Hays on Paul on Gender in the Church

In seminary (Westminster) I had the extremely helpful opportunity to do an independent study with Larry Sibley, researching the issue of “gender in the church.” The aim of the study in particular was to clarify what Scripture teaches about the role of women in the church and also the issue of homosexuality. And even though I did finally confirm my basic stance that women ought not to be ordained to the office of presbyter within the Presbyterian form of church government, nevertheless,

– I did discover that the NT, and Paul in particular, endorses all kinds of serious ministry opportunities for women to engage in (including the office of deacon);
– I saw a difference between the way this issue should be played out between Presbyterianism on the one hand and Episcopal forms of government on the other;
– I have continued, over the last seven years, to struggle with this issue, sensing it to be so difficult and such a source of consternation that firm settledness is simply not possible. (This, not least, because of countless conversations with people outside the church who have differing perspectives on this issue.)

In the spirit of the third point above, I have continued to study the issue over the last seven or so years in pastoral ministry. In particular I have found the works of Richard Hays quite helpful. (His Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is one of the most paradigm-shifting books I have ever read.) Hays, like NT Wright, is in favor of the ordination of women to the presbyterate, but (again like NT Wright, and, as we will see in a later post) opposes the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and sees chastity within marriage as the biblical norm for human sexuality. (More on Hays’ thinking on homosexuality forthcoming in an upcoming post.)

I want, here on my blog, to summarize Hays on gender in the church according to St. Paul. The relevant material can be found in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pages 46 – 56.

1. Hays argues that Paul, especially in I Corinthians, is at pains to oppose the false and pagan form of asceticism that was rapant in his culture as well as in the Corinthian church. Hays takes I Cor 7:1a (“It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”) as a quotation lifted from the Corinthian community / correspondence which he then seeks to counter or qualify. Paul doggedly affirms that husbands and wives are obligated to gratify one another sexually in the marriage bed, with rate and specific exceptions that he spells out later in the chapter.

Hays’ point here is that Paul here as elsewhere (Gal 3:28) shows himself to be a radically “egalitarian” thinker with respect to gender, given the patriarchal assumptions which were dominant in his day. For, as St. Paul says in the same paragraph (7:4) “the husband does not have authority over his body, but the wife does.”

2. In I Cor 11: 3-16 Paul demonstrates that “he expects women to pray and prophesy in the community’s worship.” (52) And even though in this passage Paul is making some pretty “conservative” assumptions about women covering their heads and thus visibly displaying their submission to men, he nevertheless once again breaks radically with the dominant assumptions of his day with respect to women’s roles not just in the wider culture, but also within the Jewish synagogue.

3. When we come to I Cor 14:34-35 (“Let the women keep silent in the churches….”), we are thus confronted with a problem, something that is hard to see as anything other than a contradiction. Hays ultimately opts for seeing this latter passage as a post-Pauline interpolation (an option which, I agree, does seem quite plausible), but he also notes that another possible way of reconciling the two emphases, which, at the very least, are in tension with each other, is to hold that in I Cor 11 Paul is referring to unmarried women (including widows), whereas in I Cor 14 he specifically has married women in view. (Remember that in Greek the word for “woman” and the word for “wife” are one and the same: gune.)

4. Still, a tension exists within Paul’s thought, and we need to try to reconcile it. But we also need, to test or confirm the working hypothesis of Paul’s “pro-egalitarian” posture which follows from (or perhaps presupposes) Hays’ assertion of post-Pauline interpolation. How best to do this? Hays rightly says that we should look at the actual way in which women were viewed and treated in the actual Pauline Christian communities. Four examples are prominent:

a. Phoebe (Rom 16:1) who is called a deacon, and whom Paul expects to be honored with great authority, since he commands the Roman Christians to do “whatever she requires of you.” Significantly, Paul also refers to Phoebe as a prostasis, a word which probably describes one who “leads or presides over a group.”
b. Prisca and Aquila, a wife and husband team. Paul writes that “all the Gentile churches give thanks for their ministry” and he never elevates the husband over the wife; she is a full participant in ministry. (Rom 16:3-4; cf Acts 18:18-28)
c. Junia, describes as “prominent among the apostles” (16:7) along with several other women in Acts 16 who are described as “workers in the Lord.”
d. Eudia and Synteche whom Paul says “stuggled beside me in the work of the Gospel.” (Phil 4:2-3).

Hays concludes by suggesting that Paul is pretty clearly in favor of women having no restrictions in the life of the covenant community. Other canonical voices, however (including the post-Pauline voices of Ephesians and the pastoral epistles, especially I Timothy), must be taken into account before a final view can be settled upon.

Next up: Richard Hays on what the Bible teaches about homosexuality.

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