Half the Church (for the 2/3 world): Part 2

Yesterday I began a look at Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church.

James is intimately familiar with the conservative North American environment in which a focus on marriage and home-life as a “woman’s calling” creates anemic exhortations to marry and bear children as the highest possible calling. Women, though strangely, not men, are often exhorted toward marriage and child-rearing as the heart of what they need to find significance in God’s world.

One of the most amusing moments of the book was when she looked at Genesis 2. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Why, she prods, 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?

Well played!

But this intimate familiarity with, and participation in, the conservative evangelical world ultimately compromises the message of the book.

As I indicated yesterday, James digs deep into scripture in order to develop a theology of women as sharing in the subduing and ruling over creation; women are like God: “helpers” and deliverers in the battles that confront God’s people.

So what of the situation of women in North American churches? As I highlighted yesterday, James points out that a culture-shock awaits women who come to the church, where egalitarian assumptions are undone in patriarchal systems. She tells a story of a friend who is petrified to get to the point about gender roles in the church in conversations with a woman he’s sharing the gospel with at work.

In short, James knows and tells us that subordination of women in the church is not good news–and not the best reading of scripture either.

But when she comes to address the question head-on, she ducks. She won’t say it. She won’t say that women should be allowed to be ordained.

That’s a question that theologians disagree on, she says. It comes down to a few key texts that people disagree how to read. 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 argued vividly is that the question of women’s relationships to men in the church is not a matter of a few isolated prooftexts.

Those texts depend for their interpretation upon any number of things, foremost of which is this: what did God intend in creation? It is, in short, impossible to disagree vehemently with 1 Timothy 2’s theology of the inherent subordination of women at creation (as James’ theology of creation does, though she never says so) and then go on to support its application of that creation-theology in the church.

James has created a theology of gender that is inherently egalitarian, but refuses to say so at the crucial point at which most of her likely audience will be confronting the injustice against women. To put it differently: the upshot of this book is that injustice is to be opposed when occurring in a distant land, but not when when occurring in our own.

Here is where James and I disagree: for her, ordination is a distraction to the message that we need a theology and praxis within which all women and girls are valued and celebrated as necessary workers in God’s kingdom. For me, the failure to ordain women is the manifestation of the very problem she’s fighting. As she highlights in the book, it is one of the most likely reasons for competent women in North America to be turned off from the gospel–churches proclaim a secondary status for women precisely through their hard ceilings. Moreover, here is my concern: this is the actual issue at which the actual readers of the book are likely to have to deal with the subjugation of women in their own worlds. And this includes James.

What the women in complementarian churches need is a champion to lead them forward in a more biblical vision, an ezer-warrior who will fight the fight to stop excluding half the church from the most celebrated work that the church itself does. What women in North America need is a fulsome biblical theology that will show women in “conservative, Bible-believing churches” that it is precisely in believing the Bible that the injustice and discrimination they are subjected to is shown up as a denial of the good news. It is disheartening that a book that goes so far in providing such a vision nonetheless stops at the point at which such discrimination is practiced in its own context.

As James’ own stories show, failure to ordain women, failure to treat women as equal, is not good news to women. The church in North America will fail to be the champion of justice for women as long as it continues to teach, preach, and embody the very patriarchal system that creates the injustices she has denounced around the world. This book is about the unimpeachable, biblical importance of women–but, I fear, only for the 2/3 world “out there”, not the 1/3 or the 1% who are subjected to the power of patriarchal systems here at home.

This book is a wonderful, winsome challenge to the normal way of doing business. But I walk away feeling somewhat like I read the definitive treatise on race relations only to have a passing reference at the end indicate that slavery is a very difficult issue, with biblical scholars on each side continuing to wrestle with a handful of texts that we’ll never agree on. I wish the paragraph weren’t there so that we could all be freed to draw the right conclusion rather than addressing it at all and giving us the freedom to draw the wrong one.

I think I can say that our disagreement is over this question: would addressing ordination shipwreck her program? or does refusing to address it? From my own experience with women in the church, the ordination question creates, perpetuates, and is part of, such a systemically toxic environment for women, that I think a pro-women theology that does not touch it remains only a theology for the 2/3 world at the expense of our own.

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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