What is the REAL reason women can’t take communion? A Biblical, Historical, Patristic, and Theological Approach
“What God has cleansed you shall not call common or unclean” (Acts 10:15)
*For Arabic translation click here*
(*This blog has also been newly-published in the book “Women and Communion” (in Arabic) by St. Macarius Monastery (2016) – found also here among other great articles on the topic: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1l-Zo1ib-71ZjRYLU9nVDN0cmc/view )
Yes, I went there.
Call me a feminist, a rebel – whatever – I’d like to consider myself a thinker and a researcher. Hopefully a theologian too.
I think this subject is vast – it not only deals with the theology of the body, but also our understanding of sexuality, of God’s restoration of humanity in Christ, our understanding of the Old Law, our understanding that Christ is our New Law and He has sanctified all things in Him, our view on sexual equality, our view on cleanliness and holiness, and what it means to partake of the Eucharist.
I don’t think I can cover all those topics in one blog – but I will attempt to cover some of them briefly, with hopes that it will be sufficient enough to challenge our distorted ways of theology and to further understand why we do what we do and how we have come to certain practices.
I can’t recall how many times the question why women cannot partake of the Eucharist whilst being on their menstrual cycle has been asked. And unfortunately, every single time it has been asked I never heard or received a clear, theological answer – let alone an answer that makes logical sense.
One of those answers happened to be from a nun in Egypt. She believed women during their cycle were somehow not fasting. I don’t know how this reasoning came to be – but I was not convinced.
Another answer (an answer which I think many of us have heard) was due to the ‘fact’ that anyone who bleeds is in danger of having the holy sacrament excreted from him or herself. So, this ‘fact’ or precaution can be applied to anyone who has a nosebleed or is bleeding from a cut – they are prohibited from partaking, lest the blood of Jesus that is consumed is ‘bled’ out from their body. How minimalist of a view.
Let’s see what the Scriptures say.
The Levitical law – (the entire section is in chapter 15:19-33)
‘If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. 20 Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean…If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, other than at the time of her customary impurity, or if it runs beyond her usual time of impurity, all the days of her unclean discharge shall be as the days of her customary impurity. She shall be unclean.
In Leviticus 12, similar views of impurity are stated about women after child-birth and her being unclean.
When Christ came – He brought new radical teachings that stirred up the Pharisees, chief priests and elders – who thought they lived by the law and its regulations. It was them who crucified Him – still believing they were fulfilling the law.
One of these so-called radical teachings was the view of the body and ritual purity. In the Old Testament, because of sexual relations and discharges from the body (both men and women) – the body was seen as “unclean” and a sacrifice was required to be made so the man or woman can become made clean again and were accepted to enter into the Lord’s tabernacle (does this sound familiar for women in Orthodoxy today?)
Christ came teaching that a man or woman is unclean by his inner being, not by adhering to mosaic interpretations of ritual purity (in the below context its referring to when the Pharisees say the disciples must wash their hands before they eat bread): (Matthew 15:11-20)
“11 Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” 12 Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.” 15 Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 So Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. 20 These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
So it is man’s inner conscience that makes him clean or unclean, not the natural state of his body or excretions. Christ does warn and condemn the Pharisees of being like “white-washed tombs” which “indeed appear beautifully outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanliness….inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt 23:27-28)
I love Christ even more because He challenged the ‘great’ teachers of the Law – showing them even a higher way to understand the Law – trying to lead them to Himself. He touched and was touched by so many ‘unclean’ people – lepers, adulterers, the woman with the flow of blood – (which according to the Old Law one was made unclean to do so) and challenged their interpretation of the law:
The woman with the flow of blood for 12 years: (who again is seen as ‘unclean’ and unaccepted to worship in the temple according to the levitical law):
“And suddenly, a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment. 21 For she said to herself, “If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well.” 22 But Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, “Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that hour.” (Matt 9:20-22)
“When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. 2 And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”3 Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” (Matt 8:1-3) (Again according to levitical law – anyone who touches a leper is unclean – Christ is the Law and makes all things clean)
And the women caught in adultery:
3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. 7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
11 She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
I love this particular event because Christ who is the only one without sin did not even throw the first stone. Christ again was challenging the ‘old’ law (of condemnation) – to bring them to know what the law was all along – to love God and love your neighbour:
35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying,36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:35-40)
The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24) but we no longer live by the law – for there was “an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, the law made nothing perfect” (Hebrews 7:18).
Didn’t God also show St. Peter in a vision not to call anything “common or unclean” what God has cleansed? (Acts 10:9-16) but Christ fulfilled the law – sanctifying all creation:
“Then [Peter] said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)
I slightly digress. But to come back – we need to understand what is the meaning of this law and how does that apply to us in how we worship Christ and understand divine truth?
