Women’s Gifts

There is much talk among Christian feminists of the necessity of utilizing “women’s gifts” in the Church and of the subsequent necessary ordination of women in order to allow for this utilization. Obviously nobody wants to have anyone’s gifts in the Church go unutilized, and so both fairness to women and love for the Church (it is argued) demand that women be ordained to all orders in the Church. Most of the feminist fury and indignation have centered around their insistence that women be ordained as ministers/ priests (and bishops where the denomination is episcopally ordered). Of late in Orthodoxy precisely the same rhetoric and arguments have been marshalled to insist upon the ordination of women as deaconesses. Many if not most of those insisting on the ordination of deaconesses also insist that deaconesses are simply female deacons, even if the claim has no historical support whatsoever. It seems clear that feminist political agenda trumps real scholarship.

One sees yet another example of this insistence in the recent blog piece of Dr. Carrie Frost, published in Public Orthodoxy entitled “Women’s Gifts and the Diaconate”. It is an extraordinary piece. Having met Dr. Frost over a cup of coffee I have found her to be a delightful, down-to-earth sister in Christ, who no doubt has abundantly earned her doctorate. (I especially appreciated her essay on childbirth and impurity.)  This makes this current piece all the more extraordinary, and makes me wonder if perhaps there is not something to the idea of alien abduction after all.

She begins by writing with commendable clarity, “The reinstitution of the ordained female diaconate in the Orthodox Church today would result in a much-needed and transformative outpouring of women’s gifts into the Church and into the world.” Reading this gave me a kind of weird déjà vu, as if I had stepped back through a time warp into the Protestant world of the late 1970’s, for this was almost the exact wording used by those then pushing for the ordination of women to the priesthood. Since that time when Protestants hearkened to the feminist call and ordained women as priests, one looks in vain, I suggest, to see how it resulted in anything much-needed or transformative. The main result has been the further and escalating secularization of their denominations with the resultant loss of numbers, so that on a quiet night a listening ear can almost hear the doors of Episcopal churches slamming shut. It was envisioned and promised that the ordination would result in a rejuvenation and revitalization of the denomination, as multitudes flooded in to take advantage of the women’s gifts newly offered. The actual result was a perfunctory approving nod of the head from the secular world which then went back to ignoring the church in the same way as it did before. Secular people concluded that the church was becoming a lot more like the world, applauded, and then continued staying home on Sunday morning.

I would challenge the whole idea underlying Dr. Frost’s rhetoric that a woman (or anyone) needs ordination before their gifts can be effectively utilized. Surely this is a slap in the face to the laity, to whom God gives His spiritual gifts at baptism. What St. Peter wrote was, “As each one has received a charisma, use it for one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10), not “As each one has received a charisma, seek ordination so that you can use it”. Women indeed have spiritual gifts, just as do many unordained men. All that ordination adds is a title and a vestment—i.e. visible status. Is it not clericalism of the rankest sort to insist that only those with titles and vestments have valuable and transformative ministry? True, Dr. Frost admits that unordained women do exercise a valuable ministry even now, but adds that “the good that could be done would be a hundredfold more” if they could be ordained. There is some pastoral advantage to being ordained (as well as some distinct pastoral disadvantage), but to suggest that the ordained priest is a hundred times more pastorally effective that the unordained layperson is nonsense. It is also clericalism, and that on steroids.

Dr. Frost’s discussion of the Fathers is even more extraordinary than her inherent denigration of lay ministry. She quotes briefly from St. Basil’s On the Human Condition and then draws the remarkable conclusion that his assertion of ontological equality of the genders “amounts to a rejection of any hierarchical understanding of the relationship between men and women in the Roman world”.  As a scholar she must know that it amounts to no such thing, and that St. Basil and company would vigorously dispute such a sweeping conclusion. St. Basil did not allow the ordination of women to leadership in the Church then for the same reason that those who oppose it reject it now: they can read the Bible.  Like St. Paul, St. Basil endorsed “hierarchical understanding of the relationship between men and women in the Roman world”.

