Monday, December 19, 2011

Mysogyny is a Sin

We had a wonderful discussion Saturday night with a group of friends from church, and the subject arose of how it very much appears the Orthodox Church has some sort of a grudge against women. This appearance kept me away from the Church for a while. Consider: women are not allowed to go into the altar. Women in some jurisdictions are asked not to receive Holy Communion during their menstrual periods. And it does seem there are an awfully lot of women saints who before their repentance were prostitutes! Women are not ordained priests, either.

Eventually I figured out that appearances do not add up to any imagined mysogyny, hatred of women. I was treated with great respect, and so were the other women I observed. There must be some other reasons behind these practices.

Going Behind the Altar

The truth is, nobody of either sex is allowed behind the altar screen unless he or she has some legitimate duty to perform there. Men don't usually know this, but they are also not supposed to be there without a blessing from the priest. Women don't usually realize it, but any cleaning lady can tell you she regularly goes there to vacuum and dust and clean up the wax.

Not Reciving Holy Communion During Your Period

This is a pious practice in some jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church (e.g., Greek); others (e.g., OCA) think it perhaps a bit over the top. Certainly it is not a dogma of the Church that a woman must not receive Holy Communion while she is menstruating.

The truth is, men aren't supposed to receive Holy Communion, either, if they have any significant bleeding. The reason, for men and women alike, is, of course, you are receiving the true Blood of Christ and you want to treat it more reverently than to let it seep out of you in undignified ways.

Obviously, men dying on battlefields and dying women, bleeding from anywhere, do receive Holy Communion. The Church exercises wisom and compassion when an exception to the rule seem more likely than the rule itself to support a person's salvation.


Yes, there are a lot of those in our Tradition! St. Mary of Egypt comes to mind, and the woman who anointed Christ's feet with oil, and the Hymn of Cassiani. Prostitutes are featured so often because sexual sin is such a big problem for human beings. It's also to encourage us, because when we see them forgiven, we understand that so can we be forgiven.

We also note that several people infamous for sexual sin are listed among the Ancestors of Christ in Matthew's Gospel. We have Tamar who had become pregnant by someone not her husband (Genesis 38); we have Solomon, whom King David begat by the wife he had stolen from Uriah (and had Uriah killed in the process); we have Booz, son of Rachab the, um, yes, prostitute. Sinners and scoundrels, yet here they are, made worthy to be accounted Ancestors of God-in-the-Flesh; and as the priest in Fort Wayne once told us, if they could make it, there's hope for all of us!

But guess what? Tradition has at least as many stories of fornicating monks as it does of wayward women!

And when Christ saved the woman caught in the act of adultery, what did He say to the men standing all around ready to stone her? If any of you is without sin, cast the first stone. So He taught them they were not better than she.

Women Excluded from Priesthood

This is a long, complicated topic, but perhaps we can summarize it here. The first thing to understand is that in Orthodox Christianity, "priest" does not equal "leader". Our leaders are men and women who are exceptionally Christlike. The office of priest is that of a servant to the servants of God; where it is adequately understood that we really mean this, it isn't just a matter of words, few feminists will covet the role.

There is no higher status accorded priests; instead, there is a special function, for the sake of which we show a priest respect. That function is to be the living icon of Christ, both inwardly and outwardly, for liturgical purposes. Christ Himself sends the Holy Spirit upon the waters of Baptism or into the bread and wine of Holy Communion, or into the oil for Unction; ministering alongside the Lord is the priest, doing the visible counterparts of what Christ is doing invisibly and being His visible counterpart.

The priest's functions, although indispensible, are not the highest ones in the Divine Liturgy; receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is the most important function, and it is no less available to women than to men.

In short, the Orthodox Church, recognizing that the sexes are not alike (and vive la difference!) has different roles for each, but not different statuses, because in Christ there is no inequality between male and female.


Chris said...


I like these sentences: The first thing to understand is that in Orthodox Christianity, "priest" does not equal "leader". Our leaders are men and women who are exceptionally Christlike.

And it underscores precisely what the feminists want--power. And there are, unfortunately, way too many priests who look at their role as one of power. We have to really really teach and catechize that the priest is not a potentate. That is why we call our Lord "Priest and King." If Priest were to signify power, that moniker is a great redundancy.

Sarah in Indiana said...

Chris, I agree that the title Priest and King is not redundant, but it hasn't been my experience that avoiding redundancy is something we're very much concerned with in Orthodoxy.

I appreciate the topic, Anastasia. And St Mary of Egypt is one of my favorites, because indeed, there must be hope for me, too. Of course, you notice I haven't gone off to live in the desert yet.