Friday, August 9, 2013

A Critique of Valerie A. Karras' "Orthodox Theologies of Women and Ordained Ministry"

The following is a draft of a review of an article by Valerie A. Karras.

Es ist nicht einmal falsch…

Valerie A. Karras’s “Orthodox Theologies of Women and Ordained Ministry”


The eminent physicist Wolfgang Pauli reportedly once said of one paper of a young physicist, “Not only is this not right, this is not even wrong [Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch]!”  In the realm of physics, hypotheses proven wrong are of some use, if only to eliminate erroneous paths of exploration.  “Not even wrong” meant something worse than wrong: that the effort provided no benefit whatsoever to the scientific endeavor.  In an analogous manner, Valerie A. Karras’ article, “Orthodox Theologies of Women and Ordained Ministry,” [1] along with earlier writings which this article recapitulates, merits the same comment in the area of Orthodox theological thought. 

Theology, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition which Karras claims, ideally enhances or seeks to protect an authentic encounter with the living God within the context of the Church, the Body of Christ.  Perhaps in its most basic form, it permits one to come to an answer to the pertinent question of the Lord Himself (Matt 16:15): “Who do you say that I am?”  In this sense, theology first helps the faithful to articulate a personal answer, avoiding the pitfalls of error, and promoting reflection in an appropriate direction consonant with the experience of all the saints throughout the ages.  Our answer, founded on our relationship with the Lord Jesus, is both personal and shared, for there is only one Jesus Christ.  Secondly, and by extension, theology also seeks to communicate the Gospel and the truth of Jesus Christ to those beyond the Church in a critical dialogue with the plausibility structures of each culture and society in which the Church dwells through time.  Thus, there is a need for critical reflection by the faithful of each generation in all places to ensure that the life of the Church maintains and offers the fullness of the truth. 

As for theology in the first sense, Karras’ conclusions cannot always claim consonance with the experience of the Church throughout the ages, and in some ways directly challenges or contradicts it.  In some cases, without thinking through the logical conclusions of her assertions, she proposes a very serious break with the common experience of the saints throughout the ages. 

In the second sense, Karras seems to reverse the process, and instead of accommodating the plausibility structures of contemporary culture to proclaim the faith she has accommodated the faith to fit into her own ideological vision formed by certain plausibility structures of her culture. Certainly, there is room within the Church for criticism of elements that may require change precisely because historical norms can come to demonstrate or communicate something other than that for which they were initially introduced.  This is amply demonstrated by changes in a single language over time.  The archaic English of the King James (or Authorized) Version of the Bible are not only sometimes distracting to the casual or unlearned reader, but may lead to confusion or misunderstanding rather than edification. Despite the appearance of excesses or potential abuse, the drive toward gender-neutral language in biblical (and liturgical) translation is one example of adaptation to contemporary need.  The problem, of course, is when theological criticism (broadly defined) is not properly rooted in the ageless consciousness of the Church, and Karras often seems to call for changes that are rooted rather in the socio-political mood of her own era.  In other words, instead of changing the mode and means by which the Church communicates and interacts with the world (in it but not of it), in order to change it in accordance with the faith in Christ, Karras often seems to be calling the Church to change so as to conform with the surrounding secular culture.

In fact, however, despite her numerous observations regarding contemporary Church life and the title of her essay, there is nothing that really amounts to a “theology” of women, much less a discussion of several such “theologies.”   If anything, she argues that not only would such a “theology of women” be unnecessary, it is actually impossible since the distinction of gender is contrary to an ideal human nature, and to draw distinctions between the genders is “sinful.”  Still, regarding the ecclesiastical life of women, the questions that Karras raises merit attention by the contemporary Church inasmuch women within the Church actually pose them.  Unfortunately, the answer she suggests—or, often more accurately, implies—cannot be judged right or wrong based on the arguments or evidence she presents.  Thus, es ist nicht einmal falsch—it is not even wrong.  However, there is good reason to believe, based on earlier efforts, that her premises are, as Pauli might declare, “utterly wrong” (ganz falsch) or is, as the writer Asimov quipped, “wronger than wrong.”[2]

Prior to discussing Karras’ own perspective, it may be noted that she gives scant attention here to two respected theologians of the twentieth century who did endeavor to articulate a broad theological vision of gender and sex distinction: Elizabeth Behr-Sigel and Paul Evdokimov.  Karras admits to Behr-Sigel’s influence on her thought, common enough among contemporary Orthodox women such as Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Kyriaki Kardoyannes-Fitzgerald, and Despina Prassas.  In any case, Behr-Sigel’s inspirational influence on numerous Orthodox female theologians of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has far exceeded the influence of her writings and positions on Orthodox Christian practice or polity.  As I will demonstrate, Karras moves well past Behr-Sigel’s more sensitive (or tentative?) criticisms.  Behr-Sigel’s colleague, Paul Evdokimov, also ventured into the discussion of the place and role of women within the Church, but his dialogue with Jungian psychological concepts prevented any widespread influence or acceptance, and his relatively conservative position merited a negative response from Karras and other like-minded writers.

