Since this symposium deals with the expanding roles of women in modern society, we do well to include some consideration of women in the Greek Orthodox Church. I can think of no more important, relevant and complex subject. A week-long symposium would be needed just to begin to do it justice. One brief paper can do no more than introduce this challenging subject. Fully aware that my comments cannot touch upon all the problems inherent in this subject, I offer them in the hope that this paper will arouse serious interest, raise questions which must be answered, and above all simulate open-minded study and informed discussion.
Because I believe that we cannot cope intelligently with the present and plan wisely for the future without taking history into account, most of this discussion is concerned with the past, the origins of the ideology and praxis of our Church vis-a-vis women. Orthodox women today share the experience of their foremothers, an experience of almost two thousand years. And what St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, said about women in the fifth century A.D. is still pertinent to the discussion of women's status in the church at the present time.
Orthodox Eve has a long and proud history in the royal priesthood1 to which all Orthodox Christians are called. Less well documented and less familiar than the history of Orthodox Adam, hers is, nonetheless, equally significant spiritually, quantitatively, as well as endlessly fascinating.
To illustrate this point let me introduce St. Elizabeth Thaumatourgos, whom our Church commemorates on April 24.2 Everyone knows St. George, the young warrior on the white horse, who with his long spear killed a dragon. But who has heard of this fifth-century abbess in Constantinople who also killed a dragon? On foot, armed only with a cross, Elizabeth approached the monster, spat at him and then trampled on him. Putting an end to the dragon's evil career, she liberated a Constantinopolitan suburb from terrorism.
Here I interject a plea. Orthodox women should study and claim their history in the church. After all, the daughters of Eve have been and are at least and very likely more than half of the royal priesthood for almost two thousand years. Just count the number of women mentioned by St. Paul in his letters and look around you the next time you attend a church service.
Orthodox Eve. the Christian woman, entered Christian history at its beginning. Following Christ with love and faith, she became a loyal mathetria (disciple). One of her names is Mary Magdalene (July 22).3 Contrary to customs and laws that confined women to the house and barred them from all public activities, she and other women disciples walked with Christ, through country and town, sharing his public ministry on earth. Unlike the male disciples, all of whom deserted him at the time of his arrest, Mary Magdalene never deserted her beloved teacher. Her loyalty was richly rewarded. Mary Magdalene was the first—as Byzantine theologians and hymnographers4 repeatedly remind us — to see the Risen Lord, the first to experience the joy of the Resurrection, and the first to receive the commission to go and proclaim the Good News of Christ's triumph over death. The Orthodox Church honors this woman as the "apostle to the apostles."
At Pentecost, when the Church was born, Orthodox Eve was present. Descending to earth, the Holy Spirit did not pass over souls housed in female bodies. Along with the male disciples women were also baptized with fire and filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:13-14; 2;1-4).
Women prophesied in the primitive Christian Church.5 St. Hermione (September 4)6 was a celebrated woman prophet, one of a quartet of prophesying sisters (Acts 21:7-9). Orthodox Eve was not only a prophet. She was also an apostle, traveling from town to town in the Roman Empire, teaching, preaching, healing and baptizing.7 Eve apostolos has many names. She is: St. Thekla (September 24),8 inducted into the apostolate by St. Paul; St. Mariamne (February 17),9 sister of St. Philip the apostle, and a successful missionary in Asia Minor; St. Photeine (February 26),10 the Samaritan woman by the well (John 4: 4-30), who brought to Christ his first converts; St. Jounia (May 17),11 praised by St. Paul as "outstanding among the apostles" (Romans 16:7) and St. Priscilla (February 13),12 one of St. Paul's most able collaborators (Romans 16:3). The great apostle also mentions other women whom he regarded always as his synergoi, equal co-workers, and never as his subordinates.
In addition to the primary roles of apostle and prophet Orthodox Eve assumed various other leadership roles in the first Christian communities. She is St. Phoebe (September 3),13 deacon of the church at Cenchreae, the seaport of Corinth; St. Apphia (November 22), apostle and church leader at Colossae (Philemon 1-2). She is Mary the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), in whose house the first Christian community in Jerusalem met and she is also St. Nympha (February 28), apostle and church leader (Colossians 4: 15). Women spread the Gospel in a pagan world and their homes often served as the first Christian meeting places (I Corinthians 12:4-30). The body of Christ was neither hierarchal nor two tiered along gender lines. The vocations and charismata granted by the Holy Spirit were not gender related.
By the end of the second century, however, the situation had changed. The days of the more egalitarian church had ended. Reaction against women's freedom and equality succeeded in limiting the royal priesthood of Eve's Christian daughters. When the church adopted a policy of cultural accommodation to prevailing patriarchal societal patterns, it forbade women from prophesying,preaching, and teaching in the ekklesia. The unknown author of the two epistles to Timothy explicitly forbade women to speak and teach in the church (I Timothy 2:12). Since his prohibition evolved into a "divine law" it is worth noting his contemptuous characterization of women as "silly, loaded with sins, swayed by all kinds of desires, always trying to learn and never able to come to knowledge of the truth" (II Timothy 3:6-7).14
The total silence imposed on women effectively prevented them from again exercising leadership in the church. Christian women were thus reduced to the voicelessness and subservience experienced by their Greek and Jewish foremothers. There exists, however, an important difference between the pagan and Christian situations. Whereas the Greek philosophers had appealed to laws of nature in order to silence and oppress women, 15the Christian theologians transformed the same prejudiced views of women into divine laws, the eternal and immutable word of God.16
Ever since the second century this "divine law" has been strictly enforced. It takes a very self-confident and brave woman to challenge it. Brave women have not been lacking, as shown by the case of a fifth century nun named Theodosia. When St. Nilus, a stern abbot, heard that Theodosia was teaching and preaching, he ordered her to stop immediately. In a letter that has survived the good abbot reminded her of her proper role and "place." "It happens," he wrote, "that your body makes you a woman, whether you like it or not. So stop teaching in the church." Referring to the biblical authority17 for silencing women of the church, Nilus continued: "For the apostle made it clear that this is shameful, even though you may say ten thousand times that you have transcended the female condition and that you are more steadfast than men…" (PG 79, 249D).
