Saturday, June 03, 2006

Holy Fathers of the First Council of Nicea

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, who defended the truth faith of the Orthodox Church against the Arian heresy of the 4th century. This heresy proposed that Christ was merely a being created by the Father, and not the very Son of God Himself, eternally begotten of the Father. It became a wildly popular teaching, spreading throughout the entire Empire, until at one point the Arian heretics far outnumbered the Orthodox faithful.

We might ask how this heresy became so popular that Orthodoxy was nearly eclipsed by it. The simplest answer is that it provided a belief that people could relate to. Bear in mind the timing of these events. Christianity, which had formerly been outlawed, was now the official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus, the Church was flooded with false believers, many of which were pagans simply seeking the advantages in politics and commerce that being a Christian now offered. These people had no real interest in traditional Christian beliefs, and wished for something more in keeping with their residual pagan concepts. The heretic Arias proposed a simple belief that did away with the inconvenient mystery of the Holy Trinity, and gave these people what they wanted. To put it in modern terminology, we might say that Arianism was politically correct, fitting the whims of the contemporary culture far better than traditional Christian beliefs.

I think we can identify an impulse in this that is still present in our day. Whenever there is conflict between the beliefs of the prevalent culture and those of the Church, there will always be people whose instinct is to change the beliefs of the Church. They want the Church to be “relevant” to the culture and not in conflict.

Today, many denominations are doing just that; bending over backwards to accommodate the secular culture through such things as the ordination of women as pastors, the approval of homosexual marriage, and campaigns to keep abortion legal. Some of these issues are obviously incompatible with our Faith; others are more subtle, causing many Orthodox Christians to wonder if they are truly in conflict with our Holy Faith and Tradition at all.

The ordination of women to the diaconate is one such issue within Orthodoxy today. Proponents of this argue correctly that there were women deacons in the early Church, but then go on to insist that these were forced out by a chauvinistic, all-male hierarchy in a conspiracy that would rival The Da Vinci Code, and which included blaming Eve for the fall of mankind and falsely exalting Mary as an inappropriate ideal of womanhood: pure, ever-virgin and submissive. But is this really what happened? Has the Church’s view of Eve, of Mary, of women, and thus ultimately of humanity itself, been so completely distorted for all this time? Or was the principle reason for changing the custom of ordaining women to the diaconate simply that the function of the diaconate itself evolved and changed over time?

In the primitive Church, the deacons did not typically serve at the altar, but as the scriptures show, they served the temporal needs of the church community, bringing food and care to the widows and orphans, and fulfilling such tasks as St. James called “true religion” on behalf of the Church. In addition, since the early Church baptized converts nude, women deacons naturally assisted any women being baptized with a cloth sheet to maintain modesty during the rite. In time, a fitted baptismal garment replaced the sheet, thus removing the need for assistance. Also the liturgical role of the deacons began to be expanded to include serving alongside the bishop at the altar. Since it was understood that the traditional imagery established in the Old Testament and maintained by Christ was to have men serve at the altar, women did not generally do this.

Thus it is the office itself that changed, and not necessarily the Church’s essential understanding of womanhood. We should point out that the Orthodox Church has never “banned” women from serving in the sanctuary. Even today in many convents, an elder nun may be blessed to assist the priest in such a capacity. But this is done out of need, and not out of a redefining of roles.

Is the Church out of step with contemporary society? Yes, it would appear so. But which of the two offers us the more profound and enlightened understanding of our humanity? Is the Theotokos nothing more than a male-crafted legend, designed to oppress women by keeping them “pure and submissive”? What about our Orthodox understanding that there is no difference between the clergy and the faithful, except that the clergy have been ordained to fulfill specific roles within the Church? Shall we throw that out and redefine our clergy as the “power base” of the Church, one that is inherently unfair unless shared equally with women? Must our definition of equality itself be based on eradicating the God-ordained distinctives of gender; our different yet complimentary roles that together are meant to reveal the image of God in humankind? In short, should we allow the whims and frequently unwise experiments of the secular culture to define our beliefs and practices within the Church, or should we try to better understand our Holy Tradition and what that has to teach us?

The whole world seems to be telling us that we are wrong. The temptation to be politically correct and to bring change is therefore very great. But what difference does it make if the attack on our Faith takes the form of redefining Christ, or of redefining our humanity, or even the Church itself? The end result will be the same: a loss of truth, a loss of salvation, and perhaps most ironically of all, the loss of our relevancy in the world.

The more a church seeks to become relevant to the darkened culture of its time, the less relevant it becomes to the kingdom of heaven and to those who are truly seeking salvation. Orthodoxy still remains a place where one can find the true God, together with the profound spiritual therapies that can restore our humanity, both male and female, and can heal our broken communion with God and with one another. It would be an unspeakable tragedy to replace these treasures with philosophies that may not lead us to God or which may only further confuse our understanding of human nature and gender, and our mutual salvation in Christ.

