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Thoughts on Women's Ordination

Fr. John Morris

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DURING THE LAST PART of the twentieth century, Feminism swept through society like a raging forest fire and has become one of the most significant developments in modern history. It is not an exaggeration to state that feminism has redefined almost every aspect of contemporary American culture.

Feminists and their supporters have demanded and received changes in the English language, which, like Orwell's "Newspeak," more correctly express the prejudices of their movement. Thus, it is no longer acceptable to say "mankind." Instead one must say "humankind." A postman is now a letter carrier. A fireman is now a firefighter and even clergymen are now clergypersons. In schools, young girls learn to be assertive and to reject traditional feminine qualities while boys are urged to "get in touch with their feminine side." In every place where radical feminists have gained a footing, their ideas have overwhelmed traditional beliefs in many different ways including religion. Not only have feminists demanded and received admission of women to the ordained ministry, they have also successfully persuaded many Christians to redefine their understanding of God to conform to the feminist ideology.

Thus, some have rejected as "patriarchal," and therefore suspect, the ancient Biblical understanding of God as "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Instead, some have now replaced the ancient Trinitarian language and now call God "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier." Since the adoption of feminism is surrender to the forces of political correctness, it is only natural that those Christians who have done so should change adopting a "pro- choice" position on abortion and even affirming the morality of homosexual relationships.

If it is necessary to redefine God to conform to a secular ideology such as feminism, it is necessary to redefine everything else, thereby inventing a new, politically correct, feminized religion that only has a superficial similarity to traditional Christianity. In almost every case, one of the first steps in the feminization of religion is the ordination of women. During the last few decades virtually ever Christian group, with the exception of a few more conservative Protestant bodies, the Roman Catholic Church and, of course, the Orthodox Church, has yielded to pressure from feminists and has admitted women to the ordained ministry. Significantly, the secular media has fallen into line with feminist ideology and speaks with derision about those Christian groups which still adhere to the ancient prohibition against the ordination of women. However, it is important to understand that the ordination of women is only part of a process that eventually leads to a rejection of Biblical and Traditional Christianity in favor of a new feminized and ultimately heretical religion.

It is only natural that this ferment which is spreading through every aspect of society should sooner or later begin to make its influence felt within the Orthodox Church. Although very few, if any, serious Orthodox theologians advocate the ordination of women, some Orthodox question other beliefs that fail to meet the test of political correctness. The ordination of females was not an issue until very recently, the Holy Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils provide few reasons why the Church only ordains men. Instead, they take it for granted that only certain men may become priests.

Although it may not satisfy those who seek a rational explanation, the historical practice of the Church may very well be the best argument against the ordination of women. One might ask, if it is wrong to deny women ordination, why would the Church, which is led by the Holy Spirit to manifest the will of God in society, be guilty of oppression against women by denying them their rightful place in the ranks of the clergy? Christ chose no women Apostles. The Church has never allowed women to become priests or bishops. Indeed, those few "Christian" groups in antiquity that allowed some form of women's ordination were far outside the mainstream of Christianity and were associated with Gnosticism and/or some other major heresy. That should be enough to convince any faithful Orthodox Christian that it would be the height of arrogance for some in the twenty-first century to claim they are qualified to declare that the Church has been wrong for almost 2,000 years.

Indeed, if it is an injustice to deny women ordination, why did not Christ Himself set the example by choosing women Apostles? Neither Christ nor his followers had the slightest inhibition against speaking out against the injustices of their time. If the denial of ordination were an injustice, one would expect that Christ, who criticized so many of the practices of the religious establishment of His day, would have set the example for his followers by naming at least one woman Apostle. St. John Chrysostom, who died in exile because he spoke out against the excesses of the Empress, would not have hesitated to demand that the Church end any oppression of women.

