Female Priests: Women and Ministry in the Orthodox Church




This is a response to Karissa Sorrell’s guest post about women in Orthodoxy.

The tradition of the Orthodox Church is not a static deposit but a life-giving stream. Culture is part of that stream. We move through history together. So to disregard the wisdom of the secular is not only impossible and intellectual dishonest but deeply unChristian.
That is to say, we change, but change takes time, especially in the Orthodox Church.
For example, not long ago, women did not take communion during their periods, but as our views about holiness and impurity evolve, this rule is gradually being ignored.1 I like this example because it illustrates that saying saying, “This is the way it has always been done,” carries a lot of weight in the Orthodox Church, but it does not make the argument. What we have always done still has to make sense.

For several decades now, some Orthodox Christians have been calling for greater public participation of women in the life of the church. This includes restoring the office of the deaconess and, for some, even opening the priesthood to women. The late Elisabeth Behr-Sigel was at the forefront of this movement. Even those who opposed her appreciated the way she challenged them to develop their own reasons for keeping women from serving behind the altar.

St. Thekla, Equal to the Apostles

For instance, Paul Evdokimov and Fr. Thomas Hopko originally said that women cannot be priests because they correspond to the the Holy Spirit, who “hides” behind the male Christ. But Behr-Sigel pointed out that this reasoning was tritheistic. Thus Fr. Hopko revised his position (I do not know much about Evdokimov). His latest argument is that a male priest is needed to establish a kind of iconic link to the male Christ. In a paper I published a few years ago, I said that this turned the sacrament into a kind of magical ritual by making it depend either on the gender of the priest (which is in a certain state of “flux”) or the sex of the priest, that is, his biological “equipment” (which is just silly).2

Despite Fr. Hopko’s opposition to the female priesthood, he did say the matter remains an “open question.” Posts like Karissa’s show he is absolutely right. In my opinion, they show that we do need a diverse ministry to address our diverse parishes.

St. Nino, Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia

So I guess you could say I am for the revival of the female diaconate and even a female priesthood. But I also recognize that I hold this opinion at a particular moment in history, and that a majority of my sisters and brothers, past and present disagree with me. But, for what it’s worth, the conversation about women’s ordination is not just happening among feminists and “liberals.” Orthodox scholars who once strongly opposed women’s ordination are becoming less sure of themselves. The most prominent is Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, who says he is not convinced by any arguments for or against female priests. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom actively supported Behr-Sigel.
Of course, I am a lay theologian, so I can afford to be a bit more bold. After all, I never speak for the church. I speak from the church as one with the church.

I also speak as a father with a daughter who wants to know why she cannot be an acolyte. I respond that she cannot be an acolyte “for now.” Some will disagree with this and say I am giving her “false hope.” I understand that, but I do not think such hope is necessarily “false.” After all, the church once did give women a more prominent role in public ministry than it does today, and there is no telling where the life giving stream of our tradition may end up taking us.

If you are interested in this topic, I have put together a small bibliography.

Books and Journals

Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, The Ministry of Women in the Church. Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood, 1991.

Elizabeth Behr-Sigel,  “The Ordination of Women: A Point of Contention in Ecumenical Dialogue,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 48:1 (2004), 49-66.

David J. Dunn “‘Her That Is No Bride’: St Thecla and the Relationship Between Sex, Gender, and Office” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 37–68.

Fr. Thomas Hopko,”On the Male Character of Christian Priesthood,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 19 (1975)

Fr. Thomas Hopko, “Presbyter/Bishop: A Masculine Ministry,” in Women and the Priesthood, ed. Thomas Hopko (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1999).

Vassa Larin, “What Is ‘Ritual Im/Purity’ and Why?” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52, no. 3–4 (2008): 275–92.

Valerie A. Karras, “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church.” Church History 73, no. 2 (June 1, 2004): 272–316.

Valerie A. Karras, “The Liturgical Functions of Consecrated Women in the Byzantine Church.” Theological Studies 66, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 96–116.


Tradition, Priesthood and Personhood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel

St. Nina Quarterly

9 thoughts on “Female Priests: Women and Ministry in the Orthodox Church”

  1. Need female priest within Russian/ Bosnia open to same sex marriages & Serbian gypsy beLlydance music.
    Need to welcome transgendred female, mediumship messages diversity.

  2. I have never heard Fr. Hopko take this stance. What he has said is the creation of a man & woman are "functionally" different. A man doesn't become a woman & vice-versa and each has their "function" in mankind.

  3. Yes, genders are iconic, inasmuch as the family is the image of the Holy Trinity. Gender is the image of the eternal personal attributes of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And the common human nature is an image of the Trinity’s common divine nature. I’d also like to add something further: as Christians, we are to immitate Christ, who “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). Now, what is harder ? To die on the Cross, or to not become a priest ? If we cannot follow God even in the small things, how can we follow Him in the big ones ? If God would have said through the Apostles who wrote the Bible to have only women serve as priests, since they are as a rule more religious and devout than men, I would not have stood against Him. And if He would have said: let only children be priests, because they are pure in heart, I would not have opposed Him. It’s not rational to oppose God when salvation comes from selfless obedience: it’s a contradiction in terms.

  4. I like your post, as your thoughts are well put and I easily understand what you are saying. However, I agree with Fr. John and Mrs. Karissa. Women play an important part in the Church even though they do not serve behind the altar, but just because they don’t serve behind the altar does not mean that they are not equal.

    I’ll leave you with this link from Orthodox Info which I think explains women’s role in the Orthodox Church quite well: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/headcoverings.aspx

  5. You didn’t mention the Orthodox scholar Eva C. Topping in your bib, so I’m wondering if you’ve read any of her work? Like Karras and Behr-Sigel, she’s written/spoken extensively on this issue, though it took some amount of digging for me to find her work. She’s even more direct about her own opinions/position per the intersection of culture/spirituality as it played out in Church Fathers’ exegeses. As a church that touts itself as being a “rational” body, its ostensible lack of any real or cogent defense concerning its discriminatory practices against women is… unsavory, to say the least.
    Another important point: (Behr-Sigel speaks a lot about this) on the issue of the dual nature of Christ – going back to what you said about Man as an icon of Christ – if women aren’t explicitly represented in Christ’s humanity, if they are, in effect, unable to “put on” Christ, how then does this affect women’s salvation? Overall, I tend to think there are some serious gaps in their understanding/awareness of male and female ontology. It’s simply not enough to say that God prescribed differing roles to different types of humans.
    I tend to think it is people like Fr. Ware, et al. who, in acknowledging that they don’t know the answers, but are nevertheless willing to enter into dialog with people about it (rather than becoming either hostile or annoyed and relegating the issue to that of “mystery”), are exhibiting a true, Christ-like humility… and we certainly need more of them.

  6. There were priestesses throughout the biblical period, and so the fact that there were never priestesses in either the Old or New Testament Church would have to have been an intentional choice, and not accidental omission.

    Also, one argument from experience. In the Church of the Nazarene, from whence we both converted, they always allowed women to be ordained. In the very early days about 20% of their ministers were women, however, by the time I was growing up in the Nazarene Church, I never saw a woman who was the pastor of a Church, and while the number of ordained women in the Nazarene Church has I think been going up, they still generally serve in ways that any Orthodox woman could serve in without being ordained (music ministry, children’s ministry, adult education, medical missionary, etc).

    The reason for that is, in my opinion, being a pastor is a fatherly role. Being a Matushka is obviously a motherly role. Men don’t do well in motherly roles, and women do not do well in fatherly roles. Men and women are different, as Time magazine discovered to the shock of the world a few years ago.


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