Interview With Orthodox Woman Theologian on Gender Justice: Equality Means Partnership and Being Together

Prof. Dr. Dimitra Koukoura
Prof. Dr. Dimitra Koukoura (photo: World Council of Churches)
By Katherine GuoSeptember 28th, 2022

Editor’s note: Just after the 11th World Council of Churches Assembly in Germany, China Christian Daily had an interview with Dr. Dimitra Koukoura on the topic of gender justice. She studied Humanities and Theology in Thessaloniki (Aristotle University) and Paris (Sorbonne, Institut Catholique),  and she was awarded four Master's Degree and a Ph.D. She was the first woman to teach Ηomiletics, Communication, and Rhetoric as the first female member of the Department of Theology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In addition, she has been involved in the ecumenical movement under various capacities for 35 years. 

China Christian Daily: Professor, what is the biblical view of gender justice? 

Dr. Dimitra Koukoura: I want to talk on this topic after my theological background, my Christian faith, and my long experience which I have in the ecumenical movement. Justice is primarily for peace and prosperity. We won’t have anything in this world if we don’t have justice. It’s a long history of justice for women, and there have been discussions and revolutions to overcome violence against women, to be close to women, to their lives, and to fight for them. 

In the 35 years that I have been working on these issues in the ecumenical movement, as a female Orthodox theologian, I realized that these matters are very serious and are spread around the world. In order to have justice, we have to have respect, freedom, and good education. Without education, we can’t have justice, and education is influenced by family, cultural context, and economic condition. 

The victims of injustices are women and children. Because in many cultures, women are considered to be the weak members of society. They are receivers of all the evil and bad moods of men. Men are not always bad, but if they are oppressed and do not know how to express themselves, then women will be their easy victims and targets. 

However, there have been a lot of achievements, including the general understanding of the role of women in society, and a lot of protests, statements, and decisions that have been made to protect women, their role, their maternity, their work, and their place in a local and global society. 

It’s a matter of general change in society and it takes a long time. It’s not only the problem of men because they are raised in a family. Many timeswomen accept this sad situation, and they raised their sons--the future fathers and leaders--in this way. This is a vicious circle.

China Christian Daily: Within the church, the issue of women’s ordination is hotly debated. In some conservative churches in China, women are not allowed to preach or lead. Can you comment on this?

Dr. Dimitra Koukoura: We have to deal with separate things. Having equal roles in a congregation or in a community is about sharing duties, love, commitment, gifts, etc. to look forward to the prosperity and spiritual growth of the community. In this aspect, both men and women have their own roles, and they deserve mutual respect. There is no inferior or superior. They are equal before God, and they are gifted with a variety of gifts in order to serve the community and the congregation. We are fighting for the equality of mutual respect and mutual commitment.

In the whole Protestant world and the Global South world, the ordination of women is identified with the equality and the equal power women deserve as men. The form of the ordination is considered an initiative of power. So they moved the obstacles and ordained women. But the Orthodox Church, with about 270 million believers, 1/4 of all Christians, does not ordain women to the priesthood or accept it. It is not a matter of oppression or marginalization of women, it’s a matter of doctrine. For us, ordination doesn't mean a degree of power, it’s a variety of gifts, which has been given to men from the apostolic period and still hasn’t changed. 

We Orthodox women don't feel oppressed because we are not ordained. But with the changes in society, little by little, we require more and more important roles in the whole life of the church. Some decades ago, we did not have women in the field of theology, but now, many women have made a lot of progress in theological research and teaching. Cultural and social changes brought women to teach theology in  theological colleges and faculties. This is a matter of recognition of their skills and of course of equality. 

We have parish and episcopal councils, and women deserve to be there. Once upon a time, they weren’t, but now they are. Therefore, we have more or less progressed in terms of the participation of women in the life of the church. Women start to be at the center of decision-making. Both in the spiritual dimension as monastics, catechists, and teachers of religion and in the social dimension, women gain more and more important roles. Because ontologically speaking, women, are obviously equal with men, they share the same holy communion, the same salvation by grace through the Incarnation of Jesus who received in His divine nature the whole of human nature, His Cross, and His Resurrection.  

China Christian Daily: How should the church teach about gender roles? In some churches, they upload feminism, while other churches carry out female exploitation in more hidden ways. So there are tensions.

