This year’s conference offered courses on the persons and early writings that shaped the vision of the Church, on the issues of the first centuries, on the Eucharist, and finally on how the Church is living the vision now. The keynote speaker was His Eminence Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh, and the featured presenter was Alexi Krindatch, the Research Coordinator with the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America. Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, PA, from Oct. 31 - Nov. 3, 2013.
I’ve been slowly changing my style in how I offer presentations from a strict… The academic work has been done, by the grace of God, at least for what I can do for you today, but to try to present things in as straight-forward, less-jargony way as possible, but as authentic to the Tradition, capital-T, as I can. What I would like to do is offer a spiritual foundation for the ministry of women, and men, in the life of the Church.
The title of my presentation is “God is Wondrous Among His Saints: A Primer on the Ministry of Women in the Orthodox Church.” As I begin, the first concern I wish to share with you is: instead of giving you a group of principles or a group of historical facts, at the beginning, or a formula, to me that feels as if you give a hungry person a fish. Even though, by the grace of God, last night Metropolitan Savas said, “Sometimes you need to give someone a fish,” it is always, when possible: not only should we give a fish, but also teach a person how to fish.
The problem with the issue of the ministry of women, or the ministry of men and women in the life of the Church, I’m still learning. What I hope to do, then, is to share with you some of the principles I have been learning regarding this kind of fishing in the life of the Church to help you in your studies so that you can go further in your own lives, making a better use of the Tradition as you explore this issue.
So I approach this topic with fear and trepidation, beginning by reminding myself, most of all, to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all else will be added, bearing in mind that members of the laos, the people of God, are urged to seek, first of all, not just once, but continuously. The Greek word used to designate seeking implies both a personal, inner search, much akin to uncompromising, even aggressive, probing as well as a corresponding action being applied outwardly. This kind of seeking does not end with baptism. It does not end with chrismation. It does not end with marriage. This kind of seeking does not even end with ordination. For the followers of the Lord Jesus, this kind of seeking does not end, at least, from this side of the grave.
From this perspective, no one ever arrives. Rather, the opposite is true. The deeper our commitment to and growth in the Lord, the more-increasing love compels us to seek him even more. In some ways, and in a good way, of course, this is not unlike substance and other addictions, where at advanced stages of the addiction, only the treasured “hit” of choice will do, and nothing else will suffice: not family, not work, not society’s concept of God, but the real God. Through the course of the disease of addiction, the meaning of life is taken over. Perhaps some would even say the meaning of life is kidnapped or mutated, if you will, through the ongoing seeking of the substance or “hit.”
For Christians, there is no life without seeking the life-giving and loving Other. Our substance, so to speak, is not a created thing. It is, rather, our growing in, relationship with a divine Person: the thrice-holy One who is the life-giving, loving Other, who is truly, verily, verily, the very substance of our lives, and sharing in this same love with one another. Why? Because of the kingdom; the vasileia is founded in the person. It is founded in the divine Person, three-in-one, in whose Image we are created.
2. Discerning is a spiritual activity.
In other words, the Holy Spirit who always points to Christ is the foundation of this activity.
I begin with these concerns for your consideration, because when it comes to numerous contemporary challenges in the life of the Church, including the Orthodox Christian approach to the ministries of men and women, it is very easy to stop seeking. We stop seeking as soon as we believe that we have become supreme experts, in our own minds, at least. When it comes to the ministry of women in the Orthodox Church, there are a whole lot of supreme experts out there. Much, if not most of the time, those of us who have become highly confident in our own opinion, are also the same persons who deem the rigorousness of our prayer, study, and research on the topic, perhaps sometimes supported by a few others sharing the same biased, self-seeking, and self-selecting process, but in the end we are the final authority. This approach is not always very thorough and hence very honest.
Furthermore, experts of this type can easily fall into the trap of judging the hearts and intentions of others who hold other opinions. We easily tend to ignore asking ourselves how the loving Lord may be working in and working through the lives of these other persons. Instead, we summarily dismiss their concerns, often with name-calling or a label. Oh, they’re secular feminists. Oh, they’re hyper-fundamentalists. Oh, those people are Protestants with Orthodox veneer. Oh, those are Roman Catholics with Orthodox veneer—and so forth. Obviously, there is no real dialogue here, as we do not desire to engage the issue any further. After all, we have found all our answers.
It has become clear to me over the many years that in order to discern our way through any challenge, we, as faithful members of the body of Christ, must remain ever-listening, radically listening disciples, ever-listening, radically listening friends of the Lord, humbly striving to seek him and his will in all things. The Greek word that usually is associated with this type of seeking is the Greek word hypakoē, usually translated as “obedience.”
It is ludicrous to imagine ourselves, let alone present ourselves to others, as having arrived in the Orthodox Church. In the words of St. Irenaeus of the second century, “Both in this life and in the next, God will always have something new to teach us.” So I stress this with you now, my friends, as there are members of the Orthodox Church today, everywhere on the planet, who seem to have already made up their minds, who act as if they know all of the answers, including regarding the issue of the ministry of women in the life of the Church. I could share a little painful example right here. Remind me; I’ll tell you later, when the recording machine is off. [Audience member speaks.]
The Lord calls his followers to discern the signs of the times. In order to do this, Tradition teaches that we are all called to cultivate discernment, but the fulness of this gift is an advanced gift of the Holy Spirit. So the gift of discernment is founded in humble seeking. What I am sharing with you today through this presentation is the best of the solid, Orthodox Christian middle way or middle ground as I understand it within the life of the Church regarding the ministry of women. I’m also speaking with you today as if my salvation depends on it—because it does.
3. Women and the ancient question: to do or to be?
Over the years, I’ve been asked many, many times the following question: what can women do in the life of the Church? And also: what can men do in the life of the Church? Then some kind of list would come out as a result of that question. Over the centuries, this list of what women do includes: being mothers, godmothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, faithful friends. These are some of the words that come up describing activities related to relationships within the life of the immediate and extended family.
Then other additional terms for a list related more closely with activities that help more immediately support and/or shape positive spheres of influence within the community of a church and/or society also come up, including such identifications as: nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals; nuns; teachers, domestic workers; administrators, both within the life of the Church and civil society; deaconesses; missionaries; business persons; musicians; scholars; artists; rulers and civil servants; scientists, including, for civil servants, queens and princesses, philanthropists, and others.
Over the centuries, the reciprocal list for men includes: fathers, godfathers, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, faithful friends, etc. Likewise, with the above set of lists, these are some of the words that describe activities related to relationships within the life of the immediate and extended family. Similarly, there are other terms more closely with activities that help more immediately support and/or shape positive spheres of influence within the Church community and/or society, including such identifications as: pastors, monks, bishops, presbyters, deacons, teachers, rulers, civil servants (including serving as royal sovereigns), medical professionals, businessmen, educators, scholars, musicians, artist, philanthropists, and others.
But I think, from an Orthodox perspective, that this very approach can be easily misleading. This is because, when we begin to ask our questions based solely from a position of “What does one ought to do?” or “What can one do?” or, more personally, “What can I...” or “What ought I do?” with the focus aimed at observable alone regarding our life in the Church and/or society, this easily becomes imbalanced, setting our feet on a very slippery slope.
From this way of thinking, what we do defines who we are, and the “What one can do?” question echoes back far into antiquity. Indeed, this is an ancient concern. Typically this question quickly succumbs to this world’s notions and value system. Our personal value as human persons, created in the image and likeness of God, can arbitrarily be projected on us from the outside by what we do within society and/or from what our social standing or from what we have. So, for example, the more one has materially, the more he or she is valued in the society. Or, the higher one is on the totem pole of the world’s notion of honor and success, however these may be measured, the more important that person is, at least in terms of the standards set by that society.
Doing and being, so to speak, are equated with each other and judged from the outside. This question really goes back to pre-Christian times. There’s a little bit of a joke connected with this. There’s ancient graffiti. Are any of you familiar with the ancient graffiti that was found in the back of the walls of the agora in Athens? It was astounding. It sounded very contemporary. It said—I’m translating—the first line said something like: To be is to do —Socrates. Then the next line said: To do is to be —Aristotle. And the third line said: Do be do be do —Sinatra. “Do be do be dooo…” That goes back to the ancient agora in Greece. I think that went over people’s head, but that’s the one joke you’re going to get from me today. Don’t worry after this.
Christian affirmations related to human persons created in the image and likeness of God, called to koinonia, called to communion with God and one another, has very little or no bearing on these judgments when being and doing are equated with each other. So, as an example, I respectfully call to mind that of the Dalits in Indian society. This term, “Dalit,” refers to the lowest level of all of the social classes, the so-called Untouchables. As the majority in this society still holds to the belief in reincarnation, people in higher classes tend to easily overlook the plight of fellow citizens in less fortunate circumstances. Dalits, from the worldview of reincarnation, are on a much lower rung of evolution, so to speak, in this life.
There is no compelling reason from this way of thinking, to see them as one’s neighbor, let alone brother or sister. As these lowest of the low persons, viewed from the higher purchase of the upper classes, are essentially working out their own path, or are dealing with their own karma. And these persons are left to manage their own affairs: human persons, invisible, in plain sight.
While this may be an extreme example, it nevertheless points to something far more subtle, more powerful, and more dangerous from an Orthodox Christian perspective. The more value a person has in terms of his or her role or stature in society, the more value a person has intrinsically, in the minds of the people from within that value system. The higher they are in social class, for example, the more important they are perceived to be. This is pretty well known. In our contemporary society, a popular expression is often perpetrated: Perception is everything.
As Christians, it is important to pay attention to how our fallen world gives intrinsic value to what we do, measured by external criteria, which easily become ends in themselves. For example, what we do for a living, our social class, our ethnic or racial background, our sex and position of power in the community, even how we look, what we wear influences how we are perceived and valued by the dominant culture. Spiritually speaking, left to its own devices, this standard of judging others would be God. This fallen dynamic takes place whenever there is a vacuum in human relationships, where the living God is not the uncontested, clear sovereign.
As Metropolitan Savas shared with us last night, as he reminded us that what is the greatest commandment? To love God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul. Scripture reminds us that God is a jealous God. In other words, he desires to be in relationship with us. He seeks us out. His love for us is unfathomable from our perspective. Nevertheless, this fallen dynamic, this vacuum, is a direct reflection of what happens to people who seek something else other than the kingdom. Eventually, certain persons, and after a while perhaps every person, risks becoming invisible in plain sight. Invisible in our plain sight. Left to our devices, there is no possibility for communion here.
4. Matter matters.
While we are urged to first seek the kingdom of heaven above all else, this does not imply that matter—in other words, the mundane, the physical, the concrete, the fleshly particularities of life—does not matter. Actually, the opposite is true. Matter matters. Matter matters: how we live in the world as stewards of the gifts given to us is very important. Scripture reminds us: faith without works is dead, but this is balanced within the greater reality of our Lord’s admonition: what does it profit to gain the whole world and lose one’s own soul? Even though we say, “fear of losing one’s own soul,” thinking Semitically, in the Semitic thinking, in the ancient Israel’s way of understanding, which the Church has inherited, soul includes body and soul, but from the inside out. That balance is already there.
Matter matters, as it did in the beginning, at creation itself, where, after ever day of the creation account, God stood back and said it was good. When humanity was created on the sixth day, God stepped back and said: very good. Matter mattered even after the fall of Adam and Eve, even after sin, sickness, and death were introduced into creation, thus establishing an easily corruptible fallen hierarchy of power and order. Humankind just kept getting in its own way every since, finding new ways to sin by turning away from God.
This gulf became wider and wider until God himself, through his loving providence, saved us by becoming human: as God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. I’m sure that most of us are familiar with the teaching of St. Athanasios: God became human so that the human person may become divine. The Fathers often refer to the Incarnation of Christ, the second Person of the Trinity becoming human, as a re-creation of the creation. This is true. As every molecule, every electron, every particle of creation, however small we measure them today, however invisible to today’s science’s standards, every particle of creation had to open up to receive him in some mysterious fashion. Think about that. All of the created universe has changed in ways we do not understand, when God himself became Emmanuel: one with us.
5. Consequences of the Fall.
Prior to the Lord’s incarnation, humanity and creation were suffering from the punishments, or curse, of the fall of Adam and Eve. We must bear in mind that the greater scandal of the Fall was our—meaning humanity’s—turning away from love. Instead of seeking love, the Author of love, God himself, we turned toward, we sought life from some thing or something created. As a result, we have the consequences of disobedience, which include death, sickness, pain in childbirth, needing to toil greatly to produce fruits from the earth.
There is a resulting soiling, so to speak, of the image and likeness within us. Hence, there was a dulling or darkening of our ability to perceive God. One way this translates in everyday life is how very hard it is for human persons to really fully live in the present moment, in the presence of God. Adam and Eve’s disobedience distorted everything they took for granted in the garden.
As a result of the consequences of the Fall, in civil and religious society, women’s recognition as a full person was diminished greatly. They became less visible. Women could not count in the courts of human beings. They were not to be counted in the temple worship numbers. Nor could they give testimony or bear witness in court, be it either civil or religious. Only adult male Jews in good standing could do so. Furthermore, Levitical laws controlled their worship life, their public life, their family life, even their bedroom life.
Men also did not get such a great deal, either. They had their share of Levitical restrictions, including, for example, customs associated with those blessed to be firstborn sons. Firstborn sons had the full, or at least the greatest, share of their father’s material legacy, as well as his spiritual blessing. Traditionally, all of the other sons had to make do with considerably less. So we must bear in mind that the shedding of the Lord’s blood on the Cross was the last and complete sacrifice, offered on behalf of humanity’s fall. As a result of his Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, creation will never be the same again.
6. Some consequences of the Good News for women and men.
Christ is risen; the power of death is overcome forever. As a result of the Good News, the Evangelion, the Gospel, all members of God’s kingdom are called to co-reign with him like firstborn sons. Perhaps we could understand the call to grow toward theosis by God’s grace in this light. And because of this, for the first time in history, women also freely bear testimony. They may bear witness. They count. They count fully in this reality.
Literally, the first person who experienced this, I would say, after the Resurrection, is—anyone want to take a guess?—Mary Magdalene. What’s the first direction the Lord gave her at the Resurrection? “Go and tell the others.” Through the course of the Church’s life, St. Mary Magdalene has been referred to as the Apostle to the Apostles.
This is also prodroma in the [Annunciation of the] Incarnation, when the Angel came to the Theotokos and asked her if she would bear the Son of God. Her response begins with: “Behold!” “Idou” in Greek, and that is the word a witness gives: “Look here!” So there are a variety of witnesses, a cloud of witnesses through the life of the Church from which we have to learn a lot.
Surely, when we look through the Scriptures and the annals of Church history, including the Lives of the saints, we see men and women serving Christ in many, many ways. What they all have in common is that once they gave their lives to Christ, they began to bloom where they were planted. At some point in the midst of all this context, after they were accepted, after they offered themselves to the Lord, the Lord took it from there. No relationship, no context is wasted as an opportunity for the Lord to fill, in order to serve the Lord. In other words, their lives were changed and the Lord took them places they never imagined.
If you were to take a few afternoons and do a casual search in the local library or over the internet regarding how women and men served within the life of the Church through history, you’ll notice this pattern over and over again. They began to bloom where they were planted within the context and the relationships in which they found themselves, and then at some point the Lord took it from there. From the point of their conversion, how they lived their lives and conducted their relationships with others brought many to Christ. Their lives proved the old adage: preach the Gospel; use words if necessary.
If we were to take this time to study, we would be surprised by the range of ways women responded to Christ and how they served him within the context of their lives. Some were evangelists, like St. Nina of Georgia of the late third century, and St. Thekla, the protomartyr, from the first century. Others are remembered as apostles, like St. Junia and St. Priscilla. Others served the Lord as queens and empresses, many times serving as consort-queens when their husbands were the rulers; other times these women themselves were rulers in their own right, like St. Irene of the ninth century and St. Theodora of the tenth century of Byzantium in Constantinople. Both led movements to restore icons to the Church, and both referred to themselves as aftocratoros, adding to make the masculine word for the emperor.
We have biblical and theological teachers and scholars, such as St. Melania of the third century, who was reputed to be the best biblical scholar in Rome, and her granddaughter, St. Melania the Younger, as well as Sts. Paula and her daughter Evdokia, both close collaborators with St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin. There are historical accounts regarding these women stating that people came from other towns just to hear them expound on the Scriptures.
We can take time during our question and discussion period to explore this further, but as we reflect on these few examples, we see that there [were] no restrictions on the gift of the Holy Spirit given to men and women, no restrictions.
So there are three vital observations from the witness of the saints, male and female, that I would like to end right now at this point for my presentation with you. Once they offered their lives as living sacrifices to Christ, their lives exhibited (1) a theocentric philanthropy, not just any philanthropy, a theocentric philanthropy, that everything they did, they did it seeing Christ or within the context of his will. They responded to the least of those near them as if to Christ himself. They incarnated the Gospel. This was not just a social responsibility. (2) The saints let God lead. God leads us to places we would never, ever have imagined we would be going. When we offer ourselves to Christ, it costs us. It costs time. It costs health. It costs material resources. It costs emotional stress and suffering. For the sake of the life abundant. (3) The saints teach us that we are all called to give birth to Christ. We know that the Theotokos, the Mother of our Lord, enjoys a special intimacy with God, her Savior, that will never be duplicated, but at the same time, the Fathers—and I’m thinking right now of St. Gregory of Nyssa—make an interesting amendment to this, when he speaks about the relationship between Mary and us, and he says this:
What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the Godhead, shining through Christ and the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for we no longer know Christ according to the flesh, but he dwells in us spiritually, and the Father takes up his abode with him, the Gospel tells us. In this way, the Child Jesus is born to each one of us.