FINALLY FEMINIST: A PRAGMATIC CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDING OF GENDERWritten by John G. Stackhouse Reviewed By Sharon James
Finally feminist alludes to Dr Stackhouse’s own testimony. He was brought up within the Plymouth Brethren, notoriously conservative with regard to woman. When he married an exceptionally gifted woman, unsurprisingly, he began to question his rigid upbringing. On the one hand, he found the Bible to be undeniably patriarchal. On the other hand he knew himself to be ‘feminist’ by conviction, and convinced that patriarchy per se is evil (56). He needed to find a paradigm to reconcile these two seeming opposites.
‘I wanted to be a feminist all the way. I wanted to see women and men as coequal partners before God … with no job or role or responsibility closed to either to them except where sheer biology dictated. This … made the most sense of the world around me, made the most sense of my experiences with capable woman both within and outside the church, and made the most sense of my relationship with my wife. But it did not make the most sense of the tradition of the church, nor did it square with a number of Bible verses that seemed forthrightly to forbid a woman from exercising coequal leadership in family or congregation’ (34). Hence the ‘pragmatic’ of the title. Dr Stackhouse’s new understanding was shaped by his need to fit Scripture with experience.
He defines a ‘feminist’ as ‘someone who champions the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of woman as equal in importance to those of man and who, therefore, refuses discrimination against women’ (17). This definition is too wide to be helpful, but Dr Stackhouse goes on: ‘Feminists of the sort I represent are those who resist what they judge to be arbitrary, ungrounded distinctions between men and woman and the discrimination that attends such distinctions’ (18). This statement does not allow for those who believe that there are distinctions which are not arbitrary, ungrounded or discriminatory, because they are ordained by God himself.
The ‘new paradigm’ presented in this book argues that Paul was inspired by the Spirit to do two things simultaneously.
(1) to give the church prudent instruction as to how to survive and thrive in a culture that he thinks will not last long; and (2) to maintain and promote the egalitarian dynamic already at work in the career of Jesus that in due course will leave gender lines behind … It is this doubleness that is the key to this paradigm on gender (51).
This, then, is not a new paradigm at all. It is the trajectory hermeneutic, which has been used for some years by evangelical feminists. ‘Yes, the Bible is patriarchal. But it contains the seeds which will eventually blossom into fully fledged egalitarianism’.
Stackhouse aims to show how both complementarians and egalitarians are right (complementarians right to say that certain texts point to hierarchy; egalitarians right to say that these text no longer apply). But several other works have already taken this line (eg. Perriman, 1998).
A fundamental fault line running through the work is a failure to distinguish clearly between traditionalism and complementarianism. Stackhouse admits that there are variations within the non-feminist camp, but his view of all of them is coloured by his own over-legalistic background. Traditionalist may tell ‘women to stay home and look after their wives and children’ (24), and say it is ‘better for all woman everywhere to remain in these domestic roles’ (25), but complementarians do not. Stackhouse moves seamlessly between the two. He says, for example, that complementarians believe that the woman should ‘be silent’ in the church (29), and the they argue that ‘social power’ should be wielded by man, and that woman should be ‘subordinate’ to it (19). These sweeping statements are not documented, and suggest a lack of understanding of what many complementarians actually believe.
I would take issue with other points of detail, but can mention only two. Firstly, Stackhouse affirms categorically that ‘nowhere in the Bible does an author draw implications from the nature of the Trinity to human relations’ (77), so that it is illegitimate to draw any analogy between inter-Trinitarian relations and male-female relations. But what about 1 Corinthians 11:3? Secondly, Stackhouse is disturbingly derogatory about Paul in his discussion of 1 Corinthians 11: ‘pretty typical of a first century rabbi who is reading Genesis 1 and 2 through patriarchal lenses—lenses which not all of us share … a bit tendentious. The adam was not obviously sexed before the division into male and female’ (66). He is equally dismissive of Paul’s methodology in 1 Timothy 1, ‘he ignores Genesis 1 … his argument from Genesis 2 that the prior creation of the man entails some sort of political superiority seems not to be taught in Genesis 2 itself’ (67).
The underlying problem with this book is Dr Stackhouse’s frank admission that he started with the conclusion he wanted to arrive at (no role distinctions for male and female) and then found a paradigm to get the Bible to fit his prior conclusion. Like many today, he effectively places experience above Scripture. By contrast, the great eighteenth century Baptist leader Abraham Booth wrote: ‘When God speaks we should be all attention, and when he commands we should be all submission.’