Karras’ ultimate assertion is that there is no “theological” justification for the Church to continue excluding women from the ranks of the presbyter and bishop, not to mention other ministries in the life of the contemporary Church.  To make this assertion more attractive, Karras relies on anecdotal evidence of women’s “subservient” position in the Church, a limited reading of patristic authorities, false analogies, a narrow view of an Orthodox “anthropology,” and an overly-schematized view of “history” and eschatology which is certainly subject to dispute.  If this is not enough, she has also neglected apparently more contrary evidence from ancient and contemporary authors and canonical sources (including Holy Scripture), largely dismissed contemporary “hard” science and social science and, perhaps most importantly, ignored a great deal of the liturgical-sacramental life of the Church.  The discerning reader cannot but help notice that her argument reveals a predetermined conclusion which is not at all supported directly and positively by the evidence she provides, and she certainly has not provided convincing arguments to account for the more obvious contrary evidence (such as Holy Scripture) that seems to support a conclusion opposite of her own.   

Her argument is akin to a negative proof fallacy: because a premise has not been proven false, the premise must be true.  That the Church has not clearly articulated an indisputable “theological” reason to exclude women from the ranks of presbyters and bishops might be admitted, but this does not mean that such a reason does not exist.  While it may seem obvious today, it took the Church a long while to overcome Arianism and its various heretical offspring; even the First Ecumenical Council did not fully resolve the problem, and the Christological arguments springing from those controversies persisted for many centuries, requiring a great deal of theological effort.  Of course, the hierarchs gathered at the Ecumenical Councils did nothing other than affirm, in their estimation, what was already confessed by the Church to be true, and had been true despite the lack of specific articulation.  In other words, they recognized certain heretical teachings to be beyond the legitimate tradition of the Church as they were inconsistent with the faith confessed “everywhere and from all time.” 

Certainly, and contrary to Karras' implication, there have been theological arguments against the ordination of women as presbyters and bishops, and one or more of these might also be correct.  It remains, however, that there is yet to be a consensus on this theological (and anthropological) question, though in practice the consensus is clear enough: women are not ordained as presbyters and bishops in the Orthodox Christian tradition.

To be fair, the opposite mode of reasoning would be just as fallacious as the one demonstrated by Karras: because a premise cannot be proven to be true does not mean that it is necessarily false.  It is possible, even if most unlikely, that a theological reason justifying the ordination of women as presbyters and bishops may emerge as the consensus of the Church.  Although Karras fails to offer any real justification to reverse the Church’s undisputed and consistent practice in this regard, she might one day be justified in her views.  Unfortunately, by neglecting an assessment of so many dimensions of the Orthodox Christian tradition, her argument remains woefully incomplete.  So for now she is not even wrong, even when, as it happens at significant points in her article, she is right.

Being Wrong when Right

Not everything Karras posits in this article is wrong.  It is important to note where she is correct and right for the discussion regarding the role of women in the Church.  Yet even here there are significant problems, as much of what is correct is coupled with significant omission. 

Karras admits that the Church never has (knowingly) ordained a female as a presbyter and bishop.[3] She fails to mention that such ordinations did occur, reportedly, in heretical sects, and there were negative reactions to this in the canonical Church.   Though noting that in our era other Christian traditions do ordain women, she neglects to mention where these traditions also diverge from Orthodoxy in other matters regarding human sexuality (such as acceptance of openly homosexual ministers, same-sex marriages, and so forth), and therefore fails to note that it may be that they have a “theological” justification for ordaining women based on very different doctrinal or anthropological presuppositions—some of which might be most incompatible with Orthodox tradition.

Setting aside the fact that every Christian, male and female, is “ordained” in the initiation rites of Baptism and Chrismation,[4] one thing that is beyond dispute today among Orthodox theologians is the fact that women were (and can be, in theory if not yet regularly in practice) ordained as deacons in the Orthodox Church, at least in some places and in some eras.  Karras is certainly correct to note this, especially as it may surprise many of the faithful today. 

No Orthodox Christian observer of Church history can deny that women were called deacons in the Church: Saint Paul refers to at least one woman unambiguously as a deacon.  Saint John Chrysostom has extensive correspondence with a woman, Olympias, who was named a “deacon.”  Canonical and imperial legislation deals with the role and qualifications of female deacons.  Liturgical manuscripts preserve ordination rites for female deacons.  What the role of the deacon was in the apostolic and sub-apostolic eras (not to mention the roles of the presbyters, bishops, prophets, etc.) is less certain, not to mention geographical variation, and there still can be a legitimate discussion about the scope and scale of the female deacon’s ministry in later centuries.  Still, women in the apostolic and early Church were clearly serving in some official capacity, and it is clear that there was a formal liturgical role, however limited and evolving over time and within diverse regions.[5]

Because it has not been done for so long on anything nearly approaching regularity, there has been some dispute on the manner by which women became recognized deacons in the Orthodox Church; whether this was an “honorary” position or an “official” order of the ministerial priesthood was, at one time, a matter of contentious debate. 

