Friday, 6 June 2008

Gender in the Church

Someone named ‘NeoChalcedonian’ who is very intellectual has asked us to ‘discuss two issues: the theological-historical roots of patriarchalism in the Church and the theological significance of Christ's male sexuality; [a]ny recommended sources on the subject are welcome of course.’

First of all, let us say that these are topics that we have never studied or thought deeply about. The best we can do is share some recent personal reflections. This is not the place to come for an academic discussion of the subject complete with references.

Second, let us parse what the question is. We think that by ‘patriarchalism’ NeoChalcedonian means male dominance in the Church; we don’t think he’s talking about the institutions of the Five Patriarchs and the autocephalous Churches. If he is, he should refer to Professors in a good Orthodox Seminary or Theological Faculty who will discuss Church History with him from an Orthodox viewpoint. We don’t really know much. This is not an academic blog.

We think that the underlying issue that is being raised is gender in the Church. This is a big issue in the generation which came of age in the ’60’s. Among the problems that arose was the priesthood for women, including the episcopacy. This issue somehow broadened to include the issue of same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals who were openly living in a homosexual ‘marriage’. These are the issues that today are tearing the Anglican Communion apart.

We have never studied these issues systematically. It had never occurred to us to discuss these questions on this blog and had NeoChalcedonian not posed the issues we would never have raised them. In fact we even thought of begging off. However, it seems best to us to say the few things that came to mind over the last few days since NeoChalcedonian raised these questions.

To say the least, these are delicate issues and whatever we say we are guaranteed to alienate a few of our readers. To those who are offended, sorry, it’s been nice to have you as readers of the blog. Good luck elsewhere.

There is an underlying cultural issue. It doesn’t take much to realize that in the churches historically recognizing a priesthood the issue of female ordination was never raised until about 50 years ago. Moreover, in the Gospel there really is no discussion of the maleness of Jesus qua maleness. It’s just taken for granted that he’s a man. Similarly, there is no discussion in the Bible why the Father is ‘father’ and not ‘mother’. It’s just not discussed. At least, no passage springs to our mind.

What’s the point we’re trying to make? That these theological issues have arisen in the last 50 years on account of the secular sociological situation of the West.

In our remarks to young Theodor Yahnony Mouse about what he should do, we felt it necessary to point out that when we recommend he find a spiritual father who will love him with an unconditional spiritual love, this has nothing to do with sexual relations. Moreover we remarked that such explicitness on our part was necessary in this day and age where Wikipedia thinks pornography is normal.

Actually the situation in the West is far worse than that.

Wikipedia is interesting because on the one hand it is a free-for-all and because on the other hand there is a core group that sets the standards of what’s correct—yes, Virginia, there is a standard of political correctness on Wikipedia informally but strictly enforced. This standard might or might not be a reflection of the values of the broader community of the United States; we are not in a position to do the necessary sociology. But, and here is the point, if you look at what a young fellow can find on Wikipedia, you will either be appalled or applaud the sexual freedom of the Wikipedians.

So, at the very least, there is today a very strong current in the West of ‘anything goes’ sexual freedom. The only thing that seems to be forbidden is paedophilia. That’s convention. That will change. Not that we are encouraging such a thing: we are just pointing out that things will evolve.

It is in this context that issues of gender in the Church have to be assessed: after all, each member of the various Christian denominations is a member of his or her secular community.

And of course, there is a political correctness that must be adhered to. You’re dead if you don’t, and sometimes even literally.

This situation is unprecedented in the history of Christianity. While the closest thing to the present-day moral situation of the West is the moral situation of the late Roman Empire, for example Alexandria in the Second Century, at least then no one thought that the norms of the late Roman Empire were applicable to the Gospel. It was understood that when you were baptized you left all that behind. Nowadays, people want to fix the Gospel on the basis of the current mores of their own secular community.

So with that introduction guaranteed to alienate half of our readers, let us begin.

Let us start with the ‘male sexuality’ of Jesus Christ. We were not happy with NeoChalcedonian’s formulation for the reason that it seemed to us to suggest that Jesus Christ experienced sexual desire, had an inner fantasy life of a sexual nature, and so on, just like ordinary men and women.

Here we have to look at St Basil the Great: he remarks somewhere that Jesus Christ was ‘divinized’ from the moment of his conception.

Now the concept of ‘divinization’ is difficult for the Western Christian to grasp, but it means something like this. All of us when we are born are born with passions or drives, including the sexual passion. What Freud labelled id drives. When we are divinized we are freed from these passions and return to the state of Adam and Eve in Paradise. ‘They were naked and unashamed’: that is a way of saying that Adam and Eve were free of the sexual passion.

Divinization is what it means when Jesus says: ‘When the Son of Man sets you free you will be free indeed.’

Now what St Basil is saying is that when Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary, his human nature was divinized from the moment of his conception. At the very instant that the Word of God overshadowed Mary in such a way that an embryo was formed that would be born as Jesus Christ, the human nature of that embryo was free from passion. Hence, Jesus Christ, true Man and true God—our interlocutor calls himself ‘NeoChalcedonian’—never experienced sexual desire.

The Fathers, including St Maximos the Confessor, discuss just what passions Jesus Christ retained—after all he hungered, he thirsted, he grew tired, he wept. But it is easy to see that this anthropology is miles away from the anthropology of Wikipedia.

Now in saying that Jesus was free from the sexual passion—pace those who say he married Mary Magdalene—we and the Fathers do not intend to say that Jesus was asexual or even ambisexual, i.e. that he was not conscious that he was a man and not a woman. He was a man. He was not free of gender. He was a man.

