Menu iconFilter Results
Topics: Book Reviews, Eikon

Review of Cynthia Westfall’s Paul and Gender

June 8, 2019
By Casey B. Hough

Cynthia Westfall is an assistant professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Ontario, Canada. She has presented and published broadly on topics related not only to the New Testament, Greek exegesis, and hermeneutics, but also discourse analysis, linguistics, and sociological criticism of the New Testament. In this book, she argues that Paul subverted the contemporary views of his day on women and gender roles through his instruction to the churches.


On page ix, Westfall states, “This book is an attempt to explain the Pauline passages that concern gender and to move toward a canon-based Pauline theology of gender.” She continues by defining her method of “canon-based theology,” stating, “Biblical texts that claim to be written by Paul demand that they should interpret, and be interpreted by, the other writings that claim to be by Paul.” Though concerned with contemporary ethical issues regarding the “role of women in the church, home, and society,” Westfall intends to initiate a “paradigm shift from God” (iii) within biblical studies regarding how Paul understood and appropriated gender for his missiological purposes. Westfall gives four reasons for her work: 1) the present importance of gender studies, 2) her own scholarly proficiency with newer methods of analysis, 3) her own personal experience as a female biblical scholar, and 4) her hope of contributing to future debates in gender studies. Throughout her book, Westfall makes a case for re-reading Paul in light of his cultural context (chapter 1) and the gender stereotypes of his day (chapter 2). Additionally, Westfall explores the concepts of creation (chapter 3), fall (chapter 4), and eschatology (chapter 5) in Paul’s writings, giving due attention to theological formulations and ethical instructions regarding gender. Westfall thoroughly considers Paul’s teaching about the body (chapter 6), calling (chapter 7), and authority (chapter 8) before concluding her work by tackling 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (chapter 9).

Critical Interaction

Readers should commend Westfall for her attempt to be faithful to the text, her linguistic sensitivity, and her pursuit of a theologically coherent Paul. One of the greatest strengths of her work is how she successfully undermines narrow gender stereotypes. By demonstrating how Paul subverted the stereotypes of his day, Westfall shows that the essence of one’s identity is not bound solely by cultural expectations or expressions. If the apostle Paul can speak of his pastoral ministry in terms of a nurturing mother, then men should not be fearful of denying their masculinity by taking on roles that may be primarily assumed by women, like being a part of the “bride of Christ.” As Westfall notes, “Paul minimizes this essential element of masculine Greco-Roman culture (athletic demonstration) in comparison with the importance of godliness” (186).

Another strength of Westfall’s book is reflected in her chapter on the body in Pauline literature, particularly as it relates to sexuality and beauty. In contrasting Paul’s view of the body with the Greco-Roman view, Westfall writes, “There needs to be much more discussion about the symbolism of clothing, and there must be authentic spiritual vitality in a rigorous pursuit of godliness that goes far beyond pleasing men” (192). She continues, stating, “The painful reality may be that Christian men similarly influenced by the media will not find a woman who adorns herself with good works attractive. Christians need a wake-up call to rewire their sexual orientation by rejecting narcissism and ideals of beauty that are unnatural, unhealthy, and ungodly” (192). She concludes, “Young women desire a relationship with a man (Gen. 3:16), and in some cases the attempt to fulfill this desire is killing them with eating disorders” (192). These types of theological yet practical reflections on the body are much needed in our day.

Having noted some strengths of Westfall’s work, it is necessary to conclude by considering some of the weaknesses of the work. First, while one can appreciate Westfall’s attempts to reconstruct the background of Paul’s letters, she often allows her reconstructions, rather than the immediate context of the passage, to guide her interpretation. Such examples of mirror reading are found in the way that Westfall reads 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. By reconstructing a cultural background for veiling, Westfall attempts to flip the traditional understanding of the passage on its head. However, as other reviewers have pointed out, the context of 1 Corinthians 11 does not seem to support the idea that men were instructing women to unveil their heads as an expression of their sexual availability. Instead, the immediate context suggests the presence of different gender roles in the church. Specifically, Paul instructed the church about veiling in the corporate gathering to reflect an order of relationship between men and women in the context of the ministries of “praying and prophesying.”

Another example of allowing reconstruction to dictate her interpretation can be found in the way that she attempts to redefine the purpose of 1 Timothy. By reading 1 Timothy as a personal letter bent on stamping out a particular heresy that was being propagated by women in Ephesus, Westfall avoids the enduring relevance of Paul’s command for women “not to teach or exercise authority over a man.” If Paul was only dealing with a particular group of women at a particular time, then the instruction could be deemed time-sensitive with a cultural and contextual expiration date. Even if one granted that Paul was attempting to help Timothy deal with false teachers in Ephesus, Westfall still misses Paul’s explicit statements in 1 Timothy 3:14-15 and 1 Timothy 4:6-16 about the purpose of his letter. When these statements are coupled with the qualifications and responsibilities of leaders in the church, it would appear that Paul intended the content of this personal letter to be normative for his churches, making it harder to relegate Paul’s prohibition to women regarding teaching and authority in the church.

As a final note of critique, Westfall fails to demonstrate why authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be taken negatively instead of positively. In comparison to Al Wolters’ chapter, “The Meaning of Αὐθεντέω” in Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, Westfall does not demonstrate equal concern for her understanding of authentein. Wolters’ argument for understanding authentein as having predominately positive or neutral connotations provides a devastating blow to the foundation of Westfall’s thesis. If Wolters is right, then Westfall’s argument for taking authentein negatively (acting in a domineering way) instead of positively (having authority over) falls apart. Yet, even if Westfall is right about authentein having negative connotations, she fails to demonstrate how the term should be understood in relationship to didaskein (to teach) or provide an equally compelling rebuttal to Andreas Köstenberger’s argument in his chapter, “A Complex Sentence: The Syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12,” in Women in the Church. In sum, Westfall’s work on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is the weakest link in her argument for a re-reading of the apostle Paul’s vision for men and women in Christ.


While Westfall’s work has undoubtedly made a genuine contribution to Pauline scholarship on the topic of gender, she failed to demonstrate definitively that the apostle Paul was subverting “traditional” positions on gender. Even if Westfall’s work ultimately fails to convince her audience to re-read the apostle Paul on gender, the work still demonstrates the significance of cultural studies for biblical interpretation and ethics. Even readers who disagree will benefit immensely from her work in multiple areas. Even in disagreement, Westfall’s work should be commended for its rigor and ambition to interpret the gender passages in Paul’s writing in a way that takes the text of Scripture seriously.

Did you find this resource helpful?

You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.

Donate Today