When it’s correctly recognized that we are called to hold to the traditions that have been delivered to us by Christ and the apostles—one of the places where we are so called is 1 Cor. 11:2, just prior to the apostle’s discussion of male headship, examined in a previous post—then the problem with feminism and egalitarianism becomes even more glaring.
With feminism having roots no deeper than the 19th century, and Christian egalitarianism having been a late-blooming offspring of 1960s feminism, one is forced to wonder what divine oracle delivered this new feminist revelation at this late date. If the faith was once for all delivered to the Saints (Jude 1:3), and if the Holy Spirit is guides Church into all truth (John 16:13)—rather than some truth, some error—then a new aspect of the Faith can’t be suddenly discovered. If we are called to hold fast to that which has been handed down by Christ and the Apostles, in words either spoken or written (2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:2), what obligation are Christians under to acknowledge this foreign, worldly preaching which comes from neither Christ nor the Apostles?
At this juncture, the feminist or egalitarian will typically want to cite biblical or historical examples of outstanding, righteous, and holy women, some of whom weren’t homemakers. Or perhaps turn to historical-critical readings of biblical texts that make Junia’s status as an apostle (Romans 16:7) into a sign of early woman leadership in the Church, or turn Priscilla into the head of her household because she’s (usually) named first in the pairing of Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18,26; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19). Or maybe accuse the Church—the bride of Christ which is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), whom was given the Holy Spirit to guide into all truth (John 16:13)—of being infected with an insidious patriarchal corruption from its founding up to today.
As for the fact of great godly women in the Church’s history—martyrs and Saints—the Orthodox Church emphatically and wholeheartedly agrees that there are tons! The All-immaculate, All-blameless Mother of God being chief among them. From there we might add St. Thekla, St. Barbara, St. Catherine the Great, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Maria of Paris, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Though none of this mitigates in favor of egalitarianism. In fact, each and every one of those same female Saints humbly accepted and submitted to the all-male priesthood, and—in the cases of married Saints—to their husbands. Saintliness is utterly incompatible with envy, or an insistence that one be granted a higher station, or impertinence at the authorities duly appointed over you.
The essence of feminism is that of the anti-Saint.
Regarding Junia, the Orthodox Church does indeed hold her to be one of the Seventy, but this again doesn’t get the feminist very far; ‘apostle’ (απόστολος) in Greek refers to a ‘sent one’, and in the context of the Seventy it referred to the earliest missionaries of the Church. There were women missionaries in the Church then and there are now, but their existence doesn’t speak to the pertinent questions at hand.
In the case of Priscilla, even if she was more active and well-known within the Church than her husband, there’s nothing unusual about a wife being more pious, active, and influential in church life than her husband. In fact, it’s quite common. Neither case even speaks to the issue of male headship in the family or leadership ‘equality’ in the early Church, especially with regard to bishops and presbyters. And given that St. Paul and subsequent Tradition speaks about those subjects explicitly and unequivocally elsewhere, the issue is not an open question to begin with.
With that said, the Orthodox Church is not shy about bestowing lofty honor and titles upon our female Saints. Mary the Theotokos, Mother of God, the Mother of Light, Queen of Heaven, All-honorable, All-holy, immaculate most-blessed etc. (one could go on for quite a while). Mary Magdalene and St. Thekla the proto-martyr—to name two other 1st-century examples—are both given the title of “Equal-to-the-Apostles” for their heroic feats, alongside male luminaries of the Church such as St. Constantine the Great, St. Patrick of Ireland, and Sts. Cyril and Methodius. And the veneration of women Saints isn’t limited to the bestowing of lofty titles, it is also attested to in the iconography, prayers, hymnology, and their lives being read from the Synaxarion during services. Even the greatest of male Saints will never approach the greatness of the greatest female Saint, the Theotokos, in her holiness, prayer, asceticism or in any other way. Pious men don’t distress over their inferiority to her, rather they marvel at what God has wrought in and through her for our salvation, and fervently seek her intercessions.
In the Orthodox Church, Mary is regarded as the New Eve. Where Eve listened to the devil’s lie that ‘equality’ was something to be desired and seized, the Theotokos lived a life of humble submission and obedience to the will of God, and thereby was accounted worthy to bear the savior of the world. St. Irenaeus of Lyons—disciple of St. Polycarp who was in turn a disciple of St. John the Apostle—perhaps the greatest Father of the 2nd century Church, writes in Against Heresies:
[Christ's] obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary, a virgin subject to a husband, undid the evil lie that seduced Eve, a virgin espoused to a husband. As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to His word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.
In the economy of salvation, woman, as exemplified and embodied by the Theotokos, has an integral and indispensable role to play. But that role is not the role of man. God is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rather than Mother and Daughter, or Parent and Child, and Holy Spirit—and this can not be arbitrary. God became an actual man, and not a woman or an androgynous being. Christ called twelve males to the rank of Apostle, and following His teaching they passed on their apostolic authority to other males (1 Tim. 3:2,12).
Do any of these facts diminish the equal value and dignity of women, their humanity, or their status as image-bearers of God? Certainly not. Sexual differentiation is a prelapsarian reality and one that explicitly images God in that differentiation (Gen 1:27). To suggest that gender differentiation, and the roles that those created differences are correlated with, is purely a superficial reality to be overcome or a product of the fall is impossible square with the witness of Scripture and the undivided, authoritative witness of the Church for two millenia.