My Personal History With Elisabeth

For a while, in college, I decided I was against the ordination of women. The reason was simple: it was the best way to guarantee that I myself would never have to become a pastor. My grandpa was a pastor… my dad was a pastor… I was majoring in theology… there was just a dreary inevitability about it.

I also happened to be studying in an environment where Lutherans took Roman Catholicism very seriously, and as a result, ordaining women was a very serious problem. It was, if anything, a bigger problem than the insistence on justification by faith that separated us in the first place. Somehow that struck me as being all out of order, but I didn’t yet have any way to resolve the Lutheran-Catholic crossfire I was caught in.

Then one day during my senior year, a book was placed in my hands by my friend Michael Plekon, an OCA priest. It was pale blue, badly typeset, and entitled The Ministry of Women in the Church, by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel. I read it and probably didn’t understand half of what it was talking about—Agapia, Lev Gillet, hesychastic prayer—but the deep theological structure of her arguments shone through. The bedrock question was: Are men and women the same kind of thing, or different kinds of things? And how would we know? Elisabeth’s answer was: Our Lord Jesus Christ took on whatever we both are, healed us, and saved us. We are the same kind of thing because we have the same Lord. And since we have the same Lord and are the same kind of thing, both of us can “present” him in the clerical office.

The point was reinforced in a comically backhanded way. The year after college I was working for someone who was very much opposed to ordained women, from a Catholic perspective. In the meanwhile, I was regularly visiting my dying grandpa, who rarely missed an opportunity to tell me why “gals” shouldn’t be “ministers.” During that year, I received my call into ministry, during the gospel reading in Advent about John the Baptist. I squared myself to face my grandpa, not without fear and trembling, but his prompt response was: “Well, of course you should go to seminary. I always thought you should be a pastor.” I was a little perplexed. After all, I fell into the category of “gals.” He said, “If a woman wants to proclaim the Word of God, who I am to stop her?” It turns out that I wasn’t a “gal” after all—I was a person.

So after being grumpy for awhile that I was going to have to be a pastor after all, I made my peace with it and did what I had to do. Many years later now, I’ve been ordained a year, most of the time glad for the calling to proclaim the Word and administer the sacraments, the rest of the time wondering why no one bothered to tell me what a hard job it is. (My dad claims he tried to.)

I’m also wrapping up a dissertation entitled “Woman, Women, and the Priesthood in the Thought of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.” It is a debt of gratitude to her for all her help to me. I did get to meet her in person once, but our time was short and our conversation mediated by an interpreter. Since then I’ve gotten to know her thought much better, so I’d like to share with you a little of what I’ve learned.

What Elisabeth Thought and Why

First and foremost, Elisabeth didn’t always think the same way about women. She did actually change her mind over time. At the beginning—for instance when she presented the keynote address at the Agapia gathering in 1976—her thought about women was entirely dominated by Paul Evdokimov’s work.

Now Evdokimov himself is a complicated figure. He was deeply and angrily distressed by the ill-treatment of women in the church. “A woman is not admitted to the parish, she is used by it,” he wrote. He had a very high opinion of women—among them his mother, his two wives (he was widowed the first time), and Elisabeth, too. He was also greatly sympathetic to the burgeoning women’s movement of the mid-twentieth century. It was a “sign of the times.” But he did take issue with one aspect of it: the aspect of it that thought women’s best shot at having better lives in this fallen world was to be more like men, more aggressive, more competitive, scoring points in all the arenas of life where men have traditionally excelled. Evdokimov feared the loss of all the things that women do so well, at least from his perception: nurturing, loving, tenderness, care for all living things, contemplation, prayer, simply being.

The archetype for all these wondrous womanly things (Evdokimov was very into archetypes; he got them from Carl Jung) was the Theotokos herself. The holiest, most deified human was, in fact, a woman. How could women aspire to anything better than that? And yet they can do better—it turns out there is something even greater than the Theotokos: the Holy Spirit. Evdokimov believed he could discern a special relationship between “woman” and the “feminine” Holy Spirit, and between “man” and the “masculine” Christ. And that is finally why a woman can never be a priest—she is not christic, but pneumatic. The Spirit doesn’t do the Son’s work, so a woman shouldn’t do a man’s work.

There is certainly plenty here with which we could take issue, and in the end Elisabeth did herself. But this is the key point: Evdokimov thought that women had something to say about themselves. They are not identical to men; yet they are baptized, chrismated, deified; so for men to presume to tell women about themselves is the height of presumption. Now of course Evdokimov did presume to say something about women! But in the process, he gave Elisabeth permission to speak up. If women are different, then men ought to listen to women. The church needs a women’s movement, it must listen to women’s voices, and Elisabeth was obligated to respond to this call. It is a strange irony—the very “difference” between men and women that Elisabeth had to reject in the end was the very difference that got her talking about men and women in the first place!

So, from Agapia through the three major WCC conferences on “The Community of Men and Women in the Church,” Elisabeth wrote all about women from the perspective of a woman. Women have distinct gifts; they care about life and individuals; they oppose aggression and domination with cooperation and care; they might even be the source of a “new community,” a new style of living, that could put an end to the nihilistic self-destruction of western civilization. But then Elisabeth starts to notice things. The profound hatred that some of her apparently peace-loving sisters express towards the church. The anger with which they make demands. The ease with which they dispense with the tradition. This is largely the attitude of Protestant and Catholic women; hardly any Orthodox women besides Elisabeth herself were even involved in these conversations. But after the third WCC conference at Sheffield, Elisabeth stops talking about the “new community,” and a few more years after that, she stops talking about women’s distinctive gifts altogether.

