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.

Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism by John Stackhouse

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.


The world’s most oppressed people are mostly female. I’m not making this up. Kate Marshall Storm and Michele Rickett tell us that women and children make up:

  • 80% of the world’s refugees.
  • 70% of the poorest of the poor.
  • 2/3 of the world’s illiterate.
  • 4 million annual victims of human traffickers
  • 80 percent of those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. (15)

Because women and girls are oppressed, focusing on bringing justice to them in their situation improves the lot of  us all. Societies which champion justice for women and girls are more just societies than those who don’t. In Forgotten Girls: Stories of Hope and Courage Strom and Rickett share hopeful but heartbreaking and harrowing stories of women around the world. The newly updated edition (the book was originally published in 2009) is expanded and includes a discussion guide for each of the five parts: I. Physical Life, II. Educational Life, III. Sexual Protection for Life, IV.  Freedom in Life, and V. Spiritual Life.  These broad headings represent the issues that women and girls face in the two-thirds world.  Each section tells stories of particular places and women,  The discussion guide explores the stories, relevant Bible passages and provides suggestions for taking action.

Issues of global injustice are a big deal but we often like to leave things abstract. The statistics which I quoted above come from the introduction of this book. We hear statistics like these and we don’t know what to make of them. What could we possibly do? That or our eyes glaze over from one more statistic.  One of the best things about Forgotten Girls is that Strom and  Rickett lift these issues from the realm of abstraction and explores real women’s stories.  We don’t just hear about ‘gendercide’ and gender inequity in regards to malnutrition, We hear about Beti’s abandonment and enslavement in Indonesia, and the abject poverty of Sonam and Pema in Tibet.  We explore gender disparities in education through Mai Lin’s story as an AIDS orphan in China and Preethi’s experience in India (as an ‘untouchable’). We hear stories of girls breaking free from the sex trade, injustice and experiencing new life in Christ. There are seventeen places profiled and each tells stories of real-life struggles that women face across the nations. Thankfully these are stories of hope so we hear how these women and girls have found help and new life!

One thing I really appreciate about the study guide are the practical steps for action and prayer as we seek to combat injustice. This is a short book which will enlarge your heart for God’s justice to come. I give this book four-and-a-half stars.  This is perfect for those wishing to understand the injustices women face across the globe. As the father of two young girls I am saddened and angered by those who would exploit the vulnerability of children, but this book made me grateful for the good work being done in the name of Christ. It also showed me ways to be a part of it! Great stuff.

Thank you to IVP for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review


2 Timothy 2:9-15: The Complementarian Proof Text?

About a month ago I was sitting in a denominational class. Between bouts of  copious note taking and undivided attention I was checking Facebook. An old friend of mine  messaged me and asked me this question:

. . . It seems from your posts you are Egalitarian. Growing up through YFC in what way do you think your cultural bias shaped your views? How do you handle Paul’s argument in 2 Tim [he meant 1 Tim 2]. when he argues back to creation/order and his use of panta/”all”. Do you take Paul to be a chauvinist or are those ad hoc arguments for Corinth, Ephesus?

This was a private correspondence and he likely would be mortified that I am blogging about it (he also assured me that he wasn’t being as antagonistic as he originally sounded). However he raised important issues which are worth addressing. I am an egalitarian, in part because I affirm my wife’s life calling to vocational, pastoral ministry and think that she has the gifts, grace and strength to lead in the church and to lead well. I am offended by anyone who tells me she is disqualified from her call just because ‘she’s a woman.’ But 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is a difficult passage for me and  I always  seek to be biblical in my understanding. What authority does this text have for us today? How are we to read it? Am I, as an egalitarian, really listening to this scripture? Or am I seeking to explain it away? These are hard questions which deserve thoughtful answers. I hope my post below at least gives the start of some answers. Here is what the passage says:

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

Paul exhorts women to modesty, propriety and good deeds ‘appropriate for women.’ He says, rather strongly, that women are to learn in quietness and full submission, without authority or a teaching voice. And he grounds his argument for their silence and submissiveness in the created order (v. 13) and Eve’s deception (vs. 14).  Knock down complementarian argument right? Or is it? Um . . .not exactly.

How to Read the Bible 

One of the accusations leveled at us egalitarians is that we try to explain  difficult passages like this away rather than really listen to what the Bible is telling us. I certainly do not want to explain the living powerful Word of God away. Instead I want to attend appropriately to it, with a discerning eye to what passages like this mean within the wider context of biblical revelation. In other words, we read difficult texts with in the context of the entire biblical witness.  When complementarians fail to attend to the wider context of scripture, they also run the risk of ‘explaining the Bible away.’ This is not to say that the Bible is a 21st Century feminist manifesto.  It is a  collection of books compiled in the context of several patriarchal cultures.  And yet the egalitarian impulse is preserved for us in the text itself. So lets listen to the biblical witness before we parse hard passages:

  1. Read 1 Timothy in the context of  the Genesis account– Paul invites us to reread the creation and fall accounts recorded in Genesis 1-3. What picture of Biblical manhood and womanhood emerge as we read these texts? Genesis 1:26-7 presents the creation of humankind, male and female mutually bearing the image of God. Complementarians read past these verses and point to the alleged subordination of women in  Genesis 2, but some of their observations are overwrought. The term ‘helpmate’  or ‘helper’ applied to the woman in Gen. 2:18 does not mean underling or assistant but means something like “I will make a ‘strength/power’ corresponding to that of man.”  Elsewhere the term is applied directly to God. Furthermore, Adam’s first description of his wife is one which testifies to their mutuality, “You will be called woman for you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh (23).” Gender subordination is the result of the fall (God’s curse on the woman in Gen. 3:16, and Adam’s ‘naming’ of Eve, defining her by  her role rather than by their mutual relationship in Gen. 3:20). This was not the way things were meant to be.
  2. Read 1 Timothy in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry– Yes Jesus had 12 male disciples but he also defied convention by having women disciples. The trajectory seems to be inclusion, not exclusion. Remember Jesus came to take away the curse away (more on this later).
  3. Read 1 Timothy within the context of Paul’s Ministry– If this was the only thing we knew about Paul and his ministry we might say that women should be excluded from a teaching ministry. However the Bible gives us evidence that Paul did include and affirm women in ministry.  In the book of Acts and in the Pauline Epistles we read about women prophets (Acts 2:17; 21:8-9), apostles, evangelists and teachers (Acts 18), and deacons (Rom. 16:1-2). Even 1 Cor. 11 (another Complementarian proof text) assumes that women will be speaking and prophesying in the context of worship.  However we read hard  passages like 1 Timothy 2, we need to also wrestle with a broader swath of New Testament texts which seem to imply a more generous and inclusive reality.
  4. Read this passage in conversation with New Testament egalitarian texts-  There are three worth mentioning: Galatians 3:28, 1 Cor. 12:13 and Col. 3:11. All three of these texts talk about the dissolution of racial and economic differences. Galatians 3:28 expounds on the theme proclaiming that gender is no longer a barrier to our life in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Complementarians point out that this passage talks about equality in terms of salvation but there is a radical leveling implied.  When a first century Jewish woman who had  been excluded from the temple courts heard statements like this, something basic about her full humanity was affirmed. Salvation is not just pie in the sky when you die but an entry into a new reality which had implications for all our earthly relationships. As F.F. Bruce said, “If restrictions are found elsewhere . . .they are to be understood in relation to Gal. 3:28. and not vise versa” (in his 1982 Galatians commentary).
  5. Reading this passage within the context of  Timothy– The fact is that 1 Timothy was a particular letter, written in a particular context, to a particular person for a particular reason.  Church order and gender roles is not the main concern of this letter, false teaching is. It is reasonable to conclude that Paul is addressing the issue of  heresy, some of which was taught by women and may be a result of their inferior education and opportunities in that culture (which made them more easily hoodwinked).  21st century women have much more access to education  and aren’t quite so easily duped!
We need to keep all of this in mind when we read the passage or we may end up enshrining another age’s cultural standards rather than the trajectory of the kingdom of God.

Reading 2 Timothy 2:9-15

When it comes to this particular passage, I will admit that I would rather Paul didn’t say things this way. It certainly appears to be a universal pronouncement applicable to all women for all time. For an egalitarian, this is bar-none the hardest passage to deal with and complementarians can make solid exegetical arguments based on the Greek grammar alone. They pull out this passage like some sort of trump card feeling like it justifies their view. If this was the only passage we have which addressed the issue,  complementarianism might carry the day, but it is not. And even here, Paul gives us a seed of change in gender-relations. What do you suppose Paul meant by saying, “ But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” in verse 15? Could he be referencing the curse described in Genesis 3 (the very  passage Paul has been reflecting on)? Genesis 3:16 describes God’s curse of  the woman and her subsequent subordination to her husband:

To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;

with painful labor you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

and he will rule over you.

However this curse comes on the heels of God’s words to the woman’s tempter, the  serpent:

And I will put enmity

between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and hers;

he will crush your head,

and you will strike his heel.”

I would submit that Paul has this passage in mind when he talks about women being saved through ‘childbirth.’  He doesn’t intend some general word about how women ought to be barefoot and pregnant. Does some sort of generalized statement of salvation through childbirth even make sense in light of  biblical theology?!?  He is reminding Timothy of a moment in salvation history where woman’s salvation (liberation) was promised. The fulfillment to this promise came through Jesus and with his death and resurrection  the curse was broken. I believe Paul  is exhorting the women of Ephesus to abandon their positions as teachers, to learn in full submission until they are fully formed in the truth of the gospel. They are to not revel in cheap freedom they don’t understand, but in the life, freedom, salvation bought by the blood of Christ. This was pragmatic and temporal advice given to women at a point in the church’s history when women had little to no religious education. Today women are statistically more versed in gospel truth than men (who are not good church attenders, pray-ers or Bible readers). Women today are walking in the freedom of Christ as God’s kingdom is coming. Yahoolujah!

My Complementarian Friend was Not Convinced.

Of course none of my reasons convinced my friend to abandon his complementarian ways ( either on this passage or my thoughts about my culturally construed views). He has a fundamentally different read on the witness of scripture than I do (and in the Bible, patriarchy is not  that hard to find).  I honestly think that if you take this passage in isolation, the complementarians have a great argument (though not knock down case, there is more I could have said here). But an isolated passage (or 2-3 isolated passages if the Corinthian texts bug you) should never be used as a hammer, trump card or proof text. Read the Bible, read it all, read it well.