Sometimes a book finds you at just the right time in your life.
I’d known of Carolyn Custis James’ book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, since it was first published 10 years ago. But it was one of those books that stayed on my ‘I should read that someday’ list. Maybe I wasn’t ‘ready’ to wrestle with the global issues I suspected it’d raise. Maybe I thought it’d demand too much of me in navigating the complicated world of women’s roles in a male-dominated world. So I put it off.
Until now. And talk about timing. Five months ago, I started working for an Australian-founded, global relief and development organisation whose primary mission is to “be love and end poverty”. Every day I feel the enormous privilege it is to engage in discussions about how we can join God in the work He’s doing in places like Nepal, Bangladesh and Cambodia, where we partner with various Christian agencies on the ground. These agencies provide a range of opportunities to help women, children and men – regardless of status or religion – to emerge from poverty. To flourish. They organise workshops on gardening, hygiene, fish farming, education, savings clubs, etc, in impoverished rural areas.
Most of us in the West can’t begin to appreciate the challenges these families face every day because of the complicated impact of poverty, made worse now because of COVID. Nor can we appreciate just how much of a lifeline humanitarian efforts such as these actually can be throughout the world. Yet even before the 2020 pandemic, our partners were on the ground teaching families daily hygiene to avoid disease and how to grow their own crops when food shortages took a plunge in already vulnerable cultures. They had a step up for what 2020 brought.
In other words, God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, whose heart is turned toward the poor and marginalised, has always been providing for His most perfect design – humans – through, well, other humans.
Enter Half the Church – an inspiring breath of fresh air. Custis James’ compelling writing and solid theology bring these issues together. She begins each chapter with a story from the Majority World – child brides/widows, sex trafficking, horrific abuses imposed on girls and women daily all before 2010. Sadly, they hold true still in 2021 – and so her book remains a grounding and crucial read today.
Custis James cites frequently the impact of another ground-breaking book, Half the Sky, which clearly informed her thinking around these issues. Kristof and WuDunn’s book exposed the atrocities gender inequality brought in the new millennium – many of which continue today. That book was a confronting and personal wake up call for Custis James, giving the American author an opportunity to explore a deeper and more robust theological response to God’s global vision for women.
At its foundation, her book centres on what is often missing in daily ministry and global mission: creation theology.
“When God created human beings in his ‘image’ and ‘likeness’, he was designating us as his representatives on the earth” Custis James writes.
“Instead of running things directly himself, he chose us as his intermediaries to run things here in this world. As his image bearers, we speak and act on his behalf. This is not only about Christians. Every human being is God’s image bearer – granted the highest possible rank of all of God’s creatures. Every human being has a strategic role in God’s purposes in the world. Every human being possesses a derived significance – grounded in God himself. And every human being is summoned to the highest of all possible aspirations – not to be God, but ‘to be like’ God himself. God is the standard for who we are and what our mission is in this world. By pursuing this loftiest of all goals, we move toward true flourishing as human beings.”
In eight well-researched and thoughtful chapters (though with some obviously American perspectives), Custis James provides a meaty and inviting theology for Kingdom work, regardless of gender: That leadership is about bending down to serve. That women and men were always meant to minister together in what she calls a “Blessed Alliance”. That from the creation theology put forth in Genesis, we find a blueprint for understanding our identity as women and men. That women are (as the Hebrew called Eve and also refers to God throughout Scripture) ezers, a word most often used in a military context throughout Scripture as warriors. God is a shield, a defense, a watch over his people, an ezer. For Eve to have been called the same is to see God’s identity reflected in – and for – her.
“He deploys the ezer to break the man’s aloneness by soldiering with him wholeheartedly and at full strength for God’s gracious kingdom. The man needs everything she brings to their global mission.”
Yet make no mistake: This is not a feminist’s handbook any more than it is an enemy of men. Custis James’ chapters on the ‘Blessed Alliance’ of (men and women working together) and the Bride of Christ are riveting stuff, anchored deep in the Biblical narrative, giving juicy Scriptural illustrations, and calling all Christ-followers to dig deep into the mutual power of God’s blessing beyond gender, especially if we want to care and advocate for those fellow ‘image-bearers’ living on the margins. Their justice, after all, is ours; their hope one we all share, because both are rooted in Christ’s crucifixion and raised again for the opportunity of new life available to all throughout the world.
And while Custis James sneaks close to ‘the issue’ (of ordination), she respectfully explores both sides of the ‘Great Debate’ about women’s roles within the church. But she goes way beyond taking a stand – her vision is much bigger than narrow-minded certainties that too many denominations hold about gender roles.
Rather, Custis James offers a much-needed Kingdom strategy in which all are called to participate – a perspective I didn’t know how much I needed until I finally devoured her book. And because she majors on the majors, not the minors, of Scripture, we see the ‘indisputable’ truths in the lives of role models like Eve, Naomi, Boaz, Ruth, Esther, Mordecai, Mary, Joseph, and others, that reaffirm their identity as ‘image-bearers’ and vessels of God’s work. Together they point to Christ the King. In other words, the whole body of Christ is to do the whole work of the Kingdom to serve all of God’s image bearers around the globe, especially those in poverty.
As Custis James put it 10 years ago, in a challenge that rings just as true in 2021:
“There is much work to be done. Earth is emitting a distress signal we cannot ignore. Suffering and injustice are rampant, and they are our business. God has called us. We are ready.”
Review by Jo Kadlecek. Author, reporter and teacher for many years, Jo Kadlecek is now the communication manager for Baptist World Aid Australia. She and her husband and their dog Clark Kent live in Sydney, Australia. Former Gordon College students may remember her as a Journalism Professor at their alma mater.
This review is republished with Jo Kadlecek’s permission. The original article was published by Sight Magazine in Victoria, Australia.