The Early Church Tradition of Separate Seating: Ancient Practice, Not a Cultural Anomaly

Separate Seating

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 349407) 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).

____________________

SOURCES:

“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.

11 thoughts on “The Early Church Tradition of Separate Seating: Ancient Practice, Not a Cultural Anomaly

  1. I understand your points and see them valid. Separation of the opposite sex, in my opinion, allows me to focus more in the Divine Service. A lot of the writing of the saints, and the church fathers are influenced by culture. Humans are always influenced by their external influences. I do not find Biblical text that proves that separation of the sexes should occur in church. It is a good cultural practice, but not keeping this practice is also fine.

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    • Hey Mena! Thanks for sharing your feedback. I’m glad to hear you see the benefit in separate seating.

      I think though that to say this is a cultural practice is misguided. This is a practice implemented by the Church to safeguard it’s children because of a moral purpose. Of course, leadership in the church can choose to do away with any moral safeguard if they wish, and then the church’s flock will be left less protected. For example, let’s pretend the church does not support weddings that include dancing and alcohol. Then let’s pretend the church changes the rule and says, while we don’t advise it, you can have dancing and alcohol, but make sure it is not provocative, and make sure you don’t get drunk. The rule against dancing and alcohol at weddings would be a MORAL safeguard to prevent provocation and drunkenness. Will Church leadership be punished by God for removing this safeguard? Maybe not. But who will suffer? Maybe more individuals will be inclined to be morally neglectful about this matter. So to say that it is “fine” to get rid of this safeguard is not entirely true.

      Morality–that is, what is right or wrong in God’s eyes–has no time limit and knows no geographical bounds. Morality is not cultural. A practice designed as a moral safeguard therefore is not cultural. And even if it were only implemented by a particular culture, it does not mean that the practice is cultural; it’s still just a moral safeguard, albeit identified with that culture.

      Here are some examples of cultural items the church, in my opinion, COULD change or do away with and things would still be “fine” (i.e., does not have any affect on salvation):
      – the music
      – type of instruments
      – the hymn melodies
      – many of the rites
      – the language
      – the way priests dress
      – the way icons look
      – the way Copts “greet one another with a holy kiss”
      – the use of candles
      – the design of our churches

      Not that I agree with taking any of those things away, as I love my culture and the supplement it has provided to the Coptic church. But those things are cultural, unlike the moral safeguard practice of separate seating.

      By defining something as merely “cultural,” it prompts people to feel that it can be rejected outright as being unnecessary or at least not quite that significant to our salvation.This is especially concerning to me with all the Coptic mission churches that are popping up these days, where individuals are deciding what they can strip away culturally and what they should keep that isn’t cultural. Many people are seeking to eradicate anything they see as “culture” from the Coptic Church too, and so that word carries with it a lot of consequences in people’s minds. Unfortunately I’ve been noticing a tension between “liberal” and “conservative” Copts that I have never noticed before until recently, particularly in the U.S.

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      • Hey John, firstly I must say thank you so much for encouraging discussion on several, more controversial, issues of the Coptic Orthodox Church. I’ve been reading many of your articles and really admire the respect you have during discussion even when other commenters may not do the same – it’s incredibly important to have these discussions in an open-minded and civil manner, and this provides a great forum for that.

        I agree with you that the Church does this as a means of providing a moral safeguard for its congregation. What I disagree with is whether having that moral safeguard in itself is actually beneficial. These rules/safeguards definitely come out of good intentions from the leadership of a church, but can have unintended negative consequences. The reason for this is grounded mostly in the experiential learning model initially put forward by John Kolb (and expanded upon by many) which describes how our learning as being more effective when experiencing things and making decisions for ourselves rather than being handed down that experience from before in a more paternalistic method.

        This paternalistic style of Church leadership can be likened to a parent who bans their children from everything possibly harmful to them (e.g. alcohol, the internet, etc), without allowing them to develop their own responsible ways of usage. Children who are raised in this way are often the biggest abusers of alcohol, the internet or anything that can be misused, as they do not get the opportunity to learn for themselves (in a guided manner) on what defines appropriate usage.

        In the same way, I see that the separate seating likewise is a good-intentioned paternalistic leadership technique which hasn’t been shown to be truly effective in creating the desired effect (and as seen in our churches, can have rather negative effects of misuse and increasing sexual tension), while a more open yet guided approach on the subject can allow us to be a lot more respectful in Church out of our own desire to do so rather than from pure submission.

        Would be very interesting to hear your opinion, as I am definitely not as well read up on the patristic teachings or the history of our Church, but am relying heavily on the scientific theory on education instead.

