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Handmaid of the Lord from Order of Creation/Order of Redemption

Handmaid of the Lord

from Order of Creation/Order of Redemption
by Michael Azkoul, publ. Orthodox Research Institute, 2007, pp. 71-78.

Republished on our website with permission of the author.

To achieve the admission of women to the priesthood would require the radical alteration of theological and liturgical culture. The existence of women in the priesthood would implicitly relativize the witness of two thousand years of Tradition on the place of women in the Church. The teachings of the Fathers and the Councils, the Confessors and martyrs, canonists and iconographers would be obfuscated if not abolished. The advocates of women priests are quick, of course, to dismiss the judgment of holy people on provincial bias. Egalitarians want us to believe that the male leaders of the Church have, with regard to women's concerns, understood the Old and New Testaments in the same way for so long that they are blinded to the distinction between male prejudice and divine verity. If their objection is correct, then, we must abandon any notion of the infallibility of the Church on matters of doctrine and morality.

Even worse, if contemporary Orthodoxy were to change its religious legacy—however noble the purpose— the generations to which it passed it, would have precedent with which to make changes of their own, until finally any link with the Apostles would be lost. Holy Tradition would need to be redefined. What we believe and how we ought to behave would be determined by the spirit of the times. Power, not faith, would command. Also, if, as in the case of the admission of women to the priesthood, future decisions of the Church were based on the current social and intellectual climate, Tradition would be so mutilated that the gospel-message would eventually be lost altogether.

Put another way, if feminists were to win the day, that is, if the secular egalitarianism managed to persuade others to support their cause, including synods and bishops; if they succeeded in neutralizing those biblical verses, such as 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:8-15 (which forbids them to preach to men, teach men, and celebrate the divine Liturgy), the priestess would cause a revolution in faith, practice, language,(78) and to be sure, the entire constitution of Church life. At the same time, secularism would have penetrated Orthodoxy to such an extent that there would be no way to prevent its further mischief.

But there are New Testament verses that need to be explained if feminists hope to reverse the attitude of the Church. Before we touch on them, however, something needs to be said to those who contend that St. Paul did not write second Corinthians and first Timothy. The books of the New Testament were chosen by the Church to be placed within the canon of Scripture, because those gospels, letters and histories accurately reflect the teachings of holy Tradition. Tradition does not rest on Scripture, but Scripture on Tradition. The “controversial passages” concur with teachings and practices of what had been orally delivered to the Church from the Apostles. In a word, it is not relevant who authored these epistles.

’Tradition teaches the Church that women cannot be priests. The Scriptures, God’s written word, only confirm it. Obviously, it is impossible for women to be priests if they are not permitted to speak—hence, cannot preach — in the church. “Let your women keep silence in the churches,” St. Paul insists, “for it is not permitted for them to speak, but to be under obedience, as also says the Law” He does not rest his case on the Jewish Law—as many of his critics say—but finds corroboration in it; hence, the expression, “as also (kai) says the Law” (Deut. 25:4; 28:49; Isa. 28:11). Obviously, if they cannot speak, they cannot ask questions. “Therefore, if they want to learn anything, let them learn from their husbands at home (or, if unmarried, acquire answers from a male relative or friends). It is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

’The apostolic prohibition against women speaking during the worship of the Church includes not only preaching, reading, or chanting, but also all ecstatic and edifying discourse. He intensifies his command with the word “shame” (aischron). Women are to be silent in church as a matter of principle.(79) Even the prophesying of women occurred outside the liturgical assembly of believers. Later, the Apostle writes to St. Timothy that he wants all men (andras) “to pray with the lifting of holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” He turns his attention to the current problem with admonitions regarding the conduct of men. “In like manner, let the women (gyne) adorn themselves in decent apparel, with modesty and sobriety...” “Let women learn in all silence and submission (hypotage). I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to take authority over men.” Genesis provides him with the reason. “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived but the woman. Being deceived she was in transgression.”