Efforts to use human reason to explain the priesthood tear Orthodox theology from its historical roots and graft it onto a foreign system of thought. The result is not a new and relevant Orthodoxy, but a fundamental distortion of Orthodoxy that rejects the mystical and apophatic nature of Orthodox theology in a vain quest to answer arguments that come largely from the secular world, by the standards of the secular world. If Orthodox theology is reduced to that which can be understood or rationally explained, the Orthodox Church will soon fall into the same trap that has all but destroyed Christianity in the Western world. Since the eighteenth century Enlightenment, Western theologians have rejected or deemphasized the supernatural because of the belief that the supernatural has no place in a scientific and reason-oriented world. This has produced the demythologizing of Bultmann and his followers, who consider the Resurrection of Christ and His miracles irrelevant ideas that are unacceptable to modern humans. Thus, they reject any aspect of the Bible that does not fit into their rationalistic world. This process has finally led to the excesses of the Jesus Seminar, which discards much of text of the Gospels because it does not fit into their rather limited presuppositions.

Others have gone to other extremes and have redefined Christianity according to their own highly subjective presuppositions. Thus, there is now feminist theology, liberation theology and even gay theology, all of which recreate the Christian Faith into the image of the personal political, economic and social prejudices of whatever secular ideology the individual theologian favors. Therefore, a satisfactory Orthodox answer to the demands for women's ordination may be that the Orthodox Church only ordains men to the priesthood, because that is what the Church has always done. Indeed, the precise reasons why the Church believes that God has decreed that only men can become priests may lie in the category of mystery.

Indeed, every other major truth of Orthodox Christianity is ultimately firmly grounded in the concept that the ways of God are often a mystery to the human mind. The Orthodox Church rejects any effort to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity or refuses to try to explain precisely what happens to the bread and wine in the Eucharist according to the categories of physical science. Thus, the Church may do better to apply the same principles to ordination and to refuse to resort to human reason to explain why only men can be ordained. Instead, the Church should reaffirm its belief that the Church is led by the Holy Spirit to proclaim and preserve the truth taught by Christ to His Apostles. Christ established the priesthood and, for reasons that may very well remain a mystery, chose only men.

Therefore, the fact that God has led His Church to restrict ordination to the priesthood solely to men for almost 2,000 years should be reason enough to continue the practice of the Church and to reject the demands of those influenced by feminism to begin ordaining women to the priesthood. Although it is risky to attempt to explain the priesthood or any other mystery of the Faith through human reason, one can find many flaws in the argument in favor of the ordination of women to the priesthood. The first flaw is that Christ chose only men to be Apostles because He was limited to the social prejudices of the time in which he lived. Our Lord did not hesitate to violate the social norms of His society in His treatment of women. For example, in the story of Mary and Martha Christ favors Mary, who refuses to be limited by the traditional prejudice against women as unworthy or incapable of intellectual activity.

Thus, instead of serving the men as Martha, who represents the traditional role of women in first century Jewish society, Mary joins the men as they listen to the teaching of Christ. Again, at the well, Christ breaks Jewish tradition and discusses serious theological matters not only with a woman, but with a Samaritan woman. Finally, contrary to all standards of ancient Jewish society, the first witnesses of the Resurrection are not men, but women. Thus, since Christ broke radically with the culture in which He lived by elevating women to a level unknown in ancient Jewish society, it would have been no great scandal for Him to choose women Apostles. However, He did not choose women Apostles, and for that reason alone, the Church which considers its priesthood an outgrowth of the Apostolic office, should not contradict Our Lord by ordaining women to the episcopate and the priesthood.

Some Feminist theologians argue that the Church began to oppress women because it perverted the original teachings of Christ by adopting the views of the secular society of that time towards women. Indeed, some feminists have created a mythological view of early Church history, which reflects their politically correct ideas rather than serious historical research. According to this argument, the advent of the episcopacy and orthodox doctrine were means to impose the authority of men over women. However, there is virtually no historical proof to support these arguments, aside from a few quotations from heretical groups such as the Gnostics or the Montanists.

Some feminists have proclaimed ancient tombs marked "presbyteria" prove that women were ordained to the priesthood in the ancient Church. Obviously these "scholars" have failed to realize that "presbyteria" is an ancient title given to the wife of a priest, not a title given to an ordained woman. Yet, by trying to revise the Christian religion to conform to a secular movement like women's liberation, they themselves are guilty of surrendering to the fads of the secular culture. Thus, instead of the Church exercising its prophetic role by proclaiming the will of God to a sinful society, they reverse this role by demanding that the Church change its beliefs to conform to secular society.

