I have stumbled across the conversation in the blogsphere about a recent publication from St. Vlad’s, Thinking Through Faith. The book is a collection of essays by various Orthodox scholars, of which I have read none to date. The one that has been making a stink is the one by Valerrie Karras regarding women’s ordination. Since I am familiar with the position and the author and so far I haven’t seen an adequate diagnosis and response, I am offering my comments to help clarify the issues.
Before we get to the main event, there are a few things to tidy up. Currently, most serious advocates of women’s ordination have conceded that there is no significant evidence of women in the priesthood, at least not to be derived form liturgical sources. Karras herself pretty much said as much in a publication in a theological journal last year. (The reference escapes me at present.) The argument is now following the practice of the Episcopalians in the 1970’s by introducing female deacons and then later by extension, the priesthood. In this discussion there is a constant terminological confusion and question begging with use of the terms, deaconesses and female deacons. Conceptually the two are not necessarily identical as well as being historically controversial as to whether there ever were any of the latter. There is plenty of evidence of deaconesses and sufficient evidence for them in the NT itself. I have no qualms about having deaconesses in the church. Canonically, deaconesses had distinct requirements and duties and so were not the female equivalent of deacons. From my reading, this has been adequately handled by the German Catholic theologian, Gerhard Muller in his Priesthood and Diaconate.
Next, Karras asks
“Why is male domination of woman considered ‘God-ordained’ by persons who have no theological opposition to receiving treatment for cancer or using machinery to avoid manual labor?” (p.143)
The argument here seems to be something like the following. Women and men do not differ qua women and qua men with respect to such and so ability. Therefore they are the same with respect to said abilities. If there is no difference between them with respect to those abilities, then there isn’t any difference with respect priestly abilities. Therefore women should be permitted to be priests. If those who oppose women’s ordination were consistent, then they would oppose female physicians, but they don’t so that they are involved in a performative contradiction. I think a problematic assumption is that the ability to say words, cut bread, etc. is what characterizes the priesthood. The essence of the priesthood though, it seems to me, is not defined by function and for a number of good reasons. First, because Christ is not defined by function. Chalcedonian Christology is not per say functional. Second, If the priesthood were defined functionally, we would not be justified in restricting access to it in other ways, namely age. Can you imagine a 16year old priest? Why not a ten year old? Is ageism any less a sin than sexism? Why is it, for example that people in fact do have a problem visiting a 16 year old doctor? There have been doctors of such and so age and even if there haven’t been, I see no reason why there can’t be some prodigy of modern medicine. More directly, Karras assumes that men and women are both equally potentially priests qua men and women, but isn’t this the point at issue? So her interrogative is question begging. That’s the long answer. The short answer I suppose is better. When Christ is enhypostatically united to carpentry, I will limit my employment of carpenters to males.
Christ is not a female and I suspect Karras or other advocates of women’s ordination would have a hard time giving a reason why he wasn’t or why Christ might just as well have been a woman. I know how I would answer that question given my adherence to the teaching of the dreaded Saint Paul, who views the head of every woman as man, the head of every man as Christ and the head of Christ as God. (I Cor 11:13). And of course, the head of Christ being the Father poses no problems since an eternal subjection of the Son to the Father doesn’t imply a subordination and inequality between them. The Father as the source of the Son doesn’t imply that the Son is heteroousia or homoiousia. Likewise, the head of every woman as man doesn’t imply that women are of an inferior essence as men-strictly speaking, being in subjection to is not tantamount to being subordinate to. The Father is eternally greater than the Son, but he is not eternally better than the Son. Subjection isn’t “domination” then on pain of affirming a plurality of Lords in the Trinity.
Another point that needs to be tidied up is the talk of “gender.” Gender roughly put is supposed to be distinct from sex in the following way. Gender is what you psychologically take yourself to be. It is what is “between the ears.” Where as sex is what your are biologically-it is what is “between your legs.” This supposes that sexuality and human nature are to be defined in terms of function, which incidentally helps to underwrite the legitimization of abortion. Why Karras thinks she is entitled to assume and take contemporary anthropology as the criteria for Orthodoxy theology is not addressed. Needless to say, I reject this way of understanding human sexuality and human nature. It posits sexuality primarily and most importantly as a non-teleological employment of the body. And since it is non-teleological, any employment is just as legitimate as any other. It underwrites the fundamentally Gnostic belief that you are not your body and so what one does with the body doesn’t really matter. This is why the Gnostics favored women’s ordination. Or more precisely, they favored having a lottery of who was going to act in what capacity for that service, giving leading roles even to children. Why after all discriminate based on age if you are not going to discriminate based on sex? Why not then go further than Karras argues and open the priesthood to all? You can see why this decoupling of sex from the persn consequently, legitimized (sexual) sin, the personal employment of human nature in opposition to its divine logos or telos. Heterosexuality is not just one of many different gender preferences, and certainly one isn’t conceived with a “preference” either, despite anecdotal psychological evidence to the contrary. (Have these people never read Freud?) To bring this around again, the traditional position for reserving the priesthood to males doesn’t turn on “gender defined” roles, but on sex. You are your sex, no matter what psychological dysfunction you happen to suffer from. Christ doesn’t take upon himself a “gender.” This is why Karras is anachronistic and mistaken when she writes,
“This emphasis on gifts, functions, and roles as gender-defined is particularly troublesome when the function and behavior of one woman — the Theotokos — is extrapolated to all women. That the Theotokos was not one of the Twelve does not mean that no woman could ever be an apostle. In fact, the Apostle Paul ranks Junia as an apostle in Rom 16.7 …” (p.150).