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      • Dear Mark,

        Thank you for your kindness. I also really appreciate you taking the time to provide your point of view regarding the paternalistic teaching style of the Church. I am no one but a simple guy who either shares the opinions of the fathers (past and present) or shares a few opinions here and there of my own. Here are my thoughts:

        While I agree that experiential learning is quite important, and should be utilized more commonly in the Coptic community, I don’t think that it completely eradicates the need for a paternalistic approach. I think both should happen, in their proper time and place. H.G. Bishop Youssef, for example, teaches about what he learned regarding the four types of parenting styles, and the best one considered to be “authoritative”: not like a dictator (authoritarian), not too lenient (indulgent), not too strict yet distant (disengaged). Authoritative is a balance of providing a high level of control and ALSO providing a high level of love and acceptance. As one blogger put it: “Authoritative parenting is the combination of high acceptance and high control. This form of parenting sets rules for their children to abide by and holds the children accountable for their actions. They set clear rules and also combine that with a high sense of warmth and affection. There is a difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline has the heart for teaching and curbing behaviors, punishment is done inside of parental anger. Children respond best to this balanced approach. It is easier on parents too! You are more able to be calm and effective when you are loving and firm. When you have a depth of a relationship, they are more likely to respect and obey you. This is a balanced form of parenting. Studies have shown that authoritative parenting style creates the best parent-child relationship, and sets them up well to be responsible and respectful in their adult relationships too.” I believe a balanced approach, where there is “high control” as well as a level of “high acceptance” (warmth, love, experiential learning, etc) is important.

        In the Church, during worship service, it makes sense to me that women and men dress modestly, refraining from enticing (knowingly or unknowingly) others into temptation. Sitting separately during the typical 3 hour liturgical service seems acceptable as well. At the same time, the Church should foster opportunities for experiential learning about how to interact in a Christian manner with the opposite sex. And I think we do that in many ways already. Sunday School class and events are usually not split between boys and girls. Conventions and other retreats are often with mixed sexes. I think allowing for such experiential learning to occur outside of worship service is its proper time and place, but during the few hours of worship services per week, setting up safeguards is appropriate.

        Let me speak frankly as a male, and let me return to my earlier years (before I was married) and tell you personally, I have been very distracted (to say the least) whenever I attended a service with mixed seating. It is distracting enough to glance to your right and see so many ladies dressed in extremely tight clothing, but whenever similarly clad young ladies used to stand in front of me, or even if they weren’t wearing something that was that alluring, just their mere presence would distract me. Several innocent to not so innocent thoughts easily pervaded my mind and I had to do a lot to shake it off. I remember being in churches where mixed seating is acceptable, and also conventions where during the service mixed seating was allowed… I remember a friend of mine so excited that he was standing next to a really beautiful young lady at a convention during the Divine Liturgy and he was so excited that he got to exchange a “holy kiss” with her, and I was jealous! This may all seem laughable to many who may be reading this long replay, but there’s a lot that goes on in the minds of young, sexually driven teenage boys…

        I remember giving a talk to the high school kids at church on the topic of dressing modestly, and I know that I am hated by many ladies for bringing up the opinions of the church fathers and even the modest standard of dress just 100 years ago in AMERICA, but during this class, I told the class of boys and girls: “Ladies, it’s not about you being bad for dressing provocatively. It’s about how far you are willing to go to help the guys.” Then I turned to the guys, and I looked at them honestly, knowing that most of them (as statistics show) are likely facing a lot of personal sexual struggles, and I asked them honestly, “The way girls dress today, it doesn’t really help us, does it.” And with “one accord,” without previously orchestrating this, the usually quiet boys all responded together, “YES”… It was one of the most convicting moments for me and many who were present….

        So, Mark, I think you bring up an excellent point, and I hope our Church leadership actively engages in advancing the teaching style of experiential learning. During the few hours of worship services though, order, modesty, and discipline seems to outweigh the nominal benefit of experiential teaching which can be accommodated outside of worship service.

        Curious to hear your thoughts. (Sorry for the long reply. I type very fast so thoughts flow as fast as I type, which proves problematic sometimes, providing a lengthy discourse at times 🙂

        GOD BLESS YOU!

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      • Hey John, thanks for your comprehensive reply! Great to hear we are on the same page regarding experiential learning, and that we both aspire for the “authoritative” leadership/parenting style. I however feel that the authoritarian and authoritative terms may be slightly confused in your comment, as authoritative encourages a guidelines approach generally while authoritarian encourages rules more (http://naylandpsych.weebly.com/parenting-styles.html).

        I therefore believe an authoritative way to handle this would be to set guidelines for moderate dress and for focussing during the mass. I agree that the temptation is incredibly high having recently been part of that demographic too, but I’ve noticed how because we are largely used to segregated worship, we can find it incredibly tempting when attending a combined worship (we are very aware of the sexual tension because it is done differently than what we’re used to) – we have not had the opportunity to experientially learn to control our desires and focus during worship. So agreed that it would be especially challenging for everyone in a transition period because we are not trained for it, but that this training will allow us to worship more responsibly while at the same time reducing the sexual tension that I feel still exists in many of our churches.

