Half the Church

May 19th, 2011

A Q&A with Carolyn Custis James about women in the Bible, leadership, marriage, and her new book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.

As the title of your book implies, you were inspired by the 2009 exposé, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. What motivated you to write a book on these themes from a Christian perspective?

For years, I’ve been asking questions about the Bible’s message for women. My search for answers was initially motivated by a long stretch of singleness I didn’t see coming. Could I miss or lose God’s purpose for me as a woman? Over the years, the questions expanded, as I listened to what other women are asking both here and globally. Will the Bible’s message for women hold up under twenty-first century pressures, changes, and challenges? Do God’s purposes include all of us, from our first breath to our last, no matter who we are or what shape our lives are in?

Running parallel to this search was a growing awareness of the global crisis impacting the lives of women and girls throughout the world. Sex trafficking, honor killings, child marriages, female infanticide, and gang rapes are only a few examples. In 2009, these two streams of thought converged when I read Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof’s bestselling book, Half the Sky. When the authors issued a bold challenge for evangelical Christians to get involved, I couldn’t escape the connection. As God’s image bearers, we have responsibility for what happens in God’s world. Their challenge was legitimate and deserved a thoughtful response. My book, Half the Church, not only presents God’s expansive global vision for his daughters, it culminates with a call to action for all of us.


You describe in your book how learning about the plight of Middle Eastern women “breathed life into Bible characters who had been trapped inside a two-dimensional flannel graph world.” How did your understanding of the Bible and God’s vision change in light of your research?

It was earthshaking to realize my American point of view puts me at a disadvantage when I study the Bible. Our Western culture is alien to the world in which the Scriptures emerged. The Bible’s message stands in sharp relief against the backdrop of the ancient patriarchal culture where a woman’s security depends upon her connection to a man (father, husband, or sons), where sons are prized and daughters do not count, and where a woman’s contribution in life is to produce sons for her husband. If I read the Bible strictly from an American/Western point of view, I risk trivializing that message and possibly missing the point completely.

For example, in our culture, it’s hard to get excited over the story of Mary of Bethany sitting at the feet of Jesus. We expect our daughters to be educated. Vast numbers of women attend university, earn Ph.D.s and even become professors. Our privileges make it difficult for us to see the radical nature of Mary’s choice and of Jesus’ defense of her in front of a group of men. Tell that story in the Middle East, where women remain secluded from the men, where education for girls is rare or banned, or girls have acid thrown in their faces as they walk to school. Women in those countries will see that Jesus is sending a powerful message to women when he defends Mary and hints that Martha should follow her sister’s example.


How can churches today help people have a more “three-dimensional” view of the Bible and women’s role in God’s story?

Everything changed for me when I took my questions to the creation narrative. There God is vision casting for humanity and for his world. His vision is what we lost in the fall and what Jesus is restoring. The rest of Scripture must be viewed within that overarching vision.

My book focuses on three specific statements God makes about women—first, that we are his image bearers, second, that we are ezer-warriors created to join our brothers in battling the Enemy, and third, that God designated his male and female image bearers to be a Blessed Alliance in building his kingdom on earth together. These three callings explode small notions of God’s calling on his daughters’ lives and reinforce male/female relationships as God’s strategic plan for fulfilling his vision.


You say that not just some but all women are called to be leaders. How can churches nurture and empower women as leaders both in the church and in other arenas?

The Bible has a very large definition of leader. I’ve been to leadership conferences where the term leader applies to people who have a following, a title, an organization, and a paycheck. Ironically, some of the most outstanding leaders in the Bible operate alone, behind the scenes, without recognition, submerged in the mundane. Naomi and Ruth were putting food on the table and raising a little boy. But through their efforts God was advancing his purposes for the world.

Being God’s image bearer means being a leader. As God’s representatives, we speak and act on his behalf. Leadership means paying attention to what is happening around us, accepting responsibility, and doing what needs to be done.

The church can nurture and empower both women and men by affirming the vocations God has given us. We are on the front lines when we’re raising our children, going to school, spending time with friends, caring for elderly parents, starting a business, in the corporate world, working at Wal-Mart.


I was personally most drawn to your chapter, “Here Comes the Bride,” about submission and gender dynamics in marriage. You write about the strength and power of the iconic Proverbs 31 Woman, and also about her husband, the “Proverbs 31 Man.” What should churches learn from this when it comes to strengthening the marriages of its members?

The Proverbs 31 woman isn’t holding back. She is diligent and pro-active, and she is flourishing. She manages her household, her workers, a profit-making business, invests in real estate, and cares for the poor.

The Proverbs 31 man flourishes too because of her achievements. He stands taller because he has such a wife, her efforts reflect positively on him, and all the she does empowers and frees him to take a place of leadership in the city gates.

Husbands and wives should be cheerleaders and advocates for each other—encouraging and fostering the development of each other’s gifts and delighting in the accomplishments of one another. Life isn’t easy, and it makes a difference when you both bring all you have to the relationship and pull together. The Proverbs 31 couple exemplifies that model, and their marriage is strong.


In your last chapter, you tackle the ongoing debate between complementarian and egalitarian perspectives of gender roles. What do you think is the status of this debate in the church today, and what do you make of the fact that even in egalitarian traditions, women are much more likely to be associate pastors rather than senior pastors?

What I am seeing and have written about in my book is that no matter which camp a person embraces, deeper problems still exist between men and women that both camps need to address. We have a long way to go if we are to work together with the kind of oneness Jesus had in mind. Even where women are appointed to top leadership positions, unless and until men and women recognize their profound interdependence and that working separately hampers our work, we won’t begin to move toward becoming the people Jesus died for us to become. Working together doesn’t simply mean adding a woman to the team. It means collaborating, listening to one another, benefitting from the wisdom of each other and making better decisions because we have multiple perspectives.

The debate will be with us until Jesus comes, and while people may occasionally change camps, I don’t see any signs of resolution, and I grieve the rift the debate has created among believers and the hurt and disappointment the debate is causing women. It isn’t easy to be the subject of debate, and growing numbers of women and men are growing weary living of it.

The appalling crisis documented in Half the Sky that is snuffing out the lives and causing unspeakable suffering for millions of women and girls globally puts this debate in perspective. We need all hands on deck. My work focuses on God’s vision for men and women and the mission he has entrusted to us. Deeper gospel questions must be explored. What does it mean to be the Body of Christ? How do we live out the gospel before a watching world? How healthy, strong, and fully functioning is Jesus’ body? And how does our hurting world experience through us the good news of the gospel?

These questions pull every member of the body into the discussion, not just the few who desire to be in official leadership. We need to mobilize the whole church.

comments powered by Disqus