Actually, the argument frequently made by feminists that the Christian Church has traditionally oppressed women is not completely valid. The role of women in the Church is much more nuanced than feminists would have us believe. Although the Church had to function in a society that considered women inferior, the Church has done more than any other movement in history to enhance the position of women. The Church steadfastly rejected the ancient practice of allowing girl babies to die, and insisted on the human worth of all humans, including women. Indeed, at least one recent scholar has argued that one of the major reasons for the growth of the Church in the ancient world was that it attracted many women because of its positive view of women.[1] Throughout its history the Church has honored and respected women. Long before the birth of feminism, the Orthodox Church recognized St. Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb as "Apostles to the Apostles." Indeed, centuries before devotion to St. Mary Magdalene became fashionable among feminists, the Orthodox Church considered her and her companions so important that it set aside a Sunday during the Paschal season in honor of their memory.

The Church has also honored women such as Sts. Thekla, Helen, Nina, and Olga as "equal to the Apostles." Centuries before women's liberation, the Orthodox Church chanted the Hymn of Kassiani the Nun on Tuesday of Holy Week. Finally, the Orthodox Church, which considers a woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the greatest human who ever lived and displays her icon prominently, can hardly be accused of prejudice against women.

Significantly, the people of Orthodox countries have recognized the leadership abilities of women in a far greater way than those of the Protestant and Catholic world. At a time when female accession to the throne could cause a civil war or was actually forbidden by law, women ruled both the Byzantine and Russian Empires. Indeed, one reason that Charlemagne claimed the imperial title, an event that played a significant role in the estrangement of East and West and thus eventually to the Great Schism, was that it was then held by a woman in the East. More recently, the claims of Maria Theresa to rule the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg domains led to the War of the Austrian Succession, which ended by allowing Maria Theresa to rule only because her husband, Francis of Lorraine, had assumed the imperial title. At the same time, Katherine the Great ruled the vast Russian Empire by her own right, having been chosen as more worthy than her mentally unstable husband, Peter III, the actual heir to the Romanov throne.

Despite the claims of some radical feminists, Orthodox Christianity has many positive symbols for feminists. As has already been mentioned, the Church honors a woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as first among the Saints, and pays special honor to some other women, giving them the title "equal to the Apostles." St. Ephraim and other East Syrian saints refer to the Holy Spirit as feminine. The Holy Scriptures and other expressions of the Tradition of the Church also portray the Church as feminine. Indeed, such images as the Church as the bride of Christ, and the Church as the mother of the faithful, are common in Orthodoxy. The Bible is filled with the image of Christ as the bridegroom and His people, the Church, as His bride.

Thus, women's ordination destroys one of the most important images of the relationship between Christ and His Church because a woman cannot be a bridegroom and, therefore, cannot represent Christ, the bridegroom, to the faithful.[2] Another serious flaw in the argument for the ordination of women is its highly distorted view of the priesthood. Supporters of women's ordination treat the priesthood like any other job, for which there should be equal opportunity. The priesthood is not just a job. The priesthood is a calling from God. Whenever an individual feels called by God to the priesthood, he must submit to the Church for the ratification of that calling.

Thus, no matter how sincere a person feels that he is called, he cannot declare himself worthy of the priesthood on his own authority. Instead, he must first meet the requirements of the Church, requirements that have withstood the test of time and which are consistent with the requirements that Christ Himself had of His Apostles. Even after a man meets these requirements and receives ordination from a bishop in Apostolic Succession, a man is not really a priest until the Faithful have ratified his ordination through the proclamation that "He is worthy." For two thousand years, one of the requirements of the Church for ordination to the priesthood is maleness.

