Keeping Tradition, Discerning Traditionalism
By Deborah Malacky Belonick

    Because I am a female graduate of St.Vladimir's Orthodox Theological seminary, people often ask me questions about "women's issues" in regard to church order and custom. They range from the meaning of St. Paul's passages regarding women to whether the Orthodox Church ought to revive the order of deaconesses. On the surface these questions focus on women's ministry in the Church and a woman's spiritual image. However, each singular query leads to a deeper, broader question that extends to any other concern the Church at-large faces. It is the question of how we as Orthodox Christians approach dilemmas and make decisions.

    To answer this question, let us turn our attention to the New Testament, to the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which records the first Church council (Acts 15). Participants of this meeting debated whether or not Gentiles coming into the Church had to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses and how much of the Law Gentiles had to keep and bear. Obviously, that first meeting held a specific concern to male Gentiles; for although the Judaic Law held an aura of piety and holiness, circumcision certainly could not have been a pleasant prospect! Be that as it may, this first council also has much to teach us on the contemporary subject of how to approach women's ministry in the Church. Let's look at some of the aspects of that meeting which set the tone for future ecclesiastical proceedings.

    First - we open a dilemma up for discussion. We are the Orthodox Church. We are the place of truth and knowledge and wisdom and healing. The Church never shirked a philosophical, cultural or religious debate. When the Apostle Paul and his co-worker Barnabas were confronted with men from Judea who taught the brethren that, "Unless you are circumcised according to thecustom of Moses, you cannot be saved," Scripture points out that Paul and Barnabas "had no small discussion and debate with them" (Acts 15:1-2). They didn't excommunicate them and splitinto two sects. They didn't drop the subject. It is to my chagrin and horror that there is a tendency now within the Church to be isolationist, to be counter-cultural to the point of being alien, to be despairing, to be fearful, and to be Pharisaic. I have heard some Orthodox Christians plead, "Don't discuss women's ministry in the Church; don't attempt to clarify our views on the feminist movement; don't even whisper that you want to discuss why the Orthodox Church maintains an all-male priesthood." These remarks may come from bitter experience in former denominations, a fearful inner spirit, or lack of trust in God. The Church never had this attitude. She never "shushed" her children or shunned debate. "God has not given us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (2Tim1:7).

    People have seen demons wreak chaos in Christian denominations which seemed to start off innocently with the substitution of modern English for the King James Bible and ended up with lesbian priests. This domino effect so impressed them, they think the same will happen if we change "Thou" to "You" in the Orthodox church. But it will not. It will not, because we Orthodox Christians are not operating from a faulty theology and ecclesiasticism as are Christian denominations. Liberationist and Feminist theology in those churches was simply a continuum of what defective male theology, christology and sotierology had begun. When Jurgen Moltmann, a Lutheran theologian, wrote that sometimes the Father proceeded from the Spirit and the Son, and sometimes the Son proceeded from the Father and the Spirit, and sometimes the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, he set the stage for feminist theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson to "...conceive of the trinitarian persons in different patterns of relation...the three interweave each other in various patterns...of giving over and receiving back, being obedient and being glorified....."1 Moltmann's theology gave Johnson license to then name the Holy Trinity as Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother-Sophia and to suggest that the Trinitarian relations can be considered as analogous to the relationships of friend, sister, mother, and grandmother.2

    But we Orthodox do not have Moltmann. We have Ss. Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, John of Damascus and Gregory of Palamas. If we do not delve into our own theology and address the depths of the meaning of person, the significance of gender, the charismata of the Holy Spirit working in the Body of Christ, and the ministerial and sacramental orders of the Church, we will be forced simply to react to either fundamentalist or liberal Western interpretations of those matters. If we do not debate and clarify, we will be driven to sectarianism, isolationism, rigidity. We will become a preservationist society of laws and customs, rather than people who cast fire upon the earth (Lk 12:49). We will be reduced to being keepers of traditionalism, rather than being bearers of the Tradition. We will starve ourselves and rob the world of reality, of what a Church looks like when women and men fed by the Holy Spirit acquire the likeness of God.

