Gender Identity in the Church


Women battle gender debates, gaps, and inequalities almost everywhere they go, from work to church to social events. It is an epidemic that, unfortunately, is not a surprise to most women and is certainly inciting various movements around the world to eradicate this gender predicament.

But what about men? Are men struggling with a gender battle, too? Author and speaker Carolyn Custis James believes that men are facing a similar gender debate, both in and outside of the church, a topic on which she focuses in her latest book, Malestrom. (Be sure to read an excerpt from Malestrom at the end of the interview.)


4word: Tell us a little about yourself and your family.

Carolyn: As a pastor’s daughter, I was raised in the church. My father bequeathed to me a deep love of scripture and a passion to keep digging. My mother and the church gave me a roadmap described as “biblical” that defined God’s purposes for me as a woman and centered on marriage, home, and family.

By young adulthood, it was already clear that my life wasn’t following that map. A decade of singleness, marriage to a man who had big hopes for me, infertility, career opportunities, parenting as a working mother, and the contingencies of life all pushed me into foreign territory that compelled me to go back to scripture with new questions I never expected to ask.

984309_10152860789623940_1717363601023930340_nIt never occurred to my husband that we wouldn’t both pursue God’s calling on each of our lives. Early in our marriage, he challenged me to “find out what gifts God has given you and what he wants you to do with your life,” adding, “I’m not the answer to that question.”

This marriage wasn’t going to be one-sided, but a partnership where we supported and championed each other and did whatever God asked of us. My path led into the business world—into computers and software development. I even had my own business as a software developer in Oxford while my husband pursued a second doctorate. Ministry opportunities surfaced when we returned to the states, and I transitioned into a speaking and writing ministry that still surprises me.

Although parts of my journey have been painfully difficult, those hard places have been gifts because they challenged me to wrestle with questions I otherwise never would have asked and that plenty of other women are asking too. I’m still probing the scriptures for answers.

In the process I’ve also learned a lot about myself—that God expects a lot of me and all of His daughters; that His vision for us is expansive and wildly creative; that He frees and empowers us to engage the challenges, opportunities, and changes we encounter.


4word: As a working mother, did you ever find yourself torn between time at home and time at work? If so, how did you find balance?

Carolyn: “Torn” and “balance” are American concepts for the working mother who has supposedly made an unusual choice, when as working mothers we join the majority population of mothers worldwide. Historically (pretty much until the Industrial Revolution) work and home were under the same roof. Everyone worked. Even children. Which is why, when the Apostle Paul urged women to “be busy at home” (Titus 2:5), he was actually calling women to the workplace.

photo 1_2I was the breadwinner and my husband Frank was in the thick of PhD studies when our daughter was born. So the first year of her life, my husband pioneered the stay-at-home-dad movement, and I worked Monday through Friday and savored every minute I had with my daughter. It wasn’t easy, but it was a saving grace that I loved my job, so I wasn’t dragging myself out the door to work every day.

After that, I worked out of our home as an independent consultant and software developer. That choice came with its own challenges in terms of balance, but gave me the flexibility to juggle work hours and time with our daughter. I’m not sure a mother is ever completely free of the challenges of juggling home and family or even that those challenges go away when the nest empties or that the single working woman never feels torn between her personal time and work. We all face tough choices and need to pray for wise priorities and decisions.


4word: Coming from a very conservative background, what led you to recognize the need for women to be noticed in church as leaders? Was this theological shift difficult to come to terms with?

Carolyn: The groundwork for women as leaders began when I compared the deep meaty teaching I heard from my father and college professors and the fluffy spiritual diet I heard at women’s gatherings. I’d experienced enough struggles to know my faith wouldn’t survive on fluff. My ministry grew out of my hunger to go deeper and a passion to call other women to go deeper too. The solid spiritual diet we need to survive spiritually, also strengthens us to participate in the work God calls us to do.

The theological shift for me wasn’t difficult. It was instantaneous.

Gospel of RuthIt happened in an Old Testament class on the book of Ruth—a story I’d heard dozens of times. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything new. So I was blindsided when the professor presented the latest scholarly research, dismantled the Cinderella romance, and pointed to Ruth—not Boaz—as the initiator and true leader in the story. My jaw hit the floor.

It’s one thing for God to raise up a Deborah, an Esther, or a Priscilla. But Ruth? A female from the margins, a total outsider? Jordanian (Arab in today’s world, not Jewish), an immigrant, a barren widow, poor, a scavenger for food?

If God called Ruth to leadership, then how can I hold back or deny any other woman’s calling?

The church may never fully acknowledge or benefit from the gifts and leadership of women. But if Ruth’s story tells us anything, that refusal is costly. God’s mission in the world, that he entrusts to us, demands everything we each have to offer, including the leadership of both women and men.

