Orthodox pastors on whether sex discrimination exists in the Church

Today there has been much discussion on the issue of women’s equality. Some find a “violation of women rights” even in the Orthodox Church. Indeed, an Orthodox woman cannot become a priest (or “priestess”), she cannot enter the altar, she submits to her husband in marriage and so on. But is it really sexism? Is there gender inequality in Orthodoxy? What is the role of women in the Church? What should we say to heterodox Christians and non-believers regarding “women’s priesthood”? We have asked several pastors of the Russian Orthodox Church to answer these questions.

Photo by Sergei Voronin Photo by Sergei Voronin
    

“Men and women have different roles in life”

Igumen Nektary (Morozov):

Igumen Nektary (Morozov, photo by A. Pospelov/Pravoslavie.ru) Igumen Nektary (Morozov, photo by A. Pospelov/Pravoslavie.ru)
—Taking into consideration who is an Orthodox woman and what is the Church, I believe there is no sex discrimination in the Church. However, unfortunately, sometimes we find people in the Church who regard women to be second-rate creatures. Beyond a doubt, such views are not Christian at all.

Men and women have somewhat different roles in life. Thus, a man cannot become a mother. Only a woman can become a mother. But a woman cannot be ordained a priest—only a man can serve as a priest. But does it mean that there is discrimination in the Church? Not at all! It means that in God’s plan men and women are made for different roles. But all people—men and women alike—are called to achieve the highest perfection, which is possible for anybody. And the Mother of God—a woman by birth and by nature—dwells in the Heavenly Kingdom not only among holy men, but even the highest orders of angels—She is above them all.

Archpriest Sergy Pravdolyubov:

Archpriest Sergy Pravdolyubov. Archpriest Sergy Pravdolyubov.
—Sexism does not exist in the Church. Women have the wonderful state which men cannot have, the state of motherhood! It is very hard for men to imagine that. This is a height that can hardly be fully understood. St. Athanasius (Sakharov) the Confessor, Bishop of Kovrov, once said, “Every time I see a mother with a child in her arms, I recognize an image of the Mother of God in her.” Another Holy New Martyr wrote from his exile on the Solovki, “Be content with what you have.” A mother, a sister, a wife—these words have such a height and grace! Can the social and administrative involvement in the organization of church life take the place of these God-given kinds of service? Why should a woman seek for something different, while disregarding what she already has?

As for monasticism, there is no principal difference between the ascetic labors of men and women there. We can recall that in ancient times most of monks (that is, men) in monasteries were not ordained priests, even in the case of monastery abbots. And when the Holy Abbot Sabbas (St. Sabbas the Sanctified) was ordained a priest, it was such a rare phenomenon that since that time he has been known as “St. Sabbas the Priest”, as opposed to many other abbots who were never ordained.

And what about baking prosphora, skillful sewing of vestments and shrouds, singing in the choir and conducting it, reading at services and many other ways of serving the Church, including the possibility in her old age of obtaining a bishop’s blessing to enter the altar and give the censer to the priest!

That is why the role of women in the Church is multiform and precious, provided there are contrition of heart, obedience to the priest, and curbing of the natural desire to boss people about.

Archpriest Maxim Kozlov:

Archpriest Maxim Kozlov. Archpriest Maxim Kozlov.
—It seems to me there is some sex discrimination in our modern church life, but the victims are men! I am joking. (Smiles). Today our women hold many key posts, from the central administration of the Church to church media. Not to mention icon painters and choir directors, and, recently, even teachers of theological educational institutions: seminaries, Orthodox universities.

Speaking about discrimination in the Church, many mean the fact that the Orthodox Church does not ordain women to the priesthood. Yes, we do not have and will never have women priests, because for Orthodoxy priesthood is neither a kind of an administrative work nor someone’s personal vocation in life, but it is the correlation of this ministry with the service of our Lord Jesus Christ as our High Priest. And we know that the second Person of the Holy Trinity—the Logos—became incarnate as God the Son. This is precisely what the Orthodox Church is based on and what it always relies on.

“Both male and female were created by God”.

