Enduringly Egalitarian: a book review

I’ve been in pastoral ministry just long enough to see real damage done to women by views of submission which kept them locked in abusive situations. Friends who are female colleagues have had their search for  a ministry placement frustrated by the so-called stained-glass-ceiling. Other women I know who are hurt by the imposition of narrowly defined roles for them in the home or the church. Yes, there are winds of change for the evangelical futures, but complementarianism remains the default position for many churches across evangelical landscapes.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr.’s most recent book, Partners in Christ presents, as its subtitle suggests, ‘A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism.’ Stackhouse is professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University and somewhat of a polymath. He is a humble apologist, historian and one of the foremost experts on Canadian Evangelicalism in the 20th Century, a theologian and religious scholar, and a public speaker and educator. He also plays a mean jazz bass. He brings all this to bear (with the exception of bass playing) on presenting a model of egalitarianism which draws on Scripture, experience, tradition, and general revelation.

 

Partners in Christ is a major revision of Stackhouse’s earlier book, Finally Feminist (Baker Academic 2005).  He uses the terms feminism and egalitarianism interchangeably, but a significant portion of conservative evangelicals regard ‘feminism’ as a man-hating attack on traditional (Christian) values. Jettisoning the old title makes this less off-putting for the complementarian evangelicals he hopes to convince through his argument

He begins with an overview of the contours of the debate (chapter 1) and  the fuzzy way some people choose their side (chapter 2) Next, he shares  his move from his Brethren-roots-complementarianism to egalitarianism (chapter 3). In chapter 4, he describes his method of working back from a general hermeneutic of scripture back to particular texts. In chapters 5-9 he unfolds the principles guiding his model (chapters 5-9), which in turn suggests the interpretive grid he uses to makes sense of both the complementarian and egalitarian ‘go to’ passages (chapers 10 and 11). Chapter 12 provides a summation of his position before he turns to tackling counterarguments (chapters 13-16).Finally he addresses issues that are pertinent to the contemporary gender discussion (chapters 17-20). Below is a somewhat more detailed walk through some of his argument:

The Case for Egalitarianism:

Stackhouse strives to listen well and incorporate insights from both sides of the complementarian/egalitarian debate. He dismisses un-thoughtful  reasons for holding one position or the other, such as biblicism (saying ‘the Bible tells me so’  without acknowledging one’s own interpretive grid) (22), the complementarian tendency to double-down on traditionalism when culture is moving in a different direction (or an egalitarian vice-versa)  (23-24) and saying ‘the Spirit says so’ with no more than wooly-minded reasoning to back it up (24-5). Instead Stackhouse points to principles you need to know as you think through the gender issue theologically. These principles give Stackhouse a way to affirm the best arguments of both complementarians and egalitarians.

His first principle is equality. Women and men are of equal dignity before God (47).  Stackhouse points to the co-equality of male in females in creation (Genesis 1:26-27; 2:18-24), the inclusion of women in Jesus followers, the pride of place of Mary Magdalene in being the resurrected Christs first witness, the Spirit’s being poured out on all flesh at Pentecost, and evidence of prominent women ministers in Paul’s letters. There is a push towards egalitarianism in the text.

However he also acknowledges overwhelming patriarchy throughout the entirety of the Bible. The imaging of God and Israel’s relationship is depicted as ‘a patriarchal marriage of non-equals,’  Jesus’ failed to include women among his inner circle, and Paul’s occasionally  silenced women’s voices (48-49). This leads Stackhouse to his second principle: accommodation, “since somethings matter more than others, lesser things sometimes must be sacrificed in the interest of the greater” (50). Stackhouse argues that the impetus toward egalitarianism is blunted by the greater goal of the salvation of Israel and the nations. Because the Bible was written in and to  a patriarchal culture, there is divine accommodation in the text toward patriarchy of the day.  Jesus is not some a proto-feminist; yet the gospel of his kingdom paved the way for egalitarianism to blossom, in much the same manner in which the Bible didn’t repudiate slavery wholesale but sowed the seeds of its demise.

The third principle Stackhouse suggests is eschatology.  He acknowledges we live in a time where the Kingdom has come, though not fully. Stackhouse asks, “What would our understanding of gender look like, however, if we took the ‘already, but not yet’ principle seriously? What if we were to expect, instead of one extreme or the other, an appropriately paradoxical situation: a slow and partial realization of gospel values here and there, as God patiently and carefully works his mysterious ways along the multiple fronts of kingdom advance?” (54).  This means inside Christian churches and homes as:

those institutions over which Christians would have the most immediate and extensive control–one would expect to see kingdom values at work: overcoming oppression, eliminating inequality, sharing resources, binding disparate people together in love and mutual respect, liberating gifts and the like. We would expect to hear teaching that envisioned the day when all such barriers to human fellowship are removed and everyone can flourish together. We would expect, in short to catch glimpses of the kingdom and to feel its unstoppable momentum toward universal shalom, even while we also appreciate the way the Holy Spirit skillfully and patiently guides the church to make the most of whatever opportunities it has in this or that situation. (58)

This provides space for a prophetic embodiment of egalitarianism as a sign of the Kingdom.

