Friday, March 15, 2013

Women, Culture and the Tradition: Rethinking the Role of Women in Orthodoxy




‘Women may not serve at the altar.  Women may not be priests.  Women may not serve as bishops.’  The reasons given by Orthodox hierarchs and in Orthodox literature are clear and straightforward.  Women are excluded because Jesus did not appoint any women apostles, and bishops are the successors to the apostles.  As Phyllis Meshel Onest puts it in her article ‘Women’s Role in the Church: The Perspective of a Seminary Graduate, a Mother and an Educator’:

For Orthodox Christians the ordained priest is the “icon of Christ” or “in persona Christi.” We believe that there is something in the very nature of the male ordained priest which allows him “to be the sacramental presence of the Lord, the mystical embodiment of the Church’s husband and Lord.” Metropolitan Maximos, my former professor and mentor, taught that the priest is the “iconic representation of Christ, the Groom of the Bride, [which is] the Church. The priest is the living icon of the bridegroom.” Ordaining women to the priesthood alters that imagery to that of Bride of the Bride, which we cannot have.[1]

Orthodox Christians have insisted on the maleness of its clergy for a very long time.  But it is only relatively recently that these views have been openly challenged.  As women in predominantly Western countries have gained a measure of equality with men in terms of their rights if not their actual experience, increasing pressure has been exerted on churches that have historically disallowed women from positions of hierarchical leadership in churches or in dioceses.  In many cases the argument has been a variation of ‘the church is out of step with the society’.  While this makes perfect sense to many on the outside of these ecclesiastical communions, they often don’t realize that the historic hierarchical churches find the argument that they should conform to the way the ‘world’ does things unconvincing. 

Much more effective but not as well-known are those arguments that examine how the traditional ways of interpreting the Scriptures themselves may be held captive to prevailing cultural assumptions.  This is different from the 19th and 20th century Modernist claims that the Christian Scriptures themselves were wrong on this and many other issues and should be laid aside to allow a more sensible way of ‘doing’ Christianity that better fits with what we know of the world.  This posture, adopted by much of the past several centuries of critical Biblical scholarship has been rightly rejected by the more conservative churches as a fundamental threat to the very existence of Christianity.  Given that much of the critique of the Orthodox (and Roman Catholic, and other conservative Protestant churches) perspective on women comes from sources perceived as corrosive to the teaching and mission of the church, the leaders can be forgiven if their first reflex is to dismiss any critique as being a kind of Trojan horse.

But I am not on the outside.  I am an Orthodox Christian, theologically conservative with a high view of Scripture and the Tradition of which it is part.  I come to the discussion not driven by a blind commitment to the equality of women, which is a secular Western ideal (although its roots are very Christian indeed).  Instead, I am radicalized in my view of women by what I read in the Bible itself.  And my familiarity with the New Testament and with the Tradition of the Church, as well as the history and context of the Church’s life and mission, have made me wonder if our modern posture as a Church towards women in ministry can continue to be sustained.

Scripture is a part of the Tradition of the Church.  But the role of Tradition is not to alter, modify or change what we have in Scripture; instead Tradition serves to augment Scripture, to make clear what Scripture itself does not address.  Scripture is therefore complimented by the rest of the Church’s Tradition.  As the Apostle Paul states in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: ‘So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.’

A few thoughts on Church ‘leadership’ as we find it in the New Testament.  First we must understand that ‘leadership’ is not a New Testament word; it’s a modern word.  Leadership implies authority, initiative, direction, management and control.  In many ways, leadership is a power word, and assumes a perspective on the world around us and takes on a certain posture and demands a certain course of action.  Leadership is a man’s word and its context describes a man’s context.  Today churches of all kinds have seminars on ‘leadership’. We give our shepherds three easy steps on being a more effective leader.  So many of our churches are so large that we need our ‘leaders’ to become more effective managers.  All of this is intended to enable our churches to function as effective institutions.  But none of this is found in our New Testament.  In fact, the emphasis throughout, indeed the direct teaching of Jesus himself and the apostles takes us in the exact opposite direction.

