Volume 43 - Issue 2

Paul and Gender: A Review Article

By Thomas R. Schreiner


Cynthia Westfall has written a wide-ranging book on Paul and gender, examining key texts in their literary, cultural, and theological context. Her discussion is fresh and stimulating, and many of her insights are to be warmly welcomed. She recognizes that Paul’s view of gender must be distinguished from common conceptions in the Greco-Roman world. Nevertheless, the perspective advocated as a whole fails to convince, especially in the exegesis of key texts like 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and 1 Timothy 2:8–15.

1. Introduction

Cynthia Long Westfall, a well-known NT scholar, especially for her work in linguistics, has written a fascinating book on Paul and gender, focusing on both males and females.1 Westfall places Paul within the context and culture of his day as she constructs what she calls a coherent and consistent interpretation of Paul. Westfall doesn’t simply interpret individual texts, but she looks at the matter broadly, considering culture, gender stereotypes, creation, fall, the body, calling, and authority, and closes by providing an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8–15. The distinctiveness of her approach and the wide lens by which she approaches the matter makes her book a significant achievement. She surveys the whole matter of gender from a fresh perspective.

Westfall claims in the introduction that the traditional view on gender embraced philosophical Greek notions instead of adhering to the biblical witness. Where Paul appears to be traditional, such a stance can be attributed to his missional concerns. If we truly understood the literary, cultural, and theological context in which Paul wrote, we would realize how he both challenges and accepts particular views of gender. Traditional readings aren’t coherent and actually they represent a power move on the part of men. It makes little sense, she avers, for scholars to say they uphold the traditional view since the latter propounded the ontological inferiority of women. A brief survey of each chapter will help us set the landscape for Westfall’s view, and the summary of some chapters will be longer than others if the argument is particularly important. A summary of Westfall’s reading is sketched in so that readers can hear her view before I offer an evaluation.

2. A Brief Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of Paul and Gender

In chapter one Westfall considers the culture in which the letters were birthed. Paul doesn’t uncritically accept either Greco-Roman or Jewish culture but critiques them through the lens of the gospel. We recognize that on occasion certain practices are prohibited for women for missional reasons so that believers can relate to the culture of the day. The honor-shame and patron-client dynamics of the ancient world are discussed, and Paul stands out for honoring women in a culture where they were often ignored. Paul overturns the culture, for instance, in Ephesians 5:25–33 by admonishing husbands to nurture their wives with terms that were typical for women’s work: they are instructed to nurture, launder, and bathe their wives.

One of the fascinating contributions in Westfall’s reading is her understanding of veils. The veiling of women has often been interpreted to signify that women are to submit to men. Actually, however, when read in light of the culture of the day, the veiling of women signified that they were honorable and dignified. The hair of women is beautiful and uncovered hair signals the sexual availability of women. Thus, the veiling of women actually protected them, showing that they were off-limits for men. Westfall thinks the pressure for some women to be unveiled, perhaps prostitutes or lower–class women, came from men in Corinth. Paul strikes back by saying that all the women should be protected, all women should be honored, and no women should be sexually available. They should all be veiled. Hence, the veil did not connote submission, and this judgment is defended with the argument that the word “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 means “source” not “authority over.”

Chapter two considers gender stereotypes, while reminding readers that Paul resisted conformity to the world (Rom 12:2). For instance, male metaphors are applied to all believers. All believers are spiritual warriors, athletes, and are summoned to be brave. The command “to act like a man” (ἀνδρίζεσθε) is addressed to both men and women! (1 Cor 16:13). Conversely feminine metaphors are also applied to all believers. The life of believers is described with maternal imagery and men take the role of women in some instances (2 Cor 11:1–3). In Ephesians 5 men are depicted as Christ’s bride, and the role of husbands isn’t to provide and to protect their wives. Instead, as noted already, the language of women is used for husbands: they are to bathe, clothe, launder, feed, and nurture their wives.

The third chapter addresses the subject of creation. Here Westfall takes on the notion that an appeal to creation signifies a transcendent norm. A reference to creation may support a temporary injunction, she claims, or address a specific situation. Evangelicals don’t restrict themselves to creation to ground applications but attempt to find fresh reasons for norms in every sermon. When we read 1 Corinthians we learn that women are made in God’s image and that they are the glory of men. Their identity isn’t singular but comprises both truths. Women being the glory of man doesn’t indicate subordination; glory here refers to the beauty of the woman which powerfully attracts men. And the veil, as we have seen, protects women from men. Men being created first doesn’t indicate role differentiation since men and women are interdependent (1 Cor 11:11–12).

The women in Ephesus were likely reversing the order of creation (1 Tim 2:11–12) and may have been influenced by the Artemis cult. Westfall posits that such false teaching and erroneous myths about creation may explain what is going on in 1 Timothy 2. The lack of knowledge of the women in Ephesus should be remedied. The verb αὐθεντεῖν in 1 Timothy 2:12 suggests that women were attempting to master or domineer men, but we should not make the mistake of thinking that men should turn around and dominate women! The women were attempting to dominate men based on a flawed account of creation. What we have in 1 Timothy 2:13–14 is not a transcendent norm but represents Paul’s rehearsal of Genesis 2:5–22. The Ephesian women were banned from teaching until they came to the place where they were educated appropriately. We can’t appeal to men being created first since primogeniture is regularly subverted and overturned in scripture, and thus we shouldn’t say first designates authority and that last signifies subordination. Jesus is the “last” Adam and yet he exercises authority.

