Disclosure: I received Half the Church from the good folks at Zondervan at no cost other than the understanding that the book would be reviewed on my blog. My agreement to review the book did not require a positive review or endorsement.
In her newest book, Half the Church: Reclaiming God' Global Vision for Women, Carolyn Custis James takes on some big questions in a relatively slim volume. I was excited to see my package from Zondervan arrive in the mail, expecting to love the book. I finished it with less excitement, but that is not to say the book is not valuable, particularly for some. (More about that in a moment.)
James wastes no time. She engages us in the book’s introduction with the story of Amy Carmichael, well-known missionary to India in an earlier age. Tragically, the horrors women there often endured—and the struggles Charmichael had in making the church folks back home listen to her—are still with us. James also repeatedly references the book, Half the Sky by Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDun, a book which exposes the exploitation of women worldwide and inspired the title of James' book about the church.
The first paragraph from the book jacket of Half the Church is revealing of what we will find inside. News stories that ran in 2008 highlighted how throughout the world women are living in a world of extremes. On the one hand, Hillary Rodham Clinton nearly captured the Democratic nomination for US President. At the same time, media reported the brutal killings of five women in Pakistan--three young girls buried alive for planning to choose their own husbands, plus a mother an aunt shot to death as they pleaded with their husbands, sons and brothers to spare the girl's lives.
The author aims to look at the issues in a worldwide context, not just from a Western perspective. She reminds us early on that the lives most women in America and other developed countries experience are beyond the wildest imaginings of our sisters elsewhere. Each chapter begins with a pithy quote and an accompanying story that vividly illustrate problems and barriers women face. I found these small quotes and stories one of the best features of the book.
Half the Church is designed to be used for a study group and includes discussion questions and points to ponder at the conclusion of each chapter. The writing flows nicely and is easily read. I applaud the author’s frank acknowledgement of how short we have fallen in speaking a message that is GOOD NEWS. She calls us to consider three questions, first, “What message does the church offers women?” Secondly, "What will the church do to address women’s suffering globally?" And, closer to home, "What are we telling our own daughters?"
Yet instead of casting a powerful gospel vision that both validates and mobilizes women, the church’s message for women is mixed at best–guarded, negative, and small at worst. Everywhere we go, a line has been drawn establishing parameters for how much or how little we are permitted to do within the church. As in the wider culture, there are always exceptions… But culture shock awaits many women who migrate from the academy or the secular workplace to the church. In the former, opportunities are vast and their contributions valued and pursued. In the church, what they have to offer often goes unnoticed or is restricted to “appropriate” zones within the church.
Her discussion of Genesis chapters 1-3 will be helpful for those who are new to the concept of woman as "ezer" (a strong help). She shows us how God's plan for the world was always designed to include a glorious partnership (she calls it the "blessed alliance") of equals. I enjoyed these chapters, but I did think her use of both "ezer warrior" and "blessed alliance" (both used throughout the book) were a bit overworked after a while. (Perhaps that is because for me these concepts are such a "given" that I wonder why they need such emphasis. I know that is far from true for many women—and men—in churches of my own denomination.)
A quote I enjoyed from her exegesis of Genesis was this one, referring to chapter two which assures us, It is not good for the man to be alone. "Why," James asks, "do we not hear more preachers following the biblical example and preaching that it is men who need to marry and get a home life going if their lives are to be complete?" This made me laugh out loud. Why indeed!
Psalm 8:4-6 says:
What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet...
Referring to this passage, James says ...the world is wide of the mark when it devalues and discards women and girls. By making us “a little lower” than himself, God affixed the highest possible value on his daughters and his sons. It also certainly means (and the church should surely openly trumpet this) 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.
So why am I not quite as excited by this book as I hoped to be? My disappointment comes when Carolyn Custis James comes back home to North America.
First, she seems to leave out, for the most part, the mainline Protestant churches. In many churches the equality of men and women is not discussed much, if at all, because to do so would leave many people scratching their heads in disbelief that a large portion of the church world still struggles with issues of gender roles.
But, since I am an “Evangelical” and very aware that for many churches this issue is very much alive and well (or should I say “unwell,”), I’ll leave the discussion of women and mainline Protestant (not to mention Roman Catholic) churches to others.
Within 20 miles of my home there are churches from about ten denominations that do not ordain women. In at least one of these denominations, women are not allowed to hold any leadership role whatsoever, so the idea of an ordained female is anathema. One clergywoman friend of mine found herself ignored in a local ministerial group by three participants who apparently chose to pretend she was invisible. I am glad to say that after three meetings where this took place, the remaining clergy in the group took those pastors to task and said they either would treat their female colleague with respect or leave the group. They left.
I tell this story to explain why I find the next section of James’ book to be disappointing.
She has already pointed out that a culture-shock awaits women who come to the church, where egalitarian assumptions are undone in patriarchal systems. She relates the story of a friend who, in sharing the gospel with a co-worker, is petrified to get to the point about gender roles in the church. James already knows and has spent several chapters telling us that inequality in the church is not good news and not even very biblical after all.
And then she avoids the issue. It was profoundly disappointing to read that she refuses to take sides in the egalitarian-complimentarain debate. In case you are new to this blog, or to the debate in general, "egalitarians" hold a view of equality which affirms that God did not design women and men for specific "roles"--in the church or elsewhere. The "complimentarian" view holds that men are designed to lead and women are designed to follow, both in the home and in the church. (There are variations of this on both sides I'm trying to be brief.)
James asserts that the female ordination debate centers on some key passages that people disagree how to read. She says that this debate is a “distraction.” As another reviewer of this book said, "So there’s no answer to be given, and we just need to develop a more holistic vision of women as leaders in the church and God’s agents in redemption."
What James has already argued is that the question of women’s relationships to men in the church is NOT a matter of a few isolated proof texts. By refusing to take a stand on this issue, she weakens her argument and ignores the passages of scripture she has already discussed. Our interpretation of passages like I Timothy 2 is profoundly determined, I believe, on how we interpret Genesis. James has, though she refuses to say so, laid out an egalitarian view of men and women in creation and onward. To refuse to meet this issue head on when she comes back home to her North American church world does a profound disservice to the audience of church women who are the most likely to be reading her book.
I would like to tell Carolyn Custis James the story of the night I received ministerial credentials in the Assemblies of God. I would like her to see, as I did, the woman who asserted tearfully, “I had no idea women could be ministers!” Yes, this was a couple of decades ago, but the issue is not gone, sad to say. Failure to ordain women, failure to offer women opportunity at every level of church and denominational life is just patriarchy dressed up in pretty clothes.
Some of my evangelical friends and colleagues would likely read this and shake their heads thinking, “There she goes again.” But from my own experience with women in the church, the refusal to allow for women in “professional” (for lack of a better word) ministry is part of an environment that belies the position, the hope, the joy, the freedom we have in Christ. James’ refusal to hit this issue head on, smack dab in the middle of the theology she lays out in her book, left me a bit stunned and mars what is otherwise a worthwhile read.
It is most likely to be helpful to those in the conservative evangelical church sphere. It is engaging, biblically focused, and for those who are willing to see, will be illuminating.
But I would like to ask the author if she believes that injustice must be confronted in other lands and ignored in our own. The injustice women in her world, and mine, encounter does not, I know, begin to reach the level of what is suffered in many other places. But injustice is still wrong. Has she never, as I have, spoken to a woman who grew up in a Christian church but left her roots for paganism or agnosticism precisely because only men could be church leaders? Is the good news of living our lives in God’s image without arbitrary “role” restrictions for all of us-- or not?