Since the days of the unfortunate nun Theodosia the status and roles of women in the Orthodox Church have not changed or expanded significantly. The royal priesthood does indeed include women. But because of biology they are "less royal" than men. That biology is what matters most was made clear long before St. Nilus time. On this point Origen of Alexandria (185-255 A.D), the great theologian and teacher, could not have been more explicit. "It is not proper to a woman to speak in church, however admirable or holy what she says may be, merely because it comes from female lips."18 (The emphasis is mine.) Today theologians who defend the status quo speak more guardedly, although sometimes the voice of Origen and St. Nilus comes through distinctly. Nevertheless, as recently as the mid-1980's most Orthodox theologians insist on the same silence of women in the church, on the same restricted, gender defined, "special" roles for Orthodox Christians born with female bodies.
The lesser royal priesthood of Orthodox women begins early in life, forty days after birth, to be exact. When mother and child go to church for the traditional forty day blessing, the male infant is brought by the priest into the altar, the female only to the entrance of the altar. This overt discrimination between female and male violates two scriptural affirmations of equality of the sexes. Genesis 1:27 confirms that God created both female and male in the divine image and likeness. Likewise, the ancient baptismal formula quoted in Galatians 3:28 theologically proclaims the equality of men and women.19 Furthermore, it denies the need for religious and sexually designated subordinating status and roles among those baptized in Christ.
Although at forty days the baby girl is unaware of sexist discrimination, she begins to experience it soon enough. A school girl, she sees her brothers, male cousins and friends become altar boys, participating in the liturgical life of her church. When she asks why she can't share in this leitourgia, the answer is "You are a girl." Who can deny that at this impressionable age the Orthodox girl will suffer ego damage? In contrast to that of the girl, the image of the Orthodox boy becomes early on "more royal" and priestly. One sympathizes with little the Roman Catholic girl who said, "Please show me where the Bible says that girls can't be altar boys."
Access and service to God at the altar is off-limits and prohibited at all times to Orthodox women. This exclusion and subordinate status is experienced by women at various levels. But the experience lasts a lifetime. For example, a prominent Greek Orthodox woman has, for decades, brought flowers every week for the altar of her parish church. After arranging the flowers, she takes them to her church and hands them to the janitor to place on the altar. He is a Protestant; she is Orthodox. But he is male and thus has access to the altar, access denied her only because she is female, even though she belongs to the royal priesthood of her church.
In liturgy after liturgy Orthodox Eve is reminded of her lesser status in the royal priesthood. She attends a liturgy celebrated by an all male clergy, assisted by all male acolytes. In addition, our liturgical language is not inclusive. Whenever the congregation is greeted as "brethren" or "brothers in Christ," the feminine half of the ekklesia is excluded, women's presence and existence ignored. Each Divine Liturgy concludes with the prayer that begins "Through the prayers of our holy fathers." From this patriarchal prayer one would never know that the church has "mothers" as well as "fathers." The fact is, moreover, that our church has literally thousands of "mothers." They are the female saints, the ascetics, holy women, confessors and martyrs, and many more whose names grace our liturgical calendar.20
Of this galaxy of saints the martyrs deserve special notice, the women who made God their absolute priority, even unto death. From the beginning women have paid blood tribute to their church. Orthodox Eve bears the names of martyrs too numerous to list here. She is, for example, Saints Catherine (November 25), Eirene (May 4, 5), Euphemia (September 16), Marina (July 17), Christina (July 24), and Barbara (December 4), all haloed heroines and "Great-Martyrs."
The willingness of Orthodox women to die for their faith has never weakened. During the protracted iconoclastic struggles of the eighth and ninth centuries courageous women, nuns and laywomen alike, defied imperial edicts and patriarchal decrees and defended the sacred traditions of Orthodoxy. The first martyr in the defense of the veneration of icons was a woman, St. Theodosia of Constantinople (May 28),21 whose example inspired other women. Yet on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in many Orthodox parishes, only males, priests and laymen, carry icons in the traditional procession. It is as if women did not contribute to the victory of 843. [Ed. This practice is changing where women are carry icons in the procession around the church.]
In times closer to our own, Orthodox Eve bears the bright names of the neo-martyrs Philothei (February 19), Akylina (September 27), Chryse (October 13), Kyranna (February 28) and Argyre (April 30).22 These Greek women suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Turks. Philothei in the 16th century, the others in the 18th.
By a martyr's death these women achieved equality that was denied them in life. In selecting souls pure and strong enough for martyrdom the Holy Spirit never excluded women. Thus the supreme role of martyr has been open to women. The Holy Spirit has always called women to sanctity and martyrdom, a call accepted by countless Orthodox women. Yet we insist that the Holy Spirit does not call Orthodox persons who are female to serve God in the ordained priesthood.
