An Orthodox Response to Feminism

Deborah Belonick

From the Culture Currents column of The Handmaiden, vol. 4#1:

Deborah Belonick is a graduate of Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. Her Master of Divinity thesis has been published as a booklet entitled Feminism in Christianity: An Orthodox / Christian Perspective. She and her husband, Fr. Steven, have two sons, Paul and Daniel. They serve the Dormition of the Virgin Mary parish in Binghamton, New York. Though she does not receive any profits from the book, copies may be ordered from the Department of Religious Education of the OCA by calling Barbara Kucynda in Wayne, New Jersey, or from Light and Life Publishing.

At present Deborah Belonick and her husband Fr Steven are on the staff at St Vladimir's Seminary. This article is reproduced on the SVS website by permission. (Ed.)

Handmaiden: I am protected from feminist ideology by the Orthodox all-male clergy and diaconate. Why should I need to know anything more about it?
Deborah Belonick: First, this question contains some presuppositions to which I do not subscribe! In my Orthodox upbringing, I never felt I had to be "protected" from my surrounding culture or entirely isolate myself from it. However, I do need to discern good from evil in any trend or political movement and, as an Orthodox Christian, shed the light of Jesus Christ on any situation. In my opinion, the women's movement has supplied us with both positive and negative influences. Also this question disavows the illustrious history of the female diaconate, saints who in the opinion of many scholars, were part of the clergy. For an overview of that history, including information about the existing order, may I suggest a newly published book by Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church: Called to Holiness and Ministry (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998).

Handmaiden: Define a feminist. Has this definition changed in the last 20–30 years, since the movement appeared on the American cultural scene? In your opinion, do you think that a woman can be a feminist and a committed Orthodox Christian at the same time?
Deborah Belonick: In the early stages of the women's movement, a feminist was a person who defined herself according to her own experience rather than a traditional cultural overlay of expectations. She also was a person who claimed equal dignity and legal polity with men. I think those basic suppositions still exist, and I think that a committed Orthodox Christian certainly could align herself with them. Many of the women saints acted in accordance with these principles. The problem with feminism is not with these general suppositions—to which I subscribe—but that without a relationship to Jesus Christ these dogmas degenerate into self-absorbed rights, which take a bitter toll upon women. For example, if a woman practices sexual freedom in order to claim equality with male indiscretion, she certainly is not calculating the calamitous effects on her bodily and emotional health. She is not counting the cost of her so-called liberation. On the other hand, we cannot all be cast into rigid, culturally approved roles. Our myriad personalities and talents just are not suited to them. Fresh out of high school, I tried to fit into one of the few professions approved for women—nurse, teacher, secretary—by suffering through nursing school for one-and-one-half years. I had to swab my sensitive nose with Vicks VapoRub so the unpleasant hospital odors wouldn't deck me! Needless to say, I was ecstatic to change my field of study to journalism, which, among others, became an acceptable profession for women.

Handmaiden: Where is the battle for truth raging most intensely today, as it pertains to radical feminism?
Deborah Belonick: I suppose the expected answer would be to recount the negative influences of the feminist movement, which feed what we Orthodox would call the "passions" of the flesh—ambition for wealth, self-absorption, self-will, self-gratification, and pride. I think prior to the movement, society expected women to maintain at least a modicum of selfless interest in others, spirituality, and modesty. Women used to climb the pedestal of those ideals, but the feminist movement toppled that tower. Now no one models those traits, and instead of men aspiring to them, women are imitating the worst of the "man's world." I do not think, however, that this is the only area in which the devil has worked. There are pervasive, but subtle, philosophies present in our culture that force women to choose between two caricatures. We are given only the choice between being a savvy, tough CEO who consistently challenges men, or a wimpy housewife. We are forced to read either Ms. Magazine or The Total Woman, neither of which I would recommend. We are forced to support either a unisex model lacking any hint of femininity, or a submissive, silent, supposedly biblical, impersonation of what a woman is. What we need is an in-depth study of femininity from our Orthodox Christian Tradition, but what I've seen published so far really are no more than both these philosophies dressed up in Orthodox trappings. The devil keeps this dichotomous battle raging between the two camps, and no one is speaking the truth. Everyone has a favorite Bible verse. Well, one of my favorites is, "Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made" (Genesis 3:1). I think the devil has used deception to keep women polarized in these two illusory camps.