Dr. Frost as much as admits as much when she goes on to say that “this does not mean that all Christians throughout history embraced this understanding. For example, the early Church acquiesced to Roman norms of a patrician man’s authority in the domain of his household…” In other words, from the time of the New Testament onward and continuing with the Fathers whose avowed intention was fidelity to the New Testament, the Church’s understanding of women was opposed to what Dr. Frost and her feminist colleagues now propose. “All Christians throughout history” indeed embraced an understanding in which women were subordinate to men, both domestically and ecclesiastically, in the sense that all Christians throughout history believed a wife should follow her husband’s lead and women should not rule in the Church. This yawning gap between what all Christians throughout history held (a.k.a. “Holy Tradition”) and what feminists now propose as its replacement should not be understated. It does not constitute a tiny tweaking of the Tradition, but the wholesale scrapping of it. The magnitude of the change should be openly acknowledged, and not minimized. Characterizing the Church’s past theology and praxis as “an imperfect historical record” is disingenuous in the extreme. In fact feminist writing and rhetoric have denounced it in the most vociferous of terms. It is indeed “disrespectful to the Church” to suggest overturning it.

Dr. Frost tips her hand when she characterizes the Church’s eventual abolition of the office of deaconess once it had ceased to serve any useful purpose as “a tragedy”. Her assertion that “for something like eight hundred years the Church has not benefited from women’s gifts offered as deaconesses” reveals a lack of historical understanding. The “benefits offered as deaconesses” consisted primarily (in some parts of the Church, not all) of their assisting naked female baptismal candidates during their baptism. (Compare the testimony of St. Epiphanius in the late fourth century who wrote that the office “exists for the purpose of preserving decency for the female sex, whether in connection with baptism or in connection with the examination of [women undergoing] suffering or pain, or whenever the bodies of women are required to be uncovered”.) After this and other pastoral ministrations were no longer necessary, the pastoral benefits associated with the then merely honourary office of deaconess were precisely nil. It is simply untrue that the lapsing of a by that time useless order “deprived the Church of the experiences, perspectives, and unique gifts of generations of its faithful women”. Women then as now continued to use their gifts in the Church, even without being deaconesses.

It is true, as Dr. Frost says, that “the Church needs its women’s gifts”, including a pastoral ministry of “woman-to-woman”. This is especially true in situations involving sexual trauma, since “women have a different lived experience of sexual abuse and assault, from which the whole Church would benefit.” It is not clear that ordination would enhance this ministry, since the value of it depends upon shared experience, vulnerability, and gender solidarity—and not upon clerical status. Indeed, clerical status might even detract from it, insofar as clergy are identified (rightly or wrongly) with power. Dr. Frost’s assertion that a deaconess might have a ministry a hundred times more effective than an unordained woman is not only nonsensical, but deeply disrespectful to the women presently exercising their unordained ministries.

Most jaw-dropping of all was Dr. Frost’s statement that “there is effectively no movement in the Orthodox Church today to even consider—much less push for—the female priesthood”.  It would be uncharitable to accuse Dr. Frost of lying. I would prefer rather to simply express my perplexity at such a statement when feminist rhetoric, both within Orthodoxy and outside it, is filled with demands for precisely this. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom expressed his approval of the move, as have a host of others. To paraphrase Hebrews 11:32, “time would fail me” to tell of Behr-Sigel, Topping, Ladouceur, and others. Even Metropolitan Kallistos Ware seems to have moved to a more sympathetic and supportive position regarding this possibility. It might be worthwhile to call for a show of hands. If the church were to produce a new canon which read, “If anyone teaches that a woman may be ordained to the sacramental and holy priesthood just as men can, let him be anathema!” would these Orthodox feminists sign on and agree with the canonical sentiment? Would Dr. Frost? Hands up, please.

21 comments:

  1. As a non- Orthodox Christian investigating Orthodoxy, I am wondering why women’s bodies initially needed to be uncovered to do baptisms? I would also like to say that I am looking for the original Church of Christ, and so far it appears that it is likely the Orthodox Church. So why would anyone want to change it? If it is indeed the original, then it does not need to be re-invented. Otherwise, the message would be that the early Christians must have got it wrong about women’s ordination. If people want something different, there are countless other churches out there to choose from.

