Throughout this series of articles, I have tried to show that sex and sexuality in the life of the Christian can be defined in ways apart from the demands of so-called “Natural Law.” What is sexually ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ need not be determined by what we can observe in nature or in traditional human societies.
Natural law arguments justify sexual distinctions and conventional sexualities on the basis of observable phenomena. Gender roles are promoted on the basis that most societies have always existed with such roles. The purpose of sexual intercourse within marriage is rooted in the biological function of procreation. The current Roman Catholic stand against contraception, for instance, rests firmly in natural law.
The difficulties of natural law are almost obvious. Arguing heterosexuality and monogamy from nature is problematic when homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, and polygamy are prevalent among many mammal species. To propose some kind of ‘ideal nature’ is merely wishful thinking. And promoting gender roles because “it has always been that way” may well be no more than the propagation of age-old error and abuse.
In approaching sexuality in general and marriage in particular, the Eastern Orthodox Church is less concerned with natural law than with the ultimate function of sexuality and marriage as a proclamation of the Gospel. For example, although a wide variety of opinions exist within the Orthodox Church on the proper use of contraceptives, the Church does not condemn their use. Indeed, as an Orthodox pastor, I quite freely bless the use of contraceptives among married couples, as long as they do not abort a fertilized ovum.
Such flexibility in Orthodoxy’s approach to contraceptives flows, I would suggest, from the tradition’s inherent perception that sexuality has a function that goes beyond the limits of biology and natural law. In times when having children was essential for the survival of one’s clan and one’s name, the prevalence of homosexuality, sex without children, and monogamy could spell disaster for a family and a society. When immortality rested on progeny, your function as a sexual being was clear: get married to a woman (more than one, if necessary) and make babies—lots of them. Otherwise, what use were you, unless you were some kind of ‘temple virgin,’ serving a religious function?
The Church, however, intuits that in the light of the Gospel, heterosexuality, monogamy, and sex-for-the-purpose-of-procreation, can no longer be justified on the basis of biological necessity. With the Advent of Christ, one’s immortality no longer rests on one’s children, but on one’s baptism into Christ, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” (Gal. 3:28) The proclamation concerning Jesus Christ becomes the only “rule” by which, as Saint Paul says in the above verse, all things are measured—sexuality included.
In the Christian view, then, sex and sexuality exist not for their own sake, nor merely at the demand of natural law. In Christ, sex, gender, and sexuality are proclamations. They are a preaching, a Gospel teaching. At their root, they exist simply to answer Jesus’ fundamental question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15)
In the past month, I have spoken of how the above understanding plays itself out in questions of gender roles, homosexuality, and marriage. The last and perhaps the most salient question of all, however, is how sex and gender as proclamation affect our notion of the ordained ministry in the Christian community.
It’s no secret that the Orthodox Church upholds a male-only priesthood, and I would not be an Orthodox priest if I did not support that position. That being said, I also believe that Orthodox tradition has room for women’s ministries—a capacity that has been ignored and neglected for far too long in the Orthodox Church. For instance, there is ample evidence in Church history for female deacons, even if their function was more pastoral than liturgical—a ministry to the specific pastoral needs of women, such as rape and abuse counselling. In my opinion, these and other dimensions of historically-rooted ministries for women can and should be encouraged and rejuvenated throughout the Church.
So why would I support a female deaconate and not a female priesthood or episcopate, as the Anglican Church is currently deciding to do? My difficulty here has nothing to do with whether or not women could accomplish the tasks of priestly ministry. Rather, my concern in the ordination of women to priesthood is the underlying assumption that ordained ministry should be expunged of gender entirely.
As I have said, gender roles allow us to understand the Gospel according to the Scriptures, which are expressed in gendered terms. Jesus Christ is the Son of God who teaches us to call God Father. Since God is not male, what does it mean to call Him ‘Father’? Saint Paul regularly speaks of us as the masculine heirs of the Kingdom, and the feminine Bride of Christ. What does that mean? We can only really find an answer if gender remains a fixture of our lives, beginning with those of us Christian leaders who “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4)
Neutering ministry, like the revising of the biblical texts for gender inclusive language, devalues gender from the top down and severs our living connection with the historical, genders-specific revelation of the Gospel. To be blunt: without gender, we cannot understand Jesus Christ as He was and continues to be today “according to the Scriptures.”
A comprehensive case for the male priesthood is beyond the scope of this article. A case is possible, however, based on the theology I have put forward above. No doubt the discussion of sex, gender and sexuality will continue as it has been for decades. If I have provoked a new thread in the ongoing dialogue, my job is done.