When the word “head” is used of male-female relations, it never has the meaning “authority” but regularly refers to one’s “source.” She says that authority and source are often closely linked as in Colossians 2:9–10, though she lands on saying that Jesus is the creator of all spiritual powers, that is, their source. Just as parents grant life to their children, so Christ grants life and identity to his people. In the same way Adam is the biological source for the human race. Authority doesn’t make sense as a rendering for “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 for several reasons: many men don’t submit to Christ in the present age; it doesn’t make sense to say that Christ isn’t the authority over women; the analogy fails since men don’t submit to Christ in the same way women submit to men; men aren’t ontologically equal to Jesus, but women and men are ontologically equal; nothing is said about how men relate to other men; it isn’t clear that Jesus is subordinate to the Father now, for such submission is in the future (1 Cor 15:28). What happens in traditional readings is that the authority males have over women exceeds Christ’s authority during the incarnation or his authority over men now, and thus such teaching is guilty of over-realized eschatology. But we have a rich and satisfying teaching if the text teaches that Christ is the source of life for men. The headship of husbands doesn’t signify authority but the husband as source serves and nurtures his wife.

In Ephesians 5 the submission of the wife is an example of mutual submission. It was typical for household codes to delineate the responsibilities of the subordinate members in relationships, but Paul turns such a paradigm on its head by emphasizing the responsibilities of those who culturally and socially enjoyed authority, so that husbands, parents, and masters are admonished as well. When we understand the responsibility of the husband, we see that he is to be the source of the wife’s life by nurturing and cherishing and doing the domestic chores typical of a woman (laundering and bathing), so that the woman has become the male in the illustration. The husband is the patron and the wife the client, just as Christ is the patron and the church is the client and beneficiary. The wife’s submission fits with the culture of the day, but when the text is fully unpacked we see that the theme is mutual service between the husband and wife. Nor should 1 Corinthians 11:8–9 be interpreted to undermine such mutuality since women being created for man’s sake is just another way of speaking of the reciprocal service between men and women since men also receive benefits from women.

Westfall says that the historic view, depending largely on 1 Timothy 2:14, is that women are less qualified to teach because they are more easily deceived than men. She shows, however, from many places in the scriptures that men are also prone to deceit, and thus it isn’t convincing to say that women are more liable to deceit. We can’t say, therefore, that Satan approached Eve as if the relative strengths of men and women differ so that women are more vulnerable to deception. When we examine 1 Timothy we see that the women were led astray by false teaching which was Satanically inspired and had to do with myths and marriages. Eve sinned in Genesis 3 because she wasn’t informed and educated about the command, and she was confused about the command since it wasn’t given directly to her.

Adam is held responsible since Eve wasn’t given the command directly, and thus didn’t sin in the same way as Adam, for her sin wasn’t a direct act of rebellion like Adam’s. Paul would have used the word sin (ἁμαρτία) if it were a direct act of rebellion. The point of 1 Timothy 2:14 isn’t that the headship of Adam was being subverted. We see an illustration of what happens when women are led astray by false teaching. We must not say that what Eve did in the fall still applies today, for then we would be denying the redemptive work of Christ.

Westfall also supports the idea that saved through childbirth refers to women being preserved physically when they give birth to children (1 Tim 2:15). She claims that spiritual salvation doesn’t relate to the concerns of women in 1–2 Timothy, but childbirth was a major and ongoing concern of women. Furthermore, it fits with the background in Genesis 2–3. The notion that σῴζω refers to spiritual salvation in Paul is rejected since the sample is too small, and since such a view misreads Paul’s theology of salvation and also skews the evidence. The fact that women still die in childbirth doesn’t invalidate the interpretation since childbirth becomes a metaphor for all the dangers of living in a fallen world. People often claim texts that promise protection in war but still die in battle, or we pray for healing and still die. First Timothy 2:15 is no more of a promise of physical preservation than James 5:16 guarantees we will be healed when we pray. Furthermore, the Artemis cult promised safety to adherents, and thus women would be tempted to find security and safety there.

In chapter five the role of eschatology in Paul’s thought is considered, for in God’s end-time work we see that he is reversing the impact of the fall. A transcendent creational norm must fit with Paul’s eschatological vision. We see Paul’s eschatological vision for women in Galatians 3:28, and the loss of authority for women is a consequence of the fall (Gen 3:16). In the resurrection men and women share the same destiny. The doctrine of creation must not be used to cancel out what is true about us eschatologically, and thus the claim that women teaching men represents over-realized eschatology is mistaken. What Paul says about salvation in Galatians 3:28 necessarily involves social changes as well and can’t be limited to equal access to salvation. The social consequences which flow from Galatians 3:28 is evident since Jews and Gentiles now eat with one another. Still, it doesn’t follow that the differences between men and women are erased, just as the differences between Jews and Gentiles persist. Men who limit women from ministry because of a desire for power will be held responsible.

We also see Paul’s eschatology in the household codes. He conformed to society in some respects for missional purposes, but he also subverted the codes in terms of their basis, motivation, and purpose. After all, Jesus himself taught that those who were in authority should serve others and not domineer over them. We see in Ephesians 5:21 mutual submission, and Paul conceives of the husband as the source of the wife, and he acts like a woman or a slave in the marital relationship.