    1. Originally in the early church everyone regardless of gender was baptize naked. There was a pre-baptismal anointing of the entire body from head to toe. In some parts of the church (though not all) it was felt that decency required a woman to do that anointing if the baptismal candidate was a woman. In Orthodoxy now, although babies are still baptized naked, older candidates (i.e. non-babies) are clothed for baptism, and baptism is by triple full-immersion. At our St. Herman’s we baptize the adults in a (very nicely-decorated) horse-trough; the candidates wear a bathing suit and a long white robe over top of it for the sake of modesty. The early church would not approve, but that’s the modern practice.

  2. Dear father

    I salute your ongoing commentary on this absurd debate; you add clarity to it. I especially support your call for a show of hands – and your call for “telling it like it is.”

    ICXC
    NIKA

    Robert Johannes Ulrich

  3. When I was in my 20s, I wanted to be a pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (yes, an impossible dream, but I was young!) But as I grew older and “wiser,” I saw that desire as sinful. I didn’t want to serve as a pastor, I just wanted to learn theology (Lutheran). I would not have made a good pastor.
    Now, as an Orthodox woman, I see that I can serve in many ways. I have skills that men may not have, but that doesn’t make me better, just different. And men may have skills I don’t have, and responsibilities I don’t have, and that’s OK. We’re here to help each other grow closer to God.
    Thank you for your insights.

  4. Father Lawrence,
    Thank you once again for addressing this controversial issue in a clear and concise manner. It is valuable to those of us who are aware of the issue but are outside of its discussion in the “intellectual circles.” I think I can safely say that your voice in this matter speaks for many of us.
    May I share my thoughts…
    Here I comment as an Orthodox Christian. That I am non-ordained, that I am a woman, that I live in the United States of America…or anything else I may add, does not add to, take away from, or change the fact that I am an Orthodox Christian. I do not harbor any “special gifts” above anyone else that I think the Church would benefit from…as if the Church would be the worse without “my gifts”. This is the disease of modern thinking, the boast of the individual, the worship of autonomy. If I am not mistaken, the Saints we venerate and want to emulate did not concern themselves with whether or not they possessed spiritual gifts. Their whole intent and purpose was to seek God. And it was God who blessed them with spiritual gifts as He saw fit. These feminists act as if they are doing God a favor…as if God needs help to improve His Church…as if the Body of Christ is sick and needs “woman’s gifts” to get Her back on track.
    As for hierarchal order, has the feminist decided that Divine order is now antiquated? That God’s creative order does not apply to us moderns? What about the God-Man Jesus Christ as the Head and we the Body, and St. Paul’s words about the “mystery” of marriage and the Church? Is that “old fashioned” now?
    Look at the rebirth of mankind through the Theotokos, the New Eve. Her Son, the New Adam. Look at those who remained faithful to Christ at the Cross, when all others, except St. John, scattered. Look at who Christ appeared to first, after His Resurrection. Look at how He honored His Mother and expects us to do the same. Is this not good enough for the feminists? Mary was compassionate, humble, obedient, and definitely did not “seek Her own”. And now sits at the right of Her Son. This should speak volumes.
    Lastly, I admit this is a visceral, instinctual, reaction to what I am about to describe. Years ago, I saw a picture online of what I believe was an ecumenical gathering of clerics. In the picture was a male priest and two female priests. My reaction to this oddity was no different than if I was to go out my front door at noon and instead of seeing the sun above me I saw the moon. Something’s wrong here, like, “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” But this is what happens when Divine order is cast aside, thinking that we know better than our Creator. We should take a cue from our animals, who honor their Creator in their own instinctive way, by being exactly how God created them.
    Thank you again Father for pointing to and upholding Tradition and God’s purpose in drawing all to, not away from, Himself. And thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

  5. A most sobering critique!
    If you were to look at the “fruit” of those denominations that have moved in this direction, you would see error, decline, heresy and more being prevalent. “If” Orthodoxy were to accept women Deacon’s, would that be enough? Would Dr. Frost be content with just that? I believe the answer would be no therefore, the call for women Deacon’s itself is disingenuous and is (knowingly I might add) only a stepping stone towards much greater ends.

