Book Review: Partners in Christ

by Barry Wong | March 10, 2016
Placeholder image

John Stackhouse should be a natural ally of Christians for Biblical Equality. He is a committed follower of Jesus, a careful thinker, and an unabashed egalitarian, gladly identifying himself as a Christian feminist who “champions the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance to those of men” (p. 14). In his book Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism, he makes a nuanced case for the full equality of women. However, Stackhouse’s approach will make some egalitarians uneasy, and his strong emphasis on accommodating to the prevailing culture runs the risk of undermining the social change he intends to champion. His approach, in his own words:

“I propose, then, a paradigm of gender that does, indeed, draw no lines between men and women as to role in home, church, or society—beyond those required by biology. Unlike many egalitarians, however, I will do so in large part by listening to the view of my complementarian counterparts. They simply are not wrong about everything. Furthermore, I believe that the typical egalitarian argumentation (particularly the so-called redemptive movement hermeneutic) can and must be improved on as well” (p. 45).

Some egalitarians will be put off by how much ground Stackhouse cedes to the complementarian side of the discussion and by his assessment of gender issues as secondary. I share their discontent. Nevertheless, I found enough to appreciate in this contribution to the ongoing discussion that I would recommend it as one of several books to interested readers, though not as the one book for them to read.

Partners in Christ is organized into four main sections:

  • The introductory section proposes some ground rules for the debate, lays out important methodological concerns, and relates the story of Stackhouse’s own conversion to egalitarianism. I especially appreciated his exhortation to check our attitude and focus as we engage in these conversations—a welcome change from the kind of “bomb throwing” that too often characterizes this debate. His methodological chapters lay a helpful foundation for further study and raise intriguing points of consideration for both sides of the conversation and for Bible reading more generally.
  • In the subsequent section, he elucidates the key principles of his proposal: equality (men and women are equal before God), gospel priorities and holy pragmatism (the proclamation of Jesus is primary and lesser things must sometimes be sacrificed in the interest of the greater; hence, accommodation is sometimes necessary), eschatology (the irruption of the kingdom of God is re-ordering the world, but we still live in the already-and-not-yet, so we must play the long game), and liberty (we are given a radical freedom in Christ, including the freedom to not enjoy that freedom for the sake of the greater good).
  • In the third section, he tests his model against counter-arguments from theology, church history, and contemporary experience/practice. In these chapters, he offers thoughtful responses to common objections to egalitarianism.
  • In the last section, he demonstrates his paradigm in application by considering a number of contemporary issues and offering practical advice on: inclusive language in Bible translation, feminist theology, the new machismo and supposed feminization of the church, and practical obstacles to women leading.

Stackhouse’s paradigm rests on two key ideas which are related—what he calls “the pattern of doubleness” and the “principle of accommodation.” By doubleness, he means that Scripture affirms both some sort of patriarchal conduct and the fundamental equality of women and men, the former providing the biblical grounds for complementarianism, the latter for egalitarianism. That is, he sees a “double message almost from the beginning of the Bible and showing up right through the New Testament” (p. 86) which he explains as an accommodation to a patriarchal culture; the kingdom seeds of egalitarianism, also present in the Word, are expected to germinate, grow, and eventually, to supersede the old order completely. He sees accommodation as a repeated pattern of the way that God effects change in sinful human societies and cultures—not typically by revolution but by working within “both individual and corporate limitations—to transform the world according to his good purposes” (p. 52).

Stackhouse’s approach is not without its advantages—chiefly that he can claim to be listening seriously to and learning from his conversation partners on the other side of the debate. His affirmation of complementarian (what some would consider the traditional) readings of key passages (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, 1 Timothy 2) is an example of this and has the added benefit of allowing egalitarians to hold unwaveringly to the conviction that women and men are equal, while not arguing that most of the church misinterpreted those passages for most of church history. His emphasis on accommodation is both historically realistic and still contemporarily relevant in many parts of the world; yet even with his “long game” approach to change, we can still expect to see equality lived out in the church and Christian marriages, as believers and the cultures in which they live are able to bear it. This ‘third way’ approach (my terminology, not Stackhouse’s) may have appeal to complementarians who are friendly to egalitarianism, but have not been convinced by fully egalitarian readings of the Bible, notably of Paul. It also removes the “our side was right; your side was wrong” dynamic from the debate, giving respect and validation to earnest proponents on both sides.