The body should not be equated with the flesh, which is the sin principle in human beings. The OT requirement for circumcision was no longer imposed on Gentile males coming to Christ, signaling that new social realities were dawning. Both males and females had new possibilities in the new era. She discusses the problem of male anger, and the focus on video games, pornography, and violence. Paul doesn’t criticize the female desire to be attractive or safe, but he does criticize overemphasis on expensive adornment and any attempt to manipulate or seduce men. Paul has a positive view of the sexual drive, instructing married couples to regularly engage in intercourse to fend off sexual immorality. Both men and women are called to be faithful sexually, and such commands aren’t restricted to women.

Teaching on calling has been applied inconsistently when it comes to women. Too many have used 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 as a hermeneutical grid for what Paul says about spiritual gifts. In effect, the notion that women have many of the spiritual gifts ends up being denied as texts are read through the lens of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11. All believers are priests and thus have the potential to exercise every gift. We must not let cultural factors restrict what women do (cf. Rom 12:1–2). Evangelicals are often inconsistent because one’s calling to ministry is based both on experience and gifts. Some say to women that they are just relying on experience, but men think they are called to ministry based on experience as well. We have to beware of a double standard in assessing men and women.

It is important to realize, says Westfall, that 1 Timothy 2 is a private letter addressed to a specific situation. Doctrines shouldn’t be based on a single verse, or on a text with interpretive problems, and clear teaching should take precedence. Texts that seem to limit women in ministry are used to rule out what is said about women enjoying gifts in clear texts of scripture.

We can’t say women are called to the domestic sphere on the basis of creation since then we should say that all men should be farmers! Those who read 1 Timothy 2:15 this way can’t explain what bearing children has to do with preaching and teaching. Such a view suggests that women should be giving birth during worship services! Furthermore, it doesn’t square with the recommendation to be single in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul commends, actually, many women in ministry according to Romans 16, and some of what is found there indicates women had church offices, and such a reading is confirmed in 1 Corinthians 16 where believers are called upon to submit to church leaders which includes women. The traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 fails, then, because it leads to the conclusion that Paul contradicts what he wrote elsewhere.

We see the crucial role of women in the many instances where women served as patrons for the church, which includes Chloe, Nympha, Lydia, and Phoebe. When we come to 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 women are to be quiet and self-controlled, which is the rule or order or law, and she argues that the most common meaning for the Greek word νόμος is norm, rule, or principle. Women are addressed here because they tended to gather together in groups and talk in a noisy fashion, and we should consider that women as a rule had less education and were at the lower order of the social scale.

In the Greco-Roman world rank and status played a significant role, and we see this particularly in the patronage system. Such a worldview affected gender roles, but both Paul and Jesus rejected the social constructs of their day. Paul embraced reciprocity, seeing God as the paterfamilias or patron. The household in the cultural scene of the first century was understood along patron-client lines with the husband as the patron and wives, children, and slaves were considered to be clients. Philosophers like Plato thought men were qualified to rule and women were meant to be ruled. Westfall emphasizes that in the complex world of the first century that most men were patrons in some relationships and clients in others. Paul didn’t embrace the patron-client view of his day but taught mutual submission so that the model of authority in the ancient world wasn’t accepted by Paul.

The view that men should exercise all the power in the church is contrary to the view of leadership taught by Jesus and Paul. Power, after all, comes from the Holy Spirit and not from the individual. In the Greco-Roman world women were deemed to be ontologically weaker and not capable of wielding authority well. Such Greek views of women have dominated scholarship until the second half of the twentieth century. When we actually look at the evidence from the NT we see that women did exercise authority. Women had authority as mothers, over slaves, and as masters of the household (such as Chloe and Lydia). We see, therefore, that there are contexts in which women did rule over men. The use of masculine words doesn’t indicate that women didn’t serve as leaders since the default gender was masculine. It is evident that women served as apostles (Rom 16:7), deacons, prophets, and coworkers.

The last chapter before the conclusion contains Westfall’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15. Westfall sees the text as authoritative and Pauline but argues that it is a personal letter and not a public letter. A personal letter is not the same thing as a private letter. If it were read as a public letter, then it would actually be fictitious since the letter claims to be personal. Since it is a personal letter, we as readers need to fill in the gaps more than we need to do so in a public letter. Since the letter isn’t public, it doesn’t necessarily reflect Paul’s fixed theology or a code book for the behavior of the church worldwide. The more limited scope of the letter fits with being addressed to a situation in Ephesus.

Many scholars think the text addresses the church at worship, but Westfall dissents. When Paul speaks of “every place” in 1 Timothy 2:8, he doesn’t mean in every church. And it makes little sense to think that the concern for women’s adornment in 1 Timothy 2:9–10 is restricted to worship meetings. The shifts between singular and plurals in the text also indicates that public worship isn’t in view. Instead, the singulars denote private interactions between a husband and wife. In the same way, the reference to childbirth doesn’t fit with meetings where members are worshiping.

The verb αὐθεντεῖν (1 Tim 2:12) has a negative meaning so that it refers to domineering over another. The reference to creation in 1 Timothy 2:13 doesn’t represent a transcendent norm, for Paul doesn’t use such norms elsewhere and we look for timely application of scripture to address situations. Paul instead could be addressing false teaching and the specific situation in Ephesus, and we don’t expect a transcendent norm in a personal letter. He could appeal to creation in addressing a specific problem in the church.