  6. Fr. Lawrence,
    I continue to be impressed with your strong, consistent, and charitable defense of the Orthodox faith in addressing some of the current movements within the Church to change the truth once handed down to us. May God continue to bless you and your work.

    I have always wondered, at what point should the Bishops of the Church start to get actively involved in addressing a trend or idea within the Church that is perhaps pulling/pushing people away from the truth? How widespread does the idea in question have to be before we could expect Bishops to address the issue head on?

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Speaking just for myself, I would have appreciated a strong and clear voice from our bishops before now. In my view it is not enough to simply refer to the status quo as acceptable, especially when so much of the West has been engulfed by this (and other) heresies rooted in secular thinking. I would like our leaders to lead more vocally and visibly–assuming, of course, that they reject the heresies themselves.

  7. Fr. Lawrence,

    I have taken a class taught by Dr. Frost and I have real respect for her as a teacher and scholar. She was very helpful to me when I was trying to grasp some theological technicalities around Universalism, and she makes a concerted effort to connect personally with all of her students and help them. If I might add to your excellent analysis of her essay:

    Notice the *directionality* of her thinking around what she calls “…an Orthodox understanding of the essence of women and man…” Linking anything other than an “fundamental parity” to the ontological being “between” men and women is for Dr. Frost what Fr. Florovsky called a pseudomorphosis of the Faith – a contradictory/erroneous mixing of (in this case Roman) culture with the Culture of the Kingdom. As she argues, this is false “enshrine(ing)…(of)characteristics of our fallen state” and in this I can agree with her logic. What I disagree with is her beginning, and thus the end that her logic leads us to. Christianity does not begin with an *essential* (i.e. metaphysical) equality of men and women, but rather a moral one that flows from God down (so to speak) to us. For Dr. Frost, our “fundamental parity” morally flows up to God (so to speak) such that our differences a merely ontological and that this *way of being* has to be subsumed/checked/characterized under the prior moral and metaphysical category of “fundamental parity”. If you are not seeing the figure of Kant in this logic (see his “Metaphysics of Morals”) you should.

    Does Revelation, Scripture (particularly Genesis), and the Fathers agree with or reflect a Kantian moral metaphysic? No. Even those Fathers who believe that the created male/female binary of anthropos is a concession and anticipation of the Fall and as such “will be ultimately overcome” to use Dr. Frosts words ( in the “apokatastasis of all things” e.g. see St. Gregory Nyssa’s “On Virginity”) are not in any way Kantian –
    though they are in my opinion (probably) NeoPlatonic. Other Fathers recognize that this binary was created before the Fall and is in of itself “good” and “beautiful” and is not to be “overcome” in an apokatastasis , because this binary is neither a metaphysical or ontological problem to be overcome. Like all of creation, it will be rightly ordered in the Eschaton (i.e. the relationship between men and women and their God).

    God does not have a moral problem with the subordination of man to man, and women to man. The Aaronic priesthood is the subordination of the tribes of Israel to one at the real expense of “fundamental parity”, and to a Kantian can only (at best) be a “separate but equal” moral calamity. To import a Kantian morality into Christianity would be a pseudomorphosis, exactly what Dr. Frost alleges happened with Christianity very early in a “acquiesce” to roman culture. To once again paraphrase Fr. Matthew Baker of blessed memory, academic Orthodox “theologians” have to do a much better job than they have up until now of understanding the sources of secularism that infects their own thinking and methodology.

    Christopher Encapera

    1. Thank you for your comments–insightful as always. It confirms for me that for Dr. Frost (and for feminists generally) their real problem is with Christian history. If for them the history of Christian thought is the result of such a Florovskian pseudomorphosis, then they are no different in principle than the extreme Protestants who reject the belief and praxis of the Church from the second century onward. I know of such teachers who assert that the Church fell into apostasy at the end of the first century so that the history of the Church is the history of one long error. It is as if their Creed said, “I disbelieve in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”. They then offer their own updated version of how things should have gone and of how things can now be set right. Is it not the height of pride to think our little generation knows better than all who have gone before us? At the very least such people should acknowledge their view of history is radically incompatible with an Orthodox one.

