(Gal 3: 23–29)
In the epistle to the Christians on Galatia the holy Apostle Paul teaches us about the equality of all mankind before the Lord. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), he says.
“There is neither male nor female,” it is said. However, we can see that there are still both men and women everywhere and that there are still insurmountable differences between them. In the Orthodox Church the priests are always men. It has always been and always will be so. Women are, in most cases, not permitted to enter the space of the altar. So are we really equal? This is the question that is sometimes asked in our churches.
We are all absolutely equal in the eyes of God. Our Lord and God is the Creator of both male and female, and as our Father, He loves all of us equally. However, even in the eyes of God, although we are equal, we are not the same, for equality does not mean sameness.
Still, why cannot a woman be a priest in the Orthodox Church?
Because it has always been so. This is what our holy tradition teaches, and this is the practice of our Church. The great High Priest, who has passed through the heavens (Heb. 4:14) became incarnate as a male, and He chose males as His followers, the Apostles. There were many women who served and followed the Lord and filled their souls with His teaching. Some of them were more faithful to Him than the Apostles themselves, yet the Lord did not call even one woman to become His apostle.
The Church is the bride of Christ. Christ, the groom, gave Himself for her, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5: 26-27). Orthodox theologians say that “for Orthodox Christians, an ordained priest is an image of Christ. We believe that there is something in the nature of a man, an ordained priest, which enables him to become a sanctified presence of God, a mystical incarnation of the Groom of the Church and our Lord.” (Phyllis Michelle Honeste)
The question of ordaining women into priesthood has not yet been raised in the Orthodox Church and, hopefully, never will. However, in other denominations such as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, this issue has been forcefully imposed as a “contemporary” problem. It is an unnatural and forced question raised by women whose objectives are all but Christian and ecclesiastical. For what is more important for a true Christian: the ordaining and the ascent on the hierarchical ladder here on earth, or salvation in God’s embrace, in the Kingdom of Heaven? If salvation is our goal, then we are truly all equal and no one is privileged. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female,” for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
Orthodox tradition is rich with the memory of holy women, beginning with the Most Holy and Most Pure Theotokos, more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, to the women saints of our time, the guardians and protectors of our holy Orthodox faith. The fifth Sunday of Great lent, is dedicated to a holy woman, St. Mary of Egypt, whose life tells us that God loves us even when we fall, as long as we keep getting up after the fall.
On the rare occasion that I do meet a woman priest today, I always remember the tragic downfall of our foremother, Eve. When her free will was put to the test and when everything was permitted to her except for one thing, she chose to do the one forbidden thing, showing thus her lack of love and faithfulness towards her Creator. In each one of these women priests I see the fallen Eve. It has been a long time since women were first ordained to priesthood. Later, homosexuals were admitted into the clergy as well, and now same-sex marriages are being institutionalized. And look where they all are now. If all that had been truly pleasing to God, their temples and congregations would not be melting away like Arctic ice, their churches would not be standing empty with “for sale” signs on them on almost every corner of Toronto. The flock of these female pastors is getting sparser.
And how many times have I been asked by our women: how is it that women cannot visit Hilandar monastery? Strange, but I cannot recall seeing any one of them in our church at the services. If they came here more often with a clean heart, that would be quite enough to stop their “longing” for Hilandar.
The topic of men and women in Paul’s epistle inspires me to try and clear up some other concepts.
For example, the obedience of wives to their husbands is mentioned several times in the Holy Scriptures. “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22). This epistle is read every time the priests brings a groom and a bride to the altar. In my many years of service as a priest I have seen many women laugh and smirk at these words of the Apostle. However, whenever I have had the chance to put these words into context and to explain what is required of a man and what kind of sacrifice a man must be ready to endure for his wife in order for the wife to be obedient to him, the faces of these women suddenly became sober. “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor. 11:3), says St. Paul. And Father Justin writes: “A man is the head of a woman for as long as the head of man is Christ. Wives, obey your husbands as the Lord Himself if they obey the Lord, if He is truly their head, the meaning and goal of their life, if He is truly their Lord and their God.” If this is so, if God’s will is the only unit of measure of our actions, and if love is the moving force behind everything we do, if a husband is ready for the same sacrifice for his wife as the Lord offered up on the Cross for His Bride, the Church, then it is clear that we are not talking about submissiveness as feminists see it. If a husband and wife really love one another, they will be happy to serve one another. “Do you want your wife to obey you as the Church obeys Christ?” asks St. John Chrysostom of us men. “Then care for her as Christ cared fro the Church, even if you must sacrifice your soul for her, even if you must die a hundred times, even if you must endure all kinds of torments. And even if you have suffered all that for her sake, do not, for one moment, think that you have even come close to what Christ endured for His Church.
Be capable of making her obedient to you by your immense love for her, by caring, by friendship. It is sometimes possible to keep a servant bound to us by fear”, says St. John Chrysostom, “but you must strive to keep your life companion, the mother of your children, the one who generates happiness in your home, bound to you not by fear and threats, but by love and a good disposition.
What kind of joy does a man have who lives with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free woman?” asks St. John Chrysostom at the end (paraphrased from Father Justin Popovic).
When I reflect on it, if I had the chance to choose between the burdens given to men and women, I think I would choose the cross of obedience given to women rather than the burden of crucifixion given to men.
I would like to end my reflection with these words of St. Paul which solve all our dilemmas regarding this issue: “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman, but all things are from God” (1 Cor. 11: 11-12).