Since the letter is personal, Paul doesn’t describe the false teaching in detail, but we have many indications that false teaching was the problem in the letter. Wrong teaching on celibacy may have contributed to women wanting to be emancipated and freed from adorning themselves in appropriate ways. The women in gossiping probably spread the false teaching about myths and genealogies (1 Tim 5:13), and perhaps these myths disseminated mistaken views about creation and the fall. Paul wants husbands to take responsibility for their wives so that they aren’t promulgating myths and genealogies contrary to apostolic teaching. A wife isn’t to dominate or control her husband but learn and submit to proper teaching. Men must not dominate wives either, but the central concern here is women being deceived by false teachers. The verse on childbirth (2:15) relates to the fall, and here women may have turned to Artemis for safety instead of to the one true God. Both husbands and wives together play a role in protecting wives from the consequences of the fall in childbirth.

Westfall concludes that traditionalists don’t read the texts on gender in accord with their historical background or in harmony with the literary features of the epistles. Our cultural context provides an opening for us to reread the text in our day. We need to use a consistent hermeneutic and recognize what a text is. The traditional readings should not be granted a privileged place, and they should be reexamined. Gender texts should be read in the context of Paul’s theology of grace and his notion of power. Many women have been marginalized and mistreated, as men have used these texts to undermine women, especially in a day where sexual harassment is rife and women are oppressed. Often men resort to propaganda and power plays to maintain their dominance. Westfall proposes alternative readings and new perspectives, which she hopes will advance the discussion and God’s kingdom.

3. Evaluation

3.1. Points of Common Consent

Westfall presents a scholarly and well-researched defense of what I will call an egalitarian reading of the gender texts. All those of good will wish there were not disagreements on these issues, for how much better it is to be united and harmonious. We look forward to the new creation when disagreements with brothers and sisters will end forever! Still, in churches decisions have to made on these matters. We can’t just agree to disagree, but we have to decide in local churches whether Paul thinks gender determines role differences in the church and the home.

There is much in the book that complementarians can agree with and rejoice in. Too often men have exercised leadership in tyrannical and dominating way and have not led like Jesus Christ. We remember Diotrophes in 3 John who was a tyrannical and selfish leader, insisting on his own way in his relationships with other believers. Paul doesn’t simply baptize the Greco-Roman culture of his day, and the relationship between the sexes in the church should be different from relationships between sexes in the world. Husbands are to serve, nurture, and cherish their wives (Eph 5:25–29). Westfall rightly sees that Paul subverts typical views of leadership. She reminds us as well that men often struggle with anger and abuse, and certainly this is reflected in our world today where sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women is all too common. At the same time, Westfall rightly says that women are instructed to not dress seductively.

Westfall’s explanation of why women wore veils is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and I will discuss it further below. Perhaps she is correct in saying that shedding the veil signaled that a woman was sexually available, and in that sense the veil provided protection. Westfall also rightly notes that typical male activities in the ancient world (like spiritual warfare) are applied to both men and women, and that typical female activities are also applied to both men and women. As complementarians, we may concentrate unduly on the differences between men and women, and Westfall helps us see many points of commonality.

We can also agree that the Pauline view of the body must be understood. The body isn’t sinful per se, and Paul has a healthy and mutual view of sexual relations (1 Cor 7:1–5). The relationship between men and women is complex and multifaceted. There were women who were in charge of slaves and households and exercised authority in various spheres. The relationship between men and women wasn’t monochromatic, and again the danger for complementarians is failing to see the fullness of what the NT teaches. Women did prophesy in the assembly (1 Cor 11:2–6), and Paul says that both men and women exercise authority over one another’s bodies (1 Cor 7:3–5). We also see in a number of texts that women exercised significant ministries in the church of Jesus Christ (e.g., Rom 16:3–16; Phil 4:2–3).2 Certainly complementarians need to beware of a reductionistic and simplistic view of the relations between men and women in the church, and sometimes in the midst of the debate that has been going on for some years those of us on the complementarian side may make extreme statements. I hope we continue to be open to discussion and refinement of our views, and Westfall helps us with her respectful tone and scholarly work to think through issues again. The fundamental difference between egalitarians and complementarians is whether women can serve in the pastoral office, but there is still much that Westfall says that we as complementarians should embrace. Though I have listed some of the places I agree with Westfall here, other agreements will be noted in the course of the discussion.

3.2. Hermeneutical Approach and 1 Corinthians 11:2–16

I hope it is evident that I have the highest respect and regard for Westfall and consider her approach constructive and correct, in many respects. Placing the discussion in its larger historical, cultural, literary, and theological context is illuminating and insightful. Her reading of veiling in 1 Corinthians 11 is fascinating and quite creative. I also found her interpretation of the role of the husband in Ephesians 5 to be fresh and stimulating. I have taken time to sketch in her book because it represents in many ways a fresh reading, and complementarians must not ignore what she says.

