Within the Roman Catholic Twitterverse an intergalatic war broke out between Abby Johnson (the pro-life activist) and the Gordons (both Timothy and his wife Stephanie) over whether women may have careers. Apparently the debate broke out over a section of the Council of Trent’s catechism:

To train their children in the practice of virtue and to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns should also be especial objects of their attention. The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; and she should never presume to leave home without her husband’s consent

Being that the Roman Catholic Church dumped the Council of Trent Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty, I do not see anything earth shattering here if they ignore Trent on this.

Nevertheless, this is an Orthodox blog. Does the Orthodox Church agree with Trent? I do not know. We have no conciliar statements on the topic nor do we have a catechism that weighs in on it (that I am aware of).

A disclaimer preceding my own speculations. It is with difficulty anyone offers speculations on issues that pertain to “protected classes,” here females, because there is a prevalent secular orthodoxy on the matter. An orthodoxy, dare I say, that has almost entirely pervaded every single church in the world, including the Orthodox Church. Perhaps in all of Christian history, never has God’s people distanced themselves so much from the Biblical, traditional teachings as it pertains to gender roles.

In fact, the very idea of there even being “gender roles” is abhorrent, even among many in my own church. At the time of writing this article, in my own evaluation, the Orthodox Church (like the other churches) has hit a nadir on the issue of gender and is sadly only getting worse, especially as European Orthodox nations continue to westernize.

In this article, I want to offer my own personal opinion of what the Biblical teaching on women’s roles is and, to prove I am not crazy, show that the fathers concur.

I also want to add a few disclaimers here, in no particular order:

  • These are all teachings that have bearing on a 2,000 year old religion, not on how a modern company or government should work. I would not, in my capacity at my employment, impose traditional religious dictates upon those who work with me. In fact, I wish they did not impose their secular views. However, it is my hope that the Church return to the spirit of its original teachings on this issue.
  • The Orthodox Church has held the line in some important ways on. For example, it does not formally ordain Deaconesses, generally (though not categorically) disallows women behind the iconostasis, maintains a male clergy, etcetera. Where the Orthodox Church, including ROCOR, has had some “slipping,” has been in in issues that have never really been settled one way or the other, such as having female theology professors at seminaries. In fact, the first Orthodox seminary did not exist until the 1600s thanks to Saint Peter Mogila (though I still venture to guess that the first female Orthodox seminary professors did not exist until the late 20th century). So, the bigger issue might be with the nature of seminaries themselves than the gender of their teachers.
  • What I offer here is, in my humble and uneducated view, that being the spirit of the teaching on gender roles as found in the Scriptures and the early church fathers. Orthodoxy is not a legalistic religion and so, just because we have a spiritual ideal, that does not mean that in every real-world circumstance that the ideal can, or should, be held. We do this all the time with our spiritual disciplines and even sacramental disciplines. While one cannot stretch this to the point of absolute absurdity (we can never have female priests, as this contradicts 1 Cor 11:3), we must be aware that an ideal can even be canonical, but even canons are broken due to necessity.
  • That being said, the breaking of canons due to “necessity” is something that has been historically abused. God will judge their motives accordingly.
  • What I offer here is what appears to me to be the “spirit of the Law,” and not necessarily a hard-and-fast “men should do this and women that in every situation.”
  • Lastly, our goal should be to conform our lives according to the spirit of the Law, not to say it is unattainable and go off and do our own thing. It is my hope and prayer that this article is a small contribution to helping nudge people back into the correct direction, ever closer to the “spirit of the law.”

The Scriptures on women in the workplace. We have every indication that saintly women can have careers, if they so choose. In Acts 18:3, it mentions that both Priscilla and Aquilla were tradesmen after their conversion to Christianity: “they were tentmakers.” In Acts 16:14 Lydia, before her conversion, is identified as a merchant of purple textiles. We have no reason to believe she stopped this trade. In fact, we have no Bibilical example of a women who “stopped working” due to marriage or having a family. In fact, I am unaware from the lives of the saints a woman who stopped working due to the rationale the Trent catechism gives.

