Review: Partners in Christ

partners in Christ

Partners in Christ, John G. Stackhouse, Jr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: A case by a convert to egalitarianism for why both complementarians and egalitarians find scriptural foundations for their views with a proposal for what can make the best sense of the diverse testimony of scripture.

There may be some of you who read this review who may wonder, “what’s the big deal–of course women should be able to do anything men do in the home and the church–and perhaps more because they are also able to bear and nurse children.” But in certain circles within evangelicalism, this is a live issue and subject of both popular and theological writing. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., who once held a “complementarian” position (one that recognizes role distinctions between men and women in marriage and limits the roles women may exercise in leading and teaching in the church), describes his own movement to an “egalitarian” position (that there are no fixed role distinctions for men and women in marriage, nor limits as to the role of women in leadership and teaching in the church) and the theological method that led to his conclusions, amid the diverse biblical texts and conflicting interpretations:

“We should not wait to come to a theological conclusion for the happy day in which we have perfectly arranged all of the relevant texts. Instead, we should look at all of the texts as open-mindedly as possible, and see whether among the various competing interpretations there is one that makes the most sense of the most texts and especially the most important ones. We should look, in basic epistemological terms, for the preponderance of warrants or grounds to believe p instead of q. If no such preponderance is evident, of course, then we should suspend making a decision. But if we do conclude that a preponderance is discernible, then we should acknowledge it–indeed be grateful for it–and proceed to act on that basis” (p. 31).

Stackhouse recognizes a preponderance in what would be considered “control texts” for an egalitarian view–from Genesis 1 to Galatians 3:28. He would understand the rise of gender role distinctions and patriarchy as a consequence, not of creation, but the Fall of humanity. Yet he also recognizes a certain “doubleness” in scriptures, sometimes within the same passage (as in Ephesians 5:21-33, where verse 21 commends mutual submission, and then the following  verses commend distinctive role behaviors for husbands and wives) that serves as foundation for the concerns of complementarians. Is there a way to understand this “doubleness” that does not involve scripture contradicting scripture and that addresses the concerns of both egalitarians and complementarians for biblical integrity? Stackhouse thinks there is.

He finds this in the recognition of the church’s missional priorities of proclaiming the gospel within Roman culture, and their expectation of the imminent return of the Lord. This is a culture with clearly defined role distinctions for men and women along patriarchal lines, as well as for masters and slaves. Stackhouse writes,

“So it would make sense—given gospel priorities, holy pragmatism and eschatological expectations — for the apostles to teach a policy of cultural conservatism (“Get along as best you can with the political powers and social structures that be”) in the interest of accomplishing the one crucial task: spreading the gospel as far and as fast as possible. And they do”  (p, 56).

He would contend that, while we find in Paul and others the seeds of egalitarian relationships in marriage, and roles for women in teaching and leading, even in his own missionary teams, the presence of scriptures that recognize role distinctions reflect a kind of holy pragmatism that realizes that the advance of the gotspel is of higher priority than leading a revolution in gender roles, or upending slavery. However this also brings him to the conclusion that in a society that upholds egalitarianism, the opportunity is to practice the full liberty found in germ form in the testimony of scripture. Perpetuating gender role distinctions now may hinder the gospel, even as promoting egalitarianism would have New Testament times.

Stackhouse deals thoughtfully with counterarguments that may be posed from theology, church history, and contemporary experience and practice. He addresses fears about inclusive language in translations, and boundaries in terms of language used of God. One of his most thoughtful chapters is on why women do not lead. He concludes with a plea for women to continue to speak into his life about his “enduring sexism” while still assuming personal responsibility for it.

I suspect Stackhouse’s book satisfies neither committed egalitarians nor complementarians. Egalitarians may feel the book opens the door to those who would advocate patient waiting, even in our present day. Complementarians may still be unconvinced that gender role distinctions are a consequence of the fall. The book is silent on implications for parallel discussions within Catholic and Orthodox circles. Yet for others, who consider the impasse between the two sides in this evangelical discussion a scandal, Stackhouse’s irenic and biblically grounded approach offers at least a meeting ground for those no longer interested in battling over gender roles. His tone of humility, both in matters of interpretation, and in coming to terms with the implications of his understanding of scripture for how he partners with women in ministry, is an example other men may wish to heed.

There may be some who wish to argue with the author in comments on this review. First of all, please realize that this is my summary of the author’s argument, which I hope is an adequate reflection in much abbreviated form. Second, if you really care about this, I urge you to read his book and engage with him directly. Above all, I hope that wherever we come down in this discussion, we will practice the humility and openness to change modeled by this author.

5 thoughts on “Review: Partners in Christ

  1. Thanks for this review Bob. I am a committed egalitarian (once I was complementarian) but can relate and appreciate this approach of trying to form a “meeting ground.” Sadly, my exp is that it is not possible. While I am a staunch egal, I could in theory attend a soft comp church. I know soft comps who think a woman cannot be the lead pastor or an elder, but consider all other opportunities open to women – even associate pastor or fill-in preaching. A good meeting ground. I could accept this, even though I think lead pastor or elder should be open to women.

    However, I find this exists mostly only in theory, not reality. A church may verbally say they are soft comp, but it does not play out in the life of the church – women are restricted far more than they say and women are not encouraged to step into roles beyond the secretarial, or women/children ministry (etc). In other words, the church is soft comp in theory but hard comp in reality. On the comp side, it seems very hard for them to give any ground because that is a slippery slope to them — and it is hard to truly trust women when there is still an underlying theology that women cannot be trusted.

    I am an egal that is willing to find meeting ground. But can’t find it. Therefore I am in a fully egalitarian church denomination. However, I can’t only blame the comps. I encounter egals who are “all or nothing” too – refusing to budge even a little. When they encounter a comp becoming open to women expanding their roles in the church, they only criticize that their move is not enough – You must be fully egal or nothing! Sigh.

    Thanks for letting me ramble. For anyone out there, a book I recently reviewed was Gender Roles and the People of God. Matthews also takes an irenic tone. https://lightenough.wordpress.com/2017/10/10/gender-roles-and-the-people-of-god-book-review/

    • I agree that soft-comp is still complementarian and not a meeting ground. That is not Stackhouse’s position. He is an unequivocal egalitarian, but concerned to address the “complementarian” passages in scripture in a way that is not dismissive but that points beyond the complementarian position. He sees patriarchy as a consequence of the fall that a redeemed people must move beyond. What I think he does is lay the groundwork for a move to egalitarianism that doesn’t abandon biblical faithfulness.

      • Thanks for clarifying. I was just spring boarding off with my own semi-related or partly-related thoughts. I’ve read other material by Stackhouse.

        “lay the groundwork for a move to egalitarianism that doesn’t abandon biblical faithfulness.” And perhaps (?) connected to my rambles, rarely does a move happen at once but someone’s position slowly changes, and that is a fear for some…give an inch, lose a mile. As you say “Egalitarians may feel the book opens the door to those who would advocate patient waiting….Complementarians may still be convinced that gender role distinctions exist prior to the fall.” (P.S. I think that sentence is supposed to say convinced not unconvinced?)

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2018 | Bob on Books

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