Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Orthodox Eve and the Royal Priesthood

Thus the Orthodox Church has within its historical experience a precedent for the ordination of women to the sacramental priesthood. By renewing the ancient order of deaconesses the church would move away from the patriarchal tradition that restricts women's roles in the church on the grounds that she is inferior to and more sinful then man. At the same time it would be a move toward fulfilling the promise of Galatians 3:28, that in the body of Christ there is neither male nor female.58 In view of the precedent of the deaconesses some Orthodox theologians see no theological obstacles to the ordination of women to the other ranks of the priesthood, the presbyter and bishop.59

To restore, however, the egalitarianism and inclusiveness of the primitive church will not be easy. Change is always difficult; Christ suffered crucifixion as a result of the divine changes He brought. The habits of many centuries have to be overcome. It is never easy to break with established patterns of thought and behavior, to cast off taboos, fears and superstitions. Above all, how difficult it is to separate divine laws and human conventions. Where then can the church look for guidance in turning away from the patriarchal and androcentric traditions that have for so long governed its attitudes and praxis concerning women? Where else than to its founder, who lived briefly on earth to show the way from the old to the new creation

To fulfill his liberating vision of philanthropia and diakonia Christ challenged outworn creeds, laws and rituals. He rejected ancient regulations for fasting. New wine had needed to be put in new skins (Mark 2:2). Traditional religious observances meant less to him than did humankind's physical and spiritual welfare. "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Jesus accused the religious establishment of ignoring God's commandments and clinging to conventions created by themselves. "How well you succeed in getting around the commandment of God in order to preserve your own tradition" (Mark 7:8-9).

Jesus' words and example light the way to understanding his new law for women and men. In his attitude toward and relationships with women He deliberately and instructively broke time-honored customs and laws that diminished women's dignity and humanity.60 Nowhere in the four Gospels does he treat women as special, inferior beings. In no instance does he endorse negative, destructive attitudes towards women. He was a revolutionary teacher who invited women to join his circle of disciples, to study and learn the word of God. Jesus never mapped a special sphere for women. He never urged them to be "feminine." When Mary of Bethany chose for herself a role traditionally defined as "masculine," Christ did not send her back to the kitchen, forcing her to fit the patriarchal sexist model. Rather, he insisted that women as well as men are called to the intellectual and spiritual life.61 Above all, He treated Mary of Bethany and all women as autonomous persons of equal worth and dignity. His church should do no less.

Jesus disregarded religious taboos which humiliated women and excluded them from cult and society as "unclean." The three synoptic gospels (Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 9:20-26; Luke 8:42-48) record Jesus' public rejection of the blood taboo, the "uncleanness" of women with a flow of blood. No matter what his tradition prescribed, Jesus simply did not believe in the ritual "uncleanness" of women. Yet two thousand years later this old taboo persists, setting women apart.62

On another occasion Jesus again deliberately violated traditional codes governing the relationship between men and women. Men, and rabbis in particular, never spoke to women in public. That a rabbi would discuss theology with a woman was unthinkable. According to a remarkable account in John 4:4-26 Jesus did both. By the well of Jacob, a public place, Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, initiated conversation with a woman of Samaria, member of the inferior sex and of a despised religious sect. This conversation is the longest recorded of Jesus. Before long the conversation turned to religion and at the end he instructed the foreign woman how to worship God: "God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).

To worship God who created female and male in the divine image only spirit and truth matter. The gender, race, social or economic position of the worshiper never matter to God who is spirit. Manifestly, they did not matter at all to Jesus when he discussed theology with the Samaritan woman. He did not despise her because of her sex, reject her because of her religion, or shun her because of her life-style. To this woman, not to one of the twelve male apostles, Jesus made an important disclosure about His identity. To this "weaker vessel" he revealed for the first time that he was the Messiah foretold by the prophets of Israel (John 4: 25-26).

That gender seems to matter to the church, that gender defines women, places them en deutera taxei (in second place) and justifies restricted roles for Orthodox women has nothing to do with God's commandment. It has everything to do with customs, conventions and traditions created by the pride, fears and prejudices of fallible human beings.