The final principle guiding Stackhouse’s model is liberty. The gospel does set people free; however passages like 1 Cor. 8:12-13, 1 Cor 10:23-24; 1 Peter 2:16 make clear there are instances when Christian freedom is curtailed if it impedes the spread of the gospel. Thus Stackhouse concludes that in our culture, the emancipation of women is beneficial to all and worth striving for, but in other parts of the world (or other parts of our history) the ‘social-disruption of feminism would come at too high a price. Disturbed families, churches, and societies might become more hostile toward the Christian religion–and likely with little or no actual gain in freedom for women”(63). Christians and missionaries in these cultures advocate where they can, but because patriarchy persists, they simple have to make the best of it. 

These principles (equality, accommodation, eschatology, liberty)  give Stackhouse a hermeneutic grid for reading the Bible. He writes:

I suggest that Paul means just what he says about gender. But I make this suggestion in a radical way:  I think he means everything he says about gender, not just the favorite passages cited by one side or another. The fascinating question here is this: How can Paul sound so egalitarian sometimes and complementarian–even simply patriarchal–at other times?” (66-67).

Stackhouse answers this  question by arguing that Paul, under the guidance of the Spirit, did two things simultaneously: (1) he set down prudent instructions  for the church on how to survive in a patriarchal culture  and to (2) promote the egalitarian message running throughout all of scripture. Stackhouse calls this ‘the pattern of doubleness’ and with it he sets the complementarian and egalitarian ‘control texts’ within a larger frame (for brevity sake, I won’t walk through individual texts).  This allows him to talk about the cultural constraints underlying head coverings and silent women, but also shine a light on places where Paul (and other biblical authors) extol mutuality.

Next Stackhouse tackles various counterarguments to his schema.  He eschews appeals to the inner life of the Trinity as a model for either side  (96-7), he addresses the complementarian appeal to the patriarchal images of God in scripture, and dismisses the idea that masculinity is an essential characteristic of priests or pastors(102).  In discussing history, Stackhouse tackles the common arguments against women in spiritual leadership (i.e. women leaders arise in cultic and schismatic groups or their leadership was merely permissible because of the lack of strong male leadership) and the idea that Christian feminism is a capitulation to its secular counterpart (Christian egalitarianism predates its secular counterpart!).

Counterarguments from contemporary experience include the notion that egalitarianism legitimizes homosexuality and  it causes the neglect of children. For the former claim, Stackhouse points out that there is no ‘doubleness pattern’ in the Bible regarding sexual diversity as there is with women and slaves. In the case of the latter, Stackhouse points out the lack of  sociological evidence to support the claim of child neglect.  But while Stackhouse is a card-carrying egalitarian, his principle of accommodation also chastens the egalitarian urge to fight patriarchy everywhere (i.e. traditional patriarchal cultures in the two-thirds world are beyond our scope of influence and mandating egalitarian values would frustrate the spread of the gospel in those cultures).

The rest of the book deals with various contemporary issues in the gender debate: inclusive language; the contribution of women to theology, the feminization of the church, the ‘new machismo’ backlash and what to do about it; the reasons why women are not leading as much as they should be.


 

I appreciate how Stackhouse affirms , where he can, both sides of the debate. Complementarians and egalitarians both read the same scripture, both have adherents which read it well. By incorporating insights from both sides means his position is somewhat of a mediating position. Some egalitarians would find his conclusions insufficiently radical (i.e. he doesn’t interpret Paul and Jesus as protofeminist saints). Conversely, committed complementarians will find his conclusions rankling. Stackhouse does listen well but he can also be dismissive of viewpoints  he finds insufficiently rigorous. If you aren’t at least somewhat sympathetic with his aims, his tone may bother you in places.

Stackhouse was one of my teachers and I am an egalitarian by conviction, even choosing my denomination based on its openness to women in ministry.  I agree with most of what he says here and and think ‘the pattern of doubleness’ he identifies in scripture is a way to read the relevant passages well.  This distinguishes his approach from other egalitarians. He doesn’t see a straight, upward movement towards egalatarian principles in scripture. He see both patriarchy and egalitarianism in the text form beginning to end.

I tend to demur from Stackhouse’s larger project. He is an ethical realist (Making the Best of It!). I am more of an idealist with my overrealized eschatology, emphasizing the Kingdom come and the implications for life now. What I found refreshing was how Stackhouse demonstates his approach isn’t just accommodationist, settling for the way things are. The is space he allows for eschatology in his schema means  he is also pressing towards seeing the kingdom embodied more fully, even advocating prophetic stances.  Egalitarianism is an example of a kingdom value which he thinks we should champion and work towards wherever we can. But if we can’t, or working towards egalitarianism would wreak havoc on society, we shouldn’t do it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t remain an important goal to strive toward but in the larger scheme somethings matter more (i.e. the reign of Christ, salvation through him, the spread of the gospel, etc). I think egalitarianism provides a nice case study of Stackhouse’s ethics, showcasing what his approach looks like in the real world.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to think through their position on women in ministry.  Soft complementarians may be convinced (hardliners likely won’t). Egalitarians may also learn from Stackhouse a  humble apologetics which seeks to listen to the other side. But regardless of whether you find Stackhouse compelling, he does a superb job of naming the contours of the complementarian/egalitarian debate. I give this book four and a half stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

 

3 thoughts on “Enduringly Egalitarian: a book review

  1. I’m glad he has reworked this book. I thought Finally Feminist didn’t get the attention it deserved–perhaps it came too soon.
    I didn’t have Stackhouse for much at Regent, and now he is teaching just a couple of hours from me. I’ve tried not to stalk him!

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