Deaconesses and the Camel’s Nose

by Paul Ladouceur  |  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский  |  српски

Opponents of women deacons in the Orthodox Church advance two principal arguments: the “natural and economical order of male and female”; and the conviction that women deacons will lead inexorably to a series of other unwanted changes in Orthodoxy.

Advocates against the ordination of women to liturgical or even non-liturgical functions argue that there is a natural order of male and female, by which God intended that women be subordinate to men. This natural order theory calls into question a fundamental principle of patristic anthropology, the ontological equality of men and women. This principle is expressed very forcefully in Discourse 37 (6-7) of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in the context a discussion on chastity and adultery. Gregory writes notably:

The wife who takes wicked counsel against her husband’s bed commits adultery, and thence flow the bitter consequences of the laws, but on the contrary the man who takes a prostitute against his wife suffers no sanction. I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. It is men who laid down these laws, and this is why this legislation is directed against women. […] God does not act thusly, but he says: “Honor your father and your mother” […] Notice the equality of the legislation: one and the same creator of man and woman; one dust for both; one image; one law; one death, one resurrection. […] Christ saves both through his suffering. Did Christ become flesh for the sake of the man? He did this also for the sake of the woman. He died for the man? The woman is also saved by his death.

Similarly, St. Basil the Great writes (On the Human Condition, 18): “The woman also possesses the creation according to the image of God, as indeed does the man. The natures are alike of equal honor, the virtues are equal, the struggles equal, the judgment alike.”

Some opponents of women’s ordination admit, reluctantly, the patristic principle of the ontological equality of men and women, but they immediately subvert it by advancing the novel principle of the subordination or submission of women to men. According to the subordination theory, since women are intended to be subordinate to men, they cannot exercise authority over men. This means that women must be ineligible to exercise any forms of leadership in church which include authority over men, especially of course any clerical function. In this logic, women should not lead parish councils nor even direct parish choirs, which places them in authority over men. And of course, even singing in a church choir is a liturgical function. Some recognize that the subordination principle is unsustainable in civil society, so they limit women’s subordination to two domains, the church and the family. Admission that women may have authority over men in any domain defeats subordination as an ontological principle. Taliban theology is more consistent.

The subordination or submission principle subverts the unequivocal patristic teaching of the ontological equality of men and women and cannot be sustained. The advocates of the “natural order” theory make no attempt to reconcile two opposing ontological principles, equality and subordination; rather, they are seen as compatible. This is also unsustainable.

Fortunately, the ancient Fathers of the Church, good philosophers and theologians that they were, saw the incompatibility between equality and subordination or submission. This is very evident in Trinitarian theology: the Fathers rejected decisively any hint of subordination of Persons of the Holy Trinity to other Persons. Instead, they affirmed the ontological equality of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, an equality captured in the creedal term homoousios (consubstantial). For the Fathers, men and women are also consubstantial.

Opponents of the ordination of women appeal to the inevitability of other changes which would ensue from the institution of women deacons in the Orthodox Church. These undesired downstream changes would include women priests, women bishops, acceptance of same-sex marriage, transgender confusion, LBGTQ2 priests, changes in the readings in marriage service, or in gender designations for God, resulting in schism, catastrophic loss of membership, defection of clergy, and erosion of tradition. And who knows? A whole flood of other evils would no doubt result from opening the Pandora’s Box of women deacons: legalization of marijuana, renewable energy, generic drugs, universal access to health care, protection of the environment, gun control…

This line of argumentation is commonly referred to as “the slippery slope,” “the thin edge of the wedge” or, more picturesquely, “the camel’s nose” (the camel pokes its nose into the tent, but soon the rest of the camel comes in too). This is one among many logical fallacies – a logically invalid argument. To be valid, such an argument would have to prove beyond any doubt that the downstream consequences will inevitably and invariably occur, as in linked chemical reactions or nuclear physics. Those who advance this argument typically refer to the experience in other Christian churches, the Anglican Church and a number of Protestant churches. They overlook the experience of the Orthodox Church itself: there were deaconesses in Orthodoxy for many centuries without this having led to women priests. Is the experience of non-Orthodox churches more valid than that of the Orthodox Church itself?

“Slippery slope” argumentation has no philosophical or theological content, but is rather a rhetorical device or a psychological argument which appeals to the listeners’ or readers’ emotions, especially fear. It is “scare tactics.” Not only fear of unwanted downstream consequences but fear too that women deacons may prove as effective as men deacons in exercising liturgical functions, that they may even be more effective than men in social service functions, long neglected or ignored by men deacons.

Are fundamental aspects of the Orthodox faith at stake in the deaconess issue? Women deacons in Orthodoxy does not affect our belief in the Trinity, Christ as true God and true Man, the Eucharist, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the path to theosis. The gates of paradise will not be closed if there are women deacons in the Orthodox Church.

In conclusion, the ontological equality or consubstantiality of men and women cannot admit the ontological principle of subordination or submission of women to men. The “natural and economical order of male and female” is an unsustainable theology, the familiar old-fashioned misogynist wolf dressed up in a theological sheepskin.

The restoration of women’s diaconate must be considered on its own merits. This was done at the Inter-Orthodox Symposium on “The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church,” held in Rhodes in 1988. The Conclusion of this Symposium unambiguously calls for the revival of the order of deaconesses (§32), while at the same time opposing the ordination of women to the priesthood (§14). While fear is a legitimate psychological factor often covertly motivating human behavior and thinking, it is not a theological argument. Rhetorical devices and emotional appeals may be employed to sustain theology, but theology itself must first be firmly grounded on scripture and the Orthodox dogmatic tradition.

Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.