Elisabeth Behr-Sigel is a new reddress heroine – an amazing woman who lived through amazing times. You can read a biography here. She is a feminist Orthodox Theologian (i.e. big O ‘Eastern’ orthodox) who, amongst other things, grappled with the question of women in the church and its implications for the ecumenical movement – one of the biggest obstacles to Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions working together. She is really easy to read and the contemporary Orthodox approach to theology is refreshing: it engages in the postmodern questions from a non-Enlightenment heritage.
When it comes to women in the church, Behr-Sigel points out in this article that the church fathers emphasise the centrality of Genesis 1:26-27 (humanity made in the image of God, male and female) which the Hebrew scriptures do not give to that particular verse or principle. Interesting question: has the contemporary debate on egalitarianism distorted the narrative of Scripture?
Instead, the emphasis on the imago dei comes through the Early Church Fathers’ desire to appropriate Greek philosophy in the service of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. I think this is really important – it is actually impossible to develop a theological anthropology without recourse to some kind of extra-biblical understanding of life, God and the human person. The Orthodox tradition receives the priority of the Greek philosophical tradition because, they argue, the context into which the Scriptures were first received should be read as part of God’s process of Revelation. (Hmm… not convinced by that but moving on…) When we read the Church Father’s interpretation of Scripture and discover that though they read the texts as I might as a twenty-first century Christian woman: that women and men are equal in humanity and therefore equally image bearers of the divine, they made very different conclusions as to the application of what men and women do to represent the divine in this world. This is where Behr-Sigel shows how contemporary Orthodox theologians interact critically with Tradition and church practice centuries old: the Church Father’s authority applies to their interpretation of Scripture, not to their personal life (and only then becomes Tradition when there is unified agreement). Really subtle, lovely theology! Here she is…
“Out of their conviction that men and women have an equal dignity, that they are bearers of the same divine image, and that they are called together to the same deification, eg. to assimilation into God, according to His Grace, the [Greek Church] Fathers did not draw the conclusion that men and women should therefore hold identical positions and have identical functions in society and in the church, particularly in public worship. How can this apparent inconsequence be explained? The reasons for it are certainly very complex. Some are historical and cultural and appear outdated nowadays. Others are theological, based on the Scriptures an on Tradition, and they deserve to be seriously examined, though they do not always satisfy us entirely. Are they only a justification or a ‘rationalization’, in this psychoanalytical sense of the word, of the male will for power? This argument, presented nowadays by some feminists, seems over-simplified. Behind the reluctance of ordaining women, at least to the presbyterial ministry, one can certainly perceive, beyond the alleged reasons, something ‘unsaid’, unexpressed perhaps because it seemed matter-of-fact in the lived experience: ‘the intuition of a symbolism of masculinity and femininity in their reciprocity, a symbolism deciphered in the body as well as in the book’, which runs through the Scriptures, but which is also contaminated in practice by archaic taboos, traces of Greek dualism and fear of the sex. The time seems to have come to undertake a serious theological examination and clarification of all these complex factors, and to do it in the spirit of the Father: e.g. not the spirit of sclerosed conservatism, but the spirit of creative faithfulness, e.g. the dynamic authenticity of Tradition.”