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Again Magazine, September, 1994, Page 8-10
(About Women in the Church)
“It is a grave error to imagine the clergy are the only members with gifts and callings from God. Gifts and callings are not meted out according to official position, or according to gender.”
BY FATHER JON E. BRAUN
Because men have been divinely assigned the responsibility of ordained leadership in the Church and headship in the home, forces in our society are striving to polarize men and women, trying to convince women— and men—that women will never reach their full potential in the Church. With that assumption, they call for canceling the divine assignment and issuing new human instructions.
Orthodox Christians, as we know, are committed to receiving the changeless Faith of the Apostles and passing it on to others intact and unaltered. So the crowd calling for changing God’s order and scrapping selected aspects of Holy Tradition hits the brick wall of Orthodoxy, which Christian men and women together have worked to fortify for twenty long centuries.
But does the unchanging character of Orthodox doctrine imply that nothing in the Orthodox Church needs to change? The fact of the matter is that many Orthodox women are frustrated in their desire to serve the Lord because they are not supported—in some cases are even discouraged—by their male leaders. Is this situation in accordance with Orthodox doctrine and tradition, or has something gone wrong?
I believe something has gone wrong. But the fundamental problem is not that individual men in positions of leadership are deliberately exercising improper discrimination against women (although this does sometimes happen). In my view the primary difficulty lies in the failure of many in the Church to acknowledge and support the God-given gifts and vocations of everyone in the Church, be they women, men, or even children.
From ancient times the Church has acknowledged a diversity of gifts and ministries to be exercised within her by all her members. Let us look first at how the Church in her past has viewed these various roles—what they are and how they work. Then let us discuss how the question of roles should be approached in the Church today.
THE BODY OF CHRIST
Both Scripture and the Fathers bear witness to the concept of the Church as “the Body of Christ” and the necessity that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given to each Christian, function for the effective operation of the Church. We read in the Scriptures concerning the Church: “the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). That’s quite clear. Each “part,” each member, has a role—a gift—and it is essential to see how that gift works for the growth of the Church.
Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians, “But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased… Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12:18. 27). Saint John Chrysostom comments on this passage thus:
If therefore the one is many, and the many are one, where is the difference? where is the superiority? where is the disadvantage? For all, he says, are one: and not simply one, but being strictly considered in respect of that even which is primary, i. e.. their being a body, they are found all to be one. But when considered as to their particular natures, then the difference comes out, and the difference is in all alike. For none of them by itself can make a body, but each is alike deficient in the making a body, and there is need of being formed together: since when the many become one, then, and not till then, is there one body. Therefore also in a veiled saying intimating this very thing, he said, “And all the members of the one body, being many, are one body.” And he did not say. “the superior and the inferior.” but “being many,” which is common to all.
An emphasis on the Church as the Body of Christ and the need for using a diversity of gifts of the Spirit in the Church is deeply rooted in Orthodox Tradition. Men and women together using their spiritual gifts in the Church is Orthodox!
Understanding the Tradition concerning Spirit-given roles requires that we recognize a distinction between I) the gifts and callings given by the Holy Spirit, and 2) the common-sense organizational tasks required for the functioning of any parish. These two areas have been called the “charismatic” and “official” ministries of the Church.
The Gifts and Callings of the Holy Spirit
Saint Paul names several spiritual gifts in his first letter to the Corinthians. (He also speaks here of diversities of ministries and activities from the Spirit as well as gifts, but I’ll use “gifts” here as encompassing all three areas.) Even more specifically, he refers to all of these matters initially with only the adjective “spiritual.” and no noun. These are spiritual things, abilities given to us by the Holy Spirit. They include wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healings, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits—and the list goes on. And lest anyone think Corinth was unusual, Paul also mentions such gifts in his letter to the Romans, offering a somewhat similar, though not identical, list.
These gifts of the Holy Spirit operating through the faithful are essential to the effective ministry of any local church or parish. If they are lacking, a parish will limp along, unable to fulfill its task either within itself or in the community around it.
These gifts, moreover, do not rest exclusively in the priest. He should indeed have received one or more of them. But neither he, nor the deacons, nor even the bishop, is the repository of all these gifts. They are given to all the laity, men and women alike, as well as to the clergy.
The Organizational Tasks of the Church
But also, in the life of every parish, there are structured tasks which must be done. Someone is needed to be in charge of the cleanup committee. Someone needs to chair the parish council, the women’s group, and the youth groups, direct the choir, superintend education, etc. While these tasks may not overtly call for spiritual gifts, appointments should fall to spiritual people with natural talents which have been developed in leadership.
The Church, then, needs both the gifts of the Spirit and provision for the fulfillment of specific tasks in order to operate effectively. In the modern Church, we tend to do well with the latter, but too often we ignore the former. In spite of the obvious Church, we Orthodox do not seem to do well in attending to that part of our Tradition. We often zero in on the official work of the priest, sometimes even attempting to force his work into an exclusively organizational role. Then, of course, we have some of the laity filling offices that make up the organizational life of the parish. But I’m afraid most of us Orthodox feel that talk about gifts and callings is some far-out Protestant thing that has no real place in the Orthodox Church.
SPIRITUAL GIFTS AND THE MINISTRY OF WOMEN
Nothing, in my opinion, has been the cause of more unrest in Church life, either for women or for men, than this failure to allow the Church to function with both its organizational tasks and its spiritual gifts and callings. And though we focus in this issue of AGAIN on the need for women to find and fulfill their own calling in the Church, the consequences of the lack of attention to this part of our Tradition seriously affect the whole of the laity—including children.