Handmaiden: The feminist movement has not had an impact on the Orthodox priesthood directly. Yet parishioners constantly encounter feminist ideology at the intersection of Orthodox belief and the culture at large, including the American educational system. What things should we be aware of in this regard?
Deborah Belonick: First, I should inform you that because of the feminist movement many Orthodox Christians have questioned the logic behind an all-male priesthood. Currently, there is a rather civil, subdued debate among Orthodox theologians regarding this topic, and varied points of view are expressed in a book edited by Very Rev. Thomas Hopko, Women and the Priesthood (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1999). Well-known Orthodox writers who find theological support for women's ordination include Dr. Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Dr. Constantinos Yokarinis, and Dr. Valerie Karras. These scholars theorize that Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, doctrines of Church councils, and Orthodox spirituality support the ordination of women. The crux of the issue is the significance of gender and its relationship to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. These proponents claim that femininity and masculinity are inconsequential to human existence, salvation in Christ, and holiness, and will be eradicated in the Kingdom of Heaven. Although I disagree with this anthropological premise, as my article in Hopko's book Testing the Spirits clearly indicates, I must say that this is a question worthy of debate. I welcome the theological discussion surrounding this issue, in hopes that it will clarify for us Orthodox the true meaning and significance of masculinity and femininity.
As far as the American educational system, my husband, my two sons, and I were all educated in public schools. At a very young age, I was able to discern the differences between what school taught and what I learned from the liturgical church services and church school, not only in intellectual content but in the general atmosphere of both places. I think my life in the Orthodox Church made me far less gullible than most. Reading our kids' textbooks, supplying them with additional resources from outside the system, and engaging them in debates at home will help them develop discerning minds.

Handmaiden: Why did God reveal Himself to us as Father, and why is it so important that, in terms of gender, we not make His name neutral?
Deborah Belonick: Feminist theologians claim that Jesus chose this name so as not to insult or shock the Jews, or that the clergy exalted this name so as to keep males in a position of power. No! God revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! He could not reveal himself otherwise. Scripture says: "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family [lit. fatherhood, patria] in heaven and on earth is named" (Ephesians 3:14, 15). It is very interesting that in the fourth century there were debates concerning the names for God. The Arians, who did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, wanted to call the Trinity "Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier," to rid the Godhead of fleshly, foolish connotations. The Church insisted on the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on the basis of God's revelation through Jesus Christ. Actually, the patristic writers say there are three classes of names for God. The first class contains names referring to God's actions toward us humans, and in this group we find masculine, feminine, and neutral terms: rock, redeemer, mother hen, sanctifying fire, and so on. The second class contains names referring to God's essence, his unnameable nature, and in this group we find all negative terms: ineffable, inconceivable, incomprehensible, since the mystery of the divinity cannot be uttered. The third class contains the personal names for God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which refer neither to God's actions toward us nor to his divine nature, but to the inner relationships among the members of the Trinity. We humans had access to the first two classes of names before the revelation of Jesus Christ. It was with the appearance and teaching of Jesus that we came to know something about the inner mystery of the Trinity, that there is a Father who has a Son and a Spirit, and that these three Beings in relationship comprise the Godhead. That is only a brief explanation. For a fuller one, may I encourage your readers to peruse my article "Testing the Spirits" in Women and the Priesthood.

Handmaiden: What are the greatest threats the radical feminist mindset presents to the holy Church today?
Deborah Belonick: As I have implied, the Church does not live in a vacuum. The attitudes of us Christians will be influenced by any cultural trend. The challenge is to discern what is of God in that trend. What I see as not of God are several feminist tenets, including: (1) Expecting women to tend to two jobs—a professional career plus homemaking and child rearing—without becoming overly stressed; (2) A higher value placed on holding a profession than raising children; (3) An insistence that there are no psychological differences between women and men; (4) An insistence that femininity and masculinity have no innate basis, but merely are cultural categories. In fairness, I admit that feminism really is a reaction against a cultural framework which also was not of God. While at Kent State University as a student reporter, I covered the unfolding consequences of Title IX, the federal act which forced federally funded educational entities to provide equal sports facilities and opportunities to women. When I saw women developing their physical prowess as well as their academic skills to their utmost abilities, I was exhilarated. The problem is, in the fight to become politically and legally on equal ground with men, women have been forced to ignore their authentic distinctiveness. This is the tragedy of the women's movement. In some ways it has helped women tremendously; in other areas, it has been their nemesis.

