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Introducing Carolyn Custis James, a Missio Alliance Leading Voice

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static1.squarespaceMissio Alliance leadership asked Leading Voices to introduce ourselves by responding to three questions. Here are my responses:

1) Who are you?

I was born a P.K., along with all the pros and cons that come with growing up in a conservative church. At the deepest level, my story has been shaped by a father who taught me to love the scriptures and never to stop studying. My dad was relentless in studying the Bible and, to his dying day, never stopped digging. I take after him.

I grew up hearing professors and scholars who visited our church and encouraged deeper engagement with the Bible, even as they reinforced traditional interpretations. Along the way, I encountered unexpected bumps and bends in the road that compelled me to ask new questions and to embrace my own female perspective as I dug into the Bible in search of answers.

The questions have never stopped.

I grew up in Oregon, earned a BA in Sociology at Westmont College in California where I studied under New Testament scholar, Dr. Robert H. Gundry. My desire to study the Bible led me to my father’s seminary—Dallas Theological Seminary. As it happened, I was the first woman admitted to the seminary where I earned my MA in Biblical Studies.

From there, I served on staff in a Dallas church with Plymouth Brethren leanings—although that heritage was obscured behind Bible Church nomenclature. While my church background stressed male leadership, this Plymouth Brethren (a.k.a. Bible) Church) was much more intentional in distinguishing roles and in an overt silencing of women. During that time I met the irresistible Frank James who was studying at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. We married in Portland, Oregon under the ash-filled skies of Mount St Helen’s 1980 eruption and headed for Philly. He has been my strongest advocate. Our marriage has always been a safe place to ask hard questions.

In Philly, my career path detoured from ministry into a decade as a software developer and consultant, including four years with my own business in Oxford, England while Frank earned his DPhil at Oxford University and our daughter acquired her earliest memories from life in England. Back in the States, I transitioned into my current ministry—both speaking and writing. I am also an adjunct faculty member at BTS (Biblical Theological Seminary).

Encounters with other women in ministry leadership led me to found the Synergy Women’s Network in 2004. The goal was to overcome isolation, collaborate on common challenges and issues, and build on progress women leaders have already made. We did that and a whole lot more! Our national conferences ran from 2004-2011 and were described as “the preeminent conference for women ministry leaders.” Over time, that reputation drew men to our conferences. In 2015, Synergy joined in with the overall efforts of Missio Alliance.

My work brings a female perspective to biblical studies and focuses on twenty-first century questions women and men are asking about God’s calling on their lives. Researching When Life and Beliefs Collide led me to conclude that the ezer (a.k.a. “helper”) of Genesis 2:18, 20 is a warrior. In Lost Women of the Bible, I coined the expression “Blessed Alliance” to describe God’s vision for his sons and daughters in Genesis 1:27-28. I develop these themes further in all of my books as expressions of our shared identity and mission as the imago dei.

I know it sounds a bit weird, but I’ve been known to read biblical commentaries cover-to-cover. Some of them have been page-turners for me—especially Walter Brueggemann’s Genesis and Robert Hubbard’s The Book of Ruth. Soon-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament commentary on Lamentations is currently joining that list.

Besides loving to read and study, I’m a baseball fan—specifically the Boston Red Sox. My claim to fame is that I have four World Series Championships to my credit. In every U.S. city where Frank and I have lived, the local team has won the World Series. The latest was the Red Sox in 2013. Before that, Phillies in 1980; Dodgers in 1987; and the Marlins in 1993. Phillies fans are hopeful that the James charm will eventually work for the Phils. But I’m not sure there is a cure once a person becomes a Red Sox fan.

2) What excites and encourages you about what you are witnessing across the landscape of the NA Church these days?

Technology has placed powerful communication tools in our hands. New evangelical voices are emerging on the Internet—unbound by institutional oversight/restraints and with followings that go well beyond mega-church attendance. They’re asking new questions, challenging the status quo, holding Christian leaders and organizations to account for abuse and arrogance, raising issues that would otherwise not come up, engaging global events, telling their stories, and enriching the church with insightful articles. I see this as a healthy development for the church.

Among Christian women, I’m observing a phenomenon where, in greater number, they are mobilizing both at the official leadership and grassroots levels. Often those who have seminary training cannot find a paying job within the church. So they are moving out into the secular workplace, joining NGOs, or finding ways to start their own ministries. This, of course, is a loss for the church. But I also see it as a way God is moving his daughters out—a missional development we need to watch. Women and girls are passionate about addressing injustice and the suffering going on in the world. They are creatively seeking ways to live out their Christianity as agents for change to combat poverty, illiteracy, sex trafficking, sexual abuse, and a host of other issues. This is as it should be. I’d like to think my books have something to do with this. Ministry is missional and should mobilize and sends us all out.

3) What are some of your hopes for the health & growth of the North American Church given the challenges it’s facing?

A Lenten sermon preached at the church Frank and I attend aptly captures the challenge I think we face as North American Christians. It started with an illustration from Viktor Frankl’s classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, of the liberation of WWII prisoners from the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau after years of unspeakable horrors and longings for release.

When Allied forces arrived and swung open the prison doors, prisoners stumbled out into the sunlight. Some danced, sang, and wept with joy. But there were others who squinted and blinked uneasily in the light. In obvious confusion and agitation, they turned and shuffled back into the prison. They had adapted so well to their terrible circumstances that they were incapable of grasping the freedom and new life they were being offered.

In so many ways, I fear that same kind of blinking confusion describes what seems to be happening to the North American church. We’ve adapted too well. Our Christianity is mixed up with the American Dream, right wing American politics, and culture wars. We’ve lost the radical transforming good news of the gospel and how it goes against the grain of who we are, how we live together, and how we represent Jesus to the world.

The encouraging things I’m seeing—the new voices, the questions, the mobilization of women and men to address injustice and suffering—are a recognition and rejection of how we’ve adapted too well. We are waking up to what has happened and taking steps to recapture and live out Jesus’ vision for us. It’s also a reason I’m excited to be part of Missio Alliance. Together we can challenge ourselves to ask new questions, to rethink resurrection life and what it means to follow Jesus, to become that Blessed Alliance of men and women serving God together, and to keep digging into scripture for the answers we need.

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