The Orthodox Priest: An Icon of Christ
by Fr. Alister Anderson
In this holy season you could have a child ask you, “why was Jesus born as a boy? Why couldn’t St. Mary have had a baby girl to be our saviour?” How would you answer these questions? I would say this because the Bible says it: God wanted to be born of St. Mary as a baby boy because it was His intention to be a perfect man. God made that choice. God can do and will do what He wants to do.
Now suppose a little later an adult person asked you, “Why don’t the Orthodox Christian Churches allow women to be ordained as deacons, priests or bishops?” The Church of England just voted to permit women to be ordained to the sacred ministry. Many other Christian denominations have been ordaining women to the ministry for many years. The question is answered in the Christmas story recorded in the Bible. God took the form of a man when by the power of His Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos. That provides our Orthodox Christian Churches’ answer. Only a man can be ordained as a deacon, priest or bishop because Jesus the perfect Man chose only men to be His disciples and apostles. God made that choice. God can do and will do what He wants to do.
Sadly many people do not believe that the Christmas story about the Incarnation and Holy Nativity is true. They don’t believe that God became man in Jesus Christ. Quite naturally then, they don’t believe that God made the choice to become a man and not a woman. Unfortunately no Biblical, rational or historical answer can be given to those who choose not to believe. Many Christian people, however, need some kind of rational explanation in order to discuss God’s Incarnation as a man with other Christians or with their feminist or “politically correct” friends. Fortunately our Orthodox Christian Churches have experienced and preserved some rational theological reasons why only men can be ordained to the Sacred Ministry. I want to present three of the most compelling reasons.
We need to understand them in order to be faithful to our Biblical Doctrine and Holy Tradition. We need to believe in these reasons in order to continue worshipping in the same way Jesus Christ told our ancestors to worship God for our salvation. We need to hold fast to these reasons in order to resist the devil’s unrelenting attempts to destroy our faith in Christ and the Orthodox Church He founded.
The first reason for a male priesthood has to do with the foundation and tradition of the Christian religion. When Christ was living in human flesh, He deliberately selected twelve men to be His Apostles. These men were the beginning of a priesthood of men who were prepared to follow Him as the ordained leaders of His Church down through the centuries to this moment. The Christian churches that chose to remain within the apostolic and catholic tradition have therefore only ordained men to be bishops, priests and deacons. Now, some two thousand years later, in the supposedly greater wisdom of our twentieth century many leaders have decided that all the Christian churches should allow the ordination of women. They claim to know the mind of Christ in arguing that it was for sociological, political and economic reasons that Jesus decided not to select and ordain women to be among His disciples. The arrogant presumption of those people who say that they know what Jesus had to do or had not to do, hardly deserves an answer, but we can try to do so anyway. Christ is God and He will do what He wants to do and when He wants to do it. God did what He did because what He does is always right and the best for us. To argue that Jesus did not ordain women because women were not considered worthy enough and would be a liability to His ministry in a male-dominated culture is illogical. It begs the question. After all Christ is God and He could have brought women into the apostolic ministry at that time if He thought it was necessary He did not think it was necessary because He chose not to do it. Instead He honored His Virgin Mother to be the Theotokos, our God-bearer, thereby elevating her to be first among the saints. Through St. Mary Jesus has raised the status of all women everywhere and for all time. They were no longer to be regarded as chattel but to be treated as being equally precious as men in the eyes of God. Christ hallowed the state of marriage which was much abused in those days to the detriment of women.
He taught the spiritual equality of men and women and blessed that equality by saying, “for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh.” But while Christ taught that men and women are equal in their human nature, they are blessedly and entirely different in their human function. I intend to say more about their human function in a moment.
Those people who advocate the ordination of women to the Sacred Ministry of our Orthodox Church disregard history — both church history and Holy Tradition — and they misinterpret the Bible. They want us to believe that the Bible allows the ordination of women. While they claim that there is no specific verse in the Bible prohibiting women from being ordained, we Orthodox Christians know that you can not argue justifiably that point from mere scriptural silence. There are many specific things about which the Bible is silent. There are many things the Bible does not explicitly prohibit but which we know we should not do. It is obvious in the study of church history that the idea of female priests never developed in the religious and spiritual experience of our Christian ancestors. They struggled desperately against all those pagan religions which had a plethora and panoply of male and female gods and goddesses. Our Christian ancestors saw that priestesses were frequently involved in the performance of fertility rites which glorified sexual deviance and promiscuity They knew that such obsession with sex was destructive of morality and the life and safety of the human family. They knew this because they understood the Holy Scriptures proclaimed by the Hebrew prophets and God Himself through Jesus Christ. What we must remember is that while the Bible may not contain a verse specifically prohibiting women to be ordained, it does contain much specific teaching about the necessity for a male priesthood. There is no indication whatsoever that any women were part of the ordained ministry in the time of the apostles. There is, however, in the Bible, St. Paul’s teaching that women should not lead in the worship of the church.
