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Book Review: Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James

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

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James”

  1. Aaron, I am so delighted that you left a comment at my blog to direct me here. I thoroughly enjoyed your view, and I am so glad that, as a man, you wrote it. I was saying to my husband last night that I wondered if men who support James’s writings are seen as “suck ups” and men who disagree are seen as “mean.” You addressed concerns that I also had but did not articulate, because, as you shared as well, there was simply not space enough to talk about. I am also delighted to meet a neighbour, as you are only a little over an hour away from me! Thanks again for your review, I’m so glad to have read it!

  2. Thanks for this. I think you are spot on with your observations about unqualified assumptions. I thought the book had some good things to offer, but would hate to see someone just eat it up.

    I appreciate your willingness to be bold – scary territory for a man to tread in these days. 🙂
    Actually, I had a hard time with the review myself. Wondered if I’d be alone in being less than impressed. As it turns out, the reviews seem rather polarized. I guess that makes sense…

    1. Crystal, I have noticed also that the reviews are rather polarized, and I’m sure that is a reflection of the whole complementarian/egalitarian debate which is also polarized.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful review, Aaron. This will probably remain a hot debate topic for quite a while, maybe until Christ returns.

    Sometimes I think many women have a similar hesitation in approaching this topic because they want to be who God created them to be, and do what he has called them to do, BUT there are often stigmas in it because many women are viewed as “usurping” the authority of a man (or her husband). I know of multiple women who have been deeply hurt over this matter. What’s a woman to do?

    Admittedly, I turn off all female leaders who begin to verbally bash men or their husbands. There are respectable and graceful ways to approach volatile topics such as this. So if this book does any of that, I will certainly steer clear.

    I’m confused over your Gen 3:16 statement. I agree with you that the same word for “desire” (tesuqa) is the same used in Gen 4:7. The same word is also used in Song of Solomon 7:10, “I belong to my beloved. His DESIRE is for me.” This word is also translated as meaning “a longing for.” Is it not natural for a woman to desire her husband in this way just as the husband desires his wife in SS 4:7? Also, the very next line of Gen 3:16 states “he will rule over you.” The word for “rule” (masal) is often used in the context of control or domination. So when we go back to Gen 3, God essentially tells Adam that the ground that he will work so hard on will produce thorns and thistles. To Eve, God essentially said she will long for her husband but he will rule over her as a king rules over his kingdom. There is a parallel in the curse of sin here that I believe cannot be ignored. Just as God prophesied to Adam that the ground would reject man’s hard work, is it also true that God prophesied to Eve that women will long for their husbands just to be dominated over?

    To me, Gen 3 is prophetic in nature because Adam and Eve do not know what all this means at the time God spoke it. Those of us centuries later know it all too well. The curse of the fall includes the man not reaping what he genuinely sows, and the woman having an “iron fist” over her when all she wants is love. Praise be to God that Jesus broke that curse. May we all walk in that authority.

    1. It’s definitely natural for a woman to desire her husband and likewise his wife, absolutely. If there is no longing or desire for either there’s a big problem. But the word also holds a meaning that is likened to a beast’s desire to devour.

      What I think we’re hitting on here is that the relationships of men and women within the curse are incredibly complex. For some, they have a natural desire for their husbands and are treated like a subject under a king/tyrant. For others, their desire is to devour or usurp the authority that God has given their husbands.

      Both are true and equally devastating.

      On your last point, I couldn’t agree more 🙂

      1. I guess that’s where I’m getting confused. Using the same word “tesuqa” in Gen 3:16 means to devour, yet using the same word in SS 4:7 means “longing for”? It doesn’t make sense to me. How can we take the same Hebrew word and apply one with a negative connotation and other with a positive? Please advise.

        1. These are great questions, Melanie. According to Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary, tĕshuwqah [8669] is defined as:

          1) desire, longing, craving
          a) of man for woman
          b) of woman for man
          c) of beast to devour

          The context of the verse shows the appropriate connotation. So in SS 7:10, the idea of “devouring” her love doesn’t fit since the idea being conveyed is that of sexual desire. That definition could be applied to Gen 3:16, but because of the close parallels between Gen 3:16 and Gen 4:7, many commentators suggest that it is closer to a rebellion against the man’s authority, rather than sexual desire.

          As for how “devour” came into the meaning, I suspect that’s because of it’s use in Genesis 4:7, where sexual desire can’t be the meaning.

          Not sure if that makes total sense. There are times when I’m completely baffled by how translators and commentators come to the conclusions they do—and sometimes they make mistakes. But at the end of the day, and with as much research as I can do, I’m trusting that their conclusions related to this verse is correction and praying that God will correct me if I’m wrong.

      2. One more thought. I cannot find anywhere where the word “tesuqa” means “devour.” All I see in my Hebrew concordance is “desire” and “longing for.” How did “devour” get into the translation? How would “devour” be used in SS 4:7? Again, please advise.

  4. Thanks for the review. This is a book that I saw listed in my library’s soon-to-arrive list, and I had been wanting to know a bit more about whether it was worth reading.

  5. Thanks for the review. This is a book that I saw listed in my library’s soon-to-arrive list, and I had been wanting to know a bit more about whether it was worth reading.

  6. Interesting review. As someone who has been involved in studying and working with a men’s ministry, and also the reactions of many women, I am all too aware that the feminization of the church is actually to no-one’s benefit.

    Sadly, it would appear that in much of the writings, the signal to noise ratio is blocking the real questions and answers that are needed.

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