As I noted before one of the most interesting moves Westfall makes has to do with her reading of veiling in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. The issue of mirror reading arises here, and we all, of course, engage in mirror reading, but proposed mirror readings must be warranted or defended, and I think at some crucial points her reconstructions are unconvincing. Anyone who has read deeply in NT studies knows that proposed backgrounds are legion. I remember reading one study on Colossians which said that there were forty-four different views regarding the opponents in the letter! Such a view is exaggerated, but it reminds us that we need textual warrant for reconstructions. Now I am not saying that Westfall doesn’t provide evidence for her reading. It may be the case that the removal of veils by women signaled their sexual availability. Such a reconstruction makes sense, for there is ancient evidence that the hair of women attracted men sexually. For instance, Lucius says in the work by Apuleius about the hair of women, “my exclusive concern has always been with a person’s head and hair, to examine it intently first in public and enjoy it later at home,” and the context makes it clear that there are sexual connotations here (Metam. 2:8–9). But such a reading should be held somewhat loosely since there are no warnings about sexual sin in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, which stands in contrast to 1 Corinthians 5:1–13 and 6:12–20. But let’s assume Westfall is right in saying that the uncovered hair of women signaled sexual availability. She then posits that some women didn’t wear the veil because of the influence of men. This claim isn’t persuasive, for we would expect Paul to criticize men directly if they suggested that women abandon veiling, but we find nary a word addressed to the men on this score. In fact, for Paul to emphasize man as head (whether it means “authority” or “source”) seems quite strange if they were wrongly directing at least some women to cease wearing veils. It actually makes better sense of the text to say that some women didn’t wear veils to signify their sexual liberation or to signal that they weren’t under male authority any longer. Other scholars, even feminist scholars, have argued this very thesis. My point is that one can accept nearly everything Westfall says about veiling in the text, but when one removes her idea that men incited some women to give up veils, then the text can be read to support role differences between men and women. And I think the latter view is more likely because of the meaning of the word “head” and Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 11:7–10, to which I now turn.

3.3. The Meaning of “Head” and Its Implications

Defining the word “head,” of course, brings us into the realm of exegesis. Westfall argues that the term means “source,” and she presents some new arguments for her understanding. On the other hand, she doesn’t study the meaning of the word “head” in detail, and thus her exegesis on this matter is rather abbreviated. Obviously, space is lacking here to do a full-scale study. When Ephesians 1:20–22 identifies Christ as “head over all things” and also emphasizes that all things are subjected under his feet, it seems clear that the meaning is authority, especially since Christ’s headship is tied to his exaltation above all heavenly powers. Scholars recognize that Colossians and Ephesians are closely related, and we know that the Colossians were attracted to angels—“worship of angels” (Col 2:18). Since Paul emphasizes the subjection of demonic powers to Christ (2:15), and since Colossians is closely related to Ephesians, Christ’s headship over such powers (2:10)—contrary to Westfall—probably designates his authority. In the same way, the Colossian hymn features Christ’s supremacy, and thus Christ’s headship over the church (1:18) also refers to his authority.

When husbands are said to be the head of their wives (Eph 5:23), the most likely reading is that husbands are designated as the authority. The reason for this is contextual. Wives are called upon to submit to their husbands (5:24), and the collocation between “head” and “submit” points to husbands being the authority. Yes, Westfall is right in saying that Paul subverts such headship to some extent. The husband is to serve his wife, nurturing and cherishing her, as Christ does the church. Headship isn’t a privilege but a responsibility, and it should not be viewed as an opportunity to exercise authority. There is subversion going on here in terms of cultural expectations, but Westfall goes too far in reducing the text to mutual submission. Husbands are never instructed to submit to their wives. Yes, Christ serves the church, but he is still its Lord. Of course, husbands aren’t the Lord of their wives in the same way as Christ is the Lord of the church. The argument is analogous; husbands are leaders, but in their leadership they should serve and cherish their wives.

Westfall strays from reading Ephesians 5:22–24 in its nearest context in assigning the word “head” the meaning “source.” She defends her reading by saying that husbands are the source in that they are to bathe, launder, and nurture their wives. Such language, however, is in the next paragraph (5:25–29) and the word should be defined by the nearest term it is collated with (namely the word submit). Perhaps Westfall is correct in saying that husbands bathe and launder wives in nurturing them. Certainly, she is right in saying that secular views of authority are subverted. I wondered if she over-reads the pictures of bathing and laundering here, for it is quite possible that some dimensions of the metaphor have died. I also have questions about whether Paul is thinking of husbands at all in Ephesians 5:26–27. The mystery unfolded here is Christ’s relationship to the church (5:32), and it Christ who makes the whole church (men and women!) holy. He cleanses the church and presents it without spot and wrinkle (5:26–27). It is difficult to see how husbands do this for wives; such cleansing and sanctifying is Christ’s work alone. In the same way, Christ is the Savior of both men and women (5:23). Husbands serve their wives by cherishing and nurturing them, but I have doubts about whether Paul conceives of husbands playing any role in a wife’s cleansing or being presented without spot or wrinkle, just as husbands don’t save their wives! Perhaps husbands function as Christ does in a lesser and analogous way, but then it also seems that the husband’s role as leader (just as Christ is Lord) is preserved as well. To put it another way, Westfall rightly sees subversion of typical view of what it means to be a husband, but such subversion doesn’t cancel out altogether the different roles for husbands and wives. Jesus is a servant leader, but he is still the Lord.

The previous discussion brings us back to the word “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3. Since Paul uses the term to signify authority when talking about husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22–24, he probably has the same idea in mind in 1 Corinthians 11:3. Yes, the word “head” probably means “source” in some texts (Eph 4:15; Col 2:19), though I still think the meaning “authority” is more common in Paul’s letters. Even if we grant Westfall’s reading and the word means “source” in 1 Corinthians 11:3, the notion of authority still isn’t absent since women are to adorn themselves a certain way because of their relationship to men. Women are required to wear a covering because if they don’t veil themselves they dishonor their head (here Paul probably has husbands particularly in mind, 11:5). The woman should adorn herself since she “is the glory of the man” (11:7). Here Paul spies significance in man being created first (11:8), just as he does in 1 Timothy 2:13. Along the same lines, he argues that woman was created for man’s sake (1 Cor 11:9), which probably refers to woman being created to be man’s helper (Gen 2:18, 20). It seems clear that women are to adorn themselves in a certain way because of their relationship to men as head, and that is how Paul sets up the passage from the outset (1 Cor 11:3). When we actually read the text closely, women are to be veiled because of their relationship to men, and Paul doesn’t indicate that men are the source of the problem here, as if the men are saying that some women should be unveiled.