The Scriptures on marital relations. Both husbands and wives owe one another “affection” (1 Cor 7:3), so part of the role of both women and men in marriage is that of being physically affectionate with one’s spouse. In a more general sense, husbands and wives are to be concerned with how they can please one another generally within a marital context (1 Cor 7:33-34). The preceding is important, because it shows that the Scriptures view both genders as having the obligation to please one another in marriage, and so, odd views of “traditional” gender roles in the bedroom (such as what’s found in the smutty “The Handmaid’s Tale“) are terrible slanders against Christian norms.

Male “headship” over women in the Scriptures. This is the big landmine that Abby Johnson and the Gordons stepped on. There is no way to gloss over this.

According to the Scriptures, men exercise “headship,” or in other words, “leadership” within a marital context. The reason wives are admonished to “submit to your own husbands as to the Lord” is because “the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (Eph 5:22-23).

This is a rationale that is pervasive throughout the Scriptures, not only about wives, but about the female gender categorically:

I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God…For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man (1 Cor 11:3, 7-9). 

Hence, the Scriptures teach that the differentiation of roles between men and women is a quasi-sacramental reality in which the submission of Christ to the Father is manifested in the world.

The submissive conduct of women in relation to men is something the Scriptures are specific about. Pertaining to wives the following is stated:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror (1 Pet 3:1-6).

Just because wives are the subject of the preceding, the sense of the passage is not that unmarried women can be ostentatious, unchaste, verbally assertive, or be disobedient to their male “head” (who would outside of the marital context be their father.) We know this is true, not only because of basic common sense, but because “the holy women who trusted God” would include all women married and unmarried.

The quasi-sacramental reality of gender-roles and religious authority. The Biblical ideal of women being submissive-helpmeets* (Gen 2:18) has a direct bearing on the gender being banned from exercising religious authority. In Luke 8, we have women ministering to Jesus’ and the disciples’ needs, as the latter go about preaching. Obviously, what is normative is for men to partake in this work of public ministry. The reason for this is not that women are incapable of teaching (see Titus 2) or even converting intelligent people to the faith (Apollos was converted by both Priscilla and Aquila).

*The fact that “submissive-helpmeet” will appear to some as a pejorative, when it is in fact the highest virtue women are to attain to shows how far into sinfulness we Christians have fallen. Our own God Jesus Christ “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt 20:28) and was submissive, “though being in the form of God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6) and stated that “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but the will of Him who sent me” (John 6:38). The very virtues the Scriptures commend to women are those which belong to Jesus Christ Himself. 

In the Scriptures, the public portrayal of male authority in a religious context is significantly guarded. Priscilla and Aquila only discussed the faith with Apollos privately (Acts 18:26). Compare this with Saint Paul disputing about the faith publicly. The Biblically (and traditionally) normative mode is that women do not teach the faith publicly, as this is conflated with them exercising an appearance of religious authority, which is not encouraged to be normative for quasi-sacramental (in the broad sense of the term) reasons. Our whole lives are supposed to be sacramental–an experience of the divine and a visible manifestation of His handiwork. Eph 2:10, in my honest opinion, has this in mind.

This is why Paul’s condemnation of women teaching Christian men (presumably Christian doctrine), in 1 Tim 2, is so powerful. Let’s go over the relevant section:

I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control (1 Tim 2:8-15).

The key word in the passage is “everywhere.” This means, Paul has applied the subject of discussing prayers and petitions during a liturgy to life inside and outside of church. Obviously, men should pray “without wrath and doubting” everywhere, not just in church. Likewise, women should dress modestly everywhere (as we also see in 1 Pet 3), not just in church.

Now, we have the context set up for Paul’s “anti-teaching” comments. In 1 Pet 3, a woman’s modest dress should not be just outward show, but a reflection of her demeanor (i.e. “professing godliness, with good works.”) Silence likewise professes Godliness in 1 Pet 3:4. So, in 1 Tim 2, when a woman is told to “learn in silence with all submission” this should be understood as the way Paul prescribes for women to convey their Godliness (rather than through teaching, which would be neither quiet, gentle, or modest in the ancient mind).