    Second - we bring the question to the Church hierarchy. Scripture points out that "...Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question" (Acts 15:2). Professor John Romanides observes: "The basis of the apostolic tradition and succession was...the transmission of the tradition of healing, illumination and deification. The parish Council and provincial Council were organized to unite the true therapists, to exclude from the clergy the false prophets who pretended to have charismatic gifts, and to protect the flock from heretics."We are not Congregationalists and isolated parishes whose theology sprouts from grassroots. A peevish contemporary phenomenon is individual Orthodox Christians, laity or clergy or monastic, severing themselves from any hierarchical tie and publishing material ex cathedra.

    However, neither are we Papists. Note that the meeting in the Book of Acts ended with a decision that "... it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas...[with a message from] the brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia...." (Acts 15:22-23).

    The spiritual priesthood, or royal priesthood, is operative in the laity, according to Ss. John Chrysostom and Gregory of Sinai, and must not be ignored. Both women and men can be "true clergy," serving an ongoing Liturgy in their hearts and being instruments of healing to all.4 Laity often provided inspiration from the Holy Spirit. St. Euphemia's (+304) relics were used to discern the truth at the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.5 St. Irene was the empress who called the Seventh Ecumenical Council in AD 787 to restore the proper place of icons in the Church.

    This communication between hierarchy and laity is a link which must not be severed.  In the early Church, the deacons served as "the ear and mouth" of the bishop, an indispensable bond between hierarchy and laity.6 Since the first Church council, we have relied on the formula: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...," (Acts 15:28) meaning the assembly of the Church, hierarchy and laity together.

    Third - we seek the evidence of the Holy Spirit and realize that God's law of love and fulfillment supersedes laws and regulations. The assembly kept silence while Barnabas and Paul "...related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles" (Acts 15:12). Simon Peter acknowledged that God had given the Gentiles the Holy Spirit without their keeping the Law of Moses, and asked, "...why do you make a trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10).

    As Orthodox Christians we realize the canons are given to us, not to restrict us, but to guide us as disciplinary decrees regulating our institutional life. There are many ways in which they have been reinterpreted and sometimes misinterpreted throughout the centuries.7 As an example, take St. Olympias [A.D. 361 to A.D. 408] , a contemporary of St. John Chrysostom, who was ordained as a deaconess before age 35 [A.D. 397].8 The age of admission to this ministry had been fixed by Tertullian at sixty years (De Vel. Virg. Cap.ix), and only changed to age forty by Canon IX of the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451.9 It is clear that St. Olympia, perhaps because of her outstanding piety, was granted entry into the rank of deaconesses outside the traditional custom of the Church. Further, consider Canon XIV of the Quinisext Council in A.D. 692 which sets the minimum ages for ordination of a priest at thirty, of a deacon at twenty-five, and of a deaconess at forty.10 Many bishops today would be guilty of breaking this canon.  However, as Orthodox, we practice economia ,11 recognizing the freedom of the movement of the Holy Spirit.

    Fourth - we search the Scriptures. At this first council the Apostle James clarified the issue at hand by quoting from the books of Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. In interpreting Scripture we must be exact, above reproach, dependent on research and education, and prayerfully persevering.12  We cannot take a liberal or fundamentalist Western approach to passages. For example, let us examine the passage from I Tim 3:8-10 concerning the order of deacons:

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons. The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. [emphasis mine]

    Do we know that many Greek scholars translate the word "women" in this passage, (sometimes rendered in English as "wives") not as women but as women who are deacons or women deacons?13 Do we care? This passage and the passages concerning the submission of women and their silence in Church often are interpreted literally and glibly, without reference to the Greek text, the context in which the passage was written, the intent of the author, or clues of its meaning from lives of saints within the history of the Church.