Now, Christ made all things clean in Himself. He cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, sat with ‘unclean’ tax-collectors, allowed prostitutes to wash and touch His feet – but how did He view the people who most ‘adhered’ to the Law or knew it the most? He condemned them over and over – trying to bring them to a higher truth – the truth that only exists in Him.
So now, what about the body and how do Christians view ritual purity and cleanliness?
As I said Christ made all things clean. How? By taking on creation Himself and sanctifying it. Because He is holy and sanctifies by nature, once God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) – all flesh become sanctified in Him – those at least who put on Christ – that is in baptism.
This is why Christ also receives the Spirit in His baptism. The question arises many times “why did Christ have to be baptised?” It was to restore all of humanity in communion with the divine and to receive the Spirit for all of humanity – the Spirit that left man after sin increased greatly (Genesis 6:3 “And the Lord say, ‘My Spirit shall not abide with man forever, for he is indeed flesh.”)
St. Cyril of Alexandria comments on this saying:
“He also receive the Spirit for our sakes, that He may sanctify our whole nature” (Commentary on John, Book 2, Ch. 1)
So in our baptism – our entire body is sanctified by putting off the old man (as St. Paul says) and by putting on the new man – the new creation in Christ. We crucify the old body – the sinful body – and put on the new and sanctified one that Christ made for us from His incarnation and His baptism.
It is also no surprise that physically we immerse ourselves completely in the baptismal font – we literally receive a new birth – a new and holy sanctified body by receiving Christ and the Spirit.
Why all this emphasis on the body? The bodily desire is what made man first fall away from God and sin as a result corrupted it and tainted it until Christ came to restore it to its natural and perfect state in Him.
So, if we are all made clean and holy and are sanctified from our baptism – why is it that we are restricted, because of our normal bodily discharges, to partake of His body – that same Body that cleansed and restored all of humanity?
Does my God-given body, the same body that was baptised in Christ and sanctified by the Spirit, defile God when I partake of His body in the Eucharist? Am I seen as unclean because of the natural physiological rhythm of the body? If so, then I have invalidated the power of my baptism and Christ’s sanctifying power of the body in the wonderful and glorious mystery of the Incarnation.
When St. Paul speaks about partaking of the Eucharist in an unworthy manner – he warns the people in Corinth to “examine” themselves:
27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.” (1 Cor. 11:27-31)
St. Paul does not mention anything about ritual impurity – but is focused on man’s conscience – how to approach the Eucharist – to examine himself. (The Greek word here “examine” refers to also a sort of testing of oneself – also the same verb to “test” the purification of metals – what was genuine or not) So likewise, anyone who partakes of the Eucharist must examine or test himself – not to see if my natural physical state of my body can be a hindrance to partaking of the One who made my body and made it clean and whole.
If we still think women are impure because of discharges – we are having the mentality of the old law – and are still living under its condemnation. Then we might as well still practice circumcision and continue to offer sacrifices of atonement – because we are practicing as if Christ never fulfilled all things. We then have no redemption.
In his letter to Bishop of Amon ( ~354 AD), St. Athanasius speaks about what is clean and pure. The letter begins thus:
“All things made by God are beautiful and pure, for the Word of God has made nothing useless or impure. For ‘we are a sweet savour of Christ in them that are being saved’ (2 Corinthians 2:15),’ as the Apostle says. But since the devil’s darts are varied and subtle, and he contrives to trouble those who are of simpler mind, and tries to hinder the ordinary exercises of the brethren, scattering secretly among them thoughts of uncleanness and defilement; come let us briefly dispel the error of the evil one by the grace of the Saviour, and confirm the mind of the simple. For ‘to the pure all things are pure,’ but both the conscience and all that belongs to the unclean are defiled (Titus 1:15)…
And he continues:
For tell me, beloved and most pious friend, what sin or uncleanness there is in any natural secretion—as though a man were minded to make a culpable matter of the cleanings of the nose or the sputa from the mouth? And we may add also the secretions of the belly, such as are a physical necessity of animal life. Moreover if we believe man to be, as the divine Scriptures say, a work of God’s hands, how could any defiled work proceed from a pure Power? And if, according to the divine Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:28), ‘we are God’s offspring,’ we have nothing unclean in ourselves. For then only do we incur defilement, when we commit sin, that foulest of things. But when any bodily excretion takes place independently of will, then we experience this, like other things, by a necessity of nature. But since those whose only pleasure is to gainsay what is said aright, or rather what is made by God, pervert even a saying in the Gospels, alleging that ‘not that which goes in defiles a man, but that which goes out (Matthew 15:11)…’
(For the full letter, see: http://newadvent.org/fathers/2806048.htm)
I think his letter has spoken for itself.