Broader ramifications of the preceding. Paul considers a woman exercising authority over a man, in any context, to be immodest: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” 

The preceding is radical and counter-cultural. As an Orthodox Christian, I am well aware of Orthodox saints that were Queens and commanded subjects. Nevertheless, the ideal, that a woman take part in quiet, non-assertive tasks, is still the ideal. The ideal is what should be normative for the Christian woman.

After all, Saint Paul does not teach old women to admonish:

the young women to love their husbands as long as they are good to them, to love their children unless they get in the way of their careers, to be discreet unless they need to make their voices heard, chaste only when it pertains to sex, homemakers if they have less earning potential than their husbands, good to themselves, strive for egalitarianism within their marriages, that the word of God may not be blasphemed (Pseudo-Titus 2:4-5). 

But rather:

the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed (Titus 2:4-5). 

Not all of us live up to the ideal. However, unlike princesses who were born into royal families and married into others, essentially becoming queens against their will, what women confront today is a willful turning away from Biblical ideals when they pursue positions of authority. In fact, we these days actively encourage going against the Biblical ideal–which is not correct. We do these things at our own spiritual peril, if we are to take Paul’s words seriously. Further, will not the “word of God…be blasphemed” as a result?

How do we apply this? First and foremost, applying Biblical ideals is something we must work out with our spiritual fathers. Oftentimes, we cannot live up to ideals and may even be forbidden to due to prelest (spiritual pride) or life circumstances that prevent it. This is what Trent called “being compelled by necessity.”

This cannot be taken as license for capitulating to modern, secular ideals. “Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Also, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

However, there is flexibility on the individual level when applying an ideal in one’s life, while on the general level the ideal is completely inflexible.

It is my own opinion, that it would be “safer” for women not to work as managers (if this places them as authorities over men), teach theology in the lay context (which likewise places them as intellectual authorities over men), or any position where the woman acts as a public figure representing authority. This is not because women are incapable of great sanctification while being such public figures (the Theotokos, Saint Priscilla, Saint Helena, and Saint Nino immediately come to mind) or that life circumstances may never demand it. Rather, if we look at a list of female saints, they tend to be known for their:

  1. Being Godly wives and mothers
  2. Chastity and/or asceticism
  3. Martyrdoms

While most Orthodox Christians (not all, especially in the Middle East or in Ukraine) do not experience literal martyrdom or persecution, we all in a sense do when we follow a calling which is counter-cultural and requires personal sacrifice. This is the path to sanctification, and for most women this is the cross they must bear in the 21st century. The cross of submissiveness is the path is what they must bear to be saved if we allow for a literal interpretation of 1 Tim 2:15, such as that of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Gregory of Nyssa.

Proof that this applies to all ages. Some people claim, apart from any Biblical or Patristic support, that “cultural context” somehow changes the way we apply the preceding teachings. This is not possible, because the reason women are called to be sanctified in the way the Scriptures expound is because of the fall itself. New Martyr Daniel Sysoev writes about the curse God gave to Eve:

Whoever wants to be on top is cured by being on the bottom–in other words, at a lower level. The wife wanted to be over her husband, so she is made to submit to him. It is a basic principle: when a branch is bending the wrong way they bend it back in the opposite direction (Homilies, Daniel Sysoev Inc., 2016, p. 49).

Paul likewise gave a rationale that was rooted in creation itself: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Tim 2:14). Paul cites creation again when discussing gender roles in 1 Cor 11:8-9.

Elsewhere in 1 Cor, Paul speaks of how women should conduct themselves in church:

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church (1 Cor 14:34-35).

As we see in the preceding, Paul writes of women being “submissive, as the law also says.” The law he has in mind are those commandments in the Old Testament that clearly put women under the headship of husbands or fathers. A woman who even makes an oath to God can have this oath lifted by her husband or father, so profound is the importance of headship and submission to said head (see Num 30). So, the very rationale that Paul gives as to why women should not be speaking in church is that it is a violation of what the role of a woman within the family unit even is. In other words, Paul is saying the Law teaches gender roles, and the role of the the female is to be in submission to a male head. This is mindblowing in its ramifications and totally at odds with contemporary thought.

