The Orthodox Church, while never dogmatically ruling against women priests, has never ordained women. There is, however, a historical basis to reviving the female diaconate, which has simply fallen into disuse for various reasons.
Although St. Paul asks for women’s silence in the church in one specific context (1 Cor 14:34), he also commends St. Junia as a fellow co-worker and Apostle (Romans 16:7), and praises St. Priscilla, the teacher of St. Apollos. Paul also mentions women praying and prophesying publicly in the local churches (1 Cor 11). He calls St. Phoebe a deacon and she is the one who teaches the Letter to the Romans (Romans 16).
The Church is indebted to the contributions of holy women, and has recognized them consistently in their veneration of saints. St. Macrina the Younger taught her younger brothers St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa while leading a monastery. Female emperors like St. Theodora restored icons and convened councils, while preachers like St. Mary Magdalene witnessed the Resurrection are fondly referred to as “Equal to the Apostles” in liturgical prayer.
I was not for male-only clergy because I believed men were better than women. I simply believed God gave men and women different roles. My catechism class taught me that women had the unique ability to create biological life in their bodies (pregnancy) while priests had the the unique ability to create life on the altar (the Risen Jesus in the Eucharist). They were not saying men had to be priests and women had to be mothers, but were giving an example of how difference does not mean lacking in dignity.
But pregnancy is unique to female bodies because of biology. While a male body cannot become pregnant, a female body can receive the laying of hands, say public prayers, preach, and perform the sacraments. Nature does not prevent her from doing so. Furthermore, men also create new life biologically, though they do not carry the child to term. The analogy did not make sense upon further reflection.
Another perspective I hear often is rooted in Christ’s role as the Bridegroom of the Church. The Church has historically been identified as the Bride of Christ. The priests are bridegrooms. Priests are also addressed as fathers. Thus, priests are to be men.
But analogies can only go so far. St. Paul describes himself and his preaching companions as nursing mothers, not fathers (1 Thess. 2:7). Jesus is not only illustrated as a Bridegroom, he is also described as a Lamb. The Church is not only depicted as a spouse, She is also depicted as the Body of Christ. Restricting the roles of women simply because of one analogy among many does not do the analogy justice.
The understanding of priesthood I landed on for several years was rooted in Roman Catholic sacramental theology; the priest being in persona Christi, or the person of Christ. I acknowledged that since Christ is a male, and because a priest is an icon of Christ at the altar, only men could be icons of Christ at the altar. We use bread and wine for communion and water for baptism, so it made that in picking twelve male apostles, Christ indicated to us that males are the necessary “matter” to the Sacrament in order to represent him.
Critics to this perspective point out that Christ was a Jew and the Twelve were Jewish. Why is maleness an essential property for ordination but not Jewish ethnicity The ontological question is answered by St. Paul:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Gal 3:28
A response to this is that ethnicity does not point to the ontological nature of personhood, but gender (maleness or femaleness) does. However, making maleness an essential part of personhood, whether for Christ or for us, indidcates worse implications.
First, maleness and femaleness cannot be essential parts of our personhood. God being called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has never intended to say anything about the gender of the Trinity. Men and women are both fully made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) who is without gender. Women and men could not both reflect the Godhead if this was the case.
Secondly, this argument does not merely exclude women from the clergy, it excludes them from salvation. St. Gregory of Nazianzus asserted that “the unassumed is the unhealed.” The Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In other words, Jesus had to clothe himself in every part of humanity to share in all of its suffering and death in order to save it. The Cross does not save because it is God in male flesh; it saves because it is God in human flesh.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson puts it more succinctly:
“It is not a hysterical overstatement, then, to assert that the ordination of women is closely tied to the salvation of women. If the female cannot represent Christ because of her femininity, it is hard to understand how Christ in his masculinity can represent her in his death and resurrection.”
Making Jesus’ maleness an essential part of his personhood is in conflict with what the Church Fathers believed about the Incarnation. This does not mean they supported women priests! None of them could probably have imagined this discussion taking place like it is in contemporary ecumenical dialogue. But it does mean we need to listen to the Holy Spirit working through them in their teachings on Christology and Incarnational theology, and following that to its logical conclusion (i.e. ordaining women as full icons of Christ). This is not a new project, by the way. The Church Fathers say things the Church no longer practices or believes, but that’s another post for another time.
Far from abandoning the Great Tradition, ordaining women enhances it.Tweet
One last thought before this discussion goes too far up the ivory tower — The most impactful moment for me arriving at this conclusion was at an Episcopal Christmas Eve service hearing a woman say the Eucharistic Prayer and watching her distribute the Divine Gifts. That’s it. There is not a doubt in my mind these women represent Christ. Holy Orders enable them to present the eucharistic gifts to the Father, to call upon the Holy Spirit to transform them into the Body and Blood of the Son.
The Church will ordain women when it listens to women calling us to the Resurrected One, just as it did on Easter morning.
Author’s Note: I had very little original thought to add to this discussion, so I will direct you to better resources below.
The Ministry of Women in the Church by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel
Woman, Women, and the Priesthood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel by Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson
The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Met. Kallistos Ware
Ordaining Women: Two Views by Jessica Ferrara and Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson
Ecumenical Perspectives on the Ordination of Women by Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson
From Charisms to Calling by Wesley Hill