A Kingdom of Men and Women Priests

When I was a parish priest I would be asked from time to time if I thought the Orthodox Church would ever have women priests.

My initial reaction was always the same – ever is a long time, and I don’t really know what is in store in the forever.  But I didn’t think it would happen in the Orthodox Church in my life time.

But saying that there aren’t women priests in the Orthodox Church has to be qualified.  All who are baptized into Christ share in the holy and royal priesthood of all believers according to St. Peter, the head of the Apostles:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,” and “A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall”; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:4-10)

Peter speaks to the collective “you” (in the plural), the people of God, all the members of the Church, both male and female: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…”   Of special note, this is not just a New Testament idea.  St Peter is quoting Exodus 19:6, from the Septuagint, the Word of God in which God is speaking to the “house of Jacob” and “the children of Israel” – not just to the men, but to all the people of God. “... you shall be for me a people special above all nations.  For all the earth is mine.  And you shall be for me a royal priesthood and a holy nation” (NETS).  St Peter, the chosen head of the Apostles not only believes all of God’s people, both men and women, are to be priests, but that this is the vocation God has chosen for us.  When we are God’s people, we all are priests.  In this sense, yes, there are women priests since there are women believers, women disciples, women saints, women martyrs.  St Peter does not limit this priesthood to males only.  He never discusses an ordained priesthood, so I don’t know what he thought about an ordained priesthood that all believers do not share.  The only priest described in the New Covenant is Jesus Christ.  He is not a priest like the Levitical priests, but a special priest in the order of Melchizedek.

There is another fact that has to be taken into account in Scriptures.  In the book of Revelation, which is notoriously difficult to interpret, there is further claim that all believers – which would include women – are priests.  We encounter the idea first in Revelation 1:5-6.  Here St John claims that Jesus Christ has made us a kingdom and also made us all priests:

and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (emphases not in original text)

This is not something claimed for males only – it is for “us”, all believers, to be priests in God’s kingdom.  All those loved by Christ and saved by Christ are made priests.  The word “made’ as in created as God did in Genesis 1.  God creates us as priests in the new age to come.  This is part of His making all things new rather than making all new things (Revelation 21:1-5).   This connection between God’s kingdom and our being priests is repeated twice more in Revelation.  In Revelation 5:8-10 (emphases not in original text), we read:

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.

Again, it is Christ, the Lamb, who makes us a kingdom and priests to God.  All believers participate in this priesthood.  More intriguing is that St John says that believers of this kingdom, the priests, shall reign on earth.  This would be all believers, male and female as priests sharing in Christ’s reign on earth because Christ recreates us as priests – not just some of us, not just males, but both men and women.  [As an aside, I wonder if part of the reason iconographers often only portray males in icons of the Kingdom is that they knew we are all priests in the Kingom, but didn’t know how to portray that as they felt reluctant to have women priests in icons and so show only males in the Kingdom?  If they do include women they don’t portray them as priests, but why?, since that is what Revelation makes of all believers in the Kingdom.]

In Revelation 20:6 we read yet another claim, which again surely implies all believers, not just males.

Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years.

ALL who share in the first resurrection are priests of God and of Christ.  Since Orthodoxy certainly believes both men and women can share in the first resurrection, then Orthodoxy does believe men and women are to be priests of God and of Christ in the promised Kingdom.

So, will women ever be priests in Orthodoxy?  The answer has to be “yes, women  will be priests” – in the Kingdom, in heaven, though St. John suggests also on earth.  So might it ever be on earth as it is in heaven?  God knows.

Fr Schmemann thought the very God-given vocation of every human being is to be a priest.  Logically, that means all males and females. Thus from the beginning God created humans as a race of priests and so intended even women to be priests.  We all fulfill our vocation when we become that holy and royal priesthood which St Peter proclaims.

Sometimes when I would hear the question, “will the Orthodox Church ever ordain women?”, the lesson from scripture that came to my mind was Numbers 11:26-9 in which God comes and takes some of the Spirit which Moses has and gives it to 70 other men.  It is an interesting ordination imagery – for God doesn’t simply give them God’s Spirit, God takes some of the Spirit which Moses has and gives it to the 70 men.  It is a synergistic moment.  Ordination does not belong to God alone.  Rather God is using something in a human (something Moses has) to  increase ministry among His people.  However, then, something unusual happens – two other men not among the 70 also unexpectedly receive the Spirit.  Joshua, one of the recognized leaders of the people is alarmed by this sudden turn of events and worrying that two ‘outliers’ also have the Spirit even though not chosen by Moses, tells Moses about this.  Joshua apparently thinks Moses should be concerned or that this spreading of the spirit beyond what Moses had ordained is somehow a threat to Moses’ authority.  The text says:

Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested upon them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, forbid them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” 

Moses’ response to learning that some ‘others’ who are unchosen have been gifted with his spirit is “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!”  Moses feels no need to protect his office or to forbid others from sharing in his ministry or divine calling.  Rather, he wishes all God’s people were prophets and had this spirit.  This is the same Moses to whom God said the people of God are a royal priesthood.  God’s will is that all of us should be priests. This seems to be the vision of Revelation regarding the priesthood.  In the Kingdom of God, finally God’s will is accomplished: all the Lord’s people are to be priests, prophets and kings – to be all that God willed for us from the beginning when God made male and female.  We don’t have to fear the sharing of this calling, ministry, office, divine gift – even among women.

