Equality between Males and Females:
From the beginning, God created the human being, male and female, in His own image according to His likeness. (Genesis 1:26) God blessed both of them to be fruitful and subdue the earth with dominion over all creatures. Before creating Eve, the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” (Genesis 2:18) Stating “a helper comparable to him” indicates that man and woman are equals before God. This equality is emphasized by God taking one of Adam’s ribs, something near his heart, to create Eve--not a bone from his leg or head.
In the Orthodox Church, there is no difference between the baptized believers, since they are all children of God. There is no distinction between male and female, as well as between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men. There is no difference between male and female regarding the blessings they receive from baptism. St. Paul says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28) “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.” (1 Corinthians 11:11, 12)
The Church, being the body of Christ, is composed of the different members of our Lord Jesus Christ. All members are not the same, but every member performs a certain duty which has its dignity, its respect, its work, and its importance. All members are not heads, all are not eyes, or arms, or hearts! If the woman is not called to be the head, perhaps she is called to be the heart. Both are vital and need each other. Every member has its own work in the Church as the apostle Paul says, “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of hearings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of hearings?” (1 Corinthians 12: 20, 28-30)
In the Coptic Church, we pray in the sacrament of matrimony for a tri-relationship which includes our Lord, the Bride and the bridegroom. This fact illustrates that God is the cause of their unity and He is the preserver of this unity. St. Paul instructs, “The husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.” (Ephesians 5:23) He adds, “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:3) He emphasizes more on the unity between a husband and a wife because the head needs the body, and the body needs the head. It also means that there is no life for a head without the body and there is no life for a body without the head. It also means that the body is united with the head and the head is united with the body. For this unity, God created Eve from Adam’s body. When this part of Adam came back to him, Adam felt this unity when he said that “This is now a bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23)
Women in the Holy Scriptures:
Women played great and important roles in the Bible. St. Mary, the holy Theotokos (mother of God) in the Orthodox Church is continuously honored above all, including the heavenly hosts, even higher than the cherubim and the seraphim. She is the greatest among women from all generations. The Holy Spirit came upon her, and the power of the Highest overshadowed her; and the Holy One, the Son of God, was born from her. (Luke 1:35) The greeting of St. Mary to Elizabeth, let Elizabeth and her babe be filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:41) Our Lord Jesus was subject to her. (Luke 2:51) He started His ministry by performing His first miracle in Cana responding to her request. (John 2:1-11) He cared for her, even during His suffering on the cross. (John 19:26-28)
In the Old Testament, we find many women famous due to their role: Jochebed, the mother of the great prophet Moses; Mariam the prophetess, Aaron and Moses’ sister, who led the praise after passing the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20); Deborah the judge, prophetess, and war leader (Judges 4, 5); and, Queen Esther who saved her people. There was also Ruth, the widow of Zarephath, of Sidon, the Shunammite woman, and many others.
In the New Testament, several women used their own money to provide for Jesus. These women included Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna (Luke 8:1-3). Underneath the cross of our Lord, there was only one man, St. John the Evangelist, but many women who stayed with Him. Women were considered worthy to be the first witnesses of the resurrection of the Lord Christ, and to proclaim it to the disciples. After the ascension, they continued in the upper room with the disciples in one accord in prayer and supplication. (Acts 1:14) Other examples of famous women in the New Testament include:
Ø Elizabeth, Zachariah’s wife, who was righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordnances of God, blameless. (Luke 1:7)
Ø Anna the prophetess, daughter of Phanuel, who was a widow for eighty-four years. She remained in the temple serving God with fasting and prayer, night and day, bearing witness to the Redeemer. (Luke 6:36-38)
Ø The Canaanite woman, to whom Jesus said “Great is your faith. Let it be to you as you desire.” (Matthew 15:21-28)
Ø Mary and her sister Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, who opened their house before Jesus, worshipped and served the Lord in their house (Luke 10:38-42; John 12:1-8) and were loved by the Lord Jesus. (John 11:5)
Ø The Queen from the south who the Lord Jesus praised because she came from the end of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus said that she would rise up in judgment and condemn that generation. (Matthew 12:42)
Ø The poor widow who put two mites in the treasury of the Temple and was praised by the Lord because she gave out of her poverty. (Mark 12:42-44; Luke 21:1-4)
Ø He also commended the woman who anointed Him at Simon the Leper’s house in Bethany saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” (Matthew 26:13) A similar situation is mentioned in the Gospel according to St. Luke. (Luke 7:36-50)
Ø Tabitha who was full of good works and charitable deeds. (Acts 9:36-41)
Many women gave their houses to be churches in the apostolic era. Among them was St. Mary the mother of St. Mark the Evangelist, whose house became a church (Acts 12: 12); and the house of Aquila and Priscilla and Lydia. (Romans 16)
Women in Church history:
In addition to these women, many others throughout church history had important roles. Some kept their children in faith during eras of persecution like Mother Refka (Rebecca). Some offered themselves as sacrifices of love to receive the crown of martyrdom like St. Demiana and the forty virgins. Many others were nuns and servants who reached high levels of spirituality and purity like St. Mary of Egypt and Abbess Sarah. We consider their lives as examples to follow. We respect and honor their relics, name our churches after them, put their icons in our churches and homes, and celebrate their feasts asking for their intercessions.
Since its beginning, the Coptic Church cared for women. Both men and women seeking to learn and grow in their faith were admitted to the theological School of Alexandria. Today women of all ages are admitted to our different theological seminaries and some teach in these seminaries.
