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.