Westfall, Cynthia. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. Pp. xix +347. ISBN 9780801097942. $32.99 USD [Softcover]. Source for Book Cover.
Cynthia Westfall’s work Paul and Gender will likely become the standard evangelical work on Paul’s understanding of gender in the Bible. Westfall thoroughly exegetes the key biblical texts and avoids writing a book merely on women’s issues or on controversial biblical passages on women in the church.
Pastors and biblical students should read Paul and Gender to understand the contemporary discussion on the topic. Complementarian readers should especially invest time in reading Westfall because she presents a well-argued and biblical rationale for an egalitarian reading of Paul. Westfall’s monograph is not without its negatives, and Westfall’s arguments for an egalitarian Paul run into numerous problems.
Westfall moves “toward a canon-based Pauline theology of gender” (ix). She lists five priorities that guide her canonical study of Paul’s theology of gender:
1. The results will attempt to be faithful to the texts and contexts in the Pauline corpus.
2. The interpretations will seek to be intelligible within a reconstruction of the narrative of Paul’s life.
3. The specific interpretations will attempt to be understandable within the context of language, culture, and situation in which the texts place themselves.
4. The interpretations will strive to be coherent within the general context of Pauline theology if possible, given the text, context, language, and culture.
5. Contemporary theological constructs and applications should strive to be consistent and coherent with an interpreter’s contemporary (biblical) worldview. (ix)
Westfall also takes “the position that the Pauline passages on women cannot be adequately understood or applied apart from a corresponding understanding of the Pauline passages on men” (x). What she means is that gender studies often focus on key women’s passages without studying key men’s passages. Both of which exist in the Bible. Paul instructs both men and women on issues related to the church, home, and society (x).
Her particular thesis can perhaps be summed this statement: “This book is a call for all who study Paul and gender to learn to distinguish between the assumptions and presuppositions that they use to make sense of the texts (1-2).
Part of her call is to disabuse traditional interpreters of their association with Greek philosophical thought: “this study will suggest that the traditional readings on gender reflect Greek thought and categories that were not accepted by either Paul or Jesus” (2). She avers that Greek thought was imposed on the text early in the church’s history and further cemented through the history of interpretation (2).
As a result, she will read passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 in ways that conflict with traditional readings. For Westfall, Paul does not adopt a Greco-Roman culture of power and authority (traditional readings) but counter-culturally speaks out against it. Paul, however, engages in certain missional strategies in order to survive in the gentile world, which may include partially adopting cultural values on gender (3).
Readers, Westfall argues, need to distinguish between “Paul’s theology” and his “missional adaptation to the cultural gender practices” (3). Because traditional interpreters failed to do that, they have adopted a Greco-Roman view of authority and power that Paul never advocated.
Westfall’s work spans 9 chapters, 2 of which study Paul’s cultural milieu (Culture, Stereotypes) 6 of which detail how various biblical-theological topics (Creation, The Fall, Eschatology, The Body, Calling Authority), and 1 of which is a concentrated interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15.
First, Westfall never fails to carefully shape her argument by the biblical text. This does not mean she rightly (in my mind) understands every Pauline text. But no one cannot fault her for assuming the meaning of a text or for pushing an agenda without dealing with Paul’s actual words. Further, she presents plausible readings of Paul that only once caused me to roll my eyes (p. 307 where she claims that “women were homeschooled, and therefore not socialized for the classroom”).
Biblical interpreters should therefore engage with Westfall as they strive to understand Paul’s theology of gender.
Second, Westfall also dismantles inadequate versions of complementarianism. Some versions of complementarianism claim that women should submit to all men and not just their husbands (306). She also rightly chastises complementarian readers of 1 Timothy 2:11–15 who might assume their position without arguing it from the text (Chapter 9).
Third, as a skeptical reader of Westfall (I am a complementarian), I found Westfall’s arguments plausible and sometimes compelling. A great strength is her work is that she goes to great pains to start from the ground up and explain what the Bible says. As a skeptic, she has convinced me of the value of her work. I have no doubt that I will return to it for counsel in the future.
Westfalls’ work is not perfect. In fact, I would like to note two significant issues that Westfall did not satisfactory answer. First, Westfall claims that the early church very quickly adopted a Greco-Roman view of authority and power and imposted it upon the text (2). As a result, women were demoted and unable to function as church leaders like Paul indicated that they should be.
Westfall has not satisfactory explained how the early church could have so soon lost its egalitarian mooring. If Pauline churches had women pastors, where did they go? Why do we have no record of this in Ignatius, Clement, Polycarp, Tertullian, and so forth? Westfall may no doubt respond that the church quickly adopted Greco-Roman cultural norms.
