Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Reflections of an Orthodox Feminist

For almost two millennia this sexist theology has determined the attitudes and praxis of the church. Set down in the ecclesiastical books and inscribed in the experience of women as well, its existence cannot be denied any longer. Nor can we dismiss such a powerful and ancient tradition as either flights of rhetorical hyperbole or as an incidental current of monastic influence. Surely the time has come to discuss it seriously and openly.

Since the authority of the Fathers is often invoked in defense of women's subordination in and outside the church, it is instructive to review briefly their position. The proper place of women was succinctly stated in the fifth century by the influential dogmatic theologian, St Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. This fervent champion of the Theotokos and one of the Church's most prestigious theologians expressed patristic consensus with these words: "the male must always rule; the female must everywhere remain in second class" (PG 9 68, col. 1068C). No Father then or Orthodox theologian now disputed the view that cosmic order, taxis in society and church, requires second class status for women. Yet the Fathers knew and sometimes quoted Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28, texts which affirm women’s creation in the image of God, and the equality of the sexes in the ekklesia of Christ. In constructing their theology of women they ignored these affirming texts in favor of those that sentenced the entire female sex, with only one exception, to segregation, silence and subordination. The preferred texts of androcentrism are well known from repeated use through many centuries: from the Old Testament the second and third chpaters of Genesis: from the New Testament, passages such as Ephesians 5:24, Colossians 3:18, I Peter 3:7, I Timothy 2:11-15, I Corinthians 11:1-3. It is significant that no sexist proof-text comes from the four Gospels.

The learned and brilliant Greek founding fathers of Christianity justified women's subordination on two grounds. First, women possessed a special nature, divinely ordained. "Female nature" appears repeatedly in Greek patristic writings and in Byzantine hymnography. Weakness is said to characterize "female nature." Scriptural sanction for this description is provided by I Peter 3:7, where woman is called the "weaker vessel." Unlike males who reflect the glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7), females, descendants of a spare rib, are considered derivative, secondary beings without autonomy. Thus, "female weakness" forms a fundamental premise of traditional theology of woman.

Consider this example of patristic proof of female inferiority. St. Clement of Alexandria (ante 215) wrote that by removing a rib from Adam to create Eve God forever purged males of all weakness. Therefore he concludes that males are whole and perfect, females fractured and imperfect. The fact that man's beard is older than Eve further proves his "superior nature" (PG 8, col. 581A-B).

The Fathers spelled out in great detail the various weaknesses of woman's alleged flawed nature. St. John Chrysostom (ob. 407) had a low opinion of women's intellect and capacity for reason. Hence, he declares, it is wise for women to be confined to the home, performing unimportant, undemanding domestic chores (PG 62., col. 500). The golden-tongued archbishop of Constantinople described the female sex as emotional, fickle, superficial, garrulous and servile in temperament (PG 47, cols. 510-511; 61, col. 316; 62, col. 548). Chrysostom held these conventional sexist prejudices despite his own personal experience of women. His mother was renowned in pagan as well as in Christian circles. In Constantinople he had enjoyed the company of cultivated women deacons, who proved to be his most loyal supporters. St. Epiphanios of Cyprus (ob. 403) attributed these defects to the second sex: instability, weak-mindedness, frenzy and vanity (PG 42, cols. 740D, 745B). St. Gregory the Theologian (ob, c. 390) believed that by nature women are "ostentatious and self-indulgent" (PG 35, col. 800A).

These and similar characterizations are repeated over and over in prose and poetry, in sermons and hymns. They created a demeaning and negative image of women. This monolithic caricature denies women individuality and autonomy, the possibility of growth and maturity.

By naming Eve as the source of sin and evil the Fathers further bolstered their sexist theology. Because of woman Eden fell to grief. Scapegoating Eve and her daughters did not begin with my poet Romanos. Originally descriptive, the folktale of Genesis 2 and 3 became for the church prescriptive. Therefore, women deserve their fate, pain in childbirth, and subservience to husbands (Genesis 3:16). Female subservience to males is divine punishment for the crimes committed by the first woman. Thus St. Gregory of Nyssa (ob. 394) sees the hand of God in the unequal relationship of husband and wife. It is, he writes, by divine commandment that a wife is "not mistress of herself." Without her husband the wife has no existence. Her dependence on him is total: "if she is separated from him even briefly, it is as if she has been deprived of her head" (PG 46, col. 332C).

Second in the order of creation and first in the order of sin, women were doomed to inferiority and subordination in a patriarchal culture and church. This sexist theology sanctified patriarchal institutions and structures that oppressed women. It would be impossible to measure or to exaggerate the effect of this ideology on the lives of