Women, Lived Orthodoxy, and Ordination

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I am informed that Sr. Vassa recently presented an in-person lecture and spiritual reflection at the seminar “Women and Lived Orthodoxy” at the New Valaam monastery in Heinavesi, Finland on September 15-17, 2023. Presumably this is the event she referred to in her Coffee with Sr. Vassa blog of September 17, under the title “Women’s Issues in our Church”.   In her blog she described the conference as one to which “men were also invited, (but only one attended),” and at which “many women shared their concerns about the difference between the roles or “place(s)” open to them outside of church, and those open to them within the church”. I do understand why only one man attended, given the fact that the event promised to be a platform for the usual feminist attack on the Tradition of the Church. Why fly to Finland for something that you could get for free anytime online on Public Orthodoxy?

In her blog, Sr. Vassa wrote: “The vocations of women have expanded ‘outside’ church, not because of any rebellion or revolution brought about specifically by Orthodox Christian women, but because of various, God-given, historical circumstances, like the fairly-new (in the big picture of world history) reality of women receiving higher education, leadership and management positions in various fields, e.g., often being the primary bread-winners in their own families; prime ministers in government (as was a woman here in Finland, just recently); CEOs in corporations; tenured professors at academic faculties, etc.                                                    

But within the church, women’s vocations are still governed by canonical texts penned by men well over a millennium ago. And if any of us women try to speak about our new situation today, which calls for new canonical forms and norms, the reaction of our church-men to such a conversation is often like the reaction of the Apostles to the news of the women, who came from the empty Tomb on that Sunday morning two millennia ago: the men dismiss our testimonies as ‘idle tales.’ In fact, seeking to talk with our church-men about the need for new canonical forms and norms for women’s ministries often feels like seeking ‘the living among the dead.’”

It is not clear to me what Sr. Vassa means by “canonical texts penned by men well over a millennium ago”. Does she refer to the canons of the Church councils? Or perhaps the canonical Scriptures of the New Testament which clearly forbid women to function as teachers and clergy in the Church? Either way, it does seem clear that she is objecting to the Church’s two-millenia exclusion of women from such leadership positions in the Church as the clergy. In this she is hardly alone: such women as Elizabeth Behr-Sigel (d. 2005 at the venerable age of 98) and Eva Topping (d. 2011 at the age of 91) have been pushing this agenda for many years.  

The reason she gives for objecting to this exclusion?—that times have changed culturally and that since women now occupy positions of authority in the world (such as “the primary bread-winners in their own families; prime ministers in government; CEOs in corporations; tenured professors at academic faculties”), there is no rational reason apart from anachronistic and outdated canonical texts penned by men well over a millennium ago” that women may not now occupy such positions of leadership in the Church. In other words, the Church’s original rationale for excluding women from the priesthood and the episcopate was cultural and political, not theological. But is it?

For anyone formed by the patristic phronema, one must begin with the Scriptures, since that is the root to which the Fathers always returned. A complete exegesis and survey of the Biblical material is not possible here. But here I would like to focus upon a single text, as characteristic of the whole: that of 1 Timothy 2:11-12. It reads: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.  But I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a wrongdoer.”   

We note in this text that, assuming Pauline authorship (a topic too large to be debated here), the quietness in which a woman must remain in the liturgical assembly is not absolute: presumably a woman could pray or prophesy (with her head covered), and sing along with the rest of the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:13, 14:31, Ephesians 5:19). What was forbidden her here as elsewhere was authoritative speaking, teaching, and judging such as were done by the presbyters.

We note too the reason for the exclusion—it was not rooted in any lack of education or political power, but in the hierarchical order of creation. It is when she transgresses this taxis and order that the Enemy is able to step in and deceive. Denouncing this as “Rabbinical exegesis” (in the words of Behr-Sigel) is unworthy of truly Orthodox exegesis. We may or may not like it, but this prohibition is found in Holy Scripture (a “canonical text” though penned “well over a millennium ago”) and we are stuck with it. But we may still delve deeper into the proffered rationale for the prohibition, and ask why women are barred from the role of priest in the Church.

