Round Table: Women in the Church
Few experiences are as formative as those which we repeat on a regular basis. Routines, habits, and liturgies: they all influence who we are, how we live, and the narratives we inhabit. As important as what we do is who we do it with. Human life comes filled with relationships, our interactions with other human beings, people who impact us as we in turn influence them.
For Christians, this means that a formative part of who we are is influenced by our weekly worship. Recognizing this fact, Christians have occasionally found differences in ecclesiology and Church practice worthy of division over the years, a testament to the importance that the faith places on faithful worship. In recent centuries, the topic of who leads Christian worship has entailed a reexamination of the role of women in the church. It is this question—What is the appropriate place and role of women in the Christian Church?—that we asked Conciliar Post writers to respond to in this month’s Round Table discussion.
Round Tables are where numerous authors contribute their perspectives on a topic or question, demonstrating the unity and/or variety of perspectives within American Christianity on that particular issue. In order to offer a true Round Table, where numerous voices are heard, we have asked that responses be both brief and precise. Accordingly, the statements below are intended as starting places for a civil discussion of this often uncivil topic.
“[There is] the same creator for man and woman, for both of them the same clay, the same image, the same law, the same death and the same resurrection.”—St. Gregory the Theologian (Discourse 37.6).
The Orthodox Church teaches that women bear the divine image of God exactly as men do. They are ontologically equal. Therefore, women—along with men—are called to be: priests, prophets, and kings. They are icons of God, called to be members of the Kingdom of God experienced through the Church on earth, in which salvation is offered equally to all. In the Church, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal. 3:28) for all are “sons” of God in Christ (Gal. 3:26). For almost two millennia, women have played numerous roles in furthering God’s Kingdom on Earth in the Orthodox Church. As Fr. Thomas Hopko observes, “among the Church’s canonized saints we find women ‘equal to the apostles’ (isapostolai), as well as women prophets, martyrs, missionaries, monastics, ascetics, elders, secular rulers (empresses, queens, princesses, judges), unmercenary physicians, fools for Christ, and righteous lay people, all of whom are glorified for exactly the same activities and accomplishment as men.”1 As history shows, there are many roles that women need to take up in the Church today.
That being said, Fr. Thomas also notes that among the canonized saints, “we find no women bishops or priests.”2 Actually, the Orthodox Church has never, in its almost two thousand year history, ordained women as bishops or priests (or even full-fledged deacons). Why? Because, I believe, the Orthodox Church teaches that men’s and women’s function in the eschatological assembly are not always the same: within the Church men and women have different tasks to fulfill, and some of them are not interchangeable. Within the gathered assembly, the position of pastoral headship belongs only to qualified men.
There are a variety of reasons why Orthodox object the ordination of women to clerical offices; here are a few reasons why: In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul (or whoever wrote the inspired text) does not allow women “to teach or to exercise authority over a man… For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the women was deceived and became a transgressor.” Some may object that this is only a cultural or regional forbidding, but this cannot be sustained by the text itself, for, as Fr. Lawrence Farley observes, “the rationale is found in the creation stories…[Paul’s] conclusion is clear: by rejecting their original role and becoming their husband’s leader, the women of Paul’s day run the risk of being deceived as Eve was. The insistence on assuming the authoritative pastoral office would lead women into becoming ‘transgressors.’”3 The title “apostle” given to Junia in Romans 16:7 and “deacon” given to Pheobe in Romans 16:1-2 could very easily be interpreted as honorary titles and not clerical offices. Whenever the issue of women’s ordination was taken up in the writings of the Church Fathers, it was always rejected. Take, for example, St. John Chrysostom’s thoughts concerning the pastoral office: “not only must the entire female sex step back from so great a task, but also the majority of males.”4 Lastly, the priest or bishop is understood to be an icon of Christ and/or God; this involves being an icon of the Bridegroom, the Father, and the Husband to his Church—a women cannot image those masculine realities.
While the Orthodox Church does not allow women as presbyters or bishops, this does not mean that women are excluded from crucial roles within the Church. On the contrary, there will always be ministries that require the skill and competence of Godly women.Show Sources
3 Fr. Lawrence Farley. Feminism and Tradition: Quiet Reflections on Ordination and Communion. Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012. 61, italics added.
4 John Chrysostom. On the Priesthood 2.2
So, this question is sexist.