However, Stackhouse’s argumentation and paradigm and their implications are troubling as well. He concedes patriarchal readings of key passages without exploring some of the stronger arguments of biblical egalitarians (though one can find references to substantive egalitarian biblical scholarship in the footnotes, for instance on p. 191). This is a conscious decision, born of a conviction that “only a theological take on these matters will avail” (a point found in a footnote on p. 191, but which I would have appreciated in the body of the book). But that is an argument that could have been made while still exposing his readers to the best egalitarian scholarship on the passages in question, if only in abbreviated form. He pleads for patience from women—for a willingness to accommodate to a male-dominated culture and church, enduring suffering for the sake of the gospel—asserting that sometimes change would be too disruptive or even destructive to the church or its mission. That is a real world consideration, and generations of missionaries have had to prioritize in much the way he is describing.

But who gets to determine how much disruption is too much, or when the cost of the disruption is greater than the cost of the oppression it seeks to overturn? One could always argue that confrontation is too costly, too disruptive to the cause of the gospel. I can imagine Christians who were empathetic to the plight of slaves castigating abolitionists for being too impatient in their opposition to slavery and causing unnecessary division and bloodshed, or moderate white Christians during Jim Crow counseling patience and playing the long game, becoming frustrated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s insistence on direct action and the tension and crisis it was meant to create. Finally, it is especially hard to hear him call gender a “secondary issue” (p. 170), apparently seeing it as separable from the gospel instead of part of its core. It is hard not to wonder if his relative privilege as a white male contributes to a lack of urgency; after all, he does not bear the direct cost of the forbearance he counsels. Seemingly aware of this, he makes a forthright appeal for Christian brothers to be proactive in advocating for change, especially in the Western world (p. 176).

I laud Stackhouse for his unapologetic commitment to the full equality of women and men and for his desire to offer a paradigm which draws no lines between them in the home, church, or broader society. I appreciate that he takes seriously the Scriptures, the history of the church, the priority of its mission, and the necessity of yielding to God’s ways and timing, even at personal cost. His reminder about keeping a Christ-like attitude in the debate and his attention to methodological concerns are both welcome and needed. But his relatively light and one-sided treatment of critical Bible passages which could derail would-be egalitarians will require supplementation for many readers, and his heavy emphasis on accommodation runs the risk of putting too much responsibility on those who are living in unjust situations and letting all of us off the hook with respect to taking the risks necessary to effect change, both in and outside the church. My recommendation: read this with a learner’s posture, eating the meat and throwing away the bones—and read it with other books which dive deeper into key Bible passages and other concerns (for instance, Discovering Biblical Equality, ed. Pierce and Groothuis).


Accommodation: “We encounter now, therefore, the principle of accommodation. God works within human limitations—both individual and corporate limitations—to transform the world according to his good purposes. To be blunt, God works with what he’s got—and with what we’ve got. When faced with our shortcomings and sin, God doesn’t just erase us and create a whole new situation. Instead, God graciously pursues shalom in the glory and the mess that we have made” (p.52).

“ . . . Paul is guided by the Holy Spirit… to give the church prudent instruction as to how to survive and thrive in a patriarchal culture that he thinks won’t last long; and also . . . to maintain and promote the egalitarian teaching that is evident throughout the Bible and dynamic particularly in the career of Jesus and that in the right circumstances will leave gender lines behind” (p. 67).

“Patriarchal gender roles are practiced in the church therefore only as a kind of expedient, an accommodation by the Holy Spirit to deeply embedded practices and attitudes that are to be corrected when the time is ripe” (p. 71).

“I am arguing that this is exactly the pattern of all of Paul’s exhortations: don’t try to abolish (now) what can’t (now) be abolished, such as patriarchy or slavery, but make the best of it according to all that we know of mutual love in Christ” (p. 75).