Of course, every point made here is contested, and further discussion is needed but space precludes such here.3 A good case can be made for reading the authority on the head (1 Cor 11:10) as symbolizing the authority of man over woman. Such an interpretation fits the context and especially the qualification in 1 Corinthians 11:11–12. If Paul has just asserted the women’s authority in verse 10, there is no need for qualifying statements to be made in verses 11–12. The discourse changes direction with the “Nevertheless” (πλήν) in verse 11. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, then, Paul draws an analogy between the headship of men over women and the headship of Christ over men. Westfall raises many objections to such a reading which I noted earlier in this review. In response, the argument is analogous and not one to one, and thus the argument isn’t negated by pointing out the ontological difference between Jesus and males, or by pointing out other lacunae in the text. An analogy doesn’t have to stand at every point to apply. Believers are to be humble as Christ was humble (Phil 2:5–8), but Paul isn’t suggesting in Philippians, therefore, that Christ and believers are ontologically equal. Nor does 1 Corinthians 15:28 cancel out what is said here, for Paul probably speaks of Jesus’s submission to the Father as a human being in 1 Corinthians 11:3. Just as God was Christ’s head during Christ’s earthly ministry (as the Gospel of John says often, the Father sends and the Son goes), so men are the head of women (in terms of offices in the church) in this present age.

3.4. Eschatology and Calling

Westfall argues that eschatology and calling also support the inclusion of women in all ministries. She insists that eschatology (fulfillment in Christ) and creation can’t be opposed to one another. Since different roles for men and women won’t exist eschatologically in the new creation, they shouldn’t exist now. I agree with Westfall that role differences don’t exist in the eschaton, though men will still be men and women will still be women. Still, the eschaton isn’t here yet, and there are dimensions of the new creation that don’t apply now. For instance, marriage exists in the present age but in the eschaton marriage as an institution will be dissolved (Matt 22:30). Some of the orders and structures of the present age won’t exist when the age to come is consummated. Certainly, when the end comes, there will be no need for elders, pastors, and overseers. Life in the new creation, life in the world to come, isn’t necessarily continuous with the structures and practices of the present time. Appealing to eschatology doesn’t resolve the matter definitively.

Finally, Westfall rightly says that all believers—including women!—are given spiritual gifts, and women are definitely called to ministry, and yet they aren’t in my judgment called to be pastors, overseers, and elders (1 Tim 2:11–15). It hardly follows that women don’t have spiritual gifts if they can’t serve in the pastoral office; the question is where such gifts are to be exercised. What Paul wrote about spiritual gifts coheres with what he wrote in 1 Timothy 2. Women do enjoy spiritual gifts, but there are also some limitations in terms of the exercise of such gifts. Since Pauline writings are occasional documents, we need to read all that he wrote to come up with a full-orbed theology. For instance, when it comes to marriage and celibacy, we need to include 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 5. If we only read 1 Corinthians 7, we would have a partial perspective on Paul’s view of marriage. The same applies to spiritual gifts and the restrictions found in other Pauline texts. I conclude that a woman with a spiritual gift of teaching is called to exercise it with other women. It is difficult in western culture for us to hear about any restrictions placed on anyone, but I would suggest that our western view of equality is actually imposed onto the scriptural canvas in some instances.

3.5. 1 Timothy 2:11–15

Westfall’s case finally stands and falls with her interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15.4 She maintains that an argument from creation isn’t a transcendent norm, that various arguments are used to support admonitions, and thus an argument from creation isn’t necessarily transcendent. Her argument here doesn’t carry the day. Where is the evidence from the NT that an appeal to creation in the NT doesn’t represent a transcendent norm? Jesus appeals to creation to support the notion that marriage is between one man and one woman for life (Matt 19:3–12). Paul grounds his argument against same-sex relations in creation (Rom 1:26–27), and he says that marriage and eating all foods are good because of creation (1 Cor 10:25–26; 1 Tim 4:1–5). Westfall doesn’t give us any textual example in the NT where creation is applied to an admonition, and the admonition doesn’t apply today. It doesn’t work to say that if we appeal to creation then men would have to be farmers per Genesis 1–3, for there is no NT admonition based on creation where men are commanded to be farmers, but there is an admonition that women should not teach or exercise authority over men on account of creation.

3.5.1. A Personal or Public Letter?

She also claims that 1 Timothy is a personal letter instead of a public letter. If she is correct, her judgment might affect how we read the letter. But she herself points out the plural second person pronoun in 1 Timothy 6:21. Restricting 1 Timothy to a personal letter fails to convince, for Timothy is given instructions as to how the church and believers are to conduct themselves (cf. 3:14–15). Much more discussion of the content of the letter would be needed to defend the notion that the letter is merely personal. It is more convincing to say it is personal and public, and a false dichotomy is erected in saying it is personal and not public. After all, Timothy is given instructions about elders and deacons (3:1–13; 5:17–25), about how believers should conduct themselves in church (3:14–16), about the place of widows in the church (5:3–16), about false teaching in the churches (1:3–11, 18–20; 4:1–17; 6:3–10), etc. Restricting the letter to the personal category is quite inadequate and doesn’t account for Timothy’s role as an apostolic delegate nor does it explain the nature of the instructions contained in the letter.

