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Published Date: March 11, 2016

Book Info

Book Review: Partners in Christ

Stackhouse’s book fosters deeper and more significant communication about the issues of egalitarianism. The title of the book is certainly one of the weaker points. If the title Finally Feminist was offensive to the point of potential readers eschewing the book, then Partners In Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism is unclear and innocuous to the point of not awakening enough motivation to read the book. The title Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism begs the question of what he really wants to talk about. Partners in Christ sounds very neutral and no one would counter the theoretical idea of partnering together with others regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, or gender. It sounds as if it might even be a more pragmatic book. Usually subtitles indicate more clearly what issues will be addressed which this one only does in passing. At the end of the reading of the book I have been stimulated to think of important questions, but I am still not sure what a “conservative case for egalitarianism” means or looks like. Words like “accommodating” or “irenic” or “conciliatory” might be better substituted than “conservative.”

The author’s good contribution is doing a thorough job of looking at three significant factors in developing a proper concept of any kind of belief, conviction, or theology, in this case egalitarianism: 1) Scripture and its attendant scholarship, 2) tradition expressed through what has been done generally throughout biblical history, and 3) experience and intuition as individuals have been led to follow God sometimes against what appears to be “biblical” or traditional, allowing this to raise legitimate questions as to whether what appears to be “obvious” is really so obvious. Stackhouse readily accepts a traditional reading of Scripture and then takes pains to raise questions about the text from a more deductive approach. His case for this is well-taken in chapters 2-5 where he lays out his hermeneutic. There are occasions when I questioned the necessity of this when biblical scholarship has really dealt much more simply with the text (ex.: I Corinthians 14 on the silencing of women—p. 85-6), but in general, I found this approach helpful.

This is also the author’s genius as he allows the mind to pursue the heart of God, accepting full well that God’s Word is our ultimate authority, yet making the reader aware not only of a different way of understanding the text, but presenting a much broader hermeneutic that encompasses God’s heart to reach out to a world filled with many cultural expressions of human sociology and interaction with the message of reconciliation in Christ. This might best be described as a godly “accommodation” to ultimately reach the divine goal of making the gospel as clear as possible. This book is really not just about gender, but a general guide to a hermeneutic that not only stands the test of the text but also the test of God’s work in history and in personal experience (p. 93).

After spending a bit over half of the book developing his hermeneutic of understanding the bigger picture of gender, he then turns to a few specific objections from history and experience that are often raised by the complementarian. Yet, these sections are short and leave the reader dangling with a list of other questions that the author could and perhaps even should have dealt with. His section on history could easily refer to the many examples of women taking leadership initiative and working together with men that could be better utilized and worked into a treatise like this one: The Celts, significant women reformers, the Anabaptists, the Moravians, the Salvation Army, Katherine Bushnell, the Pentecostal movements of the twentieth century, etc. Using more of these would enhance the title Partners in Christ which I feel awakens expectations in the reader that are not met well in the book. It promises more practical help then the title delivers, yet the conceptual help the book delivers is worthy of its being read.

Stackhouse’s more practical side does come out in his closing chapters. His principle of accommodation sometimes leaves me a bit lukewarm, because it seems that he neglects the radicalness of the gospel. He makes the point well that God is often very patient in his waiting for change and tolerates far too long, it might seem to us, a system, for example, like patriarchy.

The author is very clear about the abuses of patriarchy and that God’s original intent did not include such a societal system (p. 126). Yet throughout the centuries, there have been representatives of God’s people who have taken a strong stand against societal ills and God has confirmed and rewarded their conviction with success, albeit not always immediate and not without pain. In this regard, Stackhouse is almost too irenic. Finding the balance of “shalom” (one of the author’s recurrent themes—see p. 131) while at the same time upholding the banner of scriptural and spiritual integrity is a theme that could use more work.

The book is worth the read and challenging to those of us who are continually processing Scripture and finding wisdom in the struggle of what is descriptive and what is prescriptive. Stackhouse raises the interesting question of whether or not both might be present in a text or a revelation of God in history and helps the reader then to sort through the hermeneutical options to arrive at a clearly egalitarian position. But he leaves you wondering along the way whether or not he is going to close the case clearly, and the reader may wish for more clarity and conviction.

Someone looking for a practical discourse on how men and women can more effectively be partners in marriage, family, church, and society will be disappointed with Stackhouse. The person looking for a clear and cogent defense of egalitarianism to bolster their impassioned concerns for the equality of men and women in these areas will likewise be disappointed.

Stackhouse sometimes seems too quick to accept a more hierarchical viewpoint just because it seems to be in the Bible or has been confirmed in the historical practice of the church and let it stand instead of dealing with the questions that would dismantle the argument. Although clearly egalitarian, I found myself looking for a clearer stance at times. Perhaps this is what Stackhouse is referring to when he calls his case “conservative.” What Stackhouse does do is present certain egalitarian arguments in a subtler and provocative way that will cause both egalitarian and complementarian thinkers to have to stop and consider how to go forward.

The book is thought-provoking. I would not consider it a foundational book on the topic. It could be used well with a skeptic with whom one has a close relationship and can interact with on the chapters. Simply handing the book to a complementarian and recommending they read it would probably not be effective. One needs to be on the journey toward egalitarianism to appreciate this book most.

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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