Karras highlights the work of scholars, both Orthodox and from other Christian traditions, who have settled that debate, at least to a point.[6]  Without doubt, manuscript evidence shows that, at least somewhere and at some point in history, women were ordained essentially in the same manner as male deacons, in a ceremony all but identical to our current liturgical ritual during the Divine Liturgy at the Holy Altar.[7]  Less clearly presented by Karras, if at all, is the fact that the female diaconate does not seem to have been as “universal” as were the orders of (male) deacons, presbyters and bishops at a relatively early date in the Church’s history, nor does it appear that the role of female deacons was identical everywhere throughout early Christendom.  It also seems to have faded into obscurity or obsolescence at different points in different regions.  Likewise, it is not at all clear that women deacons were always established in such positions as were their male counterparts; in other words, it is possible that over time there existed more than one “method” of ordaining or “appointing” female deacons, and in some cases the “office” may have been or have become only honorary.[8]

Simply because women were ordained as deacons does not mean that female deacons could be ordained presbyters or bishops.  Karras does not, in fact, suggest this, but she also fails to mention that the very nature of the major orders of the sacramental priesthood in the Church (deacon, presbyter, bishop) is a very complicated subject in itself.  Even the male diaconate in the Orthodox Church has generally become, in most cases, liturgically ceremonial at best and a mere formality prior to ordination to the presbyterate at worst.[9]   It would be wrong simply to assume that ordination to the diaconate would permit or assume ordination to the “higher” orders of the presbyter or bishop.[10]  Along with this is the lack of any substantial attention to why the order of the female deacon basically disappeared.  While the implicit “common wisdom” is that it had to do with changing cultural attitudes and gender bias, it is likely a more complicated matter.  After all, there is no specific canonical prohibition from ordaining women in the common canonical tradition of all Orthodox Churches.[11]  And yet if the female diaconate declined and then vanished, the example of the contemporary state of the “male” diaconate should also be considered, for here the decline would have nothing to do with gender bias.  Nonetheless, along with the renewal of the diaconate as a “permanent” order of the Church among men, it may be the appropriate time for the female deacon to once again appear among the Church’s ministers.  Karras is by no means out of the mainstream on this matter, at least among theologians.[12]

Karras also rightly points out the paradox of gender bias and prejudice within the Church.  Yet here again, it is intellectually dishonest to simply attribute the limitations on female liturgical and ministry participation on the bias of men.  The cultural milieu of the Churches in the “East” obviously had a different perspective on gender roles, though even these changed over the centuries.  While we may safely presume some level of gender bias on the part of males, not everything that appears to us today as negative regarding the social (and ecclesial) roles of women may have been perceived as such by women of the time (or even today!).  In traditional, gender-segregated societies, matters are usually more complicated than in our own contemporary “Western” culture.  For example, many women in Muslim societies prefer to be veiled even when it is not required, and discuss the veil as a protection against lust and objectification even if westerners might consider it to be “dehumanizing.“  Westerners have long decried the practice of female circumcision as cruel and inhuman, but the reality is that in many of those cultures—particularly in Africa—where it is practiced, the chief practitioners and proponents are often women, whereas many men are not generally in favor of it despite its portrayal as a “patriarchal” institution; it is a complicated cultural issue.[13]  This is not to state that there was (and is) no gender bias or discrimination among the members of the Church, for indeed several patristic commentators either describe it when denouncing it in whole or in part (as Karras notes), or actually display it.  Still, even among those patristic authorities who demonstrate what might be seen today as a special sensitivity to the “plight” of women, or explicitly expound on the “equality” of males and females, there is no example of any authority ever suggesting women should be ordained as presbyters and bishops.  In fact, only the opposite is the case when the notion of women serving is considered at all: women do not and should not be presbyters and bishops.

Of course, while suggesting that gender bias continues due to an apparent lack of women participating on such governing bodies at the parochial level (parish councils) or in the administration of broader Orthodox ecclesial structures, Karras fails to mention that, at least in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA), this “deficit” of women has nothing to do with institutional bias or discrimination—apart, perhaps if one sees it thus, from the exclusion of women from the ranks of presbyters and bishops.  At least at the parochial level, it is obvious that there is something different occurring.  As an example, the GOA has formally allowed women to serve on parish councils for decades.  If—and Karras provides no documentation—there is a lesser representation of women on such councils in comparison to the male-female ratio of parishioners, it is not due to any statutory limitations.  Likewise, if Karras can rely on anecdotal information as she apparently does, it may even be safe to state that in terms of actual participation, attendance and activity, women outnumber men in parish life.  So if women are not serving on (elected) parish councils in greater numbers than they do, the reasons are likely to be complicated—but not systemically institutional.[14]

Even the “theological” discussion regarding the image of God and women is a more complicated matter than Karras suggests, attributing this also to gender bias.  Questioning whether women were “in the image” to the same degree as men was an exegetical exercise among commentators trying to reconcile the creation narrative(s) of humanity with statements by Saint Paul.  As Harrison, to whom Karras refers, points out, the conception of being “in the image” by Antiochene exegetes certainly did not entail any disparagement of female capacity for salvation, virtue, and so forth, and they only affirm the ontological equality of male and female.[15]  That the early Christian writers often expressed themselves in the midst of an androcentric cultural milieu is readily admitted.  Even so, the fact is that their exegesis still maintains a fundamental equality of males and females in Christ.  “Equality” or “equal honor” does not necessarily mean “identical” in terms of function, role or capacity to relate to the community in some manner.[16]  It is not only anachronistic but also a bad reading of patristic texts to presume that we can clearly recover such “psychological motivations” as gender bias or even misogyny when these are not explicitly stated.