Jesus’ followers were to be different.  They were not to be like certain Gentiles, who lived to lord it over people.  Nor were they to be like certain Jews who were keen to maintain the perks of position and power.  Instead, Jesus’ followers were to be different, known for putting the needs of others before their own, known for being like slaves in their readiness to do whatever for whoever was needy, known for being like Jesus himself.  ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13:14-15)  In this Jesus leads by example.  He takes on the posture of a slave, and for those homes too humble for a slave, the posture of a woman.


Immediately after Jesus offers the disciples the bread of his body and the cup of his blood, a quarrel breaks out as to which one of them should be the one in charge over the rest of them.  ‘Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.’ (Luke 22:25-27)  This is only one of several examples that I could point to where the disciples import their cultural understanding of leadership into what Jesus is calling them to do and be, only to have Jesus present them with an alternative vision of what it means to be his people that is so radical and unexpected that his disciples simply cannot fathom it.

I think you will agree with me that it isn’t just the disciples who had trouble fathoming Jesus’ vision for discipleship and for the community of disciples that would be known by his name.  Every generation of Christian church has struggled with the profound temptation to import the surrounding culture’s understanding of leadership and authority into the church.  When one looks at the historical record, one finds that the Church has repeatedly taken the easier road and abandoned Jesus’ blueprint in favor of the way it’s always been done.  The evidence for this can be seen everywhere throughout the history of the Church to the present day.  At almost every point, the church and her ministers look nothing like what Jesus was talking about and calling his followers to be and do.  The discrepancy is simply shocking.

Paul’s vision for the Church is no less shocking and just as ignored.  Paul envisions a community where there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free person. (Galatians 3:28).  And in the Church, everybody is gifted by the Holy Spirit for ministry.  The emphasis is on the Holy Spirit empowering each member of the Church to love the other.  And together the local church, as it loves one another, becomes the ‘body of Christ’, the presence of Jesus to the members and the surrounding community.  The only hierarchy Paul knows is measured by how many people one loves or ‘edifies’.

St. Photini (the 'Samaritan woman')


Of course it vexes some that Paul does not address structure or leadership or organization in his letters.  The New Testament is not a systematic theology, but a collection of occasional letters, gospels, histories and of course Revelation.  But rather than be overwrought about what the New Testament does not address, the church would be better served by taking on board what it does address about the church, especially since there is a significant amount of open water between what we see with Jesus and Paul, for example, and our own experience today.

To sum up so far, ‘leadership’ and ‘hierarchy’ are concepts that are not developed in the gospels and the New Testament.  Rather, servitude, love and edification define what the Church is about.

It has been argued that the appearance of bishops in the earliest extant documents of the early Church is proof that a hierarchical structure is part of apostolic tradition handed down to subsequent generations and reflects the will of the Lord for his Church.  Bishops may indeed be a part of genuine apostolic tradition, but Christian bishops begin to look less and less like Jesus and more and more like Roman administrators.  It did not take very long before the position of bishop ceased to be a slave position and became instead a power position.  This becomes clear in the growing controversies over who is the greatest, who gets to rule over what, who controls this or that area, etc. etc.  It’s like the upper room conversation all over again, only this time Jesus isn’t there to gently rebuke his wannabe rulers/hierarch/bishops/popes who are so keen, just like the Gentiles, to lord it over whoever is ‘under’ them.  The point I want to make here is that Christian ‘leadership’ quickly became about power, and in direct contravention to Jesus’ specific command.  And as a result, the church became increasingly obsessed with power.  And power is a male word and describes a male world.

St. Mary of Egypt

It should be no surprise that women are excluded from this male world of church ‘leadership’ and authority.  Such ‘leadership’ is about hierarchy and power, and this is not where women belong.  At least according to the patriarchal cultures in which Christians found themselves.  This corruption of Jesus’ example and Paul’s vision of a Church led to the structures of Church ‘leadership’ that we see from the 2nd century onward and that these culture-enslaved expressions of leadership have since become enshrined as Church Tradition, displacing the radical relationships and community we see in the Gospels and in Paul and the rest of the New Testament.


