The Role of Women in the Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church proclaims equality between men and women. They have, however, different roles to perform within the context of the Church. Women, as the Church emphasizes, are the backbone of the Church in that they are the backbone in their respective parishes and homes. It is well known that churches cannot continue to be strong units in the Church unless their families and children, the nucleus of any given parish, are raised and cared for in a Christian manner and according to Christ’s teachings. Chrysostom asserts that “the home is the little church” (Homilies on Ephesians, Homily XX), where all Christian education starts and ends. Nowadays, more than ever, women play an essential and indispensable role in the family. They are caring wives, nurturing mothers, valuable parish leaders and workers, and productive contributors in the workplace of our modern society. One might note that men play very similar roles in all mentioned segments! That would be absolutely true. Nevertheless, roles vary in different fields according to the gifts granted by God to each sex.
Whether one likes it or not, whether one admits it or not, whether one accepts it or not, the handson role in raising children and keeping the sense of family strong belongs to the wife and mother more than to the husband and father. This is not to say that the husband or father has nothing or very little to contribute in this field. On the contrary, the husband or father has a crucial role to play. Yet the wife or mother has a bigger role. God has equipped the female with more qualities than the male in this area of human responsibility. A mother’s nurturing abilities are not matched by the father in most cases. A mother’s nurturing abilities is shown by the fact that, more often than not, a child will run crying to his or her mother when he or she falls and has a scratch on the knee, rather than to dad. This innate ability to comfort and console the child is more commonly found in the mother. It is noteworthy that, in general, the mother spends more time with the children than the father. Children, who are impressionable especially in the first five years of their lives, receive invaluable education not only through the direct teachings from the mother, but also through her actions, behavior, and words. Children absorb like sponges the mother’s influence on them, even if it is not directly apparent at first. If the mother carries herself properly, adheres to the rules she sets for her children in the house, is polite, and is genuine, then the children will usually follow suit. If the mother, on the other hand, is on drugs, drinks to excess, and so forth, and/or does not pay attention to her children, then the children will learn that behavior and eventually practice it. They would seem to them to be the norm, because their mother lived it and she is the prime example for them. The following Arabic proverb rings true: “A mother is a school; if you have prepared her well, you have prepared good people.”
What does this have to do with being the backbone of the Church, one might ask? St. John Chrysostom instructs mothers that they are to “let everything take second place to our care of our children, our bringing them up to the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If from the beginning we teach them to love true wisdom, they will have more wealth and glory than riches can ever provide” (Homilies on Ephesians, Homily XXI). When a child grows up in a home saturated with discipline and the instruction of the Lord, and full of Christian values, and he or she witnesses and experiences sacrificial love, which is the highest virtue according to St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:4), he or she will imitate those patterns and will become a virtuous and productive member of the Church and, by extension, society. It is widely known that children learn best by imitation at first.
Apart from this psychological and behavioral view of the important role a woman plays in the Church, a glance at Church history yields much fruit with respect to the same topic. The New Testament is a good place to start. We see in the Gospel According to St. John that “there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25). Nevertheless, all His disciples, who followed Him, learned from Him, and were very close to Him for three years, were conspicuously absent at the foot of the Cross, with the exception of John the Beloved. The loyalty that these women exhibited to the Son of God was second to none. This alone qualifies them to be the Church’s backbone.
Another example from the New Testament is in order. The story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel According to St. Luke demonstrates to us several important virtues to acquire (Luke 10:38–42). First of all, Mary was eager to learn from the Master, so she sat at His feet in humility, while Martha served Him with love. She complained a little about her sister, but nevertheless, she served Him well with love. The virtue of knowledge through learning, for which Mary thirsted, strengthens the virtue of faith. Since the more one learns, the more one realizes that faith is needed to accept that which is not understandable, and hence unknowable, like the substantial constitution of the Holy Trinity. At the same time, the virtue of humility, which again Mary exhibited by sitting at the feet of someone, is the beginning of the virtue of wisdom, which one must have on the narrow road of salvation. On the one hand, faith and wisdom are two of the most important virtues that advance someone on the narrow road of deification. On the other hand, the virtue of love is evident in Martha’s behavior as she served Him in her house. Despite the fact that she complained about her sister’s lack of service, she had obediently served her Master. A Church father remarked that the beginning of love is obedience. If someone is not obedient to anyone, he or she does not love anyone.
The prototype of faith, love, service, humility, and knowledge, among other virtues, is the Virgin Mary herself. She managed to combine the virtues that both Mary and Martha had, especially faith, love and service. She served Christ, her Son, and cared for His needs as would any good mother. She learned from Him every opportunity she had, despite the fact that she did not understand what He said in every instance such as: “‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them … but His mother kept all these things in her heart” ( St. Luke (2:49–51). Let us not neglect the fact that she had such love for the Master, her Son, that she was at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25), feeling His pain on the road to Golgotha and at the Place of the Skull. Conversely, her faith in His Resurrection, which was continually strengthened by acquired knowledge about Him and His teachings, was unwavering. Therefore, she did not go with the other women to the tomb to anoint Him, where she should have been the first one there as His mother, did she not have her steadfast faith in His Resurrection: “Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him” (Mark 16:1).
There is a plethora of stories that we can reference in the Old and New Testaments to confirm the aforementioned assertions, but a practical example from the lives of parishioners is more demonstrative. I leave you, then, with the obvious living examples of the Ladies Societies in every parish, that carry the burden, cheerfully, I might add, of raising funds for many good causes, of serving on parish councils, of cooking for almost every event in every parish, of leading Sunday Schools and teaching most classes, and of singing in choirs and at chanters’ stands. Without women’s efforts, parishes would not function properly.
Bishop of Brooklyn and Assistant to the Metropolitan