While much ink has been spilled over the ‘complementarian’ vs. ‘egalitarian’ debate in recent years, Orthodoxy remains largely aloof.
Not only because such distinctions are somewhat unintelligible from an Orthodox perspective, but also because with a living, apostolic, authoritative tradition which speaks to aspects of our life and faith, there is less ambiguity as to what constitutes the teaching of Christ’s Church. Within a Sola Scriptura framework, on the other hand, there is more room for both diverse and contradictory interpretations of Scripture, especially when it is the only possible rule of faith.
That being said, many of the issues that those in our contemporary culture wrestle with in this area are issues that we Orthodox should confront and address, out of love for those outside of the Orthodox Church, as well as for the sake of those within.
While Orthodoxy would seem to come down firmly on the ‘complementarian’ side of the divide on the two key defining issues of that debate—Orthodox clergy are all male and upholds the Pauline ‘headship’ of the husband—there are also aspects of Orthodoxy that both glorify and exalt holy women to such a degree that distinguishes it from most other strands of ‘complementarianism.’
- The highly exalted place of the Theotokos in the life of the Church and her theological significance
- The lives of female Saints and their veneration
- A developed, robust, apostolic theology of singleness which doesn’t erroneously (or mercilessly) elevate marriage above virginity
A complementarian theology devoid of these features likely runs an increased risk of abusive male domination and chauvinism, as well as a penchant for leaving single people high-and-dry in their spiritual struggles.
With that being said, on the questions most central to the debate, Orthodoxy is certainly more complementarian than not.
Some of the key New Testament texts most commonly cited in the debate are Gal. 3:28, Eph. 5:22–33, 1 Cor. 11:3–15; 14:34–35, 1 Pet. 3:1–7, and 1 Tim. 2:9–15; 3:2,12. Even without the witness of two millennia of undivided Christian tradition on the subject, the latter six texts are unquestionable in their rejection of a feminist or egalitarian viewpoint, and the text from Galatians isn’t enough to overturn such conclusions.
The key issue with reading Gal. 3:28 as a vindication of egalitarianism is Christological.
If, indeed, there exist no slaves, Jews, or males in Christ, then it would be rather difficult to account for the fact that there is now, as I type, a (crucified, risen, and glorified) Jewish male-slave reigning at the right hand of His Father in eternity. Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20), and in His resurrection He did not shed His Jewishness or maleness or what they signify—such as his relationship to the Father as His image and Son (not merely ‘child’), His being the fulfillment of the old covenant in the flesh, His being the New Adam who relinquishes the curse of Eden, or the masculine character of His relation to the feminine Church (the Bride of Christ).
Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection transfigures our entire being, including our mortal flesh in all its particularity, elevating it to the Father’s right hand. To read Gal. 3:28 as if it’s referring to the erasure of human distinctions or particularity—rather than to Christ healing and transfiguring those from within—is incompatible with core Christological doctrines such as the Resurrection and Christ’s consubstantiality with humanity.
The apostle Paul rather points to the way that our identity in Christ is the most essential feature of our being. Other features which were once barriers to human unity are no longer such in our union with Christ. St. John Chrysostom writes of this passage:
“You are all One in Christ Jesus,” that is, you have all one form and one mould, even Christ’s. What can be more awful [read: awesome] than these words! He that was a Greek, or Jew, or bond-man yesterday, carries about with him the form, not of an Angel or Archangel, but of the Lord of all, yea displays in his own person the Christ.
This is a oneness with Christ that doesn’t do away with differentiation, but rather is manifested in it. Christ’s being is truly joined to ours in His taking the flesh of Mary. As Christ’s divinity does not diminish his humanity—in all of its real dimensions, gender and ethnicity included—neither does our unity in Christ, nor our union with Him, diminish or negate our own. For Gal. 3:28 to be a fitting, egalitarian text, it must de-incarnate Christ, which is the height of both heresy and blasphemy for all faithful Christians.
While this cornerstone ‘feminist’ text—upon which the entirety of a feminist, Scriptural hermeneutic either stands or falls—is accounted for within a traditional Christian perspective, there is simply no real way to fit the remaining aforementioned texts with either feminism or strict egalitarianism, while also holding to the authority of Scripture in the life of the Church.
In the next post, I will examine some of the other key texts of this debate from an Orthodox perspective, showing that the authority of God over man—in the mode of loving submission and self-sacrifice—is imaged in Christian marriage.