Reviewing Half the Church (Todd Miles)
This is a guest post by Todd Miles, Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary. Todd has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and now serves as an elder at Hinson Church in Portland, OR.
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).
Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, by Carolyn Custis James, is a book written by a woman for women, calling them to bless the church and ultimately the world through the exercise of their gifts. As a man, a good case could be made that I have no business reading the book, let alone reviewing it. However, I was asked to review the book from a complementarian perspective. It is a book of significance in the evangelical church, so it needs to be evaluated.
First, a summary of the contents: The book is driven by two issues that are of chief concern to James. First, she grieves the loss to the church and to men when half the church effectively disappears through Anorexic spiritual diet or stymied roles (19). Second, James is dismayed over the plight of women in other countries and is outraged that the church is not the loudest voice decrying the atrocities committed against women around the world (21). These two issues lead to three significant questions whose answers comprise the rest of the book. She wants to know what message the church has for women of the 21st century, what will the church do about the rampant suffering of the world, and what messages are we sending to the world in the way that we mobilize and treat our own daughters (41). It is her desire to write a book that takes seriously the plight of women who live in states of horrific oppression, while simultaneously calling women of the evangelical church to Kingdom action. In so doing, she urges women to participate in the full-orbed gospel of both gospel proclamation and mercy/social justice (25).
Much of the book is given to alerting the reader to atrocities committed against women around the world, such as abuse, sex-trafficing, torture, and various kinds of murder (e.g., female infanticide and so-called honor killings). But James is concerned that the evangelical Church is sending the wrong message to the watching world and to those women who are suffering. Though the time is right for “believers to embody a gospel culture where both halves of the church are thriving because following Jesus produces a climate of honor, value, and love, and we are serving God together as he intended from the beginning. 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 (48).
To remedy this, James correctly turns to the Bible. First, from Genesis 1, she teaches that men and women are fully and equally created imago Dei (57-72). James rightly notes the glory of being an image bearer, along with the awesome responsibility that the doctrine entails. From the creation of man and woman in the image of God, she contends that Adam and Eve were born into conflict and resistance (before the fall) where both are called to be leaders in the tasks presented to them by God (73-78). James finds evidence for female leadership in the narrative of Ruth and Naomi (80-98).
Second, James turns to Genesis 2, where it is written that Eve was created as a helper fit (ezer kenegdo) for Adam. James notes that there are many places in Scripture where God is described as an ezer, often with military connotations. James then concludes that God created his daughters to be ezer-warriors with our brothers (113). She then unpacks the paradigm shifting implications (for both women and men) of women being ezer-warriors (111-118, 123-133), particularly given the dangers in our current cultural context of magnifying submissiveness, surrender, and meekness as important attributes for women (120-123).
Third, James turns to what she calls the blessed alliance that the Bible presents as the model for male and female roles and relationships (135-143). Examples of the blessed alliance are found in Esther and Mordecai, and then in Mary and Joseph (143-150).
Having turned to the Bible for instruction and examples of how women and men are to relate in the mission of the Kingdom, James then explains where we ought not to turn in the Bible for such instruction: the passages over which complementarians and egalitarians debate (153-61). James believes that biblical texts such as 1 Tim 2:11-15 are so difficult to understand that it would be wise to turn to clearer texts that are not the subject of debate for guidance on the issue of men’s and women’s roles in the Church and home. It is frustrating to James that the Church quarrels over these texts while women in the world are suffering injustice and atrocities (161-165). Turning to the example of Jesus, James suggests that Evangelicals should be less concerned with issues of authority and more concerned with issues of justice (166-173).
Finally, James concludes her book with a call to women to rise up and actively participate in the mission of the Kingdom, proclaiming the gospel and advocating for women around the world who are suffering (175-194). The Church must empower and utilize its other half by mobilizing an army of ezer-warriors.
Areas of Agreement
Let me begin my critique of the book by highlighting four areas of agreement with James. First, it is evident that Carolyn Custis James is a sister in Christ who cares deeply about the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite our differences, we are co-laborers in the Kingdom of Christ. Second, in Half the Church, James calls attention to the atrocities committed against women in other nations. She rightly rebukes the church for its ignorance and silence concerning the horrific plight of far too many around the world. Third, James correctly calls for the church to engage in both the word and deed of the Kingdom, commanded by Jesus, and then modeled by Jesus and his apostles. Too often the church swings from the extremes of proclamation only to mercy/social justice only. Such is a distortion of the Kingdom and the gospel that announces it. Finally, James is right to want to get every woman involved in the ministry of the gospel. She appropriately grieves over the anorexic spiritual diet of many Christian women.
Areas of Critique
As an elder in a local church, I can deeply appreciate these emphases. Unfortunately, the book is flawed at too many levels for me to endorse it. Hermeneutical errors, biblical-theological errors, exegetical errors, and logical errors abound. These errors are not peripheral to her main points but in every case exist precisely where her arguments are being made. For the reasons outlined below, I could not in good conscience recommend the book to anybody.
