Reflections on Stackhouse's Finally Feminist

Recently at the Cornerstone book club, of which I am privileged to be part, we discussed John Stackhouse's book, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005). I've enjoyed a number of Stackhouse's books, but I didn't find the argument in this one particularly compelling.

Stackhouse's book can easily be read in an hour. I took two hours to read it and, as I did, jotted down some rather random criticisms and questions. I don't have the time to rewrite these criticisms into a formal book review, so I'm leaving these comments in their random format. Moreover, since I have returned the book to a member in the congregation from whom I borrowed it, I'm unable to double check page references and hope they are accurate.

Plug for the Cornerstone book club: Our discussion at this meeting was, as always, superb. Various viewpoints were represented: some were very favorable to Stackhouse; others were not impressed. I'm always encouraged by the mature and edifying conversations we can have, sometimes in a context of strong disagreement. I certainly learned a lot from the discussion.

Stackhouse’s thesis in a nutshell is that, though it's all over the Bible, patriarchy (by which Stackhouse apparently means any sort of headship/submission relationship) is a sinful, oppressive structure the Holy Spirit accommodates (57), analogous to Moses accommodating divorce because of hard-heartedness. The apostles taught a policy of social conservatism and encouraged cooperation with political powers and social structures in the interest of spreading the gospel before the imminent return of Christ. Paul prohibited female leadership because women then were uneducated and unskilled in rhetoric, but permitted women to pray and prophesy because these activities did not require formal education. He encouraged them to keep their heads covered to avoid scandal. Women were considered “the weaker vessel” and Peter encourages them to play that role well (59).

Stackhouse employs what’s often called a “redemptive-historical” or “trajectory” hermeneutic to argue that the church should transcend the culturally relative prohibitions of Scripture. Because our society is far more enlightened than ancient societies and because we now recognize the true equality between men and women, there no longer is a need to accommodate the sinful structure of patriarchalism.


1. The widespread use of the term "patriarchy," rarely used among complementarians, is pejorative.

2. Slavery per se is not evil. If it were evil, the apostles would have condemned it as such. They openly assailed the institutions of paganism that were antithetical to Christianity. They were unafraid to upset an economic status quo, as in: don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols! If slavery is wrong, why didn’t Jesus say so? Jesus wasn’t afraid to critique the practices of the Pharisees.

Stackhouse does not differentiate Hebrew slavery from Roman slavery from nineteenth century slave trade (kidnapping is forbidden by Exod.21:16). Roman slavery was cruel and oppressive; nineteenth century slavery was racist. Hebrew slavery was benevolent. In a time when there wasn’t an elaborate banking system with mortgages and other long terms loan options, one could repay a debt by voluntarily enslaving oneself to a creditor. Wouldn’t it be better for a debtor to work for a creditor until the debt was paid off then go to prison or lose his home? Lastly, slavery is not dead: the army is a kind of slavery.

Besides, in Israel, debts were cancelled every seven years (Deut.15:12) and slaves had the option of going free. The fact that slaves are given the option to stay with their masters shows that it wasn’t intended to be an oppressive institution (Deut.15:16-17).

Christians are encouraged in the NT to obey masters. Stackhouse assumes that it's right for slaves to revolt. But slaves, in countries today where slavery is permitted, are still required to obey their masters. Masters, then and today, are required to treat their slaves justly (Col.4:1). There is little emphasis in the Bible on rights, as there is on fulfilling responsibilities well.

Lastly, the Bible does not insist on the continuation of slavery. Like the institution of monarchy, it seems suited for more primitive cultures. It is not commanded by God, but regulated by God.

3. There is, to be sure, a sense in which there is progress in history to which the Bible accommodates itself. A good part of the OT deals with kings, though monarchy is nowhere commanded in Scripture. He allowed for Israel to have a king and regulated the kingship and encouraged submission to kings, but nowhere did he command it. A wife’s submission to her husband, however, is commanded and a woman’s subordination in the church is commanded.

4. There is a widening of privilege in the new covenant for women. Girls are now baptized and women now partake of the Lord’s Supper. This must have been scandalous then. Why didn’t Paul accommodate prevailing opinion there? Yet, the widening of privilege does not mean an erasing of differentiating roles.

5. There are times when Paul clearly accommodates a culture. When he does, he says so. He urges Tim to get circumcised for example (Acts 16:3) because “of the Jews who lived there.”

6. Stackhouse sees parent/child relationships as oppressive. He writes, “But no one should suggest that children are in perpetual thrall to their parents’ commands.” But is this what the Bible assumes of parent/child relationships?? Should children be liberated from their family structures?

7. Stackhouse assumes that “weaker vessel” is a matter of sociological recognition and not innate fact. But, generally speaking, aren’t women physically weaker than men? Why is it embarrassing to admit that? Is the assumption that stronger is better? Why?

8. Why should the apparent imminence of Christ’s return be an argument for accommodating sinful structures? One would expect the opposite. In view of an imminent return from Christ, you would expect Christians to be emboldened to overturn sinful structures.