As Karras notes, it is certainly true that both Saints Gregory of Nyssa and Maximos the Confessor have a particular eschatological vision regarding the persistence, or perhaps non-persistence, of the division of human beings as male and female in the fullness of God’s Kingdom.  Karras appears to read both in the most literal manner, but misses important distinctions between both authors.  Nyssa admits to “speculation,” and his position is rather consistent with the noticeable platonic or neo-platonic influences in his theological method and premises.[17]  Maximos, who in regard to male and female seems to follow Nyssa closely in some respects, is perhaps a more subtle and complex thinker.  Karras is wrong to simply equate their views, for Maximos has, in many ways, refined his Cappadocian influences.  It is one thing to note that for Maximos the “division” between male and female is destined to disappear in Christ, and quite another to suggest the distinction itself will cease to exist.  Division and distinction are not interchangeable concepts in Maximos’ writings, as several of the leading Maximian scholars have rightly observed.  Indeed, one of the leading researchers into Maximos’ anthropological thought (Thunberg) specifically rejects the conclusions that Karras draws regarding this matter.[18]

Being Right When Wrong

Perhaps part of the problem in Karras’ argument is a distinction that she is right to question but entirely wrong to dismiss.  This is the conceptual distinction between sex and gender.  Now usually used interchangeably, the initial distinction between these terms served an important purpose: to distinguish between physiological phenomena related to male and female (the biological differences) and social or cultural differences that were not necessarily (or so obviously) “genetic.” 

By dismissing the distinction between sex and gender, Karras prematurely but conveniently eliminates an important observation that has been both better articulated and more frequently abused in our modern (and post-modern) culture.  The distinction between sex and gender is an important one in both the hard and soft sciences of our era.  What we now, rather inaccurately, refer to as the “nature-nurture” debate has become more refined in modern anthropology, sociology and psychology, but it was not entirely absent in ancient times—even if it was not articulated in the same manner as today.

One is hard pressed to refute patristic authorities who envision the cessation of the distinction of biological sex in the age to come.  As most biologists would now affirm, the biological distinction between male and female serves the purpose of species reproduction (in a Christian context, procreation is a better term).  However, as biologists and at least two patristic authorities would affirm (Chrysostom and Nyssa), species’ “multiplication” does not necessarily require the distinction of sex, for not all species make use of sexual reproduction.  Whether it be a multiplicity of angels (the patristic consensus being that they are sexless), or amoebas, there are other possibilities and means to “multiply,” and certainly God was free to determine the form and “system” of human procreation.  Likewise, the patristic tradition seems to be rather consistent in affirming procreation—in the sexual form that we know it—as a remedy against mortality.  This is commonly the context of any exegesis of Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees regarding the resurrection: “they are neither married nor given into marriage.”  Yet there is also no doubt that by “marriage” both the Evangelists and the patristic commentators see sexual intercourse as the main content.  This is, after all, the more literal meaning of the Greek word for marriage, gamos, from which we derive the English “gamete.”[19]  If the “content” of marriage for Saint Paul in his Corinthian correspondence seems to be the fact that male and female are joined into “one flesh,” it may be noted that his conception of marriage extends beyond the (Roman and contemporary Western) conception of legal marriage when he notes that sexual relations with a prostitute also means being joined to her/him as “one flesh.”[20]  At least for Saint Paul, the “oneness” of the marital (or, in the case of prostitution, sexual) bond is related to the idea of communion—sharing of a common existence—as we find explicitly developed in (the later) the fifth chapter of Ephesians.[21]

Furthermore, while we may affirm the cessation of human sexuality in the Kingdom, we may note that the distinction of male and female not only precedes the Fall but also is changed following it.  Therefore, there may not be such a problem in seeing the sexual aspect of human existence as ultimately ceasing to be relevant (or perhaps existent) in the general resurrection, but also at the same time allowing for the distinction of male and female to hold meaning for human existence beyond the procreative function of each.  This is where a distinction between sex and gender, which Karras dismisses, may be useful. 

Accordingly, one of the greatest deficits of Karras’ argument is her near complete non-consideration of the mystical meaning and purpose of marriage itself.  That Christian marriage is not, in an Orthodox context anyway, strictly for the procreation of offspring, is self-evidenced by the fact that the Church celebrates liturgically as a sacrament (mysterion) the joining of husband and wife even when the couple is incapable (apart from miraculous means) of procreating.  Of course, one might argue that the “other” chief purpose of the “communion of matrimony” is the avoidance of fornication (“it is better to marry than to burn”).  This would also be in line with a great deal of patristic commentary.  Yet there are a number of “theological” problems with such a view.