So when was this practice enforced in the Church if man should no longer follow the old law?
The oldest Christian account restricting women to even enter the church, let alone partake of the Eucharist is from Canon 2 of Dionysius of Alexandria, written in 262 AD:
“Concerning menstruous women, whether they ought to enter the temple of God while in such a state, I think it superfluous even to put the question. For, I think, not even themselves, being faithful and pious, would dare when in this state either to approach the Holy Table or to touch the body and blood of Christ. For not even the woman with a twelve years’ issue would come into actual contact with Him, but only with the edge of His garment, to be cured. There is no objection to ones praying no matter how he may be or to ones remembering the Lord at any time and in any state whatever, and petitioning to receive help; but if one is not wholly clean both in soul and in body, he shall be prevented from coming up to the Holy of Holies.”
(Quoted from “What is Ritual Im/Purity and Why” by Vassa Larin (who is Russian Orthodox), article in St. Vladimir’s Quarterly 2008, 52-53, p275-292. Article here:
This excerpt Larin quotes is originally from C.L Feltoe’s Letters and Other Remains of Dionysius of Alexandria, Cambridge, 1904, pp.102-3)
(See reference to the specific canon here: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers2/NPNF2-14/Npnf2-14-179.htm#P11145_2141177)
In the form of Q & A, Timothy of Alexandria (4th century), the 24th patriarch of Alexandria, is asked whether women can commune whilst on their cycle: (also known as Canon 7 of Timothy of Alexandria)
“Can a menstruous woman communicate?” Answer. “Not until she be clean.’”
(See the canons here – the English translation slightly is different here from the original Greek:
So a woman is blatantly viewed as unclean and unworthy to partake of the holy of holies (the Eucharist) because of her physical state.
Larin notes that it is no surprise that these ‘theologies’ of cleanliness of women’s body came from Egypt – for in early Christian Egypt – there still existed a strong Jewish population where “Judaic spirituality peaceably coexisted with a developing Christian theology” (p.282, see article reference above).
To go a step further, not only dealing with the cleanliness of women on their cycle, but women were also seen as impure during sexual intercourse – (as again taken from Leviticus Ch. 18). This view was later interpreted and carried on into marriage and if sexual relations were not executed for procreation, it was seen as defilement (a view many Christians have today – ungodly and bad theology – but that must be spoken about in another blog). These ideas came from early Alexandrian theologians – Origen, Clement of Alexandria – who they themselves were influenced by Stoic and Platonic teachings (from their education at their time) – where these philosophical teachings depreciated the body because it was material – and anything material was viewed as inferior and in some philosophies evil. So simply put, some think if we give in to the desires of the body – we fall into sin and/or subject one’s spiritual life to the desires. Desires in themselves are not ungodly or unholy, it is how we use them – that’s what makes it holy or unholy, clean or unclean. If I eat, I don’t sin. If I abuse my body with intoxicating food and practice gluttony – I sin. Eating in itself is not sin. Menstruation is not a sin or does not make one unclean as not to partake of the Eucharist and worship services. We need to re-evaluate how man was created and how man uses his self to God’s glory.
If the body, or anything material for that matter, is evil or depreciated, then how we do understand Him who created all things in goodness? Does not that reflect the ‘defect’ then in the Creator if the body was not made perfect and good? Many of us still believe in these philosophical teachings today. The body is evil because it has desires – physical desires. St. Paul says the flesh goes against the Spirit – so we must always fight and subject the body. Yes, subject the body to the Spirit of God but the body in itself is not evil.
Then one can say of course all things were made good from God from the beginning but creation became corrupt because of sin. Yes, but as said before, God became part of His creation in order to sanctify it, to restore it, to bring it to perfection – to the perfect state of how He made it from the beginning: in purity, in holiness, in goodness. The body isn’t defiled any longer because we have put on Christ – it is only defiled by sin, when Christ is put off and sin is put on.
These pro-monastic and pro-Stoic/philosophical teachings are very much embedded in many people’s beliefs and theology today. For example, many people elevate monasticism above married life. Why? Is it because they live a life of prayer, practice strict discipline, and abstain from sexual activity? Well, everyone is called to live a life of prayer (1 Thess 5:17), and practice discipline (1 Cor 9) – so monk or married or single or child – we are called to this holy life.