Along with our "church mothers," countless generations of Orthodox mothers are equally forgotten, the women who preserved and perpetuated the faith of their mothers and fathers. These millions of Orthodox Eves rate no mention in this prayer from the Triodion, when the church prays for the souls of our fathers and forefathers, grandfathers and foregrandfathers from the beginning and until recent times."23 Repeated again and again through many centuries, prayers like these erase women from the consciousness of the church, rendering invisible more than half of the royal priesthood. Such exclusive, androcentric and patriarchal perspectives can only alienate more and more women from the church.24
Furthermore, the contrast between the high honor paid to the Theotokos and the low estate of all other women deepens women's sense of alienation. It is true that Orthodoxy's exaltation of the Theotokos has given the church a "feminine face."25 On the other hand, it is equally true that veneration of the Theotokos has not brought honor or full dignity to women. The trickle down theory does not work any better in the church than it does in economics.
The architecture of our church as well its praxis makes palpable the stark contrast between the Theotokos' high visibility and Orthodox Eve's invisibility. Painted in the apse of many Orthodox churches, a majestic and beautiful Theotokos occupies and dominates sacred space. The sacred precinct around and close to her, however, is accessible only to males. As discussed previously, none of her sisters and daughters is allowed to enter the sanctuary to serve and worship God at the altar in front of her. Thus Mary is isolated from womankind, an irony that is not lost on Orthodox women seated at a safe distance from the altar, aware of the male-controlled sacred space from which all women are exiled because of their sex, as if their presence there would somehow pollute the sacred space. This is one more painful reminder that within the royal priesthood to which all Orthodox Christians are called, the sons of the Theotokos, by virtue of their sex, are more royal and priestly than her daughters.
Currently the status and roles of women in the Orthodox Church remain essentially as they were in the days of Origen and St. Nilus, determined by the anti-woman and androcentric ideology of the church fathers. According to the church fathers, both Greek and Latin, the female body defines woman, her "place" and roles within and outside the church. Antedating Freud by a millennium and a half, the fathers unanimously conclude that anatomy is woman's destiny no less in the church than in society. Moreover, history shows that gender-based discrimination in Christian ideology and praxis has legitimized and sanctified attitudes and structures that discriminate against and oppress women in western society and culture.
An American historian once commented that the "best study of mankind is woman." For our present discussion it might be said that the "best study of Orthodox womankind is the Greek church father", be he Clement of Alexandria, or Saints Cyril, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa or Epiphanios of Cyprus. None of them dissented from or repudiated the pronouncement of St. Cyril, Orthodoxy's prestigious dogmatic theologian and fervent champion of the Theotokos. In a neat nutshell St. Cyril of Alexandria summarized the fathers' view of woman's proper "place": "the male must always rule; the female must be in second class everywhere" (PG 68, 1068C). The fathers ruled out the possibility of equality and mutuality between the sexes. Their theology recognized only a ruler-subject relationship between males and females, whether in the home or church.
The Orthodox Church has inherited from the fathers a dynamic spiritual and theological legacy. It is impossible to exaggerate the enormous authority and prestige of the Greek fathers, especially those of the first five Christian centuries. Saints Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzos and John Chrysostom not only laid the foundations of Christian philosophy, humanism and a new culture. They also developed two principles which distinguish Greek Christianity, faith in God philanthropos, the people-loving God who became human, and the corollary belief in theosis, the deification of humankind. For guidance on all issues, therefore, Orthodoxy looks to the fathers, whose thoughts and opinions fortunately survive in voluminous bulk in the form of letters, sermons, tracts, and commentaries.
Thus to understand Orthodox positions and teachings on the roles of women in the church one has to start with the fathers.26 It is they who shaped the theology that has guided the Church in permitting certain roles to women and forbidding others. They are the creators and the authorities for the "tradition spelled with a capital T" that assigned Orthodox Eve, to use St. Cyril's phrase, to permanent and universal "second-class" status.
Unlike the fathers, present day theologians deny the second-class status of women in the church. Without examining its origins and strong anti-woman premises, they defend the "tradition spelled with a capital T." What the church fathers believed about women, they preached, wrote and practiced. We should be grateful for their honesty. "I do not speak in riddles, but in plain, clear language," wrote St. John Chrysostom in his Peri Hierosynes.27 He and the other fathers believed in male superiority and supremacy, in female inferiority and subservience and they said so bluntly without obfuscation and obscurantism. Brilliant thinkers and theologians, often men of cultivation and learning, the "Fathers" were men of their times, unable to transcend the mind-set of patriarchy, the prejudices against women that were entrenched in ancient Greek and Judaic cultures.
Having inherited and accepted this anti-woman tradition, the Greek and Latin Church fathers prolonged its life. It has not yet been repudiated. Shared by other branches of Christianity, androcentrism, patriarchal prejudice and pride lie deeply embedded in Orthodox teaching and practice. Powerful and durable, the influence of this tradition cannot be denied. Nor can it be casually dismissed either as rhetorical hyperbole or as a minor current of monastic influence. To defend it now with new and complicated arguments unknown to the fathers is to evade the issue, to distort history and to ignore the painful experience of women like the nun Theodosia and of little girls who want to serve God at the altar along with their brothers.
By the end of the fourth century a complete theology of woman had been articulated and set in place. It was supported by selected proof-texts from both the Old and New Testaments, by typology paradigms and exegesis. Texts which affirmed women's equality and creation in the divine image were generally ignored. Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28 sometimes occasioned uneasiness. But the uneasiness was removed by interpreting these texts in such a way as to postpone woman's equality and human dignity until the next world. Neutral or ambivalent texts were often given androcentric interpretations. Frequently commentaries involving women were less exegesis than eisegesis. To cite one out of hundreds of examples, in a twelfth-century Annunciation sermon it is explained why Gabriel and not Michael was sent to the young girl in Nazareth. Gabriel, Philagathos wrote, was second among the archangels. Therefore he was sent to the "second species" (PG 132. 933B). There being nothing in the Lukan account of the Annunciation to suggest such an interpretation, we can only conclude that the idea of females' second-class status had a strong hold on the preacher's mind.