Nor is Westfall persuasive in saying that 1 Timothy 2:8–15 doesn’t relate to a worship context. The reference to prayers (2:8) and teaching (2:12) points in the other direction. Indeed, the next text refers to elders and deacons, who functioned as leaders and servants in the churches (3:1–13). Paul says that he writes so that believers know how to conduct themselves in the church (3:15), and the emphasis on countering false teaching in the letter also supports a public context. References to childbirth (2:15) and appropriate clothing (2:9–10) don’t prove the contrary. In verse 15, Paul reflects on what it means to live one’s life as a woman and considers the sphere of a woman’s life as a whole (see below). The dress of woman during times of worship was particularly noticeable, though it doesn’t logically lead to the conclusion that Paul didn’t care about what women wore at other times. The seductive or ostentatious dress of a woman becomes particularly noticeable when the church is gathered together.

Westfall also argues that the text refers to husbands and wives instead of men and women. Her argument here is abbreviated, but a longer and more substantive case needs to be made for such a judgment. In passages where husbands and wives are in view, the text makes this quite clear (cf. 1 Cor 7:2–4, 10–16, 39; 9:5; Eph 5:22–33; Col 3:18–19; 1 Tim 3:2, 12; 5:9; Tit 1:6; 1 Pet 3:1–7). No such clues are found in this text. The switch from the plural to the singular for women and men is not compelling, for the singulars are generic. We see the same use of the generic singular in 1 Timothy 3:2 when Paul refers to an overseer (τὸνἐπίσκοπον), and we see the generic singular also when he refers to a worker (ἐργάτης) who is worthy of his pay (5:18). And we also see how Paul begins a text speaking of elders in the plural (5:17) but shifts over to the singular as the passage continues (5:19).

3.5.2. Authority or Domineering?

When it comes to αὐθεντεῖν in 1 Timothy 2:12, Westfall argues that the verb means something like “domineer.” But she doesn’t engage in the kind of careful study that we find in Al Wolters,5 and she doesn’t interact in any detail with the careful argument of Andreas Köstenberger, who argues that both activities are positive.6 Obviously, Wolters and Köstenberger could be mistaken, but what we don’t find in Westfall is the detailed exegetical work which is necessary to overturn the work of Wolters and Köstenberger.

Westfall rightly says that deceit isn’t just limited to women (1 Tim 2:14), but she resorts to saying that the spreading of the false teaching by women explains the reason for the prohibition. But Paul says nothing about the false teaching in 1 Timothy 2:13–14, and it would not be difficult to say that women are prohibited from teaching because they were disseminating the false teaching. Actually, the only false teachers mentioned in the letter are men (1:20). If both women and men were propagating the false teaching, why does Paul prohibit only the women from teaching? We are faced with the conclusion that only some of the men were duped by the false teaching, but all the women were misled. But it is difficult to believe that all the women were deceived. Indeed, if that were the case, it would seem to support the notion that women are by nature more easily deceived.

Were women even spreading the false teaching? Perhaps. Many appeal to 1 Timothy 5:13, but in the context actually says nothing about false teaching. Women are indicted for gossip and slander, not for spreading wrong doctrines. Paul brings up false teaching repeatedly in the letter, but in a long section on widows (5:3–16), he doesn’t discuss false teaching. Perhaps women were spreading the false teaching, but we are still faced with the fact that he doesn’t say they were doing so in 1 Timothy 2:13–14. And we return to the issue mentioned earlier. If the women were purveying the false teaching, was every single woman deceived? Such a scenario seems quite improbable. In any case, we need to be careful of reading into letters situations or backgrounds that aren’t clear in the text. NT scholarship is littered with grave stones of alleged backgrounds for particular letters and texts.

Westfall lands on the verse about the women being deceived (1 Tim 2:14), but deceit isn’t the same thing as being uneducated or uninformed. She posits that Eve was misinformed because she didn’t get directly from God the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). Such a reading, though, is hard to believe because the command was amazingly simple. Either Adam was a dunce in that he couldn’t explain to Eve what the command was, or Eve was a dunce in that she couldn’t understand it! Of course, neither of these two options is true. Eve wasn’t misinformed, but she rebelled against God as well.

Westfall argues that Eve’s sin wasn’t as serious since it is labeled as transgression (παράβασις) instead of sin (ἁμαρτία). Actually, however, the reverse is the case in Paul, for transgression occurs when people violate a commandment that is specifically revealed. Thus, those who violate the Mosaic law, which specifically stipulates what is required, transgress (Rom 4:15; cf. Gal 3:19), and Adam also transgressed a specific commandment (Rom 5:14). Paul doesn’t always use the terms technically, but there is no basis for saying that the word transgression indicates less responsibility. If anything, it is precisely the opposite. Paul gives every indication that Eve sinned rebelliously. She knew what she did was wrong but was deceived in thinking that it would make her like God (Gen 3:1–6). And Adam was, in Paul’s theology, still held responsible for the transgression more than Eve (Rom 5:12–19), testifying to male headship. The appeal to false teaching or to lack of education for the prohibition strays from the text and substitutes an unstated background.

