Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Womenby Carolyn Custis James
Women comprise at least half the world, and usually more than half the church, but so often Christian teaching to women either fails to move beyond a discussion of roles or assumes a particular economic situation or stage of life. This all but shuts women out from contributing to God’s kingdom as they were designed to do. Furthermore, the plight of women in… See more details below
Women comprise at least half the world, and usually more than half the church, but so often Christian teaching to women either fails to move beyond a discussion of roles or assumes a particular economic situation or stage of life. This all but shuts women out from contributing to God’s kingdom as they were designed to do. Furthermore, the plight of women in the Majority World demands a Christian response, a holistic embrace of all that God calls women and men to be in his world. The loudest voices speaking into women’s lives in the twenty-first century thus far come from either fundamentalist Islam or radical feminism. And neither can be allowed to carry the day. The Bible contains the highest possible view of women and invests women’s lives with cosmic significance regardless of their age, stage of life, social status, or culture. Carolyn Custis James unpacks three transformative themes the Bible presents to women that raise the bar for women and calls them to join their brothers in advancing God’s gracious kingdom on earth. These new images of what can be in Christ free women to embrace the life God gives them, no matter what happens. Carolyn encourages readers with a positive, kingdom approach to the changes, challenges, and opportunities facing women throughout the world today.
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Half the Church
Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women
By Carolyn Custis James
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Carolyn Custis James
All rights reserved.
"We don't have to have daughters anymore!"
I was appalled. The book I was reading, Half the Sky, is a disturbing account of the plight of women and girls in our twenty-first-century world. It describes an ongoing humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions and unspeakable suffering —a rampant and brutalizing devaluation of the world's daughters. Barely into the introduction, I was already shaken by what I was learning.
The disturbing words on the page in front of me came from a Chinese man who was exulting over the availability of ultrasound. His cause for joy? The "happy" prospect ultrasound introduces to enable sex-selective abortions. While many Chinese are appalled at such thinking and treasure their daughters, the statement reflects an attitude present in many cultures where sons are held at a premium and the birth of a daughter is a disappointment (at best). Under China's one-child policy, according to this man, technology has delivered the perfect solution. Now Chinese couples who share his perspective can avoid wasting on daughters the one chance their government allows in their desperate quest for sons.
The selective abortion of females—a genocide of epic proportions—is merely the tip of the iceberg that Kristof and WuDunn have labeled "the paramount moral challenge" of the twenty-first century—"the struggle for gender equality in the developing world." That struggle takes on new meaning when you read brutal accounts of female genocide, the trafficking of young girls, honor killings, bride burnings, female genital mutilation, gang rapes, and forced exposure to AIDS. The list goes on. Equality here boils down to freedoms and opportunities that we in the West simply take for granted—education, basic healthcare, legal protection against assaults, and the right to make decisions for ourselves and lead productive lives.
"Wait a minute," you may be thinking, "I thought this book was about God's global vision for women. Don't the sufferings of women in the world belong in a different book?"
There was a time when I would have thought so, but 9/11 changed all that for me. On the day America's national security was breached we shared a frightening sense of vulnerability that is experienced routinely in other regions of the world. Color-coded threat levels, heightened airport security, and occasional alerts of terrorist activity keep that fear alive in us. It was a jarring moment when we were forced to admit that we are not invincible. Our world is broken too. Even on the sunniest of days, suffering and loss can invade without warning and in an instant completely reconfigure the landscape of our lives.
Author Jim Wallis has astutely observed what happened. "On September 11 America joined the world." Our membership was long overdue. Painful as the process has been for us, the benefits of widening our perspective to include the rest of the world are earthshaking, especially the relevance of this development to the conversation we are about to commence concerning God's vision for his daughters.
In the aftermath of 9/11 and from the comfort of our own homes, we were confronted by scenes and situations wholly alien to us. Without any effort on our part, the world was expanding right before our eyes. First came scenes of Afghan women encased in sky blue burkas, described by a Time reporter as "a kind of body bag for the living." From our Western vantage point, these women floated across our television screens like aliens from a distant planet. We were shocked by accounts of Taliban enforcers whipping Afghan women for revealing their ankles, even when the culprit that caused the exposure was a sudden gust of wind.
This wasn't anything like the casual armchair reading of National Geographic articles about another culture in some distant land. Our senses had been jarred awake by the tragedy in our own country. An international curtain had been shredded. Now with heightened sensitivities we were seeing for ourselves how the tragedy that changed our lives was impacting the lives of women elsewhere in the world and joining their stories to ours.
It was as if a dam had suddenly burst as my desire surged to know more about southwestern Asia and the Middle East, and information poured in. For the first time, my reading list included such titles as Nine Parts of Desire, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Kite Runner, Three Cups of Tea, and more recently Half the Sky. Illuminating conversations followed with individuals from cultures completely foreign to mine. I couldn't (still can't) get enough.
