Women in the Orthodox Church:Brief Comments from a Spiritual Perspective
- by Archimandrite [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos
Anyone reading the sublime words of the Orthodox Church Fathers is immediately struck with a number of overwhelming impressions. First, there emanates from their words a certain sense, by which all that is written seems intuitively trueas though some inner cord were struck in the reader, resounding harmonically with the tone of what the Fathers have written. Then, the more one reads of the Fathers, the more one feels, despite notable differences in their writing styles, modes of expression, and subjects of attention, that they are making one single statement, saying the same thing; although the content of that statement be elusive and more warm the heart than stimulate the mere intellect. And finally, though at times there is apparent hyperbole (an impression that comes to us because we are too often cold to the impulse of holy zeal), and though one cannot find in the Fathers the lack of commitment and detachment from moral absolutes which we today so wrongly call "objectivity," the Fathers reveal a sense of moderation; they convey, amid their concerns for pure truth and undiluted veracity, a knowledge which is neither to the "right" nor to the "left," which is perfectly balanced by that mystical and universal equilibrium which is truth itself.
It is precisely these characteristics of the patristic writings which define that subtle cornerstone of Orthodox life: spirituality. Transferred from written word to personal life, they describe the holy person. Raised from image to experience, they portray the inner life of every Christian. The Fathers shared, in every way, the fullness of the Orthodox life, and it is this completeness which permeates their writings. They express the experience to which each of us is called, and inwardly we see this, if we are attentive and moderate in our own views. It is this spirituality, alas, that is absent in the discussion of the role of women in the Orthodox Church today. So, the discussion has become extreme (immoderate), secular, and worldlydetached from the inner life and spiritual experience. There have developed opposition parties, diametrically opposed views, warring factions, and intemperate antagonists, the latter expressing profound, spiritual issues in the arena of counter-spiritual emotions and dispositions.
Let us look at the general reaction among Orthodox thinkers to the modern discussion of the role of women in the Church. On the one hand, we have the very "traditional" view, expressing a conservative attitude toward the social role of women in general. I have often read of, and heard expressed, images of women that are in almost total concord with the old German expression, "Kinder und Kuche"women are essentially for child-bearing and for cooking. In Greek we think of the notion of "oikokyrosyne," the woman of the house." It is argued, from this point of view, that women have an essential "nature" such that they appropriately belong to the home. The things of the home are fundamentally and somehow appropriately suited to the female gender. One senses, in the more extreme advocates of this view, the notion that the social roles of females are perhaps dogmatic, that women are universally relegated, by a God-given command, to the home and its concerns.
On the other hand, we find ample evidence, in all of the media in American society, that women are willing to sacrifice every notion of their separate and unique identity in order to break the bonds of the presumably man-made social roles which constrain them in their actions and behaviors. It is not unusual for women to deny even their physiological distinctions from the male and to advocate the most extreme form of "sexual equality." In the frenzy of this denial process, they paradoxically often claim for themselves the right to the same abusive characteristics which men have ostensibly exhibited in exercising their prejudicial authority over women. And often, from the psychological standpoint, the intemperance of these women leads them to crises in sexual identity, further resulting in behavior of such an abominable kind that it bears little protracted comment.
In lecturing at several Orthodox parishes, I have been shocked at times (and, needless to say, saddened) at the growing popularity of extremist feminist views among Orthodox women. I have actually heard St. Paul, in view of his statements regarding the role of women in the Church, described in modern rhetorical terms that no casual, let alone pious, Orthodox Christian would ever have used in times past. I have been asked quite bluntly by some of these same women how I could feel that I was somehow worthy of the priesthood and yet had the audacity to support the notion that women are unworthy. Is this not, I have been asked, an arrogance inappropriate to the humility of the priesthood? In yet another instance, a woman declared to me that, as a human being and as a Christian, she had every right to the priesthood. She referred to the Holy Fathers of the Church (who, contrary to her mistaken thought, include the Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy) as a band of "male chauvinists" who had tried to maintain the power of their offices by the constant denigration of women! (If I offend the reader with the repetition of these sentiments, it is a necessary evil. The true Christian apologist must be aware, however painful the facts, of the content and of the gravity of what he intends to combat.)
Indeed, both of these arguments regarding women are faulty. In the first place, there is nothing at all truly "traditional" about assigning a certain "nature" to women. True it is, many of the great ascetic Fathers warn monks about the wiles of Eve that exist in the female character, but the counterpart of this is the submission of the male counterpart of Adam in sinning monks. Yet in no sense do we attribute to males a certain "nature," as such, which defines their social roles. Indeed, these images are meant for male and female monastics and are, rather than statements of blame for this or that sin or temptation against one or another of the sexes, practical advice in the pursuit of the angelic life which, after all, transcends human "nature." In addition, when we, as Orthodox, speak of fallen men and women, we speak, as compared to the heterodox Westerners, in relative terms. From St. Maximos the Confessor to St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Fathers of the Church have emphasized that, while we are spotted by the ancestral sin (by the ancestral curse, etc.), we have never lost the divine image. Were this not so, St. Seraphim argues, what of the great and divine Prophets? From whence their holiness? It is Christ Who restored us (potentially) to our full and true natures. He fulfilled what lingered within us, what enlightens every man coming into the world. As for the fallen "nature," it is not a fixed, universal characteristic of man. It is typical of his fallen state.
The very message of Orthodoxy, then, is that men and and women are called away from the erroneous "natures" which they have taken to themselves, away from the labor and pain, to deification, to union with God, through the grace of Christ. The very task of the Church in the world is to preserve this notion of salvation, to protect the vessel in which rests this great and sacred potential. If, then, the Church exalts the woman as child-bearer, it is to lift her nature, to emphasize her unique social role. But should she choose to be called to the higher "nature" Of holiness, the Holy Church even more greatly honors her. In that higher calling, she gives birth to Christ, as did the Blessed Theotokos, bearing "asomatos" ("in an unbodily way"), as St. Maximos says, God within her. And this potential is not that of women alone, but of men, too. The spiritual child-bearing of the human is a male and female role.
From Orthodox Life, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan-Feb, 1981), pp. 34-41.
George C. Thomas