On Priestesses and Ecclesiological Deism

One of the most controversial issues in contemporary Orthodoxy is the question of the ordination of deaconesses — or perhaps even priestesses. The Orthodox Church is one of the few Christian bodies which has remained faithful to the once universal practice of ordaining only men to the priesthood. But the dominant belief in our culture that equality means interchangeability — and the urge to join step with the March of Progress — has led some among the Orthodox to question this practice.

The saying goes that “the best defense is a good offense.” It seems, however, that there is also a corollary to this theory: “the best offense is a bad defense.” Take, for example, an argument put forward recently by an Orthodox person as to why it is that the Church does not ordain women to the priesthood:

You know, when people ask me about women in priesthood, they say… “Why can’t women be priests?” And I say, “Women can be priests. We don’t want them to be priests.” Because you see, God can do anything, and the Church, by divine authority, can do anything, but, the Church doesn’t want to — and that’s a legitimate reason. What I don’t like is when we try to pretend that there are other reasons for this, because it’s legitimate not to want something, and there are reasons not to want this – right? – but, we shouldn’t pretend that there’s some reason, that, for example, the maleness of Christ is essential to priesthood. Because, the question in this whole big question, is, when we discuss something like the fact that Christ is indeed male, we can ask, with regard to priesthood, we should ask, this is the question for the whole argument: is Christ’s maleness essential to priesthood, or is it accidental? According to Aristotelian logic this would be at the heart of the question, okay? Is it essential, or is it accidental? So, is it something, a sine qua non to Christian priesthood?… So if one explores the Epistle to the Hebrews, one can see that there are — that the question of who can be a priest is something that is indeed a changeable aspect of tradition. What is not changeable is the basis for all priesthood, and that is of course Our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s where the question arises: who, you know, what, what aspect of His person is essential to that service that is priesthood, that ministry, that, that mystery… is it, does it include His maleness, for example, would it include, if Christ indeed had black hair, for example, would priesthood be limited to those with dark hair? You know, I mean, we would ask what is essential to the person of Jesus Christ in His priesthood? Would His maleness be part of that? Anyway, traditionally, actually, we don’t see the maleness of Christ thematized at all, it’s not a patristic — nowadays some people who are at pains to argue against females in priesthood — whereas I don’t think there’s a big problem, we should just say honestly, “We don’t want women to be priests. As Church, we don’t want that.” That’s fine, you know, that’s fine, but we shouldn’t say that we couldn’t have women as priests.

In ostensibly defending the tradition of the Church, this argument somehow manages to deploy nearly every attack in the arsenal of those who oppose the Church’s tradition, to wit: the qualifications for the priesthood have already been changed throughout Church history, gender has no more significance for the priesthood than does the color of one’s hair, the restriction of the priesthood to men is based on the irrational preferences of those in power, those who “try to pretend” otherwise are being fundamentally dishonest. In a word, the tradition of the Church is totally arbitrary, and the Church would be best served by admitting as much and renouncing all attempts to explain this inherently indefensible and rather pointless preference.

That’s not the part that bothers me. After all, the Church is not in the least threatened by some bad Scriptural exegesis and a few feminist talking points.

What is far more worrisome, and indeed far more dangerous, is the grounds on which this person purports to be defending the Church. The argument is that “God can do anything, and the Church by divine authority can do anything, but the Church doesn’t want to — and that’s a legitimate reason.” The unmistakable impression left upon the hearer of such an argument is that according to Orthodox theology, the Church has been given by God carte blanche to do, well, whatever it feels like. Totally without reference to anything reasonable, but more importantly totally without reference to the will of God. And such an idea concerning the Church threatens not only the particular tradition under discussion, but the entire Tradition as a whole. Such an idea subtly undermines the entire concept of who and what the Church truly is, implicitly replacing the Theanthropic unity of Christ and humanity in the Body of the Church with an artificial separation between God in Heaven and some human organization called the Church on earth. This can be seen in the choice of language: God can do anything, and by divine authority the Church can do anything, “but the Church doesn’t want to,” rather than “God doesn’t want to.”

Because that is precisely the real question, whatever the above argument would have us believe: what is the will of God? And of this question, which is the only question that the Church ever really need answer about anything, the above argument makes no mention at all. Instead, it implicitly teaches a sort of ecclesiological deism: God gave the Church unlimited power, and then more or less left us alone to do with it whatever we happen to decide. But we, as members of the Church, absolutely do not have the power to do whatever we happen to decide. The Church is the Body of Christ, the “pillar and ground of all truth” as the Scriptures teach; we have been entrusted with the keys of heaven, and indeed have been granted divine authority and power. But we have been granted this divine authority and power only insofar as we do the will of God.

The argument made is so pernicious because it is so close to the truth. Yes, it is absolutely true that the voice of the Church commands obedience, regardless of whether or not She gives us an intellectual explanation. But the reason for this is that the voice of the Church reveals to us the will of God. It is God’s will that needs no explanation, not the whims and preferences of ordinary men.

But this is far from the impression left upon us by the argument above. The effect is subtle, but it is also unmistakable. We are left with a sense not of humility and reverence before the inscrutable judgments of God, but rather of the ridiculousness and arbitrariness of the unfounded preferences of mere men.

I can only hope and pray that the person who made this argument did not at all intend to give such an impression, and will in the future make it clear that the Church is not a human organization but a Theanthropic organism, and that in all things She is guided neither by human reasoning nor by personal preference, but by the Holy Spirit of God.

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