Reviewing Half the Church (Brad Harper)

This is a guest post by Brad Harper, Professor of Theology at Multnomah University. Brad has a Ph.D. in historical theology from St. Louis University, where he also served for thirteen years as associate pastor and church planting pastor at two Evangelical Free churches.

Many thanks to Zondervan for providing a review copy of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Custis James (2011).

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A colleague of mine asked me to write a review of the latest book by Carolyn Custis James. He said he already had recruited a complementarian to write a review so he wanted to get one from an egalitarian. I don’t mind the label. I had read James’ When Life and Beliefs Collide back in 2002 and enjoyed it. As a professor of theology at an evangelical university, I also spend a fair bit of time talking with students about women in the church. And since Zondervan was really pumping the book I thought I’d give it a read.

First, a note about the approach of this book. James says at the outset that one of her main inspirations for writing this book was her experience of reading the national bestseller Half the Sky by James Ridgway and Sheryl WuDunn, which chronicles the proliferation of sex trafficking, maternal mortality, and sexual violence against women in the world today, calling for people of compassion to respond. These stories of abuse and degradation become the lens through which James asks us to consider the place of women in the evangelical church today. Right away I recognized that this approach was going to be profound, but also littered with land mines. Would she succeed in the attempt to use such extreme and widely condemned abuses of women as the backdrop for a discussion on whether or not women can be ordained or teach in the church? I will return to this question at the end of my review. Further, this book is not an attempt by James to weigh in on the biblical debate between egalitarians and complementarians. While she engages the biblical story, she does so only generally at most points and does not offer exegesis of the most controversial passages. Now, a quick walk through the book.

After summarizing the troubling situation of women in many parts of the world today, James asks three questions: What message does the church offer women in the 21st century? What will the church do to address the rampant suffering of women in our world? What message are we sending the world by how we value and mobilize our daughters/Will the church benefit from women’s gifts or will they go untapped? (pg. 41) Her fundamental answer is that the message of the church is mixed at best as women are limited to “appropriate” zones in the church, minimized in their gifts, calling, and dignity.

A major theme for James is what she calls the “blessed alliance,” God’s creation based vision for men and women as partners in his mission. This alliance, she argues, has been degraded by the church’s limited vision for women. She talks about how often women are seen as having their primary role in marriage and child rearing even though there is a large percentage of women who do not marry, or are widowed, or divorced, leaving them to wonder if they are second class women citizens of the church. She notes how Christian women live a life of being equal with men in the work world and then come back to the home and the church where they are to be in submission, undermining God’s intention for men and women to be equal partners. She writes, “Descriptions of the woman as dependent, needy, vulnerable, deferential, helpless, leaderless, or weak are—to put it simply—wrong. . . . Adam did not need Eve just to have someone to do his laundry.” (114)

James takes us to Genesis for her understanding of the way the “blessed alliance” is supposed to work. Creation depicts men and women as co-bearers of the image of God, both given the responsibility by God to manage creation for him. Women are not meant to be spectators, but to be leaders in the task along with men since both genders are called to rule and subdue. James argues that men and women are created to work in partnership (an equal one) to live out their God-given mission as image bearers. In the church men and women are brothers and sisters who need each other in every aspect of the work of the church. The stories of Mordecai and Joseph show us examples of men who let go of the issue of being in charge in order for God’s work to be done by their partners Esther and Mary. Bottom line, men and women need to figure out how to be partners in the mandate to work for the values of the kingdom, worrying less about who is in charge and more about getting the job done.

I like this aspect of the book. James moves beyond marriage and ordination to talk in a more conceptual and practical/missional way about men and women needing each other and working together to engage the world with the message and values of the kingdom. Without wanting to minimize the importance of the Bible’s teaching on the roles of men and women in marriage and the church, I often find myself frustrated that while we argue about whether a woman can preach a sermon or be the final decision maker on a family issue, lives (often those of women) and families are breaking apart right beneath our noses. Ultimately, the best partnerships between men and women, both in marriage and ministry, realize that figuring out who is in charge is not the most important factor in making relationships work. Here, I think James is on target.

Another key theme for James is that of the woman as ezer-warrior. She argues that in the Genesis account of creation, the Hebrew word ezer used of Eve and often translated “helper,” does not mean that the woman has been made to be the man’s assistant. It is a word that is used of God himself in his relationship with Israel, sometimes in a military context. While I think the warrior idea may be stretching the word a bit far, James is right to argue that the word should not be translated in a way that portrays Eve as Adam’s junior partner.

