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The Role of Women in the Church (Part I)

Often times, females in our Church feel left out and ignored. Is this a correct feeling? Does the Church really propagate such an idea in Her teachings? In addressing the issue of the role of women in the Church, we have to distinguish between Holy Tradition and customs that are influenced by culture and do not spring from the true spirit of Christianity. There are popular traditions which are linked to various cultures or families. In no way should they be despised. However, they should not be confused with Holy Tradition. Historically, our Orthodox Church has Her roots in patriarchal societies, which often times obscure the dignity of women as co-workers, yet it is not the true vision of the Church.

To understand the role of women now, we must go back to the beginning of creation. Mainstream Orthodox teachings see the goodness of the created world and note that God in Genesis pronounced the various aspects of creation as "good". When God created Adam, He said, "Let us make man after our image and likeness" (Gen. 1: 26). Then He said, "Let us make him a helper like him" (Gen. 2: 18). So, according to the Church Fathers, God created woman equal in honor. The first tie was that of the bond between man and woman. Eve was God’s gift to Adam and God created her from Adam’s side (Gen. 2: 21-22), so they can walk together side by side.

So What Happened To Change That Status of Equality?

Because of sin, the ideal vision of human relations, in general, and those between the sexes, in particular, became distorted and corrupted. God did not create Eve to be Adam’s subordinate, but his helper. There was a complementarily between them. The fact that woman was created after man does not demean her since man himself was created after all the animals, yet he is superior to them. So rather than seeing the woman as secondary or inferior to man, she should be seen as interior to him, part of him. Adam said, "This is at last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2: 18). Eve was from the flesh of Adam, the other who was just like him. The Scripture implies that a woman’s role is not passive or inferior, but actually the other half which enriched Adam’s life. Yet each gender had its own domain. In Genesis, the story of the creation reveals the spiritual truths about the relationship between humanity and God, as well as the relationship between man and woman. The male-female relationship must be understood within the context of the relationship between God and man.

After the Fall, the world we live in became not the harmonious creation which God intended it to be. This disruption and separation from God became also a separation between man and woman. Sin, which separated humanity from God, also caused the break-up of the unity of humanity. Although woman was originally God’s gift to man, she is later seen as the curse of the world. But is it really fair to say that? Shouldn’t both of them be equally blamed? Although Eve was tempted first and fell, Adam should have helped her rather than slide down with her. By his own will, he chose to follow rather than to lead. The subordination of woman to man and her exploitation do not reflect the order of nature as created by God, but rather the result of the sin. God told Eve, "Your inclination shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you" (Gen. 3: 16). However, this did not mean eternal damnation for mankind and womankind.


Throughout history in the Old Testament, God has worked with individuals in which He saw fertile soil ready for the acts of His Grace, whether they were males or females. Therefore, in the Old Testament, we have examples of many saintly women. There were female prophetesses, e.g. Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron (Ex. 15: 20-21), Deborah, who judged the people of Israel (Judges 5), Huldah (II Kings 22: 14-20), and Anna (Luke 2: 36-38). Abigail was a wise woman to whom King David listened and took advice. Esther was a young Jewish woman born outside Israel in Babylon. Yet, God used her to save the Jews in captivity. Thus each person whether male or female, could acquire Grace by submitting to God.

In the New Testament, the Most Holy Theotokos is the pride and honor of all women. The Holy Virgin personifies the perfect model not only of women, but of all humanity. She willfully acquiesced her entire being to God, standing humbly before God in obedience, which is the ultimate vocation of all humans. That is why she deserved to carry God the Logos, and she is regarded more venerable than the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim.

While in human form on earth, Christ addressed everyone, both men and women. There were women who responded to his teachings and followed him, and traveled with Him. The women from Galilee helped support Jesus and the disciples with their money (Luke 8: 1-3). At the time of the Crucifixion, when all the disciples escaped, the three Marys were the last to leave Christ’s side, and the first to be at His tomb. St. Mary Magdalene was the first one worthy to see the Resurrected Christ, even before the disciples (John 20: 11-18). After Christ’s ascension, the women were present with the apostles in the upper room and received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1: 13-14).