Ruth’s story and Jesus’ gospel redefine leadership as paying attention to what is happening and to the needs around us and then taking action to make a difference. Jesus calls us to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves, to love our neighbors as ourselves. All of that takes leadership. None of it depends on official recognition or having followers. God’s hand is on all of us. As his image bearers, we are born to lead and have responsibility for what happens in God’s world.

I think it is right and good when churches acknowledge, cultivate, and utilize the leadership of women. But whether they do or not doesn’t alter the fact that we are leaders, and God will work through us, just like he worked through Ruth.


4word: Tell us what events led to you writing Half the Church. What has the response been to this book?

Half the Church - 2015 coverCarolyn: Half the Church was my fourth book. In the previous three—When Life and Beliefs Collide, Lost Women of the Bible, and The Gospel of Ruth—I’d been exploring what is God’s vision for His daughters. Is it big enough for all of us? Does it begin when we begin and continue until we breathe our last? Will it hold up under the contingencies of a fallen world or can we lose, destroy, be cheated of, or miss it? I was looking for a universal message that didn’t leave any woman or girl behind.

What I found was bigger—far more expansive and empowering—than I ever imagined. It was a vision that calls all of God’s daughters to leadership and action.

Until I wrote Half the Church, when people asked me what I was learning, I pointed to different parts of each of those first three books. I didn’t have a single volume that presented the full picture. That was my original goal for Half the Church.

Then, just as I was getting ready to write, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn released their book: Half the Sky—Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women. This important and devastating book about what is happening to women and girls around the world is one every Christian should read. In it the authors levied the challenge that “Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses.”

That challenge dovetailed with the message of Half the Church. God’s vision for His daughters isn’t simply to reassure us, but calls us to action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed. This is the heart of God for His world. And we are called to participate in reclaiming territory and lives the Enemy has seized.

10530747_10152762217345706_7856632987714646729_nGod is using the book to affirm and empower His daughters. This message frames the story of every woman and girl. It locates their individual stories within God’s greater story. It gives women a completely different perspective on their lives and shows them it is not possible for any of God’s daughters to live an insignificant life.

God is using Half the Church to raise up many of His daughters to embrace their lives in new and powerful ways. Many are engaging justice issues in creative ways—climbing mountains (big ones) to raise awareness and funds to combat sex trafficking; joining in groups to find out ways to support NGOs in their communities; raising money for fistula surgeries; volunteering. There is so much more that we can do.


4word: What do you believe are the biggest obstacles women in churches face when aspiring to leadership positions?

Carolyn: The obstacles are obvious in churches that restrict leadership to men. But even in some of these churches, the men who lead are discovering the value of interacting with women leaders in their decisions and counseling.

_MG_3519The obstacles can be more subtle in churches that affirm an egalitarian position. It’s easy to conclude that the “women’s issue” has been handled by affirming the leadership of women and women’s ordination, and even adding a woman pastor to the leadership team. But this is when the real (and often messy) work begins of listening and collaborating benefitting from that new voice at the table. Instead, it is often “business as usual,” and the woman present is marginalized.

The question of women in leadership isn’t confined to the church. Women are moving into leadership positions in every field and occupation. The church has a long way to go in affirming and supporting women in the church who are advancing in the public sphere and also in utilizing the expertise they bring to the Body of Christ.


4word: Tell us about your latest book “Malestrom” and why you felt led to write it.

Carolyn: The books I’ve written about women have led me to the men. In studying the lives of women in the Bible, I encountered the stories of some extraordinary men whose powerful redemptive stories have been downsized or overlooked because they are eclipsed by someone else in the story who draws more attention.

Malestrom cover art - borderConsider, for example, how Jacob’s eleventh son Joseph eclipses his older brother Judah, son number four, or how Deborah’s leadership has turned General Barak into the poster child of cowardice, although he is praised as a man of extraordinary faith in Hebrews 11:32-34. Then there’s Joseph of Nazareth who stands in shadows of Mary and Jesus.

I wanted to tell their stories.

As I started researching, I realized men are in as much trouble as women over questions of identity, meaning, and purpose. Men face the same struggles women face when their lives don’t follow the church’s roadmap. They lose themselves and their identity as men when they face a job layoff, a diagnosis, a divorce, or simply the realities of old age. In the church they hear “You are not a man…” followed by some arbitrary requirement that is out of reach for some. “True manhood” is out of reach for a lot of men, and issues of masculinity are driving the violence we hear about every day in the news. Experts even link the radicalization of young men to join groups like ISIS to a search for identity, meaning, purpose, and a sense of belonging.

This huge global crisis offers an opportunity for the church to reclaim her prophetic voice because we have a message that trumps the allure of ISIS and that men and boys can count on, no matter what.