First, a view that God only creates the male-female distinction in foresight of the Fall permits no positive content to the distinction.  Rather it is relegated to serving only as a remedy against a possible-but-not-predestined mortality or as a remedy against sinful passion and action (fornication).  Thus there is nothing to be said for the fact that when God creates humanity, the initial human beings are wholly distinct though not yet divided by sin, not to mention that they are commanded to be “fruitful and multiply.”[22]  The distinction, if we accept the psychosomatic unity of the human person, would include both physical and spiritual or psychological distinctions.  The fact is that such distinctions “devolve” in the biblical narrative into causes of division (nudity and shame), yet such a division is not itself the act or will of God.  In Maximos the Confessor, the unity of all in Christ is not achieved, by the way, by the elimination of distinctions (created by God), but by the transcendence of divisions (introduced by sin) to which distinctions may lead in a sinful world.  Indeed, Maximos generally affirms that distinctions are a pre-condition of unity and communion even as they may devolve into divisions that are the marks of sin.[23]

So there is a manner by which the apparently negative view of sex in Maximos may be reconciled with a persistence of the male-female distinction even in the age to come: the biological purposes of sex (as known in a fallen existence) may cease, but the psychosomatic distinctions fostered by gender difference could persist.  After all, the distinction of male and female fosters the possibility of a unique, complementary relationship between human beings, and it is the “relational” content that the distinction provides that may be held in positive assessment.  Thus, it is certainly possible and right to refer to the Virgin as the mother (a relationship unique to women) of the Son of God, and it is by no means clear that such a relationship—founded on a gender difference (as well as a sex difference!) ceases in the Kingdom.  Maximos the Confessor confirms a belief that Mary intercedes for the faithful in the Kingdom, and nowhere suggests she is no longer a woman or a mother, or that she will someday cease being these in relationship to her son.[24]  This would be a repudiation of the real content of history.

Second, the argument based on the disappearance of the male-female distinction in the eschaton and the suggestion that women could be ordained on this basis also ignores marriage in another fashion.  The Church does not, nor ever has, celebrated the joining of persons of the same sex.  If sex is ultimately irrelevant, why do several of the same patristic authorities Karras cites fail to argue not only for the ordination of women but condemn homosexual activity?  It is not as if homosexual activity was unknown by the early Church; in fact, there is usually a strong condemnation of it in principle if not always in practice.  Yet if gender or sex does not really matter, the ultimate conclusion Karras would want the reader to accept regarding ordination, why should it matter in any other area?  Indeed, it may be important to question the fact that most Christian traditions that permit the ordination of women as presbyters and bishops (or their equivalents in a traditions’ hierarchy) also permit or tolerate same-sex marital unions.  Of course, Karras makes no move in exploring the logical consequences of her rhetorical suggestion regarding the irrelevance of sex in the Kingdom, the affect of such a view on the doctrine of marriage being only one.

As an aside, one may also question Karras on other elements of God’s plan for human beings vested in the “garments of skin” (a post-lapsarian and mortal existence as we know it now).  For example, only women bear and give birth to children.  Men do not.  Is this sex difference simply a matter of God “rolling the dice,” meaning that it is no more than spontaneous and rather arbitrary choice God makes once God imposes (or permits) the consequences of the ancestral sin?  With Einstein, I do not believe God plays dice, and do not believe the order of the universe (and humanity within it) is arbitrary even following the primordial “Fall.”  Yet here would be one example of “inequality,” if one chooses to characterize it thus, between men and women.  Preferable would be to note that this is a difference that arises to serve the purposes of God’s dispensation for the world.  Thus we may affirm that there may be God-chosen distinctions between the roles of men and women in the world, clearly manifest after the Fall in what would be a “fallen” mode, but just as clearly created before it.  In any case, it may be hasty to conclude that such roles do not exist within the Church by divine will.

Thus, if it is agreed that there is neither sex nor gender in the divine nature or Persons, as Karras rightly notes, this is rather irrelevant for an Orthodox anthropology other than to reveal a fundamental dissimilarity between created and uncreated being.  What is of consequence from an Orthodox perspective of the Holy Trinity is not the absence of sex or gender, but rather the hypostatic (personal) distinctions of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of whom share wholly the divine nature (as consubstantial, homoousioi).  A hypostatic distinction between human persons who share the same (created) human nature would involve a distinction (though not division) between the constitutive “parts” of human nature.  It is at least possible and perhaps likely that the biblical narratives of human creation reveal such a distinction between, according to the text, the only two human beings at the time, and this “hypostatic” distinction is revealed in the “original” names of the human beings in their personal distinction—male and female.[25] 

Therefore, it seems strange that Karras ignores the importance of the very “otherness” (alterité) she mentions elsewhere as fundamental to human (and divine) personhood.  Karras makes note that in some of the patristic witnesses, such as the Cappadocians, that the difference between men and women is a bodily difference, not one of “soul.”  In such a case, she seems to imply that personal distinction between human beings is, indeed, a physical-bodily distinction.  Yet the “original” or initial bodily distinction affirmed in the scriptural narrative, that of male and female, is destined to disappear according to Karras (and, admittedly, to some patristic authorities who address the subject).  One may question, therefore, the basis for personal distinction (personal identity) in human existence.

