Editor’s Note: In today’s post, Susan Burner offers a compelling preview of our upcoming Talking Points conference on justice and unity through the lens of women’s experience and perspective. She reviews a book by one of our speakers, Carolyn Custis James, highlighting many of the key questions we will explore. The conference is tomorrow (Tuesday, April 16). If you haven’t registered yet, you still can! You can also register at the door.

I distinctly remember the day that I sat in a college class, pursuing a degree in worship arts, when it dawned on me: there was a possibility I would struggle to be hired for a job in music ministry because of my gender. I was a gifted vocalist, which had always been affirmed and celebrated in my church. No one had cautioned me that pursuing a worship arts degree might be an unwise career choice. I began a journey of processing options and asking questions: What title would the job have to have in order for me to be able to occupy it? What would I be allowed to do in that role? What would I not be allowed to do? Now fast-forward to today: I am in my final semester of seminary and have had a full-time ministry job for the past six years. Some would point to my story and those of other women in ministry and say that the church has begun to more highly value women.

While that might be true on some level, we must be extremely cautious in boasting of the progress the church has made. It is all too common that when we start talking about women and the church we automatically end up debating complementarianism and egalitarianism or discussing women in ministry and their opportunities and challenges. In her book, “Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women,” Carolyn Custis James calls Christians to think much more broadly about God’s vision and purpose for all women. The reality is that globally, women are suffering, and the church has largely not paid attention to their cries. Worldwide, the brutality against women is vast: the selective abortion of females, also known as gendercide, trafficking of young girls, child brides, honor killings, bride burnings, female genital mutilation, gang rape and forced exposure to AIDS are just a few examples (p. 30).

In the West, we are often not only blind to the reality of these things, but we are also blind to the immense value that women around the world have to offer the church. We are surprised to learn that in many countries there is a significantly higher percentage of Christian women than men (80% in China, 90% in Japan) (p. 27). James identifies the Western church’s tunnel vision or cultural blindness: we believe we are capable of understanding and explaining the Bible to the world without the rest of the world’s perspective (p. 33). She notes the irony of this, particularly in that we would benefit greatly from learning from women who are in patriarchal cultures that have a similar perspective to the ancient patriarchal cultures of the biblical narrative (p. 34).

From a global perspective, James offers three challenges, in the forms of questions, for the church to consider.

First, “What message does the church offer women in the twenty-first century?” (p. 41). It is no secret that the church has largely defined women in terms of marriage and motherhood. We see this in what is most celebrated and recognized within our congregations, in the programming and content offered in women’s ministries, in the sermon applications, and even in how we disciple our girls and young women. While both marriage and motherhood are wonderful things, we must recognize that sixty percent of the women and girls in the church cannot currently personally relate to such an experience (p. 103). Surely, the gospel is a message of good news for them as well. Surely, God has a purpose and calling for these women too. Surely, they are not simply waiting for marriage or motherhood to fulfill their kingdom purpose. Surely, God is not finished with widows and those who have lost children and their value in the kingdom as not ceased.

James’ biblical vision for women is rooted in the term ezer-kenegdo. While this is often translated in English as “suitable helper,” James’ understanding of ezer in light of the rest of the biblical narrative offers quite a different perspective. In the Old Testament, the term ezer is used twice in Genesis for the woman (Gen. 2:18, 20) and 16 times for God as Israel’s helper (p. 112). The term is also consistently used within a military context, making clear that the term ezer refers to a warrior (p. 112-113). Immediately in Genesis we see that women are made in God’s image as warriors. But, it is not only women, for kenegdo, literally meaning “as in front of him,” indicates the exact matching to the man (p. 112). God created men and women to be equal warriors in His kingdom.

Second, James challenges, “What will the church do to address the rampant suffering of women throughout our world?” (p. 41). As co-warriors, men and women will hear the cries of suffering and fight against the injustice together. This dynamic is what James describes as the Blessed Alliance: men and women united as God’s sons and daughters in an unstoppable force for good in the world (p. 137). Viewed this way, the male and female relationship is strategic, upon which God’s reputation and kingdom are at stake and on which humanity’s identity and flourishing hinges (p. 139). Reviewing two Blessed Alliances in Scripture, the stories of Esther and Mordecai and Mary and Joseph, James notes the Blessed Alliance is kingdom minded, calls for gospel living and results in mutual flourishing (p. 147-149). The goal of the conversation about women in the church should not be for men to pay a price, but to restore the relationship for mutual flourishing as was originally designed. It is out of this mutually flourishing relationship that kingdom work can be carried out in a broken world.

Third, “What messages are we currently sending the world in how we value and mobilize young women?” (p. 41). I fear that the honest answer to this question reflects that collectively we do not believe our young women are ezer-warriors in the kingdom. As a result, our young women have a small vision for what it means to be a Christian woman, and a small vision for what the gospel offers them. By failing to mobilize our young women, we are immobilizing half the church.

James reflects, “When half the church holds back—whether by choice or because we have no choice—everybody loses and our mission suffers setbacks. Tragically, we are squandering the opportunity to display to an embattled world a gospel that causes both men and women to flourish and unites us in a Blessed Alliance that only the presence of Jesus can explain.” (p.19).

So, yes, we should absolutely talk about women in the church. But our conversations should never only be about women in professional ministry positions, what formal service roles they should take on in the church, and how they should function within their families. This is much too small a vision. When we talk about women in the church, may we ensure that we are being inclusive of all women: those who are single, those who are married, those who are divorced, those who are widows, those who are mothers, those who are stay-at-home mothers, those who work outside the home, those who are barren, to mention a few. When we talk about women in the church, may we ensure that we are being inclusive of women all over the world, learning from them, hearing their cries for mercy and responding accordingly. Lastly, may we be sure in all our conversations and interactions to pursue restoring the Blessed Alliance: a partnership of mutual flourishing between men and women, warring together to advance God’s kingdom and to better reflect His image, for His glory alone.