A decade ago, speaking in Toronto, Metropolitan PHILIP, primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese, said:
…in the New Testament there is “the ministry of all believers” by virtue of their baptism, “for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). For centuries the priestly nature of all the believers has been neglected and misunderstood in our Church. No wonder then, that many of our laity still exist on the margin of the Church as spectators, without any significant involvement in the liturgy, discipline, and ministry of the Church.
It is a grave error to imagine the clergy are the only members with gifts and callings from God. Gifts and callings are not meted out according to official position, or according to gender. They are the means by which the Holy Spirit operates through all the faithful in the life of the Church.
Historically, this is obvious. Women saints such as Mary Magdalene and Nina, Enlightener of Georgia have been called “equal to the Apostles.” Many of the ancient prophets, evangelists, and teachers in the Church were laity—men, women, and even children. Saint Photini, the woman at the well, together with some of her sisters and children, helped evangelize the city of Carthage. Saint Thecla was Saint Paul’s tireless helper in all his works. Saint Macrina taught and exhorted her brothers, two of whom grew up to be Saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Plainly, the gifts of the Spirit do not discriminate according to gender, age, intelligence, or any other human quality. They are given by the Holy Spirit to all.
Take those gifts out of the Church, either from ignorance or by intent, and the local church goes into chaos. It’s deep in the heart of each member of the Church that he or she has something to offer, something to do. And if only a few are allowed to serve in any meaningful way, competition for those few positions will be fierce.
Under these circumstances, conflict between the sexes is inevitable. A parish which lacks the working of the gifts and callings of the Spirit ends up limiting its operation to a list of jobs. These jobs tend to be divided along gender lines, with women often being relegated to the more service-oriented slots. And the perceived importance of one’s job comes to reflect one’s importance in the Church.
It is no wonder, then, that many of God’s people feel there is no place for them, that they have little respect or dignity, that their role in the Church is limited to giving money or being members of the cleanup committee. Women often feel this even more acutely than men, because they have a deep commitment to the Church and an intense longing to serve, yet the one avenue of service which seems to be taken seriously by others—the priesthood—is closed to them. While not questioning the rightness of the male priesthood, many women are left bewildered and frustrated because there seems to be no way for them to give meaningful service to the Church and the God they love.
THE HOLY TRINITY AS THE MODEL
Recognizing gifts and callings, as well as the normal tasks of the Church, as normative and necessary in the Church, will take us one major stride towards providing an appropriate opportunity for all members of the Church, women and men alike, to find their fulfillment. However, this alone may not guarantee that everyone will be respected and encouraged properly. Along with gifts and callings must come an understanding of the perfect equality among all members. In order to understand how this works, we must turn to the Holy Trinity.
Each time we recite the Creed, we confess of the Son of God that He is “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father.” This statement is crucial to our understanding of the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Trinity. By it we confess complete equality between the Persons (members) of the Godhead, in this case specifically the Father and the Son. The Father is not an independent boss with the Son and Holy Spirit as second-class servants or workers. True, the Father is the fountainhead, but the Son and the Spirit fully participate as distinct Persons in the fullness of the Father’s nature. There is distinction of person: there is full equality in every way.
The life of the Trinity is our model for the Church. As there is distinction of persons in the Trinity, so there is distinction between the members of the Church. Of course there are differences in roles, but there is full equality. There is not one class that orders another class as being inferior. All partake of the one glorified humanity of Jesus Christ, none more than others.
One dare not imagine that the Holy Trinity holds a “meeting” at which the Father unilaterally instructs the Son and Holy Spirit as to what He wants them to do. There is consensus in the Trinity. There is one mind. This is what we are to have in the Church. It is only when gifts and callings are working in the Church, along with all other necessary factors, with each member recognizing that all are important and all are equal, that each can contribute his or her part without distraction, prejudice, or a feeling of inferiority.
Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on Saint Paul’s words, has this to say about the proper functioning of the Body of Christ:
Why (he means) do you think highly of yourself? Or why again does another utterly despise himself? Are we not all one body, both great and small? When then we are in the total number but one, and members one of another, why do you by your haughtiness separate yourself? Why do you put your brother to shame? For as he is a member of you, so are you also of him. And it is on this account that your claims to honor are so equal. For he [Saint Paul] has stated two things that might take down their haughty spirit: first, that we are members one of another, not the small of the great only, but also the great of the small: and the other, that we are all one body.
THREE IDEAS FOR SPIRITUAL MINISTRY
What can each of us—man or woman, clergy or laity—do to promote the full recognition and flowering of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church today? Here are three simple suggestions:
I) Read the lives of the saints, noting their Christian qualities and characteristics, those attributes which made these men and women great. Then think about the men and women in your parish: are there some who have some of these same traits (although less developed, of course)? Seek out these people and encourage their involvement in the ministry of the church.
2) Study Romans 12:4-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:3-12. Who are the gifted people in your church whose involvement is needed in the community? What are your own gifts? Make yourself actively available to your priest for ministry in the parish and outside the parish.
3) Encourage and support the clergy and laity who are already involved in ministry, both in the parish and in the archdiocese. Go out of your way to say “thank you” and verbally express your appreciation to them. Offer them your help and service.
With these things in mind, let us all get on with the work of the Church. Let us help all God’s people to find their Spirit-given roles, and let each one of us operate in our own role. Then there will be equality, respect, and dignity for all. The gender wars will take place elsewhere, but not in the life of the Church, the very Body of the incarnate Son of God, where there is “neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).