Thus those who approach the priesthood must approach it on God's and His Church's terms, not their own terms or those of a secular ideology such as Feminism. The feminists also distort the priesthood, by turning what should be a ministry of service and self- sacrifice into a position of power and prestige. A priest is a servant, not a master. Indeed, if a man treats his priesthood as a position of power and authority, he has perverted his calling and yielded to the temptation to the greatest sin of all, the sin of pride. Indeed, if the priesthood were a position of power, it would be an injustice to deny it to women. However, the priesthood is only one of many ministries and leadership positions within the Church. Here the words of St. Paul are relevant:

"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body."[3]

The priest is not superior to the laity, but serves Christ by serving His people, the laity. Those not ordained are not inferior Christians, but are equal before God in every Some Feminist theologians argue that the Church began to oppress women because it perverted the original teachings of Christ by adopting the views of the secular society of that time towards women.

Despite the male priesthood, women occupy leadership positions within the Church. Women serve on parish councils, attend the conventions of their Archdiocese, and even serve on the Board of Trustees of their Archdiocese. They also are ministers of the Church because the ordained priesthood is but one of many ministries in the Church. The woman who directs a choir or teaches Sunday School is just as much a minister as a priest or bishop. A priest must first of all be humble before God and before those whom he is called to serve. A radical feminist demanding ordination as a "right," is anything but humble and therefore fails to meet the one of the most important requirements of the priesthood.

Radical feminism distorts not only the priesthood but also the very nature of humanity by failing to recognize that there are real differences between men and women. A man cannot be a mother, nor a mother a father. By attempting to blur the distinction between the genders, the feminists are distorting the very essence of human nature. They also fail to understand that the roles of the different sexes are complementary and follow the plan of creation designed by God. To act as if men and women are the same in every way is to deny one of the most basic facts of human existence. Because men and women are different, God has decreed as we know through the practice of the Church that men and women should have different, but complementary roles in the Church. That women and men are different and occupy different positions within the Church does not mean that one is superior to the other. This is one of the most basic flaws of the radical feminist argument. They fail to recognize that equality does not require sameness. Men and women can play different roles in the leadership of the Church and still remain equal to one another in every way.

However, perhaps the most important argument against the ordination of women is the results of women's ordination in those Christian groups who have surrendered to the pressure of secular society to ordain women. A priest is not simply a performer or leader; a priest is an image of Christ who in turn is an image of God. Thus, a priest is an icon or symbol of Christ, especially during the Divine Liturgy. Because symbols have real meaning, if the symbol is changed, that which is symbolized is also changed. Since a priest represents Christ, who is God, if the priest becomes a priestess, the image of God also changes. This will inevitably lead to a redefinition, or to use their term, "re-imaging" of God. Over fifty years ago, long before the birth of radical feminism and the movement to ordain women began, the British theologian C.S. Lewis wrote:

To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us. Our eyes teach us this in church. Sometimes, the priest turns his back on us and faces the East -- he speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to us for God. We have no objection to a woman doing the first; the whole difficulty is about the second.

But why? Why should a woman not in this sense represent God? Certainly not because she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable or more stupid than a man. In that sense she may be as 'Godlike' as a man; and a given woman much more so than a given man. The sense in which she cannot represent God will perhaps be plainer if we look at the thing the other way around.

Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begin saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to 'Our Mother which art in heaven' as to 'Our Father.' Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.[4]

Lewis' words were prophetic. Virtually every Protestant group that has decided to ordain women has to one degree or another begun to reject Biblical language and images of God in favor of images more acceptable to feminist theology.

Thus, God is no longer Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but becomes "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier." On the surface this may seem only a change of terms, but actually, it is much more. It represents a radically different way of looking at God. The new politically correct Trinity is a rejection of divinely revealed language about God and thereby a rejection of the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. It is also heretical because it blurs the important distinction between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father also creates, redeems and sanctifies, but so does the Son and the Holy Spirit. In reality, the feminized Trinity is actually a form of the ancient heresy of Sabellianism, which portrays Father, Son and Holy Spirit as merely different phases of God rather than different but united persons.

Not only have the feminists redefined God to accommodate their ideology, they have begun to redefine the entire Christian religion in the light of feminism. Thus, they place their secular ideology above the divine revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures and the other manifestations of Holy Tradition. This is the ultimate secularization of the Gospel, because they have subordinated the divinely inspired Scriptures and other manifestations of Holy Tradition to a secular ideology.