Concluding thoughts from the early church fathers. Because what I am writing is going to be considered by many within my own communion as “nuts,” I will conclude this article by saying I am not saying anything new. Rather, I am reiterating what the fathers have always taught. I commend my readers to the fathers and the Scriptures themselves. Lastly, I ask one pray on these passages and work out their application with a spiritual father. There is a difference between general truths and individual applications.

To whet the appetite, here are a few counter-cultural passages from our patriarchs in the faith:

They [women] are also to bear themselves in a way proper for their sex, to maintain a holy manner in bodily movements, facial expressions, words, silence, and whatever tends to the dignity of a holy decorum (Saint Jerome in his Commentary on Titus).

As if you were my son, you have referred to me the question others have asked of you, why the Law was so severe in pronouncing unclean those persons who wear garments of the other sex, whether men or women…And to Timothy he says: ‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. For I do not allow a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men.’ How unsightly it is for a man to act like a woman! (“Letter 78,” Ambrose to Irenaeus).

And yet you forbid a woman to teach; how do you command it here, when elsewhere you say, I suffer not a woman to teach1 Timothy 2:12 But mark what he has added, Nor to usurp authority over the man. For at the beginning it was permitted to men to teach both men and women. But to women it is allowed to instruct by discourse at home. But they are nowhere permitted to preside, nor to extend their speech to great length, wherefore he adds, Nor to usurp authority over the man (Saint John Chrysostom, Chrysostom on Titus 2:3).

In what sense then does he say, I suffer not a woman to teach? 1 Timothy 2:12 He means to hinder her from publicly coming forward 1 Corinthians 14:35, and from the seat on the bema [a podium for teaching in church], not from the word of teaching…In what sense then does he say, I suffer not a woman to teach? 1 Timothy 2:12 He means to hinder her from publicly coming forward, and from the seat on the bema, not from the word of teaching…How came Priscilla to instruct even Apollos? It was not then to cut in sunder private conversing for advantage that he said this, but that before all, and which it was the teacher’s duty to give in the public assembly (Saint John Chrysostom, Comments on Rom 16:6).

Extended comments from Saint John Chrysostom on 2 Tim 2:

But when one who has a husband and children, and presides over a household, sees you, who ought to be crucified to the world, more devoted to the world than herself, will she not ridicule and despise you? (2 Tim 2:10)

Great modesty and great propriety does the blessed Paul require of women, and that not only with respect to their dress and appearance: he proceeds even to regulate their speech. And what says he? Let the woman learn in silence; that is, let her not speak at all in the church; which rule he has also given in his Epistle to the Corinthians, where he says, It is a shame for women to speak in the church 1 Corinthians 14:35; and the reason is, that the law has made them subject to men. And again elsewhere, And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home. 1 Corinthians 14:35To such a degree should women be silent, that they are not allowed to speak not only about worldly matters, but not even about spiritual things, in the church. This is order, this is modesty, this will adorn her more than any garments. Thus clothed, she will be able to offer her prayers in the manner most becoming (1 Tim 2:11).

He was speaking of quietness, of propriety, of modesty, so having said that he wished them not to speak in the church, to cut off all occasion of conversation, he says, let them not teach, but occupy the station of learners. For thus they will show submission by their silence. For the sex is naturally somewhat talkative: and for this reason he restrains them on all sides…Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man. 1 Corinthians 11:9 Why then does he say this? He wishes the man to have the preeminence in every way; both for the reason given above, he means, let him have precedence, and on account of what occurred afterwards. For the woman taught the man once, and made him guilty of disobedience, and wrought our ruin. Therefore because she made a bad use of her power over the man, or rather her equality with him, God made her subject to her husbandYour desire shall be to your husband? Genesis 3:16 This had not been said to her before…The woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account therefore he says, let her not teach. (1 Tim 2:12-14).

If they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety; that is, if after childbearing, they keep them in charity and purity. By these means they will have no small reward on their account, because they have trained up wrestlers for the service of Christ (1 Tim 2:15).