Archpriest Oleg Stenyayev:

Archpriest Oleg Stenyayev. Archpriest Oleg Stenyayev.
—Gender inequality does exist in human society, including in Church circles and those on the fringes of the Church. But it would be wrong to assert that the traditional Church teaching justifies discrimination against women because, according to the New Testament, men and women have the same status asGod’screation. And the Bible says that God created male and female in His own image. And one representative of womankind even ascended higher than angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim! It is the Most Holy Virgin Mary. And among saints we venerate holy women alongside holy men. Opening the Orthodox calendar, we will find a multitude of male and female names in it. So our very tradition gives absolutely no ground for discrimination against women.

Archpriest Alexander Kuzin:

—The Myrrh-bearing Women were apostles to the apostles, according to St. John the Theologian! What can be higher!

Apostle Paul says, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man” (1 Tim. 2:12). Meanwhile, it is he who says that by example of her life, piety and noble look women can succeed in what is beyond the power of the word.

Who is higher? The one who attains the aim.Is there any space for discrimination there? No!

“There cannot be equality in principle, and that is not discrimination.”

Archpriest Pavel Gumerov:

Archpriest Pavel Gumerov. Archpriest Pavel Gumerov.
—Undoubtedly, there is no discrimination in the Church, because discrimination is derogation of some and elevation of others. There are particularities and tasks of each sex which God preordained for us. We have these particularities and tasks regardless of the country we live in or the culture we were raised in. In theory and in practice, there cannot be any equality, equal rights of men and women.

Feminists and women rights activists have put so much effort and striving into gaining equal rights, but have achieved little. Why? Because in any country men and women have quite different rights and duties. In our own country, for instance, there has been a struggle for equal rights of men and women for over 100 years. And what are the results? We can even enumerate point by point that there are no equality and equal rights at all. And that is not interpreted as discrimination—that is a normal reality.

So, point by point:

Firstly, in Russia men and women have different retirement ages, women retire much earlier than men.

Secondly, the Russian Federation’s Constitution imposes universal military service—but that does not apply to women, who do not have to serve in the army.

Thirdly, in case of a divorce a child nearly always remains with his/her mother, exceptions are very rare. Only if the mother is an alcoholic or a drug addict, can the child remain with the father. Some fathers want to raise their children after divorce and for years try to score success through courts; some in despair even sink to stealing their children from their ex-wives. But in most cases our state is on the mother’s side.

Fourthly, in most sports men and women play separately. Men and women neither box together, nor wrestle with each other, nor lift the bar together, nor play football together… And they even play chess separately. And this applies to nearly all sports.

The question of discrimination against women is raised, but, if we look at the above with the eyes of men, then it will seem that there is discrimination against men! However, we definitely cannot see violation of someone’s rights here. Representatives of each sex have their own functions. The functions are excellent, marvelous.

And, fifthly, this point concerns the fair sex only. All around the world 99% of directors of businesses, factories,oil companies, banks, various enterprises—in a word, leaders of all levels from a factory director to the head of a state—are men rather than women. And only a very low percentage are ladies. And that is right for absolutely all countries, even for super-democratic and ultra-feminist ones. It might be interpreted as sexism, but… What prevents women in the countries with mature democracy (where women rights are particularly respected) from holding managerial positions? Why is there proportion of over 90% of leaders are men and only a handful are ladies, and not vice versa? The reason behind it is that man is a head, a leader by nature. This is how the Lord created him. Woman has another role, other priorities: first the family and children; and only then all the rest.

Now regarding the role of woman in the Church. Her role is wonderful, and this has been since the first centuries of Christianity. This is diaconia—the social ministry, aid to the poor and needy; this is also the mission “from the rear” when women assisted the apostles and Christian communities through their skills. Women have been extremely successful in church art, church singing, needlework and many other fields.

The apostle says, “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34). What does he mean?He means preaching in the church. But nobody ever forbad them to do missionary work, catechize, enlighten. It is women that mainly work at Sunday schools and do catechizing (prepare people for Baptism) at our parishes. St. Nino, the enlightener of Georgia, along with other holy women who are ranked equals-to-the-apostles enlightened many whole lands!

The issue of the seeming “discrimination” is the issue of female priesthood. This subject requires a special talk and explanation. But now I will be brief. There are certain spheres of life where it is absurd to see women involved. A lady can become an officer, but I have never seen a lady general or a lady marshal, though I communicate with the military very often. I mean not generals who just work in general staff, but those who are in combat, in hot spots. I have not seen such ladies! A ladymilitary leader, a commander who serves in the army not as a doctor or a nurse, but as a general… A lady long-distance truck driver, or a lady lumberjack… Legally it is possible, but why?