Indeed, anyone who has watched the efforts of followers of feminism and its allied ideologies to redefine American Protestantism sees not prayerful contemplation in an effort to discern the will of God, but the very worst aspects of an organized political campaign by one group to gain power over another. Thus, feminists eventually beat down their opponents because they are more persistent and effective political organizers than the opponents.

Borrowing methods from the Civil Rights Movement, these campaigns include rallies, demonstrations, intimidation and civil disobedience. Eventually, although originally a minority, they are able to prevail because the leadership of most American Protestant groups lacks the courage to dismiss or remove anyone who rejects traditional beliefs and practices. Indeed, today it is unacceptable to accuse someone of heresy, much less discipline them or remove them from their office in the Church. This attitude has led to a complete breakdown of anything like traditional Christianity among many American Protestants and even some Roman Catholics.

Thus, the ordination of women is not simply a matter of making a woman a priest. It is much more; it is the ultimate destruction of the Christian Faith. This is because the ordination of women requires the rejection of the clear practice of the Church and thereby of the Holy Scriptures and other manifestations of Holy Tradition. It is also because the movement to ordain women does not come from within the Christian community, but is actually the subordination of the Faith to the secular ideology of Feminism. Once one rationalizes the rejection of something as central to the Faith as the nature of the priesthood, it then becomes easier to reject anything else in the Tradition of the Church that followers of that ideology find offensive. If one takes it upon oneself to decide which beliefs and practices of the Church are acceptable to modern society, the result is the chaos that has engulfed American Protestantism and has even made its influence felt in Roman Catholic circles.

Thus, if one decides that the Church has been wrong to deny the priesthood to women, one might also decide that the Church has been wrong in other beliefs and practices. Indeed, this is precisely what has happened. Despite centuries of opposition to abortion by Christians, almost every major American Protestant group that has ordained women has also adopted a "pro-choice" position on abortion. Recently, the Episcopal Church elected as a bishop a man who left his wife and children to live in a homosexual relationship with another man. There can be no doubt that not only the Holy Scriptures, but also the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils consider homosexual acts immoral. Indeed, there is also no doubt that until a very few years ago, every Christian group, Protestant, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, taught that homosexual sexual acts are a fundamental violation of the moral law of God.

However, it is also true that until fairly recently, all Christian groups agreed that only men could be ordained. If Christians can decide that the unanimous opinion of Christians throughout the centuries is wrong on one issue, the ordination of women, it is logical to assume that Christians can also be wrong on other issues such as abortion and homosexuality, especially since the same feminists who demand women's ordination are also frequently sympathetic to so-called gay liberation. Thus, because they see everything in the light of feminism, they no longer accept Traditional images of God. They redefine the Holy Trinity in completely unbiblical language because of the dictates of their ideology.

They also redefine Christian morality to conform to the demands of radical feminism, which has a strong affinity to the gay liberation movement. This eventually leads to a complete perversion of the Gospel. The gospel of feminism and political correctness no longer calls humans to repentance and righteous living, but demands the acceptance of the right to each person to be free to live according to his or her own standards, even if those standards clearly conflict with the standards of Holy Scripture. Indeed, according to this criterion, any demand that one seek any other personal value than self-fulfillment according to one's own needs, is bigoted and to be rejected in favor of inclusiveness.

That is one major reason why every American Protestant group that has begun to ordain women has also begun to feel pressure from many of the same people who successfully campaigned for women's ordination to recognize homosexual and lesbian relationships as equal to heterosexual marriage. Thus, the ordination of women to the priesthood is not simply the acceptance of women priests. It leads to a complete distortion of the Christian Faith and the creation of a new religion that has only a very superficial resemblance to any form of traditional Christianity.

Notes:

1 Stark, Roony. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1996.
2 Matthew 9:15; 25:1-13; Luke 12:35-36, Ephesians 5:24; Revelation 21:9.
3 1 Corinthians 12:13-20
4 Lewis, C.S. "Priestesses in the Church?" in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970, pp. 236-237.

Fr. John Morris is pastor of Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste Orthodox Mission in Stafford, Texas.

Read this article in the "Word Magazine" (January, 2004) of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese (link closed). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 3/19/04



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