So here’s the problem: sometimes the Bible sounds egalitarian and sometimes (perhaps even more often) it sounds complementarian/patriarchal. How can a person be honest to both perspectives? That’s what Stackhouse is asking.
He presents a paradigm that makes the best sense to him of the varied evidence.
His first principle in the paradigm is equality. As he looks at the creation story and then especially the ministry of Jesus and the events of Pentecost, he concludes: “God originally intended women and men to be coequal partners in stewarding the earth, without role differentiation, and he has never rescinded that mandate. Indeed in God’s renewal of all things, in his great salvation plan to restore shalom, men and women will treat each other as they were intended to treat each other. We already see this renewed order in the inbreaking of the kingdom evident in the New Testament.”
But what about passages that seem to sit in contrast to that vision — passages that seem to be patriarchal? That leads to a second principle in the paradigm: some things matter more than others, or what Stackhouse calls “holy pragmatism.”
God works within human limitations. In the Old Testament, you just have to think of polygamy. “God is willing to forgo the achievement of secondary objectives in the interest of furthering his primary purposes, and he expects us to do the same.” (More on this later.)
The third principle concerns eschatology. “What . . . would our understanding of gender look like if we took the ‘already but not yet’ principle seriously? What if we were to expect, instead of one extreme or the other, an appropriately paradoxical situation: a slow and partial realization of gospel values here and there, as God patiently and carefully works his mysterious ways along the multiple fronts of kingdom advance?”
He asks us to observe what missionaries have always known: “Missionaries of every era and locale often have practiced this policy. There was no point in undertaking a quixotic crusade against a deeply entrenched social evil when the church was tiny and young. Better to grow the church and then permeate society with gospel values, with the long-term hope of ameliorating or even revolutionizing what was wrong.”
Why does Paul sometimes sound like he believes in male leadership and sometimes like he’s an egalitarian? According to Stackhouse (and I agree), it’s because of “prudent instruction as to how to survive and thrive” in the patriarchal culture of that day. But he also promotes “the egalitarian dynamic already at work in the career of Jesus that in due course will leave gender lines behind.”
Here’s the conclusion of this paradigm:
“When society was patriarchal, as it was in the New Testament context and as it has been everywhere in the world except in modern society in our day, the church avoided scandal by going along with it — fundamentally evil as patriarchy was and is. Now, however, that modern society is at least officially egalitarian, the scandal is that the church is not going along with society, not rejoicing in the unprecedented freedom to let women and men serve according to gift and call without arbitrary gender line. This scandal impedes both the evangelism of others and the edification — the retention and development of faith — of those already converted.”