In fact, the heart of the early church was Roman Africa and the East. Roman Africa had its sub-culture (Ethiopian church, for example) and the eastern church did not necessarily share the Greco-Roman culture of the west. For Westfall’s argument to be correct, the Greco-Roman subversion of authority structures would probably have had to have happened sometime in the first century. This position seems implausible.
If early readers of Paul who read Greek and who shared his cultural heritage (and others who perhaps did not) read him along traditional lines, should this not give us pause?
Westfall might also respond by asserting that the churchly tradition advocated the ontological inferiority of women, a position few if any would advocate for today (4): “Unless a scholar or interpreter assumes the superiority of men and inferiority of women as a presupposition for understanding the texts of gender, they cannot legitimately claim that his or her interpretation is in line with the traditions of Christianity” (4).
Actually, even if some in the churchly tradition over-interpreted the meaning of wifely submission to their husbands, this historical fact does not change that complementarians follow this churchly tradition. The Reformers re-directed the churchly tradition of justification by faith. Protestants can still say they follow the ancient churchly teaching that justification is by faith, even though 16th century Christians mixed the idea of meritorious works into notion of justification.
Second, Westfall leaves a number of unanswered questions regarding 1 Timothy 2. She argues that on the basis of 1 Timothy 2’s relationship to 1 Corinthians 14 and a grammatical shift from the plural to the singular that 1 Timothy 2 is not about the local church but about the home (305-7.) As a consequence, 1 Timothy 2’s command that women should learn at home simply reflects the reality that women were often uneducated and that their husbands could tutor them at home in an appropriate way. The citation of Genesis 1 in 1 Timothy 2:13–14 merely summarizes the creation account without indicating a priority of order or a transcendent truth (295).
1 Timothy 2:15’s “saved through childbearing” arises from a common understanding of Artemis who “saved” women during childbirth (310). “Saved through childbearing” refers to God’s care of women, and it will happen if “they” (referring to both husband and wife) continue in faith, love, holiness, with self-control. Probably this refers to how husbands should take care of their pregnant wives and work to avoid pregnancy if pregnancy would be unhealthy for their wives—i.e., being self-controlled (311).
My questions are: (1) does the parallel to 1 Corinthians 14 and the switch from the plural to the singular really warrant reading 1 Timothy 2 as about the home? Why cannot Paul both argue that women should learn at home from their husbands and that they should learn at church in quietness? Further, why cannot Paul’s switch from the plural (women) to the singular (woman) simply reflect a generic application to the one who does not listen quietly in church?
(2) Does not the “for” of 1 Timothy 2:13 lead to one to see a normative ban on women in pastoral positions (cf. 296)? 1 Timothy 2:13 uses γὰρ (for) to ground the assertion of 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet, for… .” 1 Timothy 2:13-14’s citation of Genesis thus grounds and provides the rational for why a woman should remain silent in what I take to be the church. Paul perhaps highlights the order of creation not to show a hierarchy of authority but a division of labour. God created Adam to tend and guard the garden, but he needed a partner, Eve. Eve ensured that the garden would be protected and God’s glory would expand by propagating the human race through birthing children.
Sadly, she was deceived and failed to fulfill her partnership with Adam. Paul doesn’t give Adam a free pass here (cf. Rom 5). But he highlights Eve’s failure because women in the Ephesian church were being influenced by false teachers to do evil (1 Tim 1:3-4; 1 Tim 4:1-5). A particular problem was the forbidding of marriage and thus the bearing of children (1 Tim 4:3). Paul consequently highlights Eve’s failure to guard the garden and be the mother of all living in a holy way. But Paul notes that women will be saved by childbirth if they continue in holiness (1 Tim 2:15).
In summary, Westfall has failed to adequately deal with Paul’s canonical and textual meaning in 1 Timothy 2, and I am not convinced that her reading coherently makes sense of the passage. I do agree with a number of her assertions. I also think that her argument on the term “have authority” warrants careful investigation (but see my review of Women in the Church). But she has not ultimately overturned the traditional reading of 1 Timothy 2, although she has definitely provided a warning against un-careful readings of this passage by complementarians. For this warning, I am grateful to Westfall.
My critiques of Westfall may suggest that her work is egalitarian argument, but that is not the case. Hers is a true work of biblical theology on the topic of Paul and gender. At the same time, she is an egalitarian, and her point-of-view plays a significant role in work. Readers should be aware of her theological perspective because the role of women in the church is a major issue among evangelicals. One’s position on the issue often reveals a deep difference in hermeneutical method and thus the interpretation of passages on gender.
I commend pastors and church leaders who are studying the issue of Paul and gender to read Westfall’s work. For a complementarian counter-point, I would recommend Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner’s multi-author work, Women in the Church. Both of these works contain carefully crafted biblical argument that articulate their respective positions.
Note: Update on April 21, 2017. I received this book for free from Parasource Marketing & Distribution in exchange for a review. But I was nor am under any obligation to provide a positive review.