        For example, I personally notice that the current “authoritarian” approach in my church has rules surrounding segregation and tight clothing and length below the knees. This leads 1) to extremes in clothing that still comply with the rules and 2) to each sex having increased desires considering they natural human psychology of wanting what we don’t have as well as breaking the rules/taboo. This contrasts quite powerfully with a few evangelical churches I witnessed who genuinely had a stronger focus during the liturgy than our own, and in general seem to treat the other sex in a more natural and respectful manner than I often witness in our own churches.

        Finally, I completely understand and agree with you on how difficult the temptation is, and how our world doesn’t make it easier. I believe though that we need to hand responsibility (while providing training, guidelines and support) to each member of the congregation for them to be able to develop their own spirituality. I liken this to rather than plainly blocking pornographic material on peoples’ computers, to leaving everything available but placing heavy emphasis on helping people control their internet use without abusing it. I feel that while it may seem alarming for us as a Church to give so much responsibility to the congregation themselves, that long-term it is a worthy investment due to the self-development each will experience, rather than a “protection by isolation” mechanism.

        Also sorry, for the late reply (I needed to think a bit more before replying), but God Bless you too, and happy Feast of Nativity from New Zealand 🙂

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  2. I will have to disagree with you. Yes this is an ancient practice but to say the culture of the ancient world had nothing to do with it is wrong. Human beings are influenced by their environment, cultural and philosophical understanding of their communities. The ancient people were no different. Yes it is rooted in Judaism, but it just connected to 1st century Jewish culture. The ancient church had different and often incorrect views on women and sexuality(we can not blame them for this since they were limited by the science of the time). The idea “That it is old so it Must be RIGHT” doesn’t really make it good argument when justifying some practices. The church culture (not theology) of the 4th century was different than the church in the 1st century likewise the church is the 16th century was different that the church is the 11th. Just because cultural believes change doesn’t mean that theology will change.
    When it comes to gender segregation in churches and Jewish temples, it was indeed connected to culture and views on human sexuality at the time. We can say for the most part it was indeed unhealthy view of women’s sexuality in particular. The belief the a woman and man sitting or standing together may make them distracted and invite lust is ridiculous at best. If a man gets distracted or lustful just by simply standing next to a woman(something that not even remotely sexual), then putting her on the other side of the church will not do anything for that man. Gender segregation doesn’t provide a safe guard against anything. I can say from experience that i have seen men literally”breaking their necks” to look at a pretty girl in the women section of the church and vise versa. The problem is not who is stands next to whom, but the individual and his/her mind and lack of discipline. also why should brothers and sister, husband and wives, fathers and daughters be segregated???
    More importantly you haven’t proved that gender segregation in churches provide any sort of moral safety net. In some states in India the have gender segregation in schools and collages, in one south Indian state a collage even has separate stair cases for boys and girls. Now it is said this sort of extreme segregation has not only foster a disconnect between boys and girls but also unhealthy views on women platonic friendship and sexuality. This is actually one of the contributing factors of sexual harassment and rape in India.(not really a moral safety net) I can give examples from other countries but its would be too much. I”m not saying that the church is this extreme, but we can say that gender segregation from the most part stem from varying attitudes on sexuality of human relationship(which were unhealthy)
    You post a few quotes from saints, though I do believe we can find some universal truth in the sayings of many saints, Saints were human being who were just as influenced by their culture and environment as we are today(and we can see that in some of their writings). And many of their cultural beliefs were indeed wrong. Which is why i am of the belief that when we read the writings of saints we must also look at the world they came from. Their world didn’t not have the same scientific and psychological understanding of the human body and mind as we do today. Saint sayings and writings should be used to reinforce the theology of the church not to justify every archaic practice that the church allows. To do so would make us look not only foolish but even ignorant of the limitations of the world they came from. Just because certain practice are old and”tradition” doesn’t mean that it is above criticism. As a matter of fact such thinking is actually dangerous. Female circumcision is old as well and many people who practice it use the words “tradition” and “moral safe net” to justify it. I doubt anyone in their right mind would defend that on this forum.

    God bless

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  3. Pingback: 10 Things Your Friends/Colleagues Don’t Know About Your Coptic Church | ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MEETS WORLD

  4. Great article, very nice quotes you have gathered. I have a question, though: do you know when non-orthodox denominations abandoned this practice? I have been unable to find and answer to this yet. Thanks for any help you can give me.

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  5. The Russians don’t do it, as a general rule, sorry. They don’t have pews, first of all. And second, I’ve seen segregation of the sexes (sort of, but not strictly enforced) in only one Russian place of worship (and I’ve been to many): that was a male monastery, where women tended to stand on the left and men on the right. But this was an entirely local thing; I’ve been to other Russian monasteries where this was not the rule. So no, this is not a general Orthodox practice; I can say the same for the Antiochians – I live in Lebanon and periodically attend Antiochian Orthodox churches, which have pews, and not once have I seen this male/female segregation.

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