Somewhere in the process of reading and learning I crossed a Rubicon of sorts. No longer could I tell myself my white, middle-class, suburban American world is all that matters. No longer could I close my eyes to these unfamiliar (and sometimes disturbing) realities and convince myself that life as I know it here is, or even ought to be considered, the norm. No longer could I continue my quest to unearth the Bible's message for women in the isolation of the West. I had reached a point of no return that unleashed a flood of changes—two with special relevance to the purpose of this book.
The first change for me was both sudden and dramatic and targeted my own work. I saw, for the first time, a jaw-dropping connection between the women in the Bible and women of today's Middle East that revolutionized how I study the Bible. Glimpses I was gaining of life in the Middle East and in other patriarchal societies breathed life into Bible characters (women and men), who, since my early childhood, had been trapped inside a two-dimensional flannel graph world. With information I was learning from patriarchal cultures, the stories of women leaped off the pages of my Bible and into my world with an earthshaking potency, depth, and relevance that turned my world upside down.
In hindsight it makes a lot of sense, after all, the Bible isn't an American book. To be honest, the American culture is as far removed from the ancient culture of the Bible as you can get. The message loses its potency and sometimes completely escapes us when read solely through an American lens instead of through the eyes of those who understand the ancient biblical culture.
Unaided by that missing perspective, it is easy to mistake women's stories in the Bible as sidebars to the more significant stories of men. However, when a global perspective is injected, women's stories become far more than inspirational fodder for women's Bible studies and soothing devotional books. Against the backdrop of the ancient patriarchal culture, moments (and Scripture is peppered with them) when a woman steps out to occupy center stage of the biblical narrative are countercultural events, for patriarchy's interest is in men and what the men are achieving. The Bible doesn't maintain that monolithic focus but repeatedly draws women into the action as unflinching heroines of the faith, stalwart kingdom builders, and valiant rescuers of the royal line of Christ. Filled with heart-stopping drama, Job-like wrestlings with God, and accounts of bold courage that changed the world, suddenly these ancient texts link women of a bygone era with women of the twenty-first century with an earthy richness and fresh relevance that raises the bar for what we might do in our day.
Contrary to long-held interpretations, biblical narratives that spotlight women hold their own next to the weighty and impassioned preaching of Old Testament prophets and the rich theological writings of New Testament apostles. Women in the Bible are wise teachers. They offer up a boatload of profound theology intended to enrich the whole church's understanding of who God is, what it means to walk with him, and how we are to build his kingdom in this broken world.
I grieved (still do grieve) at how unaware we in the West are of our own cultural blindness—a sort of tunnel vision that plagues us all—and of our feeling of absolute certainty that without leaving our American shores, we are capable of explaining the Bible's message to ourselves, and to the rest of the world as well. I marvel that we could imagine understanding God's message for women without acquainting ourselves with the ancient cultural context through which that message is communicated. What have we been thinking?! And how much has this cost us?
Poking and prodding Greek and Hebrew syntax at a remote distance from the world of the Bible, even digging through archaeological artifacts, systematic theologies, commentaries, and history books (important as these are), can only take us so far. Without engaging residents of those cultures—actually letting them teach us—we lack the perspective necessary to unlock (and which we now need to recapture) the teachings of God's Word for women globally. Women in the developing world's patriarchal cultures are brought up with a perspective similar to ancient patriarchal cultures, and they can help us if we will only listen.
The good news is that with globalization, technology, and mounting immigration rates, the rest of the world is coming to us—arriving on our doorstep! Foreigners among us are an indispensible resource that we have historically neglected to our own impoverishment, for we think mainly how their lives will change for the better by being with us. This is, however, a two-way street. And for our own sakes as well as for theirs, we need to listen and learn from those who have much to teach us.
No Woman Left Behind
The second major post-9/11 change crept up on me by stealth. When 9/11 cracked open the barrier that for generations divided the West from the rest of the world, not only did it expose the fact that we've been studying God's Word in isolation, it also revealed the fact that our discussion of the Bible's message for women is isolated too.
I only became aware of the extent of this isolation over time. Having twice been excluded from the conversation myself (initially because of singleness and subsequently through infertility), I was painfully aware of the need to expand the circle. Left out for reasons beyond my control and aware of so many other women who for various reasons were also counted out, I was determined to find out if God's message for women was universal—encompassing the full spectrum of every woman's life regardless of her demographics or circumstances.
Can we miss or lose or spoil or be cheated of God's purposes for his daughters? Are God's purposes for women only for those whose lives go from early adulthood to "I do" and from there to the delivery room? Or are his purposes dynamic enough to leave no woman or girl behind? Studying with these new broader parameters in place changes the entire discussion and takes it to a deeper level. My questions opened the way for me to explore the bigness of God's heart and purposes for his daughters.
But it wasn't until Half the Sky took me to the forgotten fringes of female existence that I began to grasp how far this commitment was leading and that even these questions were too narrow. What if a soul is completely ravaged—brutalized and dehumanized until there is nothing left but an empty shell? Does the gospel only offer such a woman salvation, or does it also establish her as a participant in the Grand Story that God is weaving for the world? Are God's purposes for his daughters indestructible, or do they collapse under the weight of the world's evils?