Perhaps the basis is that of unique experience and relationships.  Yet this brings us back to a psychosomatic existence for each and every human being, which will persist in the age to come even if certain bodily realities (such as mortality) will be transformed in the Resurrection.  And each and every human being has experience of the world and establishes relationships that are mediated, in some manner, by the reality of gender if not sex (in terms of sexual activity).  Not only is this a logical conclusion from the Orthodox affirmation of the psychosomatic unity of the human person, but also an affirmation of our contemporary scientific understanding of gender and sex differences.  Male and female bodies react to and perceive their environments in different ways.  Subtle as it may be, even the act of running—common to males and females—is actually experienced differently due to the difference of the male and female skeletal structures.  Accounting for all this is certainly a most complicated matter, but Karras does not even address the fact that human identity is conditioned by personal history (the accumulation of human experience), and such a history is obviously conditioned by gender.  

Finally, the sacramental nature of Christian marriage is also a complex matter that would appear to have some eschatological significance, at least according to the contemporary marriage rite.  As the Eucharist (which is the current rite’s true and original context even if separated from it for many centuries) is an eschatological “event,” it follows that those events celebrated in a eucharistic context are also, in some manner, of eschatological significance.  Karras does not follow this in her own understanding of Orthodox anthropology and liturgy in connection with the eschaton.  Notably as well, the eschatological vision of the Church continually makes use of nuptial imagery: Bride and Bridegroom, wedding banquet, and so forth.  The fact that Gregory of Nyssa, himself married, or Maximos the Confessor, a monk, develop their anthropological reflections without (directly) taking the ritual of matrimony into account is not surprising. In the former case, the ritual was not well developed, and Nyssa seems at times actually to resent his marital status; in the latter, Maximos’s chief theological works consulted by Karras tend to be written for a monastic or ascetic audience by an author who is hailed as an ascetic master (not to mention problems with Karras’ reading of his work).[26]

Not Right, Not Even Wrong

  What Karras fails to do is to place the question of ordaining women as presbyters and bishops within a more coherent context accounting for the many dimensions of Orthodox tradition (not custom) and theological boundaries.  Except for reference to a long-abused, and often mistranslated, biblical “proof-text” (Gal 3:8), there is a lack of serious consideration of various scriptural passages that refer to gender or sex roles within the human community and the life of the Church.  They cannot be readily dismissed or attributed, simply, to cultural norms of their era.  In fact, there may be a need to place some of the scriptural data within a particular cultural or social context, but doing so requires serious exegetical reflection on what is “lasting” and what is “passing away.”  Otherwise, biblical interpretation—as a message relevant at all times and every era—becomes tenuous.

The same is true with making use of a real and important distinction noticed by nearly all contemporary Orthodox theologians and pastors: that which Karras describes as between “Tradition” (capital T) and “traditions” (small case t).  It is perhaps better to note the distinction is one between sacred tradition which remains consistent through time and location, and those customs that have developed to express the sacred, “apostolic” tradition passed down through the generations.  Tradition thus is the unchanging content of Orthodoxy, while customs are somewhat malleable depending on circumstances as the means of expressing or conveying the truth of tradition.

When Karras notes the custom of women abstaining (or being directed to abstain) from liturgical participation and receiving Holy Communion during menstruation, we may attribute this as a custom introduced into the life of the Church since, historically, there is sufficient evidence indicating that there was once no explicit prohibition to women partaking of the Holy Gifts for such a reason.  There is no mention of such a prohibition in Holy Scripture.  To the contrary, as Karras correctly emphasizes, there is early evidence that women were encouraged to ignore any consideration of menstruation in regard to their liturgical participation (as in the Didache).  However, there is within the canonical tradition of the Church a prohibition of women partaking during menses.  This raises another complicated issue that Karras passes over in silence.
The canonical tradition itself is part of the sacred tradition of the Church, since it is essentially the accumulated “guidelines” (the meaning of “canon”) that have developed over time.  True, some canons may reflect dogmatic principles that are unchanging and therefore part of the sacred tradition of the Church, but most are practical means of implementing the teachings of the Church and regulating her life.   The problem is that while the canonical legislation of the Church that has accumulated is, in most cases, authoritative, not all canons are given equal “weight” in the canonical governance and pastoral practice of the Orthodox Churches.

Karras wrongly compares, even implicitly, the canonical prohibition of women partaking of Holy Communion during menstruation and the ordination of women.  First, there is no real canonical prohibition against ordaining female deacons, as noted above, in the canonical legislation shared as authoritative by all Orthodox churches.  Second, while Karras rightly suggests that abstaining from Holy Communion during menstruation is a “custom,” she does not demonstrate at all that any ordinations are “customs” in contrast to being an element of sacred tradition.[27]  That the Church basically stopped ordaining women as deacons may be a custom, as would be the cessation of ordaining married men as bishops, also a fact of history.  The latter, however, was a custom adopted into the canonical legislation of the Church and respected as authoritative for all.  It could change if the Church so decided.  In light of her ultimate point, there is no evidence that the Church ever ordained women as presbyters and bishops, so it is a more complicated issue to determine if this fact is only a matter of custom—and therefore able to change as she suggests—or a matter of sacred tradition.

