Word Magazine May 1981 Page 10-14
WOMEN IN ORTHODOXY:
THEIR ROLE AND PARTICIPATION
By Laurice B. Maloley
The foundation of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Church lies in the Gospel of Christ, in the ‘Good News’ preached by Jesus Christ and the Apostles He chose and sent into the world. ‘The Good News’ is preached and proclaimed to men and women alike. Christ nowhere distinguishes between men and women as children of God and objects of his redemptive ministry. Women, in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, were present from the Annunciation to the Ascension. It was in a woman that God became flesh, not using her as a passive instrument, but making a realization of His plan of love depends on her acquiescence and free adherence to her faith. Mary participated in the Incarnation not with her body only, but above all, by her trusting obedience to God’s promise. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
Women played an important part in spreading Jesus’ message. One has only to think of Anna, who witnessed to Christ as the Messiah, while He was yet a babe; the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha who were the women bearing oils to anoint His body and who first announced His resurrection; Mary Magdalene, the woman saved from stoning and sin. Set against the background of the strongly anti-feminist Jewish society of the time, these women displayed an attitude of courageous faith in the service of the Gospel.
Jesus did not say much about women. His views were expressed primarily in his actions, and these actions constituted a dramatic breakthrough within the society of His day which held a dismal view of the female and sex. Christ nowhere distinguishes between men and women as children of God and objects of His redemptive ministry. Indeed one finds nowhere that Jesus ranks men and women. By the regard he shows to women, by the treatment he gives them in word and act, by the purity and universality of His love and ministry, Jesus Christ erased all lines of superiority or inferiority between men and women and placed all on the same level of grace.
Paul, the Apostle, in his message to the Galatians emphasized “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Gal. 3:28) However, Paul went on to set up a hierarchy to emphasize the authority of Christ, stating to the Corinthians, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor. 11:3) His basis for this position has long been disputed by scholars because his reasoning is by no means clear. What is clear is that he was dealing with the specific problems in the Corinthian congregation in terms of the culture of his day. However, is it not interesting that the churches ever since should have made his conditional statement into an absolute for all times and all places, whereas his universal statement that all are one in Christ should be neglected in this context?
The role of woman before the Christian era was limited and considered inferior. Women were viewed as sex objects and property, first of the father, then of the husband. Adultery (which violated property rights) was punishable by death. The legends, laws and literature of the Jews carried a common notion that sexual intercourse weakens a man. The regular issue of blood that corresponded to the phases of the moon appeared as “sign” of occult power. Blood was to almost all societies a basic sign of vitality and of existence itself. After giving birth to a male child a Jewish woman was “unclean” for seven days, and a period of 33 days was required for her purification; the birth of a female child rendered her unclean for 14 days, and required 66 days for purification.
This whole tradition represents what we might call, with a reasonable amount of historical understanding and with great (the emphasis is mine) restraint, the “Eve Syndrome”. In the mind of the ordinary person the story goes somewhat like this: when after the creation God went looking for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He asked first, “Where are you?” and second, “How did you get in this sorry state?” Then God made his judgment in no uncertain terms upon the serpent, on Eve, and finally upon Adam (apparently moving up the ladder). The serpent was
compelled forever to crawl upon his belly; the woman was to bring forth her children in much travail and to be ruled by her husband; Adam was to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. All three were expelled from paradise. No matter how one reads this story of the fall of man from grace, it is pretty grim.
Given the influence of the Bible over the millennia one can understand why snakes are anathema, why women have been deemed temptresses and prone to do the devil’s business, and why Eve, created from Adam’s rib as an afterthought and now held responsible for his fall, has been considered inferior. Two things only are to be wondered at: that Adam’s lame excuse in the garden (“The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate”) has never jeopardized his primary position, and second, that arguments against women’s full participation in the life of the Church are still derived from a simplistic and literal interpretation of Genesis. Again, scholars and theologians can explain and explain, yet after two thousand years the basic image has not changed. The position of woman after the fall has been taken as the normative one rather than her position in creation where God is said to have created male and female, presumably on a par with each other, especially according to Genesis 1, which in other aspects of theology has dominated the Church’s notion of creation.
