As one who has been known to exaggerate from time to time, I'm not sure how to properly emphasize how incredibly timely and important is John Stackhouse's 2005 book, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender.
Almost everyone will find something in this book to make them feel uncomfortable, as indicated on the book cover, which says, "Why Both Sides Are Wrong--and Right." But as I was reading it I was reminded of Chesterton's classic description of Christianity itself, where he said that perhaps when everyone thinks something is the wrong shape, sometimes even opposite ones--i.e. one says it is too round, another that it is too square, and still another that it is too triangular--then maybe what we are facing is one thing which is actually and finally the right shape.
Certainly Stackhouse does not offer this book as the final story on the gender roles issue. He is clear to offer a new paradigm which seeks to take the best of each and combine them in a practicable theology of gender. Like a good theologian he asks not only "what do we think is true" but also "what do we do?" His answer in this case may be frustratingly slippery in its openness to contextual application, controversially egalitarian in its ideals (as the title suggests), and extremely challenging in its call to gospel priorities--but what else would you expect from a good answer in a fallen world?
The strength of this book is that instead of trying to explain away or defend the patriarchy contained in the Bible it seeks to understand it in light of the larger picture of revelation; that of equality and mutuality (see Gen 1-2 and Gal 3-4) as redeemed in Christ. It confesses that Paul gives some patriarchalist instructions and admits that Jesus, while breaking social mores, does not come out as a feminist revolutionary either. However, instead of using this to give patriarchy a divine basis, Stackhouse recognizes that Jesus and Paul meant to get first things first. First, the establishment of the eternal gospel in the world. If Christianity in the first century, or Mosaic Law in the Ancient Near East, makes feminism or abolition its "cause", it is highly likely that the redemptive story culminating in the gospel (which is of more eternal significance than any cause, even if that cause is derived from it) does not get off the ground.
So the complimentarian is left to consider the possiblity that the very fact that Scripture is debatable (at best) in its permanent and universal support of patriarchy might suggest that patriarchy belongs in the ranks of slavery and not with homosexuality (as the slippery slope people love to say). Likewise, the egalitarian is left to consider the possibility that while a Christian should work toward a good cause, every cause, no matter what, is secondary next to the spread of the gospel. There is much discussion to be had on when and how, then, a person makes an outright stand for what is right, but as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers showed, there is a huge difference between a cause that keeps the gospel of Christ number one and a cause that operates for itself alone.
Incidentally, since our culture is officially egalitarian, I agree with Stackhouse that the time has come for patriarchy to give way to what even Paul seems to have been striving for (as seen in the examples of Junia, Lydia, Priscilla, and even his injuction for women to learn at home). That does not mean that there won't be patience and grace required in many local churches, however, in fact it means that we can count ourselves with Moses and Martin Luther King Jr if we keep first things first and strive for something in a Christ-like way and still never get to step foot in the promised land. Quite a challenge.
I hesitate to call this the best book I've ever read, since it is not even trying at anything close to the broad profundity of a Mere Christianity or an Orthodoxy. However, I will say that this book for me will go down in a category with some of the most timely and important books I've ever read. Titles such as Soul Survivor, True Sprituality, Searching for God Knows What, In the Name of Jesus, and the two already named above. If you know me (or if you check my archives) you know that is quite a compliment.
But I'm really not trying to flatter this book or its author. Quite honestly what I'm saying is that I think almost every Christian today needs to read this book. I'll say that again: I think you need to read this book.
Maybe you are in a rocky time and need something more comforting than bracing. That would be an exception. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the gender roles debate per se (even though I doubt you are untouched by this issue either in home, church or society). In that case you'll have to check out some of the other books which tackle the biblical texts in detail. But if you read this book first you will be in the remarkable advantage of being set straight from the get-go.
That's the best way to describe this book. It doesn't give all the answers, it doesn't exegete every relevant text (that has been done to death on both sides of the debate and has yielded little in the way of consensus), and it doesn't even claim to be neutral, but it also doesn't pull any punches and it definitely sets us straight. Speaking articulately and accurately also to the issues of hermeneutics, practical theology, church dialogue, slippery slopes, and, most importantly, gospel priorities; Stackhouse hits the nail on the head time and time again. He rejects biblicism, cultural reactionism, and intuitionism (to invent a few words) and calls us to follow Jesus by his Word and his Spirit.
Having been on quite a journey with this issue myself, it felt like this book was the end of a long path through a forest opening up to a field of play. Mind you, I suppose the illustration could be reversed to say that I've been playing all along and now it is time to take the hard trail. Make no mistake about it, the challenge in this book is hard to take, for anyone. But its right. (Even as I write this I have to remind myself that, as a man, all this is actually "easy for me to say".)