Women for the Church

by Donna Rizk Asdourian  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский  |  српски

It is a very happy time for many Orthodox Christians across the globe since the order of the female sub-diaconate was re-installed in Alexandria, Egypt by Patriarch Theodore of the Greek Orthodox Church of all of Africa this past February 2017, where he ordained five women to the female diaconate (although without laying on of hands, that is cheirothesia not cheirotonia).  Although overly due, this historic event in our modern day gives many hope that the Church at large is heeding the pastoral needs of its people. Female deacons existed in the Orthodox Church, and has been kept in some of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, as Dr. Petros Vassiliadis’ mentions regarding the revival of the female diaconate this past November.

The role of women in the Church is, of course, broader than an ordained female diaconate.  Indeed, men and women across the Christian world have thought more seriously about the role of women in the church in recent decades. They understand the pastoral benefit conferred to the entire community when women are more integral in the life of the Church.

Contrary to what many may assume, active roles for women is the Church’s Tradition. Historically, women had a clear place in the life of the Church and had integral functions in its divine services; many were preachers, teachers, chanters, prophets, missionaries, assistants and even administers of the sacraments when needed according to the economy of the Church.[1]

Some of these roles have been maintained in some Eastern Churches, whereas others have dissipated. In the Syriac Church, for example, women chanters date back to the fourth-century, where they were first employed in divine liturgy by St. Ephraim the Syrian.[2] The Armenian Orthodox Church also has a long history of women chanters, and several instances of female choir directors. Today, Greek, Russian, Ethiopic, Antiochian and ROCOR Churches use women chanters, even if there is not a unanimous set of standards for them, and some local parishes of these jurisdictions are averse for such positions.[3] The Coptic Orthodox Church does not have any women choirs (with exception to one official group in the Western hemisphere),[4] and typically does not endorse them.

In addition to chanters and choirs, some Orthodox Churches employ women readers.  But like female singers, these roles too are not standardized across the Churches. In some Churches, this practice is adamantly prohibited. Women readers (mostly in the USA and other parts of the West) are today practiced in some Armenian,[5] Syriac, Greek, ROCOR, and Antiochian Churches.

Today, opposition to women’s sanctioned ecclesial roles is often expressed through a misused and abused interpretation of St. Paul’s instruction that women should ‘being silent in the churches’ (1 Corinthians 14:34). The mere fact women were not silent is evinced throughout Scriptures – most notably in the same letter by St. Paul where he speaks of female prophets  (1 Corinthians 11:5), but also in Acts (21:9); others preached and converted entire towns (John 4) and were commanded by the Lord to witness His Resurrection (which was inherently unconventional for a woman to witness to a man at that time – John 20:17-18); others still corrected false teachings (Acts 18:24-26), were deaconesses (διακονία) of St. Paul (Romans 16), and administered the gospel with him (Philippians 4:3 — αἵτινες ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ συνήθλησάν μοι μετὰ).  Thus, it is impossible to interpret St. Paul’s directive as an unambiguous condemnation of women’s voices in church if we know that Scripture repeatedly affirms such voices.

As Fr John Behr notes, Orthodox Christians should read the Scriptures with a ‘synchronic view’, that is, reading them as a whole. Thus, an Orthodox approach to Scriptures would not extract passages selectively to proof-text one’s argument as they seem fit, nor would it construct a dogmatic principle from any single biblical passage. But this is precisely what happens when opponents of female ministry construct a clichéd and untenable argument to prohibit women’s designated roles in the Church in light of 1 Corinthians 14:34.

Indeed, although many Orthodox Christians sharply criticize the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura, some ironically employ this same methodology in their repudiation of women’s roles in the church.

In other words, using 1 Corinthians 14:34 to prohibit women’s active role in Church (whether a choir or reader) is not only an error of biblical interpretation, which fails to interpret the verse alongside the totality of scripture but also an error of tradition because it negates the living Tradition of the Church, which affirms that women were not silent throughout the history of the Church. In effect, this effort to silence women not only de-humanizes half of the Body of the Church, but it also debilitates the entire Church (when one member suffers, all suffer – 1 Corinthians 12:26) and diminishes the opportunity to administer in the Church of God.

For many who are unfamiliar with the Church’s actual history, the revival of women’s roles for the Church are sometimes perceived as ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’, ‘feministic’, or ‘open-minded’. But these roles are ultimately Traditional – part of our history, ecclesial practices, and living Tradition of the Church.

We must remember that in sanctioning (or re-sanctioning rather) women’s integral role in the liturgical life of the Church, we not only revive an ancient Tradition and practice, but we also embrace and acknowledge the pastoral needs of the laity. The Church is living and dynamic; it is not stagnant and a mere point of reference to the past. It must be relevant – while being Traditional, and this reality is achievable when we recognize women as essential to the liturgical and participatory functions of the Church at large.

[1]  As in the life of St. Sarah (also known as Martyria) for example as witnessed in the Coptic Synexarium on May 3rd (Baramouda 25) and December 9 (Hator 29). See here and here. Also see my article ‘Oikonomia and Salvation: the Life of the Brave Mother Saint Sarah, Martyria’, in Encountering Women of Faith: Volume 3, Kyriaki Fitzgerald (ed.), (Holy Cross Press, forthcoming 2018).

[2] See S.A. Harvey, ‘Revisiting the Daughters of the Covenant: Women’s Choirs and Sacred Song in Ancient Syriac Christianity’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 8.2 (July 2005).

[3] My experience in a Greek Orthodox Seminary witnesses that many women in Eastern Orthodox parishes voiced their concerns that their local parishes rejected them to participate in chant at the bema.

[4] This choir has existed in recent years, yet during its inception, it was resisted by many and interpreted this group as ‘anti-Orthodox.’

[5] In the Armenian Tradition, the deaconess can be sanctioned to read the gospel during the divine liturgy. Her liturgical vestment traditionally contains the orarian and full-length stole like the male deaconate. She also is permitted to hold the liturgical fan during the service.

Donna Rizk Asdourian, PhD in Theology, is a Research Fellow at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University and is currently working on ‘Women’s Liturgical Role Today in the Oriental Orthodox Churches.’ She comes from both Coptic and Armenian Traditions.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.