      1. I don’t disagree with you Father in that the Orthodox feminist has a certain moral evaluation of Christian history (which is the mystical Body of Christ in time ) that comes from outside of Christianity. I would just note how hard it would be for them to acknowledge this. From where does a person examine their own thinking and the very presuppositions that is at the beginning of their thinking, the very ground upon which they stand and reason from? It is very very difficult to rise above your time and place. Kierkegaard said something seemingly radical: what modernity needs is not Jesus, but a Socrates – someone who has the ability to *inspire* them to see their own presuppositions, the ground upon which they (as moderns) stand on.

        Modern people are many things, but philosophers they are not, yet they are prisoners of a very powerful philosophy (i.e modernism and secularism). We need to pray for Grace, because truly it is a situation that only God can heal. This is why men like Met. Jonah (who at lest used to speak directly to this) and even Rod Dreher (with his “Benedict Option”) strike me as prophets – they are saying to us in the Church “Stop! Stop doing what you are doing, the status quo, look at the fruit. Instead, have a conscious relationship with secularism and this culture and all its bad AND GOOD (i.e. such as its quest for Justice and Equality). Of course, look what happen to Met. Jonah!

        1. Well said! Presuppositions are indeed hard to re-evaluate, precisely because they are presuppositions.

  8. Sorry for just raising a critique- I like the article and your writing- but where there is agreement there isn’t much reason for comment.
    Doesn’t ordination add a certain charisma and not just a title and vestments? Isn’t it a sacrament? Was surprised to read that part.

    1. No reason to apologize for critique; that’s one of the functions of this ‘comments’ section. Ordination does indeed add a charisma, in that the Holy Spirit helps one perform one’s office/ function. I only meant that God also gives the laity spiritual gifts apart from ordination. For example the gifts of prophecy, giving aid, and almsgiving, mentioned in Romans 12 do not require ordination, a title, or a vestment. Musical ability (though not on the list) is also a gift from God, and that also does not require ordination.

  9. I have previously served in Western Liturgical Christian traditions as a “lay deaconess” much like Phoebe in the New Testament. No ordination needed. Some denominations actually have an order of lay deaconesses including LCMS. At one point I felt a call to the ordained deaconate in one tradition but did not pursue that path, as I did not see it as a “right” as most women did. Even men, who are the icon of Christ, take on ordination with fear and trembling. Because that tradition, one that Fr. Farley mentioned, kept going farther and farther apostate we could no longer walk with them. I have worked with some female military chaplains, who although female were not feminists and were orthodox in their theology in every other way. Their ministrations brought many to a relationship with God and I cannot judge if it was displeasing to God. That being said, I as a woman, do not support the ordination of women. We are finally home in the Orthodox Church, and if Orthodoxy too goes the way of the West, we have no place left to turn. If that were to happen, I have hope that unlike say the Episcopal Church, those who want ordination would break off from Orthodoxy and the Holy, Catholic, Orthodox Church would stay intact. As we are taught the Church and ministry is not just the Priest, we are a royal priesthood and each have unique gifts based on who we are as individuals and those that the Holy Spirit gives us. We do not need to be ordained to exercise those gifts. We have many areas we can work in, with the blessing of our Archdiocese and Priest, who discerns those gifts, provides training if needed and puts us to work.

  10. As an Orthodox woman from a reformed background, I just want to say that Orthodoxy has so much more to offer women than anything I ever encountered in the conservative Protestant world. In a framework where the only thing that was ” kingdom work” was preaching the gospel and administering the (2) sacraments, which could only be done by men, I felt very undervalued and completely understood why women would push for ordination. As an orthodox woman all of my life is an offering to God, and I don’t need ordination or clerical vestments to make it so. I also love all the beautiful women who have gone before me, showing lives of dedication to Christ. Glory to God!

