Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Custis James (Zondervan, 2011)
I've reviewed three of Carolyn Custis James' books before (When Life and Beliefs Collide, The Gospel of Ruth, and Lost Women of the Bible); this is her most recent and I'm happy to say our library added it to their shelves at my request. I'm not even going to attempt to rank the four, but just say that Carolyn James isn't losing any steam. She continues fleshing out her discoveries concerning a Biblical view of the role of women, not only in the church but in all creation. This time her vision was inspired and enhanced by her reading of Half the Sky (Kristof/WuDunn).
As usual, and despite her own assurances to the contrary, I think James underestimates both the difficulty and the importance of full-time, long-term motherhood, and is in danger of heaping still more burden and guilt on those who are already struggling. I truly get her position that "marriage and babies" is an insufficient—downright paltry—vision of God's overall plan for his daughters, implying that the young, the old, and those without husbands or incapable of bearing children are second-class citizens in God's Kingdom. However, I believe that a vision of childrearing as only a short interlude in one's life is also deficient, and that James misses important contributions of those who have committed to large families (now defined as more than two children), childrearing as full-time work, and homeschooling. She also appears not to understand how difficult and intellectually challenging it is to do well in such a profession, and how little such people are respected by society (including most churches).
But that is not James' battle, and one cannot cover all bases in every book. What she does cover, she handles superbly.
As usual, here are a few random quotations, to give you a feel for Half the Church, and to remind my future self of what's inside.
Literary experts tell us every good story has conflict. ... In fact without conflict a story has no plot. ... Which made me wonder, if God is the master storyteller—the creator of story—and if conflict makes the story, is there conflict before Genesis 3? ... If humanity had never fallen into sin, would we be living in a plotless story now? For that matter, will heaven be plotless? Is conflict only and always destructive and the result of fallenness? Or is there a healthy, necessary, constructive variety of conflict that creates a gripping plot and is designed to make God's image bearers flourish and grow? (pp. 66-67)
Conflict brings out the leader in us, transforms our lives from the mundane to the cosmic, and by God's grace forges us into more compassionate, selfless leaders. Conflict in our stories isn't in the way; it is the way—to becoming better leaders, better image bearers, to creating a better story—to the fulfillment of the Story. (p. 97)
I saw a billboard the other day that simply said, "God is not angry." I get the point: it was put up by a church wanting to emphasize God's grace to a hurting world, and no doubt frustrated by those who view tragedies as God's punishment. But it's missing so much. My immediate reaction? "What? God looks on child abuse and sex trafficking and mass murder and is not angry? What kind of a god is that?"
People speak of the "angry God of the Old Testament" without considering why he is angry. Yet anyone reading the Old Testament prophets who speak for him will quickly discover that God is outraged by injustice—when the powerful prevail over the powerless and the privileged over the disadvantaged, when his image bearers are, in any way, dishonored. (p. 163)
From the beginning of my ministry, I made a conscious decision not to take a public position on the ordination of women. My focus has been on calling women to go deeper in their relationship with God (instead of trying to subsist spiritually on a light theological diet)/. My work centers on women in Scripture who are strong female role models of courageous gospel living, and on casting a vision for twenty-dirst-century women and girls that extends from the cradle to the grave, irrespective of their preferred debate camp. We are God's image bearers, ezer-warriors for his gracious kingdom, and full-fledged members of the Blessed Alliance.
From what I can see, women and girls are a rich and largely untapped goldmine—a powerhouse of blessing, and gifts for the church, of strength and wisdom for our brothers, and of enormous good for the world. ... Taking sides in the debate seemed an unnecessary distraction that would take me off mission and cost me half my audience—something I am unwilling to do. (pp. 159-160)
Our strengths and gifts are not worth much if we allow them to lie dormant. To be honest, it's actually dangerous to think God created us to lean on others. If we do not hone our gifts and live on the ready instead of in a default mode of looking to others, in a crisis or under pressure we are at a loss to use our voices, make decisions, stand our ground, or take the initiative that our circumstances demand. This isn't theory, for even as I write these words I know several women who at this very moment are overwhelmed because the person they have always depended on is gone or unable to take care of things. (pp. 94-95)
The Proverbs 31 woman is introduced as a "woman hayil"—the same Hebrew word used for Boaz and signifies "strength" and "power" like that of an "elite warrior similar to the hero of the Homeric epic." The meaning, however, gets lost in translation, for whenever hayil applies to a woman in the Bible, translators have opted for softer English words ("virtuous," "excellent," "capable," or "noble character"). These words don't begin to do justice to the meaning. (p. 129)
James is at her best when talking about what she calls the Blessed Alliance: men and women, the two halves of God's Image on earth, working together, side by side, to accomplish God's purposes, each part being essential to healthy and effective enterprises. In marriage, yes, but ever so much more than that: indeed, in everything. Without both male and female we cannot possibly reflect God's image and fulfill his vision.
God designed the world to stand on two load-bearing walls. The first load bearing wall is God's relationship with his image bearers. Without this vital relationship, we are cut off from our life supply—homeless, stranded souls in the universe, left to guess at who we are and why we are here. The second load-bearing wall is the Blessed Alliance between male and female. According to Genesis, male/female relationships aren't simply necessary to perpetuate the human race and make life pleasurable and interesting.
Male/female relationships are strategic. God laid out his game plan in Genesis, and the team he assembled to do the job was male and female. men and women working together actually predates men working with men and women working with women. It would be one thing if God confined this male/female team to home and family and then mapped out the remaining territory into separate spheres for men and for women. But he didn't do that. Their mission—together—is to rule and subdue the whole earth on his behalf. Men and women together. Our relationships with God and with each other are the load-bearing walls of God's original design.
This foundational truth elevates the seriousness of the Blessed Alliance well beyond men "making room" for women and trying to tweak the system here and there to keep us happy. Much deeper kingdom issues are at stake than resolving debates over disputed passages, deciding who's in charge, resolving conflict, defining his and her roles, and dividing the proverbial pie so everyone gets their fair share. God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone." This statement means our brothers cannot be the men God created them to be or do the job God is calling them to do without their sisters. Together, we are God's preferred method of getting things done in the world. He created his image bearers male and female, blessed them, and spread before them the global mandate to build his kingdom. (pp. 138-139)
The Enemy's first assault was beyond brilliant and wildly successful. With a single temptation—firing one shot—the Enemy targeted both load-bearing walls. It was a direct hit. One lethal blow brought down the twin towers of God's kingdom strategy. (p. 140)
I include the following quote strictly for my wonderful, spelling-challenged daughter, who repeatedly writes "unphased" when she means "unfazed." You are in good company: it happens to excellent writers with professional editors, too.
Ruling and subduing remind us of our noble calling to care for all creation, but somehow we remain unphased. (p. 52)
And just so I can end on something relevant to the book itself—indeed, it sums up Half the Church quite well:
We must not forget that it is still "not good for the man to be alone." Men are impoverished and hampered in fulfilling their God-given callings without the honest, full collaboration of their ezer-sisters. Kingdom opportunities are missed and suffering spreads because not everyone is on high alert or accepts responsibility for what is happening in our world. It is not godly to hold back our gifts and to know less (or pretend we know less) so that men can lead. When women bring less of themselves to the task at hand, men are overburdened and we squander our gifts. (p. 164)