As C. S. Lewis intuited long ago in his essay Priestesses in the Church? a priest is not something that a person does, but something a person is—in other words, there is an iconic dimension to priesthood. In particular, a priest is not just someone who preaches, baptizes, liturgizes, counsels, etc. A priest is someone who functions as a father to a family, an icon of paternal authority, and gender is not unrelated to such fatherhood. In some single parent families, women may be forced to try to fill the father’s role, just as men may be forced to try to fill the mother’s role. But fathers and mothers are not interchangeable, as any young child can tell you. Men and women have different gifts, different approaches to life, and different roles in the family, and these differentia are supported by their biology. That is, the differences between male and female are not confined to mere anatomy; they go all the way to the heart and bone, and the job of the father in the family must inevitably draw upon those basic differences. Mothers and fathers are very different and these differences are rooted in biology. And because a priest functions as a father to the Church, priesthood is confined to men. (A more detailed examination of this topic can be found here.)

What happens in the world is irrelevant to this, for things like companies with CEOs, governments with Prime Ministers, and academic faculties with tenured professors are not families. They are human constructions, and do not partake of the divine hierarchical realities that families do—including the family that is the Church of God.

True lived Orthodoxy is rooted in the family of the Church—a family built upon apostolic foundations. And those foundations preclude women from the ordained priesthood. Women indeed have a valuable ministry—a ministry every bit as valuable as that of the priesthood, as do all the holy and baptized laity. But that ministry lies outside the confines of the altar. For Orthodoxy to be truly and well lived, it needs to be built upon apostolic foundations and remain within the limits set by the apostles.