With Christianity womanhood was exalted. This is one of Christianity’s great contributions to society; it brought religious equality to woman with man before God. In the Early Church this was manifested from the beginning by the inclusion of women in the apostolic meetings for prayer. In this period Christians assembled in house churches, and many women had churches in their homes. This is clearly seen in Apostle Paul’s Epistles which include numerous salutations to women. (Phil. 4:2-3, 1 Cor. 1:1, Rom. 16:1). If one reads the first chapters of Corinthians and the first chapter of Timothy, one sees that women had a very great place in the primitive church where women were much more numerous than men. They served as catechists, they received strangers in the Church, they were deaconesses; they also had a social responsibility, that of assisting the Church in fulfilling social services to foreigners, widows, prostitutes, abandoned children, the sick and reconciling estranged couples. This is a significant apostolic role. But it is with reason that St. Paul refused to grant women the functions of the hierarchy. In the Roman Empire, there was a large feminist movement, and women were very numerous in pagan cults. It should be noted that if St. Paul says that women should not be a part of the teaching clergy, it was for him an expressed wish of the Lord and one which he had to obey.
There was a great variety of ministries in the Early Church in which women served. But only one of these ministries, that of the “widow” (I Tim. 5:3-16), was institutionalized. Their work was of a charismatic nature; they taught, prophesied, prayed in the congregation and assisted in missionary work. The variety of names assigned to them differed with the services they performed, the place where they served and the times. They were called “widows”, “deaconesses”, and “virgins,” but their duties and privileges were not always clearly defined. Slowly the charismatic ministries in general dried up, were suppressed or came under surveillance because of the rising fear in the Early Church of heretical teaching that would destroy the apostolic tradition. Restrictions laid upon the participation of women in public worship are to be understood in the light of this fear and in light of the restrictions laid upon women by other institutions in the society of that time.
Two distinctive features of the organization of the Early Church made it possible for women to render notable services (ministries). In the first place, a whole city constituted a parish. Variety and flexibility were indispensable; teams of Christians working together performed a great variety of the services (diakonion). There was no such thing as the ministry. Ministries responded to the needs of the Church and the gifts of the ministries. This variety persisted throughout the ancient era even as the Church structure stabilized. In the third century we find bishops, presbyters, deacons, deaconesses, lectors, acolytes and exorcists. Each office had its own dignity and importance, but the individual offices were not yet seen as stepping-stones toward some ‘higher’ position.
Under the impact of the barbarian invasions into Western Europe, society ceased to be urban-centered. The population became more rural, and the ‘local parish’ as we know it found its basic form under the circumstances of life in the early Middle Ages. The disbursement of people spelled the inevitable break-up of the team ministry in practice, each parish now simply being served by one presbyter (priest) who was responsible to the (now distant) bishop. A team ministry remained only in the bishop’s place of residence, where the clergy when they were unmarried (the canon-presbyters and the life-deacon) resided with the bishop in a semi-monastic community. There was little room for women in this situation. In the fourth century the diaconal ministry of women was institutionalized and defined, in the Orthodox Church. In early Christian times and during the Byzantine age, the deaconesses were selected ‘by careful examination.’ From the very beginning, in addition to certain widows or widowed mothers, certain eminent consecrated virgins and also married women living in celibacy, especially wives of bishops, were admitted as deaconesses. In the later Byzantine age certain eminent nuns were also ordained as deaconesses. At the beginning, the minimum age for becoming a deaconess was sixty. Later this age restriction was brought down to fifty and then to forty.
In the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine period, the ordination of deaconesses was not like that of lower forms of ministry, such as readers, choir-singers and sub-deacons which took place outside the holy sanctuary, and was not carried out in connection with the Liturgy. The ordination of a deaconess was similar to form and substance to that of the higher clergy (deacons, presbyters and bishops). The ordination therefore took place within the holy sanctuary and during the Liturgy. According to old books of the rites of the Orthodox Church, deaconesses (like deacons) received the Orarium (a characteristic liturgical emblem of deaconship) and Holy Communion at the altar with the sacramental cup, which they then replaced on the altar themselves.
