Review of Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ by Cynthia Long Westfall

December 19, 2017

Westfall, Cynthia Long. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016, pp. 348, paperback, $32.99.


Of all authors who write books and articles on the topic of Paul and gender, Cynthia Long Westfall is well-qualified to do so. She has published on this topic before in her article e.g., “The Meaning of αύθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2.12,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism, 10 (2014): 138-73. She has taught courses within Pauline studies at McMaster Divinity College since 2005. She has also served in the context of the local church; this matters especially as she comments on this part of Paul’s discussion of ministry in the local church as it pertains to gender roles in the church.

In this book, Westfall seeks to “explain the Pauline passages that concern gender and to move toward a canon-based Pauline theology of gender” (p. ix). Several scholars have published books on this topic, especially as it concerns gender roles in the church (e.g., Piper and Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood; Pierce and Groothuis, Discovering Biblical Equality). Her primary contribution is her methodology. The method of her study, as she claims, comes partly from modern linguistics. She explains: “I had acquired a new set of perspectives and methodological lenses with which to study the issues, not the least of which was modern linguistics” (p. x). Her audience for this work is primarily the next generation of students, pastors, and scholars (p. xi). She hopes to make what has been and still is a controversial topic easier to navigate. The scope of the contents of her study covers all the Pauline corpus; she accepts all the traditional letters as part of his corpus. She begins by considering the culture within which Paul wrote. She addresses male and female stereotypes as Paul explains them in a way that is counter-cultural. Given that Paul roots his discussions of gender in creation, Westfall considers that topic further also. Her interpretations of the creation account and Paul’s comments on them follow a traditional egalitarian approach. She continues her discussion by reflecting on Pauline eschatology; she feels that this topic is often overlooked in discussions on gender, primarily because she believes that Paul’s conclusions about how gender roles function in the church should mirror their roles in the eschaton. She explains Paul’s conception of the human body as it relates to gender. She discusses authority in Paul’s theology. She includes one chapter providing her exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11–15, a text that many consider ground-zero in the discussion of gender roles in the church. To conclude her study, she writes: “The conclusion of this study is to call for a thorough rereading of the Pauline passages on gender” (p. 313).

This book has several strengths, two of which will be considered here. First, it seeks to understand Paul’s writings using modern linguistic theory. Although James Barr encouraged scholars within theology to so in 1961 with the publication of The Semantics of Biblical Language, few have followed in his footsteps. Westfall, however, attempts to do just that. Second, Westfall has highlighted several points throughout her book that both egalitarians and complementarians can agree with. Both sides can agree that Paul’s literature should be interpreted in accordance with its cultural context. Both sides agree that all Paul’s writings should be brought to bear on how his conception of gender is understood. Both sides hopefully agree that this discussion requires the application of newer methods from fields like modern linguistic theory that help interpreters study language in a way that accords with the current scientific standards of today. Writing a book on this topic that helps find any common ground is an achievement.

Nevertheless, this book has several weaknesses; this review will highlight only two. First, although she claims to employ modern linguistics as part of her approach, the results of her analysis seem to include very little of modern linguistic theory. She has a handful of discussions that concern the semantic range of certain key terms, but beyond that, there is precious little that helps the reader understand how modern linguistics is actually relevant to her study. She explains: “There has been a major problem with a lack of consistent methodology in the interpretation of the texts” (p. 3). She explains further: “Within the tradition of interpretation, the passages that concern gender have not been understood in the contexts of the discourses in which they occur, the biblical theology of the Pauline corpus as a whole, the narrative of Paul’s life, a linguistic understanding/analysis of the Greek language, or an understanding of the culture that is sociologically informed” (p. 3). Yet, her book does little in the way of explaining precisely what she means by fleshing out and applying her methods. What one might have expected is a chapter on methodology that elucidated all the elements more clearly. Similarly, I had expected her to use more linguistic terminology as she explains how texts mean and draws her theological conclusions. To make progress in this area, one would think that clearer methodology would be of prime of importance given that methods often determine results.

Second, some of her argumentation seems problematic. She writes: “In the Ephesians household code, Paul briefly indicates that wives should submit (in the context of mutual submission), and then, in great detail, he tells men to act just like women or slaves in their marital relationship” (p. 166). Further, she writes, “both wives and husbands are servants of each other, with only one Lord and master, who has full authority and power over them” (p. 166). This explanation seems unconvincing because it seems to struggle with Paul telling wives to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22), and not just in the context of mutual submission (Eph 5:21). It is hard to understand how any discourse analysis does not see some kind of break in Paul’s discussion of 5:21 to the entire church to the more specific household codes in 5:22 and following. If one takes Westfall’s same logic, then she would be telling parents and child to submit to one another; yet, Paul tells children to obey their parents (6:1).

In full disclosure, I read and reviewed this book as a complementarian; my prediction is that although most complementarians can respect this book as a clear and thoughtful explanation of the egalitarian position, complementarians will likely continue to hold their current position after reading this book. I had personally hoped that she would engage the complementarian arguments at a deeper-level, but her book seems to repeat the standard egalitarian arguments with only brief mention of more recent methods. Nevertheless, this book will be important for students and scholars to interact with because it is now one of the key sources for the egalitarian position on Paul and gender. Anyone wanting to study this larger debate will likely need to look to Westfall’s book to understand the egalitarian position. But, it is hoped that future contributions to this larger discussion will learn from the shortcomings of this book to chart a better way forward.

Benjamin J. Montoya

McMaster Divinity College

Wrap Up