Richard Hays: An Intellectually Honest Egalitarian

It has been a great blessing to teach through 1 Corinthians this year in Sunday morning Bible Study at my church in Dallas, TX. This past Sunday I taught on chapter 11:2-16, the passage on “headship” and “head coverings” in the church. In my preparation for teaching, it became abundantly clear that the interpretation of this passage has cause no little controversy among commentators—most of them struggling to reconcile Paul’s apparent patriarchal language with a gospel that they think affirms the current culture’s flattening out of gender distinctions (cf. Galatians 3:28).

In order to resolve this tension, commentators tend to interpret Paul’s language non-patriarchally (i.e. head in v. 3 means “source” not “authority”), thereby removing the clash with texts like Galatians 3:28 and with a culture that is manifestly moving to obliterate gender roles. The unhappy result of such an approach has been the defanging of Paul’s patriarchal vision of the Gospel (for more on patriarchy as Gospel click here). To my mind, this kind of exegesis represents more a caving in to feminist cultural pressure than a faithful exposition of the clear meaning of Paul’s words.

One egalitarian interpreter is an exception to this trend and actually interprets Paul on his own patriarchal terms. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Richard Hays of Duke University argues that,

Any honest appraisal of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 will require both teacher and students to confront the patriarchal implications of verses 3 and 7-9. Such implications cannot be explained away by some technical move, such as translating kephal? as “source,” rather than “head,” because the patriarchal assumptions are imbedded in the structure of Paul’s argument (p. 192).

I really do appreciate Hays’s willingness to let Paul’s voice be heard. There is no attempt here to bend Paul’s teaching to conform it to feminist, anti-patriarchal sensibilities. This is remarkable given that Hays is himself an egalitarian when it comes to the role of women in the life of the church (see review of Hays’s Moral Vision of the New Testament).

Yet not everything that Hays argues in his commentary is helpful. Although he recognizes that patriarchy is “imbedded” in Paul’s teaching, he ultimately rejects Paul’s teaching if favor of egalitarianism. Hays thinks that Paul has misinterpreted the creation accounts in Genesis and thus that Paul is in error in what he argues in 1 Corinthians 11:3ff. Hays writes,

There are various possible approaches to this problem . . . we must reconsider how the doctrine of creation might lead us to conclusions about the relation between male and female that are not precisely the same as Paul’s (p. 192).

So Hays is an intellectually honest egalitarian in his willingness to interpret Paul’s meaning on Paul’s own patriarchal terms. Hays is also intellectually honest in acknowledging that Paul’s view is in conflict with Hays’s own egalitarian view.

Yet, I think Hays’s analysis represents what’s at the heart of the evangelical gender debates: whether to accept the Bible’s teaching on its own terms and to submit to its teaching even when it is radically counter-cultural. While Hays is willing to read this text on Paul’s terms, he is not willing to let Paul’s patriarchal vision have any authoritative weight over the Christian’s conscience.

While I appreciate Hays’s willingness to let Paul’s voice be heard, the implicit compromise of biblical authority makes his solution untenable for the Christian who wishes “to live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).


  • WLC

    WOW, I am amazed that Hays is so willing to contradict or accuse the apostle Paul of an erro in his interpretation of creation. Hays’s error is in his understanding of Paul, for it is not Paul’s interpretation but God’s that is proclaimed in 1Corinthians 11:3.

    Is Hays a member of the BGCT???


  • Brian

    Paul must have also misinterpreted the creation account in 1 Timothy 2:11-14.

    Unfortunately, this line of thinking is all too common in “Christian” circles. A female leader in a church once told me, “I believe God, but I don’t believe Paul.” (i.e. his teachings on women’s roles in the home and church.) A young man told me, “I heard that Paul was a misogynist.”

    The Bible says things that just plain rub us wrong sometimes. Sometimes I’d rather punch somebody in the cheek than turn the other cheek! But only when we submit ourselves to the Lordship of Christ and obey His Word will we experience true and abundant life.

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