Reading Through "Half the Church", Part 1: The Gospel Is Bigger Than We Think

For years now, the Christian community has pondered how to make the Gospel relevant to those outside our bubble. I’ve long wondered if the trouble wasn’t so much the Gospel’s irrelevancy as it was our own.

In reading Carolyn Custis James’s Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, I am finding support for my theory—while also feeling the burn from ideas that don’t land where my opinions have currently taken roost. During this series, you can feel the burn too by joining this iron-sharpening-iron discussion based on Half the Church.

As the book’s subtitle states, James is writing to women, to this half of the Church; she is calling women to dare to dream of what our all-powerful God might do through them to touch the world with His mercy and love. She may be speaking directly to women, but I think this is a Church-wide discussion because both halves have struggled to walk out God’s Gospel vision. Both halves have been strong in some places, weak in others; blame has been cast from one half to the other and back again.

James doesn’t waste any time wading into this conundrum; chapter one plunges us in at the deep end of this age-old, male-female wrangle. But James makes it clear that blame doesn’t help either half in fulfilling God’s call to spread the Gospel. Our endless debating is not getting the task done. There are billions of people who are in desperate situations, in need of help, in need of the Savior. Yet we who have both hope to share and resources to do so are caught in these male-female debates that are only of significance here in our society of affluence.

James explains that it is only in affluence that Christians can disengage from desperate need for the sake of theological debate. Take, for example, the debate about Christian women pursuing a career. James says:

We ask questions like, “Do I plan to use my college degree or set it aside?” and “Should I be a stay-at-home mom or work outside the home?” But for the rest of the world, these questions are unimaginable luxuries. For them, education is a lifeline that promises a better life for a woman and her children and will doubtless benefit her community. Working outside the home is not an option where grinding poverty exists and there are hungry mouths to feed.

Our Christian culture takes these precious freedoms and opportunities and turns them into a ruler by which we measure the spiritual maturity of a woman, the submissiveness of a wife, and the priorities of a mom. In this bubble, it is difficult to believe God might actually call a woman to pursue a career in which she is gifted, through which God’s image can be displayed, and by which the Gospel can be spread to those in need. This version of the Gospel is irrelevant to women living elsewhere.

This is why the Gospel sounds irrelevant to the world at large: Because we have run it through our grid of affluence. Other, less affluent cultures cannot relate. The suffering masses do not see the beauty in the Gospel when women shrink back and squander the opportunities our affluence affords for expressing God’s love.

James is not proposing—nor am I—that American women need to rise up with a feminist squawk against our Christian culture. That’s merely running from one extreme to the other. There is a middle ground to rest within, one that is becoming to the follower of Christ (whether male or female). Instead, American women need to rise up with the power of Gospel against the dark forces of this world. It is not about male-female. It is about the Kingdom of Light versus the Kingdom of Darkness.

It’s absolutely necessary for women to step into the mission that God has for them if God’s mandate for the Church—the whole Church—is to be fulfilled. This is our honor, not because we want to stick it to men or to the scriptural mandates about male leadership held by some within the Church. All of this is about Jesus, His fame, and the people who need Him. This is not about women claiming space, but about stepping up with the whole Church into the role granted to us all by God.

The questions and challenges brought forth by James are directed to the female half of the Church but are applicable to the whole Church. Just as we were created together, male and female, to reflect God’s image, so together we are to carry His Gospel wherever He leads. This sort of view brings both halves of the Church in line to fulfill the Great Commission. As James says:

This is a moment for us to put on display before a watching world the greatness and beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the radical difference he makes in relationships between men and women as we serve him together.

Ultimately, it’s not about us and whether we are male or female. It’s about God and His Gospel, the power that makes both men and women into new creations through Christ Jesus. This is the Gospel that is relevant to all people, everywhere.

About Erin Straza

Erin Straza (Associate Editor) is a freelance writer, editor, and marketing communications consultant, helping organizations tell their stories in authentic and compelling ways. After a stint in corporate marketing while earning her MBA, Erin taught marketing communications at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State. She is crafting her first book, writing from the Illinois flatlands where she lives with her husband, Mike. Find more from Erin at her blog Filling My Patch of Sky and on Twitter @ErinStraza.
E-mail: erin [at] FillingMyPatchOfSky [dot] com
Blog: Filling My Patch of Sky
Twitter: @ErinStraza

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Thanks for doing this review, Erin. I look forward to hearing more about this book.

    I had a bit of a reaction to this: “The suffering masses do not see the beauty in the Gospel when women shrink back and squander the opportunities our affluence affords for expressing God’s love.”

    I sort of took this as you saying that an American woman who has set aside a career to be a stay at home mom has “squandered an opportunity.” I wouldn’t agree with that, and I don’t think you meant to say that, did you? Even if staying at home is an unaffordable luxury in another setting, that doesn’t mean taking advantage of it is squandering something better, does it? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Also, out of curiosity, is James coming at this from and egalitarian or complementarian point of view? Or something else? Is she saying that this debate is what is distracting us?

  • http://www.FillingMyPatchOfSky.com Erin

    Brad > Thanks for asking for clarification, because that is surely not what I meant! (eek!) The squandering comes by way of missing out on the big picture of God’s Kingdom work. Certainly there are seasons and phases when a woman’s focus will be at home, on children (if that’s what God gives her). Many moms I know feel at odds between the calling to raise Christian children and the heart tug they have for the world. James is daring women to dream and pray for how those things can coexist and work together. Somehow she does this without loading on guilt for what I haven’t done or increasing my anxiety over being too busy.

