However, in the surrounding context of this quote, James seems to be suggesting that we have, by and large, failed in that duty.
Indeed, in many places, James makes comments such as, “Contrary to long-held interpretations, biblical narratives that spotlight women hold their own next to the weighty and impassioned preaching of Old Testament prophets…” (p.33), that we are blinded by the insulation of prosperity and thus at risk of transmitting a message that is entirely irrelevant and unworkable (p. 36), that the message the church offers is “too small for successful women leaders in the secular world and too weak to restore full meaning and purpose to women who have been trampled” (p. 40), and that “warnings about the ‘feminization of the church’ communicate a clear message that there is ‘enough’ of us and what the church really needs is more sons” (p. 49).
As I read, I found myself making the same note, over and over again: “That’s a pretty big assumption, isn’t it?” While I don’t question the reality that some do indeed portray a role for women that is far too small in comparison to what Christianity offers, it seems like James is writing off everyone as being guilty of this. There’s every chance I could be wrong in my interpretation of what she’s saying, but it just didn’t sit right with me. Likewise, those who have warned against the “feminization of the church” are not saying there are “enough” women or that women don’t have great value. Far from it. The reality they’re pointing to is that strong, faithful men are of the utmost necessity for the health and sustainability of the local church. And this is as true in the suburbs of London, Ontario, as it is in Sub Saharan Africa.
Image Bearers, Dignity and Culture
Moving forward, James reminds readers that both men and women are created in the image of God. Both, equally, are image bearers. Yet, she is frustrated by what seems to be our generally blasé attitude towards this great truth. Pointing to Psalm 8, wherein David marvels at mankind’s place in the created order, James writes, “[W]hat surprised the king as he pondered his image bearer status from a kingly elevation was that his opinion of himself was actually too low.” She continues:
So earthshaking was this discovery and the language he used to describe it is so over the top that many biblical translators have been reluctant to give us the straight translation. Most, but not all: “Yet you have made them [human beings] a little lower than God [Elohim], and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5 NRSV, emphasis added)… By making us “a little lower” than himself, God affixed the highest possible value on his daughters and his sons. It also means… that the Bible’s high view of women cannot be surpassed… The Bible calls us to raise our eyes and our aspirations and strive to be like God. (pp. 54-55)
There is an important truth in this passage: We absolutely must have a high view of the inherent dignity of men and women who have been created in the image and likeness of God. Regardless of how far any of us have fallen, or what our culture tells us, we all have equal dignity and value by the very fact that we are humans. This should (and must) cause us to act on behalf of those whose dignity is being robbed from them.
Yet I’m uncertain about her application of Psalm 8:5 in light of its context. When we see David’s awe in Psalm 8, it’s important to recognize that what he is saying is not simply “mankind is awesome”—he is in awe of the fact that God is mindful of man, bestowing honor and glory on him though he is so unworthy due to his fallen nature (see v. 3). Put simply, it’s the grace of God that compels us to live in light of this reality.
However, in her efforts to show us the value and prominence of women in the Scriptures, she winds up… maybe not necessarily tearing down men, but certainly kicking a little dirt on them in the process. For example, in her interpretation of the book of Ruth, she places Ruth at the center. Thus, she becomes Naomi’s savior and the one who gives us a glimpse of the coming Savior. And as for Boaz, James description of him is certainly less appealing than what’s explicitly said in Scripture. She writes that given the fact that this was a patriarchal society, it would have been unheard of for him to not already have been married with sons, given his age and reputation as a godly man.
“Romantic diehards may resist, but this was a polygamous culture,” writes James (p. 91). But here’s the thing: from the beginning of the Bible until the end, God’s intention for marriage is one man with one woman. Polygamy does appear in Scripture, but it is never endorsed. The first polygamist was part of the line of Cain. Abraham and Jacob’s polygamous marriages only wrought havoc on their families. Solomon’s polygamy led the nation into an unyielding pattern of idolatry that ultimately ended in the destruction of Israel. Deut. 17:17 explicitly forbids the king from “acquir[ing] many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away.” Indeed, one could reasonably argue that the command implies that he ought to have one wife if he wants to ensure that his heart will not be turned.
So what about Boaz? Could he have been married already? Sure, he might have been. But the Bible doesn’t say he was—and truthfully, that’s a pretty big thing to be silent about.
Again, while James is absolutely right that we must be careful to consider the cultural context of the Scriptures, we must also be careful not to read in things that may not have been there. You can’t look to the Middle East today (specifically the nations with a patriarchal society) and apply that culture to ancient Israel. The Scriptures are too radical in their portrayal of women—especially in the Pentateuch—to allow for this. The Law displays a great concern for the poor, the widow and the orphan and it shows provision made for their inheritance (cf. Numbers 27:2, 36:2). So while there might be some level of crossover, it’s not an apples to apples comparison.
Ezer Warriors and a Blessed Alliance
Genesis 2:18 is a significant verse in the Scriptures, for there God gives His description of what a woman is to be. Noting that it is not good for the man to be alone, He says, “I will make a helper fit for him” (ESV). The KJV calls the woman a “help-meet.” James astutely points out that the two words used here, “‘ezer” and “kenegdo,” do not convey a meaning of subservience, but of equality. The woman is the man’s equal, not his servant or slave.
She also rightly observes that how we talk about the role of women has led to the suggestion that women are somehow second-class citizens at home and in the church. In correcting this, we must take our cues for our roles and relationships from Scripture, not import our culture’s views into the Scriptures.
In light of this, though, I am uncertain as to whether or not the moniker she applies to women, the ezer warrior, is entirely helpful. ‘Ezer does carry the meaning of offering assistance, especially in a time of difficulty, and I know that in many of my most difficult moments, the person I turn to for comfort and support is my wife.
But as I’ve been considering James’ work, I keep coming back to one thing: What about Genesis 3?
On page 117, she writes:
After humanity’s departure from Eden, relationships between men and women start to unravel. Instead of battling the Enemy, we battle each other, and women are reduced to supporting roles. Is God’s vision for his daughters a lost relic from the distant past, or is it still alive and well today?
Going back to my relationship with my wife, in her support of me, she doesn’t fight my battles for me. She offers me strength to carry on. This is not a subordinate or supporting role in the negative sense that James suggests in the above passage. This is her acting in the fullness of whom God has uniquely made her.
What James fails to address, beyond the sinful actions of men and briefly alluding to it in the above quote, is that when God cursed the woman, He said that her desire would be for her husband (Gen. 3:16b). That word “desire” is significant because it is the same one that God uses when warning Cain that sin’s desire is for him (4:7b). It’s about domination.
Likewise, I don’t recall her ever once touching on the characteristics of a godly woman as found in the New Testament, a hallmark of which is a gentleness of spirit, not necessarily a fiery tenacity (although a gentle spirit certainly does not preclude boldness). Instead, they are chuffed off to the side, as “debated texts.”
My concern is that in seeking to confront a real error, James is overcorrecting. And despite her stated desire that women and men work together in a “Blessed Alliance,” the pendulum is swinging a bit too far.
So here’s the big question: Would I recommend this book?
While Half the Church does have a great deal to offer, I’m not certain I could with a clear conscience. I certainly wouldn’t stop someone from reading it, but neither would I commend it. Women matter greatly to God. We must be wary of any action or position that relegates them to a second-class citizenship—and we must be careful to protect their God-given uniqueness and dignity, which necessarily includes their distinctness from men.
Title: Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women
Author: Carolyn Custis James
Publisher: Zondervan (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher