Women’s Role in the Church - The Perspective of a Seminary Graduate, a Mother, and an Educator
By Phyllis Meshel Onest, M. Div.
Is there a role for women in the Church? Is the ordained priesthood “the” role for those seeking to serve Christ? Can one do anything else that is as valuable as leading the faithful in worship? Given the debate and rhetoric in some Christian circles, the responses would be: maybe, yes, no. As one who has grown up in the Orthodox Church, and has an Orthodox theological education, it seems to me that the responses should be: yes, no, yes. Women are called to serve in every area of Church ministry, with the exception of the ordained priesthood. This is limited, for specific reasons, to a small percentage of men.
If we focus on what we cannot have, it’s the “Eve Story” all over again: “You can fulfill everything but this one role.” We can choose to dwell on this one role, as some Christian women do and thereby distort God’s plan, or we can be like the “new Eve,” the Theotokos, and seek to fulfill the role(s) that God offers us.
There is order in the creation. If we have learned nothing else from the Scriptures than this, then we will understand that seeking to live within the order makes for a fulfilled and meaningful life. Seeking to create our own order leads us away from God and all that is good. Given this premise, let us begin with the actions of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Women In The New Testament
In the New Testament Jesus broke the centuries-old barrier that existed between men and women. Although rabbis did not include women in their group of followers, nor offer women spiritual teaching, Jesus visited and taught His friends Mary and Martha, who were also among His disciples. And there were other women among His followers.
St. Paul saw women as loyal coworkers. He depended on them to help spread the gospel. He spoke of consecrated virgins and widows. He wrote that in Christ there is neither Greek [Gentile] nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female; all are one in Christ.
Phoebe was one of the first to be called deaconess. St. Paul wrote that she was “a helper of many and myself as well.” The role of the deaconess in later years was to help clergy with the administration of baptism to adult women, and to reach out to women in institutions where men were not allowed [prisons, hospices for women, etc.] or where some of the faithful could be scandalized by the presence of men [e.g. bedrooms, isolated homes of the sick or elderly women].
Women Throughout Christian History
Deaconesses survived until the eleventh century, and with some rare examples, even into the 20th century. A prayer in the Apostolic Constitutions says: “honor the deacon as the image of Christ and the deaconess as the image of the Holy Spirit.” Like these two persons of the Holy Trinity, the ordinations of deacons and deaconesses were for two different but equal persons. Different and equal, that is to say, each to fulfill a specific role in the Church, yet equal in the eyes of God.
Women have become saints and have mothered saints. St. Theodota (3rd c.) was the mother of SS Cosmas & Damian; St. Nonna (4th c.) of St. Gregory the Theologian; St. Emilia (4th c.) of St. Basil, St. Macrina, St. Peter of Sebaste, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Some have been influential grandmothers: St. Leonilla (2nd c.) brought her 3 grandsons to Christ. St. Olga was the pious grandmother of Prince Vladimir of Rus, who had his nation baptized in the 10th century.
Many women have been martyred for their faith. Among them were St. Katherine the Great Martyr, St. Irene the Great Martyr, St. Marcella. The list is endless.
Women have been great teachers. St. Melania (4th c.) taught against the heretic Nestorius. St. Theodora the Empress (9th c.) was instrumental in the return of the icons into Orthodox worship. St. Pulcheria (5th c.), along with her husband, the Emperor Marcian, convoked the 3rd and 4th Ecumenical Councils.
St. Nina the Illuminator, “Equal to the Apostles,” was a missionary, converting the country of Georgia in the early 4th century. St. Mary Magdalene and St. Helena are also identified as “Equal to the Apostles.”
Women have entered the monastic life and offered spiritual direction. St. Xenia (4th c.), a deaconess, was not only the spiritual mother to her monastery, but also to people in the neighboring community. Today we have women monastics who do the same thing here in the United States.
Women In Modern Times
During the Communist years in Russia, the lay people were responsible for preserving the Church’s presence. It was the women, the “babas”/grandmothers, who kept the faith alive, who secretly taught the children and grandchildren and had them baptized. The young women of pre-revolutionary Russia, who later became the “babas,” had godly nuns as their examples. Not only the nuns, but the older laywomen as well, provided a living image of holiness for younger women to follow. God thus prepared them for the sacred task that would be given them. I have read that Stalin knew he could not kill the soul of the Orthodox Church in Russia without exterminating every pious old woman in the land, and even Stalin knew he couldn’t get away with that!
Russia is not the only land graced with the presence of saintly and righteous women. There are stories of the women of Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Romania, Serbia, Egypt and other countries where Orthodox Christians have had to suffer for their faith. All these stories together make up the history of Christian women.
Today, in Greece women are devout teachers of religion. Today, in Romania there are nuns, including many who have recently embraced the Orthodox faith, who are learned and now influence the Church. They offer ministry by serving the people who come for holy days to spend time with the nuns and seek a spiritual life.
Today, in the United States women graduates of seminaries are involved in ecumenical dialogues, teaching in colleges and seminaries, writing, Christian education, music, as theological librarians, in healing ministries, monastic life, iconography, missions, charitable work, and more. There are opportunities for women in nearly every area of ministry: missions, education, healing, administration, evangelism, social services, supporting other womenespecially young mothers, monasticism, liturgically as readers, chanters, choir directors and choir members, and finally as wives, mothers, and godmothers. All are seeking to live out their faith as best they can!
An Orthodox Understanding Of The Roles Of Men And Women
Orthodox Christianity affirms that men and women are created equally in the image and likeness of the trinitarian God. Both Adam and Eve participated in “the Fall of mankind.” Both have been redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ, the “new Adam,” and the Theotokos, the “new Eve.” Both are called to theosis, to deification, that is, to become united with God. And yet total and unequivocal equality does not imply absolute sameness. Femaleness and maleness are part of the varying “charismata” or gifts given by the Holy Spirit to every person.
For Orthodox Christians the ordained priest is the “icon of Christ” or “in persona Christi.” We believe that there is something in the very nature of the male ordained priest which allows him “to be the sacramental presence of the Lord, the mystical embodiment of the Church’s husband and Lord.” Metropolitan Maximos, my former professor and mentor, taught that the priest is the “iconic representation of Christ, the Groom of the Bride, [which is] the Church. The priest is the living icon of the bridegroom.” Ordaining women to the priesthood alters that imagery to that of Bride of the Bride, which we cannot have.
We, as Orthodox, affirm that manhood and womanhood are not interchangeable. Each member of the Body is equally called to live the Christian life as fully as possible. Each has his/her role. It’s all right to have different roles; it does not alter our value in God’s eyes, for no one is unimportant.
Throughout history the Orthodox Church suffered under various persecutors, most notably, the Ottoman Empire and the communists. As a result of these historic situations, the involvement of the laity was minimized. Only in this century has the situation begun to turn around. There is ministry to be done by all since we are all part of the “royal priesthood” [1 Pet 2:9]. The ordained ministry is but one area, and is not a “right,” but a specific calling to certain men, not all men.
My Calling From Christ
Because I am a theologically educated woman, my vision of the Church is a bit different than most. It comes with the territory, as the saying goes. Thus I believe that in addition to encouraging others, women and men alike, to grow in Christ, to serve His Church, my role includes helping others find their place, their niche, where they can minister, given their respective gifts. If we are truly to be the “Body of Christ,” where each part is necessary, then it is also necessary to have each part functioning. It’s no wonder that church workers feel overburdened! Only a portion of the Body is carrying the total weight!
It seems to me that the education of the Faithful of God is the key to many of our concerns and problems, and it is for this reason that I focus more time now to adult education, including the education and formation of Orthodox parents. There are many Orthodox parents wanting, desiring help in developing the parenting skills and insights they need in order to be Orthodox Christian parents.
Women Encouraging Other Women
One very important role that each woman can fulfill is to encourage other women to live out an Orthodox lifestyle in their homes because it requires the help of others in the parish. After all, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and our village is the Church. In many cases there are no grandparents to assist as they once did. Families are separated from their family mentors by distance, and perhaps even faith, since our churches are experiencing an increase of members who have embraced Orthodoxy as adults.
My spiritual father talks about the need for a new generation of “yiayias and babas”/grandmothers who are not afraid to teach the Faith, because the Faith is the most important aspect of their lives. No one else can give this treasure to their children and grandchildren! I agree wholeheartedly.
Finally, Orthodox women rejoice in the fact that the most perfect expression of Christian life and the very image of the Church is a woman, the Theotokos. She was devoted to the service of God. She said “yes” to God on behalf of each of us. She continued to say “yes” as she lived out her life, serving as “mother” to the newly founded Christian Church. Now we, too, are called to be devoted to Christ and His Church. With so many areas of ministry in the Church that are available to women, our only shortage should be the number of women!
Our devotion requires self-sacrifice, faithfulness to the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church, prayerfulness, and the desire to be all that God calls us to be. If this sounds like too big a task, remember Jesus’ words: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” Matt 11:29-30. Just start slowly and build on the firm foundation that the Church offers us. Allow yourself to be encouraged by another. Encourage others whose gifts are not being used.
Can you envision each member or most members of your parish involved in some ministry of the Church? I can! And what a parish it would be… a piece of the Kingdom that we have yet to see!!!
Questions For Discussion:
What are your charismata/talents/gifts from God, and how are you using them?
Do you use your talents for the strengthening of the Church? If not, how else could you be using them?
Do you see a need in the Church that you or someone you know could fulfill? What’s keeping you/them from getting involved?
Phyllis Meshel Onest, wife and mother of two teenagers, is one of the first woman graduates of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. She is presently Diocesan Director of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh and editor of the periodical, Orthodox Family Life. She and her family attend St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Mogadore, OH.