Why was Jesus a man? Well here is where the fun begins. First of all, the Messiah who was expected was a man. There is just no issue in the Bible that the Prophet who was to come might be a woman. Hence, Jesus had to be a man. Otherwise he couldn’t have been the Messiah.

Next, let us consider his statement: ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’ What would happen if the Bible read: ‘I am the Good Shepherdess’? Is this merely cultural conditioning? ‘When the Daughter of Man sets you free you will be free indeed?’

What we are trying to approach is this problematic: how much of gender in our society and Church is culturally conditioned, how much of it is innate; how much of what is happening in our society is against nature and how much of it is a liberation from culturally and not genetically or divinely inspired norms?

We think that in examining the question of Revelation in the determination of gender roles in the Church we have to consider the ‘meta-revelation’ (more precisely, ‘meta-narrative’): the philosophical, sociological and value baggage that the person brings to the study of the Gospel that determines his or her assessment of the degree to which gender roles defined in the Old Testament and persisting in the Gospel are revealed by God or merely culturally conditioned. In other words, the ‘meta-revelation’ or ‘meta-narrative’ is the philosophical framework from within which one is going to assess the degree of divine revelation and the degree of cultural definition in the data of Revelation.

We understand that post-modernism posits that it’s all culturally conditioned, that there is no such thing as ‘natural law’. Hence, the most extreme formulation today would be that the Gospel is formulated in a completely culturally conditioned way and that it really has no normative value whatsoever.

Now, we think that some of our readers would take the more ‘moderate’ view of the liberalism of the Classical Enlightenment that some of what the Gospel proclaims is normative but that on the question of gender it is culturally conditioned, perhaps even on the question of sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex.

Let us see what we are getting at. When we read the Genesis account of the creation of Man, an account that St Paul depends on in his Epistles, we see that Adam was created first and then, because it was not good for him to be alone, Eve was created from a rib out of his side.

Does this have anything to say to us? St Paul seems to think that it means that the man is head of the woman, that the woman has a subordinate role in the Church. Those in favour of women’s ordination would of course insist that St Paul was speaking in a completely culturally conditioned way.

What we are getting at is this: from the creation of Adam to the Ancient of Days in the Revelation to John, God is male, Jesus is male, the Messiah is male, the priesthood in the Old Testament is male and the High Priest in the New Testament is male. Hence, in the cultural matrix of the Old Testament, persisting into the New, it is inconceivable that the image of God should be a woman. The question is, can this be overturned? Moreover, if we overturn it, how far can we go in replacing this male-oriented, male-dominant understanding with a modernist or post-modernist understanding?

The answer we give depends on our ‘meta-revelation’ or ‘meta-narrative’: the philosophical baggage that we bring to the data of Revelation. If we are coming from a liberal background, we will assess the data in one way; if from a post-modernist background, we will assess the data in another way. We will assign different weights to the elements of cultural conditioning and divine revelation.

So what we are really saying is this: From the time that God called Abram to go out from his people and his land, with few exceptions the election of God has come to men. For those who have experience with traditional Semitic societies, it is inconceivable that it could have been otherwise. NeoChalcedonian, it is clear that the cultural matrix in which the Old Testament is expressed and which persists into the New Testament, requires a male God, a male priesthood and so on. It couldn’t have been otherwise.

Is this, however, merely cultural? Or was it the plan of God?

Now let us look at the Cappadocians who ‘Hellenized’ the Gospel. They didn’t change these things. Although there were female priests among the pagans with whom the Cappadocian Fathers lived, the Cappadocian Fathers didn’t adopt that particular aspect of Greek culture. They seemed to think that it wasn’t something to be emulated. So when Christianity was Hellenized, it accepted certain ‘baggage’ from the Semitic societies within which the Old and New Testaments were defined—which baggage included the ‘patriarchalism’ that you refer to.

The issue that remains is the extent to which this was the will of God.

In both modernism and post-modernism, the notion that God exists is absurd, so that the notion that he willed something is equally absurd. If you approach the Gospel from either of these two ‘meta-revelations’ or ‘meta-narratives’ you will feel free to adjust the Gospel to fit with what you personally find congenial based on the criteria of the ‘meta-revelation’ or ‘meta-narrative’ you adhere to.

If, however, perhaps through an experience of God that convinces you that he does exist, you leave these ‘meta-revelations’ or ‘meta-narratives’ behind, then you will be inclined to consider the possibility that the concrete historical circumstances of the revelation of the Gospel were ordained by God because that is what he wanted. Of course, here you have a ‘consumer choice’ that determines how you are going to ‘read the text’ of the will of God: Evangelical, Roman Catholic or Orthodox—and, we suppose, other choices. We are Orthodox.

A classic American Evangelical would, we think, insist that the Bible was literally word-for-word true, so that it has to be interpreted word for word, although there are clearly different schools in the interpretation of the Bible even among these people.

A Roman Catholic would probably emphasize the ‘magisterium’ (teaching authority) of the Episcopate and of Rome in the assessment of what in Revelation is the baby and what is the bath water that can be thrown out.

We accept the teaching of the Orthodox Church on the nature of Revelation, thus accepting the ‘patriarchalism’ that Orthodox Tradition has bequeathed to us.

Orthodox Monk


  1. OrthodoxMonk,

    Thank you for this post; it has brought to light many issues that I would most definitely like to research later. There is clearly something in Western theological methodology that is validating certain questions & answers that needs to be critically examined in a Patristic framework. The women's ordination arguments that attack the moral & spiritual authority of apostolic teaching on the grounds of cultural conditioning forget that their authority comes directly from the Resurrected Christ & it was promised to the Apostles that they would be led into all truth. It is dogmatically a closed question if even the respective sides cannot understand or articulate in clear terms the 'why' behind it.

  2. Thanks very much, NeoChalcedonian.

    Orthodox Monk