For the Table, Not the Schism

About a week ago, a man named Tony Jones called for a schism in the church over women in ministry. He urged all those who attend churches or are involved in ministries that don’t believe in ordaining women to leave those churches and ministries.

First, I want to applaud Tony for publicly standing up for equality for men and women in the church. Though some women disagree, I feel that we need more men to speak up for feminism. Second, I want to thank Tony for several of his subsequent posts, in which he somewhat attempts to respond to his opponents, even going so far as to interview a woman (yes, a woman) who does not share his opinions. It is there, however, that Tony and I will have to part ways.

I am a feminist. I believe in equality for women. I believe that women should be able to be ministers. AND I attend a church that does not ordain women and takes a complementarian view of gender roles. AND I do not apologize for attending that kind of church.

I was raised in an evangelical denomination that ordains women and, in fact, employed both of my parents, not just my father, as missionaries. I don’t recall anyone from my church ever telling me I couldn’t do something because I was a woman. However, the majority of pastors in the denomination continue to be male. In the church’s 100-plus year history, there has only been one female general superintendent. While gender equality is championed in name, the denomination still has a long way to go to reach true equality.

As an adult, my spiritual journey led me to the Eastern Orthodox Church. What I found there was a new understanding of salvation, time, prayer, and worship. There I found a rich depth of truth, a myriad of saints to look to for guidance and inspiration, a belief in the fusing of the physical and the spiritual, and a meaningful, sacramental liturgy.

What I also found there was a church that does not ordain women.

It bothered me. The answer I got most often, “equal but with different roles” did not satisfy me. I do remember one priest explaining to me that, in a sense, feminism was present in the church because of Mary. We highly revere Mary in the Orthodox Church – not worship, as we often get accused of – but revere. That is because she is an integral part of our salvation. It was through Mary, a woman, that Jesus came to us. Could God have chosen a different way to arrive? Sure. He could have descended with trumpet fanfare on the clouds. He could have landed in an alien spaceship in a field. But He didn’t. He choose to come through the body of a woman. A willing but frightened woman. A woman who changed history. A woman who showed us what it means to be a Christian. The Incarnation is all woven up in the womb of a woman.

In addition to Mary, we honor and remember female saints on a daily basis. The woman at the well, known as Saint Photini in our church, is considered the first evangelist. Saint Catherine was so intelligent and educated that she out-argued fifty of the smartest philosophers and rhetoricians in Alexandria. Then she was martyred because she believed in Jesus. Saint Thekla gave up marriage and family to travel with the Apostle Paul and she spent many years preaching the gospel. These are just a few of the stories of women who lived extraordinary lives for Christ. The honoring of Mary and these female saints helped me some.

Sue Monk Kidd said it well when she described her experience of being forced to sit in the balcony at the Abbey of Gethsemani: “The pain that patriarchal Christianity had inflicted in women’s lives – the exclusion, the anger, the regret, the sense of betrayal – welled up and would not go away. But paradoxically, at the same time, I was touched by the beauty of the monastic chants, the honoring of Mary as the Mother of God and Christ-bearer, the dissident female saints who often rocked the church and seemed everywhere around us, the nonviolent gentleness that pervaded the monks, the way the holy and the ordinary were blended into something seamless.” (from Dance of the Dissident Daughter)

In the end, the rich beauty and truth I found in the Orthodox Church was enough for me to say yes and join it, even if I was uncomfortable with its views on women in ministry.

Here’s the truth: Am I frustrated with my church’s beliefs about women? Yes. Do I wish they would ordain women? Yes. (There were, in fact, deaconesses in the OC’s history.)

But that frustration is not enough for me to abandon my church. That frustration is not enough for me to angrily shout, “Schism!” You may call me a hypocrite or you may not believe that I am a true feminist (or a true Orthodox Christian, for that matter). But the truth is that NO church is perfect. Church is our best human effort to worship and know God. With that humanness comes desire and passion and anger and pride. Churches on both sides of such debates will use Scripture to back up their views. There will always be something to argue about and something to fight for. And I am not saying that we should stop fighting for women in ministry.

But I believe that no matter what denomination or tradition we come from, we have all gathered at table here, and that table is wide and long, and its celebrants are beautifully varied and different. We are breaking the bread of Jesus here, and we need to remember that the only reason we are present here, all together, is Him.


  1. Stefanos says:

    a Deaconess is not simply just a “female Deacon”- they have different roles (thats right, there still are some around, they are just not common at parish level). one example, Deaconesses are permitted to apply chrism in certain cases, Deacons are not (to my knowledge)…however, Deaconesses must be monastics that are age 40 or above, Deacons are allowed to be married men and I believe the minimum age is 30 or 35.

    females have never been ordained to Priesthood or the Episcopate in the historic Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, likewise a male can never be a Presbytera.

    there are some instances of females being tonsured Readers, normally nuns- again. I do know of some instances with non-monastic (usually already married) females being Readers, this is rare however since if they are not monastic they will not be deaconesses and Readerhood is often seen as a first step to the Diaconate

  2. Elizabeth says:

    As an Orthodox Christian, I can only say that I believe if we were able to truly understand Christ’s equal, immeasurable love for us all…male and female, His love for His Mother, Her place as “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim”, and so many other aspects of our Faith, which we cannot fully understand this side of heaven…this wouldn’t be such a divisive and distracting issue. Since we are limited by our human understanding, we have to trust the wisdom of the Church. I also think the best place to address these struggles is within the Church. This article might help: l pray that God will grant you peace on this issue. With much love from a sister in Christ…

      • kksorrell says:

        Thanks for your encouragement and prayers. (I truly mean that.) I feel like I am addressing this struggle within the church. I mean, I’m still attending church and don’t plan to stop or to leave. I’m still teaching Sunday School and doing advent activities with my kids at night and praying morning prayers. It’s not that I’ve stopped believing. It’s just that I am questioning. I am hoping that this blog post shows that I agree with MOST of Orthodoxy. So there may be 10% that I don’t agree with, but the rest of it is enough. I agreed with it enough to leave a church that ordains women for it. I think that says something. The whole point of this was to say there should NOT be a schism over women in the church.

  3. Margie says:

    I feel I’ve seen all this before as we are former “High Church” or “Anglo-Catholic” Episcopal church members. However, I was raised mostly by evangelical protestants and did not come to liturgical worship until I was engaged and my husband was Episcopalian. I really appreciate the post by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

    To me the issue of women’s ordination is an issue of “we’ll prove God is Love through allowing women to be ordained”. I just don’t see things that way. I am very thankful that the Eastern Orthodox Christian church practices Christianity the way it does because I believe that through our worship and the church teachings we as individuals are urged, encouraged and given the support to grow in Christ. Jesus is the lover of mankind. I am not upset by your statements here, Karissa, I believe you are very good at expressing your thoughts and beliefs and experiences. I look forward to reading your book.

  4. kksorrell says:

    Thanks, Margie. I can see how the belief in women in ministry can seem like the need to prove something. I definitely think it is that sometimes, and even I am guilty of that at times as well.

    I try to think of it more as the ability for ALL people to use their spiritual gifts and to nurture others spiritually. Growing up I was so proud of BOTH of parents and their ministry. I saw my mom go from the introverted, supportive pastor’s wife to a woman who had her own ministry and taught and preached. It was good for me to see that. I feel like a lot of things Frederica said women CAN do in the OC are not what I actually see women doing in the OC, but I have limited experience and have only see a couple of Orthodox churches.

    I appreciate your comments.

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