Long before Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex (1949), the Greek fathers had defined males as primary and females as secondary. Their favorite texts were those that "proved" women's inferiority and their innate sinfulness. On the basis of passages like Genesis 2 and 3, Colossians 3:18, I Peter 3:27, I Timothy 2:11-15 and I Corinthians: 1-3 the fathers designed their anti-woman theology.28 Patristic consensus "justified" woman's second-class status in the Church and society on two grounds: woman was second in the order of creation and first in the order of sin.
Writing in the tenth century B.C., the author of Genesis 2 described how God made Adam first and then fashioned Eve out of a rib which Adam could spare. Assuming that priority of creation implied superiority, the Church fathers considered Eve and all her daughters, with one notable exception,29 inferior. By divine design, then, women are secondary creatures, not in the same class with men. Consequently women possess a special "female nature" and constitute a kind of sub-species. Adam represents the human being, as do all his sons after him. The phrase "female nature" occurs repeatedly in patristic writings as well as in Byzantine hymns to female saints.30 No analogous phrase exists for men. Unlike women, they require no special definition because they were created first (I Timothy 2:4) and because they are deemed to reflect God's glory, while women reflect man's glory (I Corinthians 11:7).
Congenital weakness, it was alleged, characterizes woman's inferior and flawed nature. Biblical sanction for this sexist theory comes from I Peter 3:7. After instructing wives to be submissive31 to their husbands, the writer reminds husbands to be considerate of their wives since they are the "weaker vessel." The use of the word "vessel" dehumanizes women, turning them into objects at the mercy of men. Likewise. whenever theologians and hymnographers designated women as "rib", they devalued her and reduced her to a piece of anatomy.
Appearing over and over in patristic writing and in Byzantine hymnography, the idea of "female weakness" never vanished from Orthodox theology of woman. Relying on the creation story in Genesis 2, Clement of Alexandria, the great Christian philosopher and teacher of the second century, explained "female weakness" and male strength in this way. By removing the rib from Adam to create Eve God purged males of all weakness forever (PG 8: 581A-B).32 Therefore all males are whole, perfect and strong, all females fractured, derivative, imperfect and weak. Sixteen hundred years after Clement, St. Nikodemos Hagioreites contrasted "weak woman" with "strong man" (I, 289).
In great detail the fathers spelled out, often in picturesque language, the many and varied weaknesses of "female nature." Female failings are not only physical. Women also suffer from moral, spiritual and intellectual defects. Commenting on John 20:13-14, Mary Magdalene's failure to recognize the Risen Lord at once, St. Cyril of Alexandria,33 fellow townsman of Hypatia, the brilliant woman philosopher and mathematician, declared that the "whole species of females is somewhat slow of understanding" (PG 74. 689B, 692C-D). Other theologians agreed with this assessment. St. John Chrysostom shared Cyril's low opinion of women's mental capacity. He therefore deemed it wise and necessary for women to be restricted to unimportant, undemanding domestic roles (PG 62. 500). The house was the appropriate sphere for the sex endowed with limited mental capabilities. It is worth noting that the fathers, so far as I know, did not compose paeans to the glories of motherhood and domesticity. In their view. based on Genesis 3:16, God punished Eve for her transgression by enslaving her to her husband and condemning her to the pains of childbirth. They did not view marriage and motherhood as ministries ordained by God for women.
Convinced that only males participate in the divine image, the golden tongued patriarch of Constantinople, whose most loyal friends were women, projected on to the "second sex" every conceivable human weakness.34 The female sex, St. John Chrysostom eloquently declared, is emotional, fickle, superficial, garrulous and servile in temperament (PG 47. 510-511; 59. 346; 61.316; 62. 548). Other fathers contributed details to this basic misogynist portrait of women. St. Epiphanios of Cyprus35 attributed to women instability, weakmindedness, frenzy and vanity (PG 42. 740D, 745B). St. Gregory the Theologian believed that women are "naturally" ostentatious and self-indulgent (PG 35, 800).
Lest we think that such opinions and caricatures of women belong to the remote past, let us consider these lines written by a twentieth-century Russian Orthodox priest and theologian. Women, he said, are guilty of "inadequate self-control, irresponsibility, passion, blind judgments. Scarcely any woman is free of the latter; she is always the slave of her passions, of her dislikes, of her desires."36 Such sexist stereotypes and reductionist images of women still exist, descending directly from Christendom's most influential and prestigious church fathers.
From Christendom's most celebrated preacher and pulpit comes this verdict on woman's fatally flawed weak nature. In a baptismal catechesis St. John Chrysostom applauds St. Paul, "the teacher of the oikoumene," who "knew very well the stupidity of female nature."37 Given this monolithic, negative and pejorative view of women, it is easy to understand the fathers' opposition to the ordination of women to the sacramental priesthood. Handicapped by moral, spiritual and intellectual weakness, women were judged unfit for sacramental roles. To their credit, however, the fathers did not indulge in evasive talk about "complementarity" and about charismata of femininity and masculinity as reasons for not admitting women to the priesthood.
The Church fathers further justified women's second-class status, their subordination to men and their exclusion from priestly roles on the premise that women are first in the order of sin. The same primitive creation story that doomed women to an inferior "female nature" placed on them a second burden, primacy in sinfulness.38 In Orthodoxy's androcentric theology woman and sin became synonyms. Theologians, past and present,39 follow the author of I Timothy 2:14, who exonerated Adam and blamed only Eve for the introduction of sin into the world: "for it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin." In agreement with this prejudiced interpretation of the Fall the fathers named Eve the "mother" and "author" of sin, neglecting to assign paternity to Adam. Ever since that unhappy day long ago in Eden, women have been scapegoated by male-dominated church and society, saddled with sole responsibility for sin and all the evils that plague the human condition. Adam was the first, but not the last, to put the blame on Eve.
