People often wonder what attitude the Church should have toward feminism. It may be easy to offer simplistic answers, but we cannot begin to address this issue responsibly unless we are clear about what feminism is. This contentious word feminism means different things to different people, both among its advocates and among its opponents. For many today, including many Orthodox Christians, "feminist" has become a convenient insult largely empty of meaning. If people can pin the label of feminist on people or ideas they dislike, they can dismiss those people and ideas without having to give them a hearing. This can be an excuse for refusing to enter into respectful dialogue with others, thus avoiding the possibility of discovering whether they actually have legitimate concerns, and maybe even changing our own attitudes or behavior in response. Sometimes God uses the most unlikely people and situations to call us to repentance.
Avowed feminists disagree among themselves about what feminism is. Many books have been written about feminist theory, which comes in several different varieties. It is a complex subject in which I am not a specialist. Much of this material is probably incompatible with the Orthodox faith, but some of it may invite fruitful dialogue in unexpected ways. I once heard feminism defined as the belief that women are fully human and are not inferior to men just because they are women. Many Fathers of the Church would wholeheartedly agree with this statement. St. Basil the Great says the following:
The virtue of man and woman is one, since also the creation is of equal honor for both, and so the reward for both is the same. Listen to Genesis. "God," it says, "created the human; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" [Gen. 1:27]. And since their nature is one, their activities also are the same; and since their work is equal, their reward also is the same.1
St. Basil is saying that the most important things about men and women, the things that make them fully human, are shared by both alike. These shared characteristics are: creation in God's image and likeness, the capacity for virtue and good works, and the hope of eternal life. Christ died for men and women alike, and all can be saved through faith in Him. If this is what is meant by feminism, the Church's teaching requires us to be feminists.
Some Orthodox Christians describe feminism as a dangerous heresy, an enemy they fear is already "within the gates" of the Church, threatening to destroy it. However, alarmism is not the appropriate response. Unlike the other ecclesiastical bodies that some of us have left, the Orthodox Church is the true Church and is preserved in right faith and practice by Divine Providence. By nature it resists innovations even in matters of liturgical detail, knowing that the Tradition is inspired by the Holy Spirit and hallowed by the presence of many saints, whose life and worship we hope to share. So we hardly need fear that some Orthodox bishop will ordain women priests tomorrow or change the Holy Trinity into an impersonal, generic "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier." Therefore the question of feminism must be addressed calmly and cautiously, with much prayer and dispassion, with reverence for the Church and respect for the dignity of the Divine image present in all people, both male and female. Moreover, we need to study the teachings of the Fathers and the examples of saints as they relate to women. These teachings provide the context for rightly interpreting and applying Scripture. All this takes time, and the work has only begun.
Feminism is not a monolithic heresy but a mixed phenomenon, some aspects of which affirm the values that Christians consider important. Some of the original feminist goals have already been achieved. For instance, women have access to higher education, property ownership, professional employment, and public office. In America today these rights are taken for granted by feminists and antifeminists alike. Moreover, it is useful to remember that feminist women have taken the lead in advocating for justice and the dignity of women and children in many areas often neglected by others. They oppose domestic violence, sexual abuse and harassment, and gender discrimination and exploitation of women in the workplace. They support equal pay for equal work; equal access to medical, legal, and financial services; and parental leave and quality child care. They want children to receive nurturing and guidance from their fathers as well as their mothers, and they encourage men to share fully in the responsibilities of the home.
Many of them oppose the pornography and sexual exploitation in advertising and popular culture that dehumanize both women and men, and they vigorously affirm that human beings are not sexual objects. These are authentic family values. The Church can only support their proponents, recognizing that all too often these values are not upheld in today's society. These concerns rightly call each of us personally to repentance, love, and purity. This is hard work, it takes time and it is not glamorous, but repentance alone will yield authentic and lasting results in these areas.
