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Christ the Saviour

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Servants of the servants of God


Key Facts and Ideas  lb

In the Orthodox Church all the baptised have a calling and a service in the world, some have ministries in the parish community as well, either in an ordained or non-ordained capacity.  All Orthodox Christians are responsible for proclaiming, defending and living out the Faith; which is why there are many world class theologians in the Church who are NOT ordained, nor probably ever will be.  In modern times, Christos Yannaras, Olivier Clement and Vladimir Lossky have been notable examples. 

Women have always had prominent roles in the Orthodox Church even if never as priests or bishops.  Many have been evangelists, (eg., St. Nina, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Evangeliser of Georgia), monastics and healthcare pioneers, (St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, Russian princess and granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and saviours of cities ... materially as well as spiritually, (St. Genevieve of Paris) and theologians (Elizabeth Behr-Siegel).

It is to this greater body of witness of all the believers, and God that the ordained ministry is called to serve.  The ordained ministry in the Orthodox Church is not a bottleneck that none can pass but rather a fertiliser that spends itself that others may grow.  Unlike in other churches where an interior call is prized above all else, in the Orthodox Church, deacons, priests and bishops are called by God with the voice of their people they serve.  At an ordination the community shouts or sings "Axios!" (he is worthy) and only then may the ordination proceed.  If the community has not given its consent - and this can never be assumed, it has to be proven - then the "call" is not to be relied on.  Moreover, frequently, ordination is the last thing a good potential minister (deacon, priest or bishop) actually wants.  In testimony of this, at the ordination of a priest for example, he is physically dragged into the altar by the deacons to the bishop.  Of course he has to give his consent but why this authentic reluctance?  Simply because the work of a priest (any minister) is a huge responsibility before God.  You have surrendered your own life save for your family responsibilities if married and henceforth you will account to God for all the spiritual children in your care.  The priesthood is not a "job," it is a pastorate under Christ the Good Shepherd.

Key Principle  cool

The various ministries in the Orthodox Church, extremely varied in their composition and scope, exist to build up the body of Christ and equip it for its witness to the Love of God in the world.

Key Question  ask

How are my gifts being used for the common good?  Is there anything I can develop to fulfil them?

Resources  browse

1.  Priesthood Q&A by Fr. John Matusiak

2.  The Deacon by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov

3.  Holy Orders by Fr. Thomas Hopko (includes explanation of a bishop's ministry)

4.  What is a Church Ministry? by Fr. Michael Lewis

Your Own Questions Answered Here  help

Q1:  What is the position of Orthodoxy on the ordination of women ?

ANSWER:  The Orthodox Church does not permit women to be ordained to the episcopate and therefore does not permit women to be ordained to the priesthood.  It's that way round because our understanding of priesthood, shared by Catholicism and underwritten by the historical development of ministry in the Christian Church, is that the presbyter / priest is the bishop's representative when he is not present in the community.  He is simply an extension of the bishop's persona as to order and ministerial role with only ordination being reserved to the bishop and overall oversight of the diocese of community of communities, monastic, parish and missions.  The priest cannot be female, therefore, because the bishop cannot be female.  It's not a question of "promotion" or "career" or even "equal opportunities" even if that is how the world sees it.

What is it then about a BISHOP that means that women are excluded?  First we have our Lord's own practice and intention.

Before the resurrection the Twelve were disciples, not apostles.  They represented the New Israel ... the Church 'in embryo."  The resurrection created a new birth and a sending.  The disciples, renewed and empowered by the Holy Spirit became "apostles" ... that is, in the Greek etymology of the word, those 'sent' to preach the gospel and manifest the Christian life, first to Israel and then to the Gentiles.  When the apostles died they needed successors to continue the work. 

The bishop / presbyter distinction was not initially clear in the New Testament period but it seems likely that at first there were bishops and deacons inherited from the Apostles, then as the Church grew, the bishops themselves ordained presbyters to share in their own extended apostolic work.  The link, therefore, for the purposes of this argument concerning female ordination is Christ > Disciples > Apostles > Bishops > Presbyters.  (Deacons were a separate ordination of the apostles having a quite different character of ministry). 

Notwithstanding the fact that each of these ministries in the link are not identical in context, they do have the same character as ultimately deriving from the calling of the Twelve.  So the question now clarifies and simplifies a little.  Why did Jesus call twelve MEN?  Was he beholden to the culture of his day?  Could he do nothing other? 

These justifications for female episcopal ordination seem to us to be extraordinary and unwarranted in light of the fact that Jesus broke so many other taboos, including those associated with women.  Surely at the very least he could have given his own Mother the dignity of being an Apostle in the light of the fact that by the time of his ministry she was both respected spiritually and a widow to boot.  But no, Christ did not do this.  He certainly invited women to share in his work and let them minister to Him but he never let them join the Twelve and in that we think that he had good reason. 

We could speculate about the roles of men and women in relation to their distinctive identities as male and female but to do so invites justifiable criticism that we are claiming to know what the rationale for our Lord's practice actually was.  It has become particular difficult in a post-Christian culture to ask those questions anyway because, frankly, many people don't much care at all what Christ himself did and wanted.  They simply want gender parity according to their own understanding. 

Now, Christians can either go along with this or say:- "no ... we will judge this according to our Lord's practice and not the teaching of men (or women)."  That makes us unpopular and marginal of course; but since when did being accepted and popular characterise truth?  Is this not rather a failure of both confidence and conscience, a degrading of the Christian mind and a weakening of Christian identity?  After all if Jesus was wrong about female apostles, maybe he was wrong about a lot of other things as well.  The real question then is much more fundamental.  Can Christianity do without Jesus?

Deacons are a completely different order of ministry to that of the bishop / presbyter.  They are commissioned to serve, teach and, in some cases, to preach.  Their ministry has a sacramental character in its formation but not in its operation.  The sacramental operation of the ministry of the bishop / presbyter is directly linked to our Lord himself.  Jesus, however, did not call any deacons.  He did, however, call all, men and women alike to serve, to teach and, yes, to preach ... hence we should not be surprised that St. Mary Magdalene was the first preacher of the resurrection.  By the time that a formal diaconal order had become necessary (as recorded in Acts 6:1-6), it was not even noteworthy that women eventually became deacons, (or maybe deaconesses).  This tradition and practice continued into the life of the early Church and only fell into disuse in Orthodoxy in the medieval period. There are moves to restore female participation in the diaconate in Orthodoxy today and, on account of historical precedent alone, this is not at all controversial.  However, as this has so often been misunderstood in the west, a deacon is not an "apprentice priest" and we are not talking about "promotion" here from one order to the next.  The two ministries are quite different.

Finally, a postscript.  In the Orthodox Church women have always held prominent ministerial roles.  The foremost of these women ministers have even been given the title:- "Equal-to-the-Apostles," for example, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Nina, Evangeliser of Georgia ... the first Christian nation.  The charge of misogyny will not, therefore, stick.  This is not about "equal rights" for us still less about patriarchy.  It'd about following Our Lord's own practice and example.