John G. Stackhouse Jr. Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.
I have openly and unashamedly argued in favour of an egalitarian understanding of gender on many occassions and in many different forms of discussion. I have no reservations about this, and I do so from an evangelical approach, anchored by exegesis of Scripture. So, when a conservative evangelical scholar publishes a book sharing an egalitarian position, that’s encouraging and exciting. John Stackhouse has an established credibility in evangelicalism, but also a courage to be upfront and potentially controversial on sensitive and disputed matters. So I appreciate his presence in evangelical academia. It also helps that he recently moved from Regent College to Crandall (formerly Atlantic Baptist University, where I did my undergraduate studies). Partners in Christ is a theological argument for an egalitarian view from a still conservative vantage point.
What it’s about:
A theological argument (as distinct from a biblical argument) means Stackhouse is not simply trying to say this is what the bible says, but recognizing Scripture as authority, Stackhouse is attempting connect how Scripture is then worked out and applied in a world where contexts can change (and have changed significantly from the context of the Paul, Luke, etc.). In other words, how do we move from the Biblical text to theological worldview and lived theology for a contemporary context. Stackhouse argues that exegesis by itself will not resolve the disagreements since proof-texts can be appealed to on both sides. Stackhouse argues that the Bible is polyphonic; it does present texts which call for male headship and female submission (albeit in an ad hoc context; e.g. 1 Cor. 14:34-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-15), and other texts which call for the equality of both genders in the Church and family (e.g. Rom. 16:1-7, Gal. 3:28, Acts 18:24-26). From this he views Scripture as presenting an ideal of equality, and calls for a trajectory towards equality, whenever and wherever that is possible and best serves the gospel, while still being sensitive to the real life, on the ground situation. God is accommodating to the context of patriarchy in the ancient world, but still clear that this is not the ideal which the Church should work towards. Historically, there was a reason for allowing patriarchy to remain in operation in the first century; it was for the benefit of the Gospel that Jesus and the Apostles do not immediately and fully upend patriarchy. Were the Church to do that in the first century, it would bring scorn and disgrace on the church, and likely result in the Gospel mission being compromised. But now that the 21st century Western world presents a very different situation, patriarchy is damaging to the Church’s witness, and therefore the Church would be better served by moving toward the equality of genders, which is a good thing, since we would through this moving towards a situation closer to the ideals which God has intended.
So, while Paul had cause to caution against a fully egalitarian situation, which, according to Stackhouse, he does in 1 Tim. 2, Eph. 5, 1 Cor. 14, etc., we have no such reason now. Paul and Jesus undercut many of the assumptions lying behind patriarchy (most notably the sexist views on which patriarchy was built) but did not call for an immediate social revolution, which would threaten the Church’s witness within a patriarchal society. In the present and western context, patriarchy hinders the mission of the Gospel, and thus can be removed as God had set as the ideal for the future anyway.
While Stackhouse’s exegetical assertions are a bit of a concession to complementarians (more on that below), his hermeneutical principles are a wise caution to traditional readings of the “clobber passages” invoked by complementarians to defend male headship in marriage and the Church. The Epistles of Paul are ad hoc documents, written in a specific historical and cultural situation. Thus they are conditioned by the cultural context of first century Judaism and Hellenism, which had varying nuances on gender, but on the whole recognized patriarchy as normative. To read these texts insisting on universal application is to miss what is really happening in the text. Noting other texts where women clearly move beyond typical roles in certain situations means that even in the first century church, much had already changed. I would push harder on this than Stackhouse, but his call to note how the text pushes towards amelioration of the patriarchal situation in a trajectory towards equality, which can now be applied in 21st century North America because of the cultural shifts, is welcome.
The distinct advantages of this work over others attempts at building a case for egalitarianism are mainly two; first that it is written from a position of evangelical theology. The attempt to divide people into camps of egalitarians who are “liberal” mainline protestants and complementarians who are “conservative” (I seriously dislike those terms, since they are ideological, not theological, but we’ll leave that for another day) won’t work for this book. The argument that egalitarians don’t recognize the authority of Scripture, or are conceding to culture over Scripture is proven false once again.
Second, it is written for a broader readership. Other defenses of egalitarian views (whether on biblical or theological or philosophical grounds) are often less accessible to most folks in the Church. While this book has some serious meat to it, it is still manageable for a very broad audience. It is good to see the conversation being opened up for people who may not be familiar with the arguments on either side.
It may seem surprising, but I am not a huge fan of Stackhouse’s argument. To his conclusion that we should be practicing egalitarianism in our homes and churches, I wholeheartedly say “Amen”. But while we share convictions that egalitarian views should be brought to bear on the Church and home, I think that Stackhouse concedes too much in his method of argument. I disagree with him regarding the New Testament’s concessions to patriarchy. I think his conclusions regarding the complementarian clobber texts are not the best readings of those passages. By saying the text presents male headship as an instruction from Paul (even with the recognition that these are ad hoc statements restricted by their context) Stackhouse makes his argument easier to dismiss by many conservatives. Firm complementarians will not be convinced by this argument, since the most ardent supporters of complementarianism won’t accept this hermeneutical approach. The common refrains of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” or “When the Bible speaks, God speaks” or appeals to inerrancy and immutability render this argument easily dismissible (not because these counterarguments are vaild, but because they are assumed in advance). I don’t disagree with Stackhouse’s argument per se, but think it’s effectiveness may be somewhat limited in the debate. It may sway some fence sitters. But will it persuade completementarians? Probably not. It may give them more ammunition. Having conceded that 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15 do indeed show Paul advocating for patriarchy, many will then say Stackhouse is conceding to the cultural shifts when God has spoken in favour of male-headship. Even though Stackhouse is making a valid point, he is doing so in a way which will likely turned back on him by those who disagree. By building a theological argument that we should be egalitarian while admitting Paul instructed the Ephesian and Corinthian Churches to remain patriarchal, Stackhouse is making his argument less convincing to a very vocal segment of contemporary evangelicalism.
I admire John Stackhouse. I really do. To remain committed to the conservative evangelical community and take a firm stance, and label himself a feminist is a big move. I am thrilled he wants to bring nuance and openness to conversation which has all too often been characterized by vitriolic accusations of liberalism and cowardice or hardheadedness and oppression. Stackhouse speaks with a firm but charitable tone, and answers many of the challenges of his opponents. But I think he leaves too much for complementarians to build a counter argument against him. I think this book is good, helpful, wise, and deeply charitable. I hope readers of all positions will engage fairly with the argument being presented and hear what is really being said. This certainly won’t settle the argument, but it is a good means to move the conversation forward, and open up the difficulties to a broader audience.