The plight of women in the world became a tipping point confronting me with millions of shattered women and girls who are forgotten in our quest to understand what God has to say to us and who belong in this conversation. Stories defined by unspeakable brutality, oppression, exploitation, and powerlessness test the limits of the gospel's power to restore wholeness and purpose to women whose lives are living nightmares. Half the Sky blew the walls out on my thinking by horrifying me with scenes of an evil malignancy from which I had been shielded. Kristof and WuDunn put faces, stories, and statistics on my definition of "universal" by introducing me to women enduring unspeakable atrocities and injustice—women for whom the gospel message and its redeeming power are intended.
Bringing these women into this discussion changes everything. In our culture, the church has tended to concentrate on a tiny segment of the female population—a narrow, prosperous, protected, well-educated female demographic located in the comfortable midsection of human society. The prosperity we enjoy shapes both the questions we ask and the answers we embrace. And we—both the women who are asking and the Christian leaders who are defining the answers—are clueless that this is happening. We can 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. Everybody works. Our cloistered discussions about God's purposes for women and the resulting infighting that ensues among us leave women elsewhere in the world scratching their heads. Blinded by the insulation of prosperity, we are at risk of transmitting a message as irrelevant and unworkable as Marie Antoinette's solution for the starving masses: "Let them eat cake!"—a message that when sanctioned as "biblical" is cruelly beyond the reach of those with less.
A Global Conversation
We need a global conversation about the Bible's message for women because a global conversation safeguards us from proclaiming a prosperity gospel for women that works for some (at least for a time) and is utterly crushing to vast numbers of women in our own culture and elsewhere in the world. The Bible's message for women doesn't depend on ideal circumstances, but applies fully to those who live in the brutal outskirts of society where poverty engulfs, education is nonexistent, women's bodies are ravaged, and lives are in constant peril simply because they are female.
Global thinking raises deeper questions and sends us in search of answers that are expansive and dynamic enough to frame every woman's life from birth to death. Within this wider global context, we will discover—for their sakes and for ours—the true strength of God's message for women. Here we will unlock the gospel's potency to bring wholeness and purpose to a trampled and discarded life. This is where we will plumb the depths of God's love for his daughters and see for ourselves that no life is ever beyond the reach of the gospel's restorative powers, no matter how a woman's story plays out. Until we go global, we can never be sure of our questions, much less the answers we affirm.
We need a global conversation because, frankly, the Bible invites that challenge. Every generation faces new issues, crises, and changes. The present generation is no exception. We bear responsibility to test afresh the timelessness of God's Word and its relevance to "today" with current scenarios, possibilities, and issues beyond the experience of previous generations. The bunker is no place for Christians to retreat when some new idea surfaces, major cultural shifts occur, an unanticipated opportunity bursts on the scene, or injustice comes to light. Instead we must fearlessly rise to the challenge.
Our habit of erecting walls of defense to protect ourselves against the cultural shifts and changes that surround us is a denial of Jesus' calling on us to engage the world around us and to join his kingdom-building efforts. For our own sakes and for the sake of our sisters worldwide, we can and must fearlessly test the Bible's message for us to see if it holds up under the worst that the twenty-first century dishes out. Jesus announced his kingdom as "good news to the poor." Let's find out what that good news means for all his daughters.
We need a global conversation because the Bible itself is global. God's Word has never been the exclusive property of the elite. God's Word is for the world. If anything, the Bible gives priority to the weak, the oppressed, and the poor and is tougher on privileged people who hold the reins of wealth and power but refuse to wield their advantages for the good of others. Jesus had little tolerance for self-centered individuals who indulged themselves and hoarded the comforts of this earthly life. His heart was with the suffering and oppressed, and we can be sure the Bible's message reflects the same commitment.
Scanning the twenty-first-century horizon will help us move our discussion about women into the global arena by giving us some sense of the scope of the challenge before us.
The Twenty-First-Century Landscape for Women
The landscape for women in the twenty-first century is a polarized world of extremes that, to be honest, is confusing to women. At one end of the spectrum, women have broken through the glass ceiling to secure posts of leadership, power, and achievement that rival their male counterparts. Women have arrived and in growing numbers are succeeding in the highest echelons of government, business, religion, education, sports, and the entertainment industry. It is a new day for women. Those who enjoy the benefits of education, wealth, and freedom are blessed with a lavish smorgasbord of exciting options. Parents today are telling their daughters, "You can be anything you want to be."
Excerpted from Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James. Copyright © 2011 Carolyn Custis James. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Carolyn Custis James (MA, Biblical Studies) travels extensively as a popular speaker for women's conferences, churches, colleges, seminaries, and other Christian organizations. Her ministry organization, WhitbyForum, promotes thoughtful biblical discussion to help men and women serve God together. Carolyn founded and is president of the Synergy Women’s Network. She is a consulting editor for Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament and author of When Life and Beliefs Collide and Lost Women of the Bible. Carolyn and her husband live in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. They have one grown daughter.
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