When a privileged group (men) take it upon themselves to define the appropriate place and role of an oppressed group (women), it is the thing of which nightmares are made. For example, see all of history.
I get that women will be responding to this question too. But what I am saying is, the fact that this question is being asked is ridiculous. Yet again, the Church is on the wrong side of liberation.
How do I say this nicely…I, as one who identifies as a woman, do not give a sh*t about what you think of my appropriate place or role in the Church. I will not defend my work or the work of womyn pastor/chaplain/theologian/scholar/activists on the grounds of us being womyn. It’s laughable.
Neither will I argue point for point about scripture. I have studied the Bible, you have studied the Bible. I get that Protestants are really into it since the Reformation. But if we talk about scripture without understanding the ways in which it is a product of and a contributor to this HUGE, SYSTEMICALLY SEXIST WORLD, we are just rehashing old patterns of oppression. So, I will talk about the system.
Much discussion has been raised about white privilege and white allyship to people of color in the wake of Ferguson. My role as a white person who cares about black and brown lives is to shut up and listen to black and brown people. As part of the privileged group, I take cues from the systemically oppressed group. To break the cycle of oppression, my friends of color tell me how I can partner with them and work to eradicate systemic racism. Not the other way around.
So congratulations, men of the church. You now get to take your cues from me, a woman in the church, as I answer the question: What is the appropriate place and role of men in the Christian Church?
- Listen to women.
- When women do not occupy at least half of the places of leadership in the church, ask why and fix it.
- Study women scholars and theologians. Ancient and current. In equal or greater number to male scholars.
- Educate yourself and your church on the history of the Church as a source for the continued oppression, abuse, and shaming of women. Make your church a space of liberation for all.
- Educate yourself and your church on male privilege and the link between sexism and heterosexism. Honor the feminine aspects of yourself and others.
- Rebel against the sexism and misogyny of the media and the government.
- Teach about consent.
- Remain privy to current events and conversations about gender and sexuality. Read feminist perspectives. Ask women about their experiences and listen.
- Demand inclusive language for God.
- Bring forth feminine images of the Divine.
- Queer the image of the male God.
- Repent of the ways in which you have been part of the oppression of women, personally and systemically, and do better.
Remember that guy named Jesus? How he had power and yielded it. How he took on the form of oppressed humankind. How he listened to women in a radical way. My brothers, go and do likewise. Mother God is waiting to set you free.Show Biography
Molly Bolton is a Wake Forest School of Divinity graduate. She is a Chaplain Resident at the Cleveland Clinic and is seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ.
Author at Conciliar Post
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ … And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man” (Genesis 2:18, 22).
It is only by opening with these sacred words—beginning “in the beginning”—that we can endeavor to discern what the role and place of women in the Christian Church is and should be.
Pope Saint John Paul II, as he meditated and drew upon the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, wrote in his 1988 encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women): “To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift”. Therefore, the role and place of women in the Christian Church is simply that: to live out their vocation as members of one half of humanity and to truly discover themselves “through a sincere gift of self.” This is possible because Man is the only “creature on earth which God willed for its own sake.” But how can women accomplish this beautiful task set before them by their Creator?
By being mothers—spiritual or otherwise. Women are called to be mothers! Anyone with whom God works—as long as the person is receptive and responsive to his grace—will bear fruit. Relationships bear fruit; it is their essential characteristic. A marital relationship bears obvious fruit: children. But not all women are called to be physical mothers; however, they are all called to be mothers. They are called to share in the triumph of God over sin and death in the person of Mary, the Mother of God, she who, through her fiat, allowed God to break into time, thereby saving and redeeming the world.
Women must play out their unique role in the life of the Church not in spite of, but because of, their femininity. Their femininity is a gift—not a curse to be expunged in favor of the spurious notion that men are somehow “better.” In light of this fact, all such movements within the Church pushing for “female ordination”, must cease, for they are contrary to the Spirit of Truth. Men and women have equal dignity, for, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). So, in not considering women’s entrance into the ranks of the clergy, they have not been “transgressed against” because women—in their unique but equal capacities as daughters of God—cannot be members of the clergy, though the imitation of Mary is indeed the way forward for women.