In other sections of the book, James recounts stories of powerful women in the Bible who take leadership roles. She focuses especially on Ruth and Naomi who violate cultural conventions about the roles of women in order to lead by sacrificing themselves for the good of others. She argues that Jesus also moves beyond cultural restrictions when necessary to demonstrate the value of women and to give them a place in the proclamation of the kingdom.

On the whole, this book has some important strengths. I resonate with James’ argument that men and women carry out God’s mission more effectively when they see each other as equal partners. She is right to call on the church to stand against the egregious oppression of women in the world. I appreciate her argument that the best women leaders in the Bible were not interested in power but in accomplishing the mission of God and responding to the needs of others. But of course, as an egalitarian, I did not need to be convinced of any of this.

On the downside, there are some weaknesses. In places she makes critical generalizations without any documentation or support. For example, she indicates that much of the church sees the marriage altar as the starting gate for God’s call upon a woman. She needs at least to footnote some well-known church leaders who argue for this. She argues that the focus on the wife as the husband’s helper has led to the belief that God gave primary roles and responsibilities to men, secondary to women. She needs to give us examples of those who teach this. And she says female godliness in much of the church is primarily defined as submissiveness and surrender. OK, give us some quotes. Moreover, I can hear some of my complementarian friends saying, “I don’t hold to any of those views.”

Now, getting back to the question I asked earlier about James’ approach. Sometimes I struggle to understand her connections between the horrific abuse of women in the third world and the limitation of women’s roles in the evangelical church in America. James does ask whether the church’s limitations of women are just a kinder, gentler version of the abuse of women in the world. Without doubt, complementarians will see this arrow aimed at them. And they will object strongly. The fact is that complementarians are also concerned about the awful abuse of women and girls around the world. They see that as an issue that both egalitarians and complementarians agree on, rendering it irrelevant to the their debate. Perhaps that is what James is trying to push us towards. There are issues of the oppression of women in the world that are so monumental as to make our complementarian/egalitarian arguments seem rather petty. Isn’t it time to move beyond that debate to address the things that really matter? James argues, “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.” (139) As a result of these sentiments, James declines to go on record as to whether she is egalitarian or complementarian. She wants to focus on the pragmatic issues of men and women working together and valuing each other rather than taking sides in a debate that just seems to end up diverting energy from the real task at hand. I get this, even resonate with it. But I also suspect that few critics will really let her do this. Already responses to the book have have begun to stake their positions based on the lines of the debate. Some complementarians, convinced she is an egalitarian, won’t recommend the book. And some egalitarian critics express their disappointment, wishing she would just come out and publicly join them. I suspect James is shaking her head in frustration, wondering why they are missing the point.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on April 12, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the review Brad. I got this book the other day and look forward to reading it when I get a chance. I’m working through this issue right now because I come from a tradition that is pretty complimentarian and I see some of her critiques as relevant.

  2. So James wants to carve out a “third way” – “Let’s quit arguing theology and just get to work – together!” Is there any indication (or evidence) on her part that the time spent discussing the issue has diverted energy from tackling issues like sex slavery, etc.?

    I’m not suggesting deceit on her part, but do you think her approach is a part of a larger strategy that if we quit arguing about things like ordination and headship, and instead focus on “doing justice, and loving mercy” in the world together (men & women) then there will be an eventual softening of the complementarian view such that there might be movement on those more contested practices/issues later?

    Is a work like “Finally Feminist” by Stackhouse better, or just different in its aims?

    Thanks,
    PGR

  3. “In places she makes critical generalizations without any documentation or support. For example, she indicates that much of the church sees the marriage altar as the starting gate for God’s call upon a woman. She needs at least to footnote some well-known church leaders who argue for this. She argues that the focus on the wife as the husband’s helper has led to the belief that God gave primary roles and responsibilities to men, secondary to women. She needs to give us examples of those who teach this.”
    How about examples of those who experienced this?
    As a woman who grew up in Evangelical Free and Conservative Baptist Churches, I don’t need documented footnotes. I know the message I received, which permeated church culture. When my mother was a deaconess (back in the day when our church was a congregational church) and she questioned some administrative decisions, my father received a phone call suggesting he control his wife. As a young married woman, I wasn’t invited to “participate in ministry” until I had children, and then I was asked to be in the nursery. When I was involved in the leadership of a Women’s Ministry group, I was told by the pastor it was our job to get all the women on work teams to provide the manpower for all kitchen-related events. This was just 10 years ago at a church trying to be “seeker-friendly”.
    What message do you think is sent by a Pastor led/Elder board church leadership team and only men can be pastors or elders? What message is heard when a woman with a seminary theology degree can’t teach a co-ed adult Sunday school class unless a male “partner” is present to be the lead teacher. What message is received when a male pastor is brought in to a district-wide women’s retreat to conduct communion? Seriously, not an EFree woman in western Washington capable, qualified, acceptable to perform this service?
    To suggest that the author has to document this attitude as a teaching of a specific church leader otherwise it’s not valid like telling women that menstrual cramps and PMS are just a figment of our imaginations.

