Monday, July 5, 2010

On women's ordination

I have tried to stay away from controversial or polemical topics on this board (though I've failed a few times), preferring, more or less, to educate on the Orthodox faith and its praxis. One of the many great appeals for Orthodoxy is that, even here in the USA, it has remained immune to the other trends that the Western confessions of Christianity have been wrestling with for many years. Such trends include, but are not limited to, contemporary worship, support for abortion rights, ordination of homosexuals (whether practicing or not), blessing of homosexual "marriages", ordination of women as priests or even as bishops, etc.. But, Orthodoxy is no longer immune to being questioned, both from without and within, about its doctrinal positions with regard to the issues above.

The ecumenical movement frequently wants to court the Orthodox Church in its proceedings but can't possibly understand why it won't condone such things as ordaining women or blessing homosexual marriages, of which the former has become very commonplace and the second is gaining traction. The ecumenists say they understand the Orthodox position but then throw up their hands and lament that they can't be in communion with us.

As the Orthodox church has grown in America and more converts have been received, whether through individual effort or because of mixed marriages, both prominent leaders and laity alike have been also asking why the Orthodox don't ordain women. Even Bishop KALLISTOS, whose books have often been read and applauded by inquirers to Orthodoxy, has come out in favor of it. However, this is an issue which you are not very likely to hear in a parish hall during coffee hour. The issue is there, lurking in the shadows, but it is nowhere close to the elephant in the room for Catholics and some Protestants. Nevertheless, in the growing apostasy of our time, every Orthodox Christian should know what the Church's position is and why it is of the utmost importance that we preserve the teachings of the apostles. I'm not suggesting that those who do favor women's ordination should be drummed out (the Church exists for them, too), but such people should know that their individual viewpoint cannot trump what God has revealed to us.

In this post, I simply cannot cover and refute every argument regarding women's ordination. This is not a comprehensive list.

Argument # 1: Women have the ability to be priests and can execute it just as well, if not better, as any man. I have no problem with this argument. Women can do any job just as well as men can (though there are some jobs where a man's inherent physical strength is a greater help--I refer to jobs as a firefighter). Any reasonable person can agree to this. Opponents of women's ordination (generally) will agree to this point. It's not about ability. Women can read scriptures, evangelize, teach, preach, pray, etc. just as well as any other male priest. Such women are venerated as saints in the Orthodox Church and in the Western churches, but they had no priestly ordination, nor did they ask for one. So, this argument is a pretty lame one.

Argument # 2: Women should be ordained because women have been oppressed for years and this action makes up for that. This argument is the favorite one as if the refusal to ordain women is somehow on par as the South enslaving men and women from Africa and that the Civil War, the Reconstruction and the 13th and 14th amendments were the necessary remedies for such an evil. But the priesthood is not a right! It never has been! No one has the right to be ordained. The Theotokos herself would probably have made probably the best priest after all she literally carried God in her. She had the kind of communion with God on this earth that most of us who earnestly yearn for it can only realize in mystical fashion. Our communion with God is a type; hers was the reality. But even in spite of her direct communion with God, she was still not ordained. She probably had a better "right" than any other priest in history, even St. Peter or St. John, who was called the "Lord's beloved." But the priesthood does not belong to us. It is Christ's priesthood. St. John Chyrsostom tells us that after the Incarnation, the greatest gift God gave was the priesthood. It's not ours, it's His. How dare we tell Him what to do with it. And not even every man can be a priest. A divorced man cannot. A man younger than 30 cannot. A priest who is single and wishes to be married after his ordination will be defrocked and laicized. To say that women have a right to something is to suggest that it is theirs in the first place. It's no more theirs than it is mine.

Argument # 3: Women were only denied the priesthood because of the culture of Jesus' time and the following centuries. Another classic argument and falls closely in line with number two. The proponents say that the culture of those days is gone. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who wrote a letter on this very issue, wrote: what is truly amazing is that while absolutely convinced that they understand past "cultures," the advocates of women's ordination seem to be totally unaware of their own cultural "conditioning" of their own surrender to culture. The proponents don't know what to do with this argument once they are refuted as above. They will typically and frequently then go into a retort as to how stupid and unenlightened the people of the past were. Once they go there, you know they've got nothing.

I'd like to make a little side note on culture, though. Though the church has been one of the great institutions to preserve various cultural heritages (whether Greek, Romanian, Serbian, Russian, Arabic, etc.), the Church did not preserve the culture so that it would be enslaved or defined by it. The culture was Christianized; the church wasn't culturized. At the same time, we must not forget that the Church, by its very nature, is counter-cultural.

This seems to be forgotten by many of the church growth movement who want to embrace pop culture as a means of evangelization and worship. But rather than bringing the Church out to the culture, they are bringing the culture into the Church and the two are not the same thing. The former transforms the culture and conforms it to Christ, the latter transforms the church and conforms it to this world.

Argument # 4: St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians said that in Christ there is no longer male nor female. How the proponents of women's ordination love to quote this passage of St. Paul while at the same time condemning him for saying that women in the Church must be silent.(1 Corinthians 14). St. Paul wasn't writing to the Galatians about egalitarianism in society; his whole letter is concerned with our salvation. Our salvation is not given or denied to us by our sex, just as St. Paul also says that our salvation is not given or denied us by our blood and heritage (which the Jews believed).

