Half the Church (for the 2/3 World): Part 1

Carolyn Custis’ James latest book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women digs into scripture, in conversation with the worldwide struggles facing women and girls, to produce a holistic theology of women in the plan of God.

The book succeeds in demonstrating three things with crystal clarity:

    1. Scripture provides a wealth of resources for demonstrating that women and men are created not only with equal dignity but also equal function as image-bearing, world-ruling leaders.
    2. The deplorable situations in which women around the world find themselves require us to trumpet this equality and establish the church as a beachhead for the kind of equality that denounces and overturns all injustice based on gender.
    3. A commitment to live and serve within theologically conservative circles will ultimately compromise the integrity of theologically creative writers, or their arguments. This book is so compromised.

James lays the groundwork for her biblical exegesis and theological portrait by telling us in the west that too much of our conversation about women in general and gender roles in particular don’t make sense outside our highly privileged world. The idea that a family could survive on a single income, leaving the woman to mind the house with no commercial engagement, is a debate afforded our position in untold luxury.

And, as long as our theology of women has nothing to say to the 2/3 world, it is not, and cannot be, a viable theology of women.

But James isn’t finished. In conversation, particularly, with the book Half the Sky, James begins each chapter with a story of women’s plights around the world: four year old “brides” who are supposed to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their “husbands,” girls sold into sex slavery, girls turned out to die, girls who are sold for cattle as their marriage price. Globally, there is a problem of women being not valued, of being valued only for possible revenue they might generate when sold.

And so the book strives to articulate a biblical theology of women that shows how women are not only “equal” in some sort of vague sense, but equally entrusted with representing God’s reign upon the earth.

James creates high expectations as she begins the book with all this in mind. This backdrop of global exploitation is the perfect setting within which the church might speak a message that is truly good news. So she asks: (1) What message does the church offer women? (2) What will the church do to address women’s suffering globally? And (3) What message will we send to the world by how we mobilize our own daughters (41)?

As if to underscore how far we’ve fallen from articulating ideal answers to such questions, James later says,

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 exception… 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.

What, then, does the Bible have to say, that we should be listening to, if we are to build the kind of theology of, and place for, women that will be received as good news by the rest of the world?

Over two chapters, James develops a theology of gender based on Genesis 1-3. Genesis 1, she rightly shows, demonstrates a profound equality: male and female are both created in God’s image, and this means that both are charged to rule and subdue, not merely the men.

The story of women in a world gone wrong must be one where they are helping bring about the reign of God, his will being done on earth, through all sorts of endeavors, not least in seeking the liberation of other women who find themselves ensnared. Women must participate in the rule of God by making the world a better place for all–just like men are charged to do.

There are a number of high water marks for this book as it creates a fulsome vision of women within God’s created order. One is when she looks at Psalm 8′s recounting of the creation narrative. This psalm’s

words underscore the fact that 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. Our tendency is to look sideways–to compare ourselves and compete with other people. The Bible calls us to raise our eyes and our aspirations and strive to be like God.

What the book demonstrates for those with eyes to see is that the question of women’s roles in the church, or their place in the cosmos, cannot be confined to a few proof texts that seem to limit women’s participation in church. Though all such creative and energetic theological pictures will call for points of exegetical disagreement at certain points, in general James paints a picture that is faithful to the biblical narrative and easily accessible to all readers.

In tomorrow’s post we’ll look at where her program falls apart–namely, when the theology needs to be applied, and the prophetic word needs to be proclaimed, in her own church context in the U.S. rather than the other side of the world.

Disclosure: I received Half the Church from the publisher 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.

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