Why women cannot become priests? Is the Church sexist?

January 24, 2019

All Apostolic churches, namely all Orthodox and Catholic churches have been only ordaining males to the Priesthood since the birth of the Church in the first century. Is this simply due to the Patriarchal societies of the time? In other words, is it about historical cultural customs that need to be adjusted for our modern needs? Or is there more to it than that? Before tackling this question, it has to be made absolutely clear that males and females are equal in Christianity. Both genders are created in the image of God, are asked to love and respect the other, and are essential to the survival of the other. As St. Paul puts it: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This verse emphasizes the equality of the members of the body of Christ regardless of their gender, nationality or social status. However, this verse does not cancel the gender. The female remains a female and the male, a male. It rather puts everyone on the same pedestal.  

We are created in the image of the One Trinitarian God and as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equal and diverse so we, males and females, are also equal and diverse. And, just as the Persons of the Trinity have different roles, so do males and females within humanity. Now, what characterizes gender? Is it merely a sexual organ or a question of hormones? As we have previously seen, gender affects us at the very core of our personality—of our soul. Gender dictates how we think, how we pray, how we love, how we relate to others, how we work, how we raise children, etc. Each gender is as talented as the other, but women and men are given by God necessary gender-specific characteristics to perform certain tasks. God appoints the task of the priesthood to males. Nevertheless, it is not only about a personality-specific role. There is much more to it than that.  

We first need to understand the sacrament of the priesthood itself. Let us rewind back in time to the Eucharistic supper that took place about 2,000 years ago. As Christ was sitting at the table with His disciples, He took the bread in His hands and said “take eat, this is My Body.” And then He said: “do this in remembrance of Me.” The Son of God is therefore sitting at the table, and He is also holding Himself in His hands. We thus have the Son of God holding the Son of God. It is truly a great mystery. This mystery is commemorated or re-enacted every single liturgy. This is the meaning of “do this in remembrance of Me.” How is the re-enacted? Well, we have the Son of God in the Eucharistic Bread on the altar or table, and we also have the Son of God in the priest in front of the altar. So what is the sacrament of the Priesthood? It is the Presence of Christ. The Priesthood is not a representation of Christ. The priest is neither the actual Person of Christ. By God’s grace, the priest makes Christ present through Christ’s Priesthood in him. Again, Christ’s Priesthood exists to make Christ present in the priest. Christ is there. It is for this reason that the priest is the one that performs all the Church sacraments. Because Christ is the One performing them through him.  

Second, there is another mystery that we need to understand: the mystery between Christ and the Church. In Ephesians 5, St. Paul is instructing husbands and wives within marriage and then he quotes Genesis 2, at the time of Adam and Eve. He says: ’For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” The emphasis, here, is that there is a mystery between Christ and the Church. And this mystery is parallel to the union between a husband and a wife. In other words, as a husband and wife mystically become one, there is a similar mystery between Christ and the Church. That is why we refer to the Church as the Bride and Christ is the Bridegroom. Now, as we have mentioned it earlier, the priest is the presence of Christ, and Christ is a male. Therefore, as the priest shares in the Priesthood of Christ, he also shares in being the bridegroom of the bride who is the Church. Tertullian draws a nice parallel on this subject, he says: “Adam was a figure of Christ, Adam’s sleep provided a shadow of the death of Christ, who was to sleep a mortal slumber [so Adam sleeping in Genesis 2 is a shadow of Christ’s death on the cross]; that from the womb inflicted on his side, might be figured the true mother of living, the Church.” Hence, it is as Christ who was struck with the spear on His side and brought forth blood and water, which is a symbol of the Eucharist that gives life to the Church. He explains that this hole in Christ’s Body is the Church. This is a direct link to Eve being taken out of the side of Adam. Therefore, as Christ, the male, is the Bridegroom, the priests are also participating with Christ in being the bridegroom to the Church. It is a relationship between a bridegroom and a bride, not between a bride and another bride. The priests need therefore to be males.   

Why was Christ born as a male? As explained earlier, each gender contains certain characteristics of the Divine image. Each gender is as important as the other, but they have different roles. Now, for each gender, we find a correlation between the transgression of Adam and Eve, the salvific actions of Christ and St. Mary and today’s role for each respective gender. As a matter of fact, Eve disobeyed the commandment. St. Mary participated in the salvation of all of humanity by obeying the words of Archangel Gabriel to bring forth the Son of God. And although both men and women need to submit to each other, the role of women today is emphasized in her obedience. Through this obedience, women freely choose to die to their selves and truly love as God loves. Men, on the other hand, are also asked to die to their selves, but in a different way: Adam was asked to leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, which implies sacrificing his life. He needs to leave what is his, to please his wife. But when God asked him if he ate from the tree, he did not take the responsibility of his actions, but pointed to Eve and said, “the woman gave me to eat.” He failed to love Eve. He failed to give himself as a sacrifice for her. Now the second Adam did the opposite: He was incarnate as a male and became the true Adam, the One who literarily sacrifices Himself for all of humanity. Similarly, all males today are asked to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and died for her. The husband and father’s role is to offer his life as a sacrifice for others. In other words, both men and women sacrifice themselves to each other, yet in different ways. The man’s way is to take responsibility and ownership and to sacrifice himself for the woman and the kids. This is precisely what Christ did. 

It is important to note here that the principal role for each gender has nothing to do with authority! That is the understanding of Christian love: sacrifice and obedience! Not authority. Unfortunately, many men and women desire the priesthood for the sake of authority. Such people are missing the entire meaning of Christian love and misunderstand the meaning of the Priesthood. Priesthood is not about lust for power or authority. Priesthood is about serving others: it is about carrying the cross and being crucified with Christ for the sake of the Church. It is a very difficult path to salvation. Usually, the ones that are truly worthy of the Priesthood are the ones that flee from it. We have so many examples of those people in the Coptic Church. One of them was HH Pope Shenouda III who was ordained a bishop by force. I am sure many can also remember the tears of HH Pope Tawadros II when he was being enthroned on the See of St. Mark. Those who run after the priesthood are usually unsuitable for it regardless if they are males or females. Let us therefore approach this subject with a humble spirit. Remember know your faith, live your faith and teach your faith and glory be to God forever, Amen.  

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