This argument has connections with argument number one--that women can do pretty much any job as well as men, if not better. But what the proponents forget is that St. Paul's words do not mean that an individual's sex is no longer relevant within the order of creation. Our sex is a gift from God to us. It is as much a gift as the ability to teach, or to sing, or to prophesy, or to preach, or to evangelize, or to pray. The proponents of women's ordination blur the distinctions of the sexes so that we are no longer man and woman, but now a hybrid or some union of the two. Such a thought inverts the beauty of creation. Man and woman, He created them, Genesis tell us. Man was alone and woman was made to complement him, not to dominate him, nor for him to dominate her, but to work together. If we take this argument further and examine it on an iconic level, man is an icon of God, woman is the icon of salvation. You cannot have God and not salvation. You cannot have salvation without God. The two work together and are complements. St. Paul didn't want a blurring of the sexes here on earth. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us that we are the Body of Christ. If we are all eyes, how do we hear? If we are all hands, how do we walk? If we are all tongues, how do we see?

Making the priesthood into a supposed right and gift for all hurts the Body of Christ. And creating artificial standards by which the priesthood is given is to mock Christ. Many people say that if women can't be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Churches, then those churches will fall. Do they not believe Christ's words when He says that the Gates of Hades will NEVER prevail against the Church? As humans, we do a great job of harming the Church, but Christ will always keep it free from harm. He really doesn't require our "help" in this matter.

One of the ironic things I find is that many of the western churches that refuse to allow for ordination of practicing homosexuals freely will allow for the ordination for women. Such churches, like many parishes in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) say that they cannot be part of an organization that so negligently disregards Scripture? But are they not doing the same with regards to women's ordination? They insist that such is different and then fall back on historical criticism exegesis as their defense. But, historical criticism is also the means of finding support for ordaining homosexuals and blessing their "marriages." You can't laud historical criticism's conclusion for one aspect and then condemn it for another. The method surely must be flawed, no?

Apostolic tradition keeps the Church grounded. Novelties and fads come and go; they are ephemeral. If God is the same today as He was yesterday and will be tomorrow, then why must novelty be introduced into the picture. The Church is the Bride of Christ. If Protestants (and Roman Catholics) want to do anything to prevent the bride from being a separated spouse, then they must also return to the Apostolic teachings, in full. And we, as Orthodox, must fervently proclaim adherence to apostolicity not as some dead set of rules and regulations, but as the living witness to God Who is not bound by time.

Post scriptum: After thinking some more about this after I initially wrote it, I thought it important to clarify just how important women have been in the church since its inception. We have had many women saints who brought their male children or brothers to the faith--e.g. St. Monica with St. Augustine or St. Macrina with her brothers Sts. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. Women sing and chant in our churches quite beautifully. They read from the epistle at Liturgy (in some jurisdictions, at least). They teach our children and grandchildren. Orthodoxy would have surely died in the countries of the Eastern Bloc if it were not for the courageous efforts of "little mothers" and "yia-yias" to keep the faith alive. Women are the supports for our priests. Behind every good priest, my priest says, is a good priest's wife. We should give thanks to the service that women do; it is so much for our mission here on earth.


  1. Re: On Ordination of Women

    If you check the history, you will find that women were indeed ordained in the early church. There were many deacons in the Eastern communities, more priests in the Western Communities. The elimination of women from the ordo of the ordained is long an complex, but began with neo-platonism which became entwined with Christian doctrine.

    Paul himself comments the deacon Phoebe, and the Apostle Junia. And most (male) biblical scholars recognize that Paul did not write the passage in the Letter to Timothy that claims women have no authority over men. Being silent in church means no chatting during liturgy, not refraining from teaching men.

    Ordination is not about a "right" to anything. It is about duty and responsibility to serve the Body of Christ.

    Kathleen Kunster, RCWP

  2. Kathleen,

    I'm very well aware of women being ordained to the diaconate. However, that ordination towards the diaconate did not involve anything with the blessing or the distribution of the Holy Eucharist or even being behind the altar which is reserved exclusively to the priests and those men who have blessings to serve there.

    Regardless of who wrote Timothy, it is still considered Pauline. I frankly could give a hair about modern Biblical exegesis and historical criticism which is a novelty and is against nearly 2000 years of tradition. Of course, at this point, I would expect you to reply with the standard statement of how people from 200 years ago or greater were not just as enlightened as we are today.

    You are correct that ordination is not about "rights" although many in the women's ordination movement hold to exactly that point of view which is why I put it out there for refutation. To discuss the Priesthood of Christ in purely western categories of justice and legal nuances, we have already committed a grave error. I suggest you read Fr. Schmemann's article which I linked on my initial post as he explains more eloquently than I do.

    The duty and responsibility to serve the Body of Christ are for every Christian. However, that does not mean making everyone a priest or everyone a singer, etc. There are certain gifts reserved for certain people. And a can use those gifts outside of the priesthood. To insist that a woman should be able to be a priest is to invert the beauty of creation and to blur the distinction of the sexes, which is, as I said, a huge misreading of St. Paul's famous dictum from his epistle to the Galatians.

    Also, what is RCWP? I've never heard of it.

  3. RCWP-

    Roman Catholic Women Priests.

  4. ^Thanks, after I researched it, I found a few hits on google.