    Let me clarify further: Of course mothers are using their gifts and talents in raising their children. That’s a high calling and privilege. But James is saying that’s not the only way for women to invest in the Kingdom. Later chapters dig into this a bit deeper, so I will do my best to bring these main points to the discussion. (I think those posts will be ripe for debate, so get ready!)

    As for the author’s stance on egalitarian/complementarian, she is not using those terms (as far as I’ve read, at least), so I’m not certain. Honestly, I’m seeing a blend, if that’s possible. And yes, she is saying this debate is the distraction—so let’s all dig in because there is so much need, so many in darkness. Her passion is for the nations, so most examples are coming from other countries where poverty looms and freedom is a luxury. We are so blessed here in the States, and we can extend that blessing to the nations.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Weird–I didn’t sense that James was saying stay at home moms have squandered opportunities for influence in their community by staying at home. I got the sense that she feels women as a whole sometimes squander opportunities because of perceived expectations in their communities. That is something to consider.

    When I read Erin’s article I did not feel that particular issue was front and center. I think James was making the argument that staying at home isn’t a luxery that many women have. That is something that we need to be cognizant of–very cognizant of. I think our churches in particular should go out of their way to recognize and honor the areas of influence that women can and should have in our communities. I think that is an incredibly important thing for us to consider.

    I think I have a lot to learn here–I am not sure knowing James’ leanings with regard to women’s roles would be helpful. I mean that might immediately color how people will hear James’ arguements throughout the book. From this intro I suspect wherever she lands on that issue she has something of value to say that we would do well to consider.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Thanks for that clarification, Erin. I know that I have a bias in this area: my wife stays home with the children, and I’m a bit too hasty to defend that decision probably. I think Amy, my wife, does the sorts of thing you are talking about. Being a “stay at home mom” does not mean Amy is relegated to the house. She has a couple of businesses she runs on the side which keeps her active in the community, and she is active at the church. I’m very proud of her. :)

    I look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts on the book. Would you recommend this book to the women of your church? (Am I jumping the gun to ask that? You can always say, “Stay tuned for the next episode!)

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Sorry I think I was writing my comment just as you were writing your Erin.

    Anyway–look forward to more of these even if they aren’t particularly directed at me ;)

  • http://www.FillingMyPatchOfSky.com Erin

    Brad > So encouraging to hear how proud you are of Amy’s gifts and talents. Made me smile. And yes, I have recommended this to my church—we are having a discussion on it this Friday night! Only a few could make the date, but my hope is that those who have read the book will want to keep discussing and dreaming and praying for God’s lead in how we can be active in helping women around the world.

    Drew > I think you are correct: If we knew which camp James was in, we might rally or protest rather than let the concepts percolate. I’m glad to explore the ideas and have God nudge me as He will.

  • Tyler

    @ Erin

    I understand that this post is not intended to be a commentary on the egalitarian/complementarian issue. But I don’t think you can get away from it. I only say that because the premise of the book highlights the issue. It seems to be rather misleading to write to one half if both “halves” are really equal. The fact that she even speaks to the one half leads me to think she, at the very least, leans toward there being a distinction. She really ought to be clear about where she stands.

    It is interesting that a book directed toward women would not be clear about whether there are real distinctions between the roles of men and women in the church. If the author is egalitarian she is doing herself no good by arbitrarily isolating only half of those who ought to hear her message. Why only talk to half the church if the message is for the whole?

    If she is complementarian, then she is not being very helpful to the women who read her book by not making it clear what specific role they ought to play. How do you measure success? When you aim at nothing you always hit your mark!

    Do you think I am making more of an issue of this than I ought?

  • Sherry

    I think it’s easy to fall into the egalitarian/complementarian or ‘stay-at-home’ mom discussion when reading this book. (agreeing here that they are also great topics to discuss…)

    But at the end of the day, both sexes are called to reflect God’s image to a globe that needs Him. The book is very clear that this is a task for both men and women…together…being His image bearers. She actually states that the strongest way to do this is in this ‘blessed alliance’ for a complementary man/woman relationship. Yeah!

    I appreciated that this book was written with a focus toward the women of the church. Women, including myself, have often struggled to see themselves as a leader, an advocate, or a voice in the American Church. I really felt like someone (Carolyn) finally said/wrote what needs to be said today.

    This book calls the entire church into action. We mustn’t waste time in acting. There are far too many atrocities of deception in the world today (trafficking of children, poverty, slave labor). These are Kingdom issues that need to be addressed by the obedience of God’s children, men and women. Issues that need the Truth and Grace of Christ spoken into them.

    There is no time to waste discussing who should do what…or getting hung up on an authors viewpoints of roles of men and women.

    Let’s all be obedient in this call. Take action. Bear His image.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Tyler,

    “It seems to be rather misleading to write to one half if both “halves” are really equal.”

    I have to kindly disagree with you there. You could say that about any and every book for women or for men. I think you probably realize that. Additionally both sides of the complementarian/egalitarian debate believe in the equality of the sexes.

    This is where I actually think its probably wise for James not to tip her hat right off the bat because, as I said above, it would likely keep people on one side or the other from hearing her.

    I can also certainly attest to the fact that the messages being delivered to women in our churches and in the wider culture is often muddled at best. James is addressing that and saying, let’s honor the special role women have and the ways in which they can have influence for the sake of the gospel. That is not an either/or issue in relation to the debate you can bring up. People on both sides of that debate should be able to hear James out on this subject I think.


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