Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Custis James; published 2011 by Zondervan
Genre: Religious non-fiction
Review in a word: Necessary
Opening line: “Sometimes when you’re searching for answers, you get more than you bargained for.”
As I’ve written about before, I’m an egalitarian Christian—meaning that I don’t believe in prescribed gender roles in the Church. You can find more about my journey with egalitarianism here and here. I’ve gone back and forth with what I think about egalitarianism for a long time, and I doubt I’ll ever stop. I picked up this book hoping that it would quench my doubts about egalitarianism once and for all—and in a way, it did. But not in the way I was expecting.
I hoped James would be able to shed light on some of the troubling Bible verses that haunt me. But this book is NOT an in-depth scriptural analysis. There are plenty other books like that out there, and I should probably pick them up at some point. This book is about aligning our ideas about men’s and women’s roles with God’s vision for His Kingdom, as N.T. Wright talks about in his book Surprised by Hope.
It’s easy for me (and, I daresay, many Christians) to get bogged down in trying to decide where to draw the lines: “This is a man’s responsibility; that is a woman’s.” I like to know exactly what I’m responsible for. But James reminded me that this is not how God intends men and women to work together. It’s not how Jesus taught His followers. It’s not what the Bible teachers. Period.
We all are expected and called to bring 100% of our energies, talents, and resources to the table.
I think I highlighted and made notes on about half of this book; there were so many good points! But here are the ones that struck me most:
1. Whatever we think of men and women, our theology has to be big enough for ALL men and ALL women. That is, if you think women best represent God by not working and by bearing as many children as possible, you automatically exclude the many women who, for one reason or another, cannot have children and must work to survive. You exclude the men who, for health or economic reasons, cannot get a job. James’s first chapter, “Going Global,” was really moving for me; she told stories of women and men suffering because of patriarchy. God’s Kingdom is for them just as much as it is for middle- and upper-class Americans.
We can ask questions like, “Do I plan to use my college degree or set it aside?” and “Should I be a stay-at-home mom or work outside the home?” But for the rest of the world, these questions are unimaginable luxuries. For them, education is a lifeline that promises a better life for a woman and her children and will doubtless benefit her community. p. 36
God never envisioned a world where his image bearers would do life in low gear or be encouraged to hold back, especially when suffering is rampant, people are lost, and there is so much kingdom work to do. He wants his daughters to thrive, mature, gain wisdom, hone their gifts, and contribute to his vast purposes in our world. p. 76
2. The Bible celebrates women who didn’t hide their talents, who took risks, and who didn’t wait around to be told what to do. James talks about Mary, Esther, Jael, Deborah, and others who took initiative. They didn’t stop and wonder, “Am I acting like a man right now? Should I be doing this? Where’s the nearest man to do this for me?” They saw a need, and they stepped up. Oh, and they also obeyed God.
Kingdom mindedness centers them on God’s purposes and summons forth from everyone a different way of living and different ways of working together. p. 146
3. Something is wrong when women find more opportunities outside of the Church than inside. A woman might be the CEO of a company, but at her church she is told she cannot participate in making decisions. A woman can get a PhD in biochemistry, but she is discouraged from attending seminary. The Church should be leading the way in educating women and including them fully in ministry. Right now, participation in a local church is NOT usually good news for a woman, and that’s a very sad thing. In our quest to further God’s Kingdom, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by excluding women.
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. p. 48
4. Patriarchy is the world’s way, and we are called to be different. It is the world’s way for the strong to go first, to do more, and to call the shots. But in the Kingdom of God, “the last shall be first.” Jesus repeatedly spoke to women in public (which was taboo in ancient Jewish culture), defended them from blame and ridicule, and entrusted them with spreading His message. Jesus makes it clear that he values the people the world forgets or ignores. He uses the weakest to do His work.
Jesus regarded them with unheard-of respect and gave them his undivided attention, even (and perhaps deliberately) when men were around. …He included women among his disciples, welcomed their friendship, forged strong bonds with the, was blessed and fortified by their spiritual ministries, and recruited them as leaders and kingdom builders. p. 167
5. The battle of the sexes is the world’s way, and we are called to be different. We are wasting our energies arguing over who is supposed to do what. We are wasting our energies being in competition with each other, when there is so much work we need to do. James calls God’s intended male/female partnership “The Blessed Alliance.”
When men are called to full-fledged kingdom living but the other half of the church is asked to sit on the sidelines, there is no Blessed Alliance, the bride of Christ limps, and we misrepresent God’s oneness. p. 139
I’ve read a few other reviews of this book that criticize James for not coming out clearly on one side of the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate; in fact, she purposely does not state where she stands. Those people are missing the point. James is reminding us to stop fighting over those arbitrary lines. She’s reminding us that there are bigger things at stake here. She’s reminding us that there are women and men suffering all over the world, and we need to help them.
We have a very tangible, practical calling. We’re supposed to be the first to help after a disaster, leading the way in education, breaking the glass ceiling, fighting against injustice. Instead, we stand on the sidelines arguing over whether women should serve communion.
Since Andrew and I have been looking for a new church to attend after our recent move, I realize I have been getting distracted about these little details. This book provided a much-needed realignment to God’s bigger vision for us.
Buy Half the Church at your local bookstore!
What I’m Reading Next:
While I definitely come down on one side of this argument, I have my doubts, as I mentioned above. That’s because the Bible isn’t crystal clear on this subject (which is why I appreciated James’s reminder to think of the bigger vision). But I want to analyze another view of gender roles as well, so next I’m reading Jesus, Justice, & Gender Roles by Kathy Keller, whose husband, Timothy Keller, is a well known complementarian.
You might also like:
Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”