One of the most controversial issues in the Christian church today is the role of women in leadership. The phrase “women in ministry” is not very helpful in that the New Testament expects all followers of Jesus to be ministering in some way.
The challenge for this topic is that the New Testament seems to offer mixed messages. On one hand, it describes women in leadership roles, including teaching. On the other hand, there are some passages that seem to limit the role of women, possibly excluding them from teaching men.
For some, this is not just a historical question but a question of vocation. What does a Christian woman do if they feel called into a pastoral role but that role is not recognized by their congregation?
While this is not just a historical question, historical inquiry can help to shed light on this. And that is what Cynthia Long Westfall does with her book, Paul and Gender.
It is Paul’s teaching that seem to be the stumbling block for full inclusion of women in leadership, even though he did recognize the leadership gifts of certain women.
Westfall looks at these passages in a careful way, not to explain them away, but to look at them in historical context. Paul was writing in a specific Jewish and Greco-Roman culture and we need to read his letters in that context.
Westfall examines Paul’s teaching in all of its contexts, looking at how gender was understood in terms of power in the ancient world. She often pulls from modern Middle Eastern examples that have similar attitudes toward gender.
Westfall argues for the ontological equality of men and women, one that leads to equal opportunities for ministry, leadership and teaching. The passages that seem to deny these opportunities have been misunderstood and have been read in isolation of other texts.
For those who already affirm the role of women in leadership, Paul and Gender, will feel like the nail in the coffin of male dominance. Those who affirm a complementarian position may not be convinced.
Still, it is hoped that everyone will read the familiar texts with a fresh perspective. Instead of just holding one interpretation of two or three texts as having the final word, students of the Bible need to read the full message in its historical context.
A fresh reading may threaten comfortable and traditional ways but biblical Christianity should be based on the text and not familiar ways.
I recommend Paul and Gender for all students of the New Testament, no matter what side of the issue they are coming from.