Malestrom takes up the challenges men are facing and spotlights overlooked men in the Bible who embody a Jesus, gospel brand of manhood that the church desperately needs to hear.


4word: In your opinion, what has led to the onslaught of attacks on male identity? Is the Evangelical church doing everything that it should to help provide its men with the support they need?

Carolyn: Manhood has always been under assault. Patriarchy lies at the heart of the problem—a system that empowers men over others but leaves them perpetually at risk of losing their position at the top of the human power pyramid.

At the heart of the problem for the church is the fact that we have embraced patriarchy as the Bible’s message, albeit a stripped down version. We maintain male authority and female submission but toss out standard patriarchal elements such as the prizing of sons over daughters, child marriages, honor killings, polygamy, and slavery.

P1000197Although 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 take a terrible downturn from what God originally envisioned for us.

“Patriarchy (“father rule”), while alluring to many, is ultimately destructive for both men and women. But above all, it runs counter to the gospel of Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to make men more manly, but to reconnect them with their Creator and put them back on mission as God’s image bearers.”[i]

In Malestrom I make the case that patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. It is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. So to grasp the power of that message, we need to understand the patriarchal context. My work uses that approach, and the results are mind-boggling and rich.

Until we look honestly at the question of patriarchy and examine how church teachings are hurting men and women, we will not be doing what we can to free men and women from the relentless insecurities that patriarchy produces and empower them to live out the gospel, confident in their God-given identity.


4word: Explain the “Blessed Alliance” you feel men and women should have. What are the benefits of having such a partnership? Why do you believe this partnership is necessary?

Carolyn: The ultimate goal in male/female relationships emerges when God creates His male and female image bearers and blesses them as He entrusts all creation to their care (Genesis 1:27-28). We are to be a Blessed Alliance. Kingdom power is unleashed when God’s sons and daughters join forces for God’s good purposes.

The importance of this Blessed Alliance cannot be overstated. In God’s vision for His world, the partnership of men and women is a kingdom strategy. This is how God means to get things done in His world.

381575_10150428385893940_300679070_nThe current gender debate in the church stops short of this by focusing on roles and rules, on who leads and who follows, who wins and who loses. God’s creation vision portrays a more robust and sacrificial dynamic between male and female in the kingdom of God. The biblical stories I write about in my books demonstrate how God’s purposes advance and everyone flourishes when God’s sons and daughters join forces for His purposes. These stories happen in a full-blown patriarchal culture—much like today’s Middle East. You’d think a Blessed Alliance would be much simpler in our Western more progressive egalitarian culture. But the Fall permeates our relationships too.

Thankfully, God has never abandoned His original plan for creation. Jesus summons us to this blessed male/female alliance and died to restore it. That was His prayer—that we will be one in such a counter-cultural way, that the world will know that Jesus has come and that this kingdom is not of this world (John 17).


4word: What advice would give to the men and women in today’s churches? How can they start to bring balance and revival to their congregations?

Carolyn: This may sound self-serving, but my advice is to read Half the Church and Malestrom and to begin an honest discussion of where we are in our relationships. Only God’s Spirit can bring revival, but we can at least begin to ask honest questions of where we are as a Body and why the world isn’t looking at us with amazement because the deep love we have for each other gives evidence that Jesus has come.


photo 14word: In light of your mission to advocate for women in the church, what about 4word and its mission resonate with you?

Carolyn: This is an exciting time to be a woman in America. The opportunities and freedoms we enjoy are unprecedented and come with enormous responsibility. I share 4word’s commitment to support women in the workplace and to equip them with a deeper understanding of God’s word and his heart for them. My work aims to do both. I’ve spent years investing in the lives of women in leadership, but with a broader vision for how God is calling all of His daughters. As a woman who was in business for over twenty years, I only wish an organization like 4word had existed then for me.

[i] Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 30-31.


Below is an excerpt from Malestrom:

From pages 25-28:

Both men and women are caught up in the malestrom. One cannot speak of males without taking females into consideration. The two are inseparable. Indeed, many of the same issues that emerged in my study of women have resurfaced in my research of men. As I have reflected on this, it should not be surprising. Are not both men and women striving to make their way in a messy fallen world where it is easy to forget who God created us to be? Indeed, writing about women is what convinced me to take up the subject of men. God’s purposes for his daughters are not ends in themselves, but are fundamentally connected to and essential to God’s purposes for his sons. Men belong in the discussion about women — not as observers or merely “to understand women better” (which I’ve been told wouldn’t interest some men anyway), but as participants with a vested interest in the conversation and without whom the conversation is incomplete.

