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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).

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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.

Summary

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 [146]). 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.

The sexual human: sexualizing the image of God

Megan DeFranza, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented an excellent paper yesterday titled, “Sex and the Image of God: Dangers in Evangelical and Roman Catholic Theologies.” Her paper discussed the recent trend toward understanding the human person and the imago Dei primarily through the lens of human sexuality. Although she thinks that there’s a lot to be appreciated about this approach, she also identified a number of concerns that she has with this development.

DeFranza began by explaining the historical process that led to the current situation. She points out that Christian thinkers have historically neglected gender and sexuality in understanding what it means to be fundamentally human. And, like many, she points to Barth as the key turning point. Barth identified the imago Dei with being created “male and female” and introduced the notion of gender-based relationality as fundamental for being human. To be fully human is to be in community.

This relationally-oriented anthropology, which DeFranza calls the relational imago, though, has developed even further in recent years. Unlike Barth, many contemporary theologians argue that it is not simply relationship that makes us human, but sexuality itself. And, this develop corresponds to developments in secular fields of study that also view human sexuality as fundamental to being fully human.  And, it’s this most recent set of developments that DeFranza is concerned about.

To explain this development further, DeFranza focuses on two representative figures: Stanley Grenz and John Paul II. According to DeFranza, Grenz sees the sexed nature of humanity as leaving human persons with a sense of their own incompleteness and a corresponding drive toward bonding with other(s), which finds its ultimate fulfillment in God himself. Thus, human sexuality isn’t fundamentally about procreation or even marriage, but about the innate yearning for completeness and bonding that grounds all human relationships and pushes toward God.

For John Paul II, sexuality is fundamentally about the human capacity to express love, an act in which the human person becomes gift, and thus realizes the ultimate purpose of being human. And, for John Paul II, this is best expressed and realized in marriage. In this approach, marriage itself becomes paradigmatic for true humanity, and even celibacy, which John Paul II still wants to affirm as a vital (and even higher) mode of human existence, is viewed through the lens of marital union.

So, for both Grenz and John Paul II, sex is now viewed as the lens through which we view all forms of human interaction. We discover our humanity through our sexuality.

DeFranza has no problem with the social imago and the emphasis on love, relationship, and community for understanding humanity. But, she’s quite concerned about the more recent move toward what she calls the “sexual imago” (Grenz) and the “spousal image” (John Paul II). And, she offers a number of reasons for this concern.

Uncovering hidden dangers:

  1. The conflation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She seemed particularly concerned with Grenz here. Although she recognizes that Grenz did not use terms like sexual and sexuality to refer to sexual intercourse, she still thought that his interchangeable use of these terms led to an ambiguous presentation that necessarily confused and conflated terms that are importantly different. DeFranza seemed perfectly willing to say that gender is fundamental for being human, but was concerned about extending that conclusion to sexuality in general.
  2. The sexualization of divine love. Although evangelicals and Catholics would certainly not refer to the divine love as sexual in the sense that there is actual intercourse among the divine persons, they are, nonetheless, willing to speak of the divine love as sexual in the sense that it involves different persons with a drive toward one another in bonding and love. But, since DeFranza thinks that using the language of sexuality to describe this love, their approach almost inevitably leads to the conclusion that sexual expression has now been given divine significance.
  3. The weakening of traditional sexual ethics. If human sexuality is grounded in divine “sexuality,” what parameters can we give for how this sexuality is properly expressed? While most evangelicals and Catholics want to continue affirming monogamous, heterosexual intercourse as the norm, others have not been so restrained. Why not homosexual love (since the Father and Son are both male) or sex with multiple partners (since there are three persons)? And, she’s also concerned that this approach is used to support adultery and divorce. What if you are in a sexually unfulfilling relationship? Would it not be better for one or both parties to find other partners with whom they can more fully express their humanity and experience the divine love?
  4. The undermining of celibacy. DeFranza routinely expressed concerns that the sexual imago and the social imago ultimately undermines the legitimacy of celibate lifestyles, particularly those who are involuntarily celibate. Such persons seem to be missing out on something fundamental for being human and an important experience of the divine love itself. She recognizes that both of the thinkers she reviews would reject this conclusion (John Paul II goes out of his way to affirm the importance of celibacy), but she still thinks that the concern is legitimate.
  5. Concern for the sexually dysfunctional. DeFranza is also concerned about what the sexualized imago will mean for those who experience significant sexual dysfunction. Once again, their essential humanity and their experience of God himself seems at risk.