Unfortunately, feminists often take other positions that the Church cannot support. For instance, many of them believe women have a "right" to do whatever they like with their own bodies and are therefore entitled to choose promiscuity or abortion. They overlook the fact that we are not our own, since Christ has bought us at the cost of His own blood. All that we are, including our bodies, belongs to God, not to ourselves. It is our responsibility to glorify our Creator and Savior in our bodies and avoid doing things that harm or degrade ourselves and others, including unborn children. Many feminists also reject Christianity and seek to replace it with pagan goddess-worship. They create their ideas of the divine after their own image and worship created things instead of the Creator. Sometimes they do this in churches that still claim to be Christian. This is the kind of idolatry condemned by the whole Biblical tradition, and it is ultimately self-destructive to those who practice it. When feminists advocate such activities as these, it is appropriate to speak of heresy, apostasy, or unbelief.
In addition, feminists tend to see questions of politics and authority as central to human existence. Perhaps because they are understandably frustrated with our society's slow progress in rectifying the injustices listed above, they come to perceive power for women as the only effective way of getting their legitimate concerns addressed. Then their focus shifts from substantive issues like equal pay and quality childcare to procedural issues about who makes policy. Tragically, the original substantive issues can sometimes be forgotten as the quest for power becomes an obsession. In response, antifeminists seek to reassert male authority over women and perceive this as the key issue in the debate. When the context is defined in this way as a power struggle, the conflict is irreconcilable. Meanwhile, injustices persist and repentance is neglected together with love and humble service.
However, the issue of organizational structure is an occasion of particular difficulty and misunderstanding between Orthodox Christians and feminists. Today many people influenced by feminism think that permanent hierarchical forms of organization are intrinsically oppressive and morally reprehensible. Women and men with this belief often cannot see anything in the Orthodox Church except the patriarchy they oppose for reasons of conscience. Yet the Church has to have a hierarchy in order to safeguard and pass on to future generations the precious treasure of revealed truth and eternal life entrusted to the Christian community by our Lord and the apostles. Part of the Church's missionary task today and in the next century is to find convincing ways of defending and explaining our position to educated women. This can be a daunting challenge, even among those who have good will and would like to be open to receiving the gift of faith.
According to the Fathers, the purpose of hierarchy is to share Christ's life, light, and love with others. The priest receives Holy Communion and then gives the same Holy Gifts to the faithful gathered around him. His task is to be a shepherd leading them with him to the same destination in the Kingdom of Heaven. His responsibility is to unite the Church community, to include everybody in a shared life, and ultimately to bring every member of the Church up to the same level, the full stature of Christ. This is the opposite of what feminist social critics see as the purpose of hierarchy. They see it as a self-serving power structure that enables those at the top to separate themselves from others, excludes others from sharing the good things they keep for themselves, and pushes them down to an inferior level of human existence. Orthodox Christians clearly need to educate people about the roots of this misunderstanding. Yet here again there may be a need for repentance. In order to have a credible witness, Church leaders need to take seriously Christ's teaching about their pastoral responsibilities to their flocks. They need to take care to avoid the appearance of pursuing what feminist social critics wrongly perceive as the unjust purposes of every hierarchical structure.
In addition, lay people are called to cooperate with their pastors by sharing fully in the Church's life, by using their gifts to glorify God and serve other people, and by working together to build up the Christian community. Orthodoxy teaches that Church organization combines hierarchy with conciliarity, and there has to be a balance and collaboration between these two principles. Conciliarity means that every member is responsible for safeguarding and practicing the Church's faith and way of life. It also means that we are all interconnected and interdependent. As human beings we are not isolated, self-enclosed individuals but persons joined to each other by mutual love and mutual responsibility. We are each called, with God's help, to find creative ways of using our uniquely personal gifts to offer ourselves to others in the context of community and to receive the gifts others offer to us.
At this important point there is a surprising convergence between Orthodox and feminist ethics. Feminists also believe strongly in mutual interrelatedness, interdependence, and responsibility. When they say everyone should be included and everyone should have a voice, they mean that all are called to share their uniquely personal gifts with others. This understanding of human wholeness is in harmony with the Orthodox theology of personhood. It is significant that feminists and Orthodox Christians alike are opposed to the individualistic fragmentation and relentless market-oriented competition that dominate so much of today's culture. Perhaps we can find some common ground with persons of good will who, like us, oppose these dehumanizing forces.