Dr. Dimitra Koukoura: You know, I’m not a specialist in feminist theology. In our Orthodox tradition, we don't interpret the Bible through our eyes. We are based on the way the Church received and interpreted it throughout the centuries, which aims at the salvation of the people of God, and their participation by grace to the glory of our Risen Lord. This is a spiritual and soteriological perspective.

Undoubtedly the church is a body living in society and has to deal with its social functions. When we talk about the church, we are talking about the lay people and the clergy people. Sometimes Church people are abusive, aggressive, or hostile against others and especially against women. However, this behavior cannot be justified by a male interpretation of the Bible. It is due to the abuse of the Bible, malicious instincts, evil, in one word, human sin. 

I have been working in the ecumenical movement for 35 years, and this is my fifth time attending the Assembly. The issue of the ordination of women has been sidelined because other matters are coming up like homosexuality, gender equality, etc. The ordination of women has been a very long and sharp debate, because people see it as the right of women in the world, in society, in national organizations, and in the church. 

For their rights, women would like very fervently to become like men. As an Orthodox, I had been explaining to them throughout all these decades that for us, it’s a matter of the variety of gifts. What is important for us is to have more and more roles in the life of the church, to be in a harmonious community of men and women for the most efficient witness to the gospel in today’s world. 

Now, in the Pre-Assembly Women’s Meeting in the 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany, for the first time men were also invited there for the women’s voices and sufferings to be heard also by them, and a visible productive community of both men and women to be built.

China Christian Daily: How can the church and Christian community empower women to play their role in leadership?

Dr. Dimitra Koukoura: It takes a lot of prayer, decisiveness, patience, and humility. Women should be very careful and not become the other side of men. If so, we are talking about women’s contribution to the community through their special gifts that they weren’t allowed to offer. It is not a matter of women taking the advanced side, leaving men behind, but how they freely contribute with their love, care, knowledge, experience, and skills. 

Women have so many gifts. Sometimes, men are jealous and frightened, while other times being so lazy and settled let women do everything, especially in the life of the family. Women need to pray and find a balance in their relations and collaboration with men. Most of our societies are still based on a deep patriarchal background. It takes a lot of prayer, attention, education, good formation, and spiritual strength to find the balance for men to keep their masculinity and to find themselves in a relationship with women so that both can contribute to the spiritual growth of the community. In any case, this process is not an easy one.

I do believe that women can contribute to this kind of relations in the changing social context which fights for human rights and respect for women. Women are wiser and more mature and they can find a way to be together with men. Equality means partnership, mutual respect, sharing of commitments, and being together. Men and women should keep the equalities and contribute to the community. 

China Christian Daily: What women can do for gender justice?

Dr. Dimitra Koukoura: Gender education starts from the family, from the mother herself. We have to teach mothers how to raise their children. Mothers should teach their boys to collaborate with girls, to respect them, and to work together with them. Spiritually, mothers need to teach their boys how to have deep faith and understanding, and how not to fear because Christians who love God live in God and God lives in them. (1 John 4:16).  

China Christian Daily: As a Christian media, how should we cover issues about gender justice and give people good guidance? 

Dr. Dimitra Koukoura: It is very important to promote the benefits of togetherness in the life of the community. To show people how both men and women share the same humanity that was received by our Lord and was saved from corruption and death. To make them understand that the gospel respects the local culture but cannot accept traditional habits that are unjust and unfair or at least they do not correspond to the needs of our times. Christian media should tell the truth -- what the gospel says and is tested by the experience of our holy people. I think we have to move on in cultivating faith. We cannot control things that have already happened, or words people say, but we can reinforce what we should say. 

China Christian Daily: Is there anything you can remember about churches and Christians in China?

Dr. Dimitra Koukoura: Some years ago, I went to Seoul for an interesting inter-Christian encounter. I met there a remarkable Chinese religious officer based in Hong Kong. This knowledgeable person explained to us about the life of the Christians in China, their suffering, their martyrdom, and the freedom they rejoice in now. In a naïve way, I asked him how many Christians are there in China, and I will never forget his answer. He responded to me in a metaphorical way: when you look at the sky and there are clouds, you don't see any stars; but if the wind blows the clouds away, then you see a lot of stars, thousands of stars; that’s the situation of Christians in China!

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