In Orthodox sermons and hymns Eve serves as the archetypal sinner. The words "sin" and "death" inevitably accompany her name. The contrary is true of Adam, her partner in original sin. He is seldom, if ever. associated with hamartia. Thus, St. Andrew of Crete, hierarch and hymnographer, laments in his penitential hymn, the Great Kanon, that his soul resembles Eve.40 During the Great Lent it is women who figure conspicuously as the paradigms of sin and repentance. Along with their sinful "first mother" Eve, St. Mary of Egypt and the "sinful woman" of Luke 7:36-50 achieved super-star billing in Lenten sermons and hymns.41 The most famous and beloved of these Lenten hymns is, of course, the troparion about the woman "who fell in many sins," composed by the ninth-century nun Kassia. The conspicuous absence of male sinners is due understandably to the moral "superiority" and strength of Eve's sons. To her daughters alone is attributed a "propensity to sin." Credit for this phrase belongs to St. John Chrysostom, who advised priests that women, indeed require more of his attention because of their “propensity to sin."42
This ideology based on women's special, inferior and sinful nature has dominated Orthodox attitudes toward the feminine half of the royal priesthood. Yet historically it has co-existed with other traditions and practices which did not limit women's life in the church along sexual lines. Thus, in the rich experience and glorious past of her church Orthodox Eve finds support for the expansion of her roles, models to inspire and challenge her faith and God-given gifts.
The earliest valuable models for contemporary Orthodox women come from the egalitarian community that Jesus gathered around him. They are Christ's women disciples.43 At a time when women counted for less than nothing ecclesiastically and socially, women like Mary of Magdala, Mary the Mother of James, Salome, Joanna and Susanna heard and accepted Jesus' call to discipleship.44 Three Gospels record that women "followed and served him." and together express the essence of Jesus' radical concept of discipleship.45 Despite the custom that forbade rabbis from teaching women, Jesus taught his female disciples new teachings about freedom and equality. Abandoning the traditional segregated life of women, the women disciples led public lives, openly traveling and living with Jesus, as they shared His ministry of love and healing. It was they who proved in the end to be the true disciples of Christ.
In the earliest of the four Gospels Mark draws a sharp contrast between the male and female disciples. The evangelist records the failure of the male followers of Christ to achieve true discipleship. They failed to understand Christ's concept of diakonia, the selfless giving of love, the acceptance of redemptive suffering and death. Attached to patriarchal patterns of power and status, the male disciples quarreled about first places in the kingdom of God.46 Individually and collectively, the twelve, the inner circle of male disciples, failed to "follow and serve" their teacher at the time of his passion and death. Peter, John and James slept during Christ's agony in Gethsemane. Judas betrayed Him with a kiss. And when He was arrested, "abandoning Him they fled, all of them" (Mark 14:50). Peter denied Him three times. With this demonstration of selfishness, lack of spiritual sensitivity, to say nothing of perfidy and cowardice on the part of the twelve male disciples, the patriarchal image of male superiority collapses.
At the end of Mark 14 the male disciples disappear from the oldest account of Jesus' death and Resurrection. Precisely at this point the story of the female disciples begins. In the bleak fourteenth chapter Mark relates the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman disciple at the home of Simon the leper at Bethany. The contrast between her act of homage and the behavior of the male disciples is explicit (Mark 14:3-72). This unnamed woman disciple alone had understood Christ's three allusions to his death, as well as the meaning of His messianic mission and kingship. She therefore assumed a traditional male role and anointed Jesus' head, just as in ancient Israel male prophets had anointed the heads of kings.47
The story of the women disciples reaches a supreme climax at the tomb where Jesus had been buried. In chapter 16 Mark describes how at sunrise on Sunday Mary Magdalene with two other women disciples went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. To their surprise they found the stone rolled away and heard from the angel that Christ had risen. According to all four Gospels the women disciples, the Myrophoroi, were the first to learn that Jesus had triumphantly trampled upon death. The first Christos Anesti fell from women's lips. Thus, the truth of Christianity's fundamental mystery, the Resurrection, depends entirely on their witness, on the word of "weak" and "inherently sinful" women.48 Surely there is no more astounding or significant fact in Christian history for the feminine half of the royal priesthood.
By their love, understanding, sensitivity, courage and loyalty these women proved to be Christ's only true disciples. The so-called "weaker vessel" was revealed to be the stronger, strong enough in fact to succeed where the male apostles had failed. These mathetriai are the first of countless women who have proved the sexist stereotypes false. Nevertheless, the stereotypes survive, hallowed by traditional patriarchal theology.
The first to have knowledge of the Resurrection, the women disciples were the first to proclaim the good news. For this reason Orthodox tradition recognizes them as both evangelists and as disciples. In a recent illuminating article Bishop Demetrios Trakatellis has interpreted priesthood as discipleship.49 In view of this interpretation, the women disciples, the true followers of Christ, offer a significant biblical paradigm which deserves serious consideration in future discussions on the ordination of women to the priesthood.
To look back to the apostolic church itself is to discover challenging models of women who functioned in major roles of leadership. Galatians 3:28 did not propose males as the norm for life in the spirit. It ruled out maleness as a requirement for leadership roles in the church, declaring the irrelevance of ethnic, social and gender distinctions in the new creation inaugurated by Christ.50 Thus, in the early church women were not marginalized. Rather, they were empowered to share equally in the various ministries of leadership.