    In his homily on this text, even St. John Chrysostom noted:

"Even so must the women be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things." Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank ofDeaconesses (Homily XI on Timothy). [emphasis mine]

    Fifth, we rely on the witness and teaching of our holy Fathers and Mothers. At the first meeting regarding circumcision, the Apostle James relied on the teachings and writings of Moses (Acts 15:21). Just as with the canons and Scripture, however, one has to read the saints with a discerning mind. One has to an active listener, a hesychast, at least on the path to holiness, and one has to read more than one line or one page. On the subject of women, for example, the Fathers of the Church contradict themselves and each other at times. St. John Chrysostom commented on a passage from I Tim 2:15 as follows:

St. Paul wishes the man to have preeminence in every way...For the women taught the man once and made him guilty of disobedience, and wrought our ruin. (Homily IX on I Timothy)

    In other places St. John gives high praise to women, as an example in his homily on the Myrrhbearers on Resurrection morning:

They had followed Him ministering to Him, and were present even through the time of the dangers...And these first see Jesus [at His resurrection]; and the sex that was most condemned [at the Fall], first enjoys the sight of the blessings, and most shows its courage ...Do you see their affection (philostorgian)? Do you see their magnanimity (megopsychian) in sharing their goods, even unto death? Let us men imitate the women; let us not forsake Jesus in temptation.14  (Homily LXXXVIII on St. Matthew)


    Orthodoxy is not the preservation of rules and customs. Orthodoxy is a belief in and personal relationship with the Triune God and a resulting approach to life on earth. Our ancestors approached difficult issues armed with listening hearts, discerning minds, applicability of ancient prophecies to present conditions, flexibility, and love. In any issue arising from within or without the Church body, may we have the grace and courage to do the same as we heed the voice of the Holy Spirit.


Matushka Deborah Malacky Belonick is a 1979 graduate of St. Vladimir's Seminary. She is a clergy wife and mother of two sons. This talk was originally given as part of a panel in Columbus, Ohio at St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church (OCA) on November 6, 1998.


1 She Who Is, by Elizabeth A. Johnson (New York: Crossroad, 1996) 195.

2 She Who Is, 243.

3 Romanaioi I Romioi Pateres tis Eklisias. Vol. 1, 28-29, in Greek.

4 Orthodox Psychotherapy, by Archim. Hierotheos S. Vlachos (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994) 88-91.

5 Tradition reports that the Fathers of the Church opened the tomb of St. Euphemia and placed in her uncorrupt hands two scrolls which outlined disparate positions concerning the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. They left the bier, and when they returned in the morning, the scroll proclaiming that Jesus Christ is perfect Divinity and perfect Humanity in one Person was found in the hands of the saint, while the other lay at her feet.

6 Didascalia Apostolorum, 2,28,6. The Didascalia was written in Northern Syria in the first half of the third century; the author appears to be a physician converted from Judaism who is against Christians who regard the Jewish ceremonial law as still binding after Baptism.

7 The Church of the Ancient Councils, by Archbp. Peter L'Huillier (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1996). In this work His Eminence Archbishop Peter "...explains the sometimes ambiguous terminology of the original texts...explores the historical circumstances which gave rise to these canons in the first place...and he also indicates some of the ways in which they have been reinterpreted (and sometimes misinterpreted) in later centuries." IX.

8 The Handmaiden, "St. Olympia: Deaconess and Friend," by Collette D. Jonopoulos (Vol. II No. 3/Summer, 1997) 28.

9 The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church: Their Canons and Dogmatic Decrees, by Henry R. Percival, M.A., D.D. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, eds. Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D. and Henry Wace, D.D. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995) 41, 279.

10 Ibid, 372.

11 "According to Orthodox Canon Law, the term economia denotes a timely and logically defensible deviation from a canonically established rule for the sake of bringing salvation either within or outside the Church. But this deviation does not extend to the point where it could violate the dogmatic boundaries of the rule in question...economia should be decided upon only by the canonically instituted authority of the Church." A Dictionary of Greek Orthodoxy, by Rev. Nicon D. Patrinacos (New York: Greek Archdiocese of North and South America Department of Religious Education, 1984) 131.

12 St. John of Damascene, in his work On Heresies lists as the 97th heretical group the Parermeneutae ('Misinterpreters') who "...suffer from a certain lack of education and judgment" in their interpretations of Scripture. St. John of Damascus, trs. Frederic H. Chase, Jr. (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press) 151.

13 The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, by Roger Gryson (Collegeville, MI: The Liturgical Press) 3-4,8. A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, by J.N.D. Kelly, D.D. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers) 83-84.

14 Excerpted from: Women and Men in the Early Church: the Full Views of St. John Chrysostom, David C. Ford (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press) 1996.

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