7 thoughts on “A Kingdom of Men and Women Priests

  1. This is very thoughtful, thank you.

    I’m not (yet?) Orthodox, but I find myself thinking a lot about women’s ordination. I understand something about a continuation of the Levitical priesthood; something about the image of God seated on His throne that Elijah sees and that in that image He is male (Christ); I also understand something about Apostolic succession and the Apostles all being male; I further understand something about the celebrating priest being an icon of Christ, and so he must be male because we are participating in Heavenly Things during the divine services.

    And yet in heaven there is no longer male nor female, slave nor free, etc. Women also bear the image of the Lord and are “Sons” in a sense. And yet in His risen body, the Lord is male.

    But I also understand what you’re saying here, along with what many other Orthodox speakers on the subject say: the Holy Priesthood in Christ has one main job, that being to celebrate the services. After that, we are all priests. As Khomiakov says, we (the Church) agree that we all have full liturgical “rights,” but we (through the historical Church and Israel before us) deferred those rights to a select few (the Priesthood).

    And then my head gets all twisty and I decide that if I ever become Orthodox I should leave stuff like this to the Bishops and councils.

    1. Fr. Ted

      Not every tension has a happy solution and maybe doesn’t need it. Trouble is many are uncomfortable with any tension, ambiguity or ambivalence and so want quick solutions to make life easy. That leads to people offering cliches or patronizing answers because they want to pretend there are no crosses to bear, rivers to cross, tough decisions to be made.

  2. Greg C.

    Hi Fr. Ted,

    In my short journey thus far as an Orthodox Christian, I’ve begun to see each and every human being participating in the Divine Liturgy as priests; as representatives of all humanity, praying to God for everyone and for everything in all of creation. This seems to parallel the second temple Judaism where many priests with various functions served God in the temple for all the people of Israel. In your opinion, is this thinking “Orthodox”?

    If this is indeed a “good” approach, then aren’t we all truly priests right now in the Kingdom of God just as witnessed by all the Scripture passages you referenced?

    The real “issue” or tension then becomes who is formally ordained to lead worship (presbytery, deaconate) and govern the Orthodox Christian Church (episcopos).

    God’s will be done.

    In Christ,

    Greg C.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I think not only do we participate in the Liturgy as priests by lifting up our hearts as well as all humanity in prayer, I think we are to be priests in our daily lives. Everything we do is our offering to God. We should see life that way. We are supposed to be transforming and transfiguring our hearts, minds, lives, marriages, families, friendships, relationships and all we do and make. If we understood that we would realize we are constantly functioning as priests. The meal I cook and eat with my family is in this sense sacramental – an offering to God. So too the money I earn or the home I live in. Through my life, thoughts, words, prayers, deeds, I can transfigure my life and that of my family and all my relationships and offer it all to God.

      When we think too narrowly about the priesthood being those who are ordained, we reduce the Church to a clerical institution. All of us who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. It takes all of us for the Church to exist and all of us need to be what Fr Schmemann thought we were created to be – priests offering ourselves to God and transfiguring everything we do and touch into a life of communion with God.

      I always likes his expansive vision of the sacramentality of the entire world. He didn’t like the idea that we can make things sacred – like holy water. He preferred the notion that all things are sacramental and our task is to reveal the sacramental nature of all things. All things are sacred because they are created by a Holy God. We are the ones who try to use “things” in unholy ways or without reference to God. If we saw ourselves as priests we might understand the importance of stewardship better.

      1. Sorry to dig up an older comment, Father, but I missed it until just now.

        If we run with the image that we are all acting as priests during the services (in similar fashion to temple worship, as Greg mentioned), then what is the role of the ordained Clergy during those services? I suppose he is imaging Christ as High Priest, as we all make our offerings in our own priestly way. Is that right? I feel like Archbishop Alexander talks about it this way.

      2. Fr. Ted

        Personally, I think the priest serves in the role of helping to keep order – the Liturgy is uniting us to be the Body of Christ, and in that Body, we need someone to actually consecrate the gifts – we all are consecrating the gifts on the altar, but can’t have a mob at the altar, so one person approaches the altar on behalf of the congregation. That person is doing what the entire assembly is doing, but is the personal incarnation of what the Body is doing. We don’t have 100 altars and 100 private masses going on. We are united into one and so all are to be acting together in the presence and person of the liturgical celebrant. The clergy are supposed to be symbol of the unity of the community. I think it is more true to say that the assembled congregation images Christ – it is the community which is the Body of Christ. The priest is more to show the unity – we all are working together in and through each other. The priest is the symbol of that unity of the local assembly. I think it gives the wrong impression to think of the priest as representing/imaging Christ – because it is not the priest alone but the locally assembled community which is the Body of Christ. The priest is part of that Body and is trying to image the unity of the Body. We all are brothers and sisters in the Body. Sometimes the ideas that uphold the clergy as imaging Christ downplay the entire assembly and so deny the Body of Christ.

  3. Pingback: Anointed to Be Kings and Priests – Fraternized

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