A couple years ago I read the profoundly worldview-changing book Half the Sky by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas D. Kristof. That book opened my eyes to the huge challenges, obstacles and burdens the women of our world face and moved me to action on their behalf. As I have written previously, I recognized that Kristof and WuDunn were right on target with their statement:
We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.
I also came to realize that a similar statement could be made about women within the Church. I believe that the paramount issue in this century within the Church will also be the struggle for gender equality. So when I saw Carolyn Custis James' new book Half the Church, I knew I had to read it. I had already read her book The Gospel of Ruth and was moved by her examination of that well-known story. Half the Church was just as powerful.
In Half the Church James makes a concise and powerful argument for God's global vision for women. This vision stems from the very beginning of creation, when God created men and women in the divine image.
So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
James would insist that we not skip quickly over these words lest we fail to recognize the profound statement being made here. Both men and women are divine image-bearers. Women are not an afterthought. James writes:
“He gives both male and female the exact same identity – to be his image bearers. He gives both the exact same responsibilities when he entrusts all of creation to his image bearers, calling them to be fruitful and multiply and to rule and subdue the whole earth.”
From this basis James examines Scripture and builds a strong case for not only the equality of men and women, but for the fact the without both genders the Church cannot fulfill the mission of God. Women weren't created to be the “helpmeets” of men. Women were created to bear the image of God alongside men, so that together we can accomplish God's purposes. She makes the point more than once that by placing women in a subordinate position, the Church has crippled its own ability to bear the divine image. The Church is trying to carry out its mission with only half of its potential strength. By failing to appreciate and live in accord with the fundamental nature of creation – in which men and women both bear equally the divine image – the Church has sold the Gospel of Jesus Christ short.
“At the heart of this discussion is the very real question of whether the gospel's message for women is merely a kinder, gentler version of the world's message. Are we only dealing with a sliding scale, where our beliefs move women to a safer, more acceptable zone of human value, or does Jesus bulldoze that system and reconstruct in its place a radically different gospel way of valuing women?”
I find it profoundly tragic that this book needs to be written. The truth that James argues should be inherently apparent and practiced throughout God's Church. Sadly this is not the case and has not been throughout the Church's history. Although Western culture has made significant strides in affirming the value of women, much of the Western Church still lags far behind. For this reason James' book is necessary. Although she writes it for women, I think it has great value for and needs to be read by men as well. We need to have our thinking about women in the world and particularly in the Church radically transformed. James has laid out a good fundamental argument to help stimulate that transformation. I would love to see this book used in mixed small groups so that God's children, men and women together, could talk about these important issues and together initiate changes that will unleash the half of the church that currently finds themselves restricted, hindered and undervalued.