Frank Schaeffer, a former evangelical Protestant who recently became Orthodox, in the December 1993 issue of the Orthodox Observer accused those who do not believe Christ's gender to have relevance of being "iconoclastic," that is, of refusing to recognize the reality of His male sexuality. He said that
[b]y ordaining women, "liberal" Protestants are in effect saying, "Christ did not come in the flesh, his maleness does not matter, he is a mere symbol of something larger."
But to the Orthodox Christian, Christ's maleness does matter, just as Mary's femaleness matters.1
I have no intention of entering into a debate here on the ordination of women to the priesthood. However, I would like to respond to both elements of Frank Schaeffer's assertion that the gender of Christ and the Theotokos "matter."
First, what exactly does the theological tradition of the Orthodox Church teach us about the importance of Christ's maleness? Interestingly enough, very little. Schaeffer's assertion that Christ's maleness matters to the Orthodox Christian does not jibe with the writings of our Church Fathers. The Greek Fathers, in fact, are almost unanimously silent on this issue. Bishop Kallistos Ware once told me of a student who came to him with the idea of doing his doctoral dissertation on this very issue: patristic views on the maleness of Christ. Bishop Kallistos responded, "I am afraid that it will be quite a short thesis, since the Fathers don't concern themselves with that question." His curiosity piqued, Bishop Kallistos surveyed the hymnography for the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. There, if anywhere, he reasoned, Christ's maleness would be emphasized. Yet he found nothing.
Actually, only two Church Fathers assign any significance to Christ's being male rather than female. One is St. Gregory the Theologian.2 But as Verna (Sister Nonna) Harrison shows in an article in the Journal of Theological Studies, the one place where he does assign significance to Christ's being male concerns the symbolic importance of Jesus Christ as the paschal lamb and as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Harrison rightly recognized that, "if Christ saves as male, half of the human race is excluded from salvation." In another homily, St. Gregory disregards the fact that Jesus Christ is a male human being and instead balances Christ's redemption of both man and woman:
Christ saves both by his passion. Was he made flesh for the man? So he was also for the woman. Did he die for the man? The woman is also saved by his death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored. But he is born of a virgin, and this is on the woman's side. Thus the two, he says, shall be one flesh, so let the one flesh have equal honor.3
In other words, for St. Gregory, it is Christ's becoming fully human, sharing our fallen nature in every aspect except sin, that is crucial to our salvation because we are saved by sharing His nature.
The Son of God did, of course, become incarnate as a male human being. But, according to St. Theodore of Stoudios, Christ's maleness is important only because it shows the fullness of his humanity:
Maleness and femaleness are sought only in the forms of bodies, since none of the differences which characterize the sexes can be recognized in bodiless beings. Therefore, if Christ were uncircumscribable [in other words, unable to be depicted in images], as being without a body, He would also be without the difference of sex. But He was born male, as Isaiah says, from "the prophetess" (Is. 8:3); therefore He is circumscribed.4
St. Theodore stands Frank Schaeffer's argument on its head. Schaeffer calls iconoclastic those who deny the spiritual importance of Christ's maleness. Yet St. Theodore, writing against the real iconoclasts of the ninth century, claims that Christ's maleness is important only insofar as it demonstrates His full humanity. The saint specifically denies any significance, or even reality, to gender beyond the physical level.
The Church's emphasis on Christ's humanity rather than on His maleness is even affirmed in our Creed, although unfortunately, most English translations say that He became "man." In the original Greek, we say that Christ became human - enanthropesanta, from anthropos, or human being - not that He became male. Thus, as Verna Harrison notes, the absence of Christ's maleness as an issue for the Greek Fathers, "may well reflect not an oversight but an important theological concern" - that concern being the salvation of all human beings, male and female. Humanity, both male and female, is created in the image of God. We are saved because the person of Jesus Christ is Himself a bridge between God and humanity, being both completely and truly human and completely and truly divine.