A friend’s teenage daughter recently asked us how she could respond to peers at school who told her the Orthodox Church is sexist because it doesn’t ordain women. Inevitably, we began to discuss why it doesn’t.
My ignorance of the church’s theological stance on this subject is quite vast. I offered her the very basic answer I use myself: Jesus picked the first 12 “priests,” the apostles, and all of them were men. We’re the apostolic church, so we do the same thing: we pick men. Q.E.D.
But that doesn’t answer the larger question: Why did Jesus pick only men?
There are obvious answers to this, such as the culture in which His apostles would have to operate. Men had a much better chance of being received and heard in leadership roles at that time. As human beings, let alone as leaders, women in Jesus’ time could hardly be said to exist.
But how concerned was Jesus with the prevailing culture? How many scandalous and impossible things did He do Himself? He hobnobbed with unacceptable people on a regular basis, and He announced His resurrection first to women, the invisible and powerless. The Holy Fathers teach that He chose to announce His resurrection to women first because He wanted to change their status in the world. Add to this the fact that the one human being ever chosen to be blood-related to Him was a woman, and you would have a hard time arguing that Jesus was a chauvinist.
It is important to recall that in the Orthodox Church, all believers are ordained into the Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) at baptism. In that sense, both genders are ordained equally in the eyes of God and of the church. There are no “laypeople” in Orthodoxy.
Traditional arguments in favor of ordaining only men often center on qualities that men are perceived to have, credentials for the position that are somehow linked to gender. Only men, it is argued, are able to do this job. This suggests that men do the job because the church needs men to do the job.
Something about this argument feels backward to me. Gender could not be more than one facet of the dynamic and beatific cycle that is ordination. Ordination is a sacrament. So is taking the Eucharist. Would anyone argue that the Eucharist needs us to take it? By definition, isn’t it the recipient of a sacrament that stands in need?
No one can know the mind of God, but as I pondered, I began to wonder if men are ordained because men need to be ordained. Women have spiritual needs as well, but it is possible that they may be different from the spiritual needs of men, at least in some respects. Perhaps God fills the needs of women in other ways. Perhaps there is some need specific to men that is filled by the ordination of a male priesthood.
There’s no way to know. But I wonder. Odds are, God is not considering most issues from the same angle that we are.
In the meantime, I suggested to our friend’s daughter that she ask her Protestant friends how many of their churches have large icons of a woman displayed prominently at the front of the sanctuary. Mary, the mother of God, the beloved intercessor for all men and women, is remarkably absent from the Protestant world. Is the ordination of women really the final proof that sexism has been vanquished?