  4. JP,
    I resonate with all your concerns. But providing examples for generalized statements is simply a necessary practice of writing in the academic world, especially when dealing with a controversial subject. I don’t doubt the truth of James’ generalizations, but her case would be stronger if she provided more documentation. I would like her case to be as strong as possible.

    Brad Harper

  5. Brad,
    Thank you for clarifying the context of your criticism. I appreciate it!

    JP

  6. I will likely read this book with interest.

    One thing I know empirically, I have been in the caverns of egalitarian church leadership and can say that there are snares awaiting that “ye know not of.”

    From my vantage point, I would be very careful and clarifying about the intentions of anyone who wants to be on a leadership team, that is anyone. If there is any agenda other than “Here am I to serve oh Lord,” I say enter at your own peril.

  7. You report that Mrs. James, “declines to go on record as to whether she is egalitarian or complementarian.”

    When, in fact, she already has. She was a speaker at CBE’s 2003 Conference in Orlando. They aren’t exactly in the habit of inviting John Piper or Wayne Gruden to speak at their conferences. In fact, if in 2003 they still held to the policy of former years, she would have had to be a member of CBE in order to speak at the conference.

    I have also left a comment on the “complementarian” review.

    Kamilla

  8. Brad,

    Thank you for your thoughtful review of HTC. I was pleased to meet you at Multnomah U’s commencement last Friday and enjoyed our conversation. Afterwards I tracked down your review & realized I had already read it. Your closing remark hits the mark. It never ceases to amaze me how locked in we in the American church are to only seeing 2 possible categories when it comes to women–that people ca mm read a book about the appalling global plight of women & girls & walk away frustrated because I don’t take sides. I wonder if they missed the chapter where I explained why I don’t  & why both views become unworkable in many real life circumstances. I wish those readers could overhear what women are saying to me about their weariness w/that whole debate. 

    In response to your main criticism (which you are first to raise) the roots of the wife/mother emphasis in the church go back to interpretations of Gen 2 as creation of marriage vs of male & female & man’s need for a wife vs the msg that men & women need ea other in all spheres.  My primary audience is female–women like JP, who (as she notes) dont need proof that this emphasis prevails, so it is good to be reminded that some readers do. 

    I should also note that stmts re my being member of CBE are untrue. I did conduct a workshop at CBE’s conference in Orlando on when Life & Beliefs Collide. If anyone listened to that msg they would hear the same content I have presented at numerous complementarian conferences. I speak for groups representing a variety of theological view on many different points, including both sides of the debate re women, and it is remarkable to imagine anyone being able to figure out my theological beliefs based on my speaking itinerary.

    CJ

  9. Mrs. James,

    As you may have gathered, I am not in the habit of speaking obliquely, nor am I in the habit of issuing nondenial denials (I noticed you couch your reference to your CBE membership in the present tense). I prefer to address things directly. So, if you say you have *never* been a member of CBE, I will happily apologize and retract what I have written above.

    Kamilla

  10. Kamilla, Never is accurate. I believe there may be other places where a retraction from you is in order. Thank you for your willingness to set the record straight.

    Brad, the review of HTC by Todd Miles on this website is a good example of centering the church’s msg for women on marriage & motherhood–the “essence of femininity.” See https://westernthm.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/reviewing-half-the-church-todd-miles/

    CJ

    • Thank you very much for taking the time to come by and interact with some of the comments. We really appreciate that.

      Were you able to read through any of the comments following Todd’s post? There was an interesting exchange on the “essence of femininity” issue that you mentioned.

  11. Carolyn,

    Thank you for responding. I am sorry to have falsely written that you have been a member of CBE. Before you responded I had confirmed by phone with CBEs conference coordinator that they have changed that policy, although she could not tell me when that change took place.

    As to your reference to other places where a retraction from me may be in order – do tell. If you mean the exchange on your blog about the Kristof’s, where you accuse me of caricaturing their position, I’ve been waiting for two months for you to respond to my request for a clarification.

    Kamilla

  1. Pingback: Half the Church Winner « scientia et sapientia

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