History is a complicated matter itself, and Karras schematizes history in a manner that is subject to dispute.  It is not the general scheme that is really in question, though theologians might take issue with separating too neatly the era of the Church in history and the eschaton or “post-history” since the Kingdom of God interpenetrates even our current “time.”  Nonetheless, the real problem is Karras’ attempt to “assign” certain canonical or liturgical customs as rooted in her scheme.  For example, the prohibition of women partaking of the Holy Gifts during menses is assigned to an “attitude” grounded in a “postlapsarian BC” perspective, though she provides no real evidence that the canonical prohibition articulated by Bishop Alexander in the third century relied on such a perspective.  In fact, the canon does not really provide any theological justification of the matter at all.  Silence, however, does not mean that the bishop had no theological reason for his views, even if it appears likely that his attitude about women’s “issues” does appear to be influenced by the “patriarchal” views of his time and taboos common to the culture.  Still, if it is a matter of a cultural phenomenon, it may be completely unrelated to any “postlapsarian BC” perspective.

This comes close to the heart of the matter as to why Karras is not right, but not even wrong.  For an Orthodox theologian, it is not right to pass over or ignore so much of the doctrinal, liturgical, sacramental, exegetical, canonical and pastoral history of the Church to address a legitimate, contemporary question, while basing conclusions on but a brief selection of theological treatises and writers who, themselves, would not have been so quick to draw the conclusions Karras does—since they nowhere even suggest her conclusions despite challenging in many ways the social and cultural norms of their own time.

Ultimately, the question regarding the ordination of women as presbyters and bishops is a healthy one for the contemporary Orthodox Church to address, since it inevitably touches on so many issues of importance today.  These include our ecumenical engagements and encounters, particularly with those Christian groups that have a very different perspective of human sexuality and ecclesiology; an Orthodox anthropology that needs to account for, in a critical manner, the findings and advances in the various sciences, both hard and soft; the canonical dimension of ecclesial life;  the liturgical and sacramental dimensions; and an Orthodox ecclesiology which has been transplanted from its Roman, Byzantine and Imperial Russian contexts through and into Muslim, “Western” and other socio-political contexts. 

“Thinking through faith,” the title of the volume in which her article appears, is absolutely necessary.  It is right to “discern the sign of the times” so as to fulfill the evangelical mission and commission of the Church in all places and in every era, and the Church is too often treated as an artifact of former times.  Questioning something such as the ordination of women is healthy.  Jumping to conclusions without due consideration of all the dimensions of Orthodoxy is wrong.  Suggesting conclusions on only a partial consideration of all the evidence or arguing from silence is not even wrong. 