  11. This issue has always perplexed me. I cannot understand how a Christian would question the role of a woman, and still make sense of anything else in their faith. How can a woman understand her relationship to God if she does not understand her God given relationship to a man? How does someone who holds this view understand the trinity itself? To hold the view that one must be in front, I can’t think of any other result, than your entire Christian faith would be blown apart. Man or woman, how can you understand your relationship to your neighbor, your boss at work or even much less your enemy if you can’t understand this? How can one see the beauty in creation and the exceedingly wonderful cleverness of the Father without this?
    For all the talk of the cross and quoting desert fathers about spiritual life etc. it seems people would be begging, “For the love of God, please help me submit!”
    I just cannot see how the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together in one’s thinking, unless one does not really understand God’s mystery in his or her life at all. It isn’t fairness, I can only see it as poison, disaster and spiritual suicide to think this way. What the Father has given to women and the way he has silently treated them is so beautiful, yet I fear this issue causes them to be blind to it, and robs them of peace. This is just what I see however, so take it only as that.

    I hope this doesn’t sound too sharp. I state it in love, and true perplexity.

  12. I have been pondering these posts– particularly regarding “those Fathers who believe that the created male/female binary of anthropos is a concession and anticipation of the Fall and as such ‘will be ultimately overcome’ to use Dr. Frosts words…” as well as this whole subject in general. There are a number of aspects that seem worthy of further elaboration.

    When the Apostle speaks to the hierarchical order he appeals not to the ‘fall,’ but to the creation.

    “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man…For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

    “For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.”

    Secondly (and this is much far difficult to explain in a manner that is clear, comprehensible, and inoffensive), one cannot help but perceive that the ‘framework’ for this hierarchy is rooted not only in creation, but in the fulfillment of what creation anticipates in the Incarnation and the union of all things in Christ, the telos of creation itself. Man and woman – both those in the creation account and all of us who have ever lived – are by our nature as men and women types and icons that at once embody and have their ‘logos’ (as it were) in the union of Christ and His Church.

    I freely admit that to my knowledge this subject has never been approached in the way that follows and may therefore seem to be novel. I am no trained theologian or philosopher. I am merely one who submits to the Tradition of the Church and seeks to understand, to the extent possible, the reasons for her practice in order to explain it those who may not understand why these things matter. It is not my desire or intent to be ‘original,’ and doubtless there will be errors of articulation (at best!). I sometimes wonder if it has never been approached in this way simply because never before has the Church’s practice been attacked so viciously from within, nor has she found it necessary to defend and articulate that in which the Tradition handed down to her is grounded. In any case, allow me to begin.

    Editing out Saint Paul’s words pertaining to what might be considered the culturally contextual issue of head- covering, he provides a vision of the Creator’s design that shapes the mind of the Church:

    “…for he [man] is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man. For man is not from the woman, but the woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but the woman for man… Nevertheless, neither is man independent of the woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.”

    If one has listened to the hymns of the Church woven together with the Scripture readings as a seamless garment and thereby acquired her ‘mind,’ one can begin to grasp the link between Adam and Christ (man) and Eve and the Theotokos (and in her the Church [woman]). Immediately after the Old Testament readings in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts the priest sings, “The light of Christ illumines all.” Obviously, this is intended to direct our minds to the fact that the meaning of the Old Testament passages just read have reference to Christ and find their fulfillment in Him. Saint Paul likewise expresses this iconic typology when he quotes from Genesis, speaking of how the Mystery of matrimony is, by its very nature, woven into the mystical union of Christ and His Church.

    “…For we are members of His flesh and His bones ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.”