Ambrose11/8/2023 4:59 pm
The simplest reason for not having women deacons, priests, or bishops is that whenever a "church" does, they implode. See the anglican communion for the reality of women with priestly power.
Ronda Wintheiser10/20/2023 5:22 pm
Father, I think you must have blocked me on Facebook due to my participation in a conversation about the guide you provided for the OCA? Regardless, I just wanted to express to you how much I appreciate this post. And I am sorry if I offended you with my criticism of whatever it was that you wrote.
R. Vladimir10/20/2023 3:57 pm
In response to Frater's comment: I understood Michelle's comment to point to our modern/Western inability to see the Priesthood as an icon of Christ insofar as our households are deeply broken. Whether we want to blame the Sexual Revolution and other cultural forces or our individual failings, many men have abandoned our place as provider, protector and principal in family life. For children growing up in a home in which the father is absent, distant or disengaged, the "typology" embedded in family life is distorted or lost, and the vacuum may be filled by a modern Gnosticism in which "gender" is an immaterial construct. I speak not to condemn other fathers, but realizing the depth of my place as "chief of sinners" has been revealed to me over the decades, including my failings as an icon of heavenly fatherhood.
Panagiotis10/19/2023 4:59 am
A woman belongs in the home, plain and simple! The man is the head of the family, and he is the one that should be out working and financially supporting his family! The woman should be home taking care of her children and cleaning her house. This is the way that it was for thousands of years! The no good feminists were the ones that said women can go out and work and have everything. How did that turn out in the defile Western countries? Children are being born illegitimately with no fathers and grow up to be criminals. Many women are sexual pigs. Pathetic dysfunctional families have infested the decadent West. The dirty sodomites are also pushing feminism. Feminism has been the greatest disaster in history. Feminism is the root cause of so many societal problems. Feminism leads to the destruction of the traditional patriarchal family. When the families are destroyed, then the communities are destroyed, and the Churches are destroyed, and the nations are destroyed. Strong families produce strong Nations! No good liberalism and feminism is leading to nihilism. This is what the sinister internationalists want. The diabolical ones want to destroy the traditional family. The devious ones want to destroy the conservative Orthodox Churches. The sinister ones want to destroy conservative Russia. They hate ALL Orthodox Christians. This is paving the way for the arrival of their false Messiah, I.E. the Antichrist, who will be a sexual deviant, born from a sexually defiled feminist mother! The first feminist was Eve, and she was responsible for the original sin. The word evil comes from the word Eve, the first feminist! Take a look at the weak Protestant churches that now have so-called female "ministers" and see how pathetic they are. If women are ever allowed to become Priests in the Orthodox Churches, then this will result in the complete destruction of our Church. I speak the truth, and I do not care if people like it or not. I am Strong Orthodox, and I will always be. All glory to our Almighty God, all glory to Him. FEAR HIM. Just my humble opinion.
Michelle Bosma10/18/2023 10:19 pm
Both men and women belong in the home. For all of history, men and women worked together with their children and extended families from the center of the world, the heart, the home. Men who spent winters threshing wheat were displaced by the invention of the mechanized threshing machine in the 1700s and beyond; men were forced outside of the home to find work, they were forced off of farms. Very recently, through increasing competition with machines, men were pressured to become machines themselves. (1750s) // It is a myth that women did not work and should not be expected to work. Women earned significant income through the production of cloth (look at early Christian women and their many layers of head and neck scarves, a sign of wealth!), dairy products, and children. But women -- except for a brief stint in the Victorian and Edwardian eras when they worked in factory settings with their children -- worked from home. (1750s - 1900s) // After a few generations away from men and the company of other women, women have failed to mature -- they are isolated and restricted to the company of children. Women's work became mechanized and women were relegated to teh "domestic arts" -- singing, entertaining, needlework, porcelain painting. After a few generations away from mature women who produce goods to sell -- men primarily view women as adolescents, as sex objects at best. There is little to no memory how a mature man might relate to a mature woman in a way that the woman does not use the man for money and the man does not use the woman for sex. We have all become objects, we have lost our humanity. (1850s - 1960s) // A program of public education for children, the invention of birth control, and the gradual forgetting by men that their role is to protect women and children from public life (danger) creates a culture that compels women into the workforce. Women outcompete men, but do not rise in the ranks of public life because they are constantly sabotaged by other women. Women have no way to correct the aggressive women who are unable to comprehend the situation; women can only call on the aid of men to correct the offending women, which then give the offending women the ability to decry men. (1960s - 2020s). // Overall, we've reached a point where the men are weak because their fathers left the house and they only know women as porn objects, women are on chemicals and have their children taken from them and feel compelled to have abortions, and children are orphans in public institutions who have very little meaningful time with their parents. // I don't blame Sr Vassa for convening a conference. I would have liked to attend. Making women into machines the way that men were made into machines is not the answer. I propose that both men and women try to find work from home and homeschool children at the same time, with men and women both earning salaries. The main issue with women desiring the Priesthood is illustrated above by the reality that the Priest is the Father. To fix this, we need to know the love of a father in the home.
Frater Archibald10/18/2023 9:38 pm
So you are saying that only having male priests is like having a monoparental family? That makes sense and I agree with you.
Xenia10/18/2023 9:15 pm
This article makes big assumptions about Sr. Vassa's intention. There is no reason to jump to the conclusion she means female priests or that she is questioning scripture. Church canons are applied differently or disregarded all the time. Perhaps she is simply referring to canons involving menstruation, tonsuring readers, or deaconesses?
Stephen10/18/2023 4:59 pm
Sr. Vassa's take on "women's issues" in the Church seems to reflect certain philosophical commitments she has but doesn't identify. Her views on history and authority are more akin to the philosophical notions of genealogy and power that one finds in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and French theorists like Foucault and Derrida -- not the Church Fathers. From listening to her and reading some of her essays, my guess is she has been influenced by Foucault in his analysis of institutions and "discourses of power." She just never mentions the critical theory she draws on.
R. Vladimir 10/18/2023 4:37 pm
Thank you Father for this concise overview as to why the Church assigns different ecclesial roles based on sex. It seems that the issue of women's ordination is a stumbling block to many and a potential source of greater division within the Church. Those who would invoke the means and methods of the theologically liberal mainline churches ought look at what's become of them once a secular deconstructionism is unleashed upon Holy Tradition. So that this discussion is not framed simply in terms of what Orthodoxy opposes, I think it's important to continue to emphasize that Orthodoxy exalts women in a way that I've not seen in any other church or religion (e.g., the role of the Priest's wife, our veneration of the Theotokos and frequent remembrances of the lives of many women saints and the Church's advocacy of sacramental marriage as a means to flourishing by both women and men). I appreciate you continuing this hard discussion, in truth, love and humility.
Basil Almy10/18/2023 4:13 pm
Well said, Father. Thank you for your insight.
Alex10/18/2023 3:50 pm
Well, what did you expect from Sr. Vassa?! She seems to create controversy at every turn. (Doesn't it also seem strange that a woman monastic doesn't actually live in a monastery?)
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