The apostolate, the highest position and authority in the early church, was open to women as well as to men. In his epistles St. Paul makes clear that the leadership of apostles was the most decisive for the primitive ekklesia. St. Paul also inscribes on the record of women's roles in the church the name of an "outstanding" woman apostle (Romans 16:7). The only woman in the New Testament who is called apostolos, Jounia51 represents who knows how many women apostles and leaders, whose names have been lost. Converted to Christianity before St. Paul, Jounia and her husband Andronikos were an apostle-couple like Priscilla and Aquila.
In addition to Sts. Jounia (May 17) and Priscilla (February 13), the Orthodox Church recognizes a number of other women apostles.52 Thereby it honors the memory of courageous charismatic women who criss-crossed the Roman Empire to spread the evangelion to establish churches and to exercise authority over them. The women apostles commemorated by our church include: Saints Mary Magdalene (July 22); Horaiozele (July 26); Apphia (November 22); Xanthippe and Polyxena (September 23); Thekla (September 24); Mariamne (February 17); Photeine (February 26)53; and Nympha (February 28).
The career of St. Hermione (September 14)54 illustrates the many faceted activity of the woman apostle. A prophet known throughout Asia Minor, Hermione was also an inspired teacher and preacher, winning many souls to Christ by her "god-speaking tongue." Empowered by the Holy Spirit, who did not scorn souls wearing female bodies, she cast out demons and healed the sick. Like her brother apostles, Hermione preached a new faith to a multi-ethnic, polylingual and polytheistic society. Hers was a public ministry, shocking and revolutionary in the patriarchal culture of her time.
The women apostles and leaders of the primitive church did not fail to win the recognition and admiration of the very church fathers who excluded women from leadership roles. St. John Chrysostom, who decreed silence, submission and segregation for women explained the contradiction between past and present practices: women in his day were no longer like those in the days of the apostles.55 Hence there was no chance of expanding women's roles to what they had once been in the church.
Likewise, St. Paul inscribes on the record the name of Christianity's first woman deacon. Phoebe was deacon of the church at Cenchreae and the "ruler over many" including himself (Romans 16: 1-2). Paul clearly indicates that Phoebe enjoyed authority in this church near Corinth. The importance of the deacon is suggested by Philippians 1:1, where Paul names the "presiding elders and deacons" as the leaders of the church at Philippi. At that time the diaconate was open to women and men on equal terms. The qualifications for both were the same (I Timothy 3:8-11), as were their functions. Later, however, the ministry of the deaconess was restricted, although she too wore the orarion and communed at the altar with priests.
The order of deaconess has a long and respected tradition, extending from apostolic times to the twelfth century in Eastern Christendom.56 Documents of the third and fourth centuries describe the diaconate of women as it developed in post apostolic times. It was considered a position of honor. The Didache XII Apostolorum states that the deaconess should be honored as a figure of the Holy Spirit. Her position is analogous to that of the deacon. Both were seen as collaborators of the bishop. Immediately one thinks of Orthodoxy's most celebrated deaconess, St. Olympias (July 25)57, the influential confidante and supporter of several hierarchs, including her friend St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople.
After New Testament times women deacons were authentically ordained and belonged to the clerical hierarchy. At the Council of Nicaea (325) deaconesses are referred to as clerics. In the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century the bishop is charged to ordain deaconesses. Their ordination took place during the Divine Liturgy at the same point as that of the priest. This document specifies terms, prayers and actions (the laying on of hands, etc.) for the ordination of deaconesses, which are the same as those used for the ordination of bishop, priest and deacons. If these were sacramentally ordained, then so were the deaconesses.
Thus the Orthodox Church has within its historical experience a precedent for the ordination of women to the sacramental priesthood. By renewing the ancient order of deaconesses the church would move away from the patriarchal tradition that restricts women's roles in the church on the grounds that she is inferior to and more sinful then man. At the same time it would be a move toward fulfilling the promise of Galatians 3:28, that in the body of Christ there is neither male nor female.58 In view of the precedent of the deaconesses some Orthodox theologians see no theological obstacles to the ordination of women to the other ranks of the priesthood, the presbyter and bishop.59
To restore, however, the egalitarianism and inclusiveness of the primitive church will not be easy. Change is always difficult; Christ suffered crucifixion as a result of the divine changes He brought. The habits of many centuries have to be overcome. It is never easy to break with established patterns of thought and behavior, to cast off taboos, fears and superstitions. Above all, how difficult it is to separate divine laws and human conventions. Where then can the church look for guidance in turning away from the patriarchal and androcentric traditions that have for so long governed its attitudes and praxis concerning women? Where else than to its founder, who lived briefly on earth to show the way from the old to the new creation
To fulfill his liberating vision of philanthropia and diakonia Christ challenged outworn creeds, laws and rituals. He rejected ancient regulations for fasting. New wine had needed to be put in new skins (Mark 2:2). Traditional religious observances meant less to him than did humankind's physical and spiritual welfare. "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Jesus accused the religious establishment of ignoring God's commandments and clinging to conventions created by themselves. "How well you succeed in getting around the commandment of God in order to preserve your own tradition" (Mark 7:8-9).
Jesus' words and example light the way to understanding his new law for women and men. In his attitude toward and relationships with women He deliberately and instructively broke time-honored customs and laws that diminished women's dignity and humanity.60 Nowhere in the four Gospels does he treat women as special, inferior beings. In no instance does he endorse negative, destructive attitudes towards women. He was a revolutionary teacher who invited women to join his circle of disciples, to study and learn the word of God. Jesus never mapped a special sphere for women. He never urged them to be "feminine." When Mary of Bethany chose for herself a role traditionally defined as "masculine," Christ did not send her back to the kitchen, forcing her to fit the patriarchal sexist model. Rather, he insisted that women as well as men are called to the intellectual and spiritual life.61 Above all, He treated Mary of Bethany and all women as autonomous persons of equal worth and dignity. His church should do no less.