St. John Chrysostom follows St. Paul in his reasoning. “‘But I suffer a woman not to teach,’ that is, Saying this, women are not permitted to teach, but to occupy the station of learners and show submission by their silence.” He caricatures woman as “naturally somewhat talkative; and for this reason restrains them on all sides.” Their loquacity is not the reason for their treatment, “‘For Adam’ he says, ‘first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived but the woman being deceived was in transgress.’ If anyone asks, what has this to do with woman of the present day? It shows that the male sex enjoys the higher honor. Man was formed first and elsewhere this superiority is shown. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man (1 Cor. 11:9). Why does Paul say this? He wishes the male to have preeminence in every way... Let him have precedence, on account of what occurred in the ’Garden...For the woman taught the man once, and made him guilty of disobedience and wrought our ruin. Therefore, because she made bad use of her power over the man, or rather her equality with him, God made her subject to her husband.. ”(80)

Paul ties his discourse to the question of woman’s salvation. “Notwithstanding, she shall be saved through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love, holiness and sobriety” (1 Tim. 2:8-9,11-15). He purposefully relates these remarks to those that he made about women’s attire. In what he writes to St. Timothy, the Apostle reaffirms in what he conveyed to the Church at Corinth. He observes that the community led by Timothy has likewise neglected traditional church order. Among other things, women adorn and dress themselves immodestly. They also refused to be silent and to respect the station and authority of their husbands; and Christian men in general. The problem of his flock was the desire of some women for “emancipation” from their husbands. We may surmise that they even wanted to be priests, the result of listening to false teachers (Gnostics) who encouraged them to rebel against the restrictions placed on their behavior and dress.

Evidently, Paul’s calling women back to silence and submission excludes them from offices of bishop or presbyter.(81) By extension, women were barred from any ecclesiastical office that might place them in authority over men. This would be the case even if her husband gave her permission to occupy such a position. One might wonder if the priesthood was available to Corinthian women, would they have continued, as priestesses, to obey their husbands? Would they have covered their heads during prayer and worship; or would they expect their husbands to comply with their decision as a call from God? Would he accept her authority over him, kiss her hand, take her obediences and blessings, and, if necessary, make confession to her. Of course, women would have worn no beard. Finally, what are we to think of the appearance and condition of a pregnant priestess before the altar as she celebrates the Liturgy?

St. Paul did not fail to take such things into consideration when he commanded women “to learn in silence and with full submission.” It would have been sheer tautology, as it is for so many now. The Apostle has more to say. The woman’s subordination is not to her husband alone, or else he would have used the definite article or possessive pronoun with man — “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man or her own (idiois) husband ”(Cf. Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18-19). The implication of “the head of the woman is the man” (1 Cor.11:3) refers to the preeminence of the male throughout social order. At the same time, “Woman is the teacher of every virtue byword and deed within her own province at home; but she is not allowed even to speak or sing within the sacred precincts of the church. Woman’s task is to bear children and to rear them in the belief and love of God,” he concludes, “to uphold the sanctity and sobriety of marriage.. ”(82)

St. Paul saw virtuous motherhood as something inherent to the salvation of women (1 Tim. 2:15). Nevertheless, women in the primitive Church were not all married. Their calling was sometimes higher. Some, like Sts. Znaida and Philonella, Paul’s cousins, were physicians, generally to other women. Sts. Phoebe and Priscilla were co-workers with the Apostle Paul.(83) They ordinarily dealt with other women, carrying out their work in an informal home setting, not in public assembly, and not without the supervision of male elders. In 1 Timothy 2 (and elsewhere), Paul delineates role distinctions, because everyone in the Church should have a ministry. He was also in possession of those theological principles or criteria that let him determine the nature of woman’s service most befitting her, and for the man’s service befitting his nature. What God has done, why He created man one way and woman another, why He has ordained their ministries as the Church has always exercised them, we do not know. We are certain, at least, that “gender roles” reflect the order of creation and the order of redemption; indeed, the very mystery of our salvation.


78. C. S. Lewis observes that “a child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in heaven (as opposed to a Father) would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child” (“Priestesses in the Church,” p. 237).

79. See St. John Chrysostom, Comm. On Titus, hom. 4 NPNF; St. Ambrose, De Off Min. LXV, 230 FOC; St. Jerome. Adv. Pel. 1, 25 PL 23 542B; St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Procat., 14 PG 33 336B; Ambrosiaster, Comm. On 1 Cor. ,11 PL 17 253.

80. Comm. On Tim. Hom., IX, 2 NPNF.

81. It did not prohibit them making public confession of faith, to instruct other women, to pray for them or to nurse them.

82. The Rudder, pp. 373-375.

83. There is some uncertainty about Junias (Rom. 16:7), whether this individual was male or female. St. Epiphanius considered Junias to be a man, while St. John Chrysostom counted her a woman of such devotion as to deserve the title “apostle.” He was not attributing to her sacerdotal authority, however, but praising the immense piety of a Christian woman.

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