It is argued that a woman cannot be a priest because a priest is meant to be an icon/picture of Christ, and Christ of course is male.  But the problem with that argument is that it substitutes a mere form for the content of that form.  A priest becomes an icon of Christ when that priest loves like Christ.  Being male is not the deciding factor.  A woman is just as capable as a man of being the love of Jesus.  The same with a bishop.  The mind boggles to think of what would happen if the bishops of the church were actually like Jesus.  There is nothing in the New Testament that forbids a woman from loving like Jesus loved, and serving like Jesus served.  And there are a number of examples of women in the epistles who did just that (see especially Romans 16).  Besides, we Orthodox, of all people, already celebrate the fact that not just men, but women as well are created in the image of God, or as the Greek would but it, as the icon of God.  In fact, the creation account in Genesis strongly suggests that it takes both men and women together to become the icon of God - something undoubtedly having to do with the plurality of God as Trinity and the nature of God as relationship and love.  It would seem from the very act of creation itself that there is precedent for seeing not just men but women as well and together with men as being the icon of God; and if the icon of God, is it too far fetched to also say the icon of Christ?

It is also argued that bishops are the successors to the apostles and that the apostles were all men, ergo bishops must all be men.  But this is not an argument that is made by either Jesus or the Apostles.  Moreover, none of the Apostles were Gentiles, but that doesn’t stop bishops from being Gentiles.  I suggest that something outside of Christianity and fundamentally part of the early first and second century Mediterranean culture is at work here.  And one must reach deep into cultural, not biblical prejudices to justify forbidding a woman from leading worship, or from preaching and teaching, or from presiding at the Eucharist, because nowhere in the New Testament can such a command be found. 

St. Phoebe

To claim, as many have tried, that 1 Timothy 2:5-11 forbids women from leadership roles in the Church does violence to the context which Paul is addressing (false teachers some of whom are women), and seeks to derive clear principles (‘I forbid a woman to teach or have authority over a man’) from a passage that may seem straightforward in English but which is, in the original Greek, fraught with difficulties.  Rather than base one’s understanding of women in leadership positions in the Church on a passage that is notoriously problematic, it makes sense to pitch one’s tent where Scripture is clear.  And we know that in the New Testament, women have leadership positions in the Church (Phoebe is a deacon (not a ‘deaconess’ as some say – the word does not exist in Greek!  Romans 16:1-2), with another woman being considered by Paul as ‘outstanding among the apostles’ – Junia in Romans 16:7.  Women taught men (Priscilla and her husband Aquila taught Apollos, Acts 18:26).  Women are given the same gifts of ministry that men are given without restriction, which implies that they are able to exercise the same gifts in the Church as men are (1 Corinthians 12).  Women are allowed to pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:4-5; Acts 21:8-9).  As Stephanie Black has written, ‘It would be unwise to build a doctrine prohibiting women from speaking in church, teaching men, or holding authoritative roles in the church on the shaky foundation of this [1 Timothy 2:5-11] difficult passage, when such speaking, teaching, and leadership by women are affirmed by Paul elsewhere.’[2]

St. Junia the Apostle

My argument here is that the prohibition of women from positions of ministry in the Orthodox Church is based on what is understood as Church Tradition.  But this aspect of Church Tradition, rather than augment the revelation of the Word of God which is our Bible, actually subverts the foundation of the Church’s Tradition, the written traditions of the Apostles in our New Testament. As such, this aspect of ‘Church Tradition’ should be rejected by the Church as having been compromised by imported anti-Christian assumptions of institutional power and patriarchy.  The kind of ‘leadership’ found in Christian Churches today is not what Jesus inaugurated.  New Testament Church ministry has been supplanted by a cultural model of leadership that made the Church increasingly an institution concerned with the preservation and expansion of power.  The resulting churches became increasingly hierarchy-centered rather than ministry-centered, as Jesus understood ministry.  As a result, there is no room for women in a hierarchy-centered church.  We have been an institution of power for most of our history, not only in the world but very much of it.  However, return to the original vision of the founder and of the Apostles and one gets a glimpse of a movement that was capable of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6).  I believe this still remains our mission.

St. Prisciilla



[2] Stephanie L. Black, ‘Biblical Perspectives on Women in Church Leadership’ (unpublished paper, 2009), 5.