“The Theotokos is unique, and her role in the economy of salvation was and is unique. To lump all women into the same category, that is, to assume that all women must act and serve as Christian women in the same manner as the Virgin Mary — something that is never done with Christian men vis-à-vis Christ or any particular male saint — is to ignore the Church’s tradition of canonizing women whose activities and charisms were diverse and to objectify the Theotokos, simultaneously depersonalizing all other women” (p.151).
As for the “apostle” Junia, I simply direct the reader to the recent Touchstone article. As for the rest here, I ask my readers first to draw on their experience. I have visited a number of churches in my time, great and vast as it is. Some of those churches, Coptic, Russian and some Greek, separate women and men. The men stand on one side and the women on the other. When I saw Pope Shenouda consecrate a Coptic parish in the early 90’s, this is the way it was. (If you haven’t had this experience, too bad for you.) Now, there is something to this, it accentuates the differences between men and women and you can just “get it” when you see it-this is even more true when women wear the appropriate “head gear.” There is something to this that people who scream about “gender equality” just don’t and can’t get. That said, on an intuitive level, Karras’ argument above can be seen to be run across the grain.
What has gone before is mostly a side issue. Attacking the traditional argument head on, Karras writes,
“(2) even more importantly, given Orthodoxy’s incarnational soteriology, any theological argument based on the significance of the maleness of Christ has disastrous consequences for Orthodox soteriology with respect to women. After all, if, as St Gregory the Theologian opined, “that which is no assumed is not healed” (referring to Christ’s taking on of our fallen, mortal human nature in order to restore it), how can female humanity be saved if Christ’s maleness so differentiates him from female humanity that a woman cannot become an icon of him?” (pp.155-156)
The argument running around now that Karras deploys is that one can’t model the male exclusivity of the priesthood on the incarnation since this would imply that women are not human since Christ is only male. I think this is argument suffers from confusion and a number of mistakes. First, think about the implications of the argument. It implies, not only that women can be priests, but that anyone and anything can be a priest since Christ redeems all of creation in the Incarnation. This may be an acceptable conclusion for some wacked out Franciscans, but it is a clear reductio for reasonable persons. Further it also implies that Christ was either androgynous or that Christ did not enhypostatically unite his male sex to him. So we end up with a sexualized Nestorianism. How appropriate for the twenty first century-identity heterodoxy. Christ is divided via sex. There is the male Christ and then there is the divine/generically human Christ, with the first only being of accidental importance and relation to the second. And what constitutes this non-sexualized generic humanity is left unexplained by advocates of women’s ordination.
On the contrary, given that Christ doesn’t drop any body parts at the Ascension, he is still man and in fact he is the everlasting man, like it not. (Ephesians (1:3, 10) In the immortal words of the Mormon leader Joseph Smith, “if you don’t like it, you’re just going to have to lump it.” Since Christ’s male sex is everlasting and it is enhypostatically united to him, the only way it seems to me to affirm the full humanity of women is to affirm a rather shocking theological course. We need to adhere to Genesis in its talk of woman having her source in man or as the dreaded Saint Paul says, the head of every woman is man. Christ assumes what is common to both and specific to one sex, which is to deny that Christ is androgynous while affirming that women too are redeemed in Christ’s taking up of human nature into his divine person. And this implies that women can “image” Christ, though in distinct ways, appropriate to her sex, but not with respect to the priesthood. The priesthood is relative to the divine person of Christ into which he brings his sex.
On an experiential level, most if not all of the advocates of women’s ordination in the Orthodox church to my knowledge have no first hand experience of it. They have never been in a body to see how it works out and what implications, both theoretical and practical it may have. We do have a number of examples among the Lutherans, Presbyterians and Anglicans. My own experience is being raised with it in the Episcopal Church, which in my judgment was a theological/spiritual disaster. They have never been in a body where once they have broken down the wall and marker of tradition, theology becomes a free for all to the point that the former tradition becomes proscribed, and the evolution moves past heterodoxy to quackadoxy-cue Matthew Fox with his “Rave masses.” Those bodies that have gone the way of ordaining women are ever sliding towards the way of extinction. The proof is in the pudding.
With respect to tradition, I’d advance the line of the Anglican scholar Felix Cirlot, that the burden of proof rests solely on the innovators. The Church consequently requires no explicit argument for her practices in the face of challenges. That is part of the point of tradition. The religion of tradition isn’t the religion of reason in the following sense. The dogmas of the Church are not the products of syllogisms, the result of contemplating the nature of existential quantifiers or how to cash out the nature modality in S5. Tradition is the master of reason and not the other way around. Christianity is not a religion of reason in that sense. Consequently, it doesn’t matter if the traditional position lacks a clear argument. It doesn’t need one. If we have always done it “that way” then that is sufficient. If one doesn’t agree, well there are already plenty of other bodies that ordain women and advocates are certainly free to join them. I’d strongly recommend that advocates of women’s ordination actually go and spend a year or so in such bodies. But I doubt they will.