An Orthodox Response to Feminism (Part 1)

An Orthodox Response to Feminism (Part 1)

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.’

For example:

  • 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.

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  1. The Pilgrim says

    Good post, thanks for showing that the egalitarian/complementarian divide is not as black and white as it appears. I do not, understand, however, the reference to Christ as a slave.

    • Nathan Duffy says

      Hey Pilgrim, thanks for the comment,

      To say that Christ is a slave in His present state is not true, exactly. But, we might properly say that Christ is now a resurrected and glorified carpenter, even though he obviously no longer performs carpentry — what he did in His earthly life doesn’t cease to be an aspect of who He is (even though it’s one of the less important aspects of who He is — Messiah, King, Lord, 2nd person of the Trinity etc. being more important). And the people of Israel in the 1st century were a slave class of people, so Jesus was a slave in a way. It’s admittedly a bit of a stretch to phrase it as I did and the main point is re: ethnicity and gender, but I wanted to refer to all 3 of the pairings in Gal. 3:28 i.e. slave/master, Jew/Greek, male/female. Now that I think of it, using “Jew male master” might have worked even better (although He is the ‘servant of all’ as well.) Anyway, I hope that’s an acceptable apologia.

  2. Karen says

    This is a good post and I agree with your observations. In addition, I would like to highlight and focus on one more key distinction that distinguishes Orthodox complementarianism from its counterpart in the non-Orthodox Christian traditions.

    Modern Christianity has little or no notion of the “Iconic” nature of material created reality that is the basis for the Orthodox understanding of Scripture on this issue. So, it seems to me, the complementarianism of modern conservative Christians can hardly avoid becoming grossly distorted (as you mention)–its meaning being reduced in its application to the horizontal level of relationships between human “authority” (as power) and those under that “authority” in marriage and the Church. The modern conservative Protestant complementarian, it seems to me, too often accepts a caricatured definition of a husband’s headship as “leadership” that is, in turn, reduced (even in its most soft-peddled forms) to a bottom-line operational definition of being “the person who gets the decision-making power where a consensus cannot be reached” (where the operative word is “power”). This caricature reduced to the level of human politics is not what I understand the proper relationships to be.

    Does not the Orthodox (and genuine Scriptural) understanding have rather to do with man and woman, priest and congregation, as material Icons of the spiritual reality of Uncreated and created (as you noted, Christ and His Church)? Further, surely this Iconic nature of man and woman is properly expressed in a way that is in harmony with the “egalitarianism” of not only Galatians 3:28, but of that found in all those “one another” commands in the NT having to do with relationships within the Body of Christ, such as 1 Peter 5:5b, Ephesians 5:21 and Romans 12:10 where there is complete mutuality in the call to imitate the exceeding humility and self-giving of both Christ and His Mother. The reverse is also true; the mutuality of the members of the Body is properly expressed in a way that does not obscure or eliminate the distinctions shown forth in the Iconic nature of man and woman.

    It seems to me neither complementarianism nor egalitarianism of modern Christian “Sola Scriptura” construction can do justice to the full Orthodox reality which integrates both according to the fullness of Christ. This dual aspect of what it means to be “in Christ” is beautifully expressed in the paired Icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Theotokos framing the Royal Doors on the Iconostasis in every Orthodox temple, on the one hand, and in the hagiographic account of the full mutual prostrations of St. Zosimas of Palastine and St. Mary of Egypt upon their mutual encounter of one another, on the other.

    • Nathan Duffy says

      Well said. I agree that the reductionistic approach to headship in much of Protestantism is very problematic, and that it typically doesn’t do justice to the mutuality you mention. Some of the points you have made here are touched upon in the upcoming posts in this series, especially part 3.

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