Instead, she starts talking about the Scriptures and the church fathers. In the Scriptures she finds that there is no such thing as “women’s” charisms. There are just charisms, distributed to all kinds of people, male and female, Gentile and Jew, with no regard for anything but the good order of the assembly. There is Phoebe the deaconess, Priscilla the instructor of good doctrine, and Junia the apostle. St. Paul tries his hand at an order of creation in I Corinthians 11, but he ends up wiping the whole thing out because “in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.”

Likewise, the church fathers say things like, “The same birth for men and women, the same clay, the same death, the same resurrection” (Gregory of Nazianzus). They praise holy women for equalling or even surpassing men in every spiritual exercise. Some of them think that the separation into male and female happens after the creation of the first plain old person (anthropos), in anticipation of the need for sexual procreation after the Fall; they expect there will be no sexual distinctions in heaven, either. The church fathers, in fact, have nearly nothing to say about the possibility of women priests—three fairly obscure references of minor figures are the best even the 1988 Rhodes Consultation could come up with—and equally little to say about the fact that the incarnate Word was a male. In fact, they don’t really care that he was a male (aner). They care that he was a person (anthropos).

So Elisabeth develops over time a new theological anthropology. The old emphasis on the distinctiveness of women over against men vanishes. What appears instead is an emphasis on the category of personhood, a theme she found in Vladimir Lossky, in particular. Each person is unique, and yet participates in the common human nature which the eternal Son assumed. To be a person is actually to transcend one’s own given nature. Women and men, as persons, are called to the same things—prayer, holiness, union with God.

This theological anthropology has implications for other doctrines too. It was the ecclesiology of the eastern church that drew Elisabeth to it in the first place, and now she emphasizes it all the more: the church is a fellowship of love in the Holy Trinity, a royal priesthood of believers baptized and chrismated, from which some individuals are not elevated but called to serve and love the flock in the clerical priesthood. And as the Holy Trinity is one God, a Father who gives his Son and fills persons with their love by the Holy Spirit, so there can be no separating out the work of the Son over against the work of the Spirit. And likewise no separating out the work of men over against the work of women. One God is served by one humanity.

Unfortunately, Evdokimov’s view of things got more press time than Elisabeth’s. It was picked up in a slightly altered (and unacknowledged) form by Thomas Hopko in his widely read “On the Male Character of the Christian Priesthood,” and got official endorsement at the aforementioned Rhodes Consultation. Where Elisabeth had come to see that Mary was a type of holiness for all humans and not just women, Rhodes asserted, “The central person in the special ministry of women in the divine plan of salvation is the Mother of God, the Theotokos.” Where Elisabeth had come to see that the “iconic” argument doesn’t rule out women priests, Rhodes said it did, while admitting that “rational constructs will not be adequate” to defend it. Even at their most apophatic, the church fathers knew that the lack of a rational explanation was usually some kind of dodge. But this did not deter Elisabeth, and for the next 18 years she kept on writing and lecturing, gently persuading and being “patiently impatient.”

A Lutheran Appreciation of Elisabeth

Elisabeth, as many people know, started out in the Lutheran church, though by Jewish tradition she was a Jew, born to a Jewish mother. She was baptized at a year old by a Lutheran pastor, attended a Protestant school in Alsace, was confirmed in a Lutheran church, and then educated at the Protestant theological faculty in Strasbourg. She even spent eight months as a “lay pastor” at a tiny Reformed parish in Alsace after she converted to Orthodoxy! It is fair to ask what theological convictions, if any, she brought with her into the Orthodox church. Was her endorsement of the ordination of women perhaps closet Protestantism at work?

I think the answer is finally a nuanced no. She did sometimes like to call herself a “protestant Orthodox,” and her dissertation work was on the Orthodox theologian Alexander Bukharev, whose life in many ways resembled Martin Luther’s. But what she most of all identified as Protestant “virtues” (for lack of a better term) were freedom of conscience and evangelical liberty. While I don’t dispute that these things are valued by Lutherans and by Protestants generally, it is hardly what Lutherans or our Confessions would nominate as our chief item of doctrine. It is quite possible that Elisabeth’s willingness to critique Orthodox tradition stemmed from the Protestant habit of critiquing any tradition that fails to reflect the gospel. But I think it is equally likely that she was encouraged in this practice by the kind of Orthodox believers she befriended—the “Russian school” figures like Gillet, Evdokimov, and Bulgakov, who prized engagement with the modern world by the church. Bulgakov himself insisted there must be room for dogmatic development and critique within the church.

For myself, I have already testified how Elisabeth’s theological anthropology helped me work through the question of the ordination of women. But there is another great gift I have gained from studying Elisabeth’s work and, through her, the theology of the eastern church. That is the constant theme of God’s enormous love.

The chief doctrine in the Lutheran church or, as we put it, “the doctrine on which the church stands or falls,” is justification by faith. Many people have misunderstood it to mean an individual-centered obsession with subjective levels of belief in raw facts. Not at all. Justification by faith is an intensely trinitarian doctrine, which should be glad news to all Orthodox believers. We are reconciled to God the Father by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ his Son through our faith which is the living gift of the Holy Spirit. For Lutherans it is important to emphasize this reconciliation comes by faith—by clinging to Christ in trust and hope—and not by love. Why not by love? Elisabeth helped me to see why. Love is the goal. Love is the completion of creation and redemption. When all else ends, when all other virtues are rendered obsolete in the kingdom to come, there will still be love. Love admits of no limits. That is why it cannot be a condition of our reconciliation with God—we would never reach a point of acceptability, because love itself is infinite. But the reason we are justified by faith is so that we can enter into this neverending growth into the love of the Holy Trinity.

And so, I think, I can honor Elisabeth best not by the dissertation I’ve written, but by preaching—as one faithful Christian person to other faithful Christian persons—the good news that God is love, and that God loves us.