Attitude: “I have not found it useful to presume that my counterparts in any conversation are either wicked or witless . . . . It seems evident to me that the way to best find our way through the gender debate is not to presume that we will eventually discover that one set of discussants or the other are immoral morons. Instead, I much prefer to think that we can find a way to do honor to both groups of our fellow Christians” (p. 11).

Biblical scholarship: “I am grateful for this kind of excellent technical biblical scholarship, but I have come to conclude that only a theological take on these matters will avail. Resorting to finely argued revisionist technical scholarship—such as endless wranglings over the meaning of ‘head’ in 1 Corinthians 11, or the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 in the light strictly of local religious controversies regarding women teachers . . . —seems to me to miss the patriarchal forest of the entire Bible for particular textual trees. Even if this or that text is shown to mean something other than what the church has understood it to mean for centuries, there is a whole lot more patriarchy remaining, and it seems to me a fool’s errand—even if the fool is one with whose heart and basic convictions I stoutly agree—to attempt to purge the Bible, or even just the New Testament, text by text” (pp. 191-192).

“It is possible that God so arranged things for the reasons I suggest, namely, to facilitate the church’s accommodation of patriarchy until such a time as society was prepared to entertain egalitarianism . . . I think it more likely, however, and a simpler explanation to conclude that these specially controverted texts are in fact consistent with Paul’s teaching on gender—indeed, with the Bible’s teaching in general. I have suggested, therefore, an alternative egalitarian treatment of these texts” (p. 192).

Doubleness: “This ‘doubleness’… helps to explain one of the crucial facts of this debate: why egalitarians and complementarians both find support for their views herein” (p. 67).

“It is this ‘doubleness,’ therefore, that is the key to the gender model I am offering here. And it is the main difference between my model and the ‘redemptive trajectory’ or ‘redemptive movement’ hermeneutic more typical of biblical feminists. They see a single, upward line in the Bible, a line of progressive amelioration of oppression. This trend… ought to be extended beyond the end of the apostolic era to our own day so that it will result in the full emancipation— of slaves, women, and other victims of sinful hierarchy…. Instead, I see a double message almost from the beginning of the Bible and showing up right through the New Testament…. The New Testament is not a uniformly egalitarian text, and not even a just-on-the-verge-of- egalitarian text, but one that contains numerous instances of these two messages [patriarchal and egalitarian], often side by side” (pp. 85-86).

Gender essentialism: “And I also believe that the universal folk wisdom is true: men and women differ also in other essential ways, although there is currently nothing approaching a modern consensus as to what those ways are” (p. 14).

“Evangelical psychologist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen typically emphasizes the overlapping of the two curves to advocate for feminism against gender hierarchicalists who make too much of the (relatively small) differences in most cases. I agree with her on that tactic . . . however . . . the fact that there are two distinct curves ought to mean something, and she never says (so far as I know) what that something might be . . . . I am inclined to think sex/gender complementarity is likely both real and important, however difficult it has proven so far to specify” (pp. 209-210).

Methodology: “Many authors on the question of Christianity and gender begin with the broader context of hermeneutics . . . It’s actually quite remarkable, however, that many do not, but instead immediately plunge into exegetical and historical issues as if we all engage in theological reasoning the same way and there are no important methodological questions to sort out first. But as Pamela Dickey Young reminds us, ‘One’s theological method in large part determines one’s theological outcome’” (p. 17).

Paul and patriarchy: of 1 Corinthians 11— “Let us first concede that Paul is indeed maintaining a patriarchal line, whatever one makes of his arguments for it” (p. 83).

“. . . women were not trained to exercise such public leadership over mixed groups, and society was not trained to accept it. Women leaders, therefore, would have scandalized their neighbors. So Paul forbids it in the name of gospel priorities” (p. 68).

Secondary nature of gender issues: “Precisely because gender is a secondary issue, absolute purity on the issue could be compromised for the sake of an even greater good: the furtherance of the gospel. Were gender equality truly a matter of gospel first principles, then Jesus and Paul, as have seen become unintelligible (at best), and missionaries today in patriarchal cultures must immediately stop accommodating themselves to local customs and risk death or deportation—as these faithful people surely would if the gospel itself were truly at stake” (p. 170).

Book info
IVP Academic