An Orthodox Response to Feminism (Part 2)

An Orthodox Response to Feminism (Part 2)

In the previous post we looked at Galatians 3:28, a text leaned heavily upon by feminists and egalitarians, and why it doesn’t really support an egalitarian reading. Let’s now turn to two of the other Pauline texts most central to this debate, specifically regarding headship within the family.

Ephesians 5:22-33 and 1 Cor. 11:3-15 both establish an undeniable hierarchy within marriage. This is a hierarchy that is composed of love and submission all the way through, to be sure, but it also reveals a particular order of authority and submission, as evident within the texts.

St. John Chrysostom, the Church’s greatest expositor of St. Paul—so great, in fact, that St. Paul’s whispering into his ear the truth of his teachings resulted in St. John’s ear becoming an incorrupt relic, which exists and is on Mount Athos to this day—says this about Ephesians 5:32-33:

However not for the husband’s sake alone it is thus said [that marriage is the great mystery of Christ and the Church], but for the wife’s sake also, that he cherish her as his own flesh, as Christ also the Church, and, that the wife fear her husband. He is no longer setting down the duties of love only, but what? That she fear her husband. The wife is a second authority; let not her then demand equality, for she is under the head; nor let him despise her as being in subjection, for she is the body; and if the head despise the body, it will itself also perish. But let him bring in love on his part as a counterpoise to obedience on her part. For example, let the hands and the feet, and all the rest of the members be given up for service to the head, but let the head provide for the body, seeing it contains every sense in itself. Nothing can be better than this union.

The feminist-egalitarian vision of marriage is necessarily one of either two heads, or two bodies, or some other unholy configuration, while St. Paul’s vision is that of a head and a body, just as Christ is the head of His Body, the Church. Chrysostom continues:

And yet how can there ever be love, one may say, where there is fear? It will exist there, I say, preeminently. For she that fears and reverences, loves also; and she that loves, fears and reverences him as being the head, and loves him as being a member, since the head itself is a member of the body at large. Hence he places the one in subjection, and the other in authority, that there may be peace; for where there is equal authority there can never be peace; neither where a house is a democracy, nor where all are rulers; but the ruling power must of necessity be one.

Just as the good order of the κοσμος (cosmos) is (or was) maintained by humanity humbly submitting to God’s rule over it, so it is with the μικρόκοσμος (microcosm) of the family: a singular principal reigns in self-emptying love and care over the whole, and those under his authority return love in submissive gratitude, resulting in the harmonious, peaceful operation of the whole. Echoing this point, one of the other Three Holy Hierarchs of the 4th century St. Gregory the Theologian writes:

The three most ancient opinions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia. The first two are the sport of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so. For Anarchy is a thing without order; and the Rule of Many is factious, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly. For both these tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution. But Monarchy is that which we hold in honour.

The ‘arche’ of the Father is an aspect of orthodox trinitarianism, enshrined in the Nicene Creed: The Son is begotten of the Father (and not vice versa) and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and not vice versa).  Thus, though all the Persons are ομοούσιος (“of one essence”), there is a relational hierarchy within the Godhead, with the Father as the fountainhead or the Monarch of the Holy Trinity.

With this in mind, we read in 1 Cor. 11:3: “that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”  St. Paul explicitly lays out a hierarchy, and grounds it in the relationship of the Son to the Father, which—as we’ve just seen—is not a reciprocal relationship (though this lack of relational symmetry in no way entails ontological inferiority). And in Ephesians 5, he links the hierarchy of husband-to-wife with the hierarchy of Christ-to-Church. St. Paul uses these two non-reciprocal, hierarchical relationships as the image or blueprint of marriage, therefore the relationship of husband to wife can not be reciprocal either. Yet, for an egalitarian ‘equality’, this is precisely what the relationship must be: exactly reciprocal. Ergo, per the Bible and the dogma of the Holy Trinity as revealed by Christ and attested to by the Church, ‘egalitarianism’ cannot be true.

This doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t ‘mutual submission’ within marriage. It just isn’t incompatible with headship and hierarchy. Christ humbly submits to the will of the Father and goes to the cross to die for the Church; the husband in marriage, in response to and in imitation of the loving submission of Christ, submits to His will and goes to his own cross to give his life for his bride in love and service; seeing her husband’s Christlike love and sacrifice, the wife submits to him as if to Christ in gratitude and love. St. Paul couldn’t be more clear: love and submission are not incompatible with hierarchy and authority, but are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, in a Christian framework.

Most Christian feminists and egalitarians will attempt to obfuscate by shifting to a discussion of the culture that Paul was writing in, 1st century Roman household codes, the nature of headship and other irrelevancies. But these moves should be treated as the shabby evasions that they are. We don’t need to know the nature of headship or gender norms in Paul’s context because he grounds his teaching in eternal referents: Christ is the head of the Church; the Father is the head of the Son. And the reverse is not true, in either case. 

Even if your tradition has—for some inexplicable reason—misplaced the apostolic teaching on the nature of the headship of the husband in the family, the text still states unequivocally that  it is something husbands have and wives do not, which is enough to take feminism and egalitarianism off the table as options.