So, DeFranza concludes that we should hold onto the positive aspects of the social imago, while avoiding the dangers that she thinks are inherent to the sexual/spousal imagos. She thinks we can do this by doing the following.

  1. Develop better readings of Genesis 1-2 that affirm the social nature of humanity without resorting to a sexualized notion of humanity.
  2. Clearly differentiate between the social and the sexual/spousal. The former does not entail the latter and should be an important part of any anthropology.
  3. Clearly differentiate between the sexual and the spousal. She thinks some of the dangers could be avoided if we recognized that spousal love involves far more than sexual love, so distinguishing them can help us appreciate the rich depths of spousal love. But, even with this distinction, she argues that we should not view spousal love as paradigmatic for all human relationships. It is one of many expressions of the social imago, not its essence.

I really enjoyed DeFranza’s paper. One particularly interesting element was when she addressed the ways in which the works of people like Grenz and John Paul II have filtered down to more popular level writings, and in ways that both thinkers would find highly inappropriate. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that many of the concerns she raised came from her interaction with these works. While some might argue that it is not entirely fair to criticize Grenz and John Paul II for the ways that other people use their ideas, especially when those people use the ideas in ways that these thinkers would have disapproved, it does raise the interesting question of how much responsibility thinkers have for the trajectory that their ideas take after them. At the very least, if a concept or idea consistently leads others to inappropriate conclusions, the concept or idea should be seriously re-evaluated.

And, that gets me to my one real criticism of the paper. I think the paper would have been considerably stronger if DeFranza had distinguished between what Grenz and John Paul II were clearly trying to do and the ramifications that she thinks their ideas have had or might have. For example, she routinely critiqued Grenz’s approach for making sexual intercourse essential to humanity. But, Grenz himself did no such thing. I think he is very clear in his writings that he was not talking about intercourse at all, but the sense of incompleteness that results in a drive toward bonding. Whenever Grenz used terms like “sexual” and “sexuality”, it was this broader notion that he had in mind and not actual intercourse. Even if DeFranza thinks that this is an unfortunate use of language that conflates gender with sexuality and necessarily misleads others into concluding that sexual expression is fundamental to humanity (which, again, is a legitimate critique), I would have liked to see a clearer explanation that this was not Grenz’s actual position.

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating paper. And, it has caused me to re-evaluate my own use of terminology. Like Grenz, I have had a tendency to use gender, sex, sexual, and sexuality rather interchangeably when talking about the human person (e.g.,“Sexuality: Theological Perspectives on Being Gendered”). While I know what I’m trying to say, I probably need to be more aware of how this language might be (mis)heard and (mis)used by others.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/2)

  • Internet Monk is discussing Gen 2, and today he addressed the nature of the Garden (The Promised Land) and Adam/Eve’s role in the Garden (priests). Interestingly, he argued for a Sailhammerian view of the Land – i.e. Gen 1-2 are about the preparation of the promised land and not the creation of the world. I’m running across this view more and more lately.
  • Joel points out a free ebook download, The Earliest Christians in their Own Words.
  • Heidelblog offers some thoughts on the trajectories of various Presbyterian groups, expressing concern that the EPC might be moving closer to mainline Presbyterianism.
  • First Thoughts offers a list of the 50 best/worst childhood fads. Fortunately, I’ve managed to avoid the worst of these so far, though I did work next door to a Beanie Babies shop for a while in college. Scary. And, I completely disagree about Frisbees. Frisbee is never boring. By far my favorite though, was his reason for not liking troll dolls: “When you’re not looking, they eat your soul.” 
  • I’d like to pretend that this isn’t true, but apparently female sign-ups at ashleymadison.com (a dating service for married people) increased ten-fold the day after mother’s day. And, the day after Valentine’s Day was even busier. I wonder if this results from too many men forgetting about these holidays.
  • The prime minister of Iceland made history last week when she became the first head of government to enter into a gay marriage.  
  • And, here’s a story about a professor who apparently streamed porn to his college classroom on accident. In case you were unsure, this is not a good idea.