    It is within the iconographic context of the link between Adam and Christ (the last Adam) and between Eve and the Most Blessed Virgin Mary (the New Eve, “the mother of all the living:” the Church) that the Church seems always to have understood the hierarchy of male and female and the roles proper to each. The words of Saint Paul to the Church at Corinth reveal this iconic understanding of man and woman, and as such I have often pondered that he could just as truly have written it this way:

    “…for Christ is the image and glory of God, but the Theotokos [and, in and through her, the Church] is the glory of the Christ. For Christ did not originate from the Theotokos, but the Theotokos from Christ. Nor was Christ made for the Theotokos, but the Theotokos for Christ … Nevertheless, neither is Christ independent of the Theotokos, nor the Theotokos independent of Christ, in the Lord. For as the Theotokos came from Christ, even so Christ also comes [is incarnate] through her; but all things are from God.”

    With this unmistakable link between our creation and our telos in view it is seems inescapable that the hierarchy of our creation as man and woman is neither the result of our ‘fall’ nor a matter of the cultural norms of any society, past or present. We are living icons of the telos of our creation precisely as men and as women. “In the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.”

    It is certainly true that many, if not perhaps all, cultures have distorted the beauty of this icon through sin in various ways and that far too many men have exploited the hierarchical order in selfishness and pride. It would, however, be more accurate to say that these cultures retain(ed) a memory of creation and its telos (in the same way that the memory of creation is preserved in the seven-day measurement of a week) than to say that the cultures created the hierarchy.

    With some obvious exceptions, I wouldn’t want to impute nefarious motives to ALL those arguing (in some cases I suspect unwittingly) for the destruction of this icon. We cannot, for example, dismiss the far-reaching damage caused by men who lift themselves up in pride, abuse the authority (an authority of love) with which they are entrusted, hurting those in their care and causing untold brokenness (Woe to such men!). They are every bit as, and many cases more, responsible for smashing this icon than those whose views we rightly reject in these conversations.

    But the fact remains that the pursuit of sexual egalitarianism is nothing short of iconoclasm. The diabolical spirit behind it is thoroughly iconoclastic and therefore evil. Like all holy icons, our maleness and femaleness as living icons cannot be smashed without ultimately denying the Incarnation and directing us away from the telos of our creation. This is why wherever this icon is smashed apostasy, sexual confusion, and perversion invariably follow. It is also why hierarchical abuse on the part of men almost always leads the women in their charge to pursue a kind of rebellion that only leads them further from God. Such rebellion can be said to be understandable, but it is nevertheless a misdirection resulting from there having been no true living icon pointing them to the telos of their creation.

    Those who say this deviation from our telos cannot happen in the Orthodox Church because we are somehow magically shielded are like the Jews who said, “The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” (meaning that Jerusalem could not possibly fall to her enemies because the LORD dwelt in her midst) in spite of their willful deviation from the course He had laid before them. Our Lord’s promises that He will be with us into the end of the age and that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church are no guarantee against the apostasy of those who were once counted among her faithful. The Apostolic Epistles and our Lord Himself make this abundantly clear.

    Having said all this, I do not see a contradiction between those Saints/Fathers who affirm the hierarchy and those who speak of the division of humanity into male and female being overcome in the Eschaton. Hierarchy need not be obliterated in order to overcome division. I therefore do not think it is accurate to understand the words of these mystical Fathers as speaking of overcoming the hierarchy. They seem rather to be speaking of the division caused by sin and the consequent subjection to (corrupted) nature in which the strong (men) rule over the weak (women) and both are ruled and divided by the passions of their respective natures. “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This is the division to which I believe they are referring when they speak of it being overcome by our union with God in Christ.

    The models for overcoming of this division are set before us on every iconostas in the persons of Christ and His Mother who rules and reigns in Him and with Him – neither ‘equal’ to Him nor independent of Him, but in perfect union. What they share is analogous to ‘equality’ in that there is nothing He is or has (save His being divine by nature) that He has not given to her, nor is there anything she is or has that she has not given to Him. But the hierarchy remains intact. And her head remains covered, indicating that in the fullness of her glorified state she remains under authority (1 Corinthian 11:10), and her freedom to be all that she was created to be is therein realized in its fullness. There is not even a hint of the egalitarian kind of ‘equality’ envisioned by modernity, nor is the hierarchy one of ‘lording it over’ her. It is a hierarchy of love.