Later, there were women who were co-workers with the apostles in preaching the Gospel. The women at the time of the apostles rejected worldly vanity and became companions of the apostles. St. Peter’s wife accompanied him on many of his missionary journeys (1Cor. 9: 5). There was a great number of women mentioned by St. Paul in his letters. Amongst whom was Lydia, who was a successful business woman; she carried on a prosperous business in Thyrian purple (Acts 16: 14). But she was also the hostess of St. Paul and it was at her home that the church in Philippi was established. Chloe in Corinth was a disciple of St. Paul; she hosted the church in her home and faithfully reported to St. Paul what happened (1 Cor. 1 : 11). She also helped establish the church in Corinth. Phoebe was also a disciple of St. Paul and she is considered the prototype of deaconesses. She was a leading Christian woman of the church in Cenchrea (Rom. 16: 1-2). In Romans 16, St. Paul also mentions the names of many women who helped in the ministry. Priscilla was often times mentioned before her husband Aquila, and she helped instruct Apollos, who was an eloquent man ( Acts 18:26). So, women were valuable co-workers with the apostles in spreading the faith. This activity has continued through the ages.

Therefore what Eve lost through the Fall, Christian women could regain through adoption of a holy life. In Christianity, moral excellence is not judged by a person’s gender, but by the quality of spiritual life. At the time of martyrdom, we find female martyrs who displayed courage and valor equal to the male martyrs. St. Demiana received as much sufferings as St. George. Of course, the list of women martyrs is endless.

In the Patristic era, women presented models of great asceticism, and we find them equal to men saints in asceticism. The Fathers, Sts. Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom praise the strong woman, i.e. the one who shows strength in the battles of faith. By the early 4th century, communities of female ascetics had grown in Egypt, modeled after the monasteries founded by St. Pachomius. It is interesting to note that when St. Anthony decided to give up his possessions and embrace the ascetic life, he entrusted his younger sister to the care of a convent of virgins. Therefore, there must have been organized communities for women already in existence, even before St. Anthony settled as a hermit in the desert and before St. Pachomius established the first cenobitic monasteries for men.

In the "Sayings of the Desert Fathers", there are spiritual mothers mentioned, e.g. St. Theodora, St. Sarah, and St. Synkletika. As much as women attained the heights of holiness in the life of consecrated virginity, there were also those who attained holiness as married women such as St. Helen, Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Monica, St. Augustine’s mother, and St. Anthusa, the mother of St. John Chrysostom. In our Coptic Church, we have St. Rebecca and St. Dolagi, plus many more unknown to us. It is noteworthy to mention that when the angel appeared to St. Macarius, he told him to go to Alexandria to find the two married women who have reached a higher degree of piety than him.

In the 4th century, we find many women with great asceticism who also undertook works of charity on a large scale. An example is St. Fabiola, who was St. Jerome’s friend. She founded a hospital in Rome and nursed the sick and lepers by her own hands. St. Jerome also talked about his friend Marcella, who is considered the first ascetic in Rome. In addition to being ascetic, these women were also learned in the Scriptures. St. Macrina, the eldest sister of Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter, was the one who taught her brothers, and they became bishops. She led St. Basil to renounce worldly glory for a life of Christian asceticism. She also engaged him in theological conversations. Also, St. Olympia the deaconess, was the closest friend of St. John Chrysostom and his confidante. She was very loyal to him and he often consulted her in theological issues; he wrote to her seventeen letters from his exile. St. Paula was also a woman of great learning; she helped St. Jerome translate the Scriptures.

Some of these women who had great wealth, also used their wealth to build monasteries. St. Paula helped establish monasteries in Jerusalem for both men and women. Also St. Melania the Elder renounced the aristocratic life and sailed from Spain to Alexandria and then on to Nitria seeking the Holy Fathers: St. Serapion the Great, St. Paphnutius, St. Isidore the confessor, St. Arsanius, etc… Then she went to Palestine and founded monasteries for both men and women. Therefore, in Christianity we see that moral excellence is judged not by a person’s gender, but the quality of spirit. All the above mentioned women, as well as others, were not only pious women, but also cultivated, capable of discussing theological matters.

All of us, both men and women, are called to a life of perfection and are called to service in the Holy Church. God does not call people according to gender nor does He show favoritism. The works of His Grace work through all who are receptive.

The Question Then Is: What Can Women do?

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

April 9, 2009