The Role of Women in Orthodoxy
Women have their energetic and positive role in the Coptic Orthodox Christian Church. For example:
Ø Those who wish to consecrate their life to God may become nuns. They play an important role in the life of families and their convents are spiritual centers for the people.
Ø Abbesses have a leading role to attract, guide and raise many young women in the ascetic life.
Ø Devoted virgins serve in various fields of church service. Others are ordained as deaconesses.
Ø The wife of a priest serves her family and her congregation. She sets an example through her spirituality and dedication to the upbringing of the Christian family.
Ø Many women teach Sunday School children and lead in other activities.
Ø Some talented women serve and conduct the church choir and other musical activities.
Ø Some lead women’s meetings and activities and look after other women.
Ø They serve the widows, orphans and children. St. James considered such service the pure religion. (James 1:27)
Ø Others are dedicated to serving the needy.
Ø Some help the elders at nursing homes and the sick at hospitals.
Ø Others serve in spiritual social activities at the church such as daycare, kindergarten, the church library or the bookstore.
Ø Some women are interested in fundraising activities to support the church’s needs.
Ø Women also serve as Church Board members.
The greatest responsibility of a woman is pastoral care for children in order to prepare a new generation for the church. Jochebed, the mother of Moses, for example, was a holy woman in history, who instilled faith in him during his childhood. Due to the teaching given by this holy woman to her son Moses, in the palace of Pharaoh, he lived 40 years in the palace, among many pharaonic worships and many idols, not only a man of faith but a hero of faith. One of our problems today is that women have no time to care for their children.
Ordination of Women in Priesthood
The Orthodox Church respects the natural order God created, i.e. the difference between male and female, for God created man and woman to compliment each other. Truly in Jesus Christ there is no man and woman (Galatians 3:28), for each of them is a member of the one body, having the same faith. Both are children of God through adoption, both are temples of God and the Holy Spirit dwells in them, both enjoyed the same spiritual duties and rights and both await the same eternal glory.
However, man keeps his role as a man while woman keeps her role as a woman. It is one of the chief glories of human nature that men and women, although equal, are not interchangeable. The Fathers of the Church, having the biblical spirit, emphasized the equality of men and women while stressing the distinction between them. The distinction between male and female is part of the order of nature. Man is not preferred over woman; but the deeds of every person may put him first or last before God. In their deeds, they are equal, but in their properties and responsibilities, they are different.
The church tradition does not minimize their capabilities or their effective role in the church. “The Woman” symbolizes “the church,” that is growing “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13) Her role is vital because she is capable of giving birth to, and raising children, to prepare a bride for the heavenly Bridegroom. “Man” symbolizes “Christ” who is the head of the body and sacrificed His life on the cross.
It is a fact that women were excluded from priesthood in the Old and New Testaments. It is evident that women in the Holy Bible were called for many responsibilities, but not priesthood. The first type of priesthood in the Old Testament was the priesthood of the great patriarchs of the church like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The firstborn children who were sanctified to God were all men. The second type was the priesthood of Melchizedek. (Genesis 14; Hebrews 7) All of them were men. Then the Lord established the priesthood of Aaron and his sons, as the last one, when He said to Aaron, “Only you and your sons may serve as priests in connection with everything at the altar and inside the curtain. I am giving you the service of the priesthood as a gift. Anyone else who comes near the sanctuary must be put to death.” (Numbers 18:7) Among these examples of the Old Testament, there was not a single woman priest.
Although our Lord Christ chose all male disciples and apostles, He allowed women to perform other services. Had any woman been worthy of priesthood, surely it would have been St. Mary, yet she was not a priestess and never claimed this role. Our Lord Jesus delivered the sacraments of the church to His disciples, and not to any woman. For example, He delivered the authority of priesthood only to the Apostles (John 20:21-23) and He gave the authority of baptizing and teaching to the disciples only. (Matthew 28:16-20) He did not call the women, although many of them were very holy and serving Him. (Luke 8:1-3) The sacrament of Eucharist was also given by the Lord to the eleven disciples following Judas’ departure. He said to them, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” He also appeared to them for forty days and spoke to them about all things concerning the kingdom of God.
Preaching and teaching in the church’s liturgy is one of the duties of priesthood. Accordingly, women, as well as non-clergy men, are not allowed to teach others in church (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35; 1 Timothy 2:11-15). On the other hand, women are equal to men in prayer and practicing the sacraments as members in the one body of Christ.
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) Consequently, His choosing of males for priesthood in the past applies today and in the future. The Orthodox Church is a traditional church whose doctrines and rites have not changed. We must strive to keep our tradition unchanged. (2 Thessalonians 2:2-15; 3:16; 1 Corinthians 11:2)
Of course, if God had wanted to call women for priesthood, He would have done so, in the same way as He called women to be prophetesses. Priesthood is not a matter of honor, but a type of daily sacrifice. The priest offers himself to die for the sake of the children of God. The equality of men and women is affirmed not by seeking ordination of women, for ordination is not an administrative position for attaining honor but for suffering daily death that does not concord with the feminist nature. His Holiness Pope Shenouda III says, “A bird may sing a sweet song on a tree and a lion may roar in the forest. If the bird tries to be a lion, it is not suitable. It is more beautiful for the bird, for the sparrow or the pigeon, to sing a sweet song and than to roar like a lion. And if the lion tries to sing like the bird it will not be acceptable. Let woman be in the service of woman, and man in the service of man.” Equality of women and men is not realized by masculinizing women but by discovering the dignity of their femininity.