Does the gospel rescue men from patriarchy? An interview with Carolyn Custis James on #Malestrom

malestromMEME_5Thrilled to host author Carolyn Custis James today for an interview on her important new book Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World. Buckle up and prepare to dive deep as Carolyn discusses God's intentions for men and for women.


Once in seminary, I proudly showed a male professor my new copy of the InterVarsity Press Women’s Bible Commentary. Having heard that women have written less than one percent of all the commentaries on the Bible, I was thrilled to have found an admittedly slim volume that offered scholarship from respected evangelicals like Alice Mathews.

Let me just say that my professor was visibly less than impressed. His other comments only reinforced my assumptions. He said that it would be good if I became a chaplain, for there is a real need for chaplains to minister to women. I received the message loud and clear: women are needed in some roles, but not in the academy, not in the pulpit, and not next to a man’s bedside or desk with an intent to minister, counsel and bless. 

If there was one thing I knew then and know now, it is that God created two genders to enrich our experience and understanding of him. When the woman’s voice gets slighted, our practice and scholarship and theology become decidedly lopsided, with holes many of us are only now beginning to discover.

Have you ever wondered: What in the world have we missed in our theology because women have been kept from studying, exegeting and writing and teaching on God’s word over the centuries?

Heaven only knows.

Enter women like Carolyn Custis James. A scholar and student of both the Bible and the culture, James has now poured years into exegeting both, and the results have been a game-changer for many like me.

Her careful scholarship and insights from a female perspective have uncovered critical theological truths that have led other women to write books like the one my coauthors and I wrote, Reclaiming Eve, and so many others. While her books Lost Women of the Bible and Half the Church both opened my world to new vistas and hopes for God’s Kingdom and his world, her newest book utilizes the same razor-sharp analysis and deep thoughts on God’s desire to save men from the cycle of violence continuing to churl through our world. Her assertion is straightforward: Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity. Not for women. And not for men, either.

She answers a few key questions below on what she calls the “Malestrom,” prompted by her book of the same title:

Carolyn Custis James

Carolyn, you write that the malestrom (a play on the word maelstrom) is the particular ways in which the fall and sin impact the male of the human species, specifically pushing men toward being socialized by violence. From your view, what are the top three ways we see this play out globally today?

Traditional definitions of what it means to be a man vary widely from culture to culture. Each culture has ways of reinforcing those definitions and socializing men to conform. At its core, the malestrom is about those forces that cause men to embrace cultural definitions of manhood and lose sight of who God created them to be as men. Sadly, the malestrom does lead to violence against other men as well as women.

In more primitive cultures—especially where survival depends on the willingness and ability of men to defend and provide for the community—socialization takes the form of initiation rites that require young boys to endure brutal treatment without wincing or crying out. Achieving manhood teeters on a boy’s ability to endure, and there are those who don’t make the grade.

In our own culture, locker room violence and other forms of social pressure condition boys to reject any behavior or inclination that is deemed “unmanly” and to conform to the prevailing cultural definition of masculinity. It can turn men into emotional islands, unable to cry, to be vulnerable, or sensitive. It cuts men and boys off from the wholeness of their God-given humanity.

More socially acceptable forms of “violence” against men occur through shaming as men are berated from evangelical pulpits for failing to “man-up” and told, “you are not a man” for failing to measure up to some masculine criteria, such as taking charge at home or being the primary breadwinner and protector at home.

Unfortunately cultural definitions of manhood themselves can lead to violence. Sociologists identify an insidious link between concepts of masculinity the wars and violence that we hear about daily in the news. ISIS is a chilling example of masculinity gone awry and producing appalling levels of violence against other human beings, including fellow Muslims, and the exploitation and trafficking of women. The belief that a man is supposed to “be in charge” at home means his manhood is at stake if he doesn’t get the kind of submission he expects. Manhood definitions can wrongly legitimize abuse and violence on battlefields, city streets and behind closed doors. In the U.S. 1 in 4 women have suffered domestic violence. This statistic includes women in the church.

Besides leading to abusive and violent behavior, cultural concepts of masculinity not only are the antithesis of God’s exalted vision for his sons. He gives them their identity and calling at birth as his image bearers. It is a birthright, a gift. It cannot be earned. He creates his sons to know and reflect his heart for the world and to look after things on his behalf. No man or boy is left behind. It can’t be taken from them or lost or destroyed. Their identity is indestructible and designed for their full flourishing as human beings.

So the evangelical discussion of manhood/masculinity is wholly inadequate if it fails to take into account the wider global issues or to consider the serious repercussions surrounding how masculinity is defined and lived out. We have ISIS to consider.

Tell us why you believe patriarchy—a system in which males rule over women and others—is Malestrom-cover-art-borderdismantled as we observe Jesus’ version of manhood. And if so, why do you believe exclusive male rule (although a gentler version than hard patriarchy) is still considered a norm in many evangelical churches? 

The fact that patriarchy appears on virtually every page of the Bible has led Christians to conclude that patriarchy is the way God intends for us to live. At the heart of the problem for the American church is the fact that we have embraced patriarchy (albeit in a modified version) as the Bible’s message. We maintain male authority and female submission but toss out common patriarchal elements such as the prizing of sons over daughters, child marriages, honor killings, polygamy, and slavery.