In the next post, we will look at the subject through the lens of Christian tradition and discuss the way that the Theotokos embodies Christian femininity such that her example sets the standard for the Church’s response to Christ, and for women in a unique way.

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  1. Sami Mäkelä says

    This is basically a neo-reformed argument for complementarianism, a topic endlessly discussed by evangelicals. But St. John Chrysostom is not a fan of the idea of “eternal referents”, for example related to 1. Cor. 11 he says

    “For although the same words are spoken of God and of men, they do not have the same force in respect to God and to men, but in one way those must be understood, and in another these.”

    Discussing the same passage, he refutes the neo-reformed idea that male headship is a part of created order:

    “Wherefore you see, she was not subjected as soon as she was made”

    Another issue I have with this article is that the next sentence in the quote of St. Gregory Nazianzen would be

    “It is, however, a Monarchy that is not limited to one Person”

    so he is not really talking about Monarchy of the Father but about Unity of God. (Of course in the end Unity of God is based on the Monarchy of the Father.)

    When you are talking about tradition has that misplaced the headship of husband, I wonder if you are referring to Eastern Orthodoxy, since for example Hilarion Alfeyev fails to mention it in his catechism ( when discussing marriage?

    • Nathan Duffy says

      Hey Sami:

      Starting at the end: you’ve chosen a peculiar ally in Met. Hilarion, a staunch defender of Orthodoxy, and therefore of the headship of the husband in the family. Which is why you will find, if you scroll up in the very catechism you’ve linked to, under the heading ‘Women in the Church’, the following passage, which follows a discussion of the all-male priesthood:

      “The Christian family is a ‘small church’ created in the image of Christ’s Church. According to apostolic teaching, it is the husband, not the wife, who is the head of the family.”

      You didn’t think Met. Hilarion actually disagreed with St. Paul, did you?

      Furthermore, even if some Orthodox bishop had adopted some false stance on this issue, they would simply be wrong/un-Orthodox on that point. Saints aren’t infallible, much less a bishop. Any bishop who did that, however, probably wouldn’t have been as awesome as Met. Hilarion in the first place, though.

      Regarding the quote from Chrysostom, I’m not sure why you think it is an example of him “not being a fan of eternal referents.” He explicitly re-affirmed St. Paul’s grounding of marriage in the eternal referents of Christ/Church and Father/Son. You can re-read the passages by him and see that he does.

      The quote you cited of his is him explaining the principle of analogy, which is fundamental to Orthodox metaphysics, ecclesiology, and anthropology, and not only does it *not* in any way cut against the argument that Chrysostom and St. Paul make regarding the headship of the husband, but it is inherent to that argument. Of course God’s rule over creation/Church is not identical to the husband’s rule over his household in any number of ways (God’s creation has billions of inhabitants for example, and a man’s house has a few), just as a human person is not God, and yet is created in His image and likeness. This is how analogy works. This is hardly cause to claim that therefore the headship of Christ/the Father is not analagous to that of the husband.. when Sts. Paul, John Chrysostom, and the entire Orthodox tradition explicitly affirm that it is, while precisely 0 Saints say otherwise.

      As to whether my argument is resonant with ‘neo-reformed complementarians’, I’m not sure. I’ve read Protestant complementarians (some Reformed), and they typically don’t cite patristic exegesis as authoritative (though they might). But to the extent their interpretation aligns with apostolic/patristic teaching, the Orthodox stance toward truth being espoused outside of the church is to heartily affirm it, while correcting whatever might be in error. So, if your characterization of the neo-reformed stance is sound, then God bless them for upholding the truth of that point.

      • Sami Mäkelä says

        Just to be specific, my concern is with 1. Cor 11 and the relation Father/Son compared to Husband/Wife. In this case, Chrysostom does not admit the analogy to say anything that would be relevant to the complementarianism/egalitarianism debate:

        “For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as thou sayest, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master. For what if the wife
        be under subjection to us? it is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor.”

        This of course didn’t stop the neo-reformed to argue otherwise. That is why I compared your argument to the neo-reformed one.

        • says

          If you’re thinking that Nathan is saying wives are unequal in honor or as slaves, then perhaps you haven’t read his words carefully enough? No Orthodox Christian would claim as much, but neither would any honest Orthodox Christian claim that headship or mutual, self-love and submission in marriage is somehow either unbiblical or nontraditional.

          • Sami Mäkelä says

            Nope, I’m concerned about pushing the limits of
            Trinitarian theology, as some have done in the evangelical egalitarianism/complementarianism debate. But as long as the comments of St. John Chrysostom about this passage are taken into account, there should be no worry.

          • says

            We certainly don’t want to go to the extremes of the neo-reformed on this issue, but we also shouldn’t jettison tradition, even if it makes people uncomfortable. We just have to be careful.

    • says

      There is no Church where headship is more prominent than in Orthodoxy. Our priests are called “father,” and we have “father-confessors” and, in rare or monastic cases, “spiritual fathers.”

      The heads of our national churches are called Patriarchs—”fathers”—just as the Pope (“papa”) of the city of old Rome.

      Our independently-ruled churches are “autocephalous,” from the Greek “kephale” or “head”—the very word used by Paul in Ephesians for husbands and Christ.

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