3.5.3. Saved by Childbirth

The traditional view doesn’t depend upon my reading of 1 Timothy 2:15. George Knight, for instance, thinks it refers to the birth of Christ,7 and Andreas Köstenberger to being saved from Satanic deception.8 I argue that it refers to childbirth. Westfall thinks it refers to being physically preserved in childbirth, and such a view could fit with a traditional reading, and perhaps she is even right. What I am about to say, then, isn’t crucial for one’s reading of Paul and gender. I am happy to say I could be mistaken here, but I am still unconvinced, for Westfall doesn’t account well for how the words “save” and “Savior” are used in the Pastoral Epistles, where every usage of the terms relates to spiritual salvation (see 1 Tim 1:1, 5; 15; 2:3, 4; 4:10, 16; 2 Tim 1:9, 10; 2:10; 3:15; 4:18; Titus 1:3, 4; 2:10, 11, 13; 3:4, 5, 6). She doesn’t consider in any detail the use of the term in the Pastorals. Of course, the word does refer to physical deliverance in some instances in the NT, but the question is what the term “save” means in the Pastorals, which is the nearest context. The principle of word study is the nearest context and the usage of the author counts the most in assigning a meaning to a word. She does appeal to Philippians 1:19, but I think the word refers to spiritual salvation as well, and Moises Silva makes this case well in his Philippians commentary. Nor do the words “save” and “rescue” in 2 Timothy 4:17–18 refer to Paul’s physical deliverance. He knew that he was going to die. The point is that the Lord saved him, in that he didn’t deny the faith before Nero Caesar. He wasn’t ashamed of the gospel but confessed the good confession, just as Jesus did before Pilate.

Nor is it convincing to say that the text refers to physical preservation when many Christian mothers die in childbirth. It is hard to understand what the promise means if Christians continue to die in childbirth. Appealing to another disputed text (James 5) to solve the problem isn’t persuasive. We should not use one difficult passage to arbitrate the meaning of another. Nor are the prayers for deliverance in the Psalms genuine parallels. The main reason Westfall’s interpretation fails is the meaning of the word “save,” but a reference to physical preservation seems unlikely. I also continue to insist that spiritual salvation fits in context and is an example of synecdoche. Of course, Paul isn’t saying all women should have children since he also wrote 1 Corinthians 7. But the emblem of the difference between men and women is the bearing of children. The bearing of children isn’t a superficial remark but reminds astute readers of the profound and mysterious differences between the sexes. In this present age only women have children. What it means to live out one’s life as a woman is to be open to having children. We are not surprised to discover today that radical feminism often opposes children and ardently supports abortion on demand.

3.6. 1 Corinthians 14:33b–36

I agree with Westfall that 1 Corinthians 14:33b–36 has to do with a particular situation. Still, I part ways in seeing a principle of submission in the text, which fits with 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Timothy 2, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Peter 3, Titus 2, and Genesis 2. We don’t have an isolated teaching here but one that pervades the NT. Westfall argues that the word νόμος doesn’t refer to the Mosaic law (1 Cor 14:34), but most scholars agree that the term, except in few cases, refers to the Mosaic law in Paul. Her argument to the contrary is exceedingly brief. Paul’s injunction for wives to submit fits with the broader parameters of his teaching. Still, we should immediately acknowledge the many women who served in ministry are commended by Paul. Westfall reminds us that there were many contexts in which women ministered and that the ministry of women was celebrated.

4. Conclusion

In closing, Westfall’s book warrants discussion, and she has given us fascinating readings of veiling in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and the job description of husbands in Ephesians 5:25–29. At the same time, she conducts her discussion on a broader landscape than previous treatments, and thus she addresses both men and women. She reminds readers rightly of faults that are particularly characteristic of men: authoritarianism, sexual abuse, anger, etc. Naturally, she raises other issues that deserve further discussion than I can provide here. As noted earlier, she rightly recognizes that Paul doesn’t endorse the worldview of the Greco-Roman world. For instance, in household codes he admonishes those who enjoy power in relationships: husbands, parents, and slaves. She reminds us that men have abused women, and that authority is dangerous since it often becomes an excuse for selfishness and mistreatment of others. At the same time, her own interpretation of key texts fails to persuade. Sometimes her reconstruction of the text overrides the flow of argument in the text and departs from the text to make her case. Traditional readings have sometimes been used as a power play, but she wrongly concludes that this is the only motivation. Even if complementarians are wrong, many of them (probably most of them) want to faithfully obey what they understand scripture to teach. And they are persuaded that there are role differences in the church and in the home between men and women, and that such role differences do not deny that women are equally created in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27), that they have equal worth, value, and dignity, that they have equal access to salvation (Gal 3:28), and that they are equally coheirs of the grace of life (1 Pet 3:7).

[1] Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

[2] See also Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership among God’s People” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem and John Piper (Westchester, IL; Crossway, 1991), 209–24, 503–6.

[3] For further study on 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “1 Corinthians 11:2–16: Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem and John Piper (Westchester, IL; Crossway, 1991), 124–39, 485–87; Schreiner, “Much Ado about Headship: Rethinking 1 Corinthians 11:3,” in Scripture and the People of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed), forthcoming.

[4] For a more detailed analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “1 Timothy 2:9–15: A Dialogue with Scholarship,” in Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 163–225.

[5] Al Wolters, “The Meaning of αὐθεντέω,” in Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 65–115.

[6] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “A Complex Sentence: The Syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12,” in Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 117–61.

[7] George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 146–47.

[8] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Ascertaining Women’s God-Ordained Roles: An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15,” BBR 7 (1997): 107–44.

Thomas R. Schreiner

Tom Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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