James understands Adam and Eve to be co-laborers in a context of conflict and resistance even before the fall, necessitating a strong co-leader for Adam. But Scripture attributes the conflict of the biblical drama to sin, narrated in the account of the fall in Genesis 3. There is no hint in the narrative or in subsequent biblical testimony to the kind of conflict that would necessitate a co-leader and warrior for Adam. Adam is alone, so God creates one who is like him, but is not the same as him, as a “helper suitable for him,” and in so doing creates the institution of marriage. James ignores the biblical-theological categories of fall and redemption, attributing that which the Scriptures blame on the sinful rebellion of Adam and Eve to creation itself. Contrary to James’s analysis, Adam was called to “work and keep” the garden before the creation of Eve (Gen 2:15), and this is language more in keeping with a biblical priest than a biblical warrior. Further, even if the mandate to work and keep were passed on to Eve (which I suspect it was), does this entail that their respective roles in working and keeping were identical?
James’s evaluation of the Hebrew word ezer is more problematic. Recall that James established that God had created a warrior-ezer for Adam because other biblical uses of the word ezer carry military implications. But words have meaning in specific contexts and to find a meaning of a word in one text and then transfer that meaning in wholesale fashion to another text is illegitimate. By the time James is done, her call for an army of warriors with ezer-spirit permeates the book. Gone, all in the name of a word study, is any notion of marriage in the understanding of a helper fit for him, even though the context of that specific text (Gen 2:18) is marriage itself. Gone is the important and faith-filled reality that Adam named his wife Eve (contra James’s assertion in 100-101), “the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20), his statement of faith that God would save them one day through the offspring of his wife (Gen 3:15).
James calls for a blessed alliance between women and men. But she refuses to interact with the biblical texts that speak directly to how men and women are to relate in the context of the church and marriage (in fact, James implies that the Bible does not contain instructions for building a blessed alliance in our churches and homes ). She simply dismisses those texts as too difficult to understand, claiming that doctrines should be based on clear texts, not disputed texts. That sounds a bit like cooking the books to me. If one eliminates all the many biblical texts that speak to differentiation of roles in the church and home, then of course there would be no call or reason for wives to submit to their husbands, or for the office of elder to be reserved for men. But are those texts too difficult to understand? Is “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” or “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” impossible to interpret? I will grant that application will take wisdom and discernment. But disliking the implications of a verse is not the same thing as not being able to interpret the verse. If dispute over meaning were grounds for eliminating biblical texts, we would have no word from God at all. Further, dismissing the debate by arguing that while the church quarrels “millions of little girls are being sold as sex slaves in vast regions of the Majority Word . . . and human trafficking is happening locally, right under our noses” (161) is both a red herring and an appeal to emotion, and is neither suitable nor helpful for real Christian discourse, nor does it help those being victimized.
On the same topic, James feels that the egalitarian world is repelled over the debates concerning men’s and women’s roles in the church and home, because women who have experienced great gains in the academy and workforce are called to submit in the church (48-49, 159). But what kind of argument is this? Of course our fallen world will look at the church, which calls for women to submit to the sacrificial leadership of their husbands, as hopelessly bizarre. Acceptance or rejection by the world is not an argument in any way for the legitimacy of a doctrine.
One last significant hermeneutical flaw: James believes that a key to understanding the Ancient Near East and Greco Roman contexts in which the Bible was written is to look at today’s Middle East (32). They do share commonality in that they could each be described as patriarchal, but is it legitimate to compare the contemporary Muslim culture of the Middle East with the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures of the Old and New Testaments? For example, did Mary really face the threat of an honor killing? The biblical texts do not indicate so. When such erroneous cultural assumptions are made, the result in Half the Church is a distortion of the biblical narratives. Honestly, as I read James’s retelling of the stories, I almost came to dislike Joseph and Boaz for being dangerous patriarchalists. Never mind that the biblical texts describe Joseph and Boaz as just and worthy, respectively. In general, James’s interpretation of the biblical narratives, particularly when she seeks to find examples of female leadership over men (e.g., Ruth and Naomi over Boaz, Mary over Joseph, Esther over Mordecai), are creative, but faithful to neither the immediate context nor the biblical-theological storyline.
Finally, as a husband, father of a daughter (and five sons), and elder over a church at least half-full of women, I must comment on the tone of the book. The language throughout is prejudicial against those who see marriage and motherhood as of the essence of femininity, and against those who see submissiveness as a legitimate biblical virtue to be sought after. For example, women who lovingly submit to the sacrificial and loving leadership of their husbands are described as bringing less of themselves to the task at hand, not bringing their full selves to the partnership (158). Parents who teach their daughters to submit in this day and age might be setting them up for physical abuse (120-122). Perhaps most frustrating were claims that differentiation of men’s and women’s roles in the church and home are not qualitatively different than, and could lead to, the atrocities of violence and abuse committed against women in the world. These claims were explicitly made (e.g., 110). They were perhaps more effectively implicitly made on the numerous occasions when chapters that expressed concern for women in the church began and ended with stories of horrific abuse from around the world. This is an effective literary strategy, but it is irresponsible, logically flawed, and misleading.
James is right to call attention to the plight of victimized women around the world, but her biblical arguments are so poor that she has done little to rectify the meager spiritual diet she so decries. The women of the church need better than this.