Book Review- Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ

Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ is an attempt to shed new light on the Pauline passages concerning gender roles. Authored by respected scholar Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall, this book urges all who have studied the apostle to do so through the theological lens of the Pauline corpus, distinguishing between the assumptions and presuppositions that they use to make sense of the texts (2). The layout for this book is not a systematic approach as one might expect. I’ve found that books dealing with specific Biblical issues tend to be laid out that way, devoting each chapter to a different problem passage. being devoted . With the exception of chapter 9 dealing exclusively with 1 Timothy 2:11-15, each passage is regarded as is fitting to the chapter’s topic, moving the reader toward a canon-based Pauline theology of gender. The chapter layout is as follows— paul-and-gender

  1. Culture
  2. Stereotypes
  3. Creation
  4. The Fall
  5. Eschatology
  6. The Body
  7. Calling
  8. Authority
  9. 1 Timothy 2:11-15

This holistic approach to Paul’s work enables Westfall to address the issues effectively. Her method helps make sense of the apostle’s writings in their context, refreshing the reader with new insights regarding Greco-Roman culture. In turn, viable alternatives are offered for Paul’s infamous passages and they encourage ongoing discussion. Westfall is re-framing the gender issues from what they were at one point, clearly seeking to stimulate critical thinking for a newfound understanding of Paul’s theology of gender.

I have read a few books, articles, and journals dealing with Paul’s view of gender. I have found the majority of them to be similarly thematic in their structure and their argument with Paul, gender, and how they handle the topic’s key texts (1 Cor. 7; 11; 14; 1 Tim. 2)—that Paul is addressing specific problems occurring with a specific people group. What makes Westfall’s book stand out is her method holds social, historical, and cultural context in very high regard, from which she builds her textual case. She does not choose one or the other, rather, demonstrates the equal importance of both. Most books looking to gain deeper understanding of the text would never ignore these aspects because they are an exegetical necessity; however, I am thrilled with her emphasis the text’s context as the hermeneutical foundation she proves it to be. Not everyone knows Greek or Hebrew, but when you study social, historical, and cultural contexts, you don’t need the language prerequisites. This aspect makes the book more enticing to those who are not versed in Biblical languages, and would benefit those just starting with Biblical Greek. I think reading someone else’s assessment has always helped me with exegesis, and I’m sure it would help other’s as well.

Coming back to my love for her focus on context, here are a few examples of things that stood out to me specifically…

In chapter 1 Westfall exposes the Greco-Roman culture and its influence on Paul’s writing. She argues Paul’s language exploits Hellenistic literature, philosophy, symbols, and language to take every thought captive for Christ (8). Specifically, the study analyzes the women head coverings in 1 Cor. 11:10. Most interpret this passage as Paul usurping a husband’s authority over his wife, but this assumption of the veil in 1 Cor. 11:10 is a prime example of presuppositions developed from the influence of western thought. Westfall argues that our culture has influenced traditional reading of the phrase ὀφείλει ή γυνή ἐξουσίαν ἒχειν, to be interpreted as “a woman should have a sign of authority over her head.” Her rendering of it is, “because o this a woman should have authority over her head. Her argument is built on the cultural study and explains the grammar of the phrase for further support as well (35).

Another good example of emphasis on context is her assessment of 1 Timothy 2, the most popular of the passages regarding Paul, gender, and leadership. Westfall sets the stage with her explanation of 1 Timothy being a personal letter authored by Paul and for Timothy. Several scholars believe 1 Timothy was either a general writing or pseudonymous, not to mention skepticism on whether or not Timothy was the intended recipient during his time in Ephesus (282-285). Prefacing the chapter with this inaugurates the overarching focus on context, giveing the reader cultural insight prior to her position on the text’s interpretation. It is here that Westfall reveals this is not the “church-government-gender-standard” passage many have made it out to be; the social setting is not that of a public worship service, nor is it addressing ministries in general. On top of this, the ethical weight given justifying gender discrimination of the female population from ministry leadership is dogmatic, chauvinistic, and an exegetical fallacy. Specifically, she says, “There is nothing in 1 Timothy 2:1-8 that would narrow the context to a ‘public worship service,’ without even considering that worship services took place in the domestic sphere of the home, not in a public location” (287). She follows with a section arguing the letter’s purpose, helping the reader to understand the purpose/placement of 1 Timothy 2:1-15 entirely; Paul seeks to provide Timothy with antidotes correlated to the present false teaching. She presents his antidotes threefold: an antidote for false teaching amongst men (vv. 2:1-8; p. 304), an antidote for economically appropriate attire (vv. 2:9-10; p. 305), and an antidote for false teaching among the women (vv. 2:11-15; p. 305). Summarizing her final thoughts, here is an excerpt from the concluding paragraph of this chapter:

“The controversial passage that addresses women in 2:9-15 does not fit the setting of the church service. It is better understood as a type of household code, whereby the heresies involving women that had invaded the household were to be corrected in each household by the husband, who was in the best position to take responsibility for the spiritual formation of his wife. Rather than prohibiting women from participating as leaders in the church, Paul addresses the lacuna in discipleship that is holding the Ephesian women believers back from maturity and sound teaching” (310-311).

These are just two examples that barely scratch the surface of the book’s informational density, and is far from elementary. If you have read anything regarding Paul and Gender, I urge you to not write this off. I can assure you it is not the regurgitation of problem texts you may be expecting. It is unique, affordable, edifying and life-giving. The gender debate has gone on for centuries and has been influenced by several different traditions. If you have been looking for a thorough overview on the discussion of the apostle’s theology of gender, then Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ will be an excellent tool to dismantle traditional western thought whilst maintaining sound exegetical integrity.

This book is phenomenal, and I recommend it to anyone even remotely curious on the subject. The examples listed above hardly do her arguments the justice each deserves. Westfall’s study incorporates the apostle’s theological corpus in the social, historical, and cultural contexts of each problem passage, deeming it beneficial to all wanting a better understanding of Paul’s theology of gender. This book both erudite and enjoyable, this is a book I will love to recommend, but hesitate to let others borrow.

You can buy this from Baker Academic’s website here. Baker Book House has a few copies currently available in their bargain section if you are in the Grand Rapids area as well. Thank you to Baker Academic for providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not affect the review in any way.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review- Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ

  1. Pingback: Book Review- Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate | Finding Rest in the Haven

  2. Pingback: “Paul and Gender” by Cynthia Westfall

  3. Pingback: "Paul and Gender" by Cynthia Westfall - Marg Mowczko

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