Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James: book review and giveaway

I was pleased when Zondervan contacted me about participating in a ‘blog tour’ for a book they were ‘very excited about’.  I was even more pleased once I looked it up and saw that it might be something I’d be interested in.

So, what do I think now that I have read the book?

The first thing that struck me about this book was the inclusivity of its style.  Despite being written by an American author from within her own church context, James makes very clear from the beginning that the subtitle of this book is indeed a true reflection of its purpose: recapturing God’s global vision for women.  At no point did I feel on the outside looking in.

She emphasises that within our context of freedom and plenty, some questions and discussions we tend to have about women and their roles here in the West are simply not applicable for women in different cultures and environments, lacking our resources and our choices.  But instead of shuffling past them and focusing on ‘us’ she chooses to take a fuller, more compassionate view, recognising women’s importance throughout the world and what we can do to help those who have so much less than we do.  Indeed, the extremes throughout the world put our church debates in sobering perspective.

Part of this book springs out of her own reading of Half the Sky*, a book chronicling some of the horrors experienced by women and girls in today’s world.  James constantly refers to some appalling stories of women and girls facing terrible choices –  or more accurately, no choice at all.
I warmed to her as it became clear that she was passionate about the plight of women throughout the world, those without any opportunities, those closed in by poverty and those subjected to abuse.  Her concern was not preoccupied by the insulated West.  One statistic she quoted I could not really get my head round: 

“It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.  More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”

 Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky, as quoted in Half the Church (emphasis mine).

But James’ vision is wider than sharing with her readers the awful treatment of some of the world’s daughters.  In effect, she contrasts this treatment with what she sees as the biblical picture of women: God’s image bearers, equipped to lead by the mandate of Genesis 1.

James makes a lot of reference to the ezer of Genesis 2 – ezer-kenegdo being the phrase often translated a ‘suitable helper’ when referring to God’s purpose in creating woman.   James ties this in with other uses of ‘ezer’ as a kind of warrior – sometimes used to refer to God himself as shield and helper.  Without a grasp of Hebrew I feel unable to critique this –  but it is certainly an interesting suggestion, and a recurring theme throughout the book.

I loved the way James’ focuses on women’s primary calling – to love the Lord our God with all our soul, mind, heart and strength.  I also deeply appreciated, that while identifying marriage and motherhood as very important callings, she emphasises that they are not what makes up our identity.  She talked about many women feeling they cannot start living their calling until they are married / have children – and I strongly agree that this is a negative thing we need to shake off  (for men too, I feel).  Our worth is not found in marriage and motherhood, as beautiful as these things are.  There are so many who do not fit that ‘template’, and I for one have always felt irritated by the common cultural assumption that we are ‘incomplete’ until we find the ‘one’ or experience parenthood.   It isolates and excludes a huge amount of people, and makes us feel somehow ‘lesser’ if we never reach these supposed ideals.

She underlines this further when talking about the ‘Blessed Alliance’ – which is how she refers to the relationship between man and woman.  And – wonderfully – she is not confining this to marriage but to male-female relationships in general – Christian women working with their brothers, their friends, to show God’s image to the world and share the power of the gospel – together.  Is it me, or is so little talked about platonic or familial male-female relationships?

These are the two ‘load bearing’ pillars of the image bearers – our relationship with God, and the relationships between us.  Within the story of Genesis 3, both of these pillars are broken down – but in Christ they are restored.  This book contains no rants or diatribes, but shows a genuine longing for renewed and loving relationships between the genders.  It talks about the value men and women have as part of the body of Christ – and if half the body is not encouraged to use its gifts, then we are all weakened.  We bless each other by our gifts.  Men and women are not two ‘halves’ of an image bearer but each is one, and in Trinitarian likeness, one plus one = one.  We are called to that kind of oneness.

James does take a chapter to address what she calls the ‘Big Debate’ over the role of women in the church, and has some helpful things to say.  She reiterates what I’ve heard elsewhere – you cannot build an entire theology on disputable texts.  You have to examine what is indisputable  and go from there.  And in this way she looks at some examples of women in the bible and what she feels they tell us about our role as image bearers.  I love the way she avoids getting embroiled in specific issues and instead keeps her focus.

In today’s world, we have so much more awareness of what is happening around the globe to those created in God’s image.  And, James enthuses, it’s our calling to make a difference.

May we be remembered as a generation who caught God’s vision, faced our fears, and rose up to serve his cause. – Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church

Much of this book I am still digesting.  Naturally there will be elements people will disagree with – but I think it a very worthwhile read, whatever your viewpoint.  I suspect there will be those who come from different contexts and don’t recognise some of the issues she talks about, or have trouble with her frame of reference.  I, however, found it helpful and interesting.

On a personal level, on finishing this book I feel incredibly encouraged – about being a woman.  I’ve never actually confessed to feeling discouraged, but it is true.  Something about this book drove right through that discouragement, knocked it all to pieces and made me feel differently about myself.   It’s given me the courage to step over something I had been deliberately ignoring and find a sudden sense of freedom and purpose.

I hesitate to use the word, because it feels a bit heavy with association and liable to be misconstrued but I feel, in this case, it is worth saying.

I feel empowered by this book.

And the fact I feel able to use that word says something in itself.

*The title ‘Half the Sky’ is based on the proverb ‘Women hold up half the sky‘.


Yes, Zondervan sent me an extra copy of this book – if you want to be entered for the giveaway please leave a comment on this post telling me why you’d like to have this book.  If it’s too hard to choose, I will use a random number generator, but I think it would be great if we shared our thoughts anyway.  Comments must be posted by Wednesday 13th April. Giveaway is now closed – congratulations Red!

I received this book free from Zondervan for the purpose of reviewing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.  You can find a list of other reviews here.

4 thoughts on “Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James: book review and giveaway

  1. Red says:

    Hi LucyI would love to read this and if I'm not the winner I will probably buy it anyway!! As a woman hoping to enter ministry in the church some of the points you raise in your review are particularly pertinent for me. It's about time women were not just asked to man the coffee stand or decorate the church for Easter. We need to reclaim our gifts….redx


  2. Quotidian Grace says:

    Lucy, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment on my review of this book. It's so interesting to see the different ways people are reviewing it and I really enjoyed your review as well!Blessings!


  3. Perpetua says:

    A lot of what you tell us here chimes with my own experience as a woman who has worked both in a secular profession and in full-time ordained ministry. As one of five sisters (no brothers) we were lucky to have parents who valued us and encouraged us to use our gifts and I think that's why I've always been deeply interested and involved in women's issues and organisations from Mothers' Union to micro-loans for women.


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