Although events in the Bible play out within a patriarchal context, patriarchy doesn’t emerge until after the Fall, in words of curse spoken to the woman: “He will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). That is a description of what the Fall will produce and how male/female relationships takes a terrible downturn from what God original envisioned for us.

The rule of any human being over another is an inversion of the cultural mandate which turns the rule of God’s image bearers outward to the creation, not laterally against each other. The “rule” of humans over one another quickly manifests itself in violence when Cain kills his brother Abel for outshining him. Attempts to make kinder gentler versions of patriarchy salvage pieces of a post-fall system that remains destructive both to women and to men. It turns our focus onto each other instead of centering us on our Creator and the monumental task at hand of cultivating and caring for his world and for one another.

What is disturbing and needs to be discussed within evangelical circles is the fact that global definitions of manhood, including soft complementarianism, sit on a cultural continuum. Here’s what I wrote in Malestrom: “Anthropologists describe a continuum of manhood that ranges from machismo (a strong, aggressive, masculine pride and bravado) at one extreme to cultures completely unconcerned about masculinity issues at the other. Modern urban western versions of manhood land somewhere in the middle. Evangelical definitions of manhood—all claiming to be built on what the Bible says—are scattered all over that continuum.”

The whole discussion of gender (both inside and outside the church) takes place on that continuum. I’m convinced that while patriarchy is the cultural backdrop of the Bible, it is not the Bible’s message. The Gospel Jesus proclaimed takes us off that continuum to a radically different, way of living as male and female.

Jesus completely upended the way human culture works by how he lived and what he taught. He even upended how we typically think. He was emphatic when his disciples started asking questions about authority and rank. He said in essence, “That’s how the world works. That's not how we do things,” and pointed them to serving others. We’ve dressed that teaching up and called it servant-leadership. But that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus’ gospel calls us to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves and to promote the flourishing of others. That’s leadership according to the Jesus model. He took it even to the point of laying down his life for us. That ought to transform how we think and talk about gender issues.

A recent gospel coalition review of your book insisted that the blog writer’s complementarianism and your egalitarianism (his words) were not that far apart. From where you sit, can we have mutual submission and the inclusion of both men and women in leadership in the church, home and world, and still recognize that we complement one another by design? If so, how?

One of the pitfalls of the current evangelical gender discussion is that it loses sight of the fact that this is a global issue. In American evangelical churches, we’ve reduced gender discussions to one of two options: complementarian or egalitarian, when the contexts in which people find themselves globally are significantly more complex than our egalitarian western society. Even here we face complexities and circumstances that make it impossible for a complementarian or an egalitarian to be consistent with their own views. How is a single woman, a widow, the wife of a non-Christian or a passive husband supposed to live out her complementarian convictions? How does an egalitarian function when her church or husband or culture prohibit that view?

I’m not saying the western gender discussion is unimportant. Just that we need to bear in mind that not everyone has the luxury of choosing which camp to embrace. In wartime, women do all sorts of things that go beyond a complementarian view of submission or of a woman’s role. When the gospel crawls under a burka, pushing egalitarian notions can get a woman killed.

There are deeper questions we must ask.

All through the Bible there are stunning moments when we witness powerful alliances between men and women and courageous, bold leadership of women that break the pattern, advance God’s purposes, and reflects the kingdom Jesus is bringing. I tell some of those stories in Malestrom. The probability of these kinds of alliances and actions emerging in the ancient patriarchal culture is close to zero. But again and again it happens.

Jesus’ gospel restores the vision God had for us in the beginning. We strive to understand and live out that vision within the context of a fallen world that impacts our cultures and our own hearts. God’s vision is global. No human being is excluded. It’s a far greater vision than our gender debates envision. It frees us to do what needs to be done and calls us to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves. It is the “Love your neighbor as yourself” kingdom ethos of Jesus. This means as women we are called to champion each other and also our brothers. Jesus’ gospel can be lived out anywhere, under any circumstance. God’s image bearers can reflect his character and love for the world, no matter where their culture lands on that continuum. The task God entrusts to us dwarfs our human resources. We need all hands on deck.

That’s why I prefer to talk about the Blessed Alliance between men and women. That language matches God’s blessing on his male/female image bearers in Genesis one where the first team he deploys is male/female. The Blessed Alliance is descriptive of the Body of Christ—where we join forces, recognize we need one another, and call every believer to give their all for the kingdom of Jesus. The male/female Blessed Alliance is a kingdom strategy that the Enemy has dismantled. Even egalitarians will say that simply affirming women’s ordination or adding space for women leaders doesn’t take us far enough. The whole creation narrative makes the point—not that men need to include women or that we need to get along better and share power—but that men and women need each other to do the job God has entrusted to us. How that works out in terms of who leads and who follows within any particular context or culture will no doubt be different.

On #ReclaimingEve: “I recommend this resource for every daughter of Eve!”
— Nancy Beach, leadership coach, speaker; author, Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church
Reclaiming Eve Small Group DVD sample here. Includes print Bible study piece; great for fall studies! Order here.