[1] Valerie A. Karras, “Orthodox Theologies of Women and Ordained Ministry,” in Thinking Through Faith: New Perspective from Orthodox Christian Scholars, eds. Aristotle Papanikolaou and Elizabeth H. Prodromou (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008), 113-158.  Karras has demonstrated similar views in many places before and since its publication.
[2] Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong (New York: Doubleday, 1986), as quoted by Michael Shermer, “Wronger than Wrong: Not all wrong theories are equal,” Scientific American (November, 2006; “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong.  When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong.  But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
[3] Karras, “Orthodox Theologies of Women,” 116-117.  Even if, as some historians try to assert, women were ordained in the canonical Church through disguise or other deception, this would not undermine the canonical Church’s opposition in principle to such ordinations.
[4] Although it is not typical to speak of initiation rites this way, the work of (Metropolitan of Pergamon) John Zizioulas clearly justifies the idea—as he explicitly asserts—that each member of the Church is assigned to their own “order,” the first being that of the laos, the people of God.
[5] By “liturgical” I would include assisting at the baptism of women and bringing the Holy Gifts to women outside the Eucharistic assembly, not to mention a clearly liturgical ordination (as I note below).  It does not appear that female deacons actually served as did their male counterparts in the Eucharist.  They may have, however, assisted (as did subdeacons) in keeping order within the women’s galleries and sections of the congregation during the eucharistic assembly.
[6] Ibid., 144-145 (esp. fns. 44, 45).
[7] That a ceremony of ordination for female deacons, in a form parallel to that of male deacons, has been preserved is beyond dispute.  How widespread its use may have been, its historical development, authorship and other such questions remain.
[8] The point is not to dispute positive evidence, but that Karras glosses over complicated historical circumstances that others advocating the restoration of the female diaconate readily admit.  See, for example, references and comments in notes 8and 9 below.
[9] On this see John Chryssavgis, Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2009), 2-5; on women deacons, 18-19.
[10] It has long been customary that persons being ordained to any of the three “higher” orders first “pass through” the lower orders, starting with the fact that all deacons are first appointed sub-deacons.  In many cases, a sub-deacon is appointed at the Matins (Orthros) on the same day that he will be ordained a deacon at the Eucharist.  Many presbyters are ordained having served as a deacon at only one Eucharist—often the following day. 
[11] See Chryssavgis, Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia, 164, n. 1; 165, n. 52, on the fact that there were canonical prohibitions and restrictions (notably the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, 325 CE, canon 19).  As Chryssavgis notes here, such canonical prohibitions did not prevent later ordinations in some places, and it is likely that Nicea 19 was directed to a specific circumstance without setting a general precedent.  The emergence of a female diaconate in the Coptic Church tradition—which acknowledges the canons of I Nicea as authoritative—would seem to provide additional support (among others) to Chryssavgis’ conclusion by a contempory “eastern” Christian tradition.
[12]What Karras does not state in conjunction with the historical data and her advocacy of the restoration of the female diaconate is that the practice among Anglican and Protestant groups of ordaining women to the presbyterate and episcopacy has probably made it more difficult for Orthodox Church officials to countenance such a development in fear that it may suggest to the faithful that women could subsequently be ordained to the orders of the presbyters and bishops, or that the reason for ordaining women would be perceived as a capitulation to Protestant influence by more conservative elements within the Orthodox world.  This would involve erroneous perceptions about the ordained ministry in the Orthodox Church, but such perceptions present a pastoral challenge in the contemporary climate.
[13] See, for example, Francis A. Althaus, “Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage or Violation of Rights?”  International Family Planning Perspectives 23, no. 3 (1997): 130-133, esp. 132 and endnotes 7, 19, 20.  Typically today, the practice is often referred to as “female genital mutilation,” but obviously only by those who view the practice as objectionable.
[14] In fact, women have served as Parish Council members and officers, as well as on diocesan (Metropolis) councils and the national Archdiocesan Council of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and analogous bodies within other Orthodox churches and jurisdictions in the United States and abroad.
[15] Verna Harrison, “Women, Human Identity, and the Image of God: Antiochene Interpretations,” Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 9, no. 2 (2001): 205-249; here, 207, 247-248.  Harrison notes that for each of the Antiochian authors she discusses (Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret) salvation of women is never the issue, only whether or not women were created in the image of God, and thus this is an exegetical peculiarity.  She also notes that all three were eventually condemned for heretical views—though not specifically for these particular exegetical opinions.
[16] Karras, “Orthodox Theologies of Women,” 130, fn. 34,  considers the accurate translation of the Greek isotimos as “equal in honor” to be “unfortunate,” preferring that it simply be rendered “equal” as she does in her translation of the word (p. 130).  As Karras rightly notes, the Greek isos, “equal” is not normally used for unique persons.  So the question remains why Karras prefers referring to unique persons (or, in the case, genders) in such manner.  Chrysostom notes that male and female are different but worthy of the same honor.  Certainly for Chrysostom, not to mention perhaps the greater mass of humanity, male and female were neither identical nor equal in all things.  Furthermore, two persons can be equally dishonored or dishonorable!
[17] See the preface to Nyssa’s On the Creation of Man, and the introduction to his On the Soul and Resurrection.
[18] And Thundberg (Microcosm and Mediator ) is not alone.  In fact, the notion of communion and unity in Maximos (the opposite of division) presupposes distinction, not the eradication of it.  The eradication or abolishment of distinction creates not communion, but identity (sameness).
[19] The “sexual” content of marriage may be one reason why Chrysostom denies Adam and Eve were “married” prior to the Fall—there were no specifically sexual relations in the form we know it now.
[21] Questions of authorship for Ephesians are irrelevant to this point.  The same idea is seminally found in the Corinthian correspondence.
[22] In the LXX of Gen 1, the expression may be translated (as apparently understood by Irenaeus of Lyons and others) as “grow/mature and multiply.”  Admitting that sexual reproduction (as noted above) might not be the only means for human “multiplication” in a prelapsarian setting (hypothetically), it would appear that this is a task set before the first human beings, male and female, to accomplish together. 
[23] Communion is predicated on distinctions; identity would lead to narcissim and self-love (philautia), the opposite of authentic love for an “other.”
[24] Maximos obviously could not venture beyond the definitions of the Third Ecumenical Council that defined Mary as Theotokos.  It should be noted that Maximos does, however, suggest that men too become “birth-givers” of Christ in a spiritual manner, though not a literal manner!
[25] “Man” (Adam) and “Woman” are the first “names” offered to the human beings in Genesis 2.  The name “Man” (or human; Hebrew: Adam) is stated by God for the species.  The name “woman” is uttered by the first-formed human being upon his discovery of her following her creation and is, of course, predicated on her personal distinction “from the man.”
[26] It may also be noted that Nyssa’s apparent “contempt” for marriage (or, perhaps better stated, his disappointment at not pursuing the ascetic/monastic ideal) may only be a literary pretense due to the rather obvious “imitation” of Platonic ideals where such passages occur.  Likewise, in his correspondence, Maximos nowhere criticizes marital life to those living in the world outside the monastic milieu.
[27] Again, the reality of Holy Orders (and their history) is a complicated ecclesiological issue, for it is evident that the tri-partite distinction of bishop-presbyter-deacon is one that emerges (very early) following the initial foundation of the churches by the Apostles.  The point is that there was once a time when these orders did not exist in the life of the Church.  The question then becomes whether this “scheme” is the only possible one for the organization and order of the Church.