    Yet even if I am mistaken in my understanding of these mystical Fathers, the idea of sexual distinction being fully overcome in this age, in this life, is simply not what they taught. The notion of attempting to overcome it ourselves in this life would for them constitute a sort of spiritual fornication – by which I mean that it is something of which we are not yet ‘worthy,’ being still weakened by sin. We are not prepared to bear the weight of such glory (if, indeed, we are destined for it). Not without reason did the same apostle who wrote, “…there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” also command slaves to be obedient to their masters, wives to submit to their own husbands, and husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church – and this without any contradiction. Likewise, the teaching of the mystical Fathers can in no wise be construed as a call to pursue social justice Although we have been granted a very real foretaste of the Eschaton in the Spirit, it is Christ, not we, who will perfect His Bride and bring it to pass in all its fullness.

    As for the overall subject of the hierarchical order of men and women, Saint Paul has a final word that otherwise faithful Orthodox Christians who constantly push, question, and demand would do well to heed lest they push themselves away from the Church.

    “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”

  13. Brian,
    Thank you so very much for such a well thought out, thorough response, especially with an eye to the iconographic context of the issue.
    Very well said, Brian.

  14. Excellent reflection Brian. I think you are on to something really important when you link the hierarchical order of creation as an iconic reflection on the end of all things (i.e. our ‘telos’) in the the Eschaton. In the same section (I Cor 11) that you are citing St. Paul says “Does not even *nature* itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?”. St. Paul recognizes a knowledge of the end (teleos) from both nature (physis) and of course Revelation. Dr. Frost quotes St. Basil “The natures are alike of equal honor” but she reasons like he just said “The natures are alike”.

    Your emphasis of the Iconic, and thus Christological basis of our understanding of what it means to be human is very important. Dr. Frost emphasizes our “incarnation reality”, but she then goes on to place what is essentially an Iconoclastic moral judgment upon the diversity of this incarnational reality. The judgment demands “absolute parity”. We must remember that Iconoclasm is not a crude smashing of the images, but a religious *moral judgment* – an assertion that we are worshiping Idols. She is accusing us of falsely elevating our nature (physis), or at least our understanding of it (to return to her description of a pseudomorphosis) , up to the Altar of God.

    On the other hand, Dr. Frost relies on this same incarnational reality to indicate a “the need” for a female diaconate. It is because men and women have a different incarnational reality that there is a sacramental “need” for a female diaconate. Why would not these very needs, based as they are on nature, extend up into the hierarchy (i.e. priests and bishops) when an argument from nature is used? What is it about human nature and need that halts at the level of the diaconate?

    What I like about your post Brian is that an Iconic understand and theology contains within it a *mystery* – not only that but a *revealed* mystery. Yes, the telos of anthropos, our created binary of male and female is righteousness and truth and a kind of equality or “absolute parity”. However it also a mystery, and partly hidden. An Icon reveals, but God is not “contained” by the Icon but rather is revealed through it. An Icon does not overcome physis or even triumphs over it, but reveals God through it. What you and St. Paul seem to be saying is that we remain fully human, fully male and female, even in the Righteous Age to come. Our morality, rather from this age’s sacred quest for Justice and Equality or some other ages morality, is not God’s morality. His Righteousness is not ours, and there is something about the our created nature and the hierarchy of our relatedness that is preserved and fulfilled in the Kingdom. We see this in the Holy Icons in our Churches (the Mother of God is in the Kingdom, even now, a mother!). To impose a morality (wherever it comes from – I argue it is a Kantian consciousness and morality) from without is iconoclasm whose target is human nature and ontology…

    Christopher Encapera

  15. One wonders whether a stronger phenomenon of monasticism in the North American church could have warded off these calls for female ordination out of a claim that women’s gifts are missing. In Eastern Europe where women’s monasteries are all around you (there are four within 20 km of my home in any direction), it is obvious that the Church already enjoys significant contributions from women. One of the saddest things about Orthodoxy in North America is that most Orthodox are too far from a monastery to regularly visit one, and even if there is one nearby, there isn’t a tradition of visiting it often or taking spiritual counsel from there.

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