Although deaconesses were regarded as clergy, they were a special class. There were no other female clergy, either with higher or with lower status. Deaconesses were the only class of female ministers in the Church. Ordained deaconesses could not marry. Their ordination meant a promise, a vow of lifelong celibacy. Anyone who broke this promise was severely punished by imperial legislation. The service of deaconesses was entirely and directly bound up with the Church and the congregation. They were under the direct jurisdiction of the Bishop and were at the disposal of the Church. They generally lived in houses attached to the churches or in a convent that was near a congregation. Like the other classes of clergy, deaconesses received from the Church the wherewithal needed for their maintenance, education and training. The Byzantine deaconesses were regarded as angels of mercy and the unknown heroines of Christian love. They led many women from paganism to the Christian faith. They undertook the Christian education of the congregation; prepared women for baptism and carried out regular functions at church services. At baptism, deaconesses had the task of undressing the women, anointing them, immersing them and then leading them to the Bishop clothed in a white robe. In addition, they had the privilege of taking the Holy Communion from the Church to the homes of women who were sick. At funerals, they had the responsibility for dressing and adorning the bodies of Christian women who had died.
The monastic movement — a strong ascetic reaction within the Christian community to a popular and more secularized church — further isolated women both from danger and from their accustomed services. The Deaconesses of the Eastern Church were absorbed by this monastic movement becoming simply the head (Abbess) of the women’s monastic communities. These autonomous Christian communities provided for the Medieval Church and the world what the ecclesiastical women had provided for the Church in the primitive period.
In the course of the centuries, the woman’s role in the life of the Church diminished. It is interesting to note that deaconesses in the Eastern Church were ordained until the 12th century. It seems astounding and unfortunate that the Reformation did not provide any substitute for the services and leadership that women had exercised in the Early Church. The reformers of the 16th Century in suppressing the religious orders deprived their churches of the only officially recognized form of women’s service. The consequences of this for the diaconal work seem not to have been seriously studied by the reformers.
The Orthodox Church is considered to be the most traditional of the major churches. This is certainly true, for the dogmata, canons, and traditions issued by the Seven Ecumenical Synods are still the rules and regulations adhered to in the Orthodox Church of today even here in North America. The customs, mores, legends of the Middle East culture of yesterday is very much a part of its culture today.
If it could be demonstrated that the subjection of women was not divinely ordained, men would be more willing to admit women to an equal place in the Church and women themselves would feel less hesitant in asserting their rights. Adam was created by God directly out of the dust of the earth, but Eve was fashioned out of a bone taken from Adam’s side. Matthew Henry’s comment on the creation of Eve is most expressive — “If man is the head, she (woman) is the crown, of the visible creation. The man was dust refined, but the woman was double refined, one remove further from the earth. The woman was made of a rib of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal to him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved”. By using the rib of Adam to create Eve, God manifested her equality to Adam, (male and female He created them and called their name Adam), Genesis 5:2. Priority of creation gave Adam headship but no superiority; both man and woman were endowed for equality and for mutual interdependence.
Eve has been credited with bringing sin into the world by eating of the fruit of Good and Evil and giving it to Adam to eat. Why did Adam partake of the fruit? The divine prohibition was given to him. Adam broke a commandment given to him directly by God; Eve disobeyed an
order received from Adam. When confronted with his disobedience Adam not only blamed Eve, but God Himself — “The woman Thou gavest me, gave me to eat”. The temptation to which they succumbed was the most powerful temptation of all, namely, the spiritual temptation to transcend the normal temptation of mankind and to taste of the wisdom that belongs only to God. In Eve’s quest for freedom, she imprisoned all of womankind.
While it is said that sin came into the world through the disobedience of a woman, was not sin also overcome, through the obedience of a woman (Theotokos) and the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ethical teachings of Jesus Christ were the principle religious arguments for women suffrage. Anna Howard Shaw declared, “The democracy of Christianity teaches us that religion must become more personal and more human, and the more one studies the life of Jesus, the more impressed one becomes with the fact that the one permanent basis of the spiritual life is that community of soul in which each earnestly strives to the attainment of the highest life, yet each in loving fellowship with the whole.”
Women are an integral part of humanity and if humanity is to be purified and Christianized to a far greater extent, it is imperative to have an enlightened, spiritual womanhood. The great defect in the religious teaching to and accepted by women in the dogma that self-abnegation, self-effacement and excessive humility were ideal feminine virtues. But we are learning from the teachings and examples of Jesus that life itself, is a religion, that nothing is more sacred than a human being, that the end of all right institutions, whether the home, the Church or the educational establishment is the development of the human soul.
Laurice B. Maloley is a member of St. John of Damascus Church in Boston, Massachusetts. This article is part of a larger paper on women in the Church.