Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Orthodox Women and the Iconic View of Christ

The last word on Orthodox women and the priesthood has not yet been spoken, the arguments pro and con refined. Everything - a two thousand-year-old rich tradition - must be examined, prejudices, fears and stifling customs overcome. Indeed, much remains to be said about this issue which has often been denied and declared to be non-existent. Evidence for its existence is, however, more than ample.

Most important is the fact that Orthodox women have been and still are called to serve God at the altar, to become ordained priests. I personally know of two fine young women, both daughters of Greek Orthodox priests, who have the vocation. They are now professional women, their God-given talents and calling rejected by our Church because of their gender.

Orthodox Christians today must answer this question. Do we really believe that the Holy Spirit looks first at bodies to make sure they are male before calling souls to God's service? Prejudices, self-interest and ancient customs may blind us fallible beings. But Orthodoxy teaches, above all, that God is love (I John 4:8) and that God does not discriminate between persons on the basis of social status, ethnicity or sex (Galatians 3:27-28).

An article by the Rev. Dr. Efthimiou raises many serious questions which merit informed discussion. I wish only to comment on one, the claim that the Orthodox Church does not and can not ordain women to the sacramental priesthood because such ordination would "disregard the symbolic and iconic value of male priesthood…" This means that since Jesus’ human body was male, all priests must be males. Jesus was also Jewish in race and culture, but no one claims that priests must likewise be Jewish. According to the theory of the iconic image of Christ nothing matters so much as human maleness. It matters so much that automatically more than half of the body of Christ is barred from the priesthood on the basis of sex alone.

It must first be pointed out that this explanation for the exclusion of women from the priesthood is not Biblical. Nowhere in the New Testament is there anything about the priest as the "iconic image" of Christ. According to the four Gospels, Jesus himself was not a priest, but a Jewish rabbi in the tradition of prophets, who by word and deed taught two fundamental commandments, love of God and love of humankind. The gospels nowhere record that Jesus "ordained" anyone as "priest." Nor did he leave a blueprint for organizing his followers into laity and a priestly hierarchy.

Furthermore. neither the New Testament nor the Greek Church Fathers emphasized Christ's maleness. They regarded it as irrelevant to the Incarnation and to redemption. Our redemption, in their view, depends not on Jesus' sex, but on his humanity. The point of the Incarnation is that God became human in order to save all of the children of Eve and Adam. In one patristic text after another the critical key words relating to Jesus are anthropos and enanthropeo, as well as enanthropesis.

The Greek Fathers clearly interpreted the Incarnation to mean that Jesus represented males and females. Otherwise the greatCappadocian Fathers taught, all humankind could not be redeemed. Salvation would be restricted to that part of humanity which Christ assumed. Therefore, since Christ represented both female and male humanity, it follows that both may represent Christin the priesthood.

The priest as the "iconic image" of Christ does not appear in patristic discussions of the priesthood. Nothing like this can be found, for example, in St. John Chrysostom's treatise, "On the Priesthood." In this authoritative work he discusses the moral, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral imperatives of the priesthood and its duties. Chrysostom, to be sure, categorically excludes women from the priesthood. He does so not because women cannot physically image Christ. He excluded all women because he believed, as did all the Fathers, in the innately inferior and flawed sinful nature of the female sex. Women by patristic consensus were declared second in creation, thus inferior to men; and first in the order of sin, thus more sinful than the "first" sex.

Because of this belief and not because of the "symbolic and iconic value of the male priesthood," St. John Chrysostom and the Greek Church “Fathers” justified second-class status for women and their exclusion from the sacramental priesthood. All Orthodox Christians are called to the "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). Within this inclusive priesthood, however, some are “more royal” than others. Although women, too, are created in the divine image and likeness (Genesis I:28), we are still categorized as somehow less royal and priestly than our brothers - in a word, less divine.


Christ Pantocrater, Creator of All

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