Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Write-Up: Partners in Christ, by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr.  Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Partners in Christ revises and expands on a 2005 book that John G. Stackhouse, Jr. wrote, Finally Feminist.  In Partners in Christ, Stackhouse discusses the controversial debates on gender within evangelical Christianity.  Topics that are covered in the book include: patriarchy in the Bible, the question of whether the Bible permits women to teach, the question of whether God should be portrayed as gendered, the controversy surrounding Bible translations and their stance towards gender, gender within the church (i.e., whether worship styles cater to women, and the recent masculinization of Christianity), and how men should listen to women about the obstacles and challenges that women face in life.

Stackhouse essentially argues that patriarchy in the Bible was a concession to ancient culture, to be surpassed once egalitarianism became widely accepted.  For Stackhouse, ancient Christians had to pick their battles, and they considered spreading the Gospel to be more important than challenging patriarchy, a futile task that could alienate the broader society.  Still, Stackhouse notes, there are egalitarian strains within the New Testament, indicating some desire to move in that direction.

One can argue, contra Stackhouse, that Paul does not regard patriarchy as cultural but rather as rooted in God’s creation, or the story of Adam and Eve (see I Corinthians 11; I Timothy 2:13-14).  Stackhouse does not tackle this question head-on, but he does question whether Paul in I Corinthians 11 is faithful to the original meaning of Genesis 1-2.  Stackhouse may be including Paul’s exegesis of Scripture in I Corinthians 11 as part of the patriarchy that could legitimately be surmounted once egalitarianism became broadly accepted, and Stackhouse points out that Paul in I Corinthians 11 balances out his patriarchy with a more egalitarian statement.  I doubt that Stackhouse’s approach would technically qualify as “conservative,” but it certainly is thoughtful, even if it does not iron everything out neatly.  Overall, I found this book’s approach to be nuanced, in terms of acknowledging the complexities within the Bible.

Stackhouse also argues that the Torah was patriarchal, but that its patriarchy does not reflect God’s ultimate will but rather was a concession to culture at that time.  After all, Stackhouse points out, did not Jesus say that Moses’ law about divorce was based on the hardness of the Israelites’ heart (Mark 10:5)?  That is a decent argument, in that it highlights that there is a Scriptural case to be made for not taking everything in the Bible to be God’s absolute will for all times.  Stackhouse also argues, however, that the Torah was more egalitarian than other ancient Near Eastern cultures, and, while he does refer to a work that defends this claim, I question whether this claim is totally accurate.  There were ancient Near Eastern cultures that were more liberal than the Torah on women inheriting property, and ancient Judaism was more patriarchal than Greco-Roman society on who could initiate a divorce.  According to Jacob Milgrom in the Jewish Publication Society commentary on Numbers, the inheritance laws in the Book of Numbers were probably based, in part, on the ancient Israelite emphasis on clans, and the desire to keep the land in the family (something that could be obviated were a woman to inherit property and marry someone from another clan or tribe).  Stackhouse perhaps would have done better to have argued that some of the Torah’s laws were appropriate within their ancient Israelite context—-a context that emphasized tribe, clan, and family—-and that the laws could become nullified once that context was no longer relevant (i.e., when tribe was not as important in Israel, or when Israel became more urbanized).  (The problem with this sort of argument, for some who look to the Bible as a religious authority, is that Ezekiel 40-48 depicts the reinstitution of the tribal system in the eschaton; this would not be a problem, however, for Christians who interpret Ezekiel 40-48 allegorically, or symbolically.)

One passage that I particularly liked in this book was when Stackhouse was disputing gender essentialism in discussing what churches should be like.  Not all women are the same, and not all men are the same.  Not all men crave intense adventure or desire a testosterone-heavy version of Christianity.  I know that I don’t.  Stackhouse wrestled a bit with gender essentialism, however, when he was arguing that Christians should deem heterosexual marriage to be the only legitimate option: he felt that there was some reason that the Bible prefers people of different genders to marry, and that there is a complementary aspect to that sort of arrangement, but he admitted that he was not clear about what exactly that was.

I do not know if Stackhouse contributes anything earth-shakingly new to the discussions on egalitarianism and complementarianism, but I did find his book to be a thoughtful and honest exploration of this issue.  I have read bits and pieces of the sorts of things that Stackhouse argues, but Stackhouse brought them together in a manner that I found compelling.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from IVP Academic, in exchange for an honest review.

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