In the letters to the Ephesians and Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of the ordained man as being a presbyter, which means an older man or elder or ruler. He believes that only men should lead or rule in the Christian family. He believes that equal rulership with men would eventually cause confusion in the human family as well as in the church by preventing singleness of purpose in decision-making. There is, however, no argument from St. Paul about the fact that women have the right to rule in the political and vocational order. There have always been queens and princesses, and now there are female prime ministers and presidents. Women are active now in all the professional vocations and in all the trades known to mankind. We Christians who advocate only a male priesthood as being the only valid apostolic ministry of the Church do not in any way deny that women have equal rights and opportunities to work. We believe that women should be paid commensurately with men for their labor and skill. But certain leaders deprecate the male priesthood as being a bastion of male chauvinism and a violation of civil and equal rights for women. Nonsense! The Church is not a secular institution governed by democratic processes. The Church is a spiritual organism and not just a secular organization. She is a spiritual and supernatural monarchy with God as Her king and supreme judge. We Orthodox Christians declare that while men and women are equal in the eyes of God and under the secular law, they are very different in their human nature because God has created them for different functions. A bishop, priest and deacon have a specific function within the family of the Church. To ordain women to the sacred ministry would only confuse and destroy that function. In terms of human function a woman can no more be a priest than a man can be a mother.
What has happened in many protestant churches since the Reformation has been the supplanting of the doctrine of Apostolic Succession by the protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers. Protestant churches have no problem with ordaining women because they believe that all the people in the church are ministers to one another. But to say that all people are priests before God is to deny the apostolic and Biblical teaching that there are certain men in every time and place who will be selected by the consent of the people and given Grace by God to carry out special functions for the Church. God gave this function to men. Men did not, nor could they secure it for themselves.
There is a second reason why we Orthodox Christians have only a male priesthood. It rests on the fact that we have always had a catholic and apostolic understanding of the priesthood and not just that of a protestant ministry. We have a priesthood of all believers like the protestants because we do minister individually to each other through our love and prayers and mutual support. But our Orthodox priesthood goes far beyond a protestant ministry. We have a sacerdotal priesthood. Bishops and priests are not only presbyters as I said earlier, they are also individually a sacerdos. Sacerdos is a Latin word which means “an offerer of God’s gifts.” An Orthodox priest therefore is one who offers God’s gifts to His people as well as being set aside as being the people’s gift to God. We believe that God comes to us in a very special way through the sacraments. We believe that only a priest who has been given the authority by the Church through Christ can administer those sacraments. Only a priest and a bishop have the function and the authority to consecrate the elements of bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ. Only the priest and the bishop have the function and the authority to bless water and oil in Holy Baptism and Holy Unction and to sanctify material objects for devotional and spiritual purposes. Only a priest and a bishop have the function and the authority to absolve people from their sins. Only a priest or bishop who is a man can exercise this function and authority because Christ ordained only men to have this kind of function. No protestant minister, male or female, claims or even wants to be a sacerdos and a part of a sacerdotal ministry.
Now there is a third compelling reason for the male priesthood. Orthodox Christians believe that their bishops, priests and deacons are Ikons of Christ and therefore must be male because Jesus Christ is male. To understand this we must think about what an Ikon is. An Ikon is a religious symbol, but yet much more than a symbol. It is an instrument of Divine reality. It is a picture and a vision for the eyes which conveys a spiritual reality to the worshipper. We can say that an Ikon is an image of the Divine, but we must say at the same time that an Ikon has no divine power of its own. That would make an Ikon an idol and idols belong to pagan worship. An Ikon has the spiritual function to help us receive into our souls the spiritual awareness of what it depicts. For example; when we look at an Ikon depicting the crucifixion, the Ikon helps us to participate more spiritually in the wonder of Christ’s love for us and the efficacious power of His sacrifice on the cross. Looking at an Ikon in our worship is the most direct way we can visually represent Christ’s atoning death for the forgiveness of our sins. Looking at an Ikon strengthens the spiritual reality of our worship.
The same thing should happen when we look at our clergy. When we are at worship our priest or bishop becomes an Ikon of Christ. Christ is God but He is also a fully perfect human man. That means that a priest, as His Ikon or most true symbol, must also be a man. A priest must be male because Jesus is a man. In the Incarnation God became man not woman. The male priesthood is a supernatural concept. In that sense it is a mystery just as the Incarnation or Resurrection is a mystery. Reason and logic cannot fully explain it, or define it, or detract from the truth of it, any more than you and I can explain it as being the way of God.
We can say that God has no particular sex, male or female. But in the Revelation of God through Christ, God chose to become a man because He wanted to take to Himself a bride which is the Church, the Family of God. In like manner, God also chose men to represent Him as the head of the human Church family. God decided that the function of consecrating, blessing and absolving is the role of man to do in our human existence on earth. Men have not made this their role. God made it men’s role. As individuals we believe God’s Word about this or we choose not to. But as members of the family of Orthodox Christian Churches we have no choice. The Church belongs to God and God has made His choice. God will do what He wants to do and what He wants is always right and best for us. God has chosen and blessed us with a male priesthood. Let us rejoice and be glad and thankful for it.
Father Alister Anderson is attached to Sts. Peter & Paul Church in Bethesda, Maryland.