But if someone is called to marriage and have relations in their marriage – they do not sin nor should they be looked upon as ‘weaker’ or less spiritual:
When speaking about marriage and celibacy St. Paul says:
“But each one has his own gift from God…” (1 Cor 7:6)
and later he says:
5 Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Cor 9:5)
And when the disciples asked about divorce and remarriage according to Moses’ law, Christ says:
7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”10 His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: 12 For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.” (Matt 19:7-12)
Therefore, those who are called to the life of monasticism are not better off than those who are called to marriage – each is a gift. It is how each one uses this gift – that one should be emulated and exemplified. In a similar manner, the body is a gift of God – how one uses it – this is how it should be viewed as whether it is seen as “unclean” or “clean.”
To come back – as to why women cannot partake of Communion, and in some Orthodox Churches not even enter the church.
Gregory the Great (see full quote in Larin’s article pp. 287-8), pope of Rome (590-604 AD) – said women should not be banned to go to church nor should be forbidden to partake of the mysteries while on her cycle:
“A woman should not be forbidden to go to church. After all, she suffers this involuntarily. She cannot be blamed for that superfluous matter that nature excretes… she is also not to be forbidden to receive Holy Communion at this time.”
Larin notes that by the Middle Ages Gregory’s policy became inactive and the ban on women participating in the church services and mysteries still prevailed and are upheld to this day (at least in the Orthodox Churches).
Recent movement in the Orthodox Churches
A theological conference among Eastern Orthodox theologians and clergy in 2000 said that
“we urge the Church to reassure women that they are welcome to receive the Holy Communion at any liturgy when they are spiritually and sacramentally prepared, regardless of what time of month may be.” (Larin, p.291)
Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, all Orthodox Churches across the world still ban women from the Eucharist during her cycle, and some churches even encourage women not to come to church after a certain time (usually 40 days) after child-birth.
Some Orthodox convents until today have instilled in women this great fear of uncleanliness that when a women is menstruating, she is not allowed to kiss any icon or light a candle before an icon. I can’t even comment how ridiculous a mentality that is. I stand in fear and awe before the altar of God and His saints because of my sinfulness, not because of the natural physiology of my body.
Some other remarks on bad theology and bad physiology:
So then, if it is not for theological reasons women are banned from partaking the Eucharist during their cycle, maybe it’s because it’s a physiological precaution? I’ve heard this answer before too – not only is this physiologically unsound, but also we have demeaned God to the physicality of things. I explain below.
If a woman partakes of the Eucharist on her cycle or even if she begins her cycle later that day, some people believe and fear that all of a sudden the Eucharist may be eliminated through the bleeding. In this case, I would say go back and study biology, because physically that is not the case, and second – most importantly and beyond – have we limited God to a physical entity that when we partake at the altar, the elements go through the bloodstream and can be “bled” out? How ludicrous a thought. Have we minimised the Eucharist to the physical process of entering the body’s bloodstream and mixing it with man’s physical nature in such a literalistic way? If this was the case, then one can say the bread must be digested into the body and eliminated as all the other foods we partake of. How sad and atrocious if one thinks that the Eucharist works in such a way. Is that how we have undermined God’s transformative power and work in the mysteries? We have reduced God to mere physicality and substantial literalism.
I am in no means discouraging the cautiousness of partaking of communion – but I am discouraging what are we exactly being cautious about? Are we more cautious we can be cut if we walk outside on a Sunday and bleed – than preparing ourselves for partaking the holy sacrament and being prayerful throughout the week and looking forward to partaking of Christ? Do we ask and seek to be transformed by this holy sacrament, or are we paying attention to “tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23)?
Prohibition of partaking the Eucharist should only be on account of sin, not for any other reason – especially that of the normal physiology of the body.
I cannot say the Holy Spirit leaves a woman’s body during her menstrual cycle and she no longer becomes God’s temple – because all of a sudden she has become unclean. One minute she’s clean, the other she isn’t. This is a schizo-theology mentality and contradicts the Christian understanding of salvation.
We invalidate the power of baptism and Christ’s sanctification if one still believes the body is defiled because of what the Old Law says. Christ has restored all things, He has made all things new in Him.
I end with a passage from Vassa Larin’s article, which I believe speaks for itself of the serious theological error in this whole issue on menstruation and uncleanliness:
A close look at the origins and character of the concept “ritual im/purity” reveals a rather disconcerting, fundamentally non- Christian phenomenon in the guise of Orthodox piety. Regardless of whether the concept entered church practice under direct Judaic and/or pagan influences, it finds no justification in Christian anthropology and soteriology. Orthodox Christians, male and female, have been cleansed in the waters of baptism, buried and resurrected with Christ, who became our flesh and our humanity, trampled death by death, and liberated us from its fear. Yet we have retained a practice that reflects pagan and Old-Testament fears of the material world. This is why a belief in “ritual im/purity” is not primarily a social issue, nor is it primarily about the depreciation of women. It is rather about the depreciation of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and its salvific consequences.” (p. 292)