This will sound dull, insulting, oddly reactionary and patriarchal: So the whole point of women and their role is just that—to be mothers? But that is so limiting! That may be, but consider this: it is an indisputable fact that women, in their essential nature as feminine subjects—persons (to be contrasted with men in their essential nature as masculine subjects—persons)—are inherently ordered toward motherhood. Basic biology informs us of this. Women are to be mothers; men are to be fathers. What so many modern promulgators of [radical] feminism miss in their crusade, is that women will never advance or gain the “rights” they seek by casting off their unique gift of femininity in favor of masculinity or masculine traits—in short, by “masculinizing” themselves. What the Church needs now, more than ever, are loving and holy mothers. As John Paul II writes yet again:
In the name of liberation from male “domination”, women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine “originality”. There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not “reach fulfilment”, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness. In the biblical description, the words of the first man at the sight of the woman who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment, words which fill the whole history of man on earth.
Managing Editor at Conciliar Post
In answer to this question (or rather, as the beginning of an answer which extends beyond the brief remarks offered here), I want to take a historical and textual approach to the earliest Christian communities as referenced in Romans 16. When discussing the role of women in the Church, many Christians seem to take a perspective of “There isn’t biblical evidence for female pastors; therefore there shouldn’t be female pastors”, effectively ending their discussions of the subject there. Evidence for this view, in my opinion, seems tenuous at times, as I hope to demonstrate below.
My grandfather—a longtime conservative Lutheran school-teacher—and I once had a conversation about the role of women in the Church, beginning after our reading the book of Romans together. We were particularly interested in Romans 16, where Paul offers greetings to members of the church at Rome. In this chapter, Paul calls out a number of women for their work, and I think that his language is particularly indicative of the role of women in the early Church.
First is Pheobe (16.1), a deacon or deaconess in the church of Cenchreae. As the opening portion of this chapter makes clear, Pheobe is the messenger by whom Paul is sending his letter to Rome. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, it was standard practice for the messenger to read aloud the message they bore upon arrival. In other words, Pheobe was almost certainly the first person to ever proclaim Paul’s letter to Rome, the first to give a “reading”—in the liturgical sense—from Romans. Additionally, there is evidence which suggests that after Pheobe had read Romans, she would have been expected to talk about it and explain the letter at some length. Thus, she may also have been the first person offer a sermon on the contents of Romans.
Next, there is that famous couple Priscilla and Aquilla (16.3-5), who work together with Paul and host a church in their home. This is not the first time that the New Testament mentions Priscilla and Aquilla, nor will it be the last.1 An especially interesting aspect of this couple is that, on most occasions, Priscilla is named first, contrary to common literary practice. Whatever this ordering may mean, in this passage, wife and husband are named as the patrons of a house church, suggesting both their influence and wealth in Rome, along with the faithful service to the Lord.
In Romans 16 we also hear of Mary (16.6, a hard worker), Junia (16.7, who is outstanding among the apostles), Tryphena and Tryphosa (16.12, both of whom work hard in the Lord), Persis (16.12, another hard worker for the Lord), and finally, Julia and Nereus’ sister (16.15). All in all, Paul names nine women in fifteen verses, making up over one-third of the people specifically mentioned by name in this chapter. It remains somewhat unclear as to what Paul means by some of these terms—for example, it seems as if Junia is called an “apostle”, though scholars remain divided on precisely what that terms means in this context. Clearly, however, the women of the Roman church were both hard workers and important ministers of the Gospel of Christ during the time Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans.
For some Christians, it may seem scandalous to have women play an active role in the Church. However, I believe that Paul’s letter to the Romans provides one instance—out of many—from the New Testament, which calls contemporary Christians to seriously and honestly [re]evaluate precisely what the Scriptures teach about the role of women in the Church. If we take this chapter at face value, it seems Paul was perfectly at ease with women serving as messengers, readers, and preachers of his words and the Gospel—as well as serving as patrons of local church meetings. Of course, this points to consideration of that all important question of whether or not because something occurred in the early Church that it is necessarily normative for Christians today. This is a complicated issue, one made even more complex by the contents of later New Testament writings (such as the Pastoral Epistles) and Church Tradition, both of which I will be the first to affirm as important authorities for guiding Christian life and faith. My point in this Round Table discussion is simply to note that from a historical and biblical perspective, the role of women in the Church may not be so clearly defined as it has been assumed.Show Sources
1 See Acts 18.2, 18.18-19; 1 Corinthians 16.19; and 1 Timothy 4.19.