Handmaiden: What do the feminists, in your opinion, have to say to the Church that we need to hear?
Deborah Belonick: When I began to study the history of women in the Church, I discovered the early Christian women were much more emancipated than women in our parishes today. In the face of cultural taboo, they became missionaries, evangelists, prophetesses, teachers, and counselors. I discovered the illustrious history of women in the diaconate. Because my Master of Divinity thesis at Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary was a comparative study between feminist theology and traditional Orthodox theology, I was given several opportunities to speak to women's groups, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Amidst these groups, I heard harrowing tales of how these Christian women had been degraded in their own parishes, all in the name of Christianity. Some were denied reading the Scripture in church. Many were made to feel dirty because of their menstrual cycles. Many were denied positions on church councils or teaching positions. This is not Orthodox, and it shows an ignorance of our history. Do we know, for example, that Saint Gorgonia, sister of Saint Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus, once entered the altar area to be healed of a malignant disease? Holding fast to the altar table, she prayed and cried all night, proclaiming she would not loose her hold until she had been cured. And she was. All these "thou shalt nots" regarding women in the Orthodox Church are nothing but cultural or Pharisaical or Western influences. The feminist movement has at least interested us in excavating the truth about women in the Orthodox Church, and for that we should be grateful.

Handmaiden: Tell us why you know for certain that our holy Orthodox Church is not sexist, and why we do not ordain, nor will we ever ordain, women as priests.
Deborah Belonick: This question assumes a lot! In fact, the practices and attitudes in many of our parishes are sexist. When people ask me to what jurisdiction I belong, I jokingly tell them I belong to the "Theoretical Orthodox Church." That is, I believe the Tradition of the Holy Spirit, expressed in the lives of the women saints, is not sexist. But when Scripture, the canons of the Church, and the Church Fathers are read with a fallen mind, people skew the proper attitude toward women. Unless we are willing to look at the whole history of women in the Church and not just select a few passages to support our prejudices, the Holy Orthodox Church will appear neither holy nor Orthodox. That certainly happens in many places. As far as women priests, I would hope the attitude would be: If there truly are theological reasons based on the councils and doctrines of the Church for ordaining women, by all means, let's ordain them rather than, "Let's make the Orthodox Church the last stronghold of male chauvinism!" However, I personally do not see any theological support for the ordination of women and view the current reasoning to do so as errant. Those supporting women's ordination base their thesis on the point that sexual distinction is irrelevant, created only in prevision of the Fall, and will not exist in the Kingdom of God. I submit that all of those premises are a misinterpretation of the writings of the Church Fathers. Very Rev. John Breck has written an excellent rebuttal to these aberrant interpretations in his book The Sacred Gift of Life (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998; see pp. 69–83).

Handmaiden: Are there areas we may have overlooked, which you would like our Handmaiden readers to know about?
Deborah Belonick: Please discover for yourselves the history of women in the Church, not from commentaries, but from primary source material, as far as you are able. Also, please realize I am fallible, but I have shared with you twenty years of thought and research in this interview. I hope it has sparked your interest in this topic and has given you a different perspective on this very complicated and difficult issue. As Orthodox, we cannot align ourselves into the clear-cut camps offered to us by the Western mind. We must pick and choose what is true and not true in each particular instance. For example, I am against the ordination of women to the priesthood, but very much for the ordination of women to the diaconate. Let us not let the devil force us into monolithic categories and caricatures. As Orthodox, let us continue to seek the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

The above article first appeared in The Handmaiden, volume 4 number 1, pages 57 to 64. Published by Conciliar Press. Used by permission; all rights reserved.