The full flourishing of God’s sons requires and even depends on the full flourishing of his daughters. It works both ways. No matter how much ground we’ve covered in the discussion of the Bible’s message for women, until we join that discussion with an equally robust discussion of men, significant pieces are missing and we’re left hanging.

Gender debate fatigue is spreading in the church. For too long, our discussions of gender have tilted to one side or the other, sometimes reaching toxic levels and accompanied by a pendulum swinging logic that leads us to believe advocacy for one gender comes at a cost for the other. No resolution is in sight. There’s a sense that we’re somehow stuck in a zero-sum game, sparring like bickering siblings over a finite pie, each vying to get their fair share. Or we regard discussions of God’s purposes for his sons and daughters as separate and unrelated issues unless, of course, one side seems to encroach on territory belonging to the other.
The Bible doesn’t present different or competing visions for God’s sons and daughters. God’s vision for his world is singular, whole, and unified. Male and female callings are not separate issues. they are interwoven, interdependent, and inseparable in the Bible. God didn’t create a world where one gender can flourish at the expense of the other. In God’s world, the true flourishing of one depends on and promotes the full flourishing of the other. In fact, God’s kingdom purposes for the world hinge on how well we both flourish and pull together to serve him.

Contrary to that vision, women are perceived as one of the greatest threats to manhood. Probably no cultural change has reconfigured the social landscape or unsettled men more than the rise of women. The Women’s Movement is one of the biggest cultural shifts of the last fifty years. Following the publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and the launch of Second Wave Feminism in the 1960s, women broke through glass ceil- ings in every field and profession and secured a place at “the table” both in secular and religious contexts. The “new Girl order” was breaking up the “old Boy’s club”— upending traditional assumptions, dislodging men from places they previously owned by default, and raising widespread concerns among men.

Feminism has gone global with an all-out effort to achieve human rights for women and girls everywhere, and there will be no turning back. the new Girl order is in many ways a good thing as advocacy for women and girls expands and they are valued, educated, and empowered to flourish and contribute to their communities in countless ways. But the impact on men and boys can result in a loss of self and place. Many men welcome the changes, are staunch advocates for women, and value the contributions women are making. And yet, progress for women has changed the terrain significantly and means changes for them too. Men must now compete with women for positions a man previously held by default.

As women gain financial independence and self-confidence, the traditional male role as provider and protector is eroding. Women can protect and provide for themselves. Thanks to sperm donors, some single women (known as “choice-mothers”) have gone so far as to make babies without a man and raise children on their own.17

It is a new world with unexpected developments and changes rippling out in all directions. Boys are underperforming in school. Women are outdistancing men in numbers as college and graduate school students and have careers (not domesticity) on their minds. In Christian circles we may debate forever over who leads in church and in the home. But the debate is over when a man sets foot outside the door on Monday and heads into the workplace where his boss could easily be a woman.

In response, masculinity movements, men’s rights organizations, man-events, and retreats to teach boys to hunt and fish and do other manly activities have surfaced here and there. None have had the kind of sustained momentum or widespread support that the women’s movement achieved. Frequent protests are heard from men both outside and inside the church that they are losing previously all-male turf due to “feminism” and “feminization.” But when men still hold the reins of power, it’s difficult to blame women for changes they are weathering.

From pg. 29:

Disturbing as some of these developments are, they are merely symptoms that divert our attention from the core problem that has caused men to veer off-course from who God created them to be. Deciding which cultural definition of manhood is right or finally declaring a winner in the church’s gender debate stops short of real global solutions or of taking seriously the profoundly human questions that are at stake. The malestrom is a much deeper systemic issue the consequences of which are (even in its mildest forms) a destructive distortion and loss of what it means to be a man or boy designed to reflect the creator.

Excerpted from Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World by Carolyn Custis James, published by Zondervan (2015).



The gender debate thrives everywhere, from corporate America to our community churches. Heed Carolyn’s words and example and begin to ask questions meant to bring about revival and unity among the men and women in your church. Doing so will inevitably strengthen your resolve to see a similar movement in the workforce.

Have you witnessed gender battles in the church? What have you or your church done to bring about unity among your congregation?


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Carolyn Custis James (BA, Sociology, MA Biblical Studies) thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. She travels extensively both in the US and abroad as a speaker for churches, conferences, colleges, theological seminaries, and other Christian organizations. She is an adjunct professor at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, blogs on and Huffington Post/Religion, is a consulting editor for Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament, and a contributing editor for Leadership Journal. In 2012, Carolyn was named by Christianity Today as one of fifty evangelical women to watch.

Her books include When Life and Beliefs Collide, Lost Women of the Bible, Understanding Purpose, The Gospel of Ruth, Half the Church, and Malestrom. Carolyn and her husband live in Sellersville, Pennsylvania.