A priest is an image of Christ in the Church. But is Christ a woman? No. That is a full answer. It should be recalled that it was Christianity that freed woman, raised her status to a great height. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God said to Adam: “Cursed is the ground for your sake”, and to Eve: “He (your husband) will rule over you” (see chapter 3 of Genesis)—because the woman abused her freedom. But that was said before the coming of Christ. And with the coming of the Savior a new era began.

The history of the whole pre-Christian world, especially in the East, was marked by the humiliating state of women who were used as slaves. There women were treated slightly better than domestic animals. Christianity has a very different attitude towards women. Apostle Peter says, “Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).

Christianity freed woman. And the present situation of women is a result of the respectful attitude that began with Christianity. Each sex has its own rights and duties, and that is absolutely normal. And no secular state can ensure equal rights to its men and women. That is simply impossible.

“Holiness is equally granted to men and women.”

Archpriest Alexei Uminsky:

Archpriest Alexei Uminsky, photo by Bg.ru. Archpriest Alexei Uminsky, photo by Bg.ru.
—Of course, in the Church women do not have equal rights with men. But can it be called discrimination? I do not think so. The word “discrimination” means some sort of humiliation and use, some manipulation on the ground of sex. If men and women are paid different salaries for the same job, that is clearly discrimination. If different disciplines were imposed on men and women—say, stricter requirements to women as regards fasting and fulfilment the commandments—that would be discrimination. Quite the contrary: in reality there are more relaxations of restrictions to women, for example, during the period of pregnancy andnursing. So, from this point of view, there is no discrimination in the Church. But there are different rights. Yet duties before God in fulfilling the commandments and obeying the Gospel are the same. Men and women are equal before God, as Apostle Paul puts it: in Christ there is neither male nor female—no matter what one’s race or status is—for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (see Galatians 3:28). Salvation is equally granted to both men and women, holiness is equally granted to both men and women. Remarkably, in such lay ministries as charity (works of mercy) and motherhood women can outshine men greatly. The same can be said of the Myrrh-bearing Women and their kind of ministry. That is one of the most beloved Paschal feasts—the day of the Holy Myrrh-bearing Women. And there is a huge potential of women’s service to God in it.

The absence of women priests in the Orthodox Church may be regarded by some as discrimination. But it cannot be taken as such, because, in this case, the inability of men to become mothers might be regarded as discrimination as well! The ministry of priesthood applies to men, to fathers only. Women have their own opportunities to serve God and people. And men have other opportunity which women do not have. These different missions complement each other in our aspiration for salvation. So we can speak about our differences, our “inequality”, that God made us—men and women—different by nature so that we may serve and complement each other.

“The hierarchy is not discrimination, but a guarantee of harmony.”

Priest Alexander Shumsky:

Priest Alexander Shumsky Priest Alexander Shumsky
—Surely such discrimination does not exist. Sometimes there are situations when I want to stop and quiet women in the church. Only secular feminists like Maria Arbatova and various church modernists like to talk about discrimination against women in the Church. These individuals are not pleased with the fact that God first created Adam and then made Eve from Adam’s rib. Figuratively speaking, they would have been happier if God had taken two handfuls of dust from ground and breathed the breath of life into them simultaneously, so that men and women should have equality.

The Church has a hierarchy: a hierarchy both in heaven and on earth, and everything revolves around the hierarchy. The hierarchy is the following: God—man—woman. And there is nothing discriminating in the fact that woman’s position is after God and man. In the hierarchy everybody is in his/her place of ministry: each place is honorable and human dignity is valued here, and the woman’s dignity is not diminished at all.

In the Church women have their own kinds of service which cannot be carried out by men, and vice versa. Woman is man’s helper, and there is no discrimination on the ground of sex here, because he who is helped cannot survive without the helper! That is why they are equal, as a matter of fact: woman, the helper, is equal with man through her dignity given by God. And the hierarchy exists so that all may be carried out in harmony and good order.

Prepared by novice Nikita (Popov)
Translation by Dmitry Lapa

6/13/2016

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