of Sharon James: God’s Design for Women

I have just concluded several months of study of the book God’s Design for Women: Biblical Womanhood for Today (2002) by Sharon James.

Sharon James has delivered in this chunky paperback a clear and thorough description of womanhood as she finds it outlined in the Bible. It is also a modern, gentle, and well-reasoned defense of complementarianism: the view that God has created men and women to fulfill different but equally valuable roles in the home and the church. I think she does more as well–I think she casts a vision for women that is as beautiful as it is freeing from both stereotypes and repressions.

James’ thesis is that “God did not design men and women to be the same, except for minor differences in biology . . . the differences were made to be a source of joy and satisfaction” (72) and that “men and women need to serve Christ together in complementary ways” (288). The role he has given to women, James argues, is the role of helper. Already many readers would be closing the volume, possibly missing her (able) defense of this idea. “The helper design is an exalted one,” (78) she writes, then pointing out how all three persons of the Trinity are called “Helper” in the Bible.

Though her view (and her interpretation of biblical texts) might best be described as traditional, James is not afraid to reject limitations placed on women in some contexts that she does not find required by her hermeneutic. She not only argues that women have a place in full-time ministry, she spends much of chapter 5 claiming that all believing women are called to be in ministry! In a nutshell, her view of roles in the church: “Only the authoritative leadership function . . . is reserved for men, but every other ministry should be open to suitably gifted women; indeed some ministries can only be undertaken by women” (89). This is the only restriction that I could find. These issues, particularly in today’s social context, are difficult ones. One of the difficulties is applying one’s perspective consistently. One thing I appreciated about James’ careful work was her recognition of this very fact. “There is a double standard when churches allow women to minister overseas in a way that they are not permitted to at home. Whether at home or abroad, when elders are appointed they should be suitably gifted men. Whether at home or abroad, women should be encouraged to evangelize and minister in all other capacities. There are of course multitudes of questions about how exactly this works in practice . . . detailed applications require spiritual wisdom” (105).

The book opens with a detailed survey of the feminist movement as it developed historically, beginning with Simone De Beauvoir, whose 1953 book The Second Sex is considered the first shot by many. James is astonishingly well-read on this topic and helpfully provides the foundation of many modern ideas. This section surveys for the reader the roots and branches of feminist ideology and how pervasive it has become. It is, for example, a feminist belief that being “a housewife {is} unspeakably demeaning” (22). One thing this book has done for me: I will never say “I’m only a homemaker” or “I’m just a mom” when asked what I do for a living again! It is also a feminist belief that patriarchy is how women are controlled by men and that this system is “inextricably bound up with” and reinforced by the traditional family (22). Thus, radical feminists thought women would only be liberated by bringing about the end of the family. (Or completely redefining it!) The book does not neglect to show the impact of these ideas on sexual ethics and marriage. Compellingly, at least half of the marriages made under the new rules  (as in, the goal of marriage now being personal fulfillment and complete personal satisfaction (37)) will end in divorce.

One thing to be deeply appreciated about this author’s work that must be mentioned here is that the focus of the book is not, either obviously or subtly, placed primarily on the married woman. Nearly all examples pertain to both married women (with and without children) and single women and much is said regarding the role of single women in the church. “Single women have just the same  . . . qualities as married women, and they are called to use those in the Lord’s service” (156). All women are not mothers, but all are called to be “spiritual mothers” (156). James also seeks to debunk the notion of the “gift of singleness”: “We would never apply this logic to marriage. Imagine asking an unhappily married person: ‘Do you have the gift of marriage’? The fact is, that person is married. They have to get on with it!” (146). There is a rather refreshing simplicity in her refusal to join those who find “two tiers in singleness–those with the gift and those without it” (146). Her treatment of the members of failed marriages, widowhood (150), and those tempted with homosexuality (245) is both tender and consistent with her views that all women have an important place in the body of Christ.

The real strength of this book–though it is also an able defense of and a thorough delineation of the complementarian view–is that it is a challenge to those women who do not need to be convinced. We are challenged as both singles and marrieds, in the realms of faithfulness, service, and evangelism: “We need a revival of the true concept of diaconia, focusing on ministry to the needy, and a corresponding reformation in practice” (131). We are reminded of what constitutes true beauty while being encouraged that physical “plainness and drabness are not glorifying to the Creator” (265).  We are exhorted that “often the atmosphere in a church is created by the women. Gossip, criticism, and a judgmental spirit can devastate a church’s witness” (133). We are given a vision of biblical womanhood at its most dignified and beautiful, a portrayal of what women, created equally in the image of God, can be.


Many thanks to Bekah, for suggesting this book and lending me her copy for so long. 

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2 Responses to of Sharon James: God’s Design for Women

  1. Susan says:

    2nd try at commenting! Not sure what I did wrong before … at any rate 🙂 I recommend you check out the writings of Carolyn Custis James to further your reading on the subject. She is a gifted writer and my small group Bible study just read “Gospel of Ruth” together and were blessed by it. Also recommended: “When Life and Belief Collide”. In my Kindle is “Half the Church” but I have yet to start it.

    thank you for this review.

  2. Deanna says:

    Thanks for the review – I’ll have to put this on my reading list.
    BTW – I have both “Gospel of Ruth” and “When Life and Beliefs Collide” if you’d like to borrow.

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