I pray that God will raise up in our generation truly spiritual men and women who will be able to address these issues and help defend the truth, even as did the Holy Fathers which we commemorate this morning.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

16 Comments:

At 6/04/2006 9:52 AM , Blogger fixer30 said...

eremitike,

Better to be loyal to God and not to this world. So the Orthodox Tradition should be upehld by the Faithful of the Religion.

If a church conforms to the world is it still of God? If a Church conforms to the express Word of God, then it is of God and will always be out of step with the culture that it finds itself in.

One could point ot the "elect Lady" of 2 John or to the Four Daughters of Acts 21:10 they were proclaiming God's Messages (pre written NT) so they would be Preachers of the Word. That has already been hashed out in Orthodoxy however.

 
At 6/05/2006 10:45 AM , Blogger Aaron said...

Father Bless...

Father, I wonder about the Deaconesses we see in the Biblical text. The issue of serving at the altar aside, it seems to make sense to bless women for service in the community, and Saint Paul commends these women for their service. I'm not exactly sure what I'm asking here, I guess it seems that there is more to the issue than simply whether one serves at the altar or not. In England they revived the practice of Deaconesses and these women constructed great houses of charity and christian service.

Any thoughts and direction would be appreciated.

 
At 6/05/2006 10:46 AM , Blogger Aaron said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 6/05/2006 10:59 AM , Blogger Aaron said...

BTW, the deaconesses in England did not serve at the altar. It was only later in the U.S. when a priestess was secretly ordained that the issue of serving at the altar obviously would come up. However, the abuse of the system, is not the system.

 
At 6/05/2006 1:19 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Aaron,

I think we agree that women should not be ordained to the priesthood or serve at the altar under normal circumstances.

Beyond that, must a person--whether male or female--be ordained in order to operate a ministry on behalf of the parish? A blessing is one thing, but is ordination required?

Also, what about those abuses? The Diaconate is often seen today (rightly or wrongly) as a step toward the higher orders. If we ordain women deacons, won't we be weakening our argument against women priests down the road? Times have changed; I doubt there was a movement to ordain women priests in the early church. Today there is, and thus resurrecting the female deaconate will almost certainly be interpreted as "a great advance in women's rights" and an open door to the goal of the priesthood.

I am concerned that the push for women deacons is motivated less by an urge to "recover tradition" and more by an agenda promoting "power-sharing" and which equates gender equality with sameness of role and function.

I am inclined to think there is more to lose than to be gained here.

 
At 6/05/2006 1:49 PM , Blogger Aaron said...

Father, thank you for your response...

Let me recap and see if I'm hearing (reading) you correctly...

The Deaconess is something we see clearly exercised in the scriptures, women want to operate under the blessing of the church to serve the church, but because the world "might get the wrong idea" we should not do it? That makes me think this role was arbitrary, like giving the women a special hat to wear or something, and I have trouble believing that was the case. Also, I'm not comfortable at all with the idea of operating based on reaction. I was always under the impression that we as Christians do what we do because it is right. It doesn't matter what's going on outside the church.

Am I missing something?

Kissing your right hand...

 
At 6/05/2006 4:55 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

I don’t think our concern is that the world might get the wrong idea, but rather that many of us today bring in wrong ideas [i]from[/i] the world, and want to impose these on the Holy Traditions of the Church. This is the heart of my argument on this matter.

The primary function of the Church is not to help people feel fulfilled, but to redeem them. This often means correcting their false views of God, of humanity, and even of themselves. One false view is revealed in the idea that a person needs to be ordained in order to serve the Church through a viable ministry. If one holds to that view, then women are automatically excluded from all service, as are 99.9% of the men. Should the Church ordain everyone to the diaconate? Or is the thing that is needed here a recovery of the important ministry of the faithful within the Church? Is it right to think that the remaining .1% of the Church (the clergy) are responsible for everything, and are the only ones who can serve? Obviously not, as your own life so well demonstrates, thank God!

In your previous comment, you conditioned that we should put liturgics aside in this discussion. But that is a problem too. How do we separate the liturgical function from our current understanding of the diaconate? Clearly things have changed in this regard from the early Church. In our archdiocese a man cannot normally become a deacon until he has graduated from seminary (or equivalent), because the diaconate is seen as a first-step toward the priesthood. We could perhaps create a secondary diaconate that does not function liturgically and is permanently denied the priesthood, being relegated to service ministries only. But this is fraught with problems too. If anything, this “solution” would seem to correspond to your illustration of only giving these people hats to wear, with a wink behind their backs that they are not “real” deacons at all. I don’t think that would really be fair or would fly.

Another alternative would be to ban all deacons from the altar, and go back to the service model of the early Church. This is not only impractical, but returns us to the problem of asserting that only ordained people can serve in the Church.

Do you see a gap in my logic anywhere? Do you have another suggestion? Let me know what you think. I appreciate this discussion.

 
At 6/05/2006 7:54 PM , Anonymous Kevin said...

