I will let St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. AD 313–386) start this blog post off with what he taught people who were considering joining the Church:
Let men be with men, and women with women. For now I need the example of Noah’s ark, in which were Noah and his sons, and his wife and his sons’ wives. For though the ark was one, and the door was shut, yet things had been suitably arranged. If the Church is shut, and you are all inside, yet let there be a separation, men with men, and women with women, lest the pretext of salvation become an occasion of destruction. Even if there be a fair pretext for sitting near each other, let passions be put away. (Protocatechesis, 14, NPNF 2:7)
St. Augustine (c. AD 354–430) described the chastity displayed in the churches of his time, and used the separate seating of men and women as an example:
[See] the masses flock to the churches and their chaste acts of worship, where a seemly separation of the sexes is observed; where they learn how they may so spend this earthly life, as to merit a blessed eternity hereafter; where Holy Scripture and instruction in righteousness are proclaimed from a raised platform in presence of all, that both they who do the word may hear to their salvation, and they who do it not may hear to judgment. And though some enter who scoff at such precepts, all their petulance is either quenched by a sudden change, or is restrained through fear or shame. For no filthy and wicked action is there set forth to be gazed at or to be imitated; but either the precepts of the true God are recommended, His miracles narrated, His gifts praised, or His benefits implored. (City of God and Christian Doctrine, Chapter 28, NPNF 1:2)
Some see this practice of separate seating as a cultural matter with no place in the Church today and lump it together with other cultural elements within different Orthodox jurisdictions that they believe should be done away with, in the spirit of accommodating for modern culture and keep from “turning off” newcomers.
The practice of separate seating has nothing to do with culture and has everything to do with maintaining a practice that has been around since even before the early Church, irrespective of culture, meant to inhibit the natural tendency to be distracted around members of the opposite sex, so as to preserve modesty and attention during worship.
This seating arrangement has been the norm in Jewish worship services for thousands of years, since before Christianity began until the present. There is even a specific physical partition found in synagogues, known as the mechitza, which is designed to separate the sexes. The Talmud implies that such separation was how the Israelites stood while receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (PdRE 41). The Mishnah states that the women’s court was eventually “surrounded with a balcony so that women could look on from above while men were below, lest they mix together” (Mid 2:5).
In the early Church, no matter what your background was, and no matter where you lived (e.g., St. Cyril was from Jerusalem, St. Augustine lived in Roman North Africa, St. John Chrysostom was of Greco-Syrian parents and preached in the Byzantine capital), separate seating was the accepted practice, with good reason: to comply with our Lord’s commandment of chastity and warning that a person who simply “looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
You may think to yourself, “Well, that was then, but today, in the 21st century, such a practice is unnecessary and unduly restrictive, and can serve as a deterrent to newcomers.” I’ll let you read what St. John Chrysostom (c. AD 349–407) said about this. Although he was of the belief that men and women may not have been separated during worship when Christianity was first preached by the apostles, it later become necessary, especially considering the decline in modesty of how women dressed at his time. Consider that he was saying this in the fourth century; how much more do his words ring true for today? If you may argue it was unneeded in the past, what would the argument be today? Read what St. John Chrysostom tells us of the necessity of a physical wall in his church which separated men and women as a means of preventing misdirected sensuality of the crowds attending, particularly of men:
What are you doing, O man? Are you being overly attentive concerning the women’s beauty, and you do not shudder at thus outraging the temple of God? Does the church seem to you to be a brothel, and less honorable than the marketplace? … It would be better for such men to be blind, for it is better for it is better to be diseased than to use the eyes for such purposes.
It would be best if you had within yourself the wall to part you from the women. But since you do not desire this to be so, our fathers thought it necessary by these boards to wall you off. I hear from the elders that in the early times there was nothing like these partitions, “for in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female” [Galatians 3:28]. And in the Apostle Paul’s time also both men and women were together, because the men were truly men, and the women were truly women. But now it is altogether to the contrary: the women have urged themselves into the manners of courtesans, and the men are in no better state than frenzied horses. (Homily LXXIII on St. Matthew, NPNF 1:10)
This practice is maintained today in all (as far as I’m aware) Orthodox Churches (e.g., Coptic [notwithstanding the few parishes I’ve seen that unfortunately have deviated from this 2,000 year old norm], Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, etc). The Catholic Church too maintains a canon law that states: “Conformable to ancient discipline, it is desirable that the women should be separated from the men in church. The very division of the ancient basilica … [was arranged so that] the faithful occupied the side aisles, the women on the right side of the entrance, the men on the left” (Canon 1262).
And this practice should not be seen as one that drives people away from church, but rather, some “Protestant” churches are actually driving towards it. You can read for yourselves:
So let us not be quick to forego or criticize our Orthodox Christian traditions, but rather delve into the depth of our church rites and practices and teach others the same, that we may all “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or …. epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), so that we do not worship ignorantly, and instead offer to God “logical/intelligent worship” (cf. Romans 12:1).
“What the Rabbis Said: 250 Topics from the Talmud,” by Ronald L. Eisenber.
“A commentary on the new code of the canon Law,” by Charles Augustin Bachofen.
“Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom,” by David C. Ford.
“Why are men and women seated separately in the Coptic Church? Is this a “church” tradition; or is there a theological justification for this practice?” by online Q&A with H.G. Bishop Youssef, Coptic Diocese of the Southern U.S.A.
Blog image courtesy of Katherine Nawar.