Jesus disregarded religious taboos which humiliated women and excluded them from cult and society as "unclean." The three synoptic gospels (Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 9:20-26; Luke 8:42-48) record Jesus' public rejection of the blood taboo, the "uncleanness" of women with a flow of blood. No matter what his tradition prescribed, Jesus simply did not believe in the ritual "uncleanness" of women. Yet two thousand years later this old taboo persists, setting women apart.62
On another occasion Jesus again deliberately violated traditional codes governing the relationship between men and women. Men, and rabbis in particular, never spoke to women in public. That a rabbi would discuss theology with a woman was unthinkable. According to a remarkable account in John 4:4-26 Jesus did both. By the well of Jacob, a public place, Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, initiated conversation with a woman of Samaria, member of the inferior sex and of a despised religious sect. This conversation is the longest recorded of Jesus. Before long the conversation turned to religion and at the end he instructed the foreign woman how to worship God: "God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).
To worship God who created female and male in the divine image only spirit and truth matter. The gender, race, social or economic position of the worshiper never matter to God who is spirit. Manifestly, they did not matter at all to Jesus when he discussed theology with the Samaritan woman. He did not despise her because of her sex, reject her because of her religion, or shun her because of her life-style. To this woman, not to one of the twelve male apostles, Jesus made an important disclosure about His identity. To this "weaker vessel" he revealed for the first time that he was the Messiah foretold by the prophets of Israel (John 4: 25-26).
1From I Peter 2:9, repeating Exodus 23:22 (LXX) and Isaiah 61:6.
2Nikodemos Hagioreites, Synaxaristes, 2 vols. in 1 (Athens, l 868),11, 107. Hereafter cited as Nikodemos
3Ibid.,II, 270f; Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, The Women around Jesus (New York, 1982), 61-90; L. Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman (Philadelphia. 1979), 207-214. Hereafter cited as Swidler, a valuable handbook, containing biblical passages with commentary. Another excellent study of women in the Judaic and Christian traditions is the collection of essays edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Religion and Sexism (New York, 1974).
4The service books of the Orthodox Church contain a large repertory of hymns to Mary Magdalene. I have underway a study of these hymns.
7Ibid., 299: Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza in Womanspirit Rising, edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (New York, 1979), 89f.
8Nikodemos, I, 63f; Swidler, 318-320. Honored also as the first woman martyr, Thekla enjoyed great popularity in the Christian East.
9See Eva C. Topping, "St. Joseph the Hymnographer and St. Mariamne Isapostolos," Byzantina 13 (1985), 1035-1052.
10From the account in John 4, the Samaritan woman appears to have been the first missionary to carry the gospel to Samaria. Cf. Swidler, 189-192. According to tradition she traveled in North Africa. preaching and converting pagans to Christianity. See Eva C. Topping, "Saint Photeine, the Woman at the Well," The Church Woman 49 (1983-84), 23f.
11St. John Chrysostom praised the wisdom of this woman apostle (Patrologia Graeca 60.669). Hereafter cited as PG. See Swidler, 299; Bernadette Brooten, "Junia. . .Outstanding among the Apostles" in Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler, Women Priests. A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (New York, 1977), 141-144. Informative and stimulating essays in this volume support the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Catholic church.
12A gifted teacher and leader, Priscilla is mentioned six times in the New Testament. In four cases she is mentioned before her husband, thus reversing the patriarchal order of naming men first. Cf. Swidler, 297f.
14Like γυναιον which occurs in patristic texts, γυαιχαριν conveys derogatory connotations.
15For ancient Greek views see Julia O'Faolain and Lauro Martines, ed. Not in God's Image (New York, 1973), 2-32, 118-122.
16For example, St. John Chrysostom claims it is a "divine law" that excludes women from the priesthood. See W.A. Jurgens, The Priesthood. A Translation of the Peri Hierosynes of St. John Chrysostom (New York, 1955). 38.
17Corinthians 14:35, a passage considered by many New Testament scholars to be a later interpolation, dating from the post-Pauline era.
18Quoted from G.H. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1973), 68.
19In Paul's day Gentile and Jewish men thanked the gods for not making them women. Cf. 322f.
20See Eva C. Topping, "Heroines and Halos," forthcoming in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review (1986). That we generally ignore our women saints was brought dramatically home to me when my parish church was dedicated. Although the church bears the name of St. Katherine, she was named in passing, without any comment on the significance of this great martyr. Nor were any relics of a female saint placed in the altar, only relics of male saints.
21Nikodemos, 11, l72f. In the eighth century this intrepid nun led a group of women in a public demonstration against the removal of Christ's icon from the Chalke Gate. Their resistance caused the death of an imperial soldier. Without women like Theodosia and the empresses Saints Eirene (August 9) and Theodora (February 11) there would be no Sunday of Orthodoxy to celebrate.
22With the exception of Philothei the lives of the other women neo-martyrs are to be found in Nikodemos Hagioreites, Neon Martyrologion. 3rd. ed.(Athens, 1961), 186-188, 258-261,133-135, 114f.
23Triodion (Athens, 1960), 21.
24See the Letter to the Editor in Greek Accent 6 (May-lune, 1985), 4. The writer left the Orthodox Church because "The niche the Church carves for its women is too narrow and confining." She became an Episcopalian ""because it is a church that is learning that the daughters of our Lord have talents that are as diverse and valuable as the talents of His son's." Who knows for how many alienated Orthodox women she is speaking?