9. Test case (a) — modesty. Paul urges modesty for women. Perhaps Paul was accommodating a culture with a penchant for modesty. Our society believes it’s liberating for women to be immodest. Test case (b)— homosexuality. Stackhouse does not refer to any one passage about homosexuality in his book. What happens when one applies Stackhouse’s trajectory hermeneutic to Romans 1??

10. Interpretation of various texts

(a) 1 Corinthians 11:7-9: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man, neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.”

Stackhouse writes: “Paul’s depiction of the second creation story, that of Gen.2, of the woman being created from and for the man seems a bit tendentious.” (p.66). Tendentious? As in prejudicial? The interesting thing about these verses and those that follow (8-9) is how they prove that role distinctions between males and females existed prior to the fall. Paul argues from creation, not from the fall; he apparently did not think redemption in Christ negated creation.

The wearing of shawls is a culturally bound application of a transcultural principle. Women should show when they pray and prophesy that they are not dishonoring their head (Christ perhaps?). There are other instances of culturally bound applications of transcultural principles, e.g., braided hair, holy kisses, raising of hands when praying, etc.

(b) 1 Corinthians 14. Stackhouse alleges that Paul prohibited female leadership because women then were uneducated and unskilled in rhetoric, but permitted women to pray and prophesy because these activities did not require formal education. This strike me as pure conjecture. Is there any textual indication that this is so?

(c) 1 Tim. 2:11-15: Stackhouse does nothing with the argument Paul makes but dismiss it. Typically, egalitarians argue that this prohibition is local. Stackhouse says: “Paul ignores Genesis 1, in which male and female are created at the same time as the image of God together. Then we see that his argument from Genesis 2 that the prior creation of the man entails some sort of political superiority seems not be taught by Genesis 2 itself.” (67). Really?? Was Paul really that bad an exegete?

“As for verse 14, Paul may seem to be suggesting that all women are more prone to spiritual deception than all men, and thus they should be silent in the church. But this interpretation seems preposterous coming from a man with such obvious regard for Priscilla and numerous other wise women in the church” (67).

(11) My interpretation: We know that the gospel brought freedom and emancipation to the world. People who did not enjoy dignity in their pagan cultures now do. This is the case with children and slaves. In many ancient quarters children and slaves were regarded merely as property. But in the epistles children are addressed directly, as full members of the church, and the gospel says that masters and slaves are equal in Christ. Masters and slaves are brothers in Christ.

Women were also emancipated. In ancient cultures women often lived the way Muslim women live today. In many mosques women must enter through the back door and pray in the back row. They enjoy few protections. The Bible revolutionized the position of women in society.

Presumably in Ephesus they took this sense of equality and carried into the worship service and presumed to have equal right to have authority and to teach. Are we not one in Christ? And Paul has to teach them that freedom in Christ does not mean the obliteration of all authority structures.

So Paul says (vv.11-12): “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” There are those who argue that Paul here gives two prohibitions: do not teach and do not have authority. I don’t believe this is the best reading.

Paul doesn’t forbid women to teach. That’s can’t simply be said. It’s contradicted by the teaching of the New Testament. Priscilla was a teacher and she taught Apollos in the home (1 Cor.11:5; cf. Acts 2:17; 21:9). And we find women teaching in a host of situations. Among Paul’s many co-workers were many women. You simply need to read Romans 16. So it can’t be no teaching, period.

Nor does Paul forbid women from having authority, period. Women can serve as presidents and prime ministers. What Paul forbids is for women to teach in such a way that usurp positions God assigned to men. Deborah was permitted to be a judge in Israel, but she was forbidden to usurp the position of her husband Lapidoth.

The positions of leadership in the church or family of God are assigned to men. And God forbids women to teach is such away that usurps these positions. It’s not politically correct, but it is normative in God’s purposes.

Paul roots these claims with arguments from Genesis. V13: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” The argument here is from the priority of Adam’s creation.Adam was created first, as the leader. And then Eve was created, as the follower. This is Paul's argument. God did not make the woman first. He did not make man and woman at the same time. He made the man first. This is the way God set it up in the Garden Sanctuary. The woman is a “helper fit” for the man. Man speaks first in the sanctuary liturgy. She speaks last. He is the speaker and she is the responder. He is the leader and she is the follower. This is the order in the garden sanctuary.

Then Paul says (v.14): “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” Perhaps women are constitutionally more easily deceived because of their extraordinary sensitivity and sympathy. That’s the viewpoint of some. But . . . men can often be deceived just as easily as women, and sometimes more. Women are often MORE perceptive than men. Men can be deceived in precisely the same way Eve was. Paul says to men in 2 Corinthians 11:3: “I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”

Paul’s point here is not that Eve was more easily deceived than Adam. It’s that Eve was created to follow. That’s what Eve was doing when the serpent tempted her. Adam was not deceived. He simply stood there and let Eve be deceived. The sin of Eve occurred because of Adam’s negligence as a leader. Adam was created first and he should have protected Eve. But he didn’t and therefore she was deceived.

12. I'm certainly open to having women assume recognized roles in the church. I have no opposition to women reading Scripture in church, leading in some of the prayers, and assuming some teaching responsibilities. On other hand, I think that the Bible clearly restricts the authoritative offices in the church to men.

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