Fr.,
Isn't the role of the "sub deacon" somewhat of a "secondary diaconate"? I never quite understood the role of the "sub diaconate". But I think they can function liturgically, at least to some extent. I'm not arguing that we allow women to become sub deacons. But I am just responding to your point about a secondary diaconate.

 
At 6/05/2006 9:49 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Right Kev,

If there were some sort of "secondary, non-liturgical diaconate" it would actually rank below the sub-deacon in hierarchal status, as these can and do serve at the altar. Liturgically speaking, such an order would even be below altar boys.

It would be a mess, I imagine. I only put it out there to illustrate the potential problems with it. Some other solution is needed.

As I see it, there are four other possibilities, only one of which I favor:

1) Ordain women to the diaconate and allow them to serve at the altar.

2)Ordain women to the diaconate, but bar them from serving at the altar.

3) Ban all deacons from serving at the altar, to keep things "fair".

And my favorite,

4) Reenergize the "fourth order" of the Church, the Orthodox Faithful, and teach them that no one need wait for ordination in order to serve God or fulfill vital ministries in the parish or the community. One only needs the call of God and the blessing of his or her bishop.

 
At 6/06/2006 5:06 AM , Blogger fixer30 said...

A non Orthodox voice here, however.

Eremitike (father mike) isn't your Fourth point the actual way that Christians are supposed to serve God? Why this emphasis on hierarchal structure?

A Ordination to a office no matter how high or low is not required to serve one another,rather a commitment to God and what He has taught.

For myself, to wait for a sort of official office to serve one's community is on of the reasons why i do not like so much structure in my Faith. That and by emphasizing ordantion to office, isn't that bowing to mankind's pride?

"I'm the sub deconite of the fourth rank who"

How about "I'm a loyal follower of my Lord Christ Jesus"?

 
At 6/06/2006 6:50 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Precisely Fix. I think my fourth point is exactly how the people of God should serve. And I agree with you that the thinking that one needs to be ordained to serve God or to gain a needed status or dignity in the Church is false and possibly rooted in pride. Any Christian man or woman can serve God; all they need is a calling and a blessing. Most of the vital ministries that I am aware of today have been started by laypeople with the blessing of their bishop.

This does not detract from the importance of the Church hierarchy established by God upon the holy apostles, who in turn appointed bishops, priests and deacons to carry on their work and preserve the unity of the Church. There is order in the kingdom of heaven, even amongst the heavenly hosts. There is order in the Church as a reflection of that, and needed apostolic authority, gifts and functions passed down through their line. While ordination is required to perform the divine services and serve the holy gifts to the people, it is certainly not needed to perform the many other vital ministries of the Church in the world.

To get back to the topic at hand, there are many today who contend that women must have the status of ordination to gain the necessary dignity to serve God as equals to men. I think this is a terrible misunderstanding that sells short the dignity of the “fourth order” of the Church, the Orthodox Faithful.

I will be out of town for a few days, so you guys will have to carry on the conversation without me. It will probably improve immensely. :o)

 
At 6/12/2006 11:04 AM , Blogger Aaron said...

Father Bless....

Father, excellent responses. I'm gaining more perspective on what the issue is and though it won't happen any time soon, would really enjoy face to face dialogue. There's a point when the blog fails and that's when it's nice to know each other in the real world.

Thank you for allowing this to be a great dialogue and not a debate as it is not my custom to debate with priests. Debating with a priest or anyone you respect tremendously, is like wearing shorts and a t-shirt to a wedding...you can probably get away with it, but you still look like an idiot.

 
At 6/12/2006 7:32 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Aaron, the respect is mutual.

 
At 6/15/2006 11:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Hiero eremitike, enjoy y9our fast , the fast of the Apostles until june 29th

Hiero, thanks.

Imo wearing shorts to a wedding can work, it can even be a point of Evangelism.....

 
At 6/16/2006 5:27 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Anonymous, I'm dieing to ask you your age. As far as wearing shorts to a wedding: If you are the kind of person who wants to get some attention that day then, by all means go for it. NEWS ALERT!!! A wedding is NOT ABOUT EVANGELISM!! It is about witnessing two becoming one. Period. A funeral IS NOT ABOUT EVANGELISM. It is about burying the dead. A baptism IS NOT ABOUT EVANGELISM. It is about a person receiving the Holy Waters of baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit. Can you tell you hit a nerve!!

Bruce

 
At 7/16/2006 8:40 PM , Blogger Zeph said...

Just a quick aside for the honourable Bruce...

Colossians 4:5 Make the most of every opportunity...

My grandfather is a great man of faith and love for God and others. He loves others deeply and longs for their salvation. He has been an incredible example to me as he takes everything as an opportunity to share his faith. From funerals (believers or unbelievers), to camping (meeting everyone in sight), to going for a cruise (which he viewed as a portable mission field).

I realize that this is not in the context of the original post, but I couldn't allow someone to discourage taking every opportunity.

 

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