25This phrase is taken from Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary-The Feminine Face of the Church (Philadelphia, 1977).
26See Eva C. Topping, "Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride in Greek Christianity: Some Notes on Origins," Journal of Modern Greek Studies I (1983), 7-17.
27Quoted from Jurgens (note 16), 21.
28For a discussion of these passages consult Swidler, 76-78, 329-338.
29The importance of the Theotokos in Orthodox theology and worship cannot be discussed in this brief paper. A subject of utmost importance in relation to women in the church, the position of the Theotokos must be reconsidered creatively.
30See Eva C. Topping, "Belittling Eve," Greek Accent 5 (November-December, 1984), 24-27, 49, 51.
31"Subordination" and "Subjection" are the key words for women's place in relationships to the opposite sex, in both the New Testament and in patristics. See, for example I Timothy 2:11; Ephesians 5: 22-24; Colossians 3:18: PG 53. l44; 55.559,602; 61.215.
32Clement of Alexandria (150- 215 A.D.), somewhat more moderate than most of the church fathers, allowed women into his school and occasionally admitted that they possessed capacity for learning equal to that of men. Cf. Tavard (note 18), 62-66. It is worth noting that Clement sometimes imaged God as Mother (PG 9.46).
33For Cyril's views on women see Swidler, 3441.
34St. John Chrysostom's low opinion of women is amply documented in his voluminous writings. For a fuller discussion and references consult Elizabeth A. Clark, Jerome, Chrysostom and Friends (New York and Toronto, 1979),1-34. Diodorus of Tarsus (ob. 390) also believed the divine image was restricted to men (PG 33. 1564).
35See Swidler, 343. Epiphanios considered women and heresies the two greatest threats to
law and order. In his view, Eve planted the first heresy (PG 42. 750D-753A).
36Quoted from G. R Fedotov ed., A Treasury of Russian Spirituality (New York, 1965), 430.
37A. Wenger, a.a., Jean Chrysostome. Huit Catecheses baptismales. . . . .inedites (Paris, I 957), 126.
38Genesis 2 and 3. Cf. Swidler, 78-81
39For example, Theophilos of Antioch (PG 6. l096A); St. Athanasios of Alexandria (PG 17. 240D). An Orthodox priest in the mid-west justifies the denial of the altar to women on the basis of their primacy in sin: "Because she was deceived by Satan and brought calamity upon the human race, no woman is allowed to enter the sanctuary." Quoted by Arlene Swidler, "If deaconesses, why not priests?" National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 1977, p.8. Adam was the first, but not the last to blame Eve for sin. See Eva C. Topping, "Blame It on Eve," The Church Woman 47 (February-Match, 1981), 8, 15.
40PG 97. 1332A. In a Lenten sermon St. Basil instructs his congregation not to imitate Eve (PG 31. 168B).
41The most famous of a considerable group of reformed harlot-saints, Mary of Egypt is commemorated on April 1 and on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Hymns on the Lukan sinner are featured on Holy Tuesday. See Eva C. Topping, "The Psalmist, St. Luke and Kassia the Nun," Byzantine Studies/Etudes Byzantines 9 (1982), 199-210.
42Jurgens (note 16), 101. Hence Chrysostom did not hesitate to exclude women from the priesthood (ibid., 17, 38). See also R. Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, Minnesota, 1980), 80-85.
43The term mathetria occurs only once in the New Testament (Acts 9: 36). In both patristics and Byzantine hymnography it is frequently applied to Jesus' woman followers, particularly to the Myrophoroi. For a detailed treatment of the discipleship of women see Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York, 1983), 130-151.
44See the lists of women disciples in Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Luke 8: 2-3; John 19:25.
45See the perceptive remarks of Bishop Demetrios Trakatellis, "Follow Me," (Mt. 2:14): "Discipleship and Priesthood," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 30 (1985), 271-285, especially 272-274, 276-278.
46See Schussler Fiorenza (note 43), 316-323.
48Variations in details notwithstanding, the four gospels agree on the primacy of the women disciples' knowledge of the Resurrection. Luke 24:11 records that when the male disciples heard from the women that Christ had risen from the dead, their words seemed nonsense, and they did not believe them.
49See note 45.
50See the analysis of Galatians 3:28 by Schiissler Fiorenza (note 43), 205- 241.
51See above note 11.
52See above notes 7 to 12.
53See above note 10. St. Photeine the Samaritan woman is also celebrated on the fifth Sunday of Easter.
54Nikodemos, I, 16f.
55PG 58. 677. Chrysostom, however, approved of the axioma given to the deacon Phoebe (PG 60. 663C-664A), acknowledged the close collaboration of women and men in the early church (PG 51.236: 58. 669,677) and admitted that in the past the promise of Galatians 3:28 had become a reality (PG 60. 34).
56See E. Theodorou, "He 'cheirotonia' e "cheirothesia' ton diakonisson," Theologia 25 (1954), 430-469; 26 (1955), 57-76; Gryson (note 42). 41-43, 60-64, 69-74; Swidler, 311-315.
57See Clark (note 34) 107-144.
58As it had once become a reality in the early church. See above note 55.
59See, for example, the statement by the Rev. Dr. Demetrios Cohstantelos, cited by Arlene Swidler "If deaconesses, why not priests?" The National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 1977, p.8.
60See the article by L. Swidler, "Jesus was a feminist," in Dimensions of Man edited by H. P. Semonson and J. Magee (New York, 1973), 211 -219.
61Swidler, 192f, 272f.
62In a recent letter to the editor of the Orthodox Observer the